Welcome to Deadline’s International Disruptors, a feature where we shine a spotlight on key executives and companies outside of the U.S. shaking up the offshore marketplace. This week, we’re talking with Isidoor Roebers and Lea Fels, partners at Dutch doc producer Scenery, a joint venture with Banijay Benelux that has served up artistic but commercial unscripted projects for everyone from local public broadcaster NPO to Netflix and Prime Video.
Scenery has been one of the Benelux region’s most influential documentary producers for several years, and now it is moving beyond its core Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg operations and into the UK and U.S.
Dutch producer Isidoor Roebers had already launched a company, Fonk Films, but in 2016 teamed with former Vice Media Benelux Head of Production and Head of TV/Editor-in-Chief of Vice TV Lea Fels to create Scenery. The two had met with Roebers was an emerging filmmaker seeking a place at the indie film-focused Dutch Film Institute, from which Fels had graduated. The pair now run the Amsterdam-based company as a joint venture with Banijay, with the global super-indie’s involved led by Banijay Benelux production subsidiary NL Film.
Scenery has made docs for Prime Video, Universal, NPO and Videoland among others, but it’s most popular show to date was Human Playground, an Idris Elba-narrated Netflix and Youku China series co-produced with Banijay UK’s Workerbee that explores the history of play across the globe, from age-old rituals to billion-dollar businesses and competitions.
The series’ business model is unusual, centered on a book from Hannelore Vandenbussche published by TeNeus Books that was released in 44 countries. Roebers says some of those publishing revenues went into part-funding the series, which in turn made the project more financially enticing to Netflix. “We try to look at alternative ways of completing the budget,” he adds.
Not only that, but Scenery has now signed the show’s director and showrunner, Tomas Kaan, to a Creative Producer role within the company that will see him develop international stories and support other creatives with their doc plans, as we reported last month. Kaan is also known for Netflix sex line drama Dirty Lines.
By involving Netflix and Youku late on, Scenery was able to ensure rights to Human Playground will revert to them after a holdback period. “We never have these conversations with the streamer at the beginning,” says Fels. “It’s a last phase discussion, but the funny thing is people don’t usually care about Benelux [Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg] so we can usually keep those rights, and if we need to provide the Rest Of World we can. It depends a little on how complex you’ve made the structure of your financing, but if you create a licence deal situation, there are fewer strings.”
Scenery has become expert in accessing soft money from the likes of the Netherlands Film Fund’s CineDoc pot and the Netherlands Film Commission’s 35% cash rebate incentive, allowing it to work directly with directors and filmmakers and license their work later. “The soft money really helps us to be healthier than many production companies in the U.S. because we have several options,” says Fels.
Taking the studio route
The company also uses a studio model, in which Banijay Rights co-finances the development and then sells the resulting title internationally.
The latter was the case with Lara vs. Escobar, Mags Gavan’s premium documentary about an extraordinary meeting of Pablo Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo Escobar, and Jorge Lara, son of Justice Rodrigo Lara, who Pablo Escobar had murdered. “Fifty producers wanted that project but we knew the creator and we got it,” says Roebers. “If we really believe in something, we can invest in and release it ourselves — that’s where Banijay comes in. That’s something we’re telling all directors: There is a possibility we can keep it in-house. It needs to be appealing globally but they can speak to Banijay Rights.”
Banijay, best known for formats such as Survivor and Big Brother, had been pushing into the premium doc space when Scenery presented Lara vs. Escobar. With the support of Banijay Rights CEO Cathy Payne and Head of Acquisitions Simon Cox, the distribution company took on the project, with plans to release the film at “A-list” festivals. It first launched to TV buyers at Mipcom. “With the recession, the pitching climate is difficult, and going straight to streaming made no sense,” says Roebers.
“More and more directors feel lie the are being squeezed into a creative mould that streamers want them in,” adds Roebers. “We’ve created a world where creative expression is the most important thing and we can meet their needs.”
