What do young film enthusiasts need to make their visions and dream projects come true – especially when few if any structures are in place in their respective countries that could support creative people with unusual ideas? This question returned during the second edition of SOFA – School of Film Agents, a workshop initiative conceived by Nikolaj Nikitin that was again organised in Wrocław, on 15-24 August 2014. As a delegate of the Berlinale, Nikolaj Nikitin has been visiting Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia for a number of years. He says: “Even though several films from these countries are appreciated at major international festivals, the states still lack structures and institutions that would reinforce the perception of film as a form of art, as well as a key social, cultural and economic factor. That would also support film entrepreneurs in their actions.” It is these entrepreneurs or ‘film agents’ that constitute the target group for SOFA, the only European interdisciplinary and intercultural platform for young professionals of the film industry who do not fit the traditional framework of trainings (for scriptwriters, directors or producers), but are equally important for a functioning film culture.
The second edition of SOFA featured young ‘film agents’ from Central and Eastern Europe, Germany and (for the first time) Greece, whose innovative projects, centred around Audience Development and film education, can support both domestic and international film industry. The participants were: Anna Bielak (Poland), Dániel Deák (Hungary), Kestutis Drazdauskas (Lithuania), Cristian Hordila (Romania), Marija Stojanovic (Serbia), Angeliki Vergou (Greece), Jakub Viktorín (Slovakia) and Jonas Weydemann (Germany). The 10-day workshop was entirely devoted to the development of their projects. When compared with last year’s edition, the number of participants was reduced from 10 to 8, which translated into an even more active exchange, and allowed more time for individual project development.
Only 3 km away from the vibrant city centre of Wrocław there is Zamek Topacz hotel, surrounded by a vast park complex, a lake and a museum of vintage cars. SOFA participants lodged in this quiet, truly film-like scenery with plenty of time to work on the concepts and budgets of their ventures, and prepare their presentations for the representatives of the European film industry. Entrants were supported by eminent experts who (during lectures and intense one-on-one meetings) shared their knowledge and offered specific assistance with individual projects.
This year’s instructors included: Fatima Djoumer (Europa Cinemas, Paris), Dana Linssen (De Filmkrant, Amsterdam), Roberto Olla (Eurimages, Strasbourg), Miroslav Mogorovic (Art & Popcorn, Belgrade), Teija Raninen (West Finland Film Commission, Turku), Peter Rommel (Rommel Film, Berlin), Katriel Schory (Israel Film Fund, Tel Aviv), Gudrun Sommer (doxs! dokumentarfilme für kinder und jugendliche, Duisburg) and Dragoslav Zachariev (EuroVoD, Paris). From the very beginning each of them took one project under their wings, in keeping with their professional profile.
This year’s general expert was Dr Renaud Redien-Collot (Novancia Business School, Paris), who helped the participants develop a marketing strategy (customised for each project) so that they could present their ideas to potential investors in the most appealing way. Before the final presentation to a wider audience participants were offered the assistance of a pitching expert – Sibylle Kurz (Frankfurt am Main).
SOFA tutors were also present there, namely Oliver Baumgarten (Filmplus, Cologne) and Ewa Puszczynska (Opus Film, Łódź). During one-on-one meetings with them participants refined their projects stylistically and conceptually, formulating customised budgets and schedules.
The agenda was complemented by an open network of panels and screenings organised in the centre of Wrocław, in Kino Nowe Horyzonty (New Horizons Cinema), the biggest arthouse cinema in Poland. The event attracted SOFA participants and instructors, representatives of international film industry, and interested viewers.
Two debates on the state of European cinemas included prominent guests from Poland and Europe. Aleksandra Leszczyńska (Creative Europe Desk Polska), Roberto Olla (Eurimages) and Dragoslav Zachariev (EuroVoD) talked about their current projects and institutions. They also offered advice on the development, financing and distribution of the ambitious European cinema. The second panel was devoted to the practicalities of the industry, and featured Radosław Drabik (producer), Jakob Racek (Goethe-Institut Prague), Peter Rommel (EAVE) and Joanna Wendorff-Ostergaard (Polish Film Institute). Participants of SOFA had a chance to find out more about key topics, European training and subvention schemes, such as Eurimages, Creative Europe and EAVE.
The New Horizons cinema also presented open screenings, showcasing the film heritage of the SOFA participants’ native countries. Each of them had 20 minutes to present a subjective selection of key aspects of their home cinematography. Beside fragments of such classic movies as Knife in the Water by Roman Polański or Satan’s Tango by Bela Tarr the participants also presented their own short films and talked about the professional standing of filmmakers in their countries.
These presentations and discussions that followed made it clear that they viewed unstable economic and political situation, ill-developed cinema market, as well as insufficient support for arthouse movies, perceived as economically ‘risky’ ventures, as serious challenges in their countries. Such state of affairs could be attributed to many structural problems resulting from the system transformation of 1989, after which there was a distinct ‘decay’ of cinema, as well as the euro crisis of 2009: “The economic crisis is the number one enemy of cinema”, said Angeliki Vergou of Greece. More and more cinemas are closed owing to economic factors, and the distribution and screening of arthouse productions on the large screen enjoy little support. Instead the market is dominated by economically ‘reliable’ mainstream productions (both American and native) that have little to do with the complex social, cultural, and political situation of individual countries: “I think the distribution at home is one-sided, because the market is very small, so distributors tend to play safe and mostly distribute content which is very mainstream. This is why films of more quality and demanding content are not screened very much”, admitted Kestutis Drazdauskas of Lithuania.
Film education or promoting movies as a (national) form of art expressing the voice of critical society practically do not exist. As a consequence, local population, especially the young target group, shows less and less interest in independent films. Cinemas are becoming increasingly deserted. In these circumstances young, talented filmmakers find no audience and proper space for their works, and film distributors rarely have a chance to offer the wide festival audience an ambitious repertoire: “I’m from Hungary, where the situation of film agents or distributors is not in the best of conditions (…). We have good support for producing films, but to deliver the product to the right place and audience is a different thing (…). We need international examples, support and dimension to work and to find a way for our films”, explained Dániel Deák of Hungary.
This year’s edition of SOFA was also dedicated to a serious threat to creators, distributors, and cinema owners in the form of illegal downloading of movies. It was stressed that transferring these operations into a legal and effective distribution channel would be profitable: “Everybody watches films on their computers, iPads etc., and they do it illegally, so if you give them the opportunity to do it legally, it could work”, said Angeliki Vergou.
The projects developed during SOFA deal with these and similar challenges. Many concepts revolved around strengthening native film culture and market, as well as providing audiences for arthouse cinema, e.g. by means of new distribution channels: “One of the challenges of this year’s projects was connected with the VoD platform, as well as alternative means of winning over new audiences for native cinema thanks to digital channels of distribution”, said Nikolaj Nikitin.
Strengthening domestic film culture and industry, and making European arthouse movies available to cultural centres constituted a common denominator and objective of most projects developed during SOFA.
In his project Digital Database of Slovakia (DDS) Jakub Viktorín focused on the economic and cultural revival of the Slovakian film industry. Thanks to a digital database containing accessible and attractive locations in Slovakia, he intends to promote his homeland as an interesting place for filmmakers, and thus attract international film productions: “My project aims to put Slovakia more onto the map of film industry in the world and to attract foreign filmmakers to locations that are suitable for filming in our country.” As a comprehensive base, DDS will make all the key information available in order to enable the selection of a verified and suitable location in Slovakia. Moreover, this enterprise will involve local structures and communities, thus encouraging the development of the local (film) industry and establishment of new jobs.
SOFA participant from Romania, Cristian Hordila, wants his Cluj Film Fund project to revive the Romanian film industry, especially in the region of Cluj-Napoca. Most European countries offer filmmakers state subsidies, as well as regional support institutions, but Romania lacks such solutions: “We want to put together the first regional film fund in Romania (…). We have a film fund which can cover some projects, but which is not able to face the development of Romanian cinema (…). So my project will provide extra oxygen in terms of funding.” Cristian’s vision anticipates allotting EUR 200,000 a year for selected short- and full-length movies. Moreover, local infrastructure will also be utilised. Especially the production process should involve young filmmakers. Cluj would become ‘a film city’, initiating an economic and cultural recovery of the region. Somewhere along the line Cluj would become a location for international productions.
