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EDN Member of the Month – Esther van Messel


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 February 2018 is Esther van Messel, CEO, First Hand Films, Switzerland.

Esther van Messel, CEO, First Hand Films, Switzerland

EDN has among other things talked to Esther about the profile of First Hand Films and about this month’s European Film Market in Berlin. Esther van Messel holds a Bachelor’s degree in Film & Television Production and History from the University of Tel Aviv. Almost 20 years later, she produces and distributes non-fiction internationally and releases fiction and documentaries in Swiss cinemas.

In 1990, she joined Warner Bros. Israel and became Head of Distribution shortly thereafter. From 1992 she produced international feature films and documentaries as Head of Co-Production and Sales for an independent production company in Zurich. In 1998, Esther van Messel founded First Hand Films in Zurich and Berlin for international sales.

Esther van Messel has been working as an independent lecturer and consultant for organisations like EAVE, Cinemart, Eurodoc, the Media Business School Barcelona, DocEdge Kolkata, DocsPort Incheon, Documentary Campus, Filmakademie Ludwigsburg, TokyoDocs, the Erich Pommer Institut and served on juries and selection committees for the Austrian Parliament, the Swiss Federal Office of Culture, IDFA Forum, Sheffield Meetmarket, Last Stop Trieste, Nordisk Panorama, and the Franz Grabner Awards.

EDN: Can you start by telling more about your motivation for launching First Hand Films quite exactly 20 years ago?

EvM: Stories are everything, and everything is a story. If I can make people happy by making their films travel, and others by seeing them, all is good. I want to make the world a better place, earn a buck doing it, and have fun. I want filmmakers to surprise me with the adamant ambitions for accessibility, I want films to be subversive and commercial. I want them to be seen.

Nobody is here because they want to be rich and famous – everybody in documentary is fuelled by passion.


EDN: Which types of documentaries are included in your catalogue – is there a prevalent theme, genre or style?

EvM: Pearls. They’re all pearls, one way or another. None of the films I work with I don’t love, or believe in. Great filmmaking, strong storytelling, walks of life hitherto unknown – we love people, passion, politics. Recently combed and counted, I was happy to see that we’ve been diverse AF, with films from underdogs, by, about women, and all continents of the earth. I think my quota of old white dudes’ stories is almost used up. Give me more, give me different, and never ever ever bore the audience.


EDN: How do you select which titles to work with?

EvM: First Hand Films’ Head of Acquisition is Gitte Hansen who has immense knowledge, impeccable taste, and insatiable hunger for films. We first fall in love, then we design the international distribution strategy. Cooperation with the producers and the filmmakers, the mutual expectations, and respect are key. Sometimes, we don’t believe a film will sell, and still want to work with it. But we’ll never work with a film we don’t love even if it’s a bestseller.


EDN: How many titles do you take on a year and do you take on films before they are completed? Is First Hand Films also actively involved in the production phase?

EvM: We assess around 1000 titles a year, and we acquire around 10 out of those. About another 10 titles are Executive Produced by Gitte Hansen and myself, we enjoy the cooperation with curious and open-minded filmmakers in early stages most.

As producers ourselves, we appreciate the hard work of the filmmakers, and appreciate the position we have as often a film’s ‘first audience’ when we’re the sales company. When we’re part of the team yet not inundated by the trickling down of daily stuff most producers deal with so graciously. It gives us, and them, who hire us, a fresh look at the story. It’s not always easy to hear our comments, I imagine, as we are opinionated, always championing drama, the director’s passion, and a strong story. We have the honour to work with producers we absolutely admire for their backbones, their poise, and their fire.


EDN: How does First Hand Films work with rights? Do you acquire all rights when taking on a film?

EvM: For a seamless result, and as Ministers of Foreign Affairs, yes, we do like to be able to oversee the international marketing, sales and distribution. As each title is unique, there are always exceptions from rules and we simply need to be able to work, that’s all.


EDN: How do you see the current market for a sales agent especially in regards to the big online players? What are biggest challenges in the market today?

EvM: As an international pivotal point we see that our client base has never been more diverse and colourful than it is today. Unfortunately, the value of non-fiction and even of fiction has dropped to nether regions. Our audiences are not willing to pay for anything that is digital – and our stories are that.

The biggest challenge is always the quality of the work we do, we all do before a film is made, and shown, and seen. From writing to financial concepting to technical finesse, the gripping story well told is always the aim. We have to find ways to offer eventful excitement with our stories, online and in real life. We have to build the frames to the films ourselves, support orientation in the endless sea of independent curation (meaning: none) for the audience, allow access to unique experiences for the savvy connoisseur. Or, in more earthy phrases: we don’t throw the shit on the wall to see what sticks.


EDN: This month from the 15th to the 25th the Berlinale International Film Festival takes place in Berlin also hosting the European Film Market - EFM. How do you operate there as a documentary sales agent and how is the market there for feature documentaries?

EvM: Berlin is always worth a trip (okay, Audrey Hepburn said that about Paris, but you know what I mean). We love Berlin, the festival, its sections, the market. An inspiring, full, useful topos. We mostly work on acquisition, when in Berlin. For our theatrical work in Switzerland, we scout films in and out of selections, for that, and for our international activities, we meet producers from all over the world, to touch base, to get acquainted, to screen materials, to plan, plot and, well, yes, prepare production.


EDN: Do you have any advice for independent filmmakers – how does one go about finding the right sales agent for a documentary and what to be aware of when entering a deal?

EvM: Be aware to look at us boutiques – we’re all online, and easy to contact. More important, look at the films! At the catalogue, online and off, at festivals, when meeting colleagues. In which catalogue do you want to be in your wildest dreams? Go for that! Talk to people who are there, who have experience, ask as much as you want, then follow your gut. With your eyes open, of course. Whom to you feel comfortable with? Who’s reachable? Who’s fair? When you find out the sales commission, make sure you know what it is for, and what not. Is there hidden cost, or are they in the open? What is the ambition? What are the mutual expectations – of each other, and of the title you’re discussing?

Be aware that the most important part of working with a sales agent is to understand their work, their input, the risk they’re taking (most are not subsidized, unlike everybody else in the film food chain). It’s also good to have an idea about the market, its tendencies, troubles, and temptations. The best is always to combine forces, to put the smart producers together with the savvy international people, to get at the always limited, always challenging opportunities from both sides.

Be aware that distribution is another part of production, or rather, that it has to be calculated realistically. In the US, the only market where a part of the films finances themselves, a marketing budget usually equals the production budget. Yet here in Europe, only a fraction of production monies is raised for marketing, distribution and promotion, their cost ignored. With or without a sales agent, this should all be taken into account (pun intended). Usually, a sales agent will finance this Production of Distribution from their own pocket – the more these deductible costs are limited (always recouped from income, never paid by producer), the less can be done for a film’s visibility. And in non-fiction, this does not include house-sized cardboard ads on the Croisette.


EDN: What is the best way to contact you if one has a film suitable for your catalogue?

EvM: Always through our website and preferably not too late – rough cut stage is great. For projects it’s important to have the basic financing in place as we deal mostly with gap funding.


EDN: What lies ahead for you and First Hand Films after the Berlinale?

After the market is before the market, and then there’s a little anniversary. From Berlin we go to Thessaloniki and Graz. In April and May, it’s Cannes – MIP and the festival, and this spring, it’ll be First Hand Films’ 20th birthday. We do intend to celebrate a little!

More information:

For an overview of all previous EDN Members of the Month, please visit: