Banff: ARTE, ZDF, NDR talk docs

ARTE France is on the hunt for investigative documentary films featuring "good characters pursuing an issue that affects everyone," commissioning editor Philippe Muller told delegates at the Banff World Media Festival.
June 16, 2011

A panel of German and French programmers and producers discussed opportunities in the European factual space at the Banff World Media Festival.

The session was the last installment of the event’s Broadcaster Briefing series, hosted by journalist David Jenkinson.

Panelists included Philippe Muller, commissioning editor, deputy head of Thematic Evenings, ARTE; Ralf Peter Piechowiak, commissioning editor, ZDF; Louis Vaudeville, president/producer, Clarke Costelle & Co. and Alexander von Sallwitz, senior commissioning editor, NDR.

ARTE’s Muller said his network has three prime time documentary slots a week, which “is necessary to say because it’s huge,” he told the audience. Science, sustainability, health care and topics of universal human interest are all areas the network is interested in, he said, noting that a recent documentary on the disappearance of bees worldwide was wildly successful for the network.

“We have been able to create an excellent standard for best documentary films,” he said. “We are looking for really good investigative documentary films – good characters pursuing an issue that affects everyone.”

Ralf Peter Piechowiak, of public broadcaster ZDF, on the other hand, said that the network is in the midst of re-examining how it would like to approach documentaries and perhaps moving toward a model he’d call closer to factual entertainment, using re-enactments when it suits the material and looking to engage younger viewers.

An approach the network has been successful with is a programming one-two combo of entertainment movie or show, followed by a fact-based account of the issue at hand.

“That back to back stuff works beautifully,” he said.

It’s a bit of a different story on multi-regional German channel NDR, commissioning editor Alexander von Sallwitz said.

“History programs are a bit overstressed here,” he said of German programming. Talk shows and soaps are emerging formats for the network and adventure and wildlife programming still do quite well, he says. “We’re also really good at children and animated programs as well.”

Noting that he worked with Vaudeville on the successful Apocalypse series – which, to date, has had international viewership of 30 million and 500,000 DVDs sold – he said he’s currently looking for a partner on an eight-part WWI series for which he “would love to have a partner in Canada.”

He would love to see more documentary content on NDR, he said, but not necessarily just historical.

“I think we would be better off if we had more documentaries, not only history, but contemporary docs,” he said, citing a recent documentary on the story of chocolate production that was a “smashing success.

“That’s the kind of issue that we really need. We have a topic, drawn out of every day life, and we look beyond the scene. This is something that we have to do better.”

From Playback Daily.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.