This little doc went to the free market

During communistic times film production in the East European bloc, although ideologically guided, received stable and predictable state funding. After the revolution, the production and distribution monopoly collapsed and the financial base was gone, leaving many countries struggling. Up until the late '90s, access to the international market was quite restricted for East Europeans. Filmmakers had no other possibilities than to rely on the narrow and very locally oriented national or public tv slots geared towards in-country topics, or on insufficient and unreliable budgets from the regional film funds.
September 1, 2008

During communistic times film production in the East European bloc, although ideologically guided, received stable and predictable state funding. After the revolution, the production and distribution monopoly collapsed and the financial base was gone, leaving many countries struggling. Up until the late ’90s, access to the international market was quite restricted for East Europeans. Filmmakers had no other possibilities than to rely on the narrow and very locally oriented national or public TV slots geared towards in-country topics, or on insufficient and unreliable budgets from the regional film funds.

When a filmmaker plays by these rules, they often have to compromise their artistic freedom to get a break. In Bulgaria, if an independent producer wishes to receive funding from Bulgarian National Television, they still have to give up all rights to their film which, as a matter of survival, forces the filmmaker to seek outside funding and international recognition.

Romania, on the other hand, could benefit tremendously from the public stations if the networks became involved in coproducing, or at least pre-buying, documentaries as the channels are not currently structured for such a financial cooperation. In order to produce their projects, doc-makers are completely reliant on their film board. Romanian filmmaker Alexandru Solomon ‘finds it strange that there’s almost no networking between TV stations and film bodies in Eastern Europe, while they could put together money and expertise and support projects valid for the whole region.’ But the culprit of the industry stagnation lies in the supposed function of documentary. The genre would expand if, continues Solomon, ‘documentary would be seen as a social tool by other funding bodies that could start financing these kinds of projects.’ But as it stands in Romania, people simply don’t see docs, cramping the credibility of the documentary field along with its influence.

And the progressive steps to status are not easy to take. Less than 10 years ago, independent producers from the region had neither any knowledge of the international market nor any contacts. As a result, many directors were forced to abandon the more ambitious or internationally targeted projects, simply because there was no one to back them.

Bulgarian documentary producer Martichka Bozhilova of agitprop has gained colossal international success with her documentaries Georgi and the Butterfly, The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories and the recent Corridor #8, which screened at both Berlinale and Hot Docs this year. Bozhilova’s tactic, along with a select number of Bulgarian documentarists of the recent past, lies in ‘thinking of [our] films as cinematic features in view of the international market. Just recently, due to the gradual opening up of the country, the establishment of a more or less stable film legislation and, very crucial, Bulgaria’s membership in the EU, Bulgarian filmmakers started to gain confidence and apply for international funding.’

In 2001, a few bright graduates of the documentary department at Prague’s FAMU Academy of Performing Arts had a similar outlook. These eager directors and producers took the idea of self-promotion and ran with it, thus establishing the Institute of Documentary Film (IDF), a non-profit training, promotion and networking center based in Prague, that is focused on the support of East European creative documentary film and its wider promotion. Its mandate was clear from the beginning – it’s a program engineered by creative personalities, for creative personalities. And so the market gates were creaking open.

In the same year of its formation, IDF also established the first East European Forum, a pitching event focused specifically on East European projects with strong creative appeal and international potential. Every year the Forum is held over two days during the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, in Jihlava, Czech Republic, now the biggest doc festival in the East European region, infamous for its totally fresh and indulgent programming.

Effectively, the East European Forum will bring the region’s filmmakers across the market to cozy TV slots on specialized factual programs, but it’s thanks to the training initiative leading up to the Forum that prepares the pitch, in the form of Ex Oriente Film, the year-long training workshop created and organized by IDF and tailored to the needs of East European directors and producers. Through the esteemed efforts of IDF and its cooperative nature, it has also brought its region’s filmmakers in close quarters to the most important European organizations, festivals, markets and training programs for the genre, among them, European Documentary Network, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, DOK Leipzig, Discovery Campus Masterschool in Munich and Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle, France.

Alas, we presently find a surplus of filmmakers skilled in the art of pitching who can influence the international market. Yet even with their newly achieved access, which allows documentary producers and directors to seek cross-continental funding, distribution and exhibition, the budgets for European television stations are dwindling, and so the filmmakers along with their supportive organizations and programs must once again hit the ol’ drawing board to find alternative ways of funding, in addition to researching their system of film laws and shaping a new draft law for their filmmaking communities.

