BIG vs SMALL: Production & festival strategy for a giant wave surfer doc. Indie Case Study from Finland

BIG vs SMALL tells the inspirational story of Joana Andrade, the first Portuguese woman to surf the giant, bone-crushing waves of Nazaré.

Finnish director and producer Minna Dufton’s debut feature documentary was released in late 2020, and so far has enjoyed premieres at nine top global festivals including DOC NYC and PÖFF.

BIG vs SMALL hit a chord with its audience. I’m pleased to share the producer’s production and COVID distribution strategy in this Case Study.

Trailer

Concept

  • “In 2018, I got interested in the stories of women surfing big waves and fighting for equality, but I soon discovered that there was an even bigger story happening.”
  • “I thought I was going to profile a key surfer but in the process of my first interviews with Joana, when she was going over her safety equipment, she admitted that she had a great fear of drowning. This is very common with surfers.”
  • “Her fear inspired a course correction in my proposed story because I knew of Johanna Nordblad, a champion Finnish free diver who has held her breath under water for more than six and a half minutes!”
  • “I was confident that Johanna could help Joana deal with her fears, and that I could capture their inspiring work together in the frozen lake waters of Finland, far from Nazaré.”
  • “I also knew that I could work closely together with Joana on telling the story of her recovery from drug abuse through surfing.”

 Johanna Nordblad and Joana Andrade

Development Process

  • “I continued to work towards making the film happen even though I was repeatedly rejected for film funding in Finland. I realized that if I waited, I’d never make the film.”
  • “So I went to Sunny Side of the Doc and MIPTV and talked to everybody, gradually picking up support, and I never stopped.”

Momentum

At Sunny Side 2019, Minna Dufton assessed the film’s chances of finding global distribution, meeting the film’s eventual sales agent there.

Sunny Side recognized and promoted the originality of the pitch.

Other key moments include:

  • The support the film received throughout production by the Finnish Embassy in Lisbon.
  • Meeting Australian surf cinematographer Tim Bonython on a recce in Nazaré.
  • The work-in-progress test screening organized by the city of Heinola.
    • “Testing the film on a test audience and completing a distributor assessment early on really helped me with my choices as a director and producer.”

Post-production

  • James Post, Helsinki, Finland
  • Post production manager: Petteri Linnus
  • Film editors:
    • Maarit Nissilä (76 minute version)
    • Iikka Hesse (52 minute version)

Budget

  • 250,000€
  • Minna Dufton’s Raggari Films is the first Finnish documentary production company to receive globalization funding from Business Finland.

Website

Film Festival Strategy

Three criteria:

  • “Are the laurels of the festival so big that just by having their laurels on our film poster we’d have the advantage we need?”
  • “Are we in a juried competition?”
  • “Is there audience engagement?”

“Most of the festivals where the film is screening are either virtual or hybrid, making it possible for the film and the audience to connect safely and for the filmmaker to be present at events almost anywhere in the world without leaving home.”

List of Festivals Entered (with any award)

  • Helsinki International Film Festival Love & Anarchy, Finland, 17.-27.9.2020
  • Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, USA, 9.-17.10.2020
  • Surf At Lisbon, Portugal, 5.-8.11.2020: BEST FEATURE FILM AWARD
  • DOC NYC, USA, 11.-19.11.2020
  • PÖFF, Estonia, 13.-29.11.2020
  • Maui Film Festival, Hawaii, 11.12.2020-3.1.2021: AUDIENCE AWARD FOR BEST WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY
  • Reykjavik Feminist Film Festival, Iceland, 14.-17.1.2021
  • Glasgow Film Festival, UK, 24.2.-7.3.2021
  • Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, Ireland, 3.-14.3.2021: eligible for an AUDIENCE AWARD

Festival Strategist

  • Kathleen McInnis, See-Through Films (Los Angeles)

Distribution / International Sales

  • Natalie Lawley, Escapade Media (Sydney)

FESTIVAL AUDIENCE FEEDBACK

  • “I just watched your film at DOC NYC and I’m on my feet clapping for you. To women! To film! To water! BRAVA on your awesome film!!! I truly loved it. (And, gave it 5 stars for the audience award)”
  • “What a special night being able to award best picture to BIG vs SMALL. I’m so proud to be a woman, Portuguese and a surfer.”
  • “Maybe the best documentary film I have ever seen.”
  • “BIG vs SMALL, 76 minutes of goose bumps and a lump in my throat! What an amazing package. Thank you, Minna and your posse, I am proud of you.”
  • “Your documentary is out of this world, sensitive, deep and beautiful. Thank you for making it and for your passion for documentaries.”
  • “I watched your documentary yesterday and I’m still thinking about it today. A good documentary leaves you food for thought and inspires you. Johanna and Joana really empowered me and gave me a boost to keep working towards my own dreams.”
  • “What a documentary! Don’t run away from your traumas. Instead, run towards your biggest fears! I strongly recommend seeing BIG vs SMALL and thank you for making this incredible film.”
  • Festival Highlight at DOC NYC
  • Top 5 Film pick at Glasgow Film Festival

Timeline (recap)

  • Concept: June 2018
  • Field Production: December 2018
  • Post: January 2019
  • Rough Cut: August 2019
  • Completion: August 2020
  • Distributor agreement: September 2020
  • Premiere: Helsinki International Film Festival, September 2020

The life of an independent filmmaker is a bit like the life of a non sponsored big wave surfer: fraught with doubt, rejection and constant battles of survival. But the one thing we all need to remember is that you only need one person to believe in you and what you do and that person is yourself. Minna Dufton

Joana Andrade and Minna Dufton in Sunny Side screenshot.