Report: Rotterdam Lab

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Manchester-based producer Loran Dunn gives us the skinny from International Film Festival Rotterdam's fun, formative initiative

4 February 2020

One of the things we’re often looking for as producers is community, and this was one of the reasons I was so keen to undertake the Rotterdam Producers Lab – now in its 20th year – which promised an international community, with producers from 31 different countries coming together to learn about collaboration and co-production.

As we all filtered into the vast room in the Doelen on the first day, there was an air of apprehension; we were unsure what the tone of the week would be, and we defaulted quite quickly into our formal greetings and patter of projects we’re working on. Everyone sounded really impressive and did a great job of showcasing the flawless version of themselves. But that wasn’t what this lab was about.

We sat down for a speed networking session, one minute with each producer (there are 69 of us)! After speaking with 10 people a woman from South Africa sat in front of me: “Can we not talk about our projects anymore?” she said. “I’m sick of saying the same thing!”

Instead we spoke about what life is like in our different countries, and suddenly I’m not pitching any more, I’m making friends. Any discussion about our work from here on out was natural, and met with genuine enthusiasm.

It sounds easy, but it’s not, for a lab to foster a sense of openness and honesty, especially amongst producers, who are notorious for wanting to seem on top of everything and somewhat invincible. But every session was designed to do exactly this; there were no celebrity filmmakers wheeled out in front of us to impress but rather filmmakers who were totally real with us about the challenges that we should expect to face. An incredible Iranian producer ran a talk on failure, and shared with us how her company went bankrupt:

“So what?” she said. “So you make a bad film, so your company goes belly up, so you fall out with a director or exec – no one has died, so who gives a fuck! You can come back from failure, so don’t fear it.”

She reminded us that we often put an unrealistic expectation on ourselves as producers to have the box office smash, to win all the awards. It’s a huge amount of pressure, and we should free ourselves from that. She told us to own our mistakes and failures along the way, not hide from them, and to define our own success; then she casually reassured us that she raised £3.2 million for her next film! The session ended with huge applause, wolf whistles and cheers. In an industry full of people suffering from imposter syndrome and a constant fear that everyone is doing better than you, this is exactly the relatable content we needed! Before long we were sharing stories with each other about failed sales agents’ deals, festival rejections – the things you don’t tell anyone. We learned so much from these shared experiences.

Next up was a pitching workshop, following a pep talk from our speaker, who reminded us not to undermine ourselves while pitching (“Hopefully my project will happen;” “I just run a small company"). We were encouraged to stand up and pitch a project in three minutes, but before anyone stood up we were chanting “YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO OFFER!”

The energy was really electric and fun! Pitches were met with constructive and helpful feedback, and we felt confident to put ourselves out there and not be met with judgment.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I was expecting from the lab, but it wasn’t something quite this special; I’m not sure if I’ve been to any industry event that had such a level of openness and positivity. Dancing at the closing night party, we all formed a circle, each country stepping into the middle to riff to music from Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Germany, while everyone clapped. I felt a sense of warmth as I looked around the room; this is what trust, openness and honesty looks like, and there’s a lot that we can learn from that.

What if we empowered and uplifted each other rather than falling into a trap of judgment or jealousy? What if we let down the facade and shared what we found difficult: the rejection, the feeling of failing? What kind of power would we have then, if we gave it back to ourselves in this way? Let’s be that new generation of producers doing things differently. Let’s set the tone for an inclusive, supportive and sustainable industry. Let’s work with morality and respect for others, and ourselves, because we aren’t competitors; we’re collaborators, and our time is now!