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EDN Member of the Month – Steven Seidenberg


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 March 2017 is Steven Seidenberg, Head of International Co-Production, LIC-BCBC, China.

Steven Seidenberg, Head of International
Co-Production, LIC-BCBC, China

EDN has talked to Steven Seidenberg about LIC, how to work with China, and the Crossing Borders programme, where Steven is the Head of Studies. In his 30+ years in documentary television Steven Seidenberg has been a producer, director, head of development & scriptwriter. Steven has wide experience in all documentary genres. As a producer he has worked in history programming (e.g. The Trial of George Washington, Hitler’s Death, and Napoleon’s Obsession), the sciences (e.g. A Brief History of Time, with Stephen Hawking, directed by Errol Morris, creative director Steven Spielberg), as well as examinations of ethical and moral issues (e.g. Hypotheticals, with Arthur Miller).

Long before the term "reality programming" had even been invented, Steven was quick to realize the potential of new DVcam technology co-creating the genre-bending 12-part Nights out at the Empire and the 26-part travel-adventure series, The $100 Taxi Ride.

In 2003 his focus shifted to Asia. For ten years he worked primarily as a "preditor" (producer-editor) on various productions in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Seoul where he has made programs on everything from kung fu monks in Berlin to China’s first astronaut to the Forbidden City to Korean pop star Rain. For the past six years he has worked in Beijing as Head of International Production at LIC-BCBC, China. Productions there include Dead Men Talking, The Last Little Train in China, and The Blind Monkey.

Steven is also an active participant in EDN and has participated as a tutor and expert in workshops in twelve countries. He is the Head of Studies at Crossing Borders, the joint EDN - Documentary Campus training initiative. With Greenhouse alumni Nima Sarvestani and Maryam Ebrahami he worked as scriptwriter on the International Emmy-winning No Burqas Behind Bars.

EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your road into the world of documentaries?

SS: I got into documentaries by accident. I was in university for 16 years (OK, I like to think that I'm slow but I'm good), the last three of which were as the most junior member of staff in the anthropology department at Oxford. I fully thought that I would be an academic for the rest of my life. Dreaming spires and ivory towers and all that. Unfortunately Mrs Thatcher (older readers will know who she was) intervened.

At exactly the time that my position at Oxford University was terminated another door opened. The late and much missed Bruce Dakowski offered me a three-month job as a researcher on a very, very ambitious series on anthropological thought (Strangers Abroad). Those three months turned into the best two-year apprenticeship a person could ever have. I was on the production literally from the day of its inception to dealing with viewers' letters after the transmission of the series and everything in between. We shot with a fabulous crew, on film (!), in exotic locations around the world. Not bad for a failed academic. And, best of all, six months into the project a director came on board. (Yes, in the good old days you could spend six months doing research for a six-part documentary series.) By coincidence, director Andre Singer (one of the founding fathers of EDN) and I knew each other socially from an Oxford connection. He was the best mentor a budding filmmaker could have. We have worked together off and on for over 30 years. The bottom line is that I got into documentaries by luck. It was a case of being the right place at the right time.

EDN: In 2003 your focus shifted to Asia. How did that focus shift come about?

SS: Again, it was by luck, not by design. As an academic I studied China. But it would be a long time before I could marry my academic interest with my professional activity. In 2003 they came together. For the previous ten years I worked with and later was a partner in Andre Singer's production company, Cafe Productions. Around 2000 the company was taken over by Canadian media giant Alliance Atlantis, makers of the CSI series. It was not a good fit. Alliance Atlantis thought that they could transfer the CSI business model of renewable, returnable, and above all enormously profitable, drama series to the world of documentaries. They were in for a surprise. Unfortunately so were we.

Suffice it to say that Alliance Atlantis understood drama. They didn't understand documentary. In the year that they had two of the five finalists for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Cafe's film, Prisoner of Paradise, was pipped to the Oscar by another Alliance Atlantis company's film, Bowling For Colombine), they shut down all five of their documentary production companies. I guess it was because we didn't have the right kind of success.

So, what's a jobless guy with 16 years university education on Asia to do? Look East, of course. Again, I was extremely lucky. At that time the Asian documentary market was in its infancy. Some great people there -- Brian Smith at National Geographic Asia, Vikram Channa at Discovery Asia, Keiko Bang at Bang Productions, Adrian Ong at Right Angle -- brought Western talent and Eastern stories together. For me it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

EDN: You are currently working for the largest private documentary production company in China – LIC. What is the profile of the company and which type of documentaries does the company work with?

