April 1, 2001

Life's a Pitch! Selling your Project at IFFCON

If you’d met me at IFFCON 2001, I’d have introduced myself as “Katie Cadigan, documentarian, in development on a film about cultural images of madness, where these images come from, and how our conception of ‘being crazy’ has little to do with the reality of so-called ‘insanity.’” Interested? Ready to write a check??

Based in San Francisco, the annual International Film Financing Conference (IFFCON) is not like other film markets that I’ve avoided for fear of being lost amid a desperate mass of wannabe producers. Professionally, I claim my films aren’t schmooze-fest-friendly. Who wants to chat about schizophrenia while nursing a martini? IFFCON is the opposite of a financing zoo: selected producers have the luxury of being one of only 20 documentarians (and 40 narrative producers) with more than two days to meet privately, or in small roundtable sessions, with a strong array of funders, buyers and distributors.

Other than the acceptance notification, IFFCON did not send me any advance, so I came in somewhat anxiously. During orientation, Wendy Braitman, IFFCON’s exuberant executive director, tried calming us, promising a casual, friendly and productive experience. “I’m just here to tell you not to worry,” she assured us. “Trust me. Relax!” Easier said than done, when facing a registration kit packed with a bewildering array of schedule sheets, colored stickers, bright 3x5 cards and roundtable meeting options.

Who to meet? Will there be space for me? What are my backups? The funders, meanwhile, were perusing IFFCON’s 2001 Producer Directory, which listed all narrative and documentary projects with our synopses, director’s statements and bios. If a project caught their eye, these industry participants would fill out a yellow card requesting a private meeting. Our first fearful taste of approval/rejection came at the sign-up table. A meeting request card-laden volunteer greeted us one by one, annointing some producers with a blessed “Whew, I’m worthy” meeting-request, and bathing the rest with, “Sorry, no meetings.” Watching each producer before me each move along to a sad little “Sorry,” I was stunned when the volunteer exclaimed “Ooh, Katie Cadigan – you’re already popular.” Two meeting requests for Day One—an auspicious beginning.

Meanwhile, on the Main Floor, IFFCON kicked off Open Day, a series of sessions open to all independent filmmakers—hundreds upon hundreds of them. Open Day had one steady refrain: “Film is Dead…Film is Dead…Film is Dead…” Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films treated us to clips from emerging digital features, giving me an aesthetic peek at how other filmmakers are experimenting with the cameras I’m using.

Most Open Day participants seemed to come for IFFCON’s infamous Perfect Pitch panel, where producers are randomly selected to pitch a panel of potential buyers-cum-critics. Moderator Henry Rosenthal opened with a string of advice: “Be confident, not arrogant…Avoid verbal clutter…Passion, not insanity...” Your mission? Penetrate the ‘No’ armor worn by the buyers. Catch their interest. Introducing her upcoming documentary series, Julia Reichart captivated the room with her opening line, “What would you do if your child was diagnosed with cancer?” It may be an artificial setting— in real-life, when are films ever pitched to a panel with hundreds of competing filmmakers in the audience? But how fascinating to spend an hour listening to what we producers sound like to buyers.

During the three-day conference, I slipped out to various private meetings with funders who, by-and-large, were the decision-makers at their firms. My IFFCON goals were to (a) ascertain the viability of an international market for my film, (b) determine if any story aspects are more/less attractive and (c) connect with potential funders/distributors. By the end of Day One’s meetings, I felt exhilarated.

Lessons from Day One:
Looney Tube, my working title, sucks.
My film needs to be funny.
I should include a lot of animated clips.
Europe is interested in the project (yay!).

On Day Two the Open Day masses disappeared, and the conference became more intimate and intense. Assigned to pitch in the afternoon, I observed four documentarians pitch to ITVS, HBO/Cinemax and the Soros Fund that morning. After a few pitches for heavy, powerful films, I started craving levity. Enter Grace Lee’s description of her potentially hilarious documentary on female Asian American identity. The humor made her film more vivid than the others, reinforcing a Day One lesson: be funny.

Throughout the conference, the quality of the documentary producers kept me feeling terribly humble. Many of the participants had made films I’ve studied and admired from afar. What a thrill to connect with so much creative talent. Yet I felt sobered witnessing these widely acclaimed and accomplished colleagues struggling so hard to get money. “Everyone wants to give me finishing funds, but where am I going to get the beginning funds?” asked Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, whose film Tupperware: Earl and Brownie’s Plastic Empire, captured a lot of attention.

At lunchtime I busily rewrote my pitch; I worried it was too loose. David Goodman, who was to pitch his Drinking Stories with me, fretted about being swept up in a Darwinian process. He collared a third producer and we scuttled off to rehearse our pitches. One of us was too detailed, another went too long, and I was too scattered, forgetting to mention my personal reasons for making this film.

Feeling a bit more confident, we pitched our hearts out at our end-of-the-day pitch roundtable. Unfortunately, it turned into a pitch-critique session, where the industry participants gave us feedback on how we pitched, as opposed to discussing the films themselves. It felt awkward and unsatisfying. But, as Goodman said, “At least the private meetings are going well.” In fact, they more than made up for my pitch session disappointment.

Lessons from Day Two:
Pre-production money is scarce.
I still need a new title.
My film could have a US theatrical market (wow!).

Walking into Day Three, I had two decision-makers I still wanted to meet. Luckily they’d both submitted appointment request cards, and we hob-nobbed. Before the martinis began pouring at the closing reception, we gathered for a final full-group session called “Truth or Dare: Buyer’s Best Picks.” Jack Lechner of @radical.media declared, “It excites and inspires me to see so many creative filmmakers making great projects.” The documentary cited most frequently as “Most Promising Project” was Kahn-Leavitt’s Americana film on Tupperware. When IFFCON opened the mikes for producer feedback, she stepped up to announce, “I’m incredibly pleased that I can go home and tell my husband we may be able to pay off our second mortgage.”

Lessons from Day Three:
I’m thrilled to have new film friends.
New title: Wacko

IFFCON surprised me by being more personal, relaxed and informative than I’d expected. Their respect for independent producers shone through the whole conference, from their dedicated volunteer squad, who removed all logistical worries, to the wonderful meals and parties. I left with clear answers to the questions I’d come in with, and I now have direction on where the money may come from, especially in post-production. And lest we forget—I’ve now got a water-tight pitch.

 

Founder of the documentary firm ImageReal Pictures, Katie Cadigan is producing Wacko, a comedic exposé on stigma and mental illness. She’s available to pitch by phone or email: 650 579-7628 or katie@imagereal.com.

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