What do young film enthusiasts need to make their visions and dream projects a reality – especially when few if any structures are in place in their respective countries that could support creative people with unusual ideas? This was the main question of SOFA – School of Film Agents, a new workshop initiative that took place for the first time from the 19th – 30th August in Wroclaw, Poland. Nikolaj Nikitin who, as a delegate of the Berlinale, has been travelling through Middle and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia for several years brought the initiative into being. “Although several films from these countries established themselves successfully at major international festivals, there is still a lack of structures that could strengthen the sustainable perception of film as an art form and relevant socio-cultural and economic factor and support the film agents such as festival organizers, distributors and cinema operators which are needed for this process”, says Nikitin. SOFA addresses these “film agents” and thus provides a unique interdisciplinary and intercultural European platform for young professionals from the film industry who do not fit into the usual training programs for filmmakers (screenwriters, directors and producers), but are just as important for a functioning film culture.
For the first edition of SOFA, the initiators looked for young film agents from Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Germany whose innovative project ideas have the potential to strengthen the culture and cinema industry in their home countries sustainably. For participants Melinda Boros (distributor, Cluj-Napoca), Gabor Böszörmenyi (distributor, Budapest), Ketie Danelia (Executive Manager of Ablabuda Film LLC, Tbilisi), Leana Jalukse (dramaturg and project manager, Tallinn), Ivan Kozlenko (director of the film archive at National Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre, Kiev), Eva Krizkova and Eva Pavlovicova (founders of the film magazine KINECKO as well as the FILMTOPIA distribution company, Bratislava), Jan Naszewski (CEO of New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw), Johannes Rexin (producer at HEIMATFILM, Cologne), Mira Staleva (vice director at Sofia International Filmfestial, Sofia) and Sonja Topalovic (festival and marketing director at SOULFOOD, Belgrade) the two-week intensive workshop was all about working on their dream projects.
Three miles from the bustling city centre of Wroclaw is Hotel Zamek Topacz, embedded in a large park with a lake, seminar rooms and a classic car museum. Placed in this peaceful and at the same time almost cinematographic environment, SOFA participants had ten days to substantiate their submitted concepts and budgets as well as to prepare the final presentation of their project in front of important industry representatives.
High-profile lecturers from the European film industry lent the participants their support. They passed on their professional knowledge in lectures just as in personal interviews and provided assistance on the individual projects. Among the lecturers were Claudia Dillmann (German Film Institute), Fatima Djoumer (Europa Cinemas), Marion Döring (European Film Academy), Roman Gutek (Gutek Film), Marta Materska-Samek (Cinema Development Foundation), Karel Och (artistic director Karlovy Vary International Film Festival), Thorsten Ritter (Beta Cinema), Renate Rose (European Film Promotion), Katriel Schory (Israel Film Fund) and Gudrun Sommer (doxs! documentaries for children and youth). Each of them had taken a mentorship for one of the projects submitted in advance according their professional orientation. Thereby a close exchange between participants and lecturers was ensured and, of course, important contacts were established.
As another expert Dr. Renaud Redien-Collot (Novancia Business School) was invited to help the participants develop an individually tailored marketing strategy for each project in order to present their business idea to potential investors in the best way possible. For the big show in front of the industry and the public, pitching expert Sibylle Kurz also stood by them.
In addition to that, tutors Oliver Baumgarten (Filmplus) and Ewa Puszczynska (Opus Film) were on site during the whole workshop, providing individual feedback to advance the concept papers stylistically and conceptually. They also helped mapping out a budget and a realistic schedule adequate to the projects.
Aside from lectures and expert feedback, participants also worked together in small groups in order to exchange their professional experiences and give advice for the respective projects.
Complimentary to the concentrated working atmosphere in the secluded Hotel Zamek Topacz, Poland’s largest art-house cinema New Horizons, in the midst of Wroclaw, was a fitting location for public panels and screenings. There, SOFA participants and lecturers as well as Polish industry representatives and interested audiences were brought together.
The four panels were occupied by Polish and international industry giants: Marion Döring (European Film Academy), Renate Rose (European Film Promotion) and Katriel Schory (Israel Film Fund) discussed the state of European cinema and the importance of audience development for art-house films from Europe. Sibylle Kurz (pitching expert) and Ewa Puszczynska (Opus Film) gave insights into the art of presenting and financing film projects. Tomasz Dabrowski (Poland Film Commission), Radek Drabik (New Horizons Association), Jakub Duszynski (Gutek film), Malgorzata Szumowska (director of “The Better Life” and “In the Name of …” amongst others) and Joanna Wendorff-Ostergaard (MEDIA Desk Poland) spoke on the state of Polish cinema. A fourth panel featured Susanne Ding (MEDIA Programme), Sibylle Kurz (EAVE), Marketa Hodouskova (Film New Europe) and Miroslav Mogorovic (European Film Festival Palic) who introduced their respective institutions and programmes. After the Council and Parliament had come to an agreement, principles of the new Creative Europe/MEDIA Programme, which will replace the current programmes MEDIA, MEDIA Mundus and Culture from 2014 onwards, were presented for the first time. This new programme will form one of the most important European support programmes for the SOFA participants and their projects.
