Member of the Month - Bram Crols, Associate Directors, Belgium
In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for November 2013 is Bram Crols, Producer, Associate Directors, Belgium.
Bram Crols is part of the production company Associate Directors based in Antwerp in Belgium. The company was launched in 1991 and focuses on (co)-producing creative documentaries for an international audience. The productions concentrate on social relevant issues and cultural in-depth stories.
Among the recent projects Bram has been involved in as a producer or co-producer are The King of Mont Ventoux (Fons Feyaerts, 2013), Poverty Rules! (series of five author documentaries by Klara Van Es, Ellen Vermeulen, Joke Nyssen, Annabele Verbeke, Fabio Wuytack, 2013), Mussels in Love (Willemiek J.A. Kluijfhout, 2012), and Lost Down Memory Lane (Klara Van Es, 2010). Before focusing his work on producing Bram also directed a number of documentaries among others Eternal Girl (2009) and Building a Legend (2007).
EDN has among other things talked to Bram about his latest productions and about the conditions for the documentary industry in Belgium.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your background and how you got started in the documentary industry?
BC: During my studies at the Brussels film school there was no such thing as ‘documentary’. I studied during a period were there was no distinction between film in general. But none of my teachers had a background in documentary or showed much interest in documentary. I was refused to make a documentary as a final film so I finished with a fiction short. Pretty frustrated I went of to find an open minded international perspective by enrolling the European Film College in Denmark, which gained me many of the missing links.
Back in Belgium it was pure economical thinking: going for a job. Except for the public broadcaster in-house productions, the independent documentary production was on a very low almost non-existing level. I could start writing publicity clips, soon to switch to directing them and then into production. I grew up within some emerging companies and got stuck in managing a production team of about 15 people. A great training ground, nicely paid with a company car on top but it almost killed my childhood dreams: doing documentaries.
As a kid I was fascinated by documentaries that showed places and people from all over the world. It now feels to me as if there was nothing else to watch on television during the seventies. While working in this publicity and corporate environment I started to attend IDFA in my free time, even going to the Forum as an observer before quitting the commercial production and getting started with documentaries. The first projects never went on to become something more than a script, I ran in a project as ‘spare’ director shooting three weeks and editing a full year during the evenings and nights. Time for which I was hardly paid but my first kind of commissioned tv-hour film was out. Only from that moment I could claim for myself to be a documentary filmmaker, although I had signed of with a nickname as I was not too proud of all the film. But the film went well on some festivals and became awarded ‘best documentary’.
It was a stepping stone to get started with a story I really wanted to spent some time of my life on, which would become Building a Legend.
EDN: When and how did you become a part of Associate Directors?
BC: In fact I was reticent to step up to being a serious producer. Having experienced the forum for some editions it did not feel as my way of doing things. I’m more on the introvert side of the human scope and yelling out my own ideas was not really my favourite thing. Still not. I tend to observe rather than to act, sounds familiar to many, no ?
I was about to do everything myself, directing and producing and went off to Bardonecchia to pitch at Documentary in Europe, a small heaven for introvert pitching, haha. I really hope it will stand up again in the years to come. And there in the North Italian mountains in 2005, there were other Belgians around, even from the same city. We didn’t know each other from home but the mountain air (or the remoteness) initiated some sparks and the two parts of the puzzle would come together about two years later.
I had finished Building a Legend in 2007 and the two founding partners of Associate Directors Mark Daems and Jan Lapeire had just shifted their company towards documentary production and were about to start working on the documentary Flaxman. I think we all felt the need to combine our first experiences in international documentary production. Getting creative documentary projects to the screen with a fully financed budget is not an easy goal these days.
EDN: You started with directing documentaries and are now focused on producing. What made you make that shift?
BC: Directing documentaries is a killing process end eats the energy out of you. At least once or twice during the productions I went very deep. Soon after the birth of my daughter and with my two growing up sons, this energy (dis)balance came up as a dilemma. As I was executive producer on Building a Legend, some filmmakers came knocking on the door asking if I wanted to produce their projects. Something which became possible within the set up of Associate Directors.
