C21 took its annual trip to French doc festival Sunny Side of the Doc and found two things: blistering heat and new opportunities. Jesse Whittock reports.
Weather forecasters never get it quite right. What was predicted as a grey drizzle-fest on France’s Bay of Biscay turned out to be a 32-degree heat wave that left factual executives from around the world sweating for most of the week. Not that they minded getting hot under the collar, as there was plenty of business to concern themselves with at the 23rd Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle.
Held in the Espace Escan conference centre beside the city’s picturesque port, this year’s event played host to more than 1,400 delegates, including 287 buyers from 60 territories, according to organisers. Among them were key commissioning executives from across Europe, the US, the Middle East, Japan and Korea, with sessions on subjects including the latest developments in 3D, the seemingly unstoppable Chinese documentary commissioning spree and European coproduction.
Pitching sessions for investigative, science and environment, history and feature docs ran throughout the four-day event and saw 25 producers face a dragons’ den of commissioners from the likes of DR, NRK, PBS Nova, Channel 4, Once TV, Al Jazeera, Discovery and SVT.
Programmes included harrowing Bosnian war doc Mission Rape, which has support from Denmark’s DR; quirky science film Why Women Are Shorter Than Men, which is already commissioned by Franco-German net Arte and impressed the judges by its title alone; and Atomic Africa, a campaigning film that tells the story of the ongoing African nuclear energy grab that will air on Germany’s WDR.
An innovative scheme called Docs in Progress, which puts producers who are close to fully financing their programmes in touch with broadcasts and distributors to get the remaining budget, also launched. This led to French indie Artline getting its doc Charles: The Destiny of a Prince, about the Prince of Wales, over the line.
Elsewhere, execs including Atlantic Productions’ commercial director John Morris outlined the rise of ‘giant screen’ 3D doc making for Imax-type screens. Major art organisations are among those getting involved in this area by investing in feature-length docs that run on huge immersive screens in their galleries, museums and art spaces.
The genre’s rise has been mainly down to the success of Imax cinema chains that have launched branded screens around the world. “The giant screen gives doc makers another way of financing their films,” Morris told C21.
Also on the technology front, Jean-Marc Merrieux, MD of French public production body CNDP, took delegates through two immersive 3D experiences, one a virtual tour of an post-Second World War East Berlin home and the other a reconstruction of an entire Normandy town under occupation.
Indeed, technology is permeating buyers’ strategies, especially in markets with advanced electronics industries, according to Kenny Kihyung Bae, director of international relations and coproductions at South Korean pubcaster KBS.
South Korea’s TV industry “is one of the wildest in the world and we have to bring our television content to new platforms,” he told C21. “Digitalisation, 3D and so-called smart-TV are very big issues. Korean IT technology is leading the world and the TV industry is trying to follow that. We have to make television content suitable for new platforms.”
But it was the coproduction developments that really caught the eye this year, with the Chinese production groups and broadcasters once again creating the most interest among execs. “We have an average audience of 94 million Chinese viewers and buy 1,000 hours a year. We are producing new series and looking for coproduction partners,” said CCTV9′s director of program operations Xiaoqing Chen on Tuesday, offering one example of their financial clout.
Similarly, Chen Dali, exec director of Beijing TV (BTV) Station HD Documentary Channel; Tian Hai, CEO of BJ Raremedia (aka Rare Media); and Ben Tsiang, CEO of Taiwan-based production foundation CNEX, all unveiled new funds and schemes aimed at creating international partnerships.
Tsiang said CNEX is working on a number of initiatives, including one aimed at productions made specifically for IPTV platforms, which have been growing across Asia in particular. BTV’s Chen announced he has been given the go-ahead to create a new state-of-the-art production hub that will attract global companies to the country.
Rare Media also made a big splash when it revealed it was investing an annual €1.5m (US$1.87m) in documentary coproductions. According to Hai, this will break down as €1m for buying in docs and €500,000 for coproductions. “We want to invest in history, nature, military and humanistic programmes,” a representative told C21.
Another producer/distributor from the country, LIC China, told delegates it buys 500 hours of international content for its five slots on various local Chinese stations every year. “We are happy to welcome foreign companies willing to work on Chinese subjects, can help them get visas and facilitate work within China and are also ready to invest,” said LIC’s editor-in-chief Shihui Cheng.
All in all, this means a lot of opportunities, but the elephant in the room every time Chinese delegations take to the conference circuit is the tricky issue of censorship.
China says it has become more open to global documentaries than ever. “Our audiences used to like only entertainment shows but now prefer documentary,” China International Communication Company producer Kong Weina told C21. However, the withdrawl of China’s Sheffield Doc/Fest delegation earlier this month, allegedly over the event’s programme line-up, still suggests there is a long way to go.
In fact, that same delegation was here in La Rochelle. But although concerns remain, the overall feeling from European, US and Latin execs this week was cautiously positive. One producer, speaking on condition of anonymity, told C21: “It provides a good opportunity if you are happy creating Chinese culture-focused films.”
It’s now clear the Chinese are here to stay, and as the country’s economy booms so will its reputation as a key partner for most large-scale documentary coproductions of the future.
But with all that in mind, sessions throughout the four-day event looking at the rest of Asia, Latin America, the US and Europe show that traditional coproduction regions remain just as important.
The weather finally did as forecasters predicted on the final day and turned grey and windy, but Sunny Side 2012 showed there is plenty for producers and broadcasters to feel bright about in coming months.