Doc/Fest ’14: Int’l commissioners discuss doc wants

A panel of international commissioning editors from networks such as ARTE, VPRO and NHK discussed the kinds of documentaries they are looking for, during a panel session at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
June 13, 2014

A panel of international commissioning editors from networks such as ARTE, VPRO and NHK discussed the kinds of documentaries they are looking for, during a panel session at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK.

June 9′s crowded ‘The Commissioner Panel’ session, moderated by French producer Christoph Jörg, saw doc buyers from the U.S., Canada, France, Japan, Holland and Australia giving an overview of their respective networks, and the doc programming they tend to air.

Barbara Truyen, head of documentaries for Holland’s VPRO, began by outlining the consolidation that had happened at the Dutch network.

“We used to be 22 broadcasters, and now there’s only eight,” she explained. “We got rid of all our strand names so all the different commissioning editors and buyers are all feeding into the same slot.”

While this might seem problematic, the commissioner explained that the streamlining was a good thing for her. Truyen says she has about 65 projects on the go at once, airing about 30 documentaries a year.

“We can move really fast and our contracts are three pages long,” she said, adding that getting a doc on air required the approval of no-one but herself.

Docs such as The Queens of Versailles, Armadillo and Kings of Pastry have worked well for the broadcaster, which Truyen points out has an older audience. “Our youngest audience is 48 while our oldest is 68.”

However, she said that the arrival of competitors such as Netflix and HBO Europe meant that VPRO “needs to be in earlier” now.

“We have more competition,” she said, highlighting The Square (picked up globally by Netflix) and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (most global rights taken by HBO) as examples of docs she would have liked to have had on the Dutch network, but was unable to secure because rights had been sold early.

Elsewhere, Tomoko Okutsu, commissioning editor for NHK, said that documentary coproductions have become more of a necessity for the Japanese pubcaster in recent years, owing to shrinking budgets.

“Ten years ago we had a much bigger budget,” she said. “Because the budget is shrinking, we have to coproduce more.”

However, she told filmmakers that NHK tends to be quite hands-off with the docs it does take. “We try not to do too many changes if it’s a coproduction, aside from the language,” she explained.

Typically, she looks for “a film being shot in a place where it’s extremely difficult for a Japanese filmmaker to go,” she added, citing Syrian war doc Return to Homs and Brazilian flavela doc The Battle for Rio as examples.

Representing the French, ARTE France commissioning editor Mark Edwards cited investigative doc Sand Wars as a good example of breakthrough programming for the French net.

He said the broadcaster was constantly looking for directors and teams with “a real documentary tradition.” With subject matter, “it’s good to have a European connection;” however, “it doesn’t necessarily have to be French. I’d say 20% to 30% of films [on ARTE] don’t talk about France or Germany at all.”

Edwards also said that ARTE has gained a very positive image over the last two years, and was in rude health. “People have paid a little bit more attention because we’ve done some more unexpected things,” he said.

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.