Agora Talks - A different Perspective: Creative Documentaries Beyond TV Slots

Within the framework of Agora Talks, a discussion entitled A different perspective: Creative documentaries beyond TV slots took place on Sunday March 5th, at MOMus - Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, where documentary professionals shared practical advice and experiences with the Festival's accredited participants. Speakers included Yuri Averof, producer of Anemon Productions, Esther van Messel, founder & CEO of First Hand Films, Devin Karambelas, GBH’s senior programming manager, while the discussion was moderated by Christian Popp, Tag Film’s producer.

Christian Popp kicked off the discussion. "We will talk about how the documentary landscape is changing. We all want to make documentaries that are acceptable to the audience. Broadcasters are the key people for our work. The program they create has to be recognizable by the audience, which in recent years has changed the way they watch documentaries. For example, historical documentaries are shown every Tuesday and cultural documentaries every Friday."

Next, Devin Karambelas took the floor. "I'm Greek on my dad's side, but I'm originally from Boston. I work for GBH which is the largest content producer for PBS, the public broadcaster in the US." Esther Van Messel was then introduced to the audience. "I'm Dutch, but I was born in Austria. I run First Hand Films in Switzerland and I'm also a theater distributor because it's very boring to only do one thing. I've been doing this job for 25 years and I'm always happy to learn new things." Yuri Averof said for his part: "I am a producer at Anemon Productions and for twenty years we have been focusing on working on co-productions, which are becoming more and more interesting. We also like the challenge of working with our European partners."

Ms Van Messel then responded to a question posed by Christian Popp about how important the available TV slots are for documentaries on TV today. "You shouldn't waste the buyer's time. You don't go, for example, to sell a thriller to someone who is into historical documentaries. In my experience, if you have a good film, it will always find its TV slot and the people in charge will be flexible in how they present it. But no one gets involved the making of documentaries to get rich. On the other hand, our work has to be compensated. So, it is good to know who you are talking to because it is difficult to get funding for documentaries. It has to be someone who is as passionate as the filmmaker. Nowadays it's not easy to sell a film and find people who will make the right decisions for you. It takes broadcasters about six months to decide whether they want your film or not. What I’m telling you is not very pleasant; however, you need to know what kind of market you're in before you can conquer it. Create your material in such a way that broadcasters will show it to their bosses. Within two minutes it should gain their interest. I will be negative again, but I will tell you that in order to attract interest, it must be a documentary that concerns, for example, the hidden love life of Bin Laden. If you make a film about your neighbor and her ninety cats, it probably won't sell. Personal stories no longer sell. Your material must surpass the local and personal level because we all have a plethora of information on our phones and we want to see something that affects us all. Create a documentary that seems mainstream, but within it there is a new message and an original story.”

The conversation continued on with Devin Karambelas. "I believe that TV time is important for audiences to discover new documentaries. It is a very challenging environment. Most of our productions or co-productions are about shows like Frontline which deals with investigative journalism, or POV which features independent and international productions, or even American Experience which is about historical documentaries. Another series is DocWorld, which brings international documentaries from around the world to U.S. audiences. The films explore social concerns, politically hot topics and environmental issues, revealing the commonalities and differences experienced by people and cultures. And the best way to get to PBS is through these series, which appeal to a diverse audience that turns to PBS because they want to see something of quality. Also, the YouTube numbers for these shows have skyrocketed in the last few years. Frontline, for example, had 9.4 million view and by 2022 it had 218 million views."

Yuri Averof talked about his documentary A Perfect Meal as an example of how creators need to adapt to market demands. "It's a story that started under the title Cucina povera and it's a project that shows us that we have to be flexible if we want to find a place in the documentary market. It was developed five years ago and its main theme was the Mediterranean diet as the healthiest diet in the world and how it can provide solutions for various health issues. At the time it didn't find its place in the market because it didn't have a clear stand on what exactly it was. Are we dealing with a historical documentary, a scientific documentary or is it exclusively about nutrition? But we persisted, we changed it over and over again and finally decided to make the documentary exclusively scientific. What does the science say in relation to the Mediterranean diet? In the end, it found its way very quickly. It can be considered a nightmare to recreate your project over and over again, but that's how it moves forward and stays alive."

As for whether A Perfect Meal would find traction in the US market, Devin Karambelas explained: "I think it would be a good fit for NOVA. It is the most watched science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers. Last year it included a documentary called The Truth about Fat and it had very high ratings. I would love to show them this particular documentary and see their reaction."

"Sold. After all, that was the reason for our meeting," Christian Popp commented humorously. The trailer for Delikado was then shown, which in its 35th season captures stories from countries such as China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Greenland and Norway, among others. As Ms Karambelas pointed out, "This episode follows three Earth defenders as they try to prevent politicians and businessmen from destroying the Philippines' last ecological frontier. It's a dark and very interesting story. Americans are interested in such issues and it aired as part of the POV series."

For her part, Esther Van Messel presented the documentary Polish Prayers. "I like to deal with things I have never done before. As such, I worked on a special film. The director is a young Polish woman who piqued my interest. According to the story, twenty-two-year-old Antek grows up in a deeply religious and radical right-wing family in modern Poland. Catholicism, nationalism and, above all, celibacy define his world. Filmmaker Hanka Nobis has been following him and his friends in the fraternity for more than four years. The film, however, while interesting, has yet to sell. But I'm optimistic that it will."

When asked by the audience how creators can adapt and react flexibly to the increasing demands for content without sacrificing either the quality of the genre or their vision, Van Messel replied: "The truth is we also need some films that are not marketable and very few people will see them. But they will be original, unique and... crazy. Every filmmaker has to stay true to his convictions. And let's not forget that we always have YouTube as an outlet to promote our films."