EDN Member of the Month – Martijn Winkler
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 June 2018 is Martijn Winkler, Creative Director and Co-founder of VERTOV, The Netherlands.
EDN has among other things talked to Martijn Winkler about VERTOV and their current project Eyewitnesses.
VERTOV is a film and digital storytelling agency, which develops new forms of storytelling for a broad audience. The company is producing several cross media series and documentaries for the Dutch public broadcaster NPO, recently had a short film #tagged in competition at film festivals such as Portland Film Festival, Dublin Web Fest and The European Independent Film Festival in Paris, and was named an Official Webby Awards Honoree last May. Besides being the Creative Director and Co-founder of VERTOV Martijn Winkler is also President of the Dutch Directors Guild, the association for film directors.
EDN: Can you start by telling more about your background and your road into the world of films and of producing?
MW:I have been writing stories, and plays, and making short videos, as long as I can remember. I put my friends and family through hours and hours of performances, readings, and horror-clips featuring our pets as monsters… (sorry mom!). But the joy of creating a story and showing it to an audience… nothing can top that. At a certain moment, in my teens, I realized that making films was the ultimate culmination of everything I loved about storytelling. So I went to film school and graduated as a director. This was in 2003, just around the start of the Internet as we know it now: with sound and visuals. I immediately recognized its potential to reach audiences and create exciting new forms of cinematic expression. And so I experimented a lot in the digital field at an early stage. Made many mistakes, hits and misses… but I loved the pioneering aspect of it. The possibility to reinvent the industry, the way of working as process rather than product.
In online startups I find that creative and production aspects are much more intertwined. And as a director, I have always been very much involved in the production and business side of things. So it was a small step, really, to start producing for other directors too. I feel very privileged to work together with talented directors and offer them not just practical assistance as a producer, but be a sparring partner on a creative and dramaturgic level too. Then again, since I am a director myself, I do know the value of creative independence, and think it is very important for directors to field their own authorial process. The right balance of creation and collaboration is key.
EDN: When did you launch VERTOV and what was your motivation for setting up the company?
MW: In 2012, after doing a lot of work for other digital agencies, I felt it was time to start my own. There was a tipping point at that time: technically the internet was ready for high quality audiovisual content, audiences were ready to commit, and more and more spending was getting allocated to online. So I founded VERTOV, together with a fabulous business partner Gervaise Coebergh, who is a highly experienced producer, entrepreneur and PR expert in her own right.
Since the online domain was already highly fused with the commercial sector, we started with online, social, and cross media campaigns for large brands and organizations such as Oxfam Novib, Rituals Cosmetics and Tumblr. Online offered a lot of creative freedom, and budgets were rising, so we managed to capitalize on that, creating groundbreaking work, playing with all the innovations. Our creative campaigns often went viral and won numerous marketing awards, a Silver Dolphin in Cannes among them.
Our aim, however, was to create independent work too, and since two years we’ve been able to do so. Dutch funds and public broadcasters are more and more tuned into the possibilities (and necessity) to create new forms of audiovisual storytelling, using online and social media to reach audiences, younger audiences too. Luckily we’ve built up a strong expertise in this area.
EDN: Can you give us some further insights into the VERTOV company profile? You describe it as a storytelling agency – what is meant by that?
MW: Yes, when we started, that was a way to differentiate what we did from the more technical or solely marketing oriented digital agencies. We tell stories, using any means available that best suit the job. That could be an interactive web documentary, or a social video series, or a live event that connects to mobile, or even a linear television film. Whatever best fits the story we want to tell, and best reaches its intended audience. So we stuck to digital storytelling as a term.
Nowadays, storytelling has been hijacked by just about every social media agency, blogger or website builder out there. Most of them are not telling stories at all. There is a great video out there by designer Stefan Sagmeister who basically lunges out at this phenomenon: ‘You are not a storyteller’. Haha. Since a few years we have quietly dropped the term storytelling. We are simply VERTOV. We tell meaningful stories for today’s audiences.
Apart from Gervaise and myself, we have two great producers at VERTOV, focusing more on account management and line producing. It wouldn’t function without them. Furthermore we have a stellar copywriter/creative and a social media coordinator on board. Basically, we have key production and creative in-house, meaning we can act fast and uniformly, but at the same time are small enough to be agile, to work with the best creative freelancers a project could need.
EDN: How do you find the projects to work with and at which stage do you normally get involved?
MW: Well, two options: either we have an idea ourselves and then we find the right team to further develop it; or someone pitches a great idea to us. In our current roster, we are producing two feature documentaries that were brought to our attention by the directors themselves. We generally prefer to get involved in early stages, so we can actually add to the creative process and strategically build upon the idea. This also benefits the funding possibilities, we find.
