Nine years ago you set up HALAL in Amsterdam – a photography agency and production company that is now internationally renowned for its brilliant talent and entertaining, often amusing, and always original work. What was your vision when you first set up HALAL along with your partners?
Gijs Determeijer by Paul Bakker
HALAL was originally founded by my partner and our current Head of Fiction, Gijs Kerbosch. The company was actually born out of a broken heart – ask him about it one time, it’s a nice story. But yeah, back then the focus was very much on music videos and scripted series. It’s hard to put in words our exact vision when we first started. I think the best way to explore that is to talk about what initially brought us together.
What brought us all together, was the desire to set up an artist-centric business. We were all passionate about making, and wanted to enable directors and photographers to be the best they could be. We wanted to have fun, and work with similar-minded people, and hopefully make some money in the process.
It was important for us to build our offering around what would make our talent thrive. The answer to that for us was to be a production company with a diverse focus and multiple units. In response, we added a photography department (which was my background, being a photography producer), a commercial department and a documentary department. We really wanted to make work that was different. At that time, there weren’t any production companies here who had this offering all under one roof. And there weren’t really any companies that operated on a global scale in the Netherlands, so even though we didn’t dare to dream of operating on an international level then, we always wanted to create work that would have impact across borders. Share stories that aren’t confined to certain territories. We are a bunch of people who like to think outside the box; we enjoy pushing the boundaries and being a step ahead.
Originally it was called 100% halal. What was behind the name decision?
Having my name, Gijs, is already tricky outside of the Netherlands. Spearheading a company called HALAL is even trickier 😉 But when people hear about it, they don’t easily forget it. We get quite some shit with regards to our name, as in, logistical shit. For instance, our name makes processes like getting permits complicated in the US….. But to be completely honest, things like that remind me of why we took this name in the first place.
I say took this name because it was in fact given to us. We made a music video with a Dutch-Moroccan rapper, we were setting things on fire – it was all very improvised. We did the shoot with a group of friends, we weren’t even an official company yet, and at some point during the shoot a couple of friends threw the idea out there to call the company 100% HALAL. It felt right.
It’s a reflection of being pure, standing for your choices, being 100% in. No bullshit. BUT. It was a different time back then. It was a time where we wanted to bridge a gap here locally and represent a different approach – a different voice – in filmmaking. Today, one might ask whether it is cultural appropriation. One might ask if it’s ok that we took this name and used it out of context. When we took this name, it was a statement, a statement for us to craft work to back up the name. I’m not sure if we would be able to ‘defend’ the use of this name, other than the fact that it has given us a chance to be a different voice, represent new perspectives and point of views, proudly stand for a diverse approach to our craft.
How would you describe the DNA of HALAL?
Our DNA is very much about doing things differently. Being a bit cheeky to push things to the next level. Even though our work is very much rooted in a traditional approach to storytelling (we’re not at the forefront of digital work or VR for instance), we’re always looking for new stories and new ways to tell those stories. I think that’s an important part of how we do things differently; we don’t settle. So we stay relevant by focusing on the stories people want to hear. To be ahead of the game and be creative about the way we share those stories. We do that to bring our talent to the next level. To keep them on their toes, and help them grow. We could have easily settled with riding our current wave in the Netherlands. But that’s not in our DNA, to settle. We want to play in the big league. Not for the sake of it, but for the sake of the work.
In many ways we do have a very strong DNA that attracts a very particular type of people. At first our DNA was shaped by us, the core, and we’ve then attracted more people who help us build and utilise that DNA. It’s a mix of who we are as people, the type of work we do and the ambitions we share. We push each other, all of us – our team, our talent, our clients and collaborators.
Often HALAL directors will comment in an interview that you have supported them in personal projects long before they’re officially on the HALAL roster. For instance, Emma Westenberg, Mees Peijnenburg, Sam de Jong, Noël Loozen and Thessa Meijer among others. Some of the scripts have been off the wall which must have been a leap of faith for you. What’s behind your decision to support these directors often it seems with no commercial benefit to you – or is there?
That’s the beauty of having these different departments working towards the same goal. Our talent cross over, and we can invest in them from various angles. Emma, Sam, Noel and Mees are all really nice examples of directors and/or photographers who we started working with in one field, to then push commercially.
