Marché: Van Messel yearns for the return of the collective experience

Marché: Van Messel yearns for the return of the collective experience

“We are all much more savvy now and know how to be in an office with a virtual background [even] if you’re still sitting in bed,” the boss of the Swiss-based documentary sales, production and distribution outfit First hand Films jokes of how skilful everyone has become at online presentation while working from home. 


On the eve of the Cannes virtual Marché, Van Messel, like everyone else in the industry, has been adjusting her business to the challenges presented by coronavirus. As she put it in a wide ranging keynote address she gave recently for The Documentary Campus, “now we have to learn what we want to keep, what we let go, and how we combine the best of all worlds for a better future. Because the “new normal” will be anything but the old one, and it offers a world of opportunities.”


Speaking to Business Doc Europe, she picks up on some of the themes she touched on during that keynote.


“I am very much worried about the monetisation of the business side of things,” the First Hand Films boss points out, cutting straight to the chase.


Since the spring, when “things changed: everything and everyone in the entire world got stopped in their tracks” as Van Messel said in her keynote, the European documentary business has remained very active. Online festival has followed online festival. There have been labs and pitching events, workshops, seminars and endless panels. But whether serious business is being done is another matter. 


Films are still being screened and are accessible to bigger audiences in the virtual world than they would have been if shown in theatres. What is missing, though, is the magic of the collective experience.


“Online events have replaced the festivals and markets, and everybody is playing with their computers all day long, it seems,” Van Messel told the Documentary Campus. “Filmmakers do not sit with their audiences, wincing at every joke that doesn’t get laughs, every drama that someone talks over, or worse, audibly enjoys their popcorn throughout. Nobody has a drink before, or after, or instead of a screening, and applause has been replaced by a blur of waving hands, or incongruent bursts of white noise coming from too many windows on too small screens. The ‘fest’ has been taken out of the festival, now we’re only here for hard work.”


Elaborating on this idea, Van Messel suggests that the “hard work” isn’t bringing the expected dividends. 


“For me, as a distributor, they (the online events) are squeezing my energy; they’re tapping my braid and, except for the opportunity for acquisition, they’re not really giving me anything.”


She points to the human factor. “The problem is that our real merchandise are emotions, and these are best shared. Films have to make people laugh, cry, fall in love and learn something. As distributors we know: they also have to make the filmmakers earn something. Today, no sharing, no caring, and practically no earning, yet, to [cut] a long story short,” was one of the conclusions in the keynote.


Van Messel yearns for the “casual” human interaction that has been missing in the industry since the Berlinale in February. During the lockdown, nobody has been able to attend the informal networking events like the brunches and receptions that festivals always offer. “I really think that is a big part of our business and we can’t work without it honestly.”


First Hand Films has been run by Van Messel since 1998. It has been involved since then in thousands of projects some of which have won Emmys and Oscar nominations. Van Messel knows the doc world inside out. Her experience has enabled her to cope with the shutdown.


“We are in a comfortable position. We know our clientele. We know their mobile numbers and the names of their dogs and the ambitions of the bosses,” she says of the advantage that her vast network of contacts gives her during the lockdown.”(But) if you’re new, if you’re a new filmmaker or a new producer or you want to access people you don’t know, you have no chance in this environment.”


It has been very hard to make new connections. Van Messel frets there have been too few events like the “fantastic” random break-out rooms organised during CPH:DOX which had four people each, “It was one of the most touching things I have experienced since the outbreak of this pandemic,” she says of an initiative which allowed her to have casual and intimate conversations with other industry delegates some of whom she had never met before. In other words, this was as close an approximation to a typical festival encounter as anything else she has experienced during the lockdown.


At the Cannes Marché this week, First Hand will be looking for films to acquire for theatrical releasing. Van Messel will be ”meeting” producers and discussing projects.


One potentially positive trend is the move toward smaller releases. And she put it in her keynote, “Something is happening to size: the bigger the more difficult, releases, cinemas, premieres. That’s an interesting place for us to be in as non-fiction buffs: we rarely draw the masses – but we find the finer minds.”


Like others in the industry, Van Messel talks of the hard work she has faced since the shutdown began just to stay in business. “It has been weirdly busy, super intense. It takes a lot of energy to keep the company going,” she reflects.