Kestutis Drazdauskas of Lithuania intends to create a network of digital cinemas using ‘FRONT – Film Republic of Networked Theatres’. He wants to give local community access to cinema as a place of art-related experiences increasing the feeling of social community: “My project intends to solve the issue of lack of cinemas in my home country, it addresses the fact that half of the population of Lithuania does not have any access to proper cinemas.” The few cinemas operating in large cities mostly rely on American mainstream productions, but Kestutis’s ambition is to introduce domestic and European arthouse movies into the big screen, and to attract viewers who will appreciate independent films. “The inspiration behind my project comes from both being a producer and not being able to show the films that I produce, and then also being a citizen who wants the audience in my country to experience high quality films.” Kestutis’s ambitious project will utilise the already present structures and create new jobs. The rural centres for culture will be digitalised, offering new work places for cinema employees, staff, etc. FRONT will therefore contribute to domestic film culture and industry in many ways: both by the economic and cultural revival of the region, and by providing domestic and European arthouse cinema with viewers.
The Audience Development for arthouse cinema also constitutes a key objective of the ‘What I See’ project of the Serbian participant, Marija Stojanovic. Cinemas in Serbia are progressively closed, and young people lose interest in independent cinema. By organising educational seminars and workshops Marija wishes to encourage children and young people to view film as a form of art, reviving it: “Cinema expands their minds, it produces a new creative and imaginative individual.” A long-term objective of her project is integrating film education with school curriculum in Serbia. By promoting film heritage among the youngest viewers Marija intends to help shape a new generation of cinema lovers, able to critically and reflectively approach visual media, hoping they will support domestic film culture through their keen interest and actions (meaning: full cinema rooms): “We want to affect the youngest generation and we will try to build an army of passionate cinema lovers.”
Angeliki Vergou’s project, ‘Octapus – Greek Films & Festivals VoD Platform’, is also centred around Audience Development. Even though in the last few years Greek arthouse movies have enjoyed a growing international acclaim, winning awards at major festivals, in Greece they are virtually unknown. This is because the euro crisis has weakened the country economically and politically. Using the VoD platform offering Greek arthouse films and festival titles Angeliki would like to find new reserves of viewers, both for Greek and international independent cinema. In the long-term she would like to stimulate interest in this type of cinema so much that it would be keenly viewed on the large screen: “The idea is to provide a VoD platform, where the audience can find Greek films and international festival titles easily, safely and cheaply from their homes.” Angeliki claims the digital network of distribution does not pose any threat to the traditional one, but rather complements it in an indispensable way, which will finally prove beneficial to all parties interested. “The VoD Platform is not a competitor to the cinema, it can complement the cinema experience (…) if we don’t collaborate altogether and see distribution from different angles, we will have no future (…) The point is to bring the films to the audience (…) and I think the VoD Platform can develop audience, educate them and entertain them.”
Anna Bielak also wishes to attract new audiences by means of her ‘AUR! Magazine’ project. An independent, printed film magazine will defy the common opinion that ‘print is dead’: “In this beautiful, but shallow era of digitalization, my innovation is a printed magazine (…). I would like to change the attitude to printed press (…), it is not dying, it has just lost its identity and is trying to compete with the wrong competitors.” Unlike online media, Anna wishes to put emphasis on high quality, critical and thought-provoking journalism, and ambitious graphic design. Her magazine should constitute a work of art, and appeal to discerning, aesthetically-aware readers. As far as content is concerned, she mostly wishes to support independent arthouse cinema and promote artists who only begin their careers and usually fail to make their name in the deluge of mainstream cinema.
Beside projects dealing with economic and cultural revival of domestic film markets, SOFA participants also developed projects targeted at the distribution of European arthouse movies on an international scale.
Through his ‘Director’s Collection’ Jonas Weydemann wishes to provide European cinemas with access to movies which are normally only available to a limited group of viewers at large film festivals. Even though ‘festival productions’ win major awards, visit numerous festivals, and enjoy wide critical acclaim, they rarely make it to the international and local market. Thanks to a b2b platform connecting producers, worldwide distributors, and people involved in cinema, and enabling uncomplicated and transparent transfer of rights to films, together with sending advertising materials and DCP (Digital Cinema Package), this situation should improve: “My project will support access to quality films and develop niche audiences with the key objective of strengthening the circulation of non-mainstream films throughout Europe.” Cinema owners will be able to choose from a wide selection of festival films they could not previously screen owing to lack of distribution. Film rights owners will gain access to an additional market.