SS: Quick answer: EDN members should think of LIC-BCBC (Ling International Corporation -- Beijing Continental Bridge Corporation) as a documentary production company that also distributes to channels in China. We produce, co-produce and acquire programs primarily for the Chinese market. We are currently dipping a toe in new media but, frankly, haven't figured out a way to make money with it. (Yes, we are a commercial company.) The vast majority of LIC's production is for the domestic market. Only a tiny amount is made for international consumption. With regard to genre we mostly produce, co-produce and acquire specialist factual programs (e.g. history, science, medicine, archaeology, wildlife and natural history, etc.). Singles or series work for us. We also co-produce a tiny number of creative docs (all for the international market -- it is virtually impossible to show a creative documentary in China) and a larger number of reality series. As a general rule, we only co-produce programs or films that have Chinese content.

When I joined LIC in 2011 it was the biggest private, independent documentary company in China. (The "private" is hugely significant. We are not owned by the state or the Party. LIC is truly a commercial, independent production company. That said, in 2016 the company was floated on the stock market so I guess the word "private" is not longer appropriate.)

Above all else LIC is a documentary production company. I've never counted them up but I wouldn't be surprised if LIC doesn't make more documentaries that either of the two national CCTV (China Central Television) documentary channels. Most of LIC's production is specifically for the domestic Chinese market. We make a small number of documentaries for the international market. We can either make them ourselves or co-produce with production companies in other countries. We co-produce a tiny number of creative documentaries (e.g. Carol Salter's Almost Heaven (UK), Malcolm Dixelius' The Bionic Musician (Sweden), Enric Ribes and Oriol Martinez's The Peach Blossom Garden (Spain), Andre Singer's Secrets of the Life in the Wild (UK), Elmar Bartlmae's The Sixth Sense (Germany) and rather a larger number of reality series (e.g. Greatest Chefs -- now over 160 episodes -- and Student Swap have been made with various partners in Italy, Spain, Australia, Canada, etc.). I must put my hands up here and admit that LIC is not an easy company for foreign producers to work with. This is because we do things differently here. Practices that are standard in the West are unknown in China. And requirements in China are, at best, opaque to foreigners. Frankly, unless you are a foreign broadcaster it is tough/frustrating/soul-destroying (delete as appropriate) trying to work in China.

EDN: At LIC you are the Head of International Co-production. What does it take for LIC to venture into an international co-production and how do you find the projects to work with?

SS: With rare exceptions we only co-produce on projects that have Chinese content (i.e. Chinese subjects or Chinese talent or both). There are institutional reasons that make it hard to send large amounts of money out of China so we prefer projects in which our investment can be spent in China (e.g. crews, equipment, facilities, logistics). So if you are just looking for money don't talk to us, talk to a bank. As for finding good/relevant/appropriate projects, this has never been a problem. Although I do attend major doc events in Asia (e.g. CNEX-CCDF, Tokyo Docs, BCPF-sponsored events in South Korea, Asian Side of the Doc) most co-production projects find us. I am pitched (in person or via email) far more good projects than my small unit could ever hope to accommodate.

EDN: How should a European producer approach LIC with a project that could be relevant for the Chinese market? And when is it worthwhile for a European producer to co-produce with China?

SS: There are two different questions here and they are both tricky to answer. Regarding "a project that could be relevant for the Chinese market" starts from the wrong premise. There is no documentary market in China. Chinese viewers generally don't watch documentaries. What China calls "documentaries" we in the UK or US would call "schools programs". They are "watch, listen and repeat" programs, the sort of film that is followed by a quiz in school. There is (usually) just a single voice/POV in a documentary made for a Chinese audience (and most often that is an off-screen narrator). And there is no nuance. These films present information. Independent thought is not part of Chinese culture. So a doc that makes the viewer think for them selves has difficulty finding an audience. As the television schedules and cinema screens are controlled by the education/propaganda department of the state/Party content in documentaries is determined by what it/they want it to be.

As for your second question, I think most producers come to us because they think that China is a big market that can provide money for their production. This is wrong. We can provide hundreds of millions, even billions, of eyeballs, but there is no way to monetize them. The Chinese broadcasting system does not work on any commercial logic recognizable to foreigners. High audience figures do not translate into high monetary value. We can buy Planet Earth II for less cash than you have in your petty cash box. (OK, that's an exaggeration, but the underlying principle is true.) Because China can buy finished programs cheaply, there is no reason to put a lot of money into co-production. So if you are just looking for money, look elsewhere. If you are looking for eyeballs, come to China.

