DocPoint festival celebrates Finnish documentaries in New York

Notes on the DocPoint Encounters in NYC at Scandinavia House in New York City, June 9, 2011.

By , The Film Panel Notetaker

As part of its 10th anniversary, the Helsinki-based DocPoint festival celebrates Finnish documentaries with DocPoint NYC – a program of 47 films hosted by its New York partners: The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Scandinavia House, 92YTribeca, UnionDocs and the Tribeca Film Institute. DocPoint is the largest documentary festival in the Nordic region. Finnish documentaries are enjoying an international boom, picking up awards, sales agents and distribution deals.

With that in mind, content consultant Kelly Devine, currently in her fourth year with the Tribeca Film Institute’s web-based initiative TFI Reframe Collection, moderated an informative panel discussion that included key industry professionals discussing options and resources that the Finnish filmmakers present at the festival could use for connecting with audiences ranging from signing with traditional distributors to acting as their own distributor or doing a bit of both.

The esteemed panelists included:

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Jason Leaf, Manager of Theatrical Distribution of Kino Lorber Films:

Kino releases approximately 20 films theatrically per year. They have three video labels: Documentaries, Fiction and Alive/Mind (spiritual). They also release films in non-theatrical markets such as educational.

Jonathan Marlow, Co-Founder and VP of Content Development & Acquisitions of Fandor.com:

He started as an exhibitor, eventually landed at Amazon.com, to help develop their film and video business, and he later ran GreenCine. Currently, California Newsreel is a partner of Fandor and is showing Shadow of the Holy Book, which DocPoint programmer Arto Halonen directed.

Sylvia Savadjian, film publicist and curator at New York’s Maysles Cinema:

Curates films at Maysles Cinema. Works in publicity and marketing on mainly films that already have distribution, and also films at festivals. Previously worked at Icarus Films, a documentary distributor.

* Technical Note: Due to audio issues and a loud broken air conditioner in the room where the panel took place, I was unable to pick up much of the discussion on my recorder, so below are highlights of the various topics raised. And what adevine job Ms. Devine did keeping the conversation rolling with humor and humility amongst the heat and humidity

How the landscape of distribution has changed – New opportunities – Fluidity between distributors, platforms, and aggregators – Social media promotion.

Leaf – The key is educational sales and ancillary markets. Kino casts as wide a net as it can starting with theatrical. Even if people don’t go to theater to see the film, they remember it from the advertisements. The other markets include educational, video sales. Kino is also using Fandor as a platform. While some of their films go to programs on PBS such as POV, they usually bypass television. Online platforms are taking over the gap.

Marlow – TV is a great vehicle for certain films, for others, it’s a distraction. Fandor fits in and maximizes the visibility of a film. Capitalize on reviews that come out in New York Times.

Savadjian – There are a lot of films that don’t have traditional distribution. Other opportunities outside of relying on New York Times. Also relying on grassroots marketing and the social media component. Facebook, Twitter are essential to get audience excited before reviews come out. Important to hit that audience as well. Look outside the box.

Question from Jim Dingeman (WBAI Radio) – How important is social media and Facebook? Any statistics?

Leaf – It’s impossible to measure. Kino has a few different Facebook pages, and they cross-promote them. Can tell if there’s interest. Use it as a gauge.

Marlow – Can’t say for certain. Initially rolled out the Fandor service through Facebook, instead of inventing their own social media mechanism. That resonated with their key investor, and producer Ted Hope. That component is integral to the success of the film. Netflix is a great vehicle if you know what you want to see, but not if you don’t know what you want to see. Facebook allows people to discover what other people like to do. Fandor has a partnership with Roger Ebert. He’s a trusted voice.

Savadjian – Try to track page views. What day of the week is best? Through Facebook, have been able to sell out a screening.

Small towns with no arthouse cinemas are creating, community, non-theatrical screening venues in multi-purpose rooms in such places as a church or a playhouse. Screening fees are paid. If filmmakers can’t make it there for Q&As, new technologies such as Skype can make this possible.

Leaf – Gets phone calls almost every day from different organizations to screen their films.

10-20 years ago, there were fewer outlets, but a bigger payoff. Now you need to book a film in many more places to see a fair amount of revenue. How does this present a challenge to publicizing the films?

Leaf – More work now. Not playing the same 20 markets anymore. An assortment of 250 venues.

Savadjian – Materials primarily for NY release, then move onto regional. Work in tandem with Los Angeles publicist, and someone nationally.

Audience Comment (Wendy Lidel from International Film Circuit) – Her company works with filmmakers for them to have their own theatrical release. Used to acquire & release. So much more labor intensive to reach an audience without a lot of money. It’s all niche, narrow. Filmmakers work so much harder than anyone on her staff. Powerful partnership. With the Internet, can be done from Finland or wherever you are. Finnish documentaries and other Scandinavian docs are being branded. It’s a good moment to come in and be aggressive.

Audience Comment (Joonas Berghäll, director of Steam of Life) – Film Transit is distributor of Steam of Life.

Audience Question: Viability of shorts?

Devine- Reframe wants to be a home for shorts that are underrepresented. They actually do quite well in educational settings. Amazon is completely open to shorts.

Marlow- Fandor is subscription service as opposed to a company like Atom Films, which is a free service. It’s very difficult to sell short films. Subscription is an ideal model to distribute short films. Can pay the filmmaker and know that people actually watched the films. Integrated with mobile devices.

When should filmmakers start thinking about publicizing their films and put a plan in place to bring attention to distributors?

Savadjian – When they’re making the film, always think of audience in mind. Better to have strategy early on before submitting to festivals and talking to distributors. Social media outreach is its own job. Decide how you will distribute your resources. Will that take away time from pitching to other sources?

Devine – Build those relationships. As fellow filmmaker, you should consider one another as your greatest resource. Reach out to other filmmakers. You’re all colleagues.

* For a document detailing more specifically resources for Documentary Distribution created by Kelly Devine, please click here.

Brian Geldin blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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