The 2019 IFFR Reality Check conference tackled the thorny subject of development, and how filmmakers can better exploit their own content, the plethora of new platforms and the end-user to the benefit of all. The day was divided into four parts, comprising three-panel debates (New Audiences/New Stories, Alternative Practices in Development and Future Funding Models) and a series of intensive break-out discussions on the questions raised throughout the day. A closing session presented conclusions drawn from these deliberations.
Opening the day, IFFR director Bero Beyer described how the wide spectrum of content that we see across all platforms is developed within generally narrow constraints and that it is therefore imperative that the industry offers/creates/allows for a "wide space" for ideas to develop, mature and ultimately be realised. Great talent can turn to compete for media to tell their stories, he warned, and they could, therefore, be lost to the film world.
Reality Check schedule
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Canadian artist and filmmaker Caroline Monnet, who boasts Algonquin, Quebecois and French roots, discussed her diverse work and what inspired its realisation. "The concept is what dictates the medium," she explained, before screening her short film Mobilize, which was made to provide a positive record of the indigenous Canadian population, culled from existing footage, and Emptying The Tank, about an indigenous female martial arts fighter. "Storytellers are like athletes, we are always trying to surpass ourselves."
Before the New Audiences/New Stories panel, moderator Wendy Mitchell reminded the audience that development is at the heart of the content production process, a discipline that can be both lonely and isolating. So today, she stressed, was a great opportunity to determine how development could be made more inclusive, collaborative and profitable, as well as determine the best outlets for creative ideas.
New Audiences / New Stories
Akua Gyamfi, the founder of The British Blacklist online portal celebrating the work of Afro-Caribbean British creatives, told how there is "a new generation of talent that is taking things in their stride", with a 360-degree multi-discipline approach and control of their own product, getting it out to audiences through innovative channels. In terms of why she launched her portal,"it was the answer to something that was missing… I had an emotional reaction to what I wanted to see."
US producer Tamir Muhammad, founder of production house Populace and responsible for the critically acclaimed HBO series Random Acts of Flyness, emphasised: "the safe space" enjoyed by he and director Terence Nance in the creation of the series – "it was the best place to protect Terence's voice," he underlined.
Dutch filmmaker Nanouk Leopold explained how the working relationship she enjoys with producer Stienette Bosklopper constitutes her own "safe space", having successfully written six screenplays which she transformed into six multi award-winning films. "You need a safe place to find your own voice," she pointed out, adding how she has never felt the need to compromise her arthouse vision. That said, she feels a new desire to say 'yes' to everything, which has filled her with a new resolve. "So I went back to my attic. I am this really typical old-fashioned person who is all the time trying to develop stories, and that takes some time. And I went there with this new energy… You have to have this first light, this fire in your stomach, so I wrote this hilarious story about a woman who is hunting because that [hunting] is what I want to do."
Tamir discussed the idea of genre-bending. "It is the biggest connector. If you like horror and I like horror we might take a chance on a horror. And I like comedy. It’s the one thing that grounds us all… It’s an exciting time. For the first time, the independent world and Hollywood are realising there is some kind of way, it is all fluid and working, and formats are changing, and I see that kind of fluidity as an opportunity."
Nanouk agreed, stressing how if you bend a story it keeps you more alive as an audience and is evidence of the evolution of cinema and our growing sophistication as an audience.
Wendy asked whether, in the context of development, globalisation of content was good or bad for story-telling. “Speak on what you know but if it is honest and authentic, then it will travel,” answered Akua.
Tamir gave a message to the IFFR audience stressing how the festival is an exemplar of excellence both in terms of its selections and the filmmakers it attracts, and how it was a very effective launchpad for projects into the global market.
In concluding, Wendy asked Nanouk and Akua what excited them currently about the development landscape. Nanouk answered how she loved the idea of "the long tail and the niche," whereby most interests are or could be catered for by existing and future viewing platforms, while Akua is impressed with "more personalisation. I can pretty much turn on the TV and go to the cinema and see something that I am going to be fully engaged with and which is more representative, and I am excited to see that ‘speaking up and speaking out’ is no longer something to be scared of."
Stealing from the Best: Alternate Practices in Development
The Stealing from the Best: Alternate Practices in Development panel dealt with overcoming the sometimes arduous process of content creation. British producer Dominic Buchanan told the long and involved story of how the film project (later a hit series) The End of the F****** World came into being after a number of initial Film 4 commissions (incl. teaser, promo, pilot etc) came to nothing following regime change at the head of the organisation. Later the independent UK company Clerkenwell Films saw its value as a series, at which point Film 4 then recommissioned, albeit for its digital platform E4. Also at this point, Netflix bought a 50% stake which, fortunately for all concerned, generated an enormous worldwide audience.
