Zürich-based sales agent is representing The Reformist-a Female Imam and On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship running in the international competition at CPH:DOX.

On the eve of the opening of Copenhagen’s major international documentary festival, we spoke to First Hand Films’ Deputy Director, Danish-born Gitte Hansen.

You have The Reformist-a Female Imam and On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship at CPH:DOX main competition. Could you explain how and when you boarded each film?
Gitte Hansen: It had been a dream for us to work on those films. We had been in contact with the films’ respective producers Jesper Jack [House of Real] and Vibeke Vogel regarding other films. Those two projects were just what we wanted: directed by two female directors, one up and coming [Marie Skovgaard] and one very strong and experienced [Karen Stokkendal Poulsen].

We boarded The Reformist-a Female Imam when it was still in the making and On the Inside…just recently, when we saw a late rough cut. Usually we wait to get a rough cut to give feed back to the filmmakers.

What’s the distribution strategy for the films?
With On the Inside…, we’ve just signed the world distribution contract so it’s still early to tell, but the filmmakers and us are ambitious with this extraordinary film. With The Reformist-a Female Imam we are in full swing, and the team with director Marie Skovgaard is very involved in the promotion. A lot of buyers around the world are already eagerly waiting to see it. It is a controversial film and will raise much debate, both at home and abroad. Our aim is to make as many people around the world see the film, not only those that already agree with the protagonist, but those that maybe also look for context and knowledge. We will push the film in all media to make it accessible for all including via the traditional theatrical and television distribution.

What are the advantages of launching a film at CPH:DOX?
CPH:DOX is a well-curated international festival, important for all films, and even more for Danish films, attracting many international professionals. The festival is very good at promoting the event locally and getting local audiences to see the films, which is the essence of it all.  We’re very happy to have two films in the international competition, on top of Jonas Bruun’s Humanity on Trial that will open the ‘Justice’ programme, and Survivors (Sierra Leone/USA] screening in ‘Change’.

What are your criteria to board a project?
We get offered many hundreds projects a year. Firstly, we need to fall in love with a project which is often connected to the quality of the narrative, the storytelling, the filmmaking, the pov, the authenticity and relevance of the film.  And of course, we do need to believe that we can sell it.

How has the pre-financing of documentaries -and your role in the pre-sales market- evolved in the last five years?
GH: Since 2013 we are executive producing selective films. Both Esther [van Messel, the company CEO] and I come from film schools and film education, therefore associating us early to a project can be very useful in the filmmaking process; we have a thorough knowledge of the market and can help producers think in terms of audience. But pre-financing is increasingly difficult. Very few people are able to take risks today.

In what way has Netflix modified your activities?
GH: When it comes to documentary it looks like Netflix also plays the safe card and doesn’t invest in risky business, which is a natural part of documentary filmmaking. The Netflix solution in a distribution strategy is not the only one, also not as a plan A. In any case we do discuss projects with Netflix and streamers in general, but revenues to producers still remain marginal. Another interesting issue when distributing is that a big exclusive deal does not necessary mean big audience, while a smaller deals can result in millions audience-wise.

What is the mid-term plan for First Hand Films?
GH: I’ve worked 15 years now with First Hand. The biggest change is that we’re not only doing sales, but also producing local films, co-producing international projects, and distributing films in Swiss cinemas (fiction and non-fiction). We will continue to bring our savoir-faire to production, distribution, sales, and to offer tailor-made solutions to films and docu-series that are relevant, authentic and entertaining.

Our company is a strong supporter of gender equality and we want to bring more women stories to the screens, quoting Marian Wright Edelman: You can’t be what you can’t see! We are extremely proud to represent not only The Reformist, but also films like The Feminist by Hampus Linder focusing on Swedish feminist and politician Gudrun Schyman. First Hand Films handles the international distribution and closed sales with Hertlix in the US, DoxBio, DR, Nettkino and Yle.

What upcoming Nordic docs do you have on your slate?
From Norway we are executive producing Motlys’ film A-HA the Movie co-directed by Thomas Robsam and Aslaug Holm and Trust Me by Emil Trier. From Denmark there is the beautiful and moving Dreams from the Outback, a film about the Aboriginals directed by Jannik Splidsboel for Larm Film. It will screen as a world premiere in competition at Nyon’s Visions du Réel. Then from Finland, there is the film about artificial intelligence Who Made You by Iiris Härmä, produced by Guerilla Production and from Sweden the film Yasir (working title) by David Aronowitsch and Ahmed Abdullahi, produced by Story AB. It is in editing right now.

Do you have tips to upcoming doc producers or filmmakers?
GH: I would say:

  • Travel, meet fellow filmmakers, watch their films, get inspired. 
  • Trust team work 
  • Watch films on different platforms – if you dream of getting your film in the cinema, think of when did you pay for a ticket to watch a documentary in a cinema yourself, think of where your audience watch films  
  • Make sure your sales agent shares the same visions as you.