I thought it was really great that an American woman was one of the public faces of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) this year. For the second year in a row, Debra Zimmerman, executive director of New York-based distributor, Women Make Movies , served as the co-host for the Talk Shows at the festival, televised discussions on the state of international documentary. Held in the same venue as the pitching FORUM, the Talk Shows were great fun. With MC, Peter Wintonick , and the vivacious Zimmerman, these shows were entertaining, informative and, ultimately, celebratory.
I had a chance to sit with her one afternoon as she caught her breath before rocketing off to another business meeting. We talked about the importance of IDFA, the vital component of a filmmaker's festival strategy, and about the shifting landscape of marketing and distributing independent film. I think it's important to check in with traditional brick-and-mortar distribution companies--they're facing just as many challenges, if not more, in surviving the ever-burgeoning digital distribution landscape. Here's our conversation:
Debra Zimmerman (DZ): This is the biggest documentary festival in the world, and certainly, the most important, certainly the biggest.
Still in Motion (SIM): In comparison to HotDocs in Toronto, what’s the major difference, do you think, of the two markets on the international stage?
DZ: Hot Docs is much more North American; this is much more European. The flavor of the forums is really, really different. Here, 80% of the pitched projects need to be European since they get money from the EU. There are 3,000 spectators here at IDFA this year—that’s enormous for documentary.
SIM: A lot of business gets done here—there’s so much diversity, so much quality.
DZ: Yes, this is a place where a lot of business gets done. Our company is looking at an insane number of films this year, in terms of acquisitions. Besides co-hosting the Talk Shows, I’ve been taking numerous meetings with filmmakers and sales agents on the films in which we’re interested.
SIM: And how did you get roped into the hostess gig? You're quite good at it and you look like you're having a ball.
DZ: Last year I was supposed to be on a jury, and one of the films that we were involved with ended up being in competition. I didn’t feel comfortable sitting on the jury and I told Ally that. [Ally Derks is IDFA's founder and director.] I suggested she switch me to another jury. She said, “I have a better idea; why don’t you do this instead? Everyone in the office has been talking and we all, independently of one another, were thinking of who our new co-host could be and everyone suggested you.” They figured out how to get to me. Flattery works. And I love Peter [festival master of ceremonies for the last three years]. And I love Ally and I love the festival. I did three shows last year; this year they’re having me do five, which is a bit much. But I did get to meet [Werner] Herzog and I got to introduce the filmmakers of Stranded. And I got to meet the filmmaker of Satellite Queens, for which we’ve now picked up the US rights.
There’s an absolute explosion of international documentary festivals right now. There are huge catalogs here from places I haven’t even heard of. There are also going to be festivals starting in places like Kosovo, places in the Middle East; I just met people doing a film festival in Chile; there are documentary film festivals in Korea, Copenhagen, Uganda; there’s a great one in South Africa. There are so many now. That wasn’t the case five, ten years ago. This is the 20th anniversary of this festival, and I can’t speak highly enough of the role that Ally and this festival have played in helping to create this explosion of documentary festivals around the world. Not just in helping European filmmakers, but the Jan Vrijman fund, another project of the festival, is actually in existence to give money to filmmakers from the south, as well as to fund festivals in the south to help them get started—what a fantastic idea.
SIM: In the time you've been doing this, how has the view of documentary changed in the US?
DZ: When I started coming to this festival there were very, very few Americans. I remember telling Ally that not enough Americans come. You need to get indieWIRE here. And she did just that about four years ago by bringing Eugene [Hernandez] here. That helped to bring up IDFA’s profile in the US and more filmmakers started submitting their films and other [US] festival directors started coming to look for films here. So that was important.
I wrote something for the Sundance Film Festival daily a couple of years ago about "the bubble" [for documentary]. Only very few documentaries are going to get a theatrical release. And that doesn’t mean there’s that much more of a market for the documentaries that get screened here.
SIM: Do you see that changing?