‘A very good IDFA
At the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam last month, Scenery launched the Scenery IDFA Pitch and brought along Kaan, CAA agents and former Channel 4 acquisitions execs to help its creative community meet power brokers. It also allowed Banijay execs to meet with creatives and talk development funding and in total 44 projects from 25 countries were pitched. Scenery is now assessing those ideas, and Fels will only say cryptically: “It was a very good IDFA.”
A third revenue stream is working directly with local broadcasters such as NPO and European streamers including NPO Star, Belgium’s Streamz and Scandinavia’s Viaplay, all of whose doc teams broadly comprise traditional TV folk. “That is nice because you really talk with them about the creative side of the film,” says Fels. “Other streamers can be more data-driven and are fighting over the same profile and directors.”
She adds that the company “manages fairly well as we try not to depend on any one platform too much.” This is doubly important as the future of streaming remains unclear in Europe, with HBO Max no longer an active player and rumors that the changes at major media companies in the U.S. will begin to impact more forcefully those on the other side of the Atlantic.
“Due to recession, streamers are more risk averse,” says Roebers. “HBO Max were shooting but stopped projects. Netflix tried a lot of things in the beginning but it has now big competition from Disney+, which debuted globally in the Netherlands because of the internet speeds here. At the start, the new services all wanted their big local hit but now you can sense they are becoming more risk averse. Many projects are about famous people and the trickier ideas are becoming harder to get away, so we have to be more creative.”
‘Ballet 422 meets Black Swan’
Upcoming projects include a doc special called Front Row, from Dutch filmmaker Miriam Guttman whose three-parter Seeds of Deceit was part of the Official Selection at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Front Row follows the United Ukrainian Ballet, a company founded by star ballerina Igone de Jongh founded in The Hague last year for refugee Ukrainian dancers that’s now touring Europe with special dancer performance, ‘Giselle.’ It also follows the dancers as they keep in touch with family members back home who are fighting the invading Russian forces “It’s a like Ballet 422 meets Black Swan, as we follow three characters over a year. It’s about dance but also about their coping mechanisms: One finds out their former ballet teacher was executed in Ukraine very early into filming.”
“They are terrible stories,” admits Fels, but she says the doc is not only about war but also of hope and resilience. “You can see that dancing keeps them going. It is a way to survive the war.”
The plan is to launch the 90-minute film at major festivals in 2024, and no buyers are attached at this stage. “It’s a great example of a Scenery production – starting in the Netherlands but going across the world as they travel to perform, hopefully in Kiev eventually,” adds Roebers. “We sensed there was story and it’s being packaged internationally.”
Also in the development pipeline are a pair of projects with A24, details of which are scant, and a pilot about the global waste problem created for a broad audience that has €300,000 (US$320,000) raised for production. Fels says looking at how her former employer Vice uses its publishing arm to expand the reach of global campaign docs helps Scenery to “mould the creative strategy, and make sure people hear about the stories wherever they are.”
Scenery’s partnership with Rick Murray’s Manchester, UK-based Workerbee is set to expand with a duo of new projects. Again details aren’t forthcoming but Roebers is extremely complimentary about Murray, who recently changed his Managing Director post to a CEO role to focus on more local and international business.
“Human Playground would not have happened without Rick’s support,” says Roebers. “He was almost like my mentor and it has grown into a friendship.”
Deadline understands Scenery is set to partner with another Banijay UK indie on a major unscripted format, with details set to follow at a later date.
Roebers, whose early dream was to work in Hollywood, is also set to spend an extended period of time in LA “to really build the bridge between Europe and America.” He will use contacts of Banijay North America to meet new directors, producers and filmmakers, and will look to bring the likes of CAA and Netflix story ideas from Europe.
“What we try to do is find local stories wherever they are,” he says. “Many are good at creating locally, taking films to a festival and then hoping a sales agent can sell them internationally. We try to find mostly European stories with an angle that might be appealing for the global audience. We’re really invested in being able to do that, however we finance them.”