China (mainland), INTERVIEWS, NEWS, Singapore, Taiwan — 02/25/2011 9:02 PM

Francis Smith (Infocus / Singapore): “We would love to coproduce with European companies and channels.”

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Francis Smith, co-founder of Infocus Asia, speaks about his last documentary productions in and about Asia. As one of the major Asian doc makers, he also speaks about financing and coproduction with Europe.

. Can you tell us your personal and professional story ?

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I’m half English, half Vietnamese, brought up all over the world, I studied classical Arabic, and started in the business as a news cameraman covering conflicts for the AP, I then joined the BBC where I became a current affairs documentary producer making films from Afghanistan to Kosovo to The Congo. In 2004, I set up IFA with my partners in Singapore, we now have offices in Singapore, Thailand, China and soon will be opening in Taiwan.

. Why are you interested by doc ?

Documentary is still the best, most fulfilling medium for storytelling in my mind, once you have started it’s hard to change paths as each story presents such a wonderful chance to see the world and individuals’ lives in so many different ways.

. Can you present Infocus ?

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IFA is a Singaporean company with offices in Thailand, China and soon to be in Taiwan. We all come from a BBC trained background and specialize in factual content that brings Asia to the world. We produce a mix of content, from client solutions series, to wildlife and reality shows. We are known for our wildlife work and produce high rating shows such as NGC’s Monsterfish series.

. What are your favorite subjects ?

We have filmed everything you can imagine – from the ‘100 cutest cats’ for Animal Planet Japan, to an attack of giant jellyfish to 16th century Tang dynasty reconstructions. In 2007, our first commission was a 60-minute documentary on the Tokyo Fire-fighting Department – Hyper Rescue Tokyo was awarded a ‘highly commended’ in the 2007 Asian Television Awards. We were commissioned to produce a four-part HD special called Soul of a River for Animal Planet. Further to this, we then wrapped up production of two more HD documentaries for Animal Planet – the 60-minute Kingdom of the Elephants and the 90-minute feature, Tales of the Mekong. In 2008, we produced four 60-minute HD films on massive religious and cultural events for Discovery Channel. The Revealed series’ first episode Hajj: Revealed aired to critical acclaim in November 2007.

Currently, we’re co-producing with NGCI, Discovery Asia, PTS Taiwan. But its very variable.

. How are you working with these major broadcasters ? who bring the ideas ? are they fully financing the projects or you need to complete financing with other financers ?

The coproductions are normally a combination of ideas and planning by both parties. We are always looking for strong ideas, and we fund programs from a number of sources. Sometimes fully commissioned, sometimes a two party coproduction, sometimes with funds from parties such as the MDA in Singapore who has been a strong supporter of our work. Normally all coproductions are based on commercial decisions, and depend on strong sales projections from distributors.

. What were the subjects of your 3 to 4 last docs ?

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We’ve just wrapped 7 x 1 hours on Monsterfish for NGC, we’re in post on a feature length doc on the most remote tribe in Taiwan with PTS Taiwan, we’ve just finished a 6 x 1 hour series on Singapore for Discovery and we just finished a 2 part special extreme sports reality show for Discovery China.

. For these projects, did you had partners in Europe ?

No, but we are very keen to work more with European partners. We have only worked with Amsterdam based Off The Fence Distributors so far.

. Have you sold these docs in Europe / to European broadcasters ? are you handling international distribution of these docs ?

We work with distributors to sell our programming, we’ve sold to the BBC and Channel 4 but not other European channels. We would love to coproduce with European companies and channels.

We’re always happy to coproduce with Europe/America, but it’s really a case by case basis, as for commercial channels there’s not a large number of projects that channels from west and east will want to coproduce on, acquisition is much simpler for them…

. You are developing projects in mainland China. Can you present the 2 projects you have made in China

The Yunnan 2 part special was a jungle extreme sports survival type format for Discovery, we also just wrapped a special on Chinese Muslims going to the Hajj for CICC this year.

We are currently working on 2 shows now, a 5 part series for Discovery, and a special on the rebuilding of Sichuan for CICC.

. 5 x 60 HD series in China (commisioned by DCI)
a new series celebrating some of the greatest individuals in Modern China – from sports, to the arts, from commerce to science, this new series shows to the world the faces of China ascendant.