DZ: The bubble still exists in which there really isn’t that much of a theatrical market for documentary. I think a lot of theatrical distributors have lost their cherries on releasing documentaries and realize it’s very hard; it’s unfortunate, but I don’t really see that changing.
SIM: It seems like that theatrical release, to a lot of documentary filmmakers, is now more vital than ever, despite all of the other distribution alternatives.
DZ: I think it depends on what you want. WMM is a very particular kind of distributor. We pay attention to our markets—when a film is right for a theatrical, we do a theatrical. We do our broadcast sales; and, of course, our back end is the educational market. That’s how we’re thought of and perceived in the industry, as an educational distributor; but we’re really more than that, even though that market for us is very strong. For films that want to reach the mass audience—which I don’t really believe exists anyway—yes, the theatrical release is critical. However, you can also do it through the broadcast—there are so many more outlets and opportunities for that than there ever have been.
SIM: But that’s still fairly limited in the US, don't you think?
DZ: Yes, but it’s so much easier than it was 10 years ago. We just sold a film to MTVLogo, a really good sale. History Channel en Espanol is available on iTunes now [to download and purchase content from the channel]. There are many more outlets and that’s growing, too. I believe that’s been the largest growth potential for documentary distribution. I go around the world saying, in the US, we are very different than everywhere else in the world where broadcasters really support documentary. In the US, we have ITVS and a couple of other strands on PBS, but those are mostly for acquisition, not co-production, and it is still quite limited.
At the same time that there are all these new digital and online ideas about distribution, and a large movement towards DIY distribution, we’re still having this demand for theatrical. It’s a little schizophrenic. To be honest, most of the films that we distribute are films that have never had a theatrical release. The irony is that in order to do anything and to be successful in any way, you need exposure, you need promotion, you need market. So it’s very odd to me that at the same time, people want that kind of exposure desperately, they're saying that distributors are doing a really bad job, and so are doing it themselves.
SIM: I don’t think it’s so much that the distributors are doing a bad job. I think it’s more about the kinds of revenue structures that exist that's frustrating to filmmakers. I was talking to some European filmmakers and they said, “You know, artists in the US are really sort of obsessed with the dollar; you guys are obsessed with money.” In almost every other part of the world, that really isn’t taken into consideration.
DZ: Most filmmakers here [in Europe] get paid to make their films. And they know that they’re going to get another commission to make another film after that. And broadcasters pay 100% of the costs. In the US, we don’t have that. Filmmakers have to develop their projects with their own money.
SIM: Can we ever have that in the US, do you think? Is that possible?
DZ: Part of the problem is we have Hollywood. We have a huge commercial industry. We care about preserving and exporting our culture in pure economic terms. In places like France, for instance, that values its filmmakers, women in particular, they care about that in a very different way—the French language and the French culture. They see film as part of their cultural heritage, so the government puts a lot of money into film. Whenever the government is involved, it’s always easier for women. It’s always hardest for women when it’s commercial. But in places that support that, it’s in the commercial interest to support those voices. In the US, we don’t have this need to support the documentary industry. Even before media conglomeration, we've never had a system of really trusting independent voices. It's about controlling everything; broadcasters want to control the product that they have and that includes control over its distribution.
SIM: One of the good things you can say about this is that these distribution companies, including the up-and-comers, are also concentrating on acquisition; there’s an acquisitional arm for both fiction and nonfiction.
DZ: Look, the problem with the system of acquisitions is that the movie needs to get made first. I’ve always found this really mysterious: all these foundations that fund documentary understand that if they don’t fund the documentary, the documentary won’t get made. Government, arts funders understand the need for subsidy. So, why is it that we, as distributors, are supposed to make the money back from production when people have already said that they have to subsidize this film through production? So if the filmmaker puts the money up with the hope that the acquisition fee is going to pay for their production, they’re sadly mistaken. And if they think they’re going to make the revenue back from distribution, well, that’s a very, very rare occurrence. The reality is that that’s really not what distribution is about in many ways. We have some films where we have made back their costs, but not very many. We have films that generate a nice income for filmmakers, but it’s not enough to live on. So, for many filmmakers, it’s more about getting exposure for their films so that they can then make enough of a commission to help make their next film.
