Rotterdam's CineMart 2003: 20 Years and Counting
by Mark Rabinowitz
As the curtain falls on this year's CineMart co-production market here in Rotterdam, several things remain the norm. The projects, in various stages of development, will be given a real fighting chance at receiving funding, several young or at least beginning filmmakers will get a crash course in international financing and distribution, and dozens of financiers, sales companies, production companies, and national film agencies will search for the next big thing in indie film.
One of the things that sets CineMart apart from many other markets, festivals, or blind pitches is that it is curated, rather rigorously, by a selection committee of 14 who are aided by an international advisory board of 17 additional industry professionals such as former CineMart director Wouter Barendrecht from Hong Kong's Fortissimo Film Sales, Forensic Films' Scott Macaulay (USA), and former sales agents Christa Saredi from Switzerland and Fiona Mitchell from the U.K. This year they have selected 45 projects from 32 countries, which is five more than usual, attesting to the high quality of submissions for this year's event. "We had to kill a lot of our darlings," said Ido Abram, currently in his fifth year as the director of CineMart. "We could have easily added 20 projects and still had a very strong selection. But it [would be] too much. You cannot focus and spread the attention [with so many projects]."
The 45 projects in this year's market included co-productions from such seemingly unlikely partnerships as Belgium & Vietnam, France & Burkina Faso, India & France, Japan & Kazakhstan, and USA & Cambodia.
However, these partnerships are not as odd as it first may seem, according to Abram. "Broad geographical co-productions are not new. At CineMart, producers from Asia are looking for European financing and also the other way around." Additionally, while often referred to as a co-production market, CineMart "is not only about co-production deals." Other important facets of international financing are addressed at as well, including getting foreign sales agents attached or even doing pre-sales. As Abram remarked, "it's finding money for projects to be realized either through co-production or any other means." It is also about networking and getting word of your production out into the industry's collective consciousness. "Everyone who can contribute, either with money preferably, of course, or with knowledge," says Abram. "I think that CineMart is a great place to launch a project and to get direct input and feedback from the industry."
Macaulay agrees. "In the midst of a global film recession, the CineMart continues to prosper precisely because its approach is not just one of pure economic bartering." The state of the industry's economy was a topic that was at the forefront of many minds at this year's International Film Festival Rotterdam. With the global recession apparently worsening, there were widespread fears that it would have an impact on the film industry as a whole and on getting new projects started in particular. These fears, appear to be completely unfounded, at least as far as CineMart is concerned. "Of course while we know [the economy] going not very well, it's not going very badly either," says Abram. "There are still films being made and that's what you see here. There is really a lot of business being done." Macaulay adds, "As the marketplace gets tougher, connecting and collaborating with those who share one's own beliefs and business approaches becomes even more important, and it is here that the CineMart is essential."
Interestingly enough, even with the deepening economic crisis and the threat of war in the Middle East, this year's attendance at CineMart was higher than ever. Additionally, not all of the business being conducted at the market was directly related to the 45 curated projects. CineMart tends to foster an informal, almost collegiate mood for doing business, and as a result, quite a few deals get done, be they distribution deals for films in the festival, deals between sales agents and filmmakers who may have a film in the upcoming European Film Market in Berlin, or pre-sales on works in progress from directors who are screening at film at the IFFR.
As far as what kinds of films CineMart is looking for, clearly there are restraints. No matter how good the screenplay and how many notable collaborators are attached, they are not looking for a $40 million film. Abram describes the size of the films they are looking for as ranging "from small to big arthouse." What does that mean, exactly? Well, budgets for this year's projects ranged from 150,000 euros for Dave McKean's "Signal to Noise," a digital feature from the U.K. to the oddly exact figure of 5,276,365 euros for Baltasar Kormákur's proposed viking epic, "Saga/Njála."
As far as content goes, Abram is pleased with the diversity of this year's selection "not only geographically but also content-wise or genre-wise [we have] a wide spread of projects. We have political projects, romantic comedy and quite a lot of gay and lesbian films," of which good ones are quite hard to fine, according to Abram. "I know that a lot of distributors [that deal] with those kind of films are eagerly anticipating them." A claim born out during the fest when one U.S. arthouse distributor known for releasing many gay and lesbian-themed films over the years approached a Swedish film biz representative, perhaps hoping for another "Show Me Love" ("Fucking Åmal"), and specifically asked if he had any good gay or lesbian films.
Interestingly enough, while documentary films have been the toast of Sundance for the past several years, this year's CineMart has only one doc project, Dutch filmmaker Erik de Bruyn's "Zeekoorts" ("Sea Fever"). Abram admits that having only one doc is very low, but also points out the "misunderstanding that people think we don't do documentaries. We certainly do feature-length documentaries but we call them creative documentaries," which means that documentaries planned for television need not apply. "It should be narrative, it should tell a story but it should not be reportage," says Abram, so it's really hard to define what kind of documentary we are looking for." "Sea Fever" is the story of Ramon, a 22 year-old young man who has decided to enter the world of "tramp shipping" as a crewman on an ocean-going cargo vessel. It is a documentary, but one, as Abram puts it, with some dramatic elements.
As with any institution, the Rotterdam CineMart must occasionally tinker with formula or add something to the event in order to freshen up the experience. This year the IFFR actually returned to an idea it first explored during the 1988 festival, the Rotterdam Film Parliament. According to a Festival press release, the parliament was formed "to gather together the festival's 'family' of film-makers, producers, festival directors, sympathetic sales agents and press to debate the present state and the future of the cinema." The first Rotterdam Film Parliament spearheaded the founding of the Hubert Bals Fund, the first international script development fund. This year's event centered on two questions in morning and afternoon sessions: "Visionaries or bureaucrats": the production crisis and "Most films cannot be sold. Not at all": the distribution crisis. Keynote speaker for the Parliament was "Divine Intervention" filmmaker, Elia Suleiman; participants in the two sessions included the aforementioned Saredi and Mitchell (proposer and opposer, respectively, of the afternoon session's debate on distribution subsidies), Metro Tartan Distribution chief Hamish McAlpine, Peter Sainsbury from Eidolon Pty Ltd, and Michel Reilhac from Arte France Cinema.
Abram was particularly proud of how the parliament turned out. "I think the [parliament] was a big success and we are thinking of doing it now in an annual way," he said, adding that what he liked about the event was that it was organized in the English parliamentary format. "Everybody could say something if they were eager to say something." But what about the lack of shouting that often happens during Question Time in the U.K. Parliament? Abram smiled and said that "the shouting will come maybe, if [the parliament] really becomes a tradition."
Overall, as seems to be the case each year, the 2003 CineMart received high marks from everyone concerned. As Macaulay so succinctly puts it, "advocating director-driven movies and globally diverse points-of-view, the CineMart bands together the cadre of producers, distributors and sales agents for whom this sort of filmmaking is both a business and a personal calling." And the IFFR and CineMart are nothing if not personal. A feeling of family informs the event, even to one such as myself who has only attended the fest three times. This year 15 former CineMart projects screened at the IFFR and two of them (Peter Mullan's "The Magdalene Sisters" and Tian Zhuangzhuang's "Springtime in a Small Town") won major awards at the 2002 Venice International Film Festival.
Echoing Macaulay's thoughts, Abram sums up how all the hard work of putting on this massive event pays off. "We do our best to organize [the IFFR] as smoothly as possible but in a way it is a pleasure because if people are happy, they are happy with the things we organize for them. We try to support independent filmmaking...that is something we are all very passionate about. Making people happy and contributing to the making of films, that's fun."