Some countries in the region (the Czech Republic, for example) still operate under a provincial law created after the fall of communism, which simply means that an insecure amount of money is allotted to film projects every year, not nearly enough to complete more ambitious projects, even with public TV funding.

Ironically the public channels are the only outlets still enthusiastic about showing documentaries in their schedules, and are the only networks with allotted space, which is also scarce these days.

Endangered TV

Current pan-European trends in documentary broadcasting are gathering momentum, as these very same public channels shy away from international coproductions and are more focused on domestic stories, or with films directly from their own country, which tends to keep the selection a bit myopic. The exception is made, however, when a big blockbuster doc is up for grabs – in this case, it will definitely find its way to a public channel with a killer primetime spot.

The diversity among documentary slots is diminishing. ARTE, the Franco/German TV cultural network, for example, has less documentary slots than in previous years, and a similar pattern is traced along many major networks across Europe. Some networks cancelled doc programming all together, while others combined slots under one umbrella.

And timing is everything, no? It’s quite common to find documentaries scheduled in the farthest edges of the program, consequently affecting the audience ratings and endangering the genre as a whole.

While European filmmakers were so busy riding the six-lane traffic of the open market into the rising dawn of the European Union, it seems their vehicles got too large for the road. The total amount of money available for docs from the networks is depleting while the average budget of independent docs has doubled and tripled in the last five years, from between €100,000 and €150,000 to €400,000 and €600,000 for a one-hour slot. And it’s no wonder. After spending so much time and effort souping up our East Europeans -

filtering them through training programs and grueling pitching forums, refining their stories and characters, tapping into their collective memories while squeezing out their inner turmoil before finally unlatching the gate to the international market – there’s not enough money to fuel the engines and not nearly enough real estate left in TV land. So where did it go? To other formats; to the household docs – reality TV, docusoaps and docudramas.

The watery image

Pitching has always been the most direct route to target the financier. But recently, packing your artful intentions into one fiery shot has become so slick that is seems to have poked a hole in the validity of the technique. Marijke Rawie, former commissioning editor of AVRO and current CEO of ExpertDocs, which specializes in international coproduction consulting, says ‘All these pitching sessions (for example, IDFA Forum, TDF, Discovery Campus Masterschool and East European Forum) do a great job in coaching documentary-makers about the ins and outs of international documentary coproduction, but at the same time they tend to give an over-enthusiastic picture of the possibilities in the international coproduction market.’ So consequently, they’ve upped the supply in the face of sliding demand.

The sunny side of the story, however, is the fact that there is a rising interest in docs from the general theatrical and festival public. IDFA has expanded to the largest international documentary festival in the world, with Hot Docs and DOK Leipzig increasing in films and audience. Other festivals that are not specifically engineered for docs are also expanding the number programmed in respective sections, including, for example, Rotterdam International Film Festival and Berlinale Film Festival. And as docs sprout up all over festival cinemas, there is a growing incentive to enhance their theatrical quality. In Europe, the answer is the DocuZone initiative, now called CinemaNet Europe, which is transforming indie cinemas in several countries into digital cinemas. Since its launch in 2004, more than 175 cinemas now have digital technology that caters to the popularity of theatrical docs and mends the problem of costly celluloid distribution. CinemaNet is making it easier and more affordable to get European films to a broader audience.

In addition to networks, cinemas and DVDs, digital distribution is also exhibiting docs in festivals. East Silver Market, for example, an off-shoot of IDF and Jihlava IDFF, is a specialized digital market that consists of a video library, catalog and an online database of Central and Eastern European documentary films. Digital docs are also available at markets and online through downloads, such as Doc Air, a partner of Jihlava IDFF, which is the first and only portal for the online distribution of documentary film in Central and Eastern Europe.

Whether free or with a fee, digital distribution is an outlet through which documentary filmmakers can share their stories with the world, without having to rely on their oldest financial partner – television. So with all these encouraging initiatives, training programs, pitching forums and diminishing traditional methods of finance and distribution, there is inevitably an imbalance of supply and demand. But at least the storytelling potential increases: more stories translates into more choice, and as a commissioning editor, festival programmer or audience member, it’s likely that we’ll get the best of the best.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.