Later in the panel, Buchanan described a meeting with Netflix marketing executives who gave an indication (albeit without the support of hard data) of the great success of the series. They told how the second best-performing territory for the show (after the US) was Brazil which, in population terms, indicated a massive audience. They showed him a graph of viewership growth which showed a steep incline as the episodes progressed, and the series measured 68% in terms of audience retainment throughout its run which, while not a true comparison, compared very favourably with the concurrent Netflix series House of Cards, which measured around 30%.
Filmmaker Noaz Deshe described the alternative development of his drama White Shadow (2015) which was developed and shot in Tanzania, starting with an intense 13-day workshop in Dar es Salaam among crew and cast (who continually rotated roles), at the end of which a short film was produced. "The first script was something to deconstruct, something to destroy," said Deshe. The approach was not to come to Tanzania as a "colonial production", but as a "creative, communally based collaboration," which added to its authenticity as a local film. The budget was very low. "If you really want to do it, you don’t have a choice," he underlined.
He is currently working with Syrian refugees in Greece on a new project in which he has devised creating writing workshops that will determine the work’s future trajectory. "First it is the process, and then it becomes something else… The DNA begins to determine the film."
Submarine’s Bruno Felix told how he will approach a project both from the perspective of the talent and the concept. At IDFA his company presented the fascinating doc Bellingcat, about radical (and highly effective) citizen journalism. He explained how he is currently developing a project about the idea of the lone wolf terrorist. "Understanding your topic is effected through access… that is how you build the story," he advised. He, therefore, funded a year’s research for his two screenwriters to settle in the Paris Banlieue "to get into the minds of the Bataclan terrorists."
He has also set up a graphic novel company, which serves in his understanding of the form of eh company’s many animation projects.
Reality Check speakers
Read all about the different speakers at the 2019 conferenceWho is Who
The subject moved on to audience engagement during the development process. Dominic stressed how he was keen for the initial pilot/promo for The End of the F****** World to be submitted for public viewing at international film festivals, but Film 4 said a resounding "no". Bruno stressed how he is a fan of public engagement, but only at a relatively advanced stage when there is something tangible to engage with, and never as early as at the script stage. Noaz was not at all keen, stressing how "a film before it's out, is like a virus."
The panelists were asked what were the things that may kill a project in development. Bruno answered that it was essential to develop a project until it is ready, and that non-adherence to this principle can be disastrous. Noaz stressed how you need to allow a project to develop how it wants/needs to, and never to stick with a pre-conceived perception of what the project must be. Dominic advised never to work with anybody who doesn't understand the story or meet your ambition level and warned of the risks of over development, such as with too many opinions from too many heads.
Funding Models of the Future
This panel was book-ended by fascinating insights into the future of SVOD activity in Europe and blockchain activity within the development process. Ideal Filmworks' Linda Beath reminded us that, in future, Netflix and its competitors will be obliged to derive 30% of its content from Europe. She estimates that between $17-20 billion dollars will be put into global production by all the SVOD platforms (also the likes of Amazon Prime, Disney Plus). "Europe is a huge market for these SVOD platforms. 85% of Europe is wired, and the population of Europe is greater than North America. We are a very attractive market and they are going to have to meet the quota that the European Council has passed, and this money that floods in is going to need to buy projects. We need our national funders to develop those projects in order for us to sell them. It is really that simple."
As an aside, the horrendous flipside, she stressed, is that the average European filmmaker has an income of €14,000 pa. She also pointed out how, in the US, one film out of every ten in development is made. In Europe, this ratio is one in four. "That has to affect the quality…The pressure is on our funders to develop better."
French producer Didar Domheri explained her development spend on Girls of the Sun (€200,000), about a Kurdish female battalion, which demanded in situ Kurdish consultancies by the filmmakers together with the film’s subjects, an expert script editor and the editorial input of journalists well versed in the subject. The development spending was derived from CNC, MEDIA, regional film funds, SOFICA and from the producer’s own pocket.
Thai cinematic polymath Pimpaka Towira explained the production and funding landscape in Thailand, emphasising the entrepreneurial approach of many filmmakers for whom development investment is quite often used to cover production costs. She also underlined the key taboos within Thai cinema that will incur the wrath of censors, most notably negative depictions of religion and the royal family.
Moderator Uzma Hasan commented how SingularDTV's Oliver Mahrdt works for a company that is "at the forefront of democratizing and decentralizing filmmaking" before he explained how he believed blockchain technology can help today's film industry.