EDN: How have you seen the Chinese/Asian documentary market change since you started working in the region?

SS: At last! An easy question! In China there are now dedicated documentary channels so there are more slots -- but only for specialist factual programs. Creative docs generally still cannot find a place on Chinese television. There is virtually no way to show them on the mainland. In fact, despite the growth of dedicated documentary channels I think the market is shrinking in China, not opening. Did you see that last week China banned foreign illustrated children's books? Apparently Chinese children must be protected from insidious foreign ideas in the stories of Peter Rabbit and Paddington Bear. The exception is CNEX. Operating out of Beijing and Taipei CNEX has been growing and nurturing the creative documentary culture in China.

There is progress in the rest of Asia as well. With the honourable exception of Japan, there was no documentary culture in Asia. For the rest of East and Southeast Asia the documentary culture is in its infancy. A leader in documentary growth is South Korea. The government realized that good documentaries were a cultural asset and consequently puts money into training and production. Singapore, home to global channels like Discovery, A+E (History Channel, etc.) and, until recently National Geographic, has a government that seeks to turn the city-state into a regional media hub and (sometimes) encourages documentary production. Active grass-root organizations like MyDoc in Malaysia and parallel producer's organizations in Indonesia and the Philippines all point to an improving documentary landscape.

EDN: Since the first programme in 2010 you have been Head of Studies at the EDN – Documentary Campus training initiative Crossing Borders. Can you give some insights into the programme and the benefits coming out of it?

SS: There are many types of training programs. Crossing Borders works on both content (storytelling) and commerce (providing information on how the market works/how to reach an audience outside the participant's own country). There are, of course, many doc training initiatives out there. Indeed, many of them organized or administered by the EDN. A great many of these training programs bring together participants from multiple countries. Greenhouse brings together filmmakers from North Africa and the Middle East. The old Dragon Forum and now Ex Oriente bring together filmmakers from Eastern Europe. The Baltic Forum brought together filmmakers from Scandinavia and the Baltic states. CNEX brings together filmmakers from China and the Chinese diaspora. But I like to think that Crossing Borders is unique because its participants literally cross continents to work with and learn from each other. Crossing Borders deliberately brings together talented filmmakers from Asia and Europe. Why do I think this is important? Filmmaking traditions and markets differ widely East and West. I firmly believe that young filmmakers learn more from each other than they do from trainers/mentors who frequently, like me, are old enough to be their parents (OK, grandparents). The conversations that the participants have with each other over meals, at night, during coffee breaks, whenever, gives them a far wider insight into the documentary world than trainers ever can. Cross cultural peer-to-peer learning is a crucial part of the Crossing Borders experience. Sharing information and experience both opens eyes and helps build strong foundations.

Equally important is that Crossing Borders opens doors. Participants build personal networks of like-minded filmmakers with whom they can work in the future. It also exposes and introduces them to funders and decision makers who can help turn their dreams into reality.

EDN: In 2017 Crossing Borders will take place in Malaysia and the training programme has its deadline for project submissions on April 7. Which type of projects/filmmakers would you recommend applying to Crossing Borders?

SS: The kind of filmmakers who benefit most from Crossing Borders are those who are passionate about their subject, single-minded in their determination to succeed, and actively seek to embrace an audience beyond their home country. This last point is also true for the type of projects that benefit most from participation in Crossing Borders: those that want to reach audiences outside of the filmmaker's own country. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you need big subjects or global issues. Small, intimate stories are fine. Using the microcosm to illuminate a bigger picture is great. Look at Kyoko Miyaki's My Atomic Aunt or Haryun Kim's A Class of Their Own or Sophia Luvara's Inside the Chinese Closet or C.K. Mak's The Most Fashionable Prison in the World. These are great films. They are films on small subjects that punch well above their weight. It is projects of purely parochial interest (that is subjects that can speak only to the filmmaker's own countrymen and countrywomen), that don't really take advantage of the opportunity offered by Crossing Borders.

EDN: And last but not least what lies next for you in the busy doc calendar?

SS: I return to Beijing on Monday, cough, cough.

More information about Crossing Borders 2017 and how to apply is available here: