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Pitch Fests: Selling Your Project in Seven Minutes or Less

By wanda bershen

Documentary production and distribution have enjoyed huge resurgences over the past decade, giving rise to a plethora of specialized festivals and markets, as well as to experiments in modes of distribution. Documentaries can now garner coveted attention and audiences at festivals, on TV and in theaters. The documentary pioneers--Joris Ivens, John Grierson, Pare Lorentz, Dziga Vertov, et al--would marvel at the global impact of the form they helped create.  This resurgence, coupled with the cost efficiencies of the tools of production, has attracted both an audience and a filmmaking community that is younger and more diverse. The rapidity of these changes, thanks to the digital revolution, is continuing to subvert conventional processes of production, distribution and funding.

For independent documentary makers, one of the most effective developments has been the rise of documentary co-production markets-often called pitching forums-around the globe. Certainly the grand dame of these is the IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) Forum, which was launched in 1993 (IDFA itself premiered in 1988). Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival and market in North America, modeled its Toronto Documentary Forum after IDFA's. And one of the latest entries is The Good Pitch, a partnership between the UK-based Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Program. Each of these forums has specific structures and guidelines for submitting projects on their websites, as well as news about successful projects and new initiatives. We spoke to the respective managers of all three forums about their goals, and how they see the current international landscape for documentaries.

Attending IDFA as a delegate will put you in a room with hundreds of colleagues participating in a dizzying three-day ritual of seven-minute pitches, roundtables, one-on-one meetings, lunches for networking and, as a finale, awards for Best Pitch and Favorite Commissioning Editor, known as "The Cuban Hat."

The 2009 the IDFA Forum attracted 400 visitors and delegates, as 43 filmmaking teams pitched their respective projects. In addition, an international audience of 160 observers and other film professionals--commissioning editors, producers, distributors, sales agents and independent producers--saw 27 Central and 16 Round Table projects pitched before 120 commissioners and other financiers. Those include "seedling projects," in their early stages, and "rough cut projects," looking only for finishing funds. New media funders and non-government organizations (NGOs) are welcome, since the Forum sees them as crucial for the market in the coming years. One of the key elements at IDFA is the two-hour sit-down lunch for all participants. As a guest of Rotterdam's Cinemart for many years I always found the similar lunch there to be one of the best opportunities for informal networking.

According to Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, the Forum's industry office director, the selection process starts with a committee of five people working in international documentary--including producers, commissioning editors, distributors and representatives of institutes. Another review committee includes people with a broad international overview of projects in development and in production, along with market trends. Selection is made in a two-day meeting in Amsterdam, where the committees read proposals, watch trailers and review other submitted material.

The most important criteria are "creative documentaries bringing new stories with international appeal," van Nieuwenhuyzen says. "For international co-financing, it is crucial that the stories and themes have international relevance and appeal. Projects dealing with topics, stories and themes covered previously in documentaries that have been broadcast and screened internationally won't make it into the selection." About 80 percent of the Forum projects selected must be from European Union (EU) member countries. The Forum is very open to projects with multiple platforms, and views itself as evolving with an industry in which "endless technological possibilities are enhancing the ability of documentary filmmakers to convey their message."

Recent successes coming out of IDFA include Lixin Fan's Last Train Home, which was pitched at the 2008 Forum and captured the prize for Best Feature at the 2009 festival. The film will be released theatrically in the US this September through Zeitgeist Films. Another big success is Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's enthralling The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, which was also pitched at the 2008 Forum; the film earned an Academy Award nomination this year for Best Documentary Feature.

The Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF) at Hot Docs is a similarly intense two-day experience. As we went to press, the 2010 TDF, held May 5 and 6, expected over 500 leading industry professionals to hear 25 pre-selected international project presentations. Guests were to include key international commissioning editors and an observer's gallery composed of fellow producers, distributors, sales agents, funders and other buyers. TDF also offers Observer accreditation for independent producers; representatives of foundations, public agencies and film institutes; sales agents; distributors; etc. As at IDFA, each slot includes a seven-minute presentation from the production team and its trigger decision-maker, and a seven-minute discussion-and-response period. Teams are encouraged to include one- or two-minute video clips. 

A particular draw at TDF is The Doc Shop Online, a digital video library offering users on-demand access to over 1,500 documentaries at any of the 40 onsite computer terminals during and after the festival for registered buyers, distributors, sales agents and festival programmers. The Toronto Forum also offers multiple opportunities for informal networking via one-on-one meetings and receptions. New for 2010 is a special workshop focused on interactivity co-sponsored with the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Media Lab entitled "Leave the Walls at the Door," a facilitated matchmaking and think-tank workshop designed for documentary producers of every ilk. Thirty participants, including myriad storytellers working with a variety of platforms and backgrounds (traditional, interactive, commercial, art house, big budget, do-it-yourselfers) will have three hours to share ideas and experiences.

One of the big success stories that initially surfaced at TDF was the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir (Dir.: Ari Folman). Pitched in 2007, it met with very mixed responses. People were unsure about the animation approach stylistically, as well as the expense involved. Later the filmmakers had follow-up meetings in Toronto and were eventually able to secure Arte as a co-production partner. Waltz with Bashir went on to win numerous awards--not only for best documentary, but also in the animation and foreign film categories.

The Good Pitch is the new kid on the block, founded in 2008 as part of the BRITDOC festival in Oxford, England. The BRITDOC Foundation describes itself as is "a new social entrepreneurship organization bringing new thinking to public service delivery." It gives grants for production, and it brokers partnerships around specific films, reaching out to diverse potential supporters for documentary. According to its website, The Good Pitch invites "NGOs, social entrepreneurs, broadcasters and potential corporate and brand partners to form powerful alliances around groundbreaking films."

Foundation Director Beadie Finzi describes this as an ongoing process of continuous, year-round networking. Her staff works hard to make sure there will be at least one film with which participants will want to be involved so that no one comes away disappointed. Part of its cultivation efforts was a conference in June 2007 for 150 of the UK's top NGOs and foundations to learn about how documentaries can help them in their work. The conference was very useful in convincing the NGOs of the benefits of working with film and filmmakers. A conference of that kind in the US would be an excellent idea, and would have to take place on a regional basis, given that the country is so large and not centralized like the UK.

The Good Pitch provides numerous opportunities for filmmakers to connect with people on their panels--before and after their pitches--and produces a very comprehensive catalogue listing everyone attending the event, including their priorities and contact details. Business partners for specific films have included Saatchi & Saatchi, Nokia, Stella Artois, Waitrose and Greenpeace. In addition, throughout 2009, The Good Pitch was presented at Hot Docs, Silverdocs and Independent Film Week. A similar tour is underway for 2010, starting with the Tribeca Film Festival in April and May.

A further activity of BRITDOC is its online services, including the recently launched Good Screenings, a new film distribution website that allows users to hold their own screenings of the best social justice documentary films and, crucially, keep their profits.

An impressive success coming out of the 2009 SilverDocs Good Pitch was the film Hungry in America by Kristi Jacobson. The feature-length documentary presents an unflinching look at the root causes behind the 17 million hungry children in this country and asks tough questions about why a nation that could feed all of its citizens has failed to do so. She and co-director Lori Silverbush attracted NGO partnerships that progressed "from first-date to marriage" when a summit of 20 anti-hunger organizations convened following The Good Pitch to strategize about how they could use the film to amplify their own work.

According to executive producer Ryan Harrington, the anti-hunger NGOs assembled in Silver Spring raised $250,000 in funds for the film since that event, with more financing pending. Another success story from the 2009 Good Pitch at IFP's Independent Film Week was Glenn Baker's Easy Like Water, which received an investment of $10,000 from the Global Fund for Children. The film documents the innovative work of Mohammed Rezwan, who uses solar-powered floating schools in Bangladesh to turn the frontlines of climate change into a community of learning.

The organizers of these forums all noted the reduced budgets for commissioning editors. Jan Rofekamp of the Montreal-based Films Transit International also cited a decline in the autonomy of buyers in recent years.  They now have to speculate on what issues will have audience appeal--which may not always yield the most interesting or innovative projects. Rofekamp advises filmmakers to be aware of the buyers' priorities and spend some time researching some of the major buyers and what they have funded recently. A great resource is the European Documentary Network's annual Financing Guide, which includes detailed information on international broadcast buyers and distributors, funds for production and distribution, including video-on-demand. The guide is available in both printed and online versions. There is also enormous interest from documentary festivals and forums in the possibilities of new media; IDFA presented two panels in 2009 on these topics. If you have a multi-platform project, by all means, talk it up.

So if you are planning to pitch your project in the near future, what is the recipe for success? Rofekamp, who has participated in pitch events for many years, advises targeting the concerns of buyers. They want to know why your topic is important, why you are the best team to make it and why it needs to be produced now.  Claire Aguilar of Independent Television Service (ITVS), also a veteran of international pitch forums, recommends working with the moderators to help with the discussion and suggest broadcasters that would be responsive to your pitch. Memorize your presentation and be sure to make eye contact with those in the room, rather than look at notes. Your topic will do best if it has universal relevance (the ability to draw audiences from varied countries), so make sure to explicitly lay out the reasons for that and draw specific parallels for your topic, person or event.

Everyone recommends the strongest possible sample reel, since that is often what really piques participants' attention. Preparing a dazzling sample reel is well worth your time and money. Your major objective is to use the pitch to get to one-on-one meetings later in the event. That is where the real business gets done. As a documentarist, educating yourself about the many new options and ventures out there is the one of the most important things you can do to ensure your voice continues to be heard. 


Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*d and Blacks & Jews. She has organized film programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum,  and Film Society of Lincoln Center and currently teaches Arts Management at CUNY Baruch. Visit