I am very lucky to collaborate on a daily basis with Mark Daems. Sometimes I see our working relation like this: ‘I make the mess, he cleans it up’. I need this mess to get things rolling, and to think out of the box. My introvert ‘handicap’ does that I won’t go easily into a discussion if people don’t take my idea. I’ll just do my thing, work hard and prove that my idea can stand out or makes a difference. As such I’m often the shook troop of our company, luckily backed up by much better organized forces, some might call this nicely ‘development producer’ but that is too short, I go along the entire way even into distribution.
Within the company we are all educated and experienced filmmakers, producing is only our second nature. We understand the process a filmmaker goes through and try to combine this at best with the reality everybody has to work in: financial constructions, spending obligations etc. So we produce hands on: getting in the production on all levels, creative, executing, financing … eventually we breath a film together with the filmmaker.
EDN: The film profile of Associate Directors is social relevant issues and cultural in-depth stories. Can you elaborate on the type of projects you produce and how you select which projects to get involved in?
BC: Luckily we are all a bit naïve and believe that some films might have a change (some really do !). So yes, social stories, but this is so wide in itself, we don’t use strict lines in this. And culture, we would like to do more of it, but it becomes pretty difficult to get it financed as it is often regarded as content for a narrow niche.
In fact we hardly argue within the office which projects we take on, it is more a feeling that takes us on or doesn’t. But we do evaluate on some parameters: can we add something to the project (more than just the money), do we want to work with the filmmaker over a longer period, is the director open to work with us and does he/she takes an audience into account and of course the potential for securing the financing. But not everything has to be positively approved in this way; we also do take projects that seem unfinanciable at first.
EDN: In 2013 you among other things produced Poverty Rules! and The King of Mont Ventoux. It seems to be two very different projects where one is a series of five author documentaries on living with poverty in Flanders, and the other is an archive based feature doc intertwining 40 years of cycling. How did these two projects come about and what were the different challenges each of them brought along the way?
BC: Indeed two completely different productions: for Poverty Rules! we were sole producers with many directors, and for The King of Mont Ventoux we co-produced with three other production companies and had to coop with only one director.
The King of Mont Ventoux was really a long process, at least five years. It’s a film like no other: based on synchronised archive footage we create a new race between five cyclists who won their Tour de France stage on the Mont Ventoux. In this way Eddy Merckx competes with Marco Pantani and the others crossing 4O years of cycling. The 70’ minutes long race to the top, which is in fact the duration of the film, gives an insight in the evolution of cycling since the seventies up to today.
When director Fons Feyaerts told me his very early idea, I – as a cycling dummy – was completely won because the concept was so different and in fact very simple. When you pitch it most people get it, and those who don’t will never get it. Really it was black or white. The production of this film was tough on the financing part and eventually on the relatively short production time of only 7 months from shooting day one to delivery. We had a strict deadline with the 100th edition of the Tour the France last July. This strict time goal wasn’t there at the beginning of the project, but at a certain moment it came into our mind to attach the film to this anniversary edition. It functioned as the hook for many of the involved broadcasters to step in. Next to co-producing broadcasters ARTE GEIE and RTBF we could attach 8 pre-sale broadcasters spicing up the budget. On the other hand due to the complex financial situation, which hit Spain and Italy during the development period we couldn’t get these partners in the final co-production structure and had to look for some last minute alternatives. Production wise, this was a killer.
Poverty Rules ! really fitted in our social profile. So when the VRT (Flanders public broadcaster) requested a proposal for a series of documentaries on poverty in Flanders, we really knew this was for us to produce. We spent a big effort in drafting a series bible that was the key to persuade VRT to co-produce with us. The main part of the financing had to come from the VAF Mediafund, which was a brand new source of funding for series of creative documentaries. VRT first channel initiated the subject, invested about 20% of the budget and the rest came on our shoulders. We drafted the process of the project as a collective work for which we created a ‘directors room’. This to bring the directors, producers and occasionally experts or other crewmembers together and develop the films in a constructive and collective atmosphere.
I can’t say this collective idea worked as we had hoped for, but at least it gave some added value during the process, and I believe traces of these collective discussions can still be found in every film and for sure when you experience the series as a whole. But it was a very complex balance between building a series and giving creative freedom to every filmmaker, which was our main starting point. For this series we also invested in an online strategy where the audience could explore many more layers of this complex topic. It seemed relevant for a series on a social important topic that was broadcasted on the first channel although this platform was created independently from the broadcaster.
