An American in Sheffield…

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In early June, I found myself in Sheffield, England, an industrial city best known as the backdrop for the late ‘90s crowd pleaser The Full Monty. Thanks to the generous support of Chicken & Egg Pictures’ Accelerator Lab, a small group of filmmakers and I were given the opportunity to experience the Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the world’s premier non-fiction film festivals, and its accompanying documentary marketplace—a two-day affair of pitching and dealmaking dubbed, in typical cheeky British fashion, the MeetMarket.

For this marketplace ingénue, there was a lot to take in. Walking through Cutler Hall, an impressive English building that emanated centuries-old opulence, I watched filmmakers hobnob with Sheffield’s “Decision Makers”—a surprisingly elitist term for a largely approachable collection of broadcasters, distributors, and sales agents. Official pitches took place in the large banquet hall in 20-minute increments, much like a speed-dating marathon. Outside, informal meetings sprung up wherever a patch of carpet could be staked, even on the steps of the double staircase. Time was of the essence, and filmmakers all around me spoke intently while Decision Makers nodded and slipped on headsets to listen to trailers on laptops. The pace was dizzying and by the end of the day, both filmmakers and industry officials looked a little dazed and worn down.

The process of pitching one’s film can be exhilarating… and demoralizing. For many filmmakers, it’s the first opportunity they have to unveil their project to the general public. It’s a great time to test out their material, and maybe win over some funders and distributors. For many others, it is also their first brush with the harsh realities of the marketplace—a world that reduces their precious work to niche categories and unapologetically embraces the sexy and sensationalist. Beautiful, lyrical footage may make our filmmaking hearts swell, but are dismissed by TV broadcasters as being too slow for their viewing audiences, who by all accounts have severe ADD. My own film, which studies a rising trend of marriages between African migrant men in China and local Chinese women, received positive feedback. But it was also strongly suggested to me that I capture more extreme examples of Chinese people being racist against Africans, and draw out more emotional turmoil between my main married couple. Perhaps a divorce was in the works?

While I was braced for the demands of the market (I do live in Los Angeles, after all), I was not quite prepared for how different Europeans tastes could be. Americans have a strong palate for social justice issues and can be more apt to see films as artful advocacy than stand-alone art. Our colleagues across the pond, meanwhile, seem more interested in films that challenge and experiment with form. Early on in my conversations at Sheffield, I was often asked: “So what will your film look like?” It was a refreshing contrast to the question most often posed in the US: “Who is your audience?” And just as Americans are firmly fixated on issues that matter to our country, so too do Europeans have their own national concerns. I discovered, to my great surprise, that pressing topics in the US like “Ferguson” and “Black Lives Matter” barely register with European broadcasters. I was told that my own film was an interesting perspective on migration into China, but that it would have to take a backseat to films depicting Europe’s current migration crisis. Which was fair enough.

I learned a lot during my time in Sheffield. Be ready to pitch at a minute’s notice, even to the person standing in line at the theater next to you. Take up smoking, as apparently all the most useful information and best deals are exchanged in smokers’ circles. And relinquish the notion of a “general audience.” On the worldwide market, some films will inevitably be seen as “local” projects with little prospect of being broadcast internationally. For those projects seeking global appeal, a bit of creative repackaging may be in order if you really want to make the hard sell abroad.

Kathy Huang is a Firelight Documentary Lab Fellow and the Director of A GUANGZHOU LOVE STORY, which captures the love, heartache, and real life challenges of Afro-Chinese couples attempting to forge a meaningful future together in the face of racism and xenophobia.

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