SIM: The topics that are discussed at festivals these days—there seem to be about five or six that are ongoing dialogues for all concerned parties. What’s changed in those discussions over the course of the last decade?
DZ: Right now it’s digital, digital, digital. And rightly so. We all have to be thinking about what we’re going to be doing in the next three to five years and how the market is changing. Convergence is upon us.
SIM: Are these positive things, or does it just muddy the pool?
DZ: Neither of those two things—it can be positive; it can also be really scary. Look, I remember when cable TV started. Everybody said, “Wow, there are going to be 500 channels; we’re going to be able to each have our own channel and all of our films will be broadcast!” The reality is, it has helped, but it hasn’t been the panacea, it hasn’t been the answer. Digital download will open up certain doors, but for me, it’s still about exposure.
SIM: When you say "exposure," you mean audience.
DZ: Promotion and marketing to create audience, to let that audience know that a film exists. It’s not that people can’t find films. They don’t know about them. You have to already know what you’re looking for most of the time. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s digital download or cinema or educational, it’s all about that. If there could be a system where WMM could finally bridge the gap between home audience and educational audience, and could hit both at the same time, it would be a tremendous benefit to everyone.
SIM: Do you think the Internet can help you do that?
DZ: With digital rights management, very possibly. At the same time, there are people fighting against any kind of digital rights management. I find myself sometimes on the side of the studios and other times on the side of the artists. We’re some place in the middle. Rights are still a huge issue—I would say the biggest issue.
SIM: Please talk about that more.
DZ: The convergence I referred to before is very scary for filmmakers because what convergence means--the idea that your computer and your television will be the same thing--it means that there will no longer be separation between broadcast and ancillary rights. And if there’s no separation and if filmmakers are getting the same kind of broadcast license fees and are asked to give download and streaming rights, which is exactly what they’re being asked to do right now, then what happens to the income stream that’s supposed to come from those ancillary rights? It’s gone. That is extremely worrisome.
From the perspective of the broadcasters: people are broadcasting over the Internet, they’re trying to protect themselves from the time when there’s possibly no audience left for TV. There has to be a real discussion, a debate, a conversation between broadcasters and distributors and filmmakers about what’s happening. For some broadcasters, it’s not good either.
SIM: To me, the DIY movement, in a way, seems to be an interim response to that confusion, to that fear that something vital’s going to go missing. There are companies cropping up, seemingly daily, to help catch all the flyballs being lobbed out there, with no direction, no real distribution destination or strategy.
DZ: I’m very torn. I have been long-time colleagues with many filmmakers from New Day, which is the original do-it-yourself collective. We say there are new ideas, but a lot of those new ideas are just repackaged old ones. For example, when THINKFilm started creating the kind of outreach they started doing around theatrical, well, that’s exactly what WMM has been doing forever, grassroots outreach. We don’t have money for advertising so it’s the on-the-ground marketing route. New Day has been doing self-distribution forever. It’s a fantastic way to go; I think the New Day model is, in some ways, better, because you’re coming together with a group of other like-minded individuals and you’re able to pool your money and resources and market to those people who are interested in the wide diversity of subjects that you have, as well as through your own individual efforts. The problem, from where I sit, with doing it yourself and trying to reach your core audiences--and I was just talking to the guy that’s here from Breakthrough about this—is that unless you’re making the same kind of film with the same kind of subject matter over and over again, that’s one thing. Building core audience is a bit more well-defined. But, like most filmmakers, you will make films about many different subjects. What do you do with that particular expertise? In order for me to acquire a film on a different subject than what we’ve already worked on and have experience in marketing, it has to be a great film. It’s a lot of work. But if it’s a great film, it pays off. [I will be posting an article/interview about Breakthrough shortly on the Renew Media blog.]