Four evenings long the screenings were devoted to the national film cultures of the participating countries. Each SOFA participant introduced the cornerstones of their country’s film history in a very personal way in 30 entertaining minutes – supported by film clips and short films. In addition to excerpts from well-known films like “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” by Cristian Mungiu or classics such as “Man with a Movie Camera” by Dziga Vertov, the audience got to admire some world premieres by young filmmakers that had not yet been shown on the large screen.
In lively discussions about the respective political and socio-cultural situation it became clear that in many countries the unstable political situation, the underdeveloped cinema market and the lack of support for independent workers in the cultural sector present the biggest challenges.
Many of the structural problems are ascribed to the system change of 1989 which was followed by a downright dying of the cinema: While Romania, for example, once possessed over 400 screens only one tenth of them are left today. In Georgia the number of cinemas also dropped from 120 down to three – with not a single art-house cinema among them. The support for distribution and projection of art-house films on the big screen is correspondingly weak. In contrast, American films and national mainstream productions, revealing little about the complex political and socio-cultural situation of each country, dominate the marketplace. Film is not introduced and promoted as an art form and there is hardly any targeted advertising for film as the voice of a critical society. As a consequence, the local population is less and less interested in art-house films and cinemas remain empty. There is no platform for young talented filmmakers and their artistic works under these circumstances. Just as film agents lack a chance to bring sophisticated art-house films on the big screen beyond the film festivals.
This is the starting point for the projects which matured at SOFA: The main concern of many projects is the alternative distribution of European art-house films on the big screen and audience development for these very films, particularly with regard to younger audiences – the audiences of tomorrow.
A cinema is closed down. The owner lacks the money needed to convert from film roll to hard disk and so he and a few loyal moviegoers can only arrange for a solemn funeral of a place that stands for so many things: unforgettable film experiences, first kisses, escape from everyday life and ultimately a home for like-minded people.
The Slovak documentary “Cinema World” by Marek Janicik, which was brought in by the SOFA participants Eva Krizkova and Eva Pavlovicova, encapsulates what the participants want to fight for with their projects: Cinema as a place of artistic experience and social community must not be lost. As different as individual projects might turn out to be, they all have this in common: They want to create places where movies can be watched on the big screen and they want to create an audience that gets involved with films beyond mainstream.
The Georgian participant Ketie Daniela and her project “Unique screen” pursue the goal of establishing the first art-house cinema in Georgia and thus creating access to high quality artistic films – as a contrast to the mainstream films that are shown in the three remaining Georgian cinemas: “My key objective is to strengthen circulation of non-mainstream films in Georgia and raise awareness of European and international films.”
Gabor Böszörmenyi from Hungary again would like to increase the number of screenings and, consequently, enhance the social significance of art-house films by building up a website through which the audience can select the art-house films, that they want to see in the cinema, themselves: “Interaktive Cinema”. He sees the involvement of the audience as an opportunity to re-establish cinema as a social event: “We need interaction. Going to an art-house cinema should be appealing to young people, too. Thereby they can share a social experience watching the films that they might lack now.” The project is designed to work internationally, so that for example Hungarian films could be programmed in Poland and cultural exchange between the countries would be supported.
Creating places for shared film experiences is also in the aim of German participant Johannes Rexin’s project. He has chosen a very special region for this: Along the German-Polish border he wants to organize a moving film festival that culturally revives the smaller towns on both sides and brings German and Polish audiences closer together: “The trend of cultural desertion and small-town cinemas closing can be observed accompanying the move of younger people to towns and cities. In this context, we detect a need for a cultural initiative giving space to cultural expressions, connecting people from both sides of the formerly divisive border into one audience.”
The project of the Slovak participants Eva Krizkova and Eva Pavlovicova is about the audience development especially with regard to the younger generation. Their idea is to excite pupils for art-house films from around the world by involving them in the organization of an international film festival with a focus on auteur cinema: “The main goal of this activity is to get young people involved in auteur cinema, sharpen their critical minds and express their own opinions. We need young people with open and awaken minds towards the art-house cinema as without them film as an artistic form won’t survive.”
