Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital program — created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — continued July 23 with “A Call for Radical Collaboration: New Approaches to Coproduction.”
The session was produced and co-chaired by Brigid O’Shea (pictured, top center; Documentary Association of Europe) and Aleksandra Bilic (top left; My Accomplice).
As “new and radical methods of collaboration” have emerged in 2020 to “reimagine” how films are financed and distributed, the group of filmmakers and producers convened virtually to discuss alternatives to coproduction in the years to come.
Panelists included Malin Hüber (bottom center), producer, HER film; Matt Kay (top right), director/producer, Walks of Life Films; Ana Naomi de Sousa (bottom right), director and journalist; and Nora Mandray (bottom left), director and producer, MAKO Films.
Here, Realscreen offers a few key takeaways from the session.
COLLABORATING ACROSS BORDERS
In Stockholm, Hüber runs HER Film, creating projects that intersect film and art. O’Shea asked Hüber whether the Nordic coproduction model was collaborative.
“Historically, the Nordic countries have been co-producing for a long time but within their own little club, so Scandinavian coproductions,” Hüber explained. “Now, people are waking up and sort of understanding the benefits of broadening the network and also co-producing with Europe.”
O’Shea questioned how Hüber approached projects that “often sit between the spaces that aren’t clearly broadcast documentaries or aren’t clearly necessarily works for the art space.”
“We’ve been lucky enough so far to work with research budgets from universities,” Hüber said. “In Sweden you don’t have the system of regional broadcasters in the same way as Germany or France. There’s one big broadcaster that you can go to. I have also collaborated a lot with art institutions. Last year it was a Scottish one. So we try to find different ways for different projects to live.”
Aleksandra Bilic of London-headquartered My Accomplice — which producers, develops and finances long- and short-form projects — said the UK is also a “tricky place” to make films.
“There’s conversations going on at the moment about what could happen in the UK, it’s like we’re out of creative Europe now. Is there the potential or the possibility for there to be something creative to make it easier for us to coproduce with other countries, and bring films here that are not necessarily a UK topic or from a UK director? It’s hard to be an independent producer here and it’s going to get harder now. It’s just about finding new ways and new methods of working and being able to support amazing directors and voices that you want to see do well.”
Similarly, Matt Kay — whose London-based Walk of Life Films has produced documentaries such as Netflix’s Little Miss Sumo – said there’s avenues to redefine the UK copro landscape.
“Systematically, there’s been a lot of conventional routes and pathways that people have gone down and continue to go down and I think granting autonomy and allowing for more grassroots projects, institutions, even connections and collaborations, for that to have the same amount of power as those institutions that have come before and to be able to see them as equal and on a level playing field… To try and re-shift and re-balance different hierarchies that have been in place for a long time.”
Bilic echoed Kay: “In the last five years, there’s definitely been a shift in the balance of who’s got the power in the industry… One magic thing we could have in the UK would be that kind of support for early stage projects, a bit of a leg up for filmmakers that haven’t had the same opportunities as other people to get into the industry.”
THE FUNDING “JIGSAW”
France-born Nora Mandray — who operates between Berlin, New York and Los Angeles running MAKO Films with Jason Kohl – is working on several feature length films at various stages, including a project broadcasting in Germany this August, a film in post and a third title in production with a U.S. producer.
“I’ve been able to kickstart most of my projects thanks to writing grants [and] development grants from France, and I’ve diversified that with private foundation money from the U.S., private equity — and income investments, of course.”
“As a French person, I get so frustrated with the traditional agents of documentaries in France because It’s a very specific crowd, its niche. When you make a doc that you want to release in France, it has to be very political, very social issue, it has to speak to people who engage in nonprofit activities,” Mandray says.
She added those restrictions haven’t allowed for the production of “out there” documentaries like Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers (2018). As audiences become increasingly global, Mandray said funding models should shift to reflect that change.
For Ana Naomi de Sousa, commissioners play a role, too.
“I wonder when [Mandray] is talking about audience, whether that’s really about commissioners and people who are controlling what gets made and what doesn’t get made and who are maybe more afraid to take risks than audiences. [For] so many of my projects, I know there’s no point in pitching them to loads of platforms and commissioners here in the UK because the decision-makers at that level think they’re not viable. I don’t understand that really as ‘audience’ because I meet people all the time who think those are really interesting stories, stories that need to be told. For me it’s more about who’s commissioning — who controls the very, very tiny pots of money that there are in this country.
“So, that’s what stands in the way and that’s why I’m always finding other ways to make a project.”
Bilic shifted gear to ask Kay about his journey as a filmmaker and his recent partnership with Netflix for Little Miss Sumo.
“I wasn’t commissioned by Netflix from inception. We were partnering with different institutions — Film London in the UK, Tribeca Film Institute in the U.S. and ESPN and about 200 Kickstarter backers… and then Netflix came on board.”
Kay said the process of making a film means piecing together the funding “jigsaw.” He currently has two feature documentaries in the works — one commissioned by A&E in the U.S., on which he serves as the director, and the other in the process of securing funding, equity, investors and a filmmaking team.
“In terms of getting money and just being able to focus and concentrate, that’s like a dream. It’s amazing to not have to do the tedious work of trying to get the money and the people involved. I guess it depends on who you collaborate with,” Kay said, adding Tribeca Institute and Film London were valuable creative partners for Little Miss Sumo.
When it comes to partnering with other filmmakers and those outside of the field, de Sousa highlighted the value of “interdisciplinary collaboration.”
“In terms of film, it’s great to be able to contribute and to help give a voice often in a different way to people who have been doing amazing work for years.”
In many cases, he said, a documentary can act as the “tipping point” for a particular issue or story.
“All that wouldn’t be possible with the people’s work and those interdisciplinary collaborations that need to happen. Going to institutions or individuals who have invested lots of energy and time in something is a good starting point,” he added.
O’Shea asked Hüber whether the European copro model has “forgotten” the value of collaborations with individuals and groups outside of the film industry.
“I think it really depends,” she said. “I would like to say there are a lot of good examples of collaborations where you work together and you co-author a film or a story that you are also very transparent [about] how its being made and who’s contributing and with what and its not just the production company who retains all the rights. If you work through it properly then you can do it in a way that benefits everyone who works on the project.”