Dozens of Dutch speed skaters with awesome quads whip by as I gently push a Yankee filmmaker and novice skater around the ice track. Though her knees are locked and arms outstretched in a contained panic, we’re having a grand time on the outskirts of Amsterdam this gray November morning, part of a small group taking advantage of this social event organized by the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA).
A fast pace may be par for the course at this ice rink, but the festival itself is a relatively laid-back affair. The center of activity is The Baile, a stately brick building in the heart of old Amsterdam that houses festival headquarters upstairs and a vast coffee bar downstairs. The rhythm and atmosphere are distinctly European. Clouds of cigarette smoke hang above overstuffed couches and tables filled with filmmakers who linger for hours over tiny cups of espresso, occasionally crossing the street to catch a film at the cineplex where most of the 188 documentaries are screened. Through the festival has grown considerably since its first edition 11 years ago, now hosting 1,140 guests and 56,000 audience members, it still feels uncluttered and unhurried.
That can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Besides the films, there’s not much else on the menu, relatively speakingÑjust a single lunch for directors (competition only), nightly receptions hosted by the festival, a "Talk of the Day" (sometimes in Dutch), and a few seminars. No sponsored parties, no press conferences, no breakfast clubs or other icebreakers for invited filmmakers. The light load is nice if you want to squeeze in some extracurricular activities, like a canal tour, a bike ride, a visit to the Rijksmuseum, or a "Joris Ivens Walking Tour" (all offered by the festival). Some enterprising filmmakers found their way to the ubiquitous coffee bars (the kind with hash brownies on the menu) or the world-famous red light district (just to look, of course).
But some felt as if the festival had brought them over, then left them adrift. "I’m not sure what I should be doing," Susan Koch admitted after a packed screening of City at Peace, her powerful documentary on race relations among youth enrolled in a Washington, DC, drama program. Since she and coproducer Christopher Koch had already sold the film to HBO and had a foreign sales agent working the festival, she could coast. But Koch had the sense that she was squandering a golden opportunity. For 100 paces away, dozens of Europe’s top commissioning editors were holed up for the simultaneous three-day Forum for International Cofinancing of Documentaries, and she had no good way to meet them. Unlike, say, Toronto or Sundance, where everyone rubs shoulders, IDFA and the Forum are neatly divided. And as nice as it is to watch films from around the world and visit the Rembrandts, the real action is across the street at the Forum, Europe’s most significant open pitch session.
"Off we go," says moderator and foreign sales agent Jan Rfekamp in a chipper voice. All eyes swivel towards the producer fidgeting in his chair, who has seven fleeting minutes to work wonders and convince the assembled broadcasters to put up some coproduction money. And so, as happens 20 times per day, the two dozen commissioning editors at the table and 100 accredited observers listen to a pitchÑon punk rockers in Berlin, on the lover of Carl Jung, the closing of a hospital in France, the lottery in Ireland. Many present footage, some are persuasive speakers, but a surprising number drone on with zero energy. The editors struggle to stay focused; there are, after all, 65 pitches over the course of three days, and they’re expected to respond.
Time is up; the gavel comes down. "Okay," says Rfekamp briskly, "who wants to be part of this?" And ’round the table he goes for the next seven minutesÑprodding and cajoling the editors each in turn, trying to piece together a package of coproduction money and presales. ("We are allies of the producers," he later says of the six moderators’ role.)
Sometimes the end result is a dozen ways to say no: "It doesn’t fit into any format." "Where’s the storyline?" "What about this outrageous budget?" "We’ve just done something on the topic." "It’s not new territory; what’s your news?"
But dead beats are frowned on. The Forum is, after all, supposed to be a two-way street, since editors need programs to fill their slots as much as producers need financing. "I’m not sure if I should sit at the table, since I have so little money to spend," whispered one conscientious Scandinavian editor to a colleague during a break. It’s true that some of the smaller countries bring only pocket change. Last year, for instance, AVRO (Netherlands), TV 2 Norway, SVT (Sweden), and TV Ontario each invested only 5,000 to 10,000 ECUs over the course of three days. (All figures in this article given in ECUs. The exchange rate for 1 ECU at the time of Forum was $1.13.) But coalitions form, and small sums add up. The high end is represented by the BBC, which poneyed up more than 200,000 in 1997; Channel 4/UK (100,000 – 150,000); and VPRO (Netherlands) and Arte (France) (50,000 – 100,000 each).
Ultimately, some producers come away happy. Last year, 44% of projects secured additional financing, with an average of 56,742 ECUs invested per project, according to the Forum’s figures. Pre-sales accounted for 69% of this financing, coproduction 8%, and a combination of investment and presales 23%.
It can be hard to predict what will sell. An Icelandic production company called 20 Goats pitched a film on the local tradition of documenting the dead in photographic portraits. "It’s hard to look at," said one queasy editor. But moments later came an easy sale: "We’re planning a theme night on funerals, so we would be interested," said Olaf Grunert from ZDF/Arte. Who would have guessed?
To earn a place at this table, filmmakers must have at least 25 percent of their budget lined up, plus the commitment of a broadcaster, film board, or film institute. What’s more, that partner must be there at the table beside you–no small disadvantage for U.S. producers who might have only a local public television station (with a limited travel budget) committed to the project.
It also helps to be European. The Forum is paid for by the European Commission’s MEDIA Programme, so 85 percent of the pitches are reserved for EC productions. (Three years ago, it was 100 percent European.) But when a Canadian producer urged them to raise the non-EC quota during the evaluation discussion, his suggestion was quickly knocked down. "You can do a North American version," said the BBC’s Nicholas Fraser. "This was funded by MEDIA." Added Forum chief Jolanda Klarenbeek, "So please don’t promote it over there." (Too late.)
But even if you aren’t one of the elite picked to pitch, there are three good reasons to attend as one of the accredited observers. The first is the "Moderator’s Hat." Any producer in the room can throw his or her business card into a hat, and three times per day the moderator draws out a name. That person gets to pitch, then and there. Two years ago, Mark Gevisser, a South African journalist, was one of those lucky ones, and this year the resulting film he produced with director Greta Schiller, The Man Who Drove with Mandela, was in the film competition at IFDA, coming full circle. AVRO was one of the channels to pony up money as a result of Gevisser’s impromptu presentation. "He was so full of energy and drive," recalls AVRO commissioning editor Marijke Rawie. "It was the best pitch of the day."
The second reason to attend is because the Forum will help arrange one-on-one meetings with editors when they are not at the table. (The 83 commissioning editors from 54 channels rotate during the three-day period.) There are four official consultants who point producers towards the appropriate people and sometimes make introductions. Tracy Holder, coproducer of an American Masters biography of theater producer Joseph Papp, managed to get meetings with editors from NPS (Netherlands), Canal Plus, SBS (Australia), ZDF/Arte, BBC, and PBS. She concluded that the Forum is not the best place to bring an arts-related project, but felt her time there had been worthwhile. "The Forum can pay off in the long-run. It’s good for making contacts, but not necessarily for making immediate sales," she says.
And that’s the third compelling reason to buy that plane ticket to Amsterdam. With so many editors gathered under one roof, it’s a fabulous and efficient way to attach names to faces, glean a sense of programming strands, and begin to become acquainted with the small but very complex world of European television coproduction. Attrition among commissioning editors is relatively low in Europe, so acquaintances made one year can be renewed and strengthened the next. Thus are relationships built. And that’s what this game all about. As Rfekamp advised the gathered filmmakers, "Coproduction is like sex. It’s always great if you’re friends."
During its eight-day stretch (Nov. 26-Dec. 3), IDFA offered a wide variety of documentaries from around the world. Many are odd lengthsÑ37:00, 12:00Ñwhich, unfortunately, lessens their chances of being seen on U.S. television or in certain festivals. But as IDFA shows, gems come in all sizes. The following are a few highlights.
My Brother, My Sister Sold for a Fistful of Lire
In post-war Italy, the three siblings of Pia were put up for adoption by their widowed father. Nearly 50 years later, she tries to trace them with the help of her nephew, filmmaker Basile Sallustio. We follow Pia as she goes up the chain of the Catholic charity that served as go-between and faces stonewalling, lies, and her own mounting despair. A moving and ultimately satisfying film.
Mobile Cinema of Dreams
With the best of intentions, a motley trio brings the cheesy sex and wholesale violence of Indian cinema to the remotest regions with a mobile cinemaÑone of 2,000 crisscrossing the country. While some audiences are fixated, the most primitive tribe walks out during the opening action scene. "Don’t come back," they politely request the next day. "We have a bellyache now."
Hitchcock, Selznick, and the End of Hollywood
Moviemaking of another sort is the subject of this historical documentary by American filmmaker Michael Epstein. The film examines the seven-year collaboration between producer David Selznick (Gone with the Wind) and the rising British director he imported, Alfred Hitchcock. This double portrait offers an in-depth look at the Hollywood studio system in the thirties and the struggle between producer and director for creative power.
It’s hard to fathom life much harder than that depicted in this observational doc, a festival prize-winner, by Sergey Dvortsevoy. Once a week, a railway car containing loaves of bread is delivered to a spot several miles from a dying village in Russia, where a few elderly people remain. They push the railway car the rest of the way in the bitter cold, then bicker over rations. The scenes of humans and animals scratching out an existence in this inhospitable clime are finely etched and enduring.
The Earthen Pot (Use and Discard)
Not since Small Happiness has a documentary so effectively shown the sorry status of women in a third world country. Shot (beautifully) in India by Debananda Sengupta, this understated 36-minute film presents the ambitions and expectations of several pubescent girls, versus those of their families.