Melinda Boros from Romania also aimed her project “TIFF Studio Workshops” on audience development: She wants to increase film literacy of children and adolescents as well as adults in Cluj-Napoca with theoretical and practical film workshops under the umbrella of a cultural centre. Thereby she hopes to encourage people to engage with European art-house films as well as to encourage them to develop their own forms of artistic expression: “I hope that TIFF Studio Workshop will offer possibilities of discovering and developing new talents among those participants who see new, exciting challenges in the world of film and find them worthy of undertaking.”
Aside from the goal of audience development some of the concepts elaborated at SOFA provide completely new tools and structures that have the potential to change both national as well as international cinema markets.
Thus “FBO – Festival Box Office”, the project by Sonja Topalovic from Serbia, presents an interactive online database that collects information on the use, the visitor count and ticket sale of art-house films at festivals worldwide. As an innovative business tool FBO can measure worldwide success of art-house films at festivals and help key players in the film industry in understanding the tastes of the audience: “Making this data available means making a kind of information accessible that is relevant for the entire film industry.”
Leana Jalukse from Estonia, in turn, works on a distribution system for Estonian documentaries. The majority of which have so far only been shown in non-public screenings and then been moved directly into television. Her goal is to list all Estonian documentaries created since 2007, to resolve the rights situation and to get in touch with potential venues to show the documentaries on the big screen and in presence of the filmmakers.
Jan Naszewski from Poland also wants to close a gap in his domestic film industry. His focus is on the promotion of short films by established filmmakers, for which there is no support to date. “In Poland there is no financing for these films outside film schools, so more experienced filmmakers can’t make such films. Instead, in between shooting feature films, they work on commercials and sitcoms, which devalues their skills.” Three fictional short films are supposed to be produced in the “Film Incubator”, a platform for sophisticated short films. Those films then circulate at big festivals and strengthen the presence of filmmakers on the international cinema market.
Films as access to one’s own culture and as a means to represent this culture externally is another important aspect of many projects featured at SOFA.
This is particularly true for the project by Ivan Kozlenko from Ukraine. With the “Ukrainian Film Museum”, he plans a location where through illustrating the Ukrainian film history and its connection to European film history the long heavily oppressed Ukrainian language and culture with its close ties to European culture can be experienced in a new way and strengthened further. “My project is not only about a museum. The most important part of it is about finding a new Ukrainian identity, to renew our own view on ourselves with the help of our national film history.”
Similarly, Mira Staleva’s project “Bulgarian Film Promotion” aims at strengthening the national and international perception of Bulgarian culture by the promotion of Bulgarian films at international festivals and film markets. “It is about promoting the image of the country, the identity of the people. Businesswise it is about the circulation of Bulgarian films at festivals and cinemas.”
Although many projects are concerned with the strengthening of the respective national cinema culture and industry and the promotion of one’s own cultural identity – the professional and intercultural exchange of experiences in Wroclaw has given impetus for cross-border cooperation, particularly German-Polish cooperation and cooperation between the Viségrad countries and their eastern neighbours.
In line with this, Johannes Rexin was able to win over first prospects, potential partners and sponsors to his German-Polish film festival “TransOdra”: “One of the greatest advantages for my project was to cross the border myself to meet people and identify possible cooperation-partners. I have found some initial interest and I’m very curious and very interested about how it will develop from here.”
Moreover, Gabor Böszörmenyi’s project “Interaktive Cinema” found other allies among the SOFA participants: Thus Eva Krizkova and Eva Pavlovicova from the Viségrad group want to borrow the concept for their countries and put it into practice together with Gabor Böszörmenyi. Another cooperation is planned with Johannes Rexin, who is already working on a Cinema-on-Demand-project in Germany.
Eva Krizkova and Eva Pavlovicova will also return to Wroclaw to meet the organizers of the New Horizons educational programme and get to know their activities in film education for children and young people. In addition, they plan an editing workshop within the Wroclaw International Film Festival T-Mobile’s New Horizons in which children can participate.
Meanwhile, Mira Staleva plans a Bulgarian film week in Georgia, which she wants to implement together with Ketie Danelia, after she has completed her “Unique Screen”.
Last but not least, by staying in Wroclaw the SOFA participants have gained insight into the local culture scene and established important contacts with representatives of the local cultural institutions. Moreover, the SOFA participants and instructors gave a fresh impetus to new ideas and insights to the neighbouring states of Georgia and Ukraine and extended European film culture and industry by using the panels, screenings and public presentation of the projects. Looking at it from another side, the events created added value for Polish industry representatives and interested audiences. The exchange between the Polish cultural scene and the SOFA participants proceeded correspondingly highly profitable for both sides.