. ‘Building Sichuan’ is part of the Discovery CICC China Imagica 2011 initiative to highlight filmmaking from China. It follows the amazing undertaking of relocating and rebuilding a city of thousands, after the devastating 2008 earthquake.

. Are you working with mainland broadcasters or only with asian channels ?

We work with all type of channels.

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. How did you worked with Baidu (the major Chinese search engine) ?

Baidu was a sponsor of our Jungle extreme sports format for Discovery. IFA wrapped this 2 x 30 series for DCI reality survival challenge. We formatted, produced and edited Discovery’s first ever China designed survival show – a large-scale production following elite amateur athletes on a grueling survival competition in the Yunnan Jungle. It was  sponsored by Baidu and aired in early 2011.

. Did you already coproduced docs with European producers, distributors or broadcasters ? if yes, which one ?

We’ve produced 3 shows in 2010 with Off The Fence – all wildlife specials, funded by us, OTF, NGCI and the MDA of Singapore.

. Do you have new doc projects about Asia ? are u looking for European partners ?

Yes, we have several new projects and we’d be happy to discuss with potential partners.

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. How do you see the evolution of Europe Asia cooperation in the field of documentary ? How could it be improved ?

Coproduction is the only way forward in Asia, as budgets are smaller, and large commissions rare. The issue is improving the communication and business models to allow for the very different tastes across the region – what works in one Asian country often doesn’t work in another.

. How do you see the evolution of documentary production in Asia ? can you find enough money to finance your projects in Asia ?

Yes, there is a strong and growing market, but local knowledge is very important, as the markets are very different. Documentary continues to be a popular medium for Asia. But the achieving of balance between the themes and styles of independent film making and the commercial needs of channels like DCI or NGCI is a hard one.

. What is the most promising market for doc ?

China.

. What are the most easy doc topics to get financing in Asia ?

It remains to be the most commercial, it’s hard to finance single shows, formats and reality shows sell best.

. For your Asian docs, are you working with in house directors or independent directors ?

We work with a mix of staff and independents, we have in-house teams and we encourage independents to talk to us about their ideas and we always support them in finding financing and then trying to make the show they want.

. Can you present your partnership with AP ?

We have an ongoing partnership with the AP to provide crewing and feed-point services in Asia, with studios in Singapore and play out in Thailand. We aim to provide services for all major events across the region. We also have a fiber link to the EBU in Singapore.

. Have you recently (during last 12 months) watched an Asian doc and an European doc which you have specially appreciated ?

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Position Among the Stars – about an Indonesian family, such a great, great doc, it made you feel you were truly part of this family and their struggles and successes in their daily lives.

Interview by mail on 25 February 2011

IFA and IFA’s founders major awards:

•    Asian TV Awards 2009 – Winner Best Reality, Best Social Affairs, Highly Commended for Best Editing & Best Achievement in HD
•    Asian TV Awards 2008 – Winner Best Cinematography, Best Natural History, Best Director, Highly Commended for Best Documentary and Best Editing
•    Royal Television Society – Cameraman of the Year wins x 5
•    New York Film Festival 2008 – Finalist Commendation
•    EMMY Factual Coverage Award 2002 -
•    Royal Television Society – News Story of the Year for East Timor
•    Royal Television Society – Team award for News Coverage of the Kosovo War
•    Royal Television Society – Documentary of the Year
•    Amnesty International UK – Documentary Award
•    Amnesty International Hong Kong Press Club – Human Rights Award x 4
•    British Environmental Press Award

Information about “Position Among the Stars”

position-among-the-stars-poster

2011 | Run time: 111 min. | aka: Stand van de Sterren | The Netherlands | Language: Indonesian with English subtitles | color

Story: One family, three generations, facing globalisation in Indonesia

Twelve years ago, Dutch filmmaker Retel Helmrich decided to visit Indonesia, the birthplace of his Dutch father and Indonesian mother, looking for inspiration. The trip ignited his fascination with the country and he started filming the Shamshudin family living in a Jakarta slum. He followed them as the country shook off the rule of president Suharto (THE EYE OF THE DAY), experienced a rise of Islamic power (SHAPE OF THE MOON) and eventually nascent democracy, corruption and a widening income gap (POSITION AMONG THE STARS)…

Official website and trailer

Clip 1 and Clip 2

Articles in Filmaker and IndieWire

IMDb page

Film Contact:
Diana Holtzberg, Films Transit International, Inc.
Phone: (212 ) 614-2808
Email: diana@filmstransit.com

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