EDN: In 2010 you produced Lost Down Memory Lane, which tells the story of life with Alzheimer’s or dementia seen through the patients’ eyes. The film went on to obtain historical numbers for a documentary in its region reaching more than 45.000 theatrical visitors in Belgium and The Netherlands. Can you tell more about the film, its process and what laid the ground for its theatrical success?
BC: Experienced television director Klara Van Es was already researching her story very intensively, had a national broadcaster Lichtpunt interested and even shot a trailer before we got in. When she came around the many elements of the project showed potential but it was not set out well. So we worked intensively on a package for this film, new submissions to the film fund, reshaping the trailer, … I would say, adding more ambition to the project, not just a documentary, but ‘the’ documentary on Alzheimer.
This worked well in the Dutch language regions (part of Belgium and The Netherlands) less on the international level mainly due to the language barrier. Much of the ‘Alzheimer’ is within the language the characters use and this is difficult to export. It can work in subtitles, but not in dubbing what reflects in the international sale of the film: Scandinavia, Canada … audiences that are familiar with subtitling.
Anyway, we made the project grow but always staying true to the very nature of the idea: dementia seen through eyes of the people living with it. With Flaxman (Jan Lapeire , 2009) we had gained small experience with releasing a documentary theatrical (auto-distribution in one cinema) and I really felt this story could work on the big screen. We structured the narrative as a classic 3-part story including readable turning points. Both the cameraman and we shared a risk with the option to shoot in 2K (starting in 2008 !) not even clearly knowing how we should handle the post-production, but eventually we collaborated with great people in the labs trying to avoid too many errors in bits & bites.
I believe we all made it into a success by not stopping were you normally would stop. The budget increased several times but always in balance with new financing for which we attracted about 14 partners including the Flanders and Dutch film fund, the latter through a co-production. And by adding partners along the process who, except the film funds and the TV-stations, principally joined because of the content, we were slowly creating a huge network of contacts able to reach an audience that could be directly attracted by the film.
Meanwhile we couldn’t connect a national distributor to the film in Belgium. No one saw potential in a 90 minutes documentary with main characters aged 70+ and diagnosed dementia. So we got ourselves into the event department of Kinepolis, the stock listed multi-theatre cinema chain in Belgium, asking six theatres for free. This to organize premiere screenings the week before World Alzheimer’s Day, adding that we would have Belgium’s crown princess invited and many other who had never been to a Kinepolis theatre before. So Kinepolis was eager to get these new audiences in, no idea if this ever succeeded. But with their positive response we (again) become auto-distributor.
Without one euro of marketing money we gave the 1500 free seats to the Alzheimer related organisations, who send out their mailings not realising that the response would be overwhelming: who doesn’t want to go for free to a movie on a topic which he is related to. Some of the organisations had to disappoint so many people, some just asked to book extra theatres. And three weeks before the premiere we had 700 extra tickets sold, which triggered Kinepolis to give the film a one-week release. Add to this a 750 seats theatre official opening with the princess and in her wake ministers and a lot of press attending because of the princess but writing about the film and the topic because ‘hey! It’s almost world Alzheimer’s Day’ and they have to publish about it anyway.
I always keep in mind: you have to make the first 100 phone calls yourself, but it is great when they – press, organizations, competing cinema’s – start phoning you. The film stayed in commercial cinema’s for 6 weeks, to be followed by the cultural screens and a third circuit of occasional venues. In Flanders auto-distribution made 36.000 in audience. In The Netherlands the film hit a little more than 10.000 which earns you a ‘crystal’ piece, if only the film would have been more national to the Netherlands than it being a bi-lateral co-production.
Today again, we are working with this - subsequently defined as – ‘zero euro marketing strategy’ for some new releases. Not all films have the potential for cinema and to attract the content related partners, which are key. And note – sorry for my cynicism - when I used the word network, I do mean a network in the old fashion way: people that you can really reach (through others). Some ask me: we have 10.000 facebook likes and made only 100 in audience, how come ? Online ‘friends’ cannot be the only ones to build such a strategy on, which doesn’t mean that we don’t also use social media softly in the process.
EDN: Associate Directors is based in Antwerp, which is in the Flanders part of Belgium. How does the funding system work in Belgium with the two regions Flanders and Wallonia and the funding bodies and TV channels in each region? How do you navigate as a documentary producer?