EDN: VERTOV works a lot with cross media projects. How do you see the current financing landscape for cross media projects – both on a local and international level?
MW: I’ll be frank. It is tough. On a local level the options are very limited. There is basically one independent fund for cross media projects, with very limited budget (it was recently cut down). And the fund that is attached to the public broadcaster does have growing options, but often requires an attachment to a television program. If you’re not careful, your interactive project will be something like “Oh this television show could use a website, let’s use your idea and tweak it”.
Internationally there are more options, and also if you look beyond public funding, the private sector does have ample opportunity to fund cross media projects. But that does create a moral dilemma. Do you really want your story sponsored by a brand, for instance? Shouldn’t you stay independent as a filmmaker? With all the calls for innovations, and the necessity to create new forms of cinematic expression, reaching younger audiences etc., you would think European governments would actually commit to more and better funding opportunities. To truly tackle the commercial industries online, and the super platforms like Netflix and Amazon that are taking over this innovative space…
EDN: You are currently working on the project Eyewitnesses. What is the project about and what are its components?
MW: EYEWITNESSES is an interactive documentary, directed by Ditteke Mensink and Dirk Boelhouwer, about the 20th century and about how history is written: what is truth or untruth, what were the perspectives of those who wrote history, who are the true eyewitnesses to historic events, and who decides what is put in or left out?
It will feature several different real-life characters, who are unknown in history books, but who have had a lasting impact on history. Often representing underrepresented groups, like women, cultural minorities, travellers. It is up to the viewer – or rather: user – to find out about these characters, decide what is true and how it relates to history as we officially know it.
The main part of the project is an immersive, cinematic website, where all the action takes place. With a spinoff to a television documentary, social media campaign and several publications: biographies by leading writers and life scientist. We are collaborating with the VU University in Amsterdam, who offers us a rich archive of characters, stories and analysis about life-writing.
EDN: In March you pitched Eyewitnesses at Docs in Thessaloniki. How was that experience and how did it help you move the project forward?
MW: We truly had an excellent experience in Thessaloniki. Before the actual pitch, we had three intensive days of presenting, talking about and expanding upon our project with both fellow participants and international documentary experts. We absolutely improved upon our pitch and our project proposal in these three days. Yes, very intense days indeed, but invaluable.
The pitch itself went very well, with good interest from attending commissioning editors. However, since all other projects at the pitch were ‘traditional’ documentaries, all attending financiers were solely focused on linear/tv work, and not equipped to further our specific interactive focus. Still, we collected many good leads and are even now in talks with interested European parties as a direct result of our pitch. So yeah, happy with that.
EDN: Next up is pitching at Sunny Side of the Doc at the end of this month, where you pitch Eyewitnesses in the section for Culture & Digital Creation. What are your expectations to and the focus of your participation here?
MW: Well, since Sunny Side of the Doc and our chosen sector are very much focused on interactive works, we have high expectations. We have a strong pitch, a proposal that features an innovative form, an appealing story for large audiences and a strong sense of necessity, and our projects is ‘ready to set off’, so to speak. In a time of fake news, it is important to focus on how ‘truth’ is told, by whom, and how to determine the veracity of sources, especially online. I am hoping this resonates with people in the audience at our pitch, and we can find further financing and collaborators in a European setting, especially since this story is about European/world history, and affects us all.
EDN: How is – more generally – your experience of pitching cross media projects compared to traditional documentaries?
MW: As said before: it can be tough. Since so many audiences at pitches are made up of more traditional buyers/financiers. They do often like the cross media pitches, but often do not fully understand them or have allocated budgets for them. It takes a lot of preaching, still, to get the film financing world, and television in particular, to get on board and understand that now is the time that the future is happening. ‘Your audiences are already online, if you don’t join them, they’ll forget about you…’
I am certainly not saying it is easier to pitch a traditional documentary. But at least there are pre-ordained slots in which they can ‘fit in’. A cross media projects does not fit in, at all. So there is always an extra effort needed…
EDN: Which other projects/films are you currently working on at VERTOV?
MW: We are currently in production of a cross media drama series and developing another drama series for the public broadcaster NPO. We are in preproduction of a feature documentary about the lack of cultural diversity in the high fashion industry. And co-producing an exciting short film with a French producer. Apart from that, we have several online and social campaigns coming out for different brands the coming months.
EDN: Last but not least - what lies next for you and for VERTOV after Sunny Side of the Doc?
MW: Well, those projects I mentioned will keep us quite busy the coming months. But aside from that, I actually have my novel to finish before the end of the year. My publisher is getting restless. And honestly, the thing that’s keeping me up most at nights: I have to find some time to get to terms with the fact that this month I am turning… 40. Ugh!
For an overview of all previous EDN Members of the Month, please visit: