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“International collaboration is always very important to us”

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Paul Pauwels • Director, EDN / Lisbon Docs

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- Cineuropa caught up with EDN director Paul Pauwels, who is currently organising the upcoming Lisbon Docs with Apordoc

Paul Pauwels • Director, EDN / Lisbon Docs

This year’s Lisbon Docs, the workshop and pitching forum for documentaries organised by the European Documentary Network (EDN) and Apordoc, is almost upon us. The event will cast the spotlight on 24 projects (including four Portuguese ones) to be assessed by an eclectic panel of decision makers. We sat down with EDN director Paul Pauwels to discuss what was in store for the forum’s 2016 edition, to be held from 16-22 October in the Portuguese capital.

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Cineuropa: Lisbon Docs includes a four-day preparatory workshop before the pitching sessions actually take place. Why have you decided to invest so strongly in the training component of the event?
Paul Pauwels: It is always important to continue to learn and adapt to new realities. We have realised that even the most experienced of professionals can still find new elements that don’t only help them to present their project in a better way, but also make them think more deeply about it. When you have a lot of experience, it is easy to get caught up in a kind of routine. That makes things tricky, because you might not be thinking enough about storytelling or the market. So we try to provide a service that not only gives documentary professionals tools to develop their stories in the best possible way, but also to think about what the decision makers need and are expecting.

For emerging and less experienced professionals, it is mainly about giving them tips on how to pitch their projects. Of course, we also try to push the most experienced ones to another level, helping them stand out in an increasingly competitive market.

The market is definitely competitive, but it’s also going through a number of fast and thorough changes. In this changing context, what do you think decision makers attending the pitching forums are really looking for?
If you’d asked me that three years ago, I’d have told you that decision makers were seeking well-told, interesting stories that would appeal to a large audience. Nowadays, the situation is changing: broadcasting is becoming less important and VoD has more pull on the market. I guess decision makers are finding themselves in a sort of limbo. I think most of them are still strongly and genuinely interested in good documentaries, with good creative value, but, in many cases, they are now working for broadcasters that are no longer interested in that.

So they are not only coming to the event to find projects and new teams to work with, but also to look for arguments to help them in their struggle to keep documentaries on public broadcasting, in good timeslots and with sufficient financing.

There was a time – and I wasn’t particularly satisfied with it – when this type of forum was really a buyers’ meeting: they arrived and, if they really liked a project, they would pre-purchase the rights or organise a co-production agreement. But, in most cases, it was simply “Interesting! Send us the finished film and we will acquire it”. That worked for them, as they got good documentaries to fill their slots. I feel that we have moved beyond that now. Decision makers are looking for new forms of storytelling, documentaries that have a good distribution and outreach strategy attached to them. It’s not just broadcasting them that is important, but everything that can be built around it.

Today, the event is much more of a “meeting point”. I believe that the whole process has become much more personal and much more professional. That’s why I think people still make the effort to come to these events – to see what’s going on. And, in the case of Lisbon Docs, I think they also get a very good idea of what is happening in Europe – a Europe that we would like to see united, even though we know that isn’t happening!

But it’s not just a European panorama! This year’s line-up also includes non-European projects from countries, like India, that we don’t usually associate with documentaries…
The EDN is a worldwide organisation, with members from outside Europe, like India, and, yes, this year we have a very interesting Indian project by Miriam Chandy Menachery, a wonderful filmmaker who works under complicated circumstances. We have been working with DocedgeKolkata (India) for years now. When I first went there, there was zero interest in documentaries, but now a lot of European broadcasters go there. And Indian cinema is reaching international festivals.

Besides, we are seeing increasing numbers of filmmakers from outside Europe offering very enticing opportunities to our (European) filmmakers and producers to work with them. Co-productions and the possibility of international collaboration are always very important to us.

It just feels like the whole market is changing. And I believe that is very much in line with what Creative Europe is looking for – providing access to markets. I think it only works if you are a buyer and a seller; if you take projects as well as offering them.

One of the best things about Lisbon Docs is definitely that you often see people starting to work amongst themselves after the sessions. They meet, and suddenly they see new collaboration possibilities. I believe it is now very important that people understand that the media business – including documentaries – is becoming a truly global one. Think of Netflix for instance. There aren’t any borders anymore...They don’t worry about countries. Their focus is solely on stories and good content – it’s the best kind of motivation to make a film. That’s what they are looking for.

Besides that geographical diversity, what can we expect from this year’s projects? Is any particular attention being given to new formats like web-docs, for instance?
I would say we don’t have any web-documentaries, if you define a web-documentary as being short and only destined for the web. At this point we are still very much open to more traditional formats – projects between 52 and 90 minutes. But when we select a project we tend to look to at its distribution opportunities outside of TV. Or its distribution possibilities without television – because we know that there are quite a lot with the potential for theatrical release, but would never make any money from television – it is a sad fact, but it is a fact.

We try to bring a mixture of more popular topics and more artistic ones. The Wind by Polish director Michał Bielawski, for instance, is a very artsy. We also try to bring that same mix to the panel members – a combination of TV, festival and VoD professionals.

Will there be a prize for the most interesting projects?
Two participants will get a full delegate pass to the Sheffield Doc Fest – which is a good chance to make contacts in the UK and US markets. We will also offer a follow-up consultation to all the projects. I think it’s quite important that, after a few months, we can still offer more detailed advice during more advanced stages of the projects. Pitching is just the tip of the iceberg, it’s not the end, it’s actually just the beginning.

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