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Close encounter with Diplodokus

Belgian doc producer Diplodokus is celebrating 10 years in business and is travelling to Connext in Antwerp with a new series and feature doc project about a notorious Belgian UFO sighting to pitch. C21 caught up with Bram Conjaerts and Lennart Stuyck, two of the company’s three co-founders.

Lennart Stuyck

Tell us about the origins of your company.
Lennart Stuyck: We’ve existed for 10 years, focusing on documentary from the get-go. Bram, Maarten [Bernaerts, fellow co-founder] and I all went to film school together in Brussels, directing documentaries. Ten years ago we decided to launch our own company, focusing on both feature docs and documentary series for television. We’ve produced eight series and around 10 features so far.

What project are you pitching at Connext this week?
Bram Conjaerts: It’s called The Mysterious Case of the Belgian Triangle and it’s the story of the Belgian UFO wave in 1989. It started with two police officers observing a triangle of lights hovering over a field in silence. They were able to track it for more than an hour. It got blown up in the media and suddenly everybody was seeing the same thing on different days.

The Belgian authorities took it seriously and involved the Belgian Air Force. The first few times the jets took off they were chasing things like disco lights, but eventually they did see something and were able to lock on to it with the radar. It was the first time fighter jets were able to track a UFO in the sky. Later there was a picture taken by a young man in a village claiming to be of the UFO, which was examined by experts and NASA and said to be genuine. But many years later he admitted it was a fake.

So it’s a story that’s been around for a long time but it’s a wonderful story, not just about UFOs, with proper cliffhangers. It remains a mystery that fascinates Belgians.

Bram Conjaerts

What finance or partnerships are you looking for at Connext for this project?
BC: The Flemish Audiovisual Fund is already on board, with Belgian public broadcaster VRT as a coproducer, taking a three-episode version, along with RTL for French-speaking Belgium on board for two episodes. We are still looking for broadcast platforms to bring it to a worldwide audience – obviously somebody like Amazon or Disney would be great – and also a sales agent to take it out internationally.

LS: The budget is mainly there so it’s about finding a distributor and pre-sales now. The series will be made but more money means more possibilities. We’ll do the three episodes for VRT and two for RTL, and probably a feature doc film version as well.

Why tell the story of the Belgian Triangle now?
BC: It’s true it’s more than 30 years old and some of the people involved are not alive anymore but we have gained access to the police officers, eyewitnesses, fighter jet pilots and journalists who were involved. We’ve got more than 30 people being interviewed who all have something new to say.

LS: We’ve been running the company for 10 years and this project has been on our radar from the start. It was too big a story for us to take on in the beginning, but we’ve worked for the past three or four years bringing the access and the money together. It’s been a long time in the making.

What is your coproduction strategy and how does the system work in Belgium?
LS: The main thing we do to get series produced is to sell them to TV channels, and in Flanders, for our sort of projects, that’s mainly Canvas or VRT. We’re also able to apply to the Flemish Audiovisual Fund. There is also the possibility to get extra money through tax shelters from the Flemish government, and we can apply for further money through Brussels.

It’s complicated in Belgium because you have the Flemish part, French-speaking part and Brussels and there are possibilities for funding from a lot of different places. Budgets are going down from the public broadcasters here, like everywhere, but I don’t think we have many reasons to complain because there are a lot of different pots for funding in Belgium. I wouldn’t say it’s easy but, compared to what we hear from some other countries at film festivals, it’s easier.

The Mysterious Case of the Belgian Triangle looks back at UFO sightings in 1989

Have the streamers made the same impact on documentary in Belgium as elsewhere?
LS: Flanders is a very small territory. There was a period when there was a lot of interest from streamers but they’re now starting to be more careful with what they produce and are mainly interested in buying existing series. It’s very difficult to get a streamer involved from the start of a project so it’s not something we’ve done. We’ve made deals afterwards. Netflix has made two or three projects in this region that I know of, but they were true crime and that’s not really our niche.

What’s a quintessential Diplodokus documentary?
LS: The main thing is an element of wonder. I don’t want to make things too depressing or negative. There has to be a sense of wonderment: what an amazing story, person, something you can dream about. That’s the main line I try to walk. We’ve done stuff about sport, science, UFOs and history, but it always has to be a good story with nice characters and something to make you dream a little bit.

What’s the biggest challenge you face?
LS: Finding good stories is the most difficult part. We live in a small country, and we look for stories that appeal to a big audience here, in Europe and worldwide. It’s difficult to find Belgian-originated stories or a link here that you can spread out and make appeal to a lot of people.

BC: There is a thin line we have to walk because there’s a difference between what the broadcaster wants and what the Flemish Audiovisual Fund needs in a documentary. They are two different things and we have to unite them. The broadcaster wants audience and needs spectacular things but for the fund the author is important, and author-driven stories. Sometimes it’s difficult to unite those two. We’ve done it with the UFO show and another project we have coming up. Those two series are a good balance.

What’s your three-year plan?
LS: I’d like to have at least two more series and two more movies completed. Within each of those we want to broaden the audience. With movies, it can be festivals or sales to TV, for series it can be a big platform. Our ambition isn’t to massively produce more content all the time; what we mainly want is have the things we do produce find bigger audiences and take a step up each time in production values and how we work with other countries. We’re getting more experienced in coproducing with other countries. It’s a healthy, evolving company but it would be nice to broaden the audience with each production.