BFI NETWORK meets ACE Producers

New perspectives are vital to the process of transformation. In order to find new ways of doing things, we need to consult people with different experiences, mindsets and approaches to their work.

In the spirit of sharing knowledge and experience – a key focus for the Creative Europe programme moving forward – we invited Caragh Davison of BFI NETWORK (below left) and Jacobine van der Vloed of ACE Producers (below right) to sit down over Skype to swap notes about their respective training programmes for filmmakers and talk about rule-breaking, match-making and why you should always keep applying! 

Creative Europe Desk UK (CED UK): Let’s kick things off with a brief intro. Who are you and what is your job?

Caragh Davison: I’m Caragh, I work at BFI NETWORK and we exist to support new filmmakers across the whole of the UK through a range of funding, talent development and outreach activity. We nurture writers, directors and producers who’ve yet to make a first feature throughout the early stages of their careers with a view to demystifying the film industry and making it more accessible to everyone. NETWORK@LFF is our flagship Talent Development programme at the heart of the BFI London Film Festival aimed at filmmakers on the cusp of making their first feature.

Jacobine van der Vloed: I’m Jacobine and I run ACE Producers – I’m the Managing Director but also Head of Studies, and I’ve been doing that now for almost three years. ACE has existed for almost 28 years. It used to be based in Paris and for the past three years it’s been based in the Netherlands. ACE is a training provider, but mostly it’s a network of European film producers. It’s really focused on the producer and all the different aspects and hats they wear.

We have several workshops – the main training spans an entire year. We take them from content development to financing strategies to business prospects and then they become part of the network. We also organise an annual reunion where producers who are already part of the network and the 18 selected that year come together. It’s happening in Scotland this year. And then there are two other workshops that are really new – the Series special, because series production is really different to feature film production and then in March next year we’re launching the first Animation special.

CED UK: How do you provide continued support to participants and encourage them to feel part of a wider ecosystem once they have completed training?

Caragh: BFI NETWORK exists to be the open door to the Film Fund and the BFI, because we’re in the position of working with new filmmakers we understand that something like the BFI can seem quite intimidating, so everything we do is designed to hopefully demystify the industry, make it less intimidating, get them to understand how it works and also a lot of the time to meet each other. For writers and directors particularly it can be quite isolating, so a lot of the time it’s about bringing them together in a room where they can share their experiences.

When you spend quite an intense period with a small group of people, there’s something unique about the way you bond with each other

With the talent development programmes we run, part of that is literally putting people in a room together and hopefully it can foster collaboration or moving forward they’ll have a bond. When you spend quite an intense period with a small group of people, there’s something unique about the way you bond with each other so everyone who goes through one of the programmes ends up having their own WhatsApp group. It becomes a support network that you have around you and you get advice from each other as well as the people we have given them access to.

Jacobine: What can I add to that?!

One of the most crucial elements, as you said, is putting them in a room together and being able to share experiences both good and bad. Especially the bad.

Caragh: Yeah exactly.

Jacobine: That’s how you learn from each other. Once you’ve participated in this main workshop you become part of the network. They pay a yearly fee of €250 but then they get a lot of benefits. It’s about building contacts and networks, because the film industry is about having the right contacts. It’s particularly crucial in Europe because we co-produce so much together and the rules of various funds change so much, so it’s really important that you’re able to pick up the phone to someone in Denmark who is an ACE producer as well and ask ‘so how does it work in your country?’

It’s just as important for experienced producers to still be learning. Especially because the industry is changing around them

We also think it’s important to see each other, so we host gatherings at film festivals but then with the annual reunion it’s about the sessions and the content, but also meeting new people, renewing your networks and it’s just as important for experienced producers to still be learning. Especially because the industry is still changing around them. Support from funds often go to young, upcoming talent but later on in your career you still need input and new knowledge.

Producers in the ACE Network gather for yearly reunions with peers old and new.

CED UK: And presumably it’s good for emerging talent to know that training programmes exist down the line, it’s not like they have to absorb it all now.

Caragh: Absolutely. NETWORK@LFF is a moment to inspire them. It’s five days, so you can’t give them everything. We’re giving them a welcome to the industry. With us it’s like, here’s a bunch of filmmakers to listen to with wildly different experiences and approaches to making films and everyone can take something different from that. That’s the thing with us being talent focused as well rather than project focused, we’re much more into looking at them and their wider career.

We also have a travel grant with British Council to support people if they get accepted onto international labs. We’re always trying to help them get to the next stage in their careers, which is different for everyone.

