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Thessaloniki Takeaways: Pitching Lessons. Access. Funding Strategies. NETFLIX Wins. And Great Food!

2015 March 24
by Peter Hamilton

The 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival & Market far exceeded my expectations.

Here’s why!

Video by US director Michael Galinsky, who pitched All the Rage
about the back pain miracle worker, Dr Sarno.

1. A Lesson in Political Economy 

  • Thessaloniki is the #2 Greek city.
  • The horizon across Thermaikos Gulf is graced by snow-covered Mt Olympus, home of the ancient Gods.

Olympus2

  • Its 2,200 year history as the major port and trading center in the north Aegean forged for Thessaloniki a unique character, fusing Greek, Macedonian, Balkan and Turkish / Ottoman cultures.
  • This complex past is distilled into the delicious local cuisine.
  • I felt Greece’s never-ending economic crisis in my conversations with young Festival volunteers who were without regular paid work, year after year.
  • There were lots of unfinished construction sites.
  • However, as a trading center, Thessaloniki may have escaped the devastation felt in Athens, the center of Greek finance and administration.
  • On Sunday, riot police stood by as several thousand young people rallied against the violent, fascist politics of the Golden Dawn movement.

demo2

2. The Festival

  • Thessaloniki punches far above its weight, and is often described as Europe’s #3 film fest city.
  • Its population of around 1mn has embraced film.
  • Screenings were sold out.
  • Long lines formed daily at the ticket office.
  • The same is expected for the 56th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, taking place in November 2015.
  • Converted waterfront warehouses house cinemas, adding to the pleasing maritime vibe.

ThessaPlaza

3. Docs in Thessaloniki Pitching Forum

  • 20 projects were pitched to potential buyers at an open Forum.
  • You can read about the projects here.
  • The pitches were prepped over two days with a team of top industry professionals.
  • The panel of deciders included network buyers and distributors. Their feedback was always very expert and constructive.
  • The panelists included: Kathrin Brinkmann, ZDF/ARTE, Germany – Madeleine Avramoussis, ARTE GEIE, France – Lars Säfström, SVT, Sweden – Hanka Kastelicova, HBO Europe, Hungary – Jenny Westergård, YLE, Finland – Claudia Schreiner, MDR, Germany – Jan Rofekamp, Films Transit, Canada – Kerime Senyücel, TRT, Turkey – Mohamad Soueid, Al Arabiya News Channel, United Arab Emirates – Irene Gavala, NERIT, Greece – Gitte Hansen, First Hand Films, Switzerland –Aleksandra Biernacka, TVP2, Poland.
  • Among the pitches which attracted positive chatter about funding were:
    • Ultra, about the 36-hour extreme marathon race from Athens to Sparta.
    • The Last Russian Orca, which included shocking footage of commercial Orca netting in Kamchatka.
  • Docs in Thessaloniki 2015 was organized by EDN and the 17th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival with the support of the EU MEDIA Programme.
  • EDN is a member-based organization for professionals working with doc film and TV.
  • IDFA also supported the Forum.

4. Docs in Progress Prize

  • Docs in Progress gives directors and producers from Central Europe and the Balkan & Mediterranean regions a platform to present their films to buyers, co-producers, festival reps and sales agents at the stage just before completion.
  • The Competitors were: All the Rage; Lafcadio Hearn: His Journey to Ithaca; The Longest Run; Napolislam; Next Stop: Utopia; Women on the Border and Young Wrestlers
  • I enjoyed serving on the jury with Μadeleine Avramoussis (Arte) and Alexandros Christoyiannis (ΟTE TV-Greece).
  • The Longest Run was the winner, receiving a €15,000 in kind award from 2|35 Post Productions.
  • All these early pitches were deserving, but the jurors agreed that the keys to the success of the winner were:
    • Characters: Two young, relatable characters who were trapped in the Greek court detention system,
    • Stakes: The risk of unfair, long-term prison sentences for boys whose families we learn are being shattered by civil wars in Syria and Iraq,
    • And a very well-constructed pitch reel.

Olives

Photo: James Hamilton

5. Festival Winners

Audience

  • The Peter Wintonick Audience Award in the International Selection went to VIRUNGA by Orlando von Εinsiedel, UK, 2014.
  • VIRUNGA is ‘A NETFLIX Documentary’ EP’d by Leonardo Dicaprio.
  • Over 17,000 votes were counted.

Critics

  • The FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) International Award was won by EVERY FACE HAS A NAME by Magnus Gertten, Sweden, 2015.
  • Gertten’s film is based on a SVT film archive of the arrival in Sweden of concentration camp survivors in 1945.
  • We hope to write a Case Study about the use of the archive in this project, work that will be sponsored by ITN Source.
  • You can read the full list of awards here.

6. Takeaways

  • Thessaloniki is a great city that carries off a wonderful market and festival which nurtures producers.
  • Greece is back. The new government has reinstated ERT, the public broadcaster that the previous Conservative government shut down as an austerity measure.
  • Producers enjoy easy access to buyers that is hard to find at larger markets.
  • Classic author-driven docs are still strongly-supported by European channels, particularly public broadcasters.
  • The commissioners actively collaborate to co-fund the projects they like.
  • Several producers left Thessaloniki with signals that they could cobble together funding from German broadcasters, Arte, Scandinavian channels, European funds, Greek channels, and Eastern European networks including HBO Europe.
  • I overheard a couple of conversations in which buyers cobbled together $200K in possible contributions from smaller markets and funds.
  • Pitchers who overcame their anxiety and gave short answers to the panel’s questions were ultimately far more appealing than producers who were defensive and long-winded.
  • Funders want to work with people who are open to conversations about how to best develop a concept. “My way or the highway!” doesn’t work.
  • Thanks to EDN and IDFA and the Festival for the invitation and hospitality.
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