A Finnish Documentary and How to Sell It Abroad

Finnish documentary directors came to Toronto to study the Canadian markets.

There were 200 documentary films showed during Hot Docs, the Torontonian documentary film festival, but the Finnish directors Elina Kivihalme and Ari Matikainen hardly stayed in the darkness of the movie theatres.
– You come to the festivals mainly to make contacts. You go see the movies if you have any time left, explains Matikainen, the CEO of the Joensuu-based production company Kinocompany. The Film Commissioner of the Finnish Film Foundation, Elina Kivihalme, agrees:
– During festivals, I always try to schedule one day only for watching films. But if I have to choose for example between a meeting of the distributors and a film, the meetings always win.
And this time the meetings have been plenty during the May festivals. Kivihalme and Matikainen participated an instruction called Interdoc and organized by the Scottish producers. The purpose of the event was to teach the Nordic and British documentary professionals to sell their movies to the North American markets. The directors are more than happy about the opportunity to meet face-to-face the busy distributors.
– During that instruction event, we got to meet distributors we had otherwise never got the chance even to talk in phone with. And now they spent several hours talking with us, Matikainen says.

YLE’s Financial Difficulties Effects Especially the Documentaries
The Finnish producers have lots of material to sell, because the Finnish documentary film is living through a big boom at the moment. In 2010, more Finnish documentaries were presented in Finland’s theatres than ever before, and also the audience found the genre. Such hit documentaries as the harsh drug addict narration Reindeerspotting, sentimental ode to sauna Steam of Life (in Finnish, Miesten Vuoro) or the portrait of the Finnish artist Vesa-Matti Loiri, Vesku, made the viewer ratings of documentaries to rise up to 160 000.
– Documentary films received exceptionally lots of attention in Finland last year. But that year was waiting to come, Matikainen says.
– You have to keep in mind that in Finland there is a long tradition of quality docementary-making. Such filmmakers as Pirjo Honkasalo and Jouko Aaltonen have made the way for new generations, Kivihalme continues.
– Also the foreign producers we have met here have been well aware of the Finnish documentary. The brand of the public broadcasting company YLE is well-known internationally.
Contradictory enough, right by the breakthrough the foundation of the Finnish documentary is shaking. The savings of YLE, which is fighting financially, are first noticed in documentaries: productions are not being ordered as much as before and the budgets are smaller. Even though more and more people are getting used to seeing documentaries in theatres as well, most of the viewers can be reached by television. The documentaries presented in YLE’s Dokumenttiprojekti series can reach as many as 300 000 viewers in front of their TV’s.
– The years long work to improve the status of documentaries can be easily ruined if this goes on, Matikainen sighs.
– The situation reminds me of the story of making a bigger blanket for the town fool: cut from the other end and add to the other, Kivihalme adds.
As an art form, documentary has always been an international one and now the Finnish directors are seeking for international funding for their projects more than before. The lack of domestic support can paralyze the international fund-raising pretty fast: in terms of getting international funding, the filmmakers are first expected to receive domestic funding too.

Coping With Language Barriers
Ari Matikainen, who graduated from TaiK, says that he has grown into internationality already during his school years. Matikainen’s next film is about a Russian dissentient and author, and the documentary was funded by EU, different Nordic film foundations and several other instances as far as from Japan and Israel. The director says that when marketing a movie internationally, knowing the right people is crucial.
– In envy my artist friends a bit, because after a show, they can take it easy for a while. As a documentary director, I have to be active all the time and travel looking for new contacts. You cannot really separate your job and your spare time.
According to Matikainen and Kivihalme, the producers in North America are not as interested in the background of the filmmaker as their European counterparts. In Europe, the quality is thought of being guaranteed by the amount of the films the director has made before. On this side of the ocean, it is the contents that count.
– At the moment, producers are looking for communal movies that challenge to participate in one form or another. The climate change seems to have been the topic of every other movie made last year. This year I have seen many water-themed documentaries, Matikainen says.
– Movies about individual’s accomplishments, such as movies about athletes, seem to be popular. As well as “mockumentaries” and dramatic documentaries, Kivihalme adds.
In North America, one thing is even more important than the topic: language. Many of the broadcasters refuse to take non-English documentaries in their schedules. Therefore the director has to know it from the beginning, if they tries to aim their movie to the US or Canadian markets.
In Canada, the distribution problems of documentaries are the same as in Finland. Based on the Hot Docs crowds, there are plenty of people interested in the genre, but the broadcasters, such as CBC, are trying to save money, which affects the documentaries. Instead of documentaries, the channels buy cheap reality-TV productions.
Despite of the difficult times, Kivihalme and Matikainen are optimistic enough to believe in the quality documentaries. As the Film Commissioner of the Finnish Film Foundation, Kivihalme is one of the people to decide which movies will get the funding. Based on the applicants, she thinks that the quality of the documentaries is not going to disappear anytime soon. Kivihalme says that 2010 will probably not be the last great year for Finnish documentaries.
– Those who went to see a documentary film last year, will probably do it again this year.

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