Sheffield Doc/Fest stresses quality

Program director Croall spurs innovation

Heather Croall has galvanized the Sheffield Intl. Documentary Festival with a jolt of Antipodean energy.

The Sheffield Doc/Fest, as it’s known for short, was already well established as a key confab for the British factual TV community when Croall arrived from Australia as director in 2006. But she has lifted it into the premier league of international doc events, joining the front rank alongside Amsterdam’s Intl. Documentary Film Festival and Toronto’s Hot Docs.

Her biggest innovation was to introduce the MeetMarket co-production forum, which she pioneered in her previous job as director of the Australian Intl. Documentary Conference in Adelaide.

She has aggressively courted overseas delegates and buyers to inject a stronger international flavor into both the festival and the conference. She has shaken up the screening program, and doggedly pursued fresh coin to fund this expansion.

The budget for Sheffield Doc/Fest has nearly tripled under her watch to $1.25 million, and delegate numbers have swollen from 500 in 2006 to 1,200 this year. This includes 120 buyers, more than half from outside the U.K. — compared with just three international buyers the year prior to her arrival.

Yet for Croall, size isn’t everything. One of her boldest moves was to chop the length of the event from seven days to five.

“We made a strategic decision to be short and fat,” she says. “We go for a boutique experience, very high-quality and intensive.”

Sheffield remains much smaller than Amsterdam or Hot Docs, which both enjoy $4 million budgets and last 12 days. And small is the way Croall wants it. Her goal is to achieve the maximum effectiveness for delegates, which means keeping the lid on.

“Our ratio is one buyer per nine delegates, and it’s important to keep control of that. I don’t want 3,000 delegates. I want to create a high chance of a filmmaker meeting the people they need to meet. Everyone just pours out of the cinema, straight into the bar, and you see some of the most aloof, arrogant buyers having a pint and a chat with people. We don’t allow any event that’s a bus ride away.”

This year, delegates will get 57 conference sessions with 250 speakers, and 140 films with 100 guest filmmakers. Last year the MeetMarket generated $8 million in deals, while the festival sparked $18 million worth of sales.

The MeetMarket grew out of buyer discontent with the random nature of pitching forums. Filmmakers submit their proposals, and the best 50 are selected and sent to commissioning editors, who pick what interests them. The Doc/Fest team draws up a grid of 500 meetings. “We try not to waste anybody’s time. That’s what makes people frustrated and cross, and that’s when they don’t do any deals,” Croall explains.

Evangelizing

She has also created more symbiosis between the conference, previously dominated by Brit TV debates, and the festival, which specialized in more international, cutting-edge fare. “I didn’t want to lose the fact that the festival was known for new talent and experimental work that wouldn’t get shown on TV, but we expanded it to include some TV stuff.”

She launched DigiDocs 360, bridging the conference and the festival, to help filmmakers learn what the digital revolution means for them.

Sheffield Doc/Fest is also a public event intended to evangelize documentaries to a wider audience. Croall has split the fest into strands — environmental docs, music docs, sports docs, etc. — to make it easier to navigate. This year, a section titled Regime Change focuses on political transitions, inspired by the fact that Doc/Fest starts a day after the U.S. presidential election.

The fest’s capacity means there’s a limit to increasing ticket sales in Sheffield, but Croall wants to set up live feeds to cinemas around the country, where audiences can participate in Q&As via satellite link. The Glasgow Film Theater will be joining in this year with D.A. Pennebaker’s “Return of the War Room.”

TIP SHEET

When: Nov. 5-9

Where: Sheffield, England

Web: sheffdocfest.com

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