Jacobine: I think what you’re doing is really good and it’s so essential for it to not always be project based. ACE is project based, but its also so much about them as a person and where they want to go in their careers.

And when you were saying these five days, you will never be able to cover all subjects, even when we have three weeks I find it difficult. What I find so important is after each workshop, I ask the group for input: ‘what did you like?’ ‘what was your feeling?’ Then I can build on that.

When I came to ACE they had 1-2-1 sessions with consultants and experts and then plenary sessions but they didn’t have any group sessions. And I kept hearing from participants that they wanted group sessions. With producers that come to ACE, they’re already quite experienced. Emily Morgan who did it last year had already produced a feature film and was doing her next, so they have that knowledge. They become each other’s consultants, I don’t always need to fly in all these experts, because they can consult each other as well, which is quite a revelation.

CED UK: When you’re putting a programme together, how are you making sure that it caters to everyone, particularly when you’re incorporating a diversity of projects and backgrounds?

Jacobine: You have to be sort of specific. If you go too broad, you don’t go deep enough. For some people it will be more interesting and for others it will be less. What I find important in when designing the group there are people from lots of different backgrounds and territories so that there’s lots of different knowledge around the table. I also look at the group and see if there’s a specific area we need to cater to when I think about which consultants to bring over.

Caragh: It’s kind of similar for us as well. Although where we differ is that we have a theme each year so last year’s was ‘genre-benders & rule-breakers’, this year we focused on people that had ambitions to tell international stories. So that’s where we begin when we put out the call for applications and we also speak to the festival as well to make sure that what’s in the programme will fit with that theme. So first off we’re looking for people that have responded to that brief and are working in that space or thinking in that way.

It’s about finding people that aren’t necessarily known to the industry and can really benefit from our help

Following that it’s about getting a group of people who are at a similar level career-wise with each other. It can be difficult, especially because at NETWORK we have a broad scope in the realms of new filmmakers. People come to us who have just made their first couple of shorts and then there are people who are very much about to make their first feature. So for us it’s about hitting that sweet spot between people that are on the cusp of making their first feature but also finding people that aren’t necessarily known to the industry and can really benefit from our help.

In 2019 NETWORK@LFF brought together a cohort of global storytellers for
industry sessions, talks and screenings.

Also it’s about that group not really knowing each other. If we get applicants that regularly work together as a team it’s unlikely we would take both of those people. You kind of want everyone to be in the same position and meeting everyone for the first time. And then when we bring the guests in and have about six or seven first-time feature filmmakers sharing their experiences you realise how totally different they’ve all done it and then the participants in the room are like ‘oh right there’s not one way to do this, we’re all gonna do this differently.’

But I think a challenge we have is putting something together that’s for writer, directors and producers and not favouring on over the other. Splitting them into groups has been something we’ve considered before but there will be things that come out of the group sessions that a director might not have considered and is actually going to be helpful for them as well. So it’s also about communicating that even if a session doesn’t seem specifically catered towards them, they might still get something out of it.

CED UK: Let’s talk more about the selection process and how you find the ‘right’ people to take part and whether it’s the right time for them to apply?

Caragh: We’re lucky in that we have talent execs based all around the UK, so our outreach is quite wide and we’re working in a way that allows us to access filmmakers in the UK in the broadest possible sense. But it’s always hard getting 500 applications down to 12 people and inevitably you have to say no to people that you think are great. It’s about keeping that door open and encouraging them to apply again. We had a couple of people on the programme this year and it was their fourth or fifth time applying. They could’ve easily given up. And it’s hard to say next year will be your year, but if applicants keep coming back and demonstrating to us that they’re working hard and doing whatever they can to further themselves it helps us realise that they’re serious.

Jacobine: So we don’t have an open application process. You need to have a conversation with my colleague Al Williams who is our Producer Liaison. She has an open dialogue with them about whether they’re eligible because we want to avoid people putting a lot of effort into an application and then being ineligible. And then for us they have to have a project in the right stage of development and it should be a potential co-production. We also need producers that have the time and can come for the whole 3 weeks as this process of going through it with the whole group is intimate. It’s important to us that they form a group and are going to go on holidays together until the end of their lives!

Whilst we do scout at festivals such as Rotterdam, Berlin and Cannes, we also ask the last group of producers who their peers are and who they think would be fitting. And then we have a board and partners that we reach out to.

