How to Succeed at a Documentary Pitch Event: Toronto’s Hot Docs Forum 2012, Part 2

We continue our coverage of Hot Docs Forum where 25+/- producers pitched their projects to a long table packed with commissioners and funders.

  • Who pitched?
  • What are their budgets?
  • Who is backing them?
  • What kinds of projects just didn’t make a connection?
  • And more…

In Part 1, we set the scene in Toronto’s Hogwarts-style Hart Hall: it was a tense, high stakes moment for each of the filmmakers.

Sands of the Skei Queen. Photo: Karina Astrup)

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INDIAN SPACEMAN

The story of the team of scientists and their worker bees who are the force behind India’s first Space mission.

Sue Sudbury, UK
Ruhi Hamid, UK
Budget: $300,000
Confirmed: $40,000

Moderator

  • The filmmakers enjoy unique access to India’s 9 year space program at both the scientist and factory floor level
  • Ruhi Hamid is a successful producer who has worked with BBC Storyville
  • Sue Sudbury is an Australian, and this film is supported by SBS

Filmmakers

  • Reveals domestic tensions / conflicts between Indian teams
  • Captures the conflicts between modernizing and traditional forces in India

Decision-makers

  • BBC Storyville: Like a lot! Cultural conflict is very interesting!
  • Knowledge: We’re in!!
  • TVO: Curious about how you balance characters and science?
  • NHK: we would take a 1 hour version. Space works. Japanese audiences would like the unusual insight into Indian society.
  • DR: like humor
  • ZDF: See it not as Science but character-driven documentary
  • PBS: Like the different way of looking at Scientists, particularly younger ones. How many characters are there? There are other story arc questions to discuss later.
  • Hi Fidelity: We don’t have a Science block. See it as a human story. Challenges our preconceived notions about how India is rolling out. An acquisition.

Random Takeaways

  • Story feels good. Witty. Lots of chuckles. 
  • Relies on unique access. The stakes are high: a successful launch will be a sign of India’s modernity. And the launch is the resolution of the story.
  • Poor audio quality on pitch was magnified by Indian accents. Adds to the struggle to win over the decision-makers.
  • We caught up with friend and industry legend Pat Ferns, who produced the very first pitch forum way back in the day.

THESE BIRDS WALK

Omar is a Pakistani runaway child who is trapped in limbo between a Karachi orphanage and an unwelcoming home.

Omar Mullick, Pakistan & Brooklyn
Bassam Tariq, US
Budget: $381,000
Confirmed: $75,000

  • Sundance Institute strongly backs the pitch and is contributing $30,000.
    • Drawn by the talent, access and characters.
    • Film about family and home, a runaway boy, an ambo driver, and a frail, old humanitarian who cares for the poor
    • A human interest film set in place known for conflict
  • ITVS: “Come to our Open Call”
  • Tribeca: Fantastic imagery. Couldn’t take my eyes off it. Have funded films from Pakistan recently
  • NYT: Let’s pick up the conversation later. Intimate character-based piece, but needs other levels for us.
  • NHK: Like to see a film about Pakistan without guns
  • CNN: Beautiful. Hard to see it broken up on an advertiser-supported channel like CNN
  • ARD Germany: We don’t have slots for a poetic film
  • ARTE: Can’t see a slot where it fits
  • Rai. Love visual approach. Interested. Question: How much story is there?
  • Hi Fidelity: Like to see rough cut
  • CBC: We met at Sundance. Very interested in Pakistan! Will take a look at rough cut
  • TVO: Want to see how the story develops
  • BBC Storyville: Love images. Can’t figure out narrative.
  • PBS: Stunning trailer.

Random Takeaways

  • Many of the deciders were strongly attracted to the unusual poetic quality of a film from Pakistan. But they lacked the slots to screen it.
  • BTW, hats off to the expert team of moderators! They are Axel Arno, Pat Ferns, Andrea Meditch and Steve Seidenberg.

MEN’S CHOICE

Young Russian worker chooses to leave unemployment and family at home for an extremely harsh job on a Siberian gas field.

Vladislav Ketkovitch, Russia
Elena Demidova, Russia
Budget: $187,000
Confirmed: $86,000

  • POV:  Could be an interesting follow up to My Perestroika
  • Knowledge: Good idea. We have a similar project in development
  • Rai: Could be interesting. Too many characters and events to follow. Maybe concentrate on the workplaces in Siberia and not follow the characters to their homes.
  • TVO: Women’s perspective is interesting. Young workers battling isolation and extreme cold: that’s a very familiar story for Canadians.
  • ZDF: There is no slot on Arte for this kind of film. Needs a better title
  • Several: Passionate filmmakers, and there are a lot of stories to be told in Russia

Random Takeaways

  • None of the decision-makers mentioned Ice Road Truckers the smash hit series  from Tom Beers’ Original Productions.
  • IRT brought huge success to History US, which was known until around that time as “The Hitler Channel” based on a schedule that was packed with WW2 docs
  • History is bigger than ever as the #1 US factual channel
  • I wondered: “Do decision-makers at pitch sessions sometimes live in a vacuum, separated from what’s driving the factual TV industry as a whole??”
  • Sub-titles are a deal breaker for almost all films in US
  • Great to see talented Russian filmmakers and funding at the Forum.

SOUNDSCAPES

This film is about the importance of sound recording to the art and craft of film and TV. The producers won a draw from the “Cuban Hat” for an unscheduled pitch.

Budget: $1.5 million

Filmmakers

  • Clearing the clips is very costly
  • Talking to family foundations and sponsors for funding, e.g. Dolby
  • There’s a growing field of study that addresses lost soundscapes, e.g. recordings of since extinct birds

Decision-makers

  • Tribeca: Not for us; we do creative, personal story-driven docs
  • PBS: Interesting and appealing to our audience. It could be a standalone within the PBS schedule, maybe I can match make with the PBS strands
  • CBC: Either an acquisition or presale based on your proving that you can clear clips
  • BBC: Loved the trailer. Where can you find the money? All the commissioners around the table are broke.
  • Denmark: We have slots, but we pay very little. Will write a letter to support funding.
  • POV:  Recommend you contact Paley Center, Annenberg and Foreign Press Association for funding

Random Takeaways

  • Pitches must deliver on four filters: Unique Access, High Stakes, Big Characters and Resolution.
  • Above all, pitch sessions like Hot Docs Forum and IDFA love character-driven stories. 
  • Content-driven pitches like this one just don’t cut it.

SANDS OF THE SKEI QUEEN

An Australian sand-mining company wins government approval to strip mine a beautiful South African beach, unleashing violent divisions between development-minded locals and preservationists.

Ryley Grunewald, South Africa
Pascal Schmitz, South Africa
Budget: $461,000
Confirmed: $275,000

Filmmakers

  • The film is about politics, monarchies, murder and greed
  • Shakespearean story set in today’s South Africa
  • An international presale will unlock a stream of South African funding

Moderator

  • Beautifully shot, cinema verite style

Decision-makers

  • Tribeca: Really interesting. I see a lot of films on similar territory and dealing with same issues. But film and characters great
  • ITVS: Compelling. Nice fit for “Women and Girls Lead’ initiative.
  • BBC Storyville. Love pitch, but change title. It’s a deep story about contemporary RSA. Stick to the human story and don’t worry about the globalization theme.
  • Knowledge: Very interested.
  • Arte: Don’t have slots, but might be a fit for a Special Day about Communities. We’re interested. Like it that it’s a POV of a divided community
  • DR: Great trailer. Don’t need a girl who’s looking for meaning.
  • SHAW Canada: We run 17 specialty channels. Most are acquisition. We don’t do Current Affairs.
  • TVO: Classic story. Battle inside a royal family makes it more interesting
  • NYT: Could do an Op Ed news piece. Perhaps
  • NHK:  Fits our themes of ‘resources and communities’

Random Takeaways

  • Pitch was well constructed. Authoritative voices. Clearly written. Nice flow between oral presentation and the video. Relaxed and non-defensive exchanges with decision-makers.
  • Scenery was a winner, particularly for someone like me who grew up on beautiful beaches.
  • An expanse of beach the size of a football field delivers enough titanium for a single aircraft
  • Aussies are the new, global dark force!

CAUGHT IN THE NET

Young Chinese may become trapped by Internet addiction, usually to video games. Their parents send them to appalling detox camps.

Hilla Medalia, US
Shosh Shlam, Israel
Budget: $500,000
Confirmed: $307,000

Decision-makers

  • BBC: Is the system working to relieve addiction?
  • DR Denmark: What is it about the Chinese system that produces these problems? Needs to follow kids before, during and after ‘treatment’. Extend the story line.
  • NYT: Interested. Internet addiction? Or ‘games addiction’. May be an over-simplification of the problem
  • Rai. Upset by trailer. Better to focus on the professor. Not children. China’s government controls the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. Explore that theme.
  • NHK: We don’t like to see Western film makers coming to China and looking at problems. To Japanese audiences, this will be seen as judgmental.