International film festivals are the target of the Hungarian SOFA participant, Dániel Deák. Using ‘Festivalised’, a social platform, he wants to offer young European filmmakers a guidebook to the world festival universe, and thus help them select the right festival or even a distributor for their movies: “My main objective is to build an online system, which handles all the festival submissions and organises the festival life of a film on a community base – an ultimate guide for the filmmakers, which festivals to submit to their work (…) where they can be connected to distributing and sales companies.” Dániel also intends to collect information and opinions on various festivals in order to keep the creators and viewers up-to-date, but also to provide festivals with feedback.
Regardless of individual features of their projects, there is a common denominator to SOFA participants’ vision. It is a craving for creating places of belonging and critical opinion exchange, and a desire to wow people with the diversity of the film world.
Cinema, VoD platform or printed magazine: as an expression of a specific cultural identity and historical testimony film cannot sink into oblivion or be treated solely as a distraction. Many alternatives aimed at attracting and delighting audiences of all ages were discussed during SOFA. ‘Participation’ was always the key word, just like the question about what filmmakers and distributors can do to involve the audience, as well as patrons and sponsors, more.
Another hot topic of debate was the future of cinema in the age of digitalisation. As DVDs and paid television are losing their market value, the cinema industry is experiencing stagnation, interest in VoD platforms or digital distribution channels is on the rise. VoD platforms, as a new form of popularising films have been fully embraced by SOFA participants. With the reservation that they are used to spread the love for cinema to a growing number of people, and then attract them to cinemas. It was stressed that thanks to VoD platforms arthouse productions can enjoy ‘a second life’ after their – often brief – cinema presence.
The future of cinema, SOFA participants argued, is accepting various ways of distributing films: “The future of cinema is much more diversified (…). There will always be cinema theatres, but at the same time, we should give audience the opportunity to see films on a lot of different supplies”, said Jonas Weydemann. Dániel Deák also sees positive aspects of the multiplicity of distribution channels: “I think that there is a very nice future coming for the world of cinema and film culture, and it is not about competition and who will win this fight between cinemas, VoD platforms, arthouse versus commercial etc. (…). It is all about collaboration (…). VoD platforms will not change the way we watch a film in the cinema, both are strong enough to somehow strengthen each other (…). It is a good world where we can watch films in several ways.”
SOFA expert Dragoslav Zachariev (EuroVoD) accepts the key role of the latest technologies in developing new forms of cinema distribution, while maintaining the major part a proper film curation offers: “We should have young spirit, be hungry for discoveries, be very ambitious and not be afraid to go further when we build these new models by respecting the film as an audio-visual work that needs curation, that needs to be presented in a proper way to the audience.” Roberto Olla (Eurimages) emphasised the filmmakers and national institutions’ responsibility when it comes to supporting cinema as the main centre for film culture: “It is a responsibility of filmmakers, but also governments and those who make the rules, to make sure that theatres keep on existing (…) because films are made for the big screen.”
After ten intense days SOFA participants agreed their projects had gained accuracy and expressiveness, and the detailed analysis performed together with co-entrants and tutors resulted in their increased feasibility: “I have seen great progress on all of our projects, Angeliki Vergou admitted. The conversations with the tutors blew my mind many times because they broaden horizons and stress the things I was not aware of, and showed me different roads I could take”, Anna Bielak explained. Cristian Hordila is also impressed by the development of his concept: “When I came here I had the feeling that I know what I want to do (…) Then everything was falling apart (…). In the middle of the week I started to rebuild my project with the help of tutors and other participants (…) My project is now in the best possible shape. Without SOFA I would not be able to improve it so much. (…). Now I do not need luck anymore.”
