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IDFA: Docs For Sale Manager Laurien ten Houten: ‘Every Film Has to Get Attention’

Every year, more than 300 TV buyers, sales agents, distributors and festival scouts descend on Arti et Amicitiae on one of Amsterdam’s busiest thoroughfares to watch a wide selection of documentaries available to the international market. Variety sat down with Docs For Sale manager Laurien ten Houten to discuss the enterprise and what it means for artists and buyers alike.

In a nutshell, what is Docs For Sale?
Very simply, Docs For Sale is a video library, and we have 55 screening booths and a little over 430 films, of which over 130 are IDFA-selected. On the one hand, we have the people who want to sell the films, the producers and the sales agents, and on the other hand, we have the people who want to acquire those films, whether it’s television buyers, sales agents who want to extend their catalog, or festivals wanting to show the film in their program. It’s one of the bigger documentary markets for creative documentaries. We also have a big meeting space where we organize meetings for the sellers and the buyers.

How does it work together with the Forum?
Well, the Forum is set up to find financing for projects that are not finished, and Docs For Sale is only for finished films. We have a collaboration with the Forum, called Rough Cut Screenings, and last Sunday we had six projects in that section. These are films that are in a rough-cut stage and looking for some final financing.

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So the Rough Cut Screenings is the intermediate stage between the Forum and Docs For Sale?
You could say so, yes.

How do you select projects?
At Docs For Sale we curate the catalog. So we have a lot of films that are screened at the festival, but then we have another, let’s say, 300 films that are not screened at the festival. And those films are also curated. We also reject films.

Who curates them?
The IDFA viewers. In terms of curation, we have quite a wide range, because we want to include films for festival exhibition as well as films for television broadcast. We might have different versions of some films—like for some films we’ll have the television version and the theatrical version. And there’s also some more niche films that may be suitable for human rights festivals or for environmental festivals.
The festivals that come here are very different. I mean, we have the big festivals—Hot Docs, Sheffield—but we have all kinds of human rights film festivals and environmental film festivals from all over the world. But if you look at the market at the moment, there’s a lot of films, and more and more players, but less and less money. So for sales agents it’s getting harder. They have to make more sales to get the same amount of money. It’s a tough job.

How successful has it been so far this year?
It’s always hard to say. People might watch the film here at IDFA and then sign the contract at the Berlinale. Nowadays, it’s not like there’s a TV buyer who’s watching films and then says, “OK, I want to buy this, this and this”—then they immediately sign the contract and that’s it. We are a platform. We’re more like a broker, I would say. We offer the platform, and the facilities, and the services too. And, yes, of course there are deals signed here, but it’s hard to say exactly how many films are sold here each year. This year there are over 300 people with an acquisitions pass, which means TV buyers, sales agents, festival scouts and so on, and this number is quite stable. I have the impression that it’s at least as busy this year as last year, but the specific numbers I don’t have yet, in terms of the viewing numbers. But if you look at the accreditations given out for Docs For Sale you could say that it’s business as usual.

Do you have a sense of what’s hot this year?
Films about the environment and climate change are popular, but that’s also because those films are IDFA-selected. Those films are always watched the most at Docs For Sale. This year the big titles have been films like “For Sama,” “Sunless Shadows,” the opening film, “Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word Is Power,” and “Prison For Profits.” Those are some of the most watched films in Docs For Sale at the moment.

How has Docs For Sale changed in your experience?
The number of films is growing. We can let it grow even more, but that’s not what we want to do, because every film has to get attention and it’s already difficult now to make sure that every film gets that attention. What I’ve seen is that the last few years there’s a lot of people that don’t watch films on the spot here, they mostly do meetings. They’ll often watch the films online beforehand. When we started the online aspect in 2008, we had a sort of a slogan: “Watch films online, do business in Amsterdam.” At that point we were afraid that people wouldn’t come any more but they keep on coming. By the way, something new, that we added last year, is that films receiving their world premiere here will only be available online at Docs For Sale after their premiere in the cinema. We want to preserve the cinematic experience.

Is Docs For Sale accessible for first-time filmmakers?
For first-time filmmakers, if they don’t have a world sales representative, or someone to help them out, it might be really difficult. We have a first-timer meeting for everybody who’s at Docs For Sale for the first time. We explain how it works and give them some tips on what to do—or what not to do.

So first-timers shouldn’t feel intimated?
No, not at all. We are very, very human.

For more information, visit idfa.nl/en/info/docs-for-sale

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