For nearly 40 years, Jan Rofekamp has been working in the distribution of films, with a focus on documentaries. With the announcement that he is to receive this year’s Doc Mogul Award for his contribution to the industry, mostly through his own company Films Transit International, he is glad to see his part of the industry get the credit.
When Rofekamp came to Canada from Holland in 1982 and started Films Transit International with his now ex-wife, there was no international sales infrastructure for independent films. By the late ’80s, and the birth of the mini-majors such as Miramax, indie films had more access to distribution and this caused Films Transit to move away from the distribution of dramatic films and to focus its efforts on docs. He’s stuck with this mandate ever since.
When asked what made him stick with this business all these years, Rofekamp offers a simple reason: because he likes it. ‘Documentary is interesting because it really shows you what’s going on and it makes an analysis,’ he offers. Films Transit takes on 20-30 new docs for distribution each year, and for the company to take a chance on a doc Rofekamp says he has to feel he will be able to pitch the film with the same level of enthusiasm as the filmmaker does, for about two years. His criteria is simple; he has to like the film and feel that it has a certain relevance so that, when he’s pitching, he feels like he’s doing something useful.
As for buyers, over the last couple of years Rofekamp has seen television buyers lose the autonomy they once had. ‘We used to go to a market or a festival and the buyer would say to us, ‘What a wonderful film, we’ll buy it and we’ll worry about where to put it later.” Now, in his experience, buyers are looking specifically for programs that fit their doc slots, and as feature doc slots come and go, there is less opportunity to sell a doc simply because it’s good.
Facing the current decline in television budgets and the changes to classic broadcasting methods, Rofekamp is pleased to see a distributor receive the Doc Mogul Award at this year’s Hot Docs, both because he’s unsure what distribution will look like in five years, and because he feels it is an important chain in the system. ‘The sales agents are filters and the buyers see us as filters. We get advice requests from a zillion film festivals,’ he says. ‘They just trust us.’
While he feels distributors are an important link now, he’s not sure if five years from now distribution will exist as a business in quite the same way it does today. As he sees broadcasters move away from classical broadcast and into a more on-demand mode he feels sales will change from single program sales for decent-sized license fees to smaller sales that come in bits and pieces which will only work if a company creates volume. This means problems for companies like his that carry a small catalog.
While Rofekamp doesn’t intend to increase the amount of docs he picks up this year, he does plan to take a new approach to sales. Normally he hits all the of the key markets and festivals – such as Hot Docs, IDFA and the MIPs – and while Films Transit will still be a presence at these markets they’re changing strategies this year by touring Scandinavia to visit buyers on their home turf. ‘Instead of standing in line with every Tom, Dick and Harry at the documentary film festivals, where I still will go, I’ll go see the buyers where they are in their own offices,’ says Rofekamp, who will be heading through Denmark, Finland and Sweden starting at the beginning of February.
Aside from his current success, his talent for sales and his love for the documentary form, Rofekamp stays in the world of doc distribution because it’s a community he has also come to love. ‘I find the documentary world quite a nice world,’ he says. ‘The filmmakers are good people, people you [can] have conversations with because they’re smart. A very nice group of 400-500 people worldwide buy these types of docs for primetime and it’s a lovely group. It’s a pleasure to be with these people.’