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Sheffield Documentary Film Festival 2010: Joan Rivers, Kevin MacDonald + the MeetMarket

If you want to meet documentary filmmakers from around the globe, Sheffield Documentary Film Festival is the place to be. The 17th year of the event kicked off on Wednesday evening with the UK premier of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Interviewed yesterday by the chair of the Festival, Steve Hewlett, Ms Rivers replied to the loaded question - ‘why did she make the film?’ – with the pithy, ‘because they asked me to’. La Rivers acknowledged herself she will grasp the opportunities for exposure whatever their form, and, as the subject of a documentary film, sanctioned the all-access  footage of her life now available for an audience.

If access to Joan Rivers was a key element of that film’s success, it is also one of the defining USPs of this Sheffield event. However, filmmakers are here for access , not to celebrities, but to the people who commission, distribute, fund, buy and sell documentaries. The Who’s Who session on day one was an opportunity to ‘meet’, in a panel formation, the people coming from around the globe (24 different countries) seeking documentary fodder to develop, co-produce or buy.

This event, lasting an hour and a half, was a fast-paced, minute-per-speaker intro to these Decision Makers, all available between 9am and 6pm over the course of the festival (which winds up on Sunday) for chats, pitches and ear-bending. Delegates were cutely but firmly warned no pitching or chasing of decision makers outside hours or in the loos. Each ‘turn ‘ succinctly  informed the crowd of what they did precisely and what they were looking for. Delegates were advised to do their homework and target their proposals to the appropriate person.

Beyond the stats of the £14million in sales negotiated at last year’s MeetMarket - where pre-selected projects are offered scheduled meetings with financiers and mentors - a reason to be at Sheffield if you’re not quite at the deal-cutting stage is the nature and feel of the event. Consensus (from a well-researched pool of two) was that Sheffield works for documentary filmmakers because of the culture it operates within: welcoming, casual, sociable. It’s easy to approach people, and the vibe is one of access and connection. Even one of the decision makers at the Who’s Who made a plea for a relaxed approach to pitching and project schedules. The implication is, even if deals are not cut here and right now, there’s still time. And as the Festival shifts to a June slot in 2011, it won’t be such a wait to update what may get off the ground here between the 3rd and 7th of November.

On an up-to-date note, today at 5pm Kevin Macdonald is extricated from an editing suite to discuss his still-in-production  project, Life in a Day, with Stuart Cosgrove form Channel 4. Constructed from 80,000 online submitted videos, this crowd-sourced extravaganza is due for release at Sundance next year. In these interesting financial times, how the money is got to develop a project, and capture an audience, looms large as a topic for, well, everything. The audience no longer necessarily responds to build-and-they-will-come, so the maker must go to, and involve, the audience. But what are the dynamics and outcomes for the filmmaker at the other end of such a mammoth collaborative approach (other than editing exhaustion)?

If access to Kevin Macdonald isn’t sold out today, I’ll  update on just what the cross-platform approach can mean for a filmmaker who has tasted success in the more traditional production realms of film. Documentaries may have a public service ethos at the heart of much of their production and commissioning, but keeping an audience interested is what the decision makers here at Sheffield are primarily interested in. Is crowd-sourcing going to deliver for everyone, or is it going to be a triumph of user-generated footage management over ultimate content? All eyes on Sundance responses in January for the low down, or maybe even the shakedown, on Macdonald’s latest venture.

For full details of programmes and sessions go to