Individual tuition provided by key representatives of the European film industry made it possible to get to know, and at times even acquire national and international sources of financing or cooperation partners. Mentor Fatima Djoumer (Europa Cinemas) will go to Lithuania in October this year to find financing options for the Lithuanian SOFA project – ‘FRONT’ by Kestutis Drazdauskas. “Part of the strength of SOFA is that the experts and mentors are not only here to teach, but they are also decision makers in the industry, so if a project is really interesting sometimes it may spring into action”, thrilled Kestutis Drazdauskas said. Expert Roberto Olla (Eurimages) was in turn keenly interested in the Serbian film education project, ‘WHAT I SEE’ by Marija Stojanoviv, urging her to implement it.
International exchange of experiences, both with experts and among participants, created new perspectives and transnational cooperation: “I came with one project idea and I think I will go home with three ideas (…) SOFA turned out to be a very creative hub”, Jonas Weydemann admitted. “The projects presented here are all very different, so it is a good overview of the industry as a whole (…). You can source some inspiration and use some of their ideas in your own projects”, Kestutis Drazdauskas explained. Experts and tutors seemed equally surprised by the exchange: “I’m learning a lot from the participants (…) It is a win-win situation, we as tutors share our knowledge, but we can also grow from their enthusiasm and their knowledge (…). It is a beautiful dialogue between generations and various parts of film cultures”, SOFA tutor Ewa Puszczynska said.
On the other hand, participants reinforced their aspirations to fight for film culture and industry in their countries: “I realised that there are people out there who want to support film and cinema as much as I do. (…) And I can say that we connected very well because we found in each other inspiration and support”, Angeliki Vergou confessed. “What is crucial for me is that sharing is the most important thing (…). We need each other to develop our projects better and to understand them better, to understand other people, their needs, our needs, so we are developing thanks to other people”, Anna Bielak explained. “We share the same problems and at SOFA we can share ways of solving them”, Jakub Viktorín added.
Numerous conversations on the position of film entrepreneurs in individual countries clearly indicated the importance of projects developed within the framework of SOFA and the know-how offered during workshops to the improvement of local film culture and industry, as well as European cinema as a whole: The SOFA organisers chose projects that are radical, difficult, sometimes challenging (…) SOFA is a place for people who have the courage for radical ideas that change something in the world, Anna Bielak said. We had this international exchange of opinions, passions, emotions, all of us affected each other a lot, because we have the same mission: doing something good for the national cinema of our countries, Marija Stojanovich added.
SOFA participants’ projects can result in the economic and cultural revival of the film industry in their respective countries. They will also create new structures for popularising quality films and enable new forms of cooperation in Europe: “The different ventures that will be launched after SOFA may change the industry in many regards (…). First in terms of Audience Development, but also in terms of consumer behaviour or users behaviour, but also in terms of cooperation in Europe as we need it tremendously”, one of SOFA lecturers, Dr Renaud Redien-Collot, observed.
Urgent need to reinforce and connect the European film industry and heritage is and will be the main objective of participants and SOFA as such. The previous edition, SOFA 2013, has already proven that this pan-European Think Tank for the future of cinema and Audience Development has been successful: “Many of the 1st edition projects will soon be executed or implemented very promptly. For example, thanks to SOFA support, Leana Jalukses’ ‘Doktok’ project – a distribution system for Icelandic documentaries, will see the light of day. Melinda Boros is currently running ‘Tiff Studio Workshops’ in Cluj. Sonja Topalovic has recently received support of Eurimages for her interactive online database ‘FBO – Festival Box Office’. ‘FBO’ is a project we put much faith in. It has the potential to revolutionise the international film industry and change the film world for the better – is that not a dream of each film agent?”, Nikolaj Nikitin, initiator of SOFA, emphasised enthusiastically.
‘FBO’ will be presented during the forthcoming Berlinale Festival, likewise Cristian Hordila’s ‘Cluj Film Fund’. Apart from that, SOFA participants will meet during the Berlinale to exchange information on the progress of their works. Experts, with their know-how and contacts, remain at participants’ disposal and are ready for long-term support of the implementation of projects they tutored.
As part of Wrocław’s activity as the European Capital of Culture 2016, the next edition of SOFA (21-30 August 2015) will also take place in the capital of Lower Silesia. Projects for the 3rd edition can already be submitted to email@example.com.