Tips for a documentary’s success

THESSALONIKI – Many amateur filmmakers think that once they’re done with post-production, the job is almost finished. The truth is, it’s only just beginning. Shooting a film is one thing; making sure it reaches the audience is quite another. Like all markets, the indie film market works along business lines, so just making a good movie will not do. You need to play by the rules of that market and no one knows these rules better than the people whose job is to get a movie on screen, namely distributors. The problem is their advice often has a Delphic quality. «A film has to be needed. There has to be a market for it,» noted Debra Zimmerman, director of the New York-based distribution company Women Make Movies, during an open discussion on promotion and distribution of documentaries held at the Thessaloniki port complex last week. «If you design something for the market, it’s not necessarily what the market wants,» added Jane Balfour, owner and director of Jane Balfour Services, a British distribution company. It’s no surprise then that filmmakers often discover the whims of the market only after it’s too late. So instead of looking for space in the existing market, the safest bet seems to be creating a new market for yourself. Conducting extensive research and watching international films on your subject, with a mind on form as well as content, is always the best way to start, agreed experts at the conference, held on the fringe of the Eighth Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, which wrapped up yesterday. Jean Rofekamp had a longer list. The director of the Canadian distributors Film Transit identified «6+1» questions that every documentarian must ask in order to make a «good» movie: Why is it important to make this film? Are the characters compelling? Is there a story with a beginning-middle-end? Does the story and the characters create emotions, i.e. can they move the audience? Does the movie have an auteur, or sense of authorship? Does it contain enough food for thought? An extra question, however, makes things more complicated: Is the film unique enough to make the other questions irrelevant? All Greek to them Could failure to meet these demands also explain the persistent failure of Greek documentaries to travel abroad? Yes, experts at the conference suggested, but only in part. First of all, Greek documentaries have to overcome the main challenge facing all non-English speaking films: language. But if language and the need for subtitles are obvious barriers, the issue of local-specific thematography is a more controversial one. Critics say documentaries with a strong localized character cannot be easily understood by international audiences and for that reason have a hard time penetrating foreign markets. «If you want your film to travel abroad,» Rofekamp said, «you have to go for universal issues and emotions.» Others think local focus is not necessarily a setback. Deep down, the argument goes, people everywhere in the world more or less face the same fundamental problems. For Philippa Kowarsky, director of distribution company Cinephil, «what matters is universal emotions. But the more local the topic, the more fundamental the premise of a film must be.» To be sure, Greece’s trademark failings are all here. Absence of planning and organization are all taking their toll on the chances of local films to reach international audiences. When it comes to the international promotion of Greek documentaries, Zimmerman admitted, the disappointing truth is that «there is very little work done.» Failure to export, of course, is not exclusive to the documentary genre. Despite their poor record, Greek documentaries still seem to fare better than fictionalized films said Giorgos Tzotzios, director of Greek distribution company Playtime. Price of freedom Despite the box-office success of «Super Size Me,» «Fahrenheit 9/11» or the «March of the Penguins,» independent productions are overall having a hard time making it to the cinemas. There is much concern the independents are being further pushed against the ropes. Only 2 percent of the documentaries that are produced in the US find theatrical release. Eighty percent of documentaries filmed in that country are destined for television while only 20 percent are brought to the big screen. «Big films have gotten bigger while small films have gotten smaller,» said Zimmerman, noting that the there is less of a market for small films. Others say it’s not so much that the market is shrinking but rather that there are many more documentaries out there. Technological innovation has made it easier, faster and cheaper to make films today but at the same time it means more and more films are jostling for space on the big screen. Television is the biggest market for documentaries in the US (in fact, universities, not theaters, come second), which is taking its toll on documentary format – most notably their duration. Distributors and broadcasters want one-hour versions of documentaries so they can fit a slot in commercial television programs. Filmmakers who aspire to market their films internationally have to deal with the cash-driven demands of large television networks and broadcasters. That means they will often find themselves under pressure by television networks who want to re-edit the «final» copy of their work. «The people sitting at the top are interested in ratings. They don’t want to take risks. More and more they want to control how films are made,» Balfour said. Going international comes with a price. Filmmakers who want to enter the global market must follow the rules set by the top dogs. «If you want absolute freedom, that’s fine,» Kowarsky said. «But you can’t play in their park.»