But what’s mainly behind my decision to support these directors ‘with no commercial benefit’ is that I want to make work that’s exciting – work that’s fresh, something I haven’t seen before. So, when I see someone who does things differently, someone who can add something new, it makes me extremely excited. It sparks a need to test how we could work together, how we can make them relevant for artists, agencies, brands and so on to bring in projects that will truly showcase their talent. I want to break glass ceilings.
The thought of venturing out on an adventure with a talent we believe in, and craft work that will put them on the right people’s radar, motivates me. In order to do that in the Netherlands you need to look for talent everywhere. There’s no school here to specifically learn about commercial directing. Most of our talent has a background from art school, or film school, we even have a director with an MA in Business (Madja Amin – YDA Silver Screen winner).
But besides that, I do firmly believe that investing in talent in different ways pays off. Eventually 😉 Just look at how the commercial industry is evolving, with branded content, docu approaches and so forth. Enabling talent to create the work to get those commercial opportunities is of course always the goal. And by making different work with them, let’s say a short film like ‘the Walking Fish’, that then brings home awards in Cannes, will put Thessa on the map and perhaps some creative director returns home with the feeling of having discovered her. Maybe the CD is then excited to give her the opportunity to work on a campaign for them, and for them to be associated with her as a rising talent. That’s how the cookie crumbles!
Of course, we’re not naïve, we do realise that it takes some ‘courage’ to go for a new, young director. There’s a lot at stake and there’s a lot of people to convince, so not a lot of room for risk-taking. But in order to make sure our talent don’t turn into one-trick-ponies, they need to build up that trust from potential commercial clients by showing their capabilities in other ways. So, it’s about us investing time and money into making sure our directors are well rounded, venture into paths they haven’t taken yet, and create work that makes them relevant by collaborating with new people, in different fields, giving them exposure and experience which ultimately will benefit the commercial work.
On a separate note, I would like to add here that age-ism is a complex matter in our industry. On the one hand, ‘everyone’ wants to work with young, hip and relevant people. On the other hand, they often want more established talent with bigger budgets. So for us it’s important to have a good balance, young and established talent, new and experienced producers, etcetera. We need a good mix of people who’re living the culture of the audiences we want to reach, and people who bring in years of experience. Our Head of Productions for instance, Christel, has seen it all. She may not know how to use Snapchat or what a meme is, but she can smell bullshit from miles away.
You are brilliant at sourcing the best talent but they then get picked up by foreign production companies. You recently opened an office in Berlin. Do you have intentions to set up in other markets, say, in London, Paris or LA ?
Thank you, Lyndy! Before we set up our office in Berlin last year, I had a strong desire to set up in all those markets. Now, I’m less convinced that this is the only way to be relevant in a market. The role of the production agency is changing, and the scale of the work one can create locally is changing. We’re taking steps to find the best way for us to break into new markets and make sure our talent gets the right opportunities. Our talent is at the core, so scaling up and out is a process in which we always have to consider what’s in their benefit and how we can expand whilst still giving them the attention they deserve. In the end, most of our business decisions are based around how we can best serve our talent. So there’s no question about the fact that we want to expand into those markets. Each of these markets have something to offer that there’s no doubt our talent would love to explore, in one shape or form. It’s just a matter of how.
We’re currently exploring different partnerships, and are actively looking for the right partner for the right markets. I think collaboration is key. And trust. We invest a lot in providing a global platform to our talent, and pride ourselves in facilitating their growth. Staying involved in the talent development part, being the mother agent, also opens doors for us. We’ve had beautiful collaborations with other production companies where the mutual interest in our talent and their growth has been the unifying factor.
You have a knack for signing smart, sensitive directors with a distinctive voice. What is your criteria for signing new and established talent?
When it comes to new talent, 80% of our roster is home grown NL talent. We’re really proud to be part of – and perhaps even go as far as saying defining – the new Dutch wave of talent making it big globally. I can’t really talk about my criteria, but more about my enthusiasm, in discovering new talent. When it’s right it’s right. I guess there’s a distinct visual style and tone of voice to many of the directors we grow. One thing all our directors have in common is that even though they have different stylistic expressions, they have a strong sense of their own visual stamp.
It’s also a personality thing, a balance between taking their craft very serious without taking themselves too seriously. I think this strikes a chord internationally. You have no idea how thrilling it is to me that agencies in Paris and Los Angeles are now looking to Amsterdam for talent. Even though this means that our talent will then also be on the radar of other production companies, it equally means global agencies and brands are keeping an eye on us. And it means that established talent not operating in our market look to us for representation.
