Film producer Steven Markovitz on the challenges of co-production, finding the right partners and maintaining independence.

Why do we co-produce? A key reason is obviously to access funds one can’t get in one’s own territory. It also gives us access to talent, expertise, markets and market intelligence. But finding the right partner can be tricky. We meet producers at festivals, they seem charming, have similar tastes, they may have made films that you admire etc. However, many people have these ‘festival personalities’ and you only discover the true character of someone once you start working with them and they could turn out to be monsters.

Co-producers are partners for life on a film. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of properly researching their reputations and work ethic. Speak to people they have worked with before, check in with their funding bodies and gather as much information as possible. Co-productions can often be an arranged or shotgun marriage, so be very careful before diving in. 

We know there are many kinds of funds for documentaries besides broadcasters: tax shelter, regional funds, national funds, private equity, grants, gap, cultural funds, donor funds, equipment as equity, pre-sales, MGs, production rebates etc. These are all possible for documentaries and information is widely available on the different options but it can get complicated when working with small crews, arranging the balance in spend and nationality against the artistic vision.

You have to way up the question: is it worth it? What are the costs of co-producing? Always be aware that the timeframes will be much longer. You only co-produce because you have to, out of absolute necessity, if you are sure you cannot produce the film on your own.

In today’s climate, we have to innovate to survive. We have to find new channels of funding from non-traditional sources.

Over the years, some of the films we produced have been supported from some unexpected sources such as a Nigerian bank, a Congolese beer company, the Dutch Lottery, a film festival, a coal baron, an oil baron, a wine baron, an association of polio survivors, a sleep doctor, a group of 800 individuals before online crowdfunding started, filmmakers’ family members and an heiress of a diamond empire.

These supporters work with us because the idea for the film is clear, they know we are independent and that is a strength. It also often allows us to hold onto equity in the film and develop the film further before taking it to market.

There is a potential funder for every film you make. Somewhere in the world, someone, who has money, has a direct or indirect interest in supporting your film. It is your job to find them and convince them. They are out there, you just have to get to them. The key for me is understanding what motivates people and organisations to support your film. You have to get to the bottom of that question and build an argument from there. It may be personal belief or interest, ego, guilt, moral outrage, internal policy. The danger is that if we start refocusing our ideas to fit other people’s interest, we will lose our independence  which is what makes us attractive in the first place.

Steven Markovitz has been producing fiction and documentaries for 20 years. His fiction films include Viva Riva! (Toronto, Berlinale), Proteus (Toronto, Berlinale), African Metropolis (Toronto, Rotterdam, Locarno) and Love the One You Love (Best South African Film, Durban 2014). His shorts have screened at Cannes, Sundance, Berlinale and an Oscar nomination. He has two films in TIFF14: Beats of the Antonov and Stories of Our Lives. He has produced many documentaries including Congo in Four Acts (Berlinale, Hotdocs, IDFA) and Project 10 (Sundance, Berlinale, Hotdocs, Tribeca). Steven is currently producing in Nigeria, Libya, Liberia, Kenya, DRC, Ghana, Japan and USA.