CPH:DOX Industry Head, Managing Director Talk Projects, Attendees

As more than 125,000 visitors and nearly 2,000 documentary industry professionals are expected at leading documentary festival CPH:DOX, its managing director Katrine Kiilgaard and new head of industry and training Mara Gourd-Mercado spoke to Variety on the eve of the festival’s kick off March 13.

The CPH:FORUM and its pitching, financing and co-production platform runs March 18-21 in Copenhagen.

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Mara, this is your first CPH:DOX as head of industry and training. What do you feel are your strengths, and coming from Canada, what struck you about the European doc industry and CPH:DOX’s specific place in that documentary eco-system?
Mara Gourd-Mercado: I’ve worked several years for the Montreal International Documentary Festival as executive director, where we developed our international connections, be it in Europe, the MENA region or the U.S. CPH:DOX has its own international network, and I firmly believe I’m bringing an added value with my own connections.

CPH:DOX is a bridge between Europe and America, and I hope that with my North American experience, I will be able to consolidate the festival’s position within the industry.

Also, being Canadian, I’m familiar with its film financing system – similar to the one in the Nordics – which combines public money, with broadcasters and global sales. Those similarities have helped me soft-land into the production landscape here in Denmark and Europe.

Looking at the European landscape and having collaborated a lot with Germany and France in the past, I’ve always been fascinated by the speedy pace of cross pollination and co-productions, compared with North America. It might be a bit of a cliché, but everything seems more interconnected here.

Katrine Kiilgaard: Our vision is to be truly global and to serve the world. Bringing Mara to CPH:DOX was part of our goal to develop our industry platform, created by Danes and developed during the past years by Tereza Šimíková, who had great connections in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Of course, we are based in Europe and have strong European ties, but going forward, we want to develop connections between Europe and North America, so having Mara on board is a huge plus.

Let’s talk figures: how many decision- makers are attending compared with 2023 and pre-pandemic times? Do you have new companies or new territories attending, and what’s the mix streamers/broadcasters?
In 2023 we had more than 250 decision-makers, which was already higher than pre-COVID. This year more than 270 financiers and commissioners will attend.

We have the recurrent commissioners and financiers including Netflix, Mubi, HBO Europe, Al Jazeera, Arte, France Television, Canal+, BBC, DR to cite a few, but also Time Studios coming for the first time, and among philanthropic foundations, we are pleased to welcome Bloomberg Philanthropies. With more U.S. decision-makers, it immediately brings a different kind of money into the financing structure of documentary filmmaking.

Then of course, we are proud that our festival and industry event are a 360 affair. People with films at the festival also participate in the industry event and vice versa. This is helpful for the industry.

Regarding foreign delegations, in 2023 10 were attending our industry event and this year we have 16 of them. The interest from various regions in the world is huge. We have for instance a Benelux delegation coming as a brand for the first time.

A record number of industry awards will be handed out. Could you discuss these awards and their significance?
Any cash award has a key significance, considering today’s tough marketplace for the financing of documentaries.

The Eurimages Co-Production Development Award was worth €20,000 and now we’ll be handing out €50,000 in total across two new Eurimages Lab Awards for innovation and outreach. The decision was taken with Eurimages as they wanted their Co-Production Award to travel, while we were keen to have new innovative and outreach awards that fitted our profile. Eurimages acknowledged the artistic quality of the projects and we were super happy to receive their support.

The €20,000 Innovation award is for experimental projects in development and the €30,000 Outreach award is for projects in post-production.

Gourd-Mercado: We also have the new €3,000 Rise and Shine Award, set up with the renowned sales company Rise and Shine, which will go to a CPH:FORUM project with the best international potential still available for sales. This award is a testament to our industry platform’s ability to balance artistic quality with marketability, two criteria part of our selection process.

Then we are pleased to host for the second time the Unifrance Doc Award [worth nearly €5,500], set up in partnership with Unifrance and TitraFilm to highlight the best CPH:FORUM French co-production pitch.

