Dutch-born Jan Rofekamp first started coming to IDFA in the early 1990s after he decided to re-focus his Montreal-based sales company Films Transit on feature documentaries.
“The only other person doing this at the time was Jane Balfour,” he says, referring to the London-based sales agent who was also a force in the market in the late 1990s.
It was not the first time Rofekamp had been involved in finding homes for documentaries. In the 1970s he was one of the founders of alternative Dutch distributor Fugitive Cinema, which focused on importing 16-mm works from political action groups from around the world. "We'd find homes for their films with advocacy groups here," he explains.
Rofekamp, who is now based mainly in Greece, moved to Montreal in 1982 and set up Films Transit shortly afterwards. After the company transitioned to focusing on documentary only, it quickly became a driving force in the international documentary market, with early titles including Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet. The company was also the place where Catherine La Clef, who later founded Paris-based Cat & Docs, VPRO’s head of documentary Barbara Truyen and most recently Diana Holtzberg began working in the business.
Three Film Revolutions
Looking over his career selling features, Rofekamp says he has lived through “three revolution movements” that have shaken the industry. “In the 1970s, the birth of video, which completely changed the market from both a technology and content point of view. Then in the 1980s, the birth of cable and satellite stations like National Geographic and Discovery,” he says. “They were far more commercial and created a very different type of language for documentary. They also created a lot of employment for filmmakers. In the early days, I sold them a stack of films, although today they mainly produce and rarely buy.”
The final revolution has been the “unfathomable mountain of the internet”, he says. One of the biggest consequences of which is the rise of players like Netflix and Amazon, who are snapping up creative documentaries that once went to the big broadcasters. “The key broadcast buyers in Europe who used to go to places like Sundance to pick up the top documentaries from the US are coming home empty-handed because they can’t match the prices of the big US digital platforms,” says Rofekamp. “When Netflix gives Tom Fassaert $200,000 for his film [A Family Affair], VPRO can’t match that,” he adds. “It's setting the parameters for what is happening now at places like IDFA.”
“We see that in the sales business. The filmmakers we work with all want a deal with Netflix. They don't see it for what it is – which is essentially the video store at the corner of the street, which is 95% shit.”
“But that lure of serious money is too great at a time when broadcaster budgets are going down. I've heard that top broadcasters are now banding together to make joint offers on documentaries.”
Advice to Budding Documentary Sales Agents
“When a young woman or man tells me today that they want to become a documentary sales agent, I tell them the broadcasters are still there but don't count on it for the long-run. If you're a 29-year-old and setting up a documentary sales agency, you need to be thinking about what will be happening in the next 15 years. I don't anymore. I've passed for this third revolution because I don't want to go there. I want to find someone who does it for me."
Against this backdrop, Rofekamp has been winding down Films Transit activities in recent years. He’s looking after just one competition title this year, Leonard Retel Helmrich’s The Long Season.
“I’m still Films Transit; the only difference is while I used to chase 15 films for the spring and 15 for the fall, I now pick up films here and there based on long-term relationships. I am much more into finding films I am personally connected with.”
“I'm currently involved in a documentary about the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Escher by Robin Lutz. It will be a creative doc with VR components so you can play around with the graphics. It's never been done before and I love that,” says Rofekamp.