SIM: And then you can diversify your own collections—it’s much easier at that point, but yes, the initial work is heavy lifting.
DZ: It’s a tremendous amount of work. And, this is what I never hear these people talking about: the cost of doing it yourself. Doug Block gave a great presentation at Silverdocs this past year about how he spent a year and a half doing the work for 51 Birch Street. And when he calculated how much money he actually made during that year and a half of his life, it was something like $2.25 an hour. And this is the kind of filmmaker that was championing DIY because he’s actually the kind of filmmaker that can make money from sales that way because he’s incredibly savvy.
I do marketing and distribution workshops for filmmakers all over the world. Filmmakers need to know about distribution, desperately—I preach this. They need to know about distribution to make the best decisions, to know how to think about the market, so I’m all for filmmakers having that kind of knowledge. But, at the same time, I think if you can, hire someone to do this work for you, so you can make movies! But if you have the time and the energy, no one’s going to care more about your film than you do—that’s also true. I didn’t make our films; I didn’t spend years of my life making our films or thinking about the subjects. Do I love them? Am I passionate about them? Of course. But, I’m not the filmmaker.
SIM: What have you seen here at IDFA that's got you really excited?
DZ: There are films that I’ve seen that are great films and there are films that I’ve seen here that we’re very interested in possibly distributing or have already acquired the rights. Kim Longinotto’s film, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is something we’ve grabbed. We’ve also picked up Satellite Queens. I mentioned that earlier; it's about four Arab women talk-show hosts, a program with 200 million viewers from all over the Arab world—I love this film. There are a couple of other films that are showing in the second half of the festival and that aren’t getting as much buzz. One of them is Salata Baladi, meaning “mixed salad,” about an Egyptian woman whose family is Christian, Muslim and Jewish. And a really interesting Italian film called We Want Roses, Too, which is completely crafted from archival footage, no narration, using films, commercials, and other visuals to tell the story of the sexual liberation movement in Italy in the 1970s. It’s fantastic. Stranded, I think, is the hit of the festival [this was, indeed, the winner of the Joris Ivens prize]. I absolutely see theatrical in its future. I want to write a note to Mark Urman [of THINKFilm] to tell him that this film has him written all over it. And, of course, it’s going to Sundance. Up the Yangtze, which is also nominated is just wonderful, also going to Sundance. I love the Herzog—that’s absolutely beautiful.
SIM: This festival trajectory, does it start here? Filmmakers are obsessed with their festival strategies.
DZ: As well they should be. Festivals are one of the most important things filmmakers can do to really launch their film properly. If you want to release theatrically, you have to be in one of the four top festivals and those are Cannes, Toronto, Berlin and Sundance. And yes, it’s possible that there’s a film that’s here that won’t be at any of those festivals that will get theatrical distribution, but it will be much more difficult. Theatrical distributors do not accept submissions. They go to festivals to see films and if they’re not there, it’s hard to get them to look at them. Sometimes it’s possible with a sales agent but it’s the hard route. IDFA is a launching festival for documentaries, without a doubt.
The vast majority of documentaries are not appropriate to theatrical, let’s be honest. If you think you have a theatrical film, it better be because someone told you that when they watched it, they could not leave their seat for a minute. There needs to be powerful storytelling going on.
SIM: A powerful narrative arc like a great fiction film has.
DZ: That’s right. And if you want your film to sell internationally to broadcasters, then this is the festival to attend with your film. This is where they all are. This is where the sales agents come. Most of the sales agents that are here will not be at Sundance. Most of the broadcasters that are here will not be at Sundance. It’s a different world. In that way, IDFA is more important. I ask this of filmmakers all the time: what is your film? What do you want to have happen with your film? Create your festival strategy around the answers to those questions. It’s, again, about reaching that core audience.
