The Hitchhikers Guide to Mipcom

On the Road, TV World December 1993, p.13.

Twice every year almost every small independent feels pushed into a corner of the market place by massive advertising campaigns celebrating the Cannes television markets. The bottom line always says ‘See you at MIPCOM’, these words really hurt those of us who are left behind. Carl Schoenfeld finds out what the hype is all about - for less than £500.

The fascination is a bit like anticipating the first joint - every producer returning from Cannes raves on endlessly about its craziness. According to these rumours, attending a programme market is a consciousness-raising experience incomparable to any film festival or conference. Some colleagues maintain that it is very educational, and that they have learned more in one week at the Croisette than in 3 years at film school. Others claim that they even found co-producers, sold films, and made money.

This year’s MIPCOM was the international launch of our one hour documentary ‘A Sarajevo Diary’, in distribution with Jane Balfour Films. Nonetheless, after our company took many risks in producing it - initially without any backing - we felt weary about just letting our ‘baby’ go. We had managed to get a team on an U.N. aid convoy into Sarajevo, and after selling the story to Channel 4 in a long and drawn-out process, I wanted to see how it performed as a product in a market place.

Still, the whole idea of a small town like Cannes being stuffed to the brim with 8000 TV executives seemed to be like something out of a Laurie Anderson song, especially with them carrying those Central-sponsored pink bags, inspired by the decoration of certain Amsterdam shop windows. However, everybody around me looked very serious standing in Majestic Hotel bar with those pink things between their legs paying almost £4 for half a pint of lager, so I decided not to stick out from the crowd and do the same. After all, there was business to be done.

All documentary buyers had to be made aware of our unique offer with a postcard from Sarajevo. To share our most recent news with them, I had to write 80 times ‘Special Commendation Prix Europa, Stand...’ etc., a task which reminded me more of prep school punishment than of marketing. But I never gave up hope that my innocent attempts would help our one-off doc to stand out between the thousands of action and animation series’ promoted by cocktail parties, press dinners (where they take your photograph with US show ringer Hulk Hogan), and glossy catalogues (advertising: ‘buy a series - get a free feature’).

Trying to find a quiet place to write my postcards, I bumped into BBC and Channel 4 commissioning editors hunting for co-production money, suddenly I realised that this place bears a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have dreamt of before. This must be Michael Jackson’s ‘corridor culture’: The only place where you can see potential partners and clients from Asia, Europe, and the US. Many London producers, however, seem to come here to meet broadcasters whose offices are in walking distance from their own.It is difficult to keep focussed amongst the 400 stands spread over the 6 floors of the Palais du Festivals, arranged with the prudence of a classic labyrinth, and giving this event the technocratic seduction of a three dimensional virtual reality spread sheet: Sweet voices everywhere make me feel guilty about our negligence of expanding Asian markets, multimedia opportunities and certain commissioning editors from London. I am sure after pulling down the stands at the end of the week there will be a few lost first timers who have not seen daylight or water for three days. If they were lucky, however, they would have come across the Euro Aim stand and scrounged a free coffee & croissant - the hitch hiker’s diet at MIPCOM.

Apart from supplying the basic nutrition, Euro Aim assists participants registered through them with introductions to buyers, providing viewing facilities and a message service - crucial in an environment where days consist of half hour appointment slots interrupted only by business lunches. Registering with Euro Aim is also an easy way of reducing the official company registration fee of FF 8000 (that’s almost a grand and therefore beyond the reach of the true hitch hiker) to FF 5000 including one pass for the Palais du Festivals.

An alternative route for British producers is to register through PACT, though they cannot provide any umbrella for registration. The stand, however, provides the more upmarket hitch hiker with a real base for meetings including fax, message service, and viewing facilities. No croissants, though!

Real hitch hikers prefer to work without any safety nets. Danielle Gaynor is a producer from the US who now works from Paris in a ‘polyvalent partnership’ with Veronique Legendre. Both came here to sell ‘Oboo’, their 45 minute film shot in Mongolia, as well as two more short documentaries. Back in Paris, they had already managed to sell ‘Oboo’ to NHK in Japan and arranged to come to MIPCOM on a shoe string budget with the firm intention to get those films on to foreign TV screens, using the snowball effect of the NHK sale.

