Storyville at Vancouver Film and Television Forum

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Thu, 10/08/2009 - 18:44

After hearing Peter Dekom's provocative keynote speech at the Vancouver Film and Television Forum (they dropped the word "Trade" from the Forum's title this year, I notice), I missed most of the Film Day and Wednesday's Television themed day. But I was back for the full day of the Storyville panels and events.

The inaugural Storyville Day focused on documentary producing, in particular long-form or feature-length documentary geared towards theatrical release rather than television.

Sponsored by British Columbia's public educational broadcaster Knowledge Network, Storyville borrows its name from the BBC's international doc showcase Storyville.

One of the obvious attractions of such an event is that producers get to hear from the horse's mouth exactly what projects "fit" with the programming needs of broadcasters in different countries.

The day began with the meet-the-commissioning editors panel which hinged neatly with an afternoon public pitching session where seven producers tried to convince the panel to get on-board with their doc projects.

Sandwiched in-between was a panel, with four directors of new documentaries, talking about the art of the biographical doc.

The commissioning editors

It was also interesting to see - even in the brief time alloted to these panels - how these commissioning editors work and interact together. Most of them know each other from doing the circuit of film festivals and markets, and working on individual projects together.

Appropriately, Nick Fraser, of the BBC's Storyville strand was here.

What kinds of projects does he commission?

His answer was straightforward. "It tends to be a documentary that I like very much," he said. "I get paid to exercise my taste."

If subjective appreciation is a pre-requisite, there was also other more hard-headed criteria coming into play when you consider that a commissioning editor has enough funding available each year for 20-30 co-productions. Age and regional demographics and a sense of something having a broad appeal were all-important. And the price has to be right.

Mette Hoffman-Meyer, Commissioning Editor, of TV2 in Copenhagen, is responsible for an astonishing seven hundred hours or so of programming per year. She showed a high octane trailer for her "Documania" strand - a daily 8.30pm slot - airing dramatic, socio-political stories.

Hans Robert Eisenhauer, Head of Thema, ZDF/ARTE, best known perhaps for commissioning Wim Wenders's Cuban music odyssey Buena Vista Social Club (after it was rejected by German broadcasters), said music and sports are his favourite genres, but was clearly disappointed that sports programs - he mentioned a Tour de France doc and another featuring famous footballers he'd worked on - hadn't performed well for the public broadcaster.

Axel Arnö, Commissioning Editor, SVT (in Sweden), comes from a journalistic background and spoke of looking for films that look at the world and issues that matter in a subjective and emotional way.

He acknowledged that there was a trend for producers to make theatrical documentaries because there is less money in television docs than there used to be but producers still need to think about creating a shorter television version of their theatrical documentary as TV and cinema are different creatures with different needs. "I couldn't stress that enough," he said.

As you might expect from a broadcaster, he said "holdbacks" - where distributors hold back a documentary for a certain period of time before it can air on television - can be a problem.

In the past, distributors might have held back a doc for up to a year and a half to maximise revenue from theatrical and DVD releases. That's too long for a current affairs documentary these days.

It's getting better, he said, with holdbacks down to three or even two months, but echoing a theme we've been hearing again and again and again he recommended a film is best served by one big, multi-platform, "event" type release. It is the best way to break through the media noise - particularly if you are on a limited budget - and generate good word-of-mouth. If you don't get the film out on as many platforms as you can, if it's any good, chances are someone else will do it for you.

Also on the panel was Cara Mertes, director, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Although, a foundation rather than a broadcaster, her program distributes some US$1.5 million to 30-50 US and international doc projects a year.

The Program "encourages innovative nonfiction storytelling and promotes the exhition of independent documentary films to a broader audience."

Mertes said that she comes in to help filmmakers with gap or bridge funding and its "Documentary Labs" offer hands-on creative support to hone projects in development.

The National Film Board was represented by Cindy Witten, the Director General of English Programs. The NFB is a producer, "not a funder", with a domestic focus, but looking more to international subject matter. The NFB has made its archive of documentaries, spanning decades, freely available online.

Witten explained that the NFB is using the web much more, but it's not just about streaming it's also about building audiences, and creating content that uses "the grammar" of the platform, even before the first frame of a documentary has been shot.

From the US, was Claire Aguilar, VP of Programming, ITVS. The channel looks to fund projects that "creatively engage audiences, expand cultural awareness and catalyze civic participation," especially international productions.

Aguilar said although a public broadcaster she has a certain amount of freedom in her choices. As an example, she described how she went for Waltz With Bashir, even though it was very difficult to know what to make of the animated doc initially.

Storyville pitching session