Features

The POV Interview: Jan Rofekamp

Films Transit’s chief celebrates 25 years of distribution

Twist, dir. Ron Mann, Canada (1993)

JR: Jan Rofekamp
POV: Marc Glassman

POV: Why don’t we start at the beginning?

JR: I am from the Netherlands originally. I grew up in Holland, but I was born in Switzerland. My parents worked there then. I went to the Royal Dutch Film Academy in the Netherlands from 1968 to 1972, where I was trained as a production manager and became involved in various political, social, and film distribution activities. A friend and I founded a company called Fugitive Cinema Holland. In 1979, I was invited to one of the Montreal film festivals, with two political films about Salvador and Nicaragua, which were hot spots at the time. I met Francine Allaire [now head of drama at Radio Canada] and I moved to
Montreal in 1982. Together we started Films Transit as a sales company for Canadian independent films.

In the beginning, Films Transit worked with fiction and documentary. I had done a lot of documentaries in my previous career in Holland, so I knew what I was doing. We had a wonderful break in 1987 at Cannes with Patricia Rozema’s feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Two years later, we had a film by Michel Brault, Les Noces de Papier, which also did very, very well.

But then sometime in the early ’90s, I started to become very uncomfortable with the fiction end of it. It became really competitive. It was the time that the mini-majors started to profile themselves very heavily. Miramax was very strong at the time, and Sony Pictures Classics. On an international level, these slightly alternative new companies gobbled up most of the intelligent, cinema-loving audience.

POV: Can we backtrack a bit? Please tell me a bit about Fugitive Cinema and about that period in the ’70s when you were working in Holland. Were you a distributor or were you also doing foreign sales?

JR: No, we were actually domestic distributors, but there were three important things in the Netherlands at that time. One was that the Rotterdam film festival suddenly became a hot spot for foreign films. The second was the founding of a series of parallel theaters, which was called a “free circuit.” In the mid ’70s, there were 40 or 45 independent screens in the Netherlands. We called them the Film Houses in Holland. Some of them became integrated into the commercial circuit in the ’80s but some of them are still there and work very well.
Number three was that there was a conscious effort among political action and information groups to work with film. So Fugitive Cinema became the film importer for the Chile movement and the anti-Apartheid movement and the Angola committees—you just name it. All these different groups were well organized and well funded. And that is something which is still with me. I like films that are a part of that sort of political information movement.

POV: Did you become radicalized just during that period? Did school help?

JR: I started at film school in August of 1968. We were next door to the headquarters of the University of Amsterdam, which a month later was occupied by students. So the radicalization was immediate—from high school, and then right into the pond of tear gas and water cannons. I think that the crux was the link between political action information and documentaries. It gave me and the people I worked with a very serious purpose.

POV: Are there certain films from that period that you remember well?

JR: A month after the coup d’état in Chile, a British journalist smuggled himself into Chile to film Pablo Neruda’s funeral. This was done very quickly, and the piece was on television within six weeks. That film became a tool in the propaganda against Pinochet and the action information that we did in the Netherlands. Later in the ’70s, when Central America started to burn up, there were a number of films made in the Netherlands by Dutch filmmakers about El Salvador and Nicaragua.

POV: And in terms of distribution, was it literally church basements and community centres?

JR: Yeah, it was the classic system. It was the schools and the universities and church basements, Saturday evening gatherings or whatever. But we also dropped off films at the international film festivals. So I became familiar with places like Berlin, Locarno and Nyon, the same circuit I’m working on now. It was a period of time when there was a lot of money available for such things. By the end of the ’70s, it started to sort of dwindle down in Holland under a more conservative government. And by the time I left in 1982, Film International was in trouble with budget cuts. Actually, our little company was sort of folded into something else in 1984, two years after I left for good.

POV: You mentioned that you came to Montreal for the first time in 1979?

JR: Yes. I came to the Festival of New Cinema, with Claude Chamberlan and Dimitri Eipides. I met most of the gang that later became the Toronto International Film Festival. I sort of already knew them from the festival circuit in Europe.