Though now they admit that they wish they’d done their homework, they arrived at Cannes only with a few contacts given to them by their former boss in Paris. Subsequently they went along to all the relevant stands, chasing buyers for appointments. At the stand of the US broadcaster PBS, one of the most sought after buyers, they got lucky. A buyer’s appointment had just been cancelled, and they could slip in instead. The result was another request for a viewing tape, and lots of advice including other names to go for.

Going down to Cannes to sell docu’s, they were initially afraid of being outsiders, of being told to ‘to go away’. But they were even more surprised when they were taken seriously by buyers, who were in turn taken by surprise by the unlikely subject matters of shamanism and smuggling in Mongolia. ‘A more unconventional style is an advantage as buyers see small independents who make programmes the big sellers cannot make. ‘Also Mongolia is certainly not the first thing they think of, and that really helps us’, says Danielle. She unveils to me their battle plan, all the strategic details of buyers drawn on graph paper reminiscent of ‘battleships’. ‘34 targeted buyers need to be sunk in 4 days.’ Though sinking in this case doesn’t necessarily mean to close a deal. The criteria for success of one-off programmes at MIPCOM is measured by the number of requests for viewing copies. At Cannes, many buyers don’t watch more than 5 minutes of a programme, and according to my observations they have an infallible instinct to press the fast forward button just before a very emotive scene. If you are very attached to your ‘product’, don’t go to Cannes. This evaluation process is not for the faint-hearted.

However, what I saw happening at Jane Balfour’s stand restored my belief in the market value of documentaries. Though most people would deny the commercial viability of a catalogue consisting mainly of factual programmes, the place was buzzing with buyers. I was very glad to be here in association with a distributor, only to chat to interested buyers, find some new ones, and not having to worry about the paperwork.

Some producers hire a screening room, which is not very popular as screenings rarely attract more than 10 people, often other producers or journalists. Few people here take the time to watch an entire film, and many buyers come only to collect impressions and request viewing tapes since they have to report back to their controllers at home before a final decision can be made. In this respect, television markets are very conservative. Sales contracts for films ‘unseen’, made out on the back of the proverbial napkin, are rare.

Red Square Productions’ Martin Coenen, a Belgian independent who works out of Moscow, is a first timer who really means business. He invested $25,000 which included his own stand, posh hotel and business lunches. Martin had arrived at Cannes with 4 projects in various stages ranging from development to finished product. ‘The Hunt for the Red Ripper’ about a school teacher who cannibalised 52 women and children, had recouped 90% of the budget before MIPCOM and made further sales which according to Martin will bring him to a 25% profit margin. ‘The Russian Roulette of Nikita Krushchev’, just finished before leaving Moscow, immediately recouped 30% of its budget. After being quite successful in selling his own films, he maintains that it is a good idea to collaborate with a distributor, as he often has to run after his money whilst distributors use standardised accounting procedures. His real raison d’être at MIPCOM, however, was to find co-production partners for his $2.2 million series ‘KGB - The History of Russian Intelligence’, and he started negotiations with potential partners in France, Germany and the US.

Martin sums up the general feeling of many newcomers at MIPCOM: ‘My only regret is not having seen any daylight for a week.’ Next time, he will write to buyers 4 weeks in advance, not on the first MIPCOM day as he did this year. At least he knows the names of the people he has to go for next time around. For the next market Danielle and Veronique want to find a base where they can be contacted or at least get a mobile telephone for the week. Still, without any such resources they were able to see 14 buyers, scored 12 requests, on occasions for all 3 tapes. ‘A Sarajevo Diary’, by comparison, scored with 18 requests on the tape scale including US and Japan.

The hitch hiker can achieve and learn a lot only by joining in with the crowd, adhering to the maxim ‘Never say never, always say “Hi”’. The rest is like with the first joint: If we get anything out of it, we’ll be back.