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Docs Generate Heat At Cannes

By Michael Rose

A week of pitching, hoping, hyping and selling came to a close as the 39th annual television program market, MIPTV, wrapped up in April and the 10,000 plus participants, from over 97 different countries, headed home.

While buyers, sellers and producers came to Cannes with every conceivable type of television programming, the documentary form was clearly one of the favorites. You couldn’t walk down an aisle in the seaside convention center without being visually bombarded with colorful flyers announcing the availability of hundreds of wildlife, history, science, arts, lifestyle and current affairs documentaries. Current affairs and history are the two doc genres that appeared to generate the most interest, according to the director of MIPTV, Michael Weatherseed. The increased interest is driven by a worldwide audience that wants to know why September 11 happened and what’s been done since, Weatherseed explained.

This hunger for answers prompted Brian Lapping, a noted British journalist and documentarian, to launch his next project, Tackling Terror, at this year’s MIPTV. Lapping will employ his award-winning storytelling technique of turning to the “principal actors” to discover how the world responded to the attack on the World Trade Center.

Lapping refused to reveal who will be interviewed until they are actually sitting in front of the camera, but his track record with other projects like The Death of Yugoslavia and Endgame in Ireland convinced Britain’s Channel 4 and 16 other outlets to back his million dollar plus project. It’s by far his most expensive and ambitious project to date, but this didn’t deter broadcasters from the United States, France, Russia, Germany, Holland and Japan from joining the rush to acquire this two-hour special, set to air this September 11. So far there are no takers in the Middle East, but Lapping isn’t opposed to having his examination of the decision-making behind the campaign in Afghanistan aired on the Al Jazeera network. He just won’t allow it to be changed.

Lapping’s project wasn’t the only one to generate heat. The two most popular films at MIPDOC, the three-day buyers’ screenings before MIPTV, demonstrated the increased interest in current affairs documentaries. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s In the Line of Fire looks at journalists putting their lives at risk every day to bring the stories of conflict home, and Fighting Aviation Terror: The Secrets of Airline Security, from France’s Marathon, examines how experts are developing foolproof security systems. There were several other popular programs in this vein, such as Clear and Present Danger—The Evolution of Modern Terrorism, Portrait of a Terrorist, Flight 93: America’s New Hero and September 11, 2001.

Of course, not everything showing up at the market was hard-hitting. HBO tried to prove that there was still life in a stained blue dress by trotting out Monica in Black and White, while others tried to rouse the buyers with More Sex Please and Sex in Our Century.

While some pandered others tried to inspire. Annie Roney, managing director of social issue documentary distributor, roco films international, knew the kinds of projects she wanted to represent when she set up her own shop, having worked for nine years with CS Associates, the distributors of high quality PBS programs from Frontline, Ken Burns and NOVA. The Academy Award®-nominated film Promises is one film that caught her eye and her heart. Roney has been able to find broadcasters in 15 territories and set up theatrical releases in 10 for this film, which documents the experiences of seven Palestinian and Israeli children from Jerusalem who attempt to find out what their supposed enemies are really like.

Distributing a film to Roney is a “personal responsibility” that she takes seriously. She says she agonizes over every film before assuming this challenge. “I’ve taken it on and I have to be willing to go all out,” she said.

Some doc makers come to the market willing to try to represent their own projects. Some do it just “right,” according to Meg Villarreal, director of US Independents. Villarreal’s group provides “an umbrella stand” for independents and distributors who don’t want or can’t afford their own booth. She suggests that filmmakers with completed projects think about a strategy for making the market work. She’s found that a few things increase your chances of success in the marketplace. One is signing up for MIPDOC and having your project screened. To make sure there’s interest in your film, use the buyer’s list, to which you get access once you’ve signed up. Send e-mails to prospective buyers and let them know about your project and encourage them to have a look. You should also think about attending MIPTV after MIPDOC so you can meet with any of the buyers who might have been taken with your work.

Nothing guarantees that you’ll make a sale, but if you do you can quickly recoup the costs of the trip. The worst thing that will happen is that you get a chance to see what the rest of the world is producing.


Michael Rose serves on the IDA Board of Directors.