We have a film that’s going to Sundance next month called The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo. There’s no theatrical window for this film because it’s going to be on HBO in March; HBO put money into it. So what we’ve done is we’ve created an extensive pre-broadcast campaign with the help of grant money. There's also an HBO post-broadcast campaign with human rights festivals around the world, as well as doing a college tour. You want to keep that momentum going for as long as you can—a year, two years, longer. We did that with Sisters in Law. It makes the film live for a very, very long time.
SIM: Before you dash off to your next meeting, let’s talk a bit about the FORUM. It’s like stepping into the chamber of the Wizard of Oz.
DZ: It is! We had a filmmaker come and pitch his project at the Talk of the Day because we wanted people to see what pitching is like. It’s called The Forum because it’s like the Roman Forum—it’s brutal; you’re fed to the lions! You’ve got all these commissioning editors sitting there and the filmmaker’s up there, sometimes by herself, most often with a producer, and they’ve got seven minutes to pitch their film and that’s to show visuals, as well as to speak. Then, the moderator goes around the room and asks these 40-odd commissioning editors sitting around the table what they thought. It’s absolute theater. There are some pitchers that just bomb and some pitchers that fly. When you come every year, you see some of the films that were pitched the year before. You see which ones were successful and which ones weren’t. It’s a great thing to do to learn about the industry. I really recommend it to any American filmmaker to come and observe a pitching session like this, to learn about international broadcast, particularly in the European market. You learn so much listening to the broadcasters respond to what they like, what they don’t like, what they’re looking for, what’s important to them.
SIM: There’s a whole different talent that a filmmaker needs to bring to that. You could be the world’s most brilliant filmmaker, but what happens when you can’t pitch worth a damn? It’s so vital to be able to articulate and sell your film idea to someone who might be interested in showcasing it for you.
DZ: This is also something to which I constantly speak: filmmakers need to be directors, producers, financiers, publicity people, graphic designers, they need to wear so many hats. When you go to festivals, you have to be social. Meeting people is the key thing. If it’s a choice between going to see a film and going to some party, you should hit the party. The person you need to meet, that you’ve been trying to find, could be sitting right next to you at some event. If you’re not a social creature, bring a friend that is. Festivals are great fun. It’s also an acknowledgment that this is a business of relationships. It really is. It’s a really important part of it. Without festivals, it would be much harder for me to do my work. It’s an extremely efficient system.
SIM: This is what all the online studios and entities can never provide. They’re actually coming to people like me to produce physical festivals for them. The structure is built-in already online, but there’s no “there” there.
DZ: What's missing is a group of people looking at a film at the same time, something that provides the impetus to read the reviews, to discuss it. It goes back to needing to create that buzz. Another thing I did here was to give some talks at the IDFAcademy. You can pay something like a $150 fee and attend a two-day preparatory workshop on how to navigate IDFA—you learn about marketing and distribution, there are master classes with filmmakers, you learn how to create buzz for your film. That’s another thing that festivals do.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that this is the 20th anniversary of this festival. Ally gets a lot of shit sometimes because she’s the person that still chooses all the films. Here in Holland, there’s a lot of attention given to international documentary and they want the focus, as much as possible, to be on Holland, and rightly so--the festival’s in Amsterdam. So she’s a bit of a target in some ways. And because of that, it’s so important to really acknowledge what she’s accomplished with this festival. It is now known worldwide; it's a world stage for international documentary. It’s important to say happy anniversary and thank you. And not just to Ally. Listen, most of the same people who run it now were here from the very beginning when it was a speck of an event. It’s changed Women Make Movies. People like us have this kind of access to an amazing body of work. It gets much more inclusive every year. This year, as I said, we’re looking at about nine films here. We acquire about fifteen over the course of a year. And then I can also have meetings with the filmmakers. In fact, I’ve met two filmmakers here whose films we’ve been distributing for many, many years. Kara Herold is from San Francisco; Buthina Khoury is from Palestine. I’ve never met either of them. How great to be able to come here and meet them along with all the other brand new people, the up-and-comers. It’s invaluable and I appreciate the opportunity enormously.