POV: What was Francine doing?

JR: Francine at the time was at Cinema Libre, which was a small parallel distribution organization. I went to see those guys because they were the same type of people that we were in the Netherlands. And of course [film curator] Andre ́ Paquet was an old friend of mine.

So in ’82, we started Films Transit. It was very Canada-oriented at the beginning. It was only in the late ’80s that we started to get foreign films, Dutch films, some things from the States. I’ve been involved with the IFP [Independent Film Project] since the end of the ’70s, so I have a lot of contact within the American independent political film movement. People like Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who made A Lion in the House, which I am selling now.

POV: Can you take me through the steps of your immigration?

JR: I became a landed immigrant and I am still a landed immigrant. I am not a Canadian citizen. We got ourselves a little room in Cinema Libre’s office and started trying to sell Canadian documentaries. We had gotten a little help from a producer by the name of Jacques Pettigrew, who is very well-known in Montreal. He made three or four adventure/exploration/nature films that were quite nice and we sold them easily. There was something in the air in the early ’80s: producers became aware that sales agents were a good idea, that there was a place for them in the market. We also saw the first signs of things like the Discovery Channel. The broadcast market, which was traditionally confined to the public sector, became larger.

POV: This gave you an entry into television for probably the first time.

JR: Yes. National Geographic started producing more than nice photographs and you know what it led to — a huge landscape of thematically-driven cable and satellite channels that hugely enlarged documentary production output and our sales market.

POV: Were you switching even at that point in the ’80s to selling more for television, or were you still oriented more towards cinema?

JR: The market was always television. The VHS market never really developed: it was there, but it was marginal. We encountered VHS people and they were only interested if you had a documentary about the Rolling Stones. There were almost no documentaries in cinemas in the ’80s. It was only the film clubs. So, it was almost exclusively broadcast.

The Celluloid Closet, dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, USA (1995)


POV: So then when you had films like Patricia’s or Michel Brault’s it was a very different kind of situation for you.

JR: Yeah, the fiction market was very different. In the mid-’80s there was definitely a new wave of distributors who picked up those art films. By the time Patricia’s film went to premiere at Cannes, every country had at least two or three solid art-house distributors. They were in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, you name it. They were everywhere. We sold all of the key territories for I Heard the Mermaids Singing within that week or the two weeks after Cannes. There were people there who saw it and they went for it. But these people didn’t go for documentaries. It was a purely fiction- driven market.

POV: So, why did you make the choice to switch entirely to documentaries?

JR: There were a number of docs at the time that helped establish my company’s name as a documentary specialist. There was Peter Wintonick’s and Mark Achbar’s Manufacturing Consent and Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb and The Celluloid Closet by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman from San Francisco. If I hadn’t had that group of filmmakers around me, things would have misfired. Remember, it was a pre-Michael Moore time. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re only doing documentaries? Are you able to make a living?’ But those films did very well. It turned out that in the broadcast area, there was a very loyal group of customers. And then, because of the reputations that these films developed on the festival circuit, distributors slowly started to realize there was more that you could do with these films than just throw them on the box. That’s sort of the birth of early attempts to get documentaries on the big screen.

POV: Let’s talk a little bit more about the importance of festivals in that process. JR: There was an article in Variety a little while ago about the 50 most important film festivals in the world. Of the 1,500 film festivals in the world, only a very small group of them make a difference to the reputation and sales of individual films. We’ve divided film festivals into four categories. One is the “launch pads,” where you actually launch films. That’s your first call. If you don’t get your film there, you have to do something else, but that’s the first door you knock on. Some examples would be Sundance, Berlin, IDFA in Amsterdam and the Toronto International Film Festival. Next, there’s the A-List: the 40 key festivals that help to build a film’s name. Once the launch pad is established, you take it to the A-List.

POV: Can you give me some examples— but not 40?