Even our current president was rejected the first time he applied! It’s not shameful to be rejected the first time

I always have conversations with people that are not selected and explain to them the reasons and in most cases we would say please come back and apply again. Even our current president was rejected the first time he applied! It’s not shameful to be rejected the first time.

Caragh: Totally.

CEDUK: How are you staying on top of trends that inform your programmes?

Jacobine: In what we do you have to stay on top of everything all the time because we are the training providers and we need to know the market that we’re putting producers into. I do a lot of research, I go to a lot of festivals and events. The lucky thing I have is 250 active producers in the network and a very active board of 20 so I talk a lot with them. These are the people who are in the field. And then I also ask for feedback. I don’t mind criticism because then the programme can grow even further.

Ultimately the workshop exists to cater to needs. I can invent and think of a lot of things, but if it’s not catering to their needs then why are we doing it?

Caragh: There’s so much I agree with, especially when it comes to the feedback aspect. In the application stage we ask ‘what do you want to get out of this?’ and then when it’s over, we ask ‘what did you get out of this?’ and ‘how can we improve for next year?’ That’s the truest way of understanding if what you’re doing is effective.

In terms of the programme, the beauty of being tied to the London Film Festival is that depends on who and what is in their programme and we get to cast a wide net in terms of what is happening with debut features at that time and it’s totally different every year.

And every guest and participant brings something different to the space, so you’re never going to have two sessions that are the same.

Jacobine: We used to have a formal coalition of training providers, but now it’s more informal where we share experiences – a lot of us are MEDIA-funded – and we’re all very open. A lot of people think that we’re competing with each other but everyone has their niche within the market and we’re constantly in touch about new developments and funds. That’s very important I think.

Caragh: Yeah definitely. Especially when you hear from another programme that ‘this is guest speaker was amazing’, you’re like ‘great, that’s a really good person for us to get in the room as well.’ Even just watching other Q&As. I remember I saw one with David Lowery when he did A Ghost Story and he was so generous and kind. Then when we did LFF the following year and The Old Man and The Gun was there, I knew he would be great to go after.

Also being based in the Film Fund we have our wider execs and colleagues that are always meeting interesting people.

CEDUK: How do you encourage participants to prepare and make sure everyone in the room feels involved?

Caragh: I sympathise with the shy people in the room. We always send the programme in advance so they know who they’re going to see and we ask them to do their homework. Every session is a conversation – at any point you can jump in with questions and we really encourage the filmmakers to do that.

Last year we had Steve McQueen come in and he did an amazing session, but at one point he pointed out someone and was like ‘you’ve not asked me a question yet, what do you want to know?’ which is kind of terrifying but it gave me a great story for this year’s cohort as a reason to come prepared.

In 2018 Steve McQueen was one of the filmmakers who addressed
the NETWORK@LFF cohort

Jacobine: That’s great.

I think it’s about trust and openness and being vulnerable. On the first day we do a pitch training session and everyone gets used to talking and they get to know each other really fast and then they give input on each other’s projects. For me it’s important that they put everything on the table, all their difficulties and challenges. And you create that atmosphere by being yourself and my team are also open; if they’re not, the rest will not be. That’s why I prefer to start the workshops small and not have so many consultants.

CED UK: Do you have anything you want to ask each other?

Caragh: I’m on the spot now.

CED UK: We’ve done a Steve McQueen.

Jacobine: My question is about the organisation of the programme during the festival and whether you find there are any downsides to that?

Caragh: I think there’s more pros than cons. Having the festival means there’s a wealth of talent and industry people within our reach and that we wouldn’t be able to afford to get over to London normally. Sometimes it can be a scheduling nightmare with Toronto just before and the programme always comes together very last minute which is really stressful.

Jacobine: That is intense.

Caragh: I’d be interested to know what the network looks like outside of the programme because that’s something we’re often thinking about, how can we expand what we’ve built in those five days?

Jacobine: There’s different elements. We offer lots of discounts for festival badges. We’ve existed for so long we have good relationships with these festivals. And then we organise gatherings at these festivals. Throughout the year we’re also in touch with them a lot with updates and they can reach out to us for advice. We sometimes hear that they are looking for a producer in, say, Canada, and we can match-make and suggest names.

The biggest compliment for us is that these producers go on to co-produce with each other. But building a network takes time. You have to ask them what they would like to get from you. It’s not about us, it’s about them.

Caragh: Definitely. I’d love to do a reunion.

CED UK: Thank you both for your time and for being so open!

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