This year's Britdoc festival underlined why UK documentary film-makers are turning to the international market. Wendy Mitchell reports.
Oxford's Britdoc festival hopes to distinguish itself from other UK festivals by setting its sights on the international market for feature documentaries. This year's event (July 25-27), with increased ranks of US and European financiers in attendance, seemed to be hitting that goal.
'As an event, Britdoc has a lot of positivity,' says Nikki Parrott of London-based production company Tigerlily Films. 'It's great there are so many Europeans, and especially more Americans this year, who seemed to like the projects. It's not just a meet and greet, people are here to talk business.'
Britdoc, backed by the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation and founding sponsor More4, welcomed dozens of international experts, including Mark Atkin of SBS Australia, Liesl Copland of Netflix, Cara Mertes of the Sundance Fund, Yukari Hayashai of NHK Japan, and Nathalie Verdier of Arte.
As UK documentary financiers slash budgets, UK producers are more reliant on international financiers than ever. Parrott, who won this year's Pitching Forum with Paul Berczeller's Through A Glass, Darkly, says UK producers have to look beyond UK borders by necessity. 'You get such great response at the Pitching Forum, but it's quite limited about where these projects can be funded from the UK - and you notice the UK Film Council wasn't there.'
Securing international theatrical distribution for UK projects was a hot festival topic. One of the event highlights was a panel about how UK television veteran David Sington landed US deals with ThinkFilm and Discovery Films for his Sundance hit In The Shadow Of The Moon.
Sington had secured backing from Channel 4 for the project but when he started eyeing an international theatrical launch he brought on board two experts: executive producers Julie Goldman of Cactus Three and John Battsek of Passion Pictures. Both had met Sington at Britdoc in 2006.
'It's tough in the UK because (documentaries) have a notoriously hard time finding theatrical distribution,' notes Goldman of New York-based packager and producer Cactus Three. She hopes more UK distributors will attend future Britdoc events.
Brian Woods, who produced two documentaries in Britdoc's competition, Kate Blewett's Abandoned and Jezza Neumann's China's Stolen Children, says the frenzy of optimism may have diminished since the documentary boom a few years ago (and the launch of niche UK channels More4 and BBC4), but that the UK situation was still reasonably healthy.
'People in the UK moan about the BBC and Channel 4, but there are still probably more docs made in Britain than in any other country in the world,' Woods says. 'It's less vibrant than it was two to three years ago but I'm very optimistic there are audiences out there, especially as the number of factual entertainment channels grow.'
Britdoc organisers welcomed new media platforms, with festival attendees from Babelgum, Current TV, MySpace and Jaman talking to film-makers. 'It seems like new platforms are getting closer, but in terms of getting your film financed it's not any easier,' Goldman warns.
Film-maker Kim Longinotto, who won the British competition (see below), suggests good stories will always have an audience on TV and in cinemas. 'It seems as if people want to see international stories that matter, or else things that make sense to their own lives, reflected in films they watch in the cinema, as well as escapist films.'