BC: Film financing is mainly based on cultural money that comes as a responsibility of the regions. Meaning that Flanders and Wallonia have their own film funding system, which can only be combined through a co-production with the other region (some production companies based in Brussels can apply to both funding systems as Brussels is on one hand a region in itself but also the ‘terra franca’ of Belgium). So the national co-production is widely spread although this bilateral funding is limited to approx. 4 projects each year. Depending on the granted funding there might be a difference in spending obligations, for some it has to be spend within the region, for some counts the national borders.
It’s less complex to collaborate with the broadcasters cross-region wise, but also in this case you make more people happy by setting up a real co-production. Often we speak directly with RTBF and engage a co-producer when the broadcaster intention is given. Over the last years we have worked in such way more with RTBF (from Francophone region Wallonia) than we did with VRT (our Dutch speaking Flanders broadcaster) but this is because of a bigger tradition and interest towards documentaries by RTBF than by VRT. But luckily we have Lichtpunt in Flanders, which broadcasts through the VRT channels but is an independent broadcaster with a good interest for quality documentaries, national and international.
Recently the Flanders Fund VAF, which is really making big efforts towards the creative film industry in Flanders, created a media fund for series and a game fund for cross-media next to its classic film fund. This all has given Flanders films, including the documentaries, some extra stimuli. But of course when the funding is there, more candidates try to get their share.
And next to all this regional division there is a ‘federal’ tax-shelter system with spending obligation on a national level.
Flanders really made a catch up move over the last 15 years, so much that productions from The Netherlands start to look with some jealousy towards Flanders. But even with the decline in Dutch funding, there are still more counters there to work with in Holland, but it is now more in balance at least.
EDN: Do you have some advice to independent producers interested in co-producing with Belgium?
BC: Realizing that we are divided in two regions is a good start and why not take advantage from it. But also keep in mind that most regional funding is cultural based. So aiming for the money means you have to deal with some creative components coming from the region. If not in the content of the story it will have to be realized in the choice of some key crewmembers. Regarding the latter Belgium offers everything you could need from people to facilities and often cheaper than you might find in neighbouring countries
EDN: Next up in the doc event calendar for November is of course IDFA in Amsterdam. Will you also be present this year and how do you use a platform like IDFA?
BC: Yes it is our yearly pilgrimage.. Although we don’t have anything in the brochures (festival or forum) this year, we bring some projects in development and production to discuss with (potential) partners. The sales of most our films are done by established sales agents so we focus on the forum with new and ongoing projects. The forum is also a good place to read trends in content and financing, get to know new faces in old positions and just new people and organizations. It’s quite a hectic atmosphere so it is good to see a lot of people and try to get back to them after or off the forum to do the real talking.
BC: Be who you are. Don’t show off when its not really your style, play it on the long term, which can be frustrating in the beginning though. Observing before acting might help a lot too, but on the other hand don’t wait too long or the ‘target’ might be gone.
And don’t stick to all the rules (sorry Adriek (IDFA Head of Industry), I did my first pitch to an international broadcaster during a forum lunch I wasn’t allowed to attend. Three weeks later I had my first pre-sale in the pocket. I don’t know though if it still would be possible to sneak in since they moved from the Leidse square. It all became much better monitored with fewer loopholes, haha.
And for myself I have to keep in mind that it is a festival after all, so to watch some festival films next to all this pitching and networking hours. Some years ago I realized I was familiar with most films only by the trailer from the pitch. Not the best feeling to get.
EDN: Last but not least – which projects and plans lie ahead for you in the near future?
BC: 2014 will bring the release of 9999 by Ellen Vermeulen and White Elephants by Kristof Bilsen. Both very fascinating films because so different from others on the scene. And we hope to get Ellen Vermeulen’s new film La double vie de Marie-Louise started. I’m also working on the concept of some new series and intend to get an exceptional directing project started, but this last is still far off.
And recently we started working on the idea to initiate a theatrical release network for documentaries in Flanders based on the zero euro strategy concept. For this we are gathering partners at the moment. Great films are made in Flanders but it is hard to have them screened towards our local audiences (abstracting from television now). Luckily the time seems to be there that parties want to fill in this important last part of the chain.
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