After completion of the first edition of SOFA it can be ascertained in summary that the submitted projects were tided up in terms of content and clarification within the two weeks. Thanks to the detailed competitive analysis, they were positioned within their respective national cinema markets. Furthermore, budgets and project timings were concretised and national as well as international funding and cooperation partners identified and in some cases already acquired. “All the time we spent here is focused on our project. We only spoke about the project and it already changed a lot. The feedback has structured it a lot. It’s the best way to develop this kind of project”, say Eva Krizkova and Eva Pavlovicova. Gabor Böszörmenyi also emphasises the productiveness of the workshop for his project development: “The workshop was beyond my expectations as I met several people who didn’t just had remarks on the project, but really helped to rethink it and to put it to a completely new perspective.”
The professional and intercultural exchange both with the instructors and between the participants was perceived as a great benefit by all parties – not only in terms of concrete project development and possible cross-border cooperation, but also because the reflection on the structures in the respective countries was intensified in comparison to different experiences. “The most important intake is the feedback – sharing experiences gives many other perspectives and when you see how some things are implemented in another country it can be a very good model to use for your own country“, tells Mira Staleva. “We have a lack of knowledge and a lack of educational people – they are all abroad. It is important to have contact with people from other countries to understand that we have to change something in our country”, adds Ivan Kozlenko.
The exchange and encouragement was able to fortify the participants in their efforts to fight for better structures in their own countries: “SOFA is an opportunity to change the world – to change my own world. It is a great opportunity to change some things that I thought would be impossible to change”, relates Ivan Kozlenko.
The sustainable networking with key players in the European film industry through personal supervision is perceived as another great feature by the SOFA participants: “When you are a beginner in this field, you have to search for these people at the festivals and they have so little time, of course. But here in this wonderful place alienated from the world, where we are friends already with them”, says Ketie Danelia for instance. Further meetings with mentors are already being planned. Amongst others Ivan Kozlenko will visit Claudia Dillmann in Frankfurt to gather practical experience for his project at the German Film Museum.
In many discussions on the situation of film agents in the participating countries, it became clear how necessary the projects devised at SOFA as well as the mediated know-how are in improving the local film culture and industry and thereby ultimately the entire European cinema: The projects will create new structures for the distribution and exchange of artistically valuable films and, consequently, will create new jobs in their respective countries. “In all these countries that don’t have such a tradition it is really important to develop structures and strategies, so this is what SOFA is about and that is why I appreciate it,” says Mira Staleva. The expertise provided at SOFA will also enable participants to apply their knowledge and their contacts in their home countries and to use them profitably. “My motivation is to bring a new quality of work and of cultural project management to Ukraine – we are at a starting point in that case so all the information I obtained here can be very useful for our work in Ukraine”, is Ivan Kozlenko’s view on the topic. In the long run, the whole European cinema culture and industry will benefit from the new structures as new contacts are created and the overall cooperation between the countries is improving.
Connecting all these aspects, SOFA eventually established itself not only as a workshop initiative for individual projects, but also as a think-tank for issues that are generally relevant to the current situation of European cinema. “I think that the idea of SOFA is a very relevant one, it comes at the right time, because we have a hell lot of films out on the market, but we don’t have enough audience for these films. I believe that training so called film agents – people who can really bring films to people and people to films – is tremendously important”, declares Katriel Schory (Israel Film Fund). To convert these issues into concrete projects and to strengthen the European film culture sustainably remains the ultimate goal of the SOFA initiative and its committed participants.
The projects of this year’s edition will be followed up in the months to come, meaning that the lecturers and tutors will be available to the participants with their know-how as well as their contacts and thereby work sustainably at the realisation of the projects. Furthermore, a follow-up meeting at the Berlinale 2014 is planned, where participants can exchange information about the current status of their projects. We expect the execution of the projects within the next 1-2 years.
The programme of this year’s edition was perceived as very rewarding and productive for their project development by SOFA‘s participants – on some days, however it was perceived a little tight. Accordingly, we consider slimming down the schedule of the next edition. Among other things, we plan to reduce the number of participants and consequently the number of teachers and lectures from ten to eight.
In addition, the possibility of a “Creative Internship” in prestigious institutions of other countries is planned from 2015 onwards so that the SOFA participants can collect hands-on experience in addition to the theoretical knowledge provided at SOFA.
Within the scope of the activities of Wroclaw as the European Capital of Culture 2016, SOFA will be held again in the Lower Silesian capital next year. Projects for the second edition can be submitted from now on.