Leading Doc Sales Agent Philippa Kowarsky on Successes, Including Oscar Hopeful ‘A House Made of Splinters’

Leading documentary sales agent Philippa Kowarsky – who handled Oscar nominees “The Act of Killing,” “Collective” and “Flee” – gave a masterclass at the Thessaloniki Intl. Documentary Festival this week.

Kowarsky recently returned to Cinephil, the documentary sales company she founded, as executive chair, after a brief stint at BBC’s doc strand Storyville. Cinephil’s current lineup includes Oscar nominee “A House Made of Splinters.”

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Cinephil’s previous experience on “Flee” helped pave the way for “A House Made of Splinters,” but obstacles emerged she said. “The film had won best directing at Sundance and no one wanted it. We’ve been everywhere with this film – no one wanted it, or there were distributors that wanted it for deals that were so unattractive, we weren’t going to do it. But we had more and more festivals and we were winning more and more awards around the globe, and nothing in America. Then it was shortlisted for the Oscar, and still nothing in America,” she shared.

The film was nominated for an Oscar. Commenting on this year’s doc nominees, she said: “It’s an interesting batch of films and it just goes to show the documentary branch that’s voting is not voting only with money in mind. So, that is refreshing.”

Kowarsky lamented the lack of “middle class” films in today’s cinema ecosystem, due to the influence of the streamers, who have been splashing out on in-house content in recent years, resulting in the proliferation of big budget films and a manifest shortage of mid-tier productions. “You get the big films – [with production budgets of] $2 million, $3 million, $4 million, $5 million – and then they’re sold for $8 million, $10 million, even $25 million in America. And then there are the small films that are finding it hard to find $150,000. What happens to the middle class? And, this middle class is what I’m trying to protect, because I believe that this middle class is the industry; it’s us. And, people want to watch [these films],” she said.

Kowarsky said she has tremendous respect for the Scandinavians and loves working with them because of the support they offer their filmmakers and producers, providing them with an infrastructure that enables them to get ahead in the industry. She said to the Scandinavian representatives in the room: “You’re always on it, and you know what you’re looking for. You’ve got your finger on the pulse and you’re very well connected to all your filmmakers. So, it’s a win-win. And, this is what works in Europe. And, it’s true – in Europe, it’s not about money yet – hopefully never.”

She added: “The good news is no algorithm is telling a Danish filmmaker who’s working on their own how to make a film.”

Kowarsky said she holds producers in high regard. “I think producers are so important for our ecosystem. The producers with more experience, those that have run a lot of mileage, have so much to give to first-time directors and sometimes first-time producers as well.” She praised the work and methods of Oscar-nominated doc producer Jocelyn Barnes. “If anyone in this room is ever lucky enough to work with [her], you will be richer and more enlightened. She’s generous, and she deeply understands films, filmmaking and production, and she’s super connected. Anything that Jocelyn Barnes wants to produce, Cinephil is there because she’s just so amazing.”

Motto Pictures’ Julie Goldman and Chris Clements were also lauded. “These people have so much to give. It’s wonderful. And, it’s a pleasure to walk the path with them.”

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