TIFF ’14: Five tips for finding a coproduction partner

"Know thy copro partner" was the main message South African producer Steven Markovitz (pictured) imparted to attendees during the coproduction session at TIFF's annual Doc Conference.
September 10, 2014

“Know thy copro partner” was the main message South African producer Steven Markovitz (pictured) imparted to attendees during the coproduction session at the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) annual Doc Conference.

The Big World Cinema exec opened his half-hour talk by recounting a handful of war stories, including the time he traveled to Portugal to collect money owed from a producer with a “Versace and cocaine problem” and various relationships that soured after the festival parties ended.

Markovitz, who has produced more than 50 documentaries including Fire in the Blood and Behind the Rainbow, dished out advice on when to enter into an international coproduction, when to go around official treaties and channels, the need for auditing clauses, and finding unorthodox financing sources.

Here are five takeaways from his “Unlocking doc coproduction funds” session:

1) Get beyond the “festival personality”
Just because a producer is the life of the party does not mean they will breathe new life into a film production. Off the top, Markovitz stressed the importance of researching a potential production partner’s reputation and work ethic to ensure the partnership will work. He told the story of a DP who saw him living it up at an event with a group of copro partners and told him, “I bet in one year’s time you won’t be talking to each other.” Two years later, Markovitz was on speaking terms with only one of those producers. “If at the first dinner they start irritating you, get out,” he warned, adding that word of mouth and personal connections typically prove more fruitful than speed dating hook-ups.

2) Try non-traditional funding sources first
Markovitz has worked with several European producers who straight-up told him the main reason they wanted to coproduce was for the exotic travel perks. Creative and financial benefits should be the guiding forces as each country has copro rules that can potentially decimate a budget, such taxes on labor.

He will often look elsewhere for financing first, and has had luck finding unorthodox funding sources, from a Polio association and the Dutch lottery, to a diamond empire heiress and a Congolese beer brand. In particular, he has seen a new class of philanthropists interested in documentaries emerge in Africa. “People of a certain age and a certain financial level want a legacy,” he said.

3) Immerse yourself in the other producer’s film culture
Before working on a German corproduction, Markovitz watched German films, attended German parties and spent nine months researching the best people in that market to work with. “Eventually you find that partner and hope for the best,” he said. Moreover if a documentary requires the kind of local intel that only a producer on the ground in Germany can provide, that will only bring more credibility and quality to a doc, whether that producer comes to the project through official or unofficial channels.

4) Don’t get stuck on treaties
Speaking of official channels, coproduction treaties between two countries do not automatically lead to creatively fruitful relationships. Going back to unorthodox financing sources, Markovitz said he will work with producers from countries that do not have formalized relationships with South Africa if the numbers add up. Although South Africa recently signed a treaty with Australia, he has yet to work with a producer in that country.

If a producer comes to him with an interesting project, he will often raise a little money and provide services in exchange for rights. “It doesn’t always have to be an official coproduction.”

5) Set-up a collection account managed by a third party
Even if a partnership seems peachy from the outset, a producer can have an accident, get divorced or fall into any number of financially ruinous scenarios that cause them to fixate on the bottom line. To avoid potential drama, Markovitz advised producers to set-up a collection account that no one can touch except a third-party collection agent. That way if a film starts to sell, the money is objectively controlled.

A clause giving one producer the right to audit another is a good safety net but should not be relied upon, as that process is inherently adversarial, and hiring lawyers and accountants to undertake an audit in a foreign jurisdiction is expensive.

  • The TIFF Doc Conference continues today (September 10). Check out the agenda here.
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