From the Front Lines: A modest proposal for The Forum

'It's impossible to write convincingly about sex until your parents are dead.' So said D.H. Lawrence. I feel a similar inhibition writing about The Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, part of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. As head of the...
December 1, 1998

‘It’s impossible to write convincingly about sex until your parents are dead.’ So said D.H. Lawrence. I feel a similar inhibition writing about The Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, part of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. As head of the outfit which organized the event for its first four years, I was intimately involved with The Forum’s development. I should also pay tribute straight away to the people who originated The Forum: Chris Haws (now VP of Discovery Networks International), Jacques Bidoux (currently running one of France’s leading production companies, JBA), and Thomas Stenderup (now at the Danish Film Institute).

Two years ago we handed The Forum over to the organizers of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, so I’m writing about an important part of my recent, personal past which has evolved its own, separate present. It is not so easy, especially as some of my remarks are critical.

Although The Forum is hugely significant as an event, the details are quite banal. But as some background is necessary, here are the basics: The Forum is held every December in Amsterdam and is Europe’s largest gathering of documentary commissioning editors and independent producers. Over three days, around 70 documentary projects are pitched to about 90 television commissioning editors, in open session. The idea is to reveal the thought processes of the commissioning editors and the weaknesses of the projects.

Some call the process brutal, prompting thoughts of Christians and lions. But actually it’s theatrical, provocative, and entertaining. And, of course, there is a deadly seriousness underpinning everything because the substance concerns people’s creative work and their livelihoods. It is very easy to tread on dreams at The Forum. Nevertheless, it holds you in thrall. You disappear into its paw for three days and come out different. Heart of Darkness? Pah! Joseph Conrad had nothing on this!

The Forum’s special edge comes partly from its venue. The Paradiso is a former church in the centre of Amsterdam which, in the 1960s, became the rock palace it remains today. For a certain generation of Europeans, The Paradiso was not just symbolic of the sixties but their embodiment. Holland’s liberal drug laws meant it was OK to inhale and, to put it delicately, not many parents went to The Paradiso. The experience was repeated decade-by-decade and, over time, by direct experience or by hearsay, The Paradiso acquired a special, revered status in liberal, easy-going, open Europe.

Looking back, the choice of The Paradiso as the venue for The Forum was a master-stroke. The alternative vote had been for the Amsterdam Hilton. Though the scene of John and Yoko’s bed-in, to hold The Forum there would have turned it into just another sanitized tv convention. The Paradiso, on the other hand, was tribal. It was also cheaper.

The roots of The Forum lie in the ‘ever closer union’ between the peoples of Europe which is now under way. The idea was to stimulate a Europe-wide documentary industry by encouraging coproduction across national frontiers. Unsurprisingly, the central funder of this process has been the European Commission (the unelected `Civil Service’ of the European Union) through its MEDIA Programme.

And it worked. The Forum has been a runaway success. It has networked the European documentary commissioning editors, producers, and distributors to the extent that we can now start to talk about a European documentary industry. Around 70% of the projects pitched there have gone into production within a year. Coproduction across frontiers is now an accepted part of the business, whereas in the dark and distant pre-Forum days, it was regarded as unusual and even odd.

What a wonderful life! Strange then, you may think, that I am now going to propose that The Forum either comes to an end or is radically restructured.

The arguments run like this. The Forum was set up for a particular purpose – to help unify and develop the European documentary industry. It was less about the quality of individual projects and more about the wider political purpose.

So, what has changed? Well, until recently, only projects from European Union companies could enter The Forum and, therefore, take the fast route to European broadcasters. This protectionism was justifiable because we were trying to develop a viable European industry. That process has gone as far as it can without introducing serious distortions, and so, must end.

Projects should be selected on merit by a transparent selection process, whether they come from France, Portugal, South Africa or the U.S. If European projects are to succeed in a global market-place, it must be because they are the most attuned to market needs. Which is to say, audience demand. Protectionism rarely achieves competitiveness.

This raises the question of selection criteria for The Forum. Just who shall go to the ball, and why? Under current rules, 10% of Forum projects may obtain their initial 25% of funding (The Forum threshold) from film funds, film institutes and similar `non-market’ sources. This was introduced to give access to Europe’s `cultural’ documentary sector – the projects which broadcasters won’t touch but which, it is thought, Europe’s taxpayers will be happy to support. This is not helpful. In many countries, `cultural’ funding is distributed by self-perpetuating cabals who insist that their world-view is the only acceptable one. This is not a path to the future.

Before accusations of rampant neo-liberalism start to fly, let us remember that most European countries are blessed with very strong public service broadcasting systems. Thus the documentary sector already enjoys huge indirect subsidies. The difference is that the commissioning decisions are being made by broadcasters who have audiences, not administrative appointees with a cultural rule book.

Finally, the range of documentary projects pitched at The Forum is too broad and fails to reflect the changing realities of the television market. Broadcasters are demanding ever more focused and stranded programming, and producers are gradually learning how to provide this efficiently. So why pitch a history documentary to a natural history commissioning editor, or a story of traditional knitting techniques amongst the Hebridean islanders to someone who must serve a demographic of male, 18-35 year olds? People do it at The Forum.

These criticisms come together with a set of concrete proposals. The first is that the IDFA’s Forum concentrate exclusively on those films which are never going to obtain more than a fraction of their funding from television. If there is one part of the European documentary industry which is under threat, it is the non-market `cultural’ projects. So give them The Forum as a place to develop new, non-market funding sources, experiment with ideas about theatrical or video distribution and debate the eternal question of `what is a documentary?’

Secondly, all national quotas should be removed from The Forum and an effort should be made to build global collaboration between non-market funding sources. This approach would also be a better fit with the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam itself, which tends, rightfully, to favor screening non-commercial documentaries.

Thirdly, the pitching of projects from the different documentary sub-genres should be more focused. This already happens informally to some extent, for wildlife (Wildscreen and Jackson Hole) and science films (The World Congress of Science Producers).

It should go further, with specialist pitching sessions for arts and music, history, social issues, environment, medicine and so on. Or the split could be made by demographics: bring together all the commissioning editors serving a particular part of the market (with either specialist slots or niche channels) and pitch them what they want to hear. This would force producers to actually consider the potential audience for their film.

Either way, the resulting specialist pitching events, circulating around the world and also using the Web to the full, could be much more focused, thoughtful and detailed than The Forum can ever be.

If the structures of our industry don’t evolve, we aren’t going to die. At least, not in the short term. But we may become boring and irrelevant, which is a much worse fate. And then we’ll die.

John Marshall is chief executive of JMA, a consultancy company focused on international coproduction of documentaries for TV. Reach him at or visit JMA’s website at

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.