I think our recent signing Ryan Staake is a great example of what we’re looking for in established talent. We want to enforce our group of homegrown talent with handpicked international directors, who operate in markets and/or fields that are new to us. Ryan, for instance, is a super innovative director who eagerly ventured into VR and AR at an early stage. He brings another dimension to our roster, and fits our HALAL DNA perfectly.
Do you work on instinct or rationality?
Instinct. 100%. I’m quite a rational person though, so my instincts are often fairly rational. But everyone who knows me, knows that I’m driven by instinct. Luckily it makes sense most of the time. I’m not an airy-visionary so it’s not often my instincts evoke a WTF-reaction.
Together with the three other partners at HALAL – Gijs Kerbosch (fiction), Roel Oude Nijhuis (MD) and Olivia Sophie van Leeuwen (documentary) – we keep each other in balance. We have a really nice dynamic, keep each other in check. We are four very different personalities and with really different energies, but we value each other’s opinion and instinct. If one of us truly believes in something, we always have each other’s back.
What are the highlights over the nine years in terms of work created?
I am so very proud of all our directors and photographers, and each piece of work we have made has enabled us to be where we are today. But there are a couple of projects that I think really were part of defining us.
First of all, I have to mention the ‘New Kids’ series with Steffen Haars. It was a rude offbeat comedy show, released online and became a huge underground success. It was quite the phenomenon here in the Netherlands. It was later bought by Comedy Central and turned into two box-office hits feature films. This project says a lot about our roots and how we started out.New Kids by Steffen Haars
In 2013 (I’m doing this chronologically for the sake of clarity), advertising icon Johan Kramer joined us. It felt like Ronaldo joining a smaller local club. He is a terrific storyteller, who works across so many fields and formats (filmmaker, photographer, documentary, commercials, you name it). Much like us, Johan is a creative at heart who never stands still. In his former life, he was partner of KesselsKramer, an internationally renowned communications agency. So his experience and point of view has truly been of great value to all of us. Together we’ve made global campaigns for the likes of FOX Sports, Eneco and Citizen, and our first documentary with him is premiering later this year.
The next project that was another milestone moment for us, was Sam de Jong’s ‘Prince’ in 2015. It was our first independently made feature, with VICE as co-producer. It was also Sam’s debut film. It was written, directed and produced within the course of a year, premiered at Berlinale and travelled across cinemas in the Netherlands, North America and Mexico.
Prince by Sam de Jong
Which takes me to the next highlight, when Olivia Sophie van Leeuwen joined us to set up HALAL docs. That year we had four films in competition at IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam).
Then, there’s a couple of unique signings. I mean… all our directors are unique and truly HALAL. But there’s a couple that marked a shift in our growth and scale I’d like to point out. Having Paul Geusebroek onboard – one of the hottest Dutch directors at the moment – was a big moment for us. When Caroline Koning joined us we campaigned for her to become the local ambassador for Free the Bid – which she now is. And we’ve done some high-level global work with her, like our first ever perfume campaign, out of Paris.
Finally, I have to mention Emma Westenberg. She joined us as an intern, keen to learn more about production. Next to that she was doing experimental art films and fashion projects, fast-forward and she’s directed Grammy-nominated work with Janelle Monae, a Super Bowl ad and worked with us on a global campaign for Swatch. Seeing that on a large screen at Times Square is something we couldn’t have imagined nine years ago…!
What were you doing before HALAL? Did you ever harbour desires of becoming a director yourself?
I’ve never ever wanted to be a director. But I’ve always been intrigued by creative people, and have constantly tried to surround myself with them, I even married one! I’m so fascinated by the fact that there seems to be no limit to their imagination and ideas, but they often lack a clear route on how to achieve those ideas or bring that imagination to life. So I’ve found pleasure in being an enabler. Supporting creative people in realising their goals.
How do you turn off from work?
Building a house. By ourselves. Now the house is done, so I don’t know what to do with myself…
Among the partners of HALAL what is the future vision and ambitions for the company?
To continue making work that pushes the boundaries and challenges the status quo. To keep on crafting work that is relevant, to connect with new audiences and always explore new forms of storytelling. I’m looking forward to venturing into that future with our collaborators, old and new.
It’s our ambition to continuously equip ourselves with the tools needed to keep attracting the best talent, and grow them in the right ways. It’s our ambition to never settle, and to keep evolving. But, one thing I hope will stay the same. I hope we will continue to have our heart in Amsterdam, with all that that represents.