By Betsy McLane
Its name conjures up images of Roman gladiators being eaten alive while spectators observe with bemused delight. Amsterdam's FORUM may or may not deserve such a connotation. For three solid days, toward the close of the International Documentary Film festival Amsterdam, this separate but linked gathering occurs. The FORUM is dedicated not to screening and discussing completed works but to selling and buying proposals. And the prizes at the FORUM are not statues, certificates or audience approval; the prize is a co-production deal or acquisition money.
The setting for this enterprise is the building called the Paradiso. A half block from IDFA head quarters, this edifice was once a church, and now regularly hosts rock music shows. Befittingly, it is old and dark with a lobby cafe area, cloakroom and pigeonhole mailboxes for participants. Here one can leave messages for the commissioning editors, producers, distributors, journalists and assorted documentary "professionals" (myself among them) who populate the FORUM. Here also one can lie in wait for any individual attending the FORUM session, since there is only one, guarded door in and out of the inner sanctum where the official business formally unfolds.
"Formal" is the operative word for the pitches being heard here, a European formality dictated by place and procedure. The hall is reminiscent of nothing so much as the film version of the Nuremberg trials. There is a large oval table, around which sit 20 to 30 important commissioning editors from various television entities. At one end are two moderators, a shifting duo of notables (including BBC's Nick Fraser, Discovery Europe's Chris Haws, European Documentary Network's (EDN) Tue Steen Mueller) whose duty it is to adjudicate the process. Above their heads hangs a huge screen for running video clips. Opposite the moderators sit the pitching producers—singles , duos or teams—with projects to present. Around three sides of the room rise steeply pitched rows of chairs, occupied to the ceiling by waiting producers, observing producers and the "professionals." In one corner is (seemingly) Eichman's glass isolation booth which houses the translators. The official languages of the FORUM are French and English, the latter predominating, the former staunchly adhered to by the French. The entire scene is lit by halogen spots that leave dark pools of shadow in the corners. It is very dramatic... good production values.
Pitching producers are pre-selected through an institutional screening process that demands more than merely a good idea or glib line. Each project selected for the FORUM has at least partial financial backing already in place, a complete multi-page proposal (including the usual proposal requisites and a viable budge—calculated in ECU's) and often, visual support in the form of clips or show reel. Most importantly, each project must be sponsored by a commissioning editor from a known television is willing to put their company on the line by sitting with and supporting the producers during their pitch.
The proposals and budgets are reproduced and distributed to all participants in a large spiral-bound book. Each pitch has exactly ten minutes to present, monitored conscientiously by the moderators. The editors are then asked to respond and offer feedback. Prodded by the moderators, they do respond, and occasionally they even commit money (verbally). To begin, there are four pitches, followed by a break; then, four more pitches followed by anoth er break; and so on for three 8-hour days. In 1997, there were a total of 60 pitches. The entire process is a fascinating one. Merely from observing, you can discover what films people are trying to make, the range of pitching styles and possibilities, how much money and clout the various state and privately owned television companies of Europe have, what topics seem to be hot properties and who's who in the pecking order of European TV.
The majority of participants are from Western Europe and the UK. Those producers from North America tend to be well-known people with sturdy track records. The 1997 line-up of Yanks included Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Pink Triangle), Ralph Arlyck (Sean Then and Now) and Kartemquin's Gordon Quinn, Steve James and Peter Gilbert (The New Immigrants)—all of them, by the way, IDA members. Last year saw pitches from Barbara Kopple and Jonathan Stack. The only commissioning editors from North America in 1997 were TVOntario's Creative Head of Documentaries Rudy Buttignol, PBS/American Masters' Susan Lacey and WNET's Head of Culture and Arts Jae Venza, who were continually called upon to provide an official opinion of how a given project might play in the U .S. From Australia came Claire Jager, but the major money action was with the ZOF, Arte, BBC, Channel 4 and the like.
FORUM organizers also thoughtfully scheduled one-on-one question and answer sessions for observing producers. This meant that even participants who couldn't pitch had the opportunity to sit down and talk with people such as IDA board member and EON director Andre Singer. There were also all-group lunches which were great for meeting people in an informal way. Of the pitches, you might ask, did anything dramatic develop? The most flamboyant pitch came not from an American, but from Englishman and IDA member Jon Blair (America, How Are You?). The most spontaneous pitches came from what the FORUM calls "Moderator 's Hat." In this twist of fate, registrants may put their business cards in a hat; twice a day cards are randomly drawn, and the chosen producer has an official pitch slot scheduled, with about half an hour to prepare. Instant stress, also very fun.
The organization of the FORUM is admirable and seems to improve regularly. EDN is the sponsoring organization, with funding coming from mainly government sources. The staff tries hard to keep things moving smoothly. Each year more commissioning editors participate, seemingly finding it worth their time. The pitching producers with whom I spoke were positive about their FORUM experiences. Although no one was jumping up and down with a contract and check in hand, most felt that doors were opened and that their work was given a good showcase. This is a rare chance for a personal presentation to many major European buyers at a single sitting, in a fashion that is relatively new to the documentary scene. The FORUM, with the festival and the concurrent buyers market for completed documentaries, definitely makes Amsterdam in November/December a major marker on the documentary calendar.
BETSY A. McLANE holds the Ph.D . in Cinema from the University of Southern California and is Executive Director of the International Documentary Association, a p osition she has held since 1991.