The TorinoFilmLab (TFL) can be hard to classify. On the one hand, it is a talent development initiative with an emphasis on art and craft; on the other, serious business is frequently done at the annual two-day meeting.
Filmmakers describe it in hallowed tones, referring to a “sacred” space, as sharp-eyed sales agents, producers and financiers attend in search of fresh projects to add to their market slates.
What is not hard to assess is TFL’s success. Filmmakers to have participated in the past few years have gone on to win the Golden Bear (Carla Simón), the Heart of Sarajevo (Ena Sendijarević) and the Palme d’Or (Julia Ducournau), to name but three.
“We are a non-profit organisation. Our mission is supporting emerging filmmakers from all over the world,” says Mercedes Fernandez Alonso, managing director of TFL, who has been with the event since it started in 2008.
Back then, TFL was created with just two programmes, script and feature labs, and two staff members. Flash forward to 2023’s meeting, held last month in Turin – 250 professionals from 41 countries were in town for TFL’s pitching sessions involving 20 features in the writing phase in the ScriptLab and 10 projects at a more advanced stage in the FeatureLab. Over 600 one-to-one meetings took place.
TFL costs an estimated €2.5m a year to stage. Creative Europe is one of its major funders, with additional backing from MiC Ministero della Cultura, Regione Piemonte and Città di Torino.
Projects come from all over the world and are carefully vetted. The 2024 ScriptLab call, which just closed, has received 650 applications; 20 will be chosen. The FeatureLab receives close to 200 applications of which 10 are chosen.
“They know they will find quality,” suggests Olimpia Pont Cháfer, TFL’s head of industry, of what draws industry attendees.
“We are always looking for newcomers,” says Thomas Unterberger, acquisitions executive at French indie powerhouse Le Pacte, of his reasons for attending. The company works regularly with filmmakers including Justine Triet, Nanni Moretti and Ken Loach. He describes TFL as ”one of the best labs we have in Europe”.
The event doesn’t ask much, if anything, in return from its participants. It isn’t there to provide a pipeline of new films for the Turin Film Festival, with which it overlaps. (It is run by the same parent organisation, the National Museum Of Cinema.) Producers are not asked to give up rights and participation fees are deliberately kept low. However, the event offers four production awards, worth €40,000 or €50,000 with no strings attached – considerable amounts in the straitened world of indie arthouse filmmaking.
The participants themselves talk about TFL with the fervour of cult members. Filmmakers are put together in small groups and this collective approach encourages filmmakers to forge strong bonds.
“We call our small group a ‘sacred room’,” says Makbul Mubarak. The Indonesian writer-director is on the awards trail with his debut feature, Autobiography, recently chosen as Indonesia’s contender for the intenational feature Oscar and developed within TFL FeatureLab 2017. He returned to Turin last month with his new ScriptLab project, Watch It Burn, about the fateful consequences after a stranger asks for help but is turned down.
Mubarak’s enthusiasm for the Lab is matched by that of Polish writer-director Jakub Piątek, whose doc Pianoforte is also an Oscar contender for feature documentary. He participated in this year’s ScriptLab with the comedy drama Detour, scripted by Marta Bacewicz. The film, about a politician on the campaign trail with his Alzheimer’s- affected mother in tow, won’t shoot until 2025 (the director’s next assignment is a Netflix series) but has already passed through TFL Extended, the programme for projects at early development stage.
“We applied with just an idea, a one-pager,” Bacewicz says.
Films selected for TFL tend to get a thorough analysis. “It’s like they put you in a washing machine,” says Spanish director Irene Moray of the exhaustive development process involving residential modules, online sessions, tutorials, audience design modules and pitching presentations.
Moray attended the FeatureLab this year, pitching her debut Sealskin, a surrealistic drama set in a world where women are vanishing. The €2.5m drama is being produced by Marta Cruañas through Vilaüt Films, the Barcelona- based outfit behind Alcarràs. Sealskin was in ScriptLab 2022 winning the Eurimages Co-production Development Award of €20,000, a strong kickstart.
Moray arrived in Turin for the meeting event having just finished a sixth draft of the script. Production financing is now beginning in earnest.
“ScriptLab is for films that are not yet ready, in early stage of development,” she says. “What they value is the possibilities of the project. It is not like the script is ready. For FeatureLab, they look for scripts that are more mature but still you have the opportunity to deepen the characters.”
A White House, the debut feature of Italian director Francesco Romano, was in FeatureLab this year. Romano and his producer Raffaella Pontarelli of Amarena Films have already participated in two earlier TFL programmes: Up & Coming Italia 2021 and Alpi Film Lab 2022, designed to bring Italian and French partners together and through which they found French producer, Bacalupo Films.
Pontarelli says the Naples-set project, about a humble woman thrown together with a Camorra boss, is edging closer toward production with Lab support. “[TFL] helps a lot with the creative side, working on the script, but also on the industry side.”
Belgian filmmaker Domien Huyghe was at ScriptLab this year with his second feature Amari, about a father trying to reconnect with his activist daughter amid the 1990s animal-rights movement. It is scripted by his sister, Wendy Huyghe, with whom he also collaborated on his debut feature, Sea Sparkle, which opened the Generation section at the 2023 Berlinale.
Amari was first selected for the TorinoFilmLab Extended workshop 2022 and has evolved considerably since then.
“We had a treatment [when we went into the Lab] but you have to be open and ready to rethink your idea,” Wendy Huyghe notes. Her brother Damien talks of using the Labs to “bring the project to life” and “really find the core of the story”.
While the writers and directors focus on artistic development, industry attendees have different motives for attending TFL. Marcin Łuczaj, head of acquisitions at New Europe Film Sales, was first at TFL in 2018 as a story editor trainee. He has subsequently returned as a juror and as a script reader. This year, he is sales tutor at the Boost.It Lab, a new initiative showcasing both Italian projects and international titles looking for Italian support.
“For me, it is always the matter of discovery, the hope there will be one or two gems here that I will fall in love with, one of these new talents that we could launch,” says Luczaj. “[TFL] knows its niche. They are not trying to make market films, bigger films. We know what we are coming for, foreign-language arthouse pieces from Asia and Latin America.”
Titles New Europe has picked up from TFL include A Piece Of Sky, the Swiss romantic drama from Michael Koch which premiered in competition at the 2022 Berlinale, and 2016 Swiss drama Aloys, from director Tobias Nölle, which won a Firpresci prize in Berlin having passed through TFL.
Łuczaj says attending TFL gives him very early access to talent and projects – it’s a way of getting ahead of competitors. As a tutor, though, he is always ready to help projects find sales agent support with other companies.
Some sales agents come to TFL as much for research and networking as for cutting deals. “It is more a scouting field for me. The projects are still in development stages so you don’t know what will happen with them,” says Daniela Cölle, CEO and acquisitions head at Berlin-based Pluto Film.
Jose Manuel Arias, industry co-ordinator at San Sebastián festival, was at TFL this year meeting talents and looking for projects that might fit one of the festival’s coproduction forums or works-in-progress sections. “Here, in Torino, you can find projects from China, Indonesia, from Myanmar. But you can [also] find projects from Australia and Europe,” he says of the breadth of the selection.
TFL organisers talk of an urge to innovate and respond to changing market trends. Next year sees the first ComedyLab 2024, which aims to bring comedians and scriptwriters together on film projects. It is a bold move considering the perceived wisdom is that humour doesn’t travel. Will what makes audiences laugh in Spain leave them stony-faced in Germany?
“This is the question and that’s what we want to explore,” counters Pont Cháfer, with a grin.