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Esther van Messel and Gitte Hansen • First Hand Films International Sales

- International sales policy: the distribution of European documentaries

What is First Hand Films' editorial policy? Which criteria does a documentary have to meet in order to be chosen by your company?
We distribute only films we love – they have to be authentic, relevant and fun. Films have to be made and delivered in the highest professional quality. We pride ourselves in rendering impeccable service to the buyers in return, and complete transparency to our Licensors.

How is documentary distributed in Europe?
Festivals, screenings, pitches and professional meetings around the year as well as online screenings are important tools and events. Our experience is that markets, personal meetings (also in buyer's offices) and word of mouth remain the most efficient ways to make buyers consider our films.
Most documentaries travel transnationally on TV, some also in cinemas and on DVD. Most broadcasters showing documentaries are public TV stations, some are half-public, and of the private ones, mostly digital channels work with docs.

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What is the role of the sales agent in the production / financing of a documentary?
In short: Linking the creative filmmaking with the business.
Financing a documentary project means also finding a potential audience at the same time. Together with the producer we think of packaging the film – answering the question: why should anyone invest money and resources in a certain film? And who?
Sales agents can work as ‘foreign ministers’ for international co-productions that choose not to involve second or third party production companies but want to work directly with broadcasters around the world. We have managed many such co-productions over the years, with up to 10 broadcasting partners on 4 continents involved.
With co-productions like these, the sales agent or international distributor takes care of all international financing and contractual matters in tight cooperation with the producer. The work includes preparing buyers and commissioning editors for pitching sessions where the producer will present her project; the following up after a session and later coordinating all inputs from the involved parties during the process - from pitch to delivery of material.

Which threats will the documentary sector be facing in the next years?
Threats are always potential opportunities: one door closes and another one opens up... The fragmentation of the market is an issue we are dealing with on a daily basis already, and it requires more and more efficiency and lean management.
The main threat will be if production funds cease to flow, as here in Europe, they are the only reliable income for producers.

Finally, we would like to mention that international distributors and sales agents are among the only ones in the entire European documentary sector who are not funded by the MEDIA programme in any way, shape or form. The work of the sales agent, that consist in the marketing, promotion and distribution of many European films on dozens of markets, events and marketplaces around the year, goes unsupported...

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