The other NewImages-Forum des Images, Onassis ONX Studio and Synny Side of the DOC awards are part of exchange programs that allow our CPH:LAB projects to be visible at other international showcases where they can find co-financing.

Boosting documentary talent is a quintessential part of CPH:DOX. Could you say a few words about the INTRO:DOX program launched last year to help emerging filmmakers and producers enter the industry?
Yes the INTRO:DOX program is for people working on their first and second non-fiction feature. Last year the initiative was a one-day event and this year we’ve expanded it to two full days of networking opportunities. We’re applying our 360 approach again to enable festival participants to take part in our Forum.

In a year of transition, it was important to keep our solid bases with our marquee event CPH:FORUM and to start building new strands for the years to come.

Kiilgaard: Yes, we are welcoming emerging talent and recognising how hard it’s been for them to introduce themselves and get into the industry post-COVID. We want to underline that much of the innovation will come from the next generation of talent who make us aware of pressing topics such as gender diversity and climate change. We can learn from them and at the same time show them how to thrive in the established industry eco-system.

Let’s look at your CPH:FORUM projects. This year you have selected 32 projects from 26 countries. How many projects were submitted and could you remind us of your selection criteria? How many projects are from debut filmmakers, what’s the gender balance and country mix?
Across our 32 CPH:FORUM projects, six Works in Progress, and eight Eastern European projects at the CHANGE program, we have 17 first-time filmmakers and the total number of submissions across the three categories is 649. It’s an all-time high. It was very difficult to choose from many excellent projects, including from established filmmakers and producers. Our priorities are always projects that are relevant, original in subject matter and treatment, of very high artistic quality, with co-production potential and marketability to make them interesting for financiers.

In terms of gender balance, this is always a priority for us and we’ve landed with good numbers having almost 50/50 and tipping a bit more on the female side, which is great.

We have 26 countries represented at the Forum, with a strong presence of European projects as we are funded by European and Nordic funds and have obligations. But we always make sure we bring the world to us. We have for instance projects from Tanzania, Yemen, Colombia, Argentina, India, China and Ukraine to cite a few.

Have you noticed any trend in treatment or topic?
The trend is still for hybrid docs, mixing fiction and non-fiction narratives and techniques. Regarding topics, there is an urgency for filmmakers to document the world in turmoil – conflicts, the climate crisis and their impact on the human condition – from a very personal and micro level lens. This trend was there already, but it is accelerating.

This narrative trend is very present in the CHANGE projects from Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. All discuss conflicts through personal stories. They also look back at history, the political landscape, what can be learnt from it and how to preserve each country’s culture and identity.

Are there any particular projects at the CPH:FORUM that you’d like to highlight?
There are so many excellent projects, but to give a sample of the wide range of stories, we’re happy to showcase for instance “Powwow People,” a project from artist Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga) about the world of contemporary Native Americans powwow culture, “In Praise of Invasive Species,” a humoristic doc about invasive species by Canadian filmmaker Mila Aung-Thwin, and “The Second Woman” by U.K. Grierson-award nominated Ursula Macfarlane. The film produced by Mandy Chang looks at actor Ruth Wilson and her unique theater performance at London’s Young Vic Theatre.

There is also the fascinating project “Podium (You Have Three Minutes)” by Emmy-award filmmaker Rachel Leah Jones, which showcases the reality of Palestinian lawmakers at the Knesset in Israel.

Katrine, what’s your take on the current state of documentary film financing and how can CPH:DOX’s industry platform best support the doc sector?
It continues to be a very tough market to navigate. Streamers are not investing in development and tightening their budgets, like broadcasters. Our approach at CPH:DOX is to be realistic as we’re not going to bring change on our own. But we’re meticulous and staying on top of every little coin out there, to try to match people with the right partners. We do our best to bring projects to life, to support new voices and perspectives in our democracies under pressure. This is hard and not becoming easier. But I do believe in the power of getting the people who are fighting for those types of films in the same room, so that they will work together to fight for the preservation of the existing financing systems.

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