How CPH:DOX Came to Be Pivotal Event in Documentary Calendar4 min read
When CPH:DOX shifted from a fall festival to a spring-based fest in 2017, it got out of IDFA’s shadow and grew into one of the most influential documentary events of the year.
“It made a big jump in prominence when it moved to March because it fit into the calendar in a more exciting way for a lot of documentary stakeholders,” Thom Powers, lead documentary programmer for Toronto Film Festival, says. “It became a great place for films coming out of Sundance to have a European launch. It’s also become a very significant place for films to make world premieres near the beginning of the year, which can then send them on a circuit, traveling to other festivals like Hot Docs or DOC NYC.”
Now in its 20th year, CPH:DOX is among the largest documentary film festivals in the world. This year’s lineup includes 200 docus, more than half of which are making world premieres. There are 61 competition titles in five international competitions, and for the first time in the fest’s history, all 13 films competing for the top Dox:Award are world premieres.
For 13 years, CPH:DOX took place in November in the weeks before IDFA, but in 2015 as international industry attendance expanded their presence at the all-doc fest, the decision was made to create more space to, as former Copenhagen Film Festival CEO Steffen Andersen-Møller, put it, “unfold CPH:DOX’s potential.”
“Ideally, (the date change) will ensure that CPH:DOX opens the year, and IDFA closes it,” Andersen-Møller said in 2015.
According to producer Julie Goldman, that’s precisely what happened.
“IDFA and CPH:DOX are wonderfully complementary,” she says. “They are both these very substantial and influential doc-driven festivals at the beginning and end of the year.”
Goldman, a two-time Oscar nominee who founded Motto Pictures, has three films at CPH:DOX this year: Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano’s “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory,” and Nancy Schwartzman’s “Victim/Suspect.”
“Eternal Memory” and “Victim/Suspect” premiered at Sundance in January.
“It’s a wonderful next stop for both films,” Goldman says. “It’s a first look for international audiences.”
Powers, who will be at CPH:DOX to host the fest’s Morning with Filmmakers series, adds: “Since the beginning of CPH, they have made a real effort to bring international decision-makers from the worlds of distribution and festival programming. So it’s a place more than some other European documentary festivals, where filmmakers have a chance to really propel their career in different ways.”
Despite the fest’s growth, it remains a unique, community-based affair known for its enthusiastic audiences and upbeat vibes. It’s also a festival that doesn’t fear the nonfiction genre’s continual evolution of form.
“CPH is a very curious festival,” says artistic director of CPH:DOX Niklas Engstrom. “For a while, we were boxed in as this crazy festival in Copenhagen focusing mostly on hybrid films. Of course, that is part of the festival’s history, and those types of films are still super interesting to us because they try to expand on the notion of what documentary is.” But Engstrom explains that in addition to the experimental, CPH:DOX programmers are also drawn to a wide variety of docus, including straightforward investigative journalistic projects.
The overall mission of CPH, Engstrom says, is to “expand on what documentary is and can be.”
The CPH:FORUM, which will feature 34 international projects, is a prime example of that mission. Film financiers from around the world and top representatives from streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon all descend on Copenhagen to attend the annual four-day event.
Fifth Season’s Blake Levin and Ariel Richter will be at there looking for docus to finance, equity finance, and/or partner on. Richter credits Tereza Simikova, head of industry and training at CPH:DOX, for making the FORUM stand out.
“One of the great things that Tereza does is that she recognizes what company mandates are and recommends which projects you should meet,” says Richter. “It’s very hard to try to connect sales agents and buyers with a curated list of projects. It takes time, and a lot of thoughtfulness, and she does it. Last year, everything she told us to focus on, we were interested in.”
Levin adds: “We are an independent film and television studio. Global storytelling and great storytelling are our mandates. That’s our interest in being able to go to CPH:DOX. Someone who can bridge the gap for us like Tereza and the festival is super valuable.”
Opal H. Bennett, co-producer for “POV” had heard plenty of chatter about CPH:FORUM over the years but never attended. This year she made the fest a priority.
“The feedback was you need to be there,” Bennett says. “Special things are happening there. There are special conversations going on. It’s really well curated. So I booked my flight.”