Agora Masterclass with Philippa Kowarsky

The Agora Masterclass of the 25th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival titled “Untangling the Global Landscape - Filmmaking in 2023”, with speaker Philippa Kowarsky, was carried out on Wednesday, March 8th, at the Pavlos Zannas theater. Within the framework of the event, Philippa Kowarsky, founder of Cinephil, an international sales and consulting firm in Tel Aviv, attempted to untangle the foggy global landscape of the film industry, at a time when filmmaking is more complex than ever. 

The event was prologued by Angeliki Vergou, Head of the Agora: “Welcome to the Agora Masterclass! It is an honor to have here with us a true documentary mastermind, Philippa Kowarsky! She has been working in the documentary industry for many years, having collected experiences and the know-how as no other. She has worked on films such as Gatekeepers, The Act of Killing and Look of Sadness, all of which have been nominated for an Oscar. Also, the Emmy-awarded Night Will Fall, as well as Collective, Flee and this year’s A House Made of Splinters, which won the Golden Alexander at last year’s Documentary Festival”, she mentioned. 

“Thank you for coming. I have been coming to Thessaloniki for many years now, it is a place close to my heart, and I am very happy to be here again, seeing my family from the film industry”, she stated. She spoke about two films, Mole’s Agent, a remake of which will be streaming on Netflix, and German Life, a film about Goebbels’ secretary. “Films have huge trajectories. They start humbly but they can grow and become a part of global culture”, she emphasized. 

Reed Hastings from Netflix took the floor: “Netflix builds bridges for each European culture. It invests in local productions and watches how Europe creates a network and looks for content from different cultures within Europe. People are a big magic veil and we can never know where it will end up”, he distinctly said. “I founded Cinephil in 1997. I had not networked yet. At first, we represented Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers and then we expanded. With Gatekeepers and The Act of Killing, we watched the world unravel before our eyes'', Philippa Kowarsky added. 

Then, she told a story about the film The Act of Killing: “Producer Signe Byrge Sørensen came up to me at a Festival in April 2012 and introduced herself. She told me that from the films she had seen on my website, she had one she believed I would like. She said nothing about the film, she didn’t show me any teaser, she didn’t even describe it to me, it was the weirdest conversation of my career to date. Some time later, at Cannes, I saw her from a distance. A producer I trust told me that she is a very serious producer. I trusted him. I approached her and asked for the DVD of the film, which I got, but due to a huge workload, never watched. I ran into her after some time at a screening in Sheffield and I still hadn’t watched the DVD. She told me very calmly that she can now approach other sales agents. I left with a knot in my stomach. The following week, I had a work trip in Paris. I saw the DVD in my purse and thought that this DVD has become my life’s nightmare. I took it with me to watch on the plane on my laptop (because that’s what we did back then). As soon as I landed, I called Signe from the airport (because that’s what we did back then). I spent a lot of money on that call, but it was worth it: the film was amazing. I absolutely had to get involved. So I called Signe and, fortunately, the chance was not lost. The rest is history, as they say, and me and Signe are now good friends”. 

She then discussed some films she has worked on: Collective, a Romanian film about corruption within the state healthcare system, which “may seem boring based on the description, but is in fact a captivating drama, which people loved and which made it to the Oscars”. Also, A House Made of Splinters, which began its long journey to the Oscars from the Documentary Festival, but also Gunda, Flee and Advocate. “I strongly believe in sales agencies, I don’t think it is something someone can do by themselves the same way someone may try to film or edit a film by themselves, with no professional help. The job of the sales agent is to understand the global market on a deep level, and offer three things. First, the “tracks”, which professionals (especially beginners) will follow with great ease and navigate around the difficult landscape of the modern film industry. Then, the realization of their idea. Third, the protection of their intellectual rights and the constant collaboration and contact with lawyers. In the end, our work is summed up in the following: we clarify, we plan a strategy and we implement that strategy”, she stressed. 

Then, she asked the filmmakers in the audience if they ever wonder why they themselves make their films after all: “It is valuable to know where you want to go with a film, maybe you’ll go to festivals, maybe you’ll send it to streaming platforms. Knowing where you want to go will make your life easier”, she mentioned. She stressed the importance of medium budget films, as they are the backbone of every Agora and also the possible link of a young filmmaker to a bright career. Then, she discussed the difference between the European and the American film industries: “Americans have a tough time understanding the concept of co-production, which is a European phenomenon. This difference in mentality has been difficult for me in the past. In the U.S., a film is interesting only when it has profitable potential”, she mentioned. 

As for when someone should approach a sales agent, she stated: “Earlier, you would meet sales agents at festivals, whereas now it is certain that you will have already found one before going to festivals. People approach me during all production stages: with a teaser, with a rough cut, even with a piece of paper”. Then, she stressed the importance of the producer within the film ecosystem: “I have a deep faith in producers. Especially the experienced ones have so much to offer to young professionals and they can protect them from all the obstacles and traps I, and so many other professionals, fell into at the beginning of our career. An experienced producer can truly enrich your professional journey. In the South Pacific, they have a saying: “if you don’t have a dream, how will you make it come true?”. So, dream away. We are here to support you”, she concluded.