Divorce Iranian Style
On a related subject, this documentary was one of the few to get festival buzz. Kim Longinott and Ziba Mir-Hossseini follow three lawsuits in Teheran filed by women who buck the system and are willing to face ostracization and the potential loss of their children and savings as a result.
Five pointers to keep in mind when perfecting your pitch on the international playing field
1. The Pitch: A Good Day to Die: The True Story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn intends to "explode the myth" of Custer’s Last Stand. This intriguing Discovery Channel film proposed to do so by drawing on forensic science and newly discovered papers of photographer Edward Curtis that contain first-hand accounts of the massacre from surviving Indian scouts. Producer Andre Singer was asking for one third of the hour-long project’s 326,279 ECU budget.
The Response: One commissioning editor ventured to say that the subject was "too American" for his viewers. To this Singer replied, "One would not say something on ancient Egypt is too Egyptian."
The Lesson: Be prepared to argueÑcredibly and convincinglyÑthat your film is able to travel across borders and cultures. For herein lies the rub of international coproduction. Viewers prefer programming with a national hook, but production costs often necessitate several countries partnering up. Commissioning editors have to reconcile these competing demands.
2. The Pitch: Waving a gas mask issued by the Israeli government, producer Nir Toil pitched The Arrow Project, an hour-long video that examines Israel’s version of Star WarsÑan anti-missile missile that is supposed to defend the country against nuclear attack. BBC is in for 25%; the producer was looking for the balance of his 172,413 ECU budget.
The Response: Among the interested parties was PBS’s Glen Marcus, who said it sounded right for the Frontline series. "It’s a logical follow-up to something they did on the Gulf War."
The Lesson: "Yes" can mean many things at the Forum. It’s important to know who’s talking and how much power he or she has to greenlight a project. Does Marcus know for sure that Frontline executive producer David Fanning will want The Arrow Project? When there are layers of bureaucracy, as at PBS, it’s best not to count your chickens before they hatch. But if it’s someone with authority from a smaller channel (like Jean-Francoise Dion from Multithematiquest/Planete cable) or the big cheese from a larger one (like Thierry Garrel from La Sept/Arte), then you’re cooking.
3. The Pitch: One of the Moderator’s Hat picks was a film on the Armenian genocide of 1915. It’s a rare topic for documentaries, in part because no film footage exists. But the director has located a number of survivors, now aged 98 to 112, whose oral histories will form the basis of this film.
The Response: The project received a warm reception, with commissioning editors recognizing the now-or-never aspect. Where they had reservations was with the 4 x 26:00 format. "No one will buy short series," cautioned the BBC’s Nicholas Fraser, who recommended that the producer consider restructuring it as two 50:00 programs.
The Lesson: If a buyer is interested enough, be willing to adjust your length. While the trend is toward hour-long slots, it’s not universal. ZDF indicated that they might have a place for a clown-rodeo project that U.S. producer Jonathan Stack was pitching if he came up with a half-hour version.
4. The Pitch: The Man from Red October will be the real-life story of the Soviet nuclear submarine captain and turncoat who was the prototype for Sean Connery’s character in The Hunt for Red October. The Lithuanian producer was asking for 96,000 ECUs towards her 129,000 budget for this 52:00 film. "It’s a story of spies and love, with a Hollywood film and Sean Connery. It sounds like it should have a broad audience," coaxed the moderator when seguing to discussion.
The Response: "Your budget is what?!?" No one believed Hollywood clips could be secured for this amount. "Fair use is okay in the U.S.," said Garrel, "but we can be sued in Europe." The producer couldn’t respond, as she hadn’t yet investigated licensing costs. Nor had she approached the press-shy Connery about appearing in the film. The result: editors stayed away.
The Lesson: Do your homework and bring a realistic budget. Be prepared to detail what archival or licensed footage you’ll be using and what it costs. If you don’t know, it’ll show.
5. The Pitch: A Modern Pied Piperis a light-hearted look at the world’s leading rat catcher, the colorful self-made millionaire Massimo Donadon. Using a tongue-in-cheek parody of war reporting, this documentary shows the exterminator’s battle plan, his weapons (poison that takes into account rats’ acquired tastes, like butter in France, pork fat in Germany, margarine in the U.S., and curry in Bombay), and the clash in the field. The producer was seeking 75 percent of his 200,000 ECU budget.
The Response: Editors loved it, as well as an earlier pitch from the same producer, Carlo Cresto-Dina, on the tomato as symbol of Italian national identity.
The Lesson: Humor sells. "We lack happy, optimistic subjects," complained Planete’s Dion, one of several editors who openly craved a lighter touch. "The next channel I’m going to propose to my boss is the Genocide Channel."