When AVRO (Holland's oldest public broadcaster) introduced a weekly strand devoted to documentaries in 1994 - AVRO Close-up - home-grown auteur docs were the order of the day. 'Dutch documentaries were very much focused on the Netherlands,' says Close-up commissioning editor...
April 1, 1999

When AVRO (Holland’s oldest public broadcaster) introduced a weekly strand devoted to documentaries in 1994 – AVRO Close-up – home-grown auteur docs were the order of the day. ‘Dutch documentaries were very much focused on the Netherlands,’ says Close-up commissioning editor Wolter Braamhorst, adding that international coproductions were a rarity.

Five years later, though, Close-up has come of age. According to Braamhorst, international acquisitions currently account for one-third of the doc strand’s programming schedule, while international coproductions make up another third. The rest are either commissioned or produced in-house. And auteur docs are a thing of the past. ‘It’s the subject that’s the main focus of what we do,’ Braamhorst says. ‘It could be anything from the pyramids in Egypt to a documentary on Rembrandt.’

Close-up’s Sunday night slot (7 p.m.) revolves around themes of culture, cultural history and art. ‘We try to get a mix now between Dutch subjects, for which we know we can’t get any international coproductions, and international subjects,’ Braamhorst says.

In May, for example, Close-up will air four episodes on architecture (the first time the program will have a themed month), two of which are Dutch. One is about Jan Hoogstad, an architect from Rotterdam, and was produced in-house. The other is about the Hague’s development ‘from a small town into an international metropolis,’ and was produced by Cinemedia (Baarn). In terms of the international docs, First Person Singular: I.M. Pei (about the American architect) was produced by Lives and Legacies Films (New York) and was a straight buy from R.D. Studio (Paris). Renzo Piano: The Instinctive Architect, which was produced by Hilton Cordell Productions (Australia), was a coproduction with ZDF/Arte, ABC Australia, the Australian Film Commission, the Australian Film Finance Corporation and TRSI-Televisione Svizzera.

Braamhorst airs only 52-minute docs for Close-up, and prefers one-offs over series. ‘If you have a different story every week, it’s easier to get more publicity out of it,’ he says, reasoning that a series is heavily promoted primarily in the beginning. ‘This way, we are able to get a lot of publicity every time we broadcast a documentary.’ In Braamhorst’s opinion, the choice of one-offs over series also makes it easier to maintain high-quality programming. ‘If you have a series, the problem is it could be six episodes and you like the first three, but episodes four, five and six are just a little bit less than you would expect,’ he says.

A recent exception is The Art of the Piano, ‘which is only a two-part [series] and that’s acceptable,’ says Braamhorst. The series explores the history of piano playing throughout the centuries. AVRO is coproducing Piano (which has a budget of around US$550,000) with La Sept/ARTE (France), WNET (New York), WDR (Germany) and NVC Arts (London), in association with ORF (Austria) and YLE (Sweden).

AVRO’s interest in international coproductions really took hold over the last two years. Part of the benefit has been exposure to different ideas. ‘It’s very interesting to work together, for instance, with France or Germany or England, or with American broadcasters, to view each other’s opinions and to learn from each other,’ Braamhorst says. ‘I think documentaries will eventually get better because of it.’ But Close-up’s commissioning editor is conscious of the struggle to maintain a distinct voice while working with so many partners. ‘One of the things that all broadcasters, especially public broadcasters, will have to do in the next couple of years, is to find some common ground without losing their specific identity.’

The increased financial clout of a coproduction arrangement makes it hard for a pubcaster to resist. In fact, Braamhorst considers it necessary for the survival of docs. ‘It’s impossible to compete with a $100 million box-office hit in America, but the public will see that movie just five minutes after your documentary has finished or just before your documentary starts,’ he says. ‘You have to be able to make your documentaries top-notch, with all the latest techniques in editing – 3-D animation, shooting at the best locations, making really extraordinary visuals – to be able to compete with the other programs that will be on the television now and in the near future. So, that means you need more money than you used to.’

Braamhorst cites as an example MajestŠt Brauchen Sonne (Sun for his Majesty), a two-part coproduction about Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany that AVRO currently has in the works. Ten years ago, he says, the doc would have been fully financed by a public broadcaster, but not any longer. ‘The production standard has gone up so quickly that with just the input of a public broadcaster… it’s impossible to get it off the ground. You have to work together internationally to get the kind of budget that would make a documentary like that.’ The $1.6 million two-parter is being coproduced with ZDF (Germany), with contributions from several film companies and funding agencies. It will be released in cinemas by the end of the year and broadcast on television in June 2000.

Because Close-up has a specific mandate (no auteur docs, a focus on culture), Braamhorst tries to retain some measure of editorial influence, even when avro is a relatively minor partner. ‘Most of the time, we try to step in at the beginning of the project, so we have something to say even if we have a very small percentage of money.’ Braamhorst says a small contribution ranges from $8,000 to $20,000. With the help of funding agencies, a large contribution from avro can be upwards of 20% of a film’s total budget.

In terms of acquisitions, AVRO generally spends between $4,000 and $5,000, and gets the right to broadcast the doc twice. Very often though, the Dutch pubcaster will spend additional money to adapt the straight buy for audiences in the Netherlands. ‘If it were a BBC documentary, we’d have the commentary translated,’ Braamhorst says. ‘And sometimes, because we think a documentary is too French or too German, we buy it and ask for the right to edit and put in some Dutch experts.’

At the same time, Braamhorst is mindful of both the international market and the domestic audience when avro initiates a project. For Mars: The End of a Myth?, a coproduction with WDR that aired on Close-up in March, Braamhorst (who directed Mars) cut two versions: one using Dutch experts and one using international experts. Rather than repurposing a film after its finished, Braamhorst says the decision to internationalize a doc must be made at the very beginning. ‘I think that’s kind of a new wind blowing in the whole of the Netherlands, and with avro in particular, to have this sort of two-way thinking with documentaries.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.