JR: If your film goes to Sundance in January, you try to get a market screening in Berlin in February. That might not be possible, because it’s already been in competition at Sundance. Competitiveness is an issue. Then there’s It’s All True in Brazil in March, and the Munich documentary film festival at the beginning of April. Every few weeks, there’s another major festival somewhere in the world. Just to give you a few more examples: there’s the Jerusalem film festival, there’s Melbourne. There’s Hong Kong. So the trick is to get them into that circuit. That’s category two. That circuit, at the end of the year, gives you the 25 docs that are everywhere. These are thefilms that have gained a reputation. That’s what we’re after. And then there are the rest of the festivals.

POV: The rest are more niche-oriented.

JR: We basically hand them over to the filmmakers if we get the invites. We tell them, ‘Look. It doesn’t harm anything else. Let’s look at the schedule: do it, get invited, get yourself a screening fee, etc.’ And then the fourth category is specialized events. There are ecological events where we put in films about environmental issues because they attract specialized buyers. Or Human Rights Watch. We respond to them because we know that these are the festivals that get beyond the film press. So you get other people who view films that are not in the film press.

POV: More in the political territory, perhaps.

JR: A Lion in the House went to all kinds of medical events. It’s sort of a ‘back door’ that enhances DVD possibilities. And it is interesting for filmmakers to see how other press reacts to their work. Those are the categories. The problem is that because of the increased popularity of documentaries, there are just too many of us. Festivals are tearing their hair out because they can’t deal with the number of submissions. You know that about Hot Docs.

POV: Oh, I sure do.

JR: Amsterdam had 4,000 submissions. They have, say, 160 slots in the different categories. It’s unbelievable. The consequence is that the festivals can take the attitude that they only want world premieres. So, whereas in the past we could build a career through some of the launch pads, that has now become virtually impossible. We have had to go to one launch pad, and then straight to the A-List. We used to have films in Sundance and Berlin, which is unthinkable today.

POV: When Jane Balfour Films Ltd. [the leading British documentary sales agent] closed a few years ago, you were already very concerned about how things were going.

JR: Well, it’s a development of what could be called the second broadcast market — the cable and satellite market. We call it the ‘$1,000-a-pop market,’ because they always pay $1,000 or $1,200 for a film. If that market is an extension of an existing first market of the primetime major broadcasters, then there’s no problem because we just extend the opportunities for those films.

But the buyers for the first broadcast market have become extremely picky because of the quantity of films being offered them. They leave a film on the shelf for a month, two months, three months, because there is always another film to see. They want to go to the next festival—and all of those guys get invited everywhere. These buyers, they go all over the place. We can also say that the first market hasn’t really grown. BBC doesn’t have 15 more slots. The Passionate Eye doesn’t have 15 more slots.

The major broadcast markets haven’t grown. Only the second market is growing. That is a killer. That killed Jane Balfour. Because in the end, she only made sales in the second market and she couldn’t afford her company anymore. That is our main concern. Here in Canada, the Documentary Channel is being overhauled. There’s a generation of buyers being retired. HBO in America doesn’t buy any more documentaries. So I have a feeling that the television market hasn’t really been developing financially. POV: And you need sales and especially pre-sales to make these things happen and actually make new docs.

JR: The other thing is that most of the documentaries have been moved to digital. That’s another big issue. Because
if it’s digital the broadcasters pay a little less.

I’m very optimistic about something else, though, which is the new media. I’ve been developing a little theory. It says that the traditional markets that we’ve known for many years, the theatrical market, the DVD market and the television market, are part of a larger “box.” They have become almost a barrier for many independent filmmakers. What the Internet has proved is that on the other side of this barrier, there are millions of eyeballs that are potentially interested in content. For a long time, there was no way to jump over those barriers. But now we have that. And that is the big difference. Within five years it will be all electronic. And the entire landscape will have changed.

Crumb, dir. Terry Zwigoff, USA (1994)


POV: The question with Internet distribution is: how does everybody get paid?

JR: How to make money? There are ways of doing these things. You can still work on physical discs and actually mail them out. But that’s going to be phased out in the next little while. Then there’s streaming. People can download a doc to view it, with restrictions. It expires after seven days. Then people must download it to own.