"In the 1980s David Bowie was the first guy who gave us shares of himself because he wanted to be independent of the record label… and [now] the concept is taken over and put into a new technical system called tokenisation, so you can basically tokenise everything on the blockchain which is a fundraising process, but it means that when your work as an artist is finished it [the blockchain system] distributes the money, so every time you see [the work] on a platform it automatically distributes to everyone that was involved to get paid automatically." It allows, he added, for a direct dialogue between the stakeholder/consumer and the artist. It also cuts out the legions of middlemen who not only take a significant financial cut but also are given potentially undue influence over the project.
Linda offered a "flipside opinion" based on her notion that the best film from a creative team is their fourth, and therefore "I would like to protect the time that the producer spends with the creative team – that is the most precious time. So I think when you are talking about blockchain we need to understand that it is going to have to be people surrounding that core element that creates a great film, so the role of the producer will change."
Didar concurred, stressing how "we are all willing to be paid on time" (to general approval) and there must be a lot of time spent explaining the benefits of blockchain to the industry, "but I don’t think we should totally erase what is in place already… We can still merge the existing industry and this new technology and take the best of [both]."
Break out session
At the conclusion of the three panels, experts and audience alike discussed the major themes to offer and advice and determine future strategies.
Uzma said how Group 1 stressed wholesale commitment to diversity whether in programming, project selection or in training. As importantly was to speak to film academies and institutes about what they are advising film students is the core canon of filmmaking. Who are these people who are held up as "best in class" filmmakers? Do we have representation from across the globe when we talk about different types of filmmaking and what is deemed to be the way forward? "How do we make sure that the next generation of film students feels that the right way to view film and narrative is as wide as we can make it?" she asked.
The third point was to engage in real and meaningful outreach to less privileged parts of society to discover talents who would never normally have considered a career in film. If a football agent can go onto the streets of Brazil, why can’t we similarly find the next great film talent?
Uzma also articulated a "data" desire on the part of the group to find a way to approach movie theatres and exhibitors "and try and get a better idea of who is watching our films, not necessarily to reverse engineer them, but to gain a better idea of who is going into the cinemas to watch the stories we are telling."
Group 2 reminded us (via Wendy) of how development is not just a script concern. Some filmmakers may work better "if it's not just words on paper". Maybe a paragraph on a page (such as what can be submitted to the Danish Film Institute) or a mood reel. "Maybe we need to rethink what development has to be," she said.
The group also suggested that we should check out other film markets and how they ply their trade. In SE Asia, we were told, a filmmaker will invariably write a script and then go and shoot it. Bollywood and Nollywood work on the basis of a speedy transition from idea to realisation.
Look at other disciplines, they suggested. How are projects developed in theatre, in book publishing etc? Steal the best ideas from there. And get people from higher up the value chain to offer their input during early development stage.
- In the light of a new obligation for SVOD platforms to invest in European films, get them to invest earlier at the development stage, with the help of key European funding institutes.
- Insist on less rigidity within the funding application processes, ie make it less of an exercise in tick-boxing.
- Seek to redress the ludicrous imbalance/disparity between TV and film development funding.
- Investigate the fellowship model of seeking development funding from interested parties, such as NGOs.
Much of the Group 3 discussion revolved around blockchain. How do independent filmmakers use this technology to create a pilot project to investigate the possibilities? "What kind of currency? What type of shape should it take?" asked CineMart's Marit van den Elshout.
With a future 30% European production requirement placed on SVODs, filmmakers and producers should gather together in diverse groups to influence and talk to the national film funds and governments about what they need, how content should be developed and made, how they would deal with deliveries, and all other technical considerations.
Re VOD, filmmakers are focussed on the big players such as Netflix, but there are a lot of smaller VOD players gathering together to match the bigger players, "so collective, multi-country working was a theme that ran through many of the topics we discussed," commented Marit.
Group 2 also stressed how funding could/should be more geared (at times) towards prototyping, where limited funding can be given towards a promo or a first episode as opposed to a series of wholesale.
Closing the event, Bero Beyer reminded us that a film festival comes later, or towards the end, of a film’s career trajectory, but development comes at the beginning. Earlier in the day, he had discussed some of the risks and dangers some of the Tiger competition filmmakers had experienced in realising their projects. Addressing the conference audience he, therefore, stressed how "the development process is not that easy, it’s not that logical and it all takes some kind of courage for all of us to get there. But it’s only the same kind of courage that the filmmakers who have succeeded have pulled off to get their film here at IFFR."