What’s Up, Doc With US Coproductions?
Why is the American documentary market so close…and yet so far away? Because unlike its publicly funded Canadian and European counterparts, US docs get their funding from private sources. During the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) in November 2022, Canadian producers Ina Fichman of Intuitive Pictures (Fire of Love) and Bob Moore of EyeSteelFilm (Midwives) gave an account of their adventures south of the border and their assessment of the pros and cons of funding the American way.
When Bob Moore of Montreal found himself coproducing Midwives in the US, it was more by default than anything else. His EyeSteelFilm business partner, Mila Aung-Thwin, wanted to produce the documentary with Myanmar-based filmmaker Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing. Unfortunately, there was no coproduction agreement between Myanmar and Canada or even Europe. So, there was no way to combine international coproduction points.
“What we call the American system is, at its core, an open market,” Bob Moore said. “You’re not forced to work with any specific group of investors based on their nationality. And everything is open for discussion. The hitch is that there’s no money. You have to find it for yourself.” Of the many reasons that exist for coproducing a film in the US, the financial one is the least obvious, Moore insists.
The EyeSteelFilm team had to fight hard for every dollar raised for the Midwives project from day one by taking home pitch prizes from festivals like DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea and Canada’s Hot Docs. They also managed to scrape up some capital from private investors sympathetic to the themes covered in the film, including its focus on the status of women living in a village torn apart by political and religious conflict.
Intuitive Pictures executive producer Ina Fichman, also based in Montreal, took a slightly different approach. She turned to the American market to give added momentum to her documentary projects. “While I do feel that the Quebec and Canadian documentary community is quite robust, it still has limited space,” she said. “As a producer, I had to seriously ask myself how I could continue producing films that were a tad off the beaten path.”
When the opportunity came up to produce the Fire of Love documentary, about a hugely popular and eccentric volcanological couple in the 1970s and 1980s with voluminous archives kept in France for safekeeping, Fichman lost no time in approaching American investors to get the project off the ground.
Many more players with much smaller wallets
The thing to understand about the US market is that there are plenty of small players that are able to finance a documentary project. There are also many different types of funds, studios, and private investors, each with their own specific areas of interest. Fichman managed to score big with the Sandbox Films studio, whose focus is on making films about science that include a rich creative dimension.
“Anyone who’s seen Fire of Love knows it’s about science, but it’s also told from a really unique auteurial point of view,” Fichman said. “This type of film isn’t necessarily encouraged in Canada because of the overall structure currently in place.” What Fichman finds most disappointing is that producers here have to work backwards as they try to reverse-engineer their projects to fit into a broadcaster’s mandate.
Her American investor gave Fichman carte blanche in choosing her production team. “With Shane Boris as co-screenwriter and coproducer, it would have been next to impossible to qualify Fire of Love as an original Canadian film. Then the film’s director, Sara Doris, also wanted to work with her longtime editing partner, Erin Casper, who lives in New York City,” she said. “As a producer who cares about her team’s creative environment, I didn’t want to impose a director on them simply to get coproduction points. It just didn’t make any sense. Of course, we had our share of Quebecers on the crew as well, including researcher Nancy Marcotte and sound engineer Gavin Fernanders, so there was no way you could say it was an All-American production.”
Keeping your audience in mind
From a financial point of view, coproducing a film in the US presents a different way of sharing risk. Rather than providing a loan or a grant, many American funds and studios are more likely to finance films as investments. Their equity entitles them to a share of the profits and that’s how they get repaid, but that’s only if the film does generate profits.
“When you enter into a relationship with an investor, you want to make sure that you use their money wisely on your first film, so they’ll be there for you on your next one,” Bob Moore said. “So, we must assess the film’s revenue potential in advance. What I like about this system is that it forces us to be consciously aware of our potential audience.”
This savvy approach has guided the EyeSteelFilm team in building a long-term relationship with American broadcaster PBS, which has so far helped in financing six EyeSteelFilm films. And PBS has once again committed to buying television rights to Midwives for the US territory.
As a member of the Documentary Producers Alliance (DPA) in the US, Ina Fichman does offer a word of caution to producers looking to coproduce a documentary in the American market. “If you go back to the early days of private investments, investors tended to say that producers and directors won’t get paid until they got their money back,” she said. “In fact, according to DPA guidelines, the production budget must first be covered [before reimbursing investors].”
Betting to win
Of course, coproducing a film in the US is no guarantee of critical or box-office success. But to be fair, the two Canadian producers who shared their experience at RIDM can honestly claim to have won their bet. Fire of Love enjoyed terrific exposure on Disney+ and was nominated for Best Documentary at the Oscars. Following its broadcast on PBS, Midwives was given a number of very positive reviews, in addition to winning the Excellence in Verité Filmmaking Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was shortlisted in the Best Documentary category at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
The content of this article is based on the following conference: https://ridm.ca/fr/evenements/travailler-avec-les-etats-unis-mode-demploi