It’s about volume. If 200 people download your film, you make $400. But then somebody has to pay the operation and the filmmaker something. So you have to find the volume. There’s a guy in the States who made a film about NASCAR. I heard that he sold 60,000 DVDs for $19.99 each. He did it himself. If you give it to companies you may still get into trouble through ordering relations and deals. The traditional distributors are not interested in setting up a department that looks for communities. They just want to be in the chains, in the Blockbusters and everything else.

POV: Do you see yourself at some point searching for those specialized audiences?

JR: I’m too old to set up a new business; I really have no energy for that. But I am very interested to work as a consultant for people who want to do this. We see 1,000 films a year. We pick up 20, 25. In the light of the Internet and the audiences out there, we see at least 300 films. They’re decent films. They could easily be incorporated into an Internet catalogue. So if somebody wants to build up a really well-thought-out Internet catalogue and goes after those audiences, I think that they could make a lot of money for the filmmaker. But I’m not interested in doing that myself.

POV: How about producing? You’ve sort of put your toes in the water a couple of times.
JR: I’ve done some executive-producing things. They were all films that at some point needed help. I think that I will continue to do that. But I also realize that it takes a lot of time. It’s just not my favorite job. I’m much more interested in content distribution. It’s what I’m good at and where I’m going to continue. I could see a situation where in the next few years the sales business will dwindle down a little bit. Instead of taking 25 films a year, maybe we’ll be taking 12 and doing them very efficiently, spending lots of time on promotion. We could also be doing some consulting, teaching younger producers how to navigate this whole system.

POV: If I can get back to the politics that first interested you, the radical politics of the ’60s, where do you feel that those politics are now in terms of documentaries and more specifically, in terms of Films Transit? Do you get to distribute that sort of film?

JR: My goal is to get the largest possible audiences for those kinds of films. The majority of people on this planet get their information from the wrong sources. Sixty percent of Americans get their news from FOX news, god forbid. It’s horrible. So how do you get there? I still think that traditional television is the main option. I mean, theatrical is fun, but it’s costly, it’s time-consuming. I was discussing The Real Dirt on Farmer John with John Peterson. He wants festivals, festivals, festivals. I said ‘John, you continue to screen your film for 120 people.’ He gets mad at me when I make a TV sale. I say ‘John, 600,000 people have seen your film. You have a rating of eight. Jesus Christ. Your message got across. And you got wonderful press. You still want to go to the festivals for 80 people at two screenings?’

But filmmakers still want that interaction you get at festivals with audiences. It’s very important for them. We had a very interesting experience here [at the the Toronto International Film Festival] with The Dictator Hunter. It’s an obscure subject. It’s about Africa, which is traditionally off the radar to everybody else. So we had little interest from the industry. But we had thre * e sold- out screenings in Toronto. We had very lively discussions and people were really happy to have seen it, and felt well- informed.

POV: The Dictator Hunter is a good example of the kind of film that I was talking about, the kind of tough, political film that existed when you started out. I remember being in film societies and programming those films. So here we are 35 years later. How do you get these films to the new audience?

JR: I think that Human Rights Watch is one of the groups which understand how to get films involved in their work, and Amnesty International does as well. But I mentioned The Dictator Hunter before because it taught us something: if we get it beyond the buyers, we will have a success, because people appreciate how good it is.

POV: Any final thoughts? Twenty-five years of Films Transit? You’re not necessarily a sentimental guy but, on the other hand, that’s a good time to reflect on what you’ve done and where you’re going.

JR: What I do has become more complicated than ever with the new media. But it’s still extraordinarily satisfying to see a great documentary about an important subject. And I feel fired up to work for those films so that is what I’m doing. My only problem is my pension fund! What can I do with my non-existent pension fund, because increasingly it is hard to make money in this business. Maybe changing roles a little bit from sales to consulting is a way out, because what I see happening around me from a license fees point of view is not nice. POV