Random Takeaways

  • This pitch was unusual because it unsettled many of commissioners.
  • A TV producer from China says “These schools were banned more than a year ago. The authorities recognized that they were abusive.”
  • Another producer in the gallery says “That’s 1.5 films that fall into the ‘Bad China’ category. Is this a theme? At least Islam is off the hook!”
  • For our recent commentary on the rise and rise of the Chinese Documentary Channel at MIPDoc, click here.

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DAY 2

VIDAL V BUCKLEY

Opposing intellectual heavyweights William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal traded blows in 10 ferocious television debates during the 1968 presidential election campaign. Was this the dawn of the opinion-driven television commentary that we know today?

Robert Gordon, US
Morgan Neville, US
Budget: $600,000
Confirmed: $300,000

Moderator

  • “Great pitch; relevant; terrific team!
  • “Theme: What has television done to our democracy?”

Decision-makers

  • Tribeca: We will support. We’re looking to back Morgan as a director, and Julie as EP. Strong team! I like films that bring the past into the present
  • PBS: Really struck by footage. Hope that the rest of the PBS team, can get as excited
  • Independent Lens: Great project and team. Wish it was ready for 2012 election campaign.
  • ITVS: Waiting for this film. Very timely.
  • BBC Storyville: Relevant. Gore Vidal is great. Fantastic. Reminds me of Frost / Nixon which was a big success. Like to know how these debates anticipate the current TV climate. It was an event of the past, and shows us how TV has lost much of its power today.
  • ZDF: like the project. Like to see the roots of what’s going on today
  • NHK: could consider as an acquisition.
  • Knowledge: How much will you go into the present to help younger audiences understand the film?
  • SVT Sweden: Not sure if Swedes are fascinated by these men

Random Takeaways

  • The experienced production team carries a lot of weight around the table. The bar is much, much higher for novices.
  • Vidal’s The Judgment of Paris (1952) is a personal favorite novel in the ‘Young Men Hit their stride’ genre. Also my #1 Washington DC gay coming of age novel.
  • Vidal created Myra Breckinridge. What is the legacy of the snarling William F Buckley?  Conservative domination coast-to-coast, I guess.

MERKATO

Sosena Soloman, US
Budget: $150,000
Confirmed: $15,000 (Kickstarter)

Filmmaker

  • A doc about Addis Ababa’s vast, vibrant and ramshackle market
  • She is Ethiopian: Has unique access
  • Largest open air market in Africa, teeming with vulnerable people
  • Captures 1 day from sunrise to dusk
  • Follows several characters, ranging from an inexperienced new vendor to a 97YO vendor
  • Destruction is on way — for malls and parking lots
  • The coming end of Merkato creates structure for each character
  • Need funding for 1 more shoot in AA

Moderator

  • Sosena Soloman is a recent Ethiopian-born graduate of SVA New York who lives in Brooklyn.
  • She nailed it – solo – in her debut pitch. Congrats!

Photo: Joseph Michael

Decision-makers

  • ITVS: Very talented filmmaker
  • POV: Like ‘a day in life of a market’ and what it means to a culture
  • YLE: I like personalities and characters. Ready to know more. Like to get something from Ethiopia. But YLE Digital only has small money to contribute. Around $1,000.
  • Israel: Beautifully shot. Needs to go through festival circuit first before coming on to television
  • Tribeca: Very promising filmmaker. Lot of programs at Tribeca where there can be fit.
  • Rai: Interested in portraits. The film needs action or tension for the characters, rather than just a description of them.
  • Knowledge: Need to know that it’s more than its just a lyrical documentary
  • BBC: You need to construct powerful narrative for the characters. You need to work on people stories versus ‘A ‘Day in the Life…” which has been done before

Random Takeaways

  • Sosena Soloman was the youngest of the pitchers at Hot Docs – and she cut a really impressive figure as she commanded the room, seated alone at the head of the table that was at other times packed with filmmakers and their backers. Brava!!!!
  • Challenge: forge the characters so that Merkato becomes more than an ethnographic film, for which there are very few slots
  • What’s with all these filmmakers living in Brooklyn?

NEXT

  • Final coverage from the Hot Docs Forum
  • A profile of POV, a leading US documentary slot that was strongly represented at the long table in Hart Hall

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Speaking Engagements

Sunnyside of the Doc
La Rochelle (June 26-29).

Watch out for the 3D / Giant Screen panel. Is there a new model built on (1) new digital giant (but sub-IMAX) size screens plus (2) premium commissions by 3D and documentary channels? Who are the players?

Also: China’s huge documentary market: Where is it heading? What do they pay?

Westdoc
Culver City, Los Angeles (September 9-12).

Come to my workshop on the basics of the business: What do US factual channels want? How much do they pay? Who gets the work? Why? (September 9, afternoon)