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Pitching and Wooing at the Toronto Documentary Forum

By Agnes Varnum

Nestled snuggly within the recently concluded Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival is the Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF). While Hot Docs is a world-class festival screening 129 films from 30 countries and attracting over 1,700 industry representatives and an audience of 68,000 over the course of ten days, TDF is a cozy gathering away from the bustle, with 504 selected delegates there to do one thing: make deals.

This year's 30 pre-selected projects were culled from around 180 submissions by TDF Director Michaelle McLean and a small jury of international industry executives. Filmmakers supply a full written proposal in advance of the two-day event, and, in addition, two wild cards--affectionately known as Mountie Hat selections--are drawn from...a Mountie's hat. The filmmakers prepare to wow buyers with their stories in hopes of securing financing.

Each project must have some funding in place--20 percent of the budget from a broadcast sponsor, who will sit with the filmmaker and pitch the project to their colleagues around the table. Because so few US broadcasters will fund independent documentary film upfront, TDF has made some concessions, allowing third-party financing like grants and national film boards or filmmakers without financing to present their works as rough cuts, such as Amy Ferraris with The Perfect Cappuccino, which explores Starbucks' influence on coffee culture. "It was interesting to see who's who and witness the horse-trading that goes on," she commented on the experience.

Imagine the interior of British Parliament: a central area in the middle of a cavernous room serving as a stage, surrounded on all sides of the room by a gallery of observers. The ornate chandeliers and the tall stained-glass windows give the space an air of prominence and authority, perhaps even royalty.

Two large movie screens hang on either side of the room, and commissioning editors from major television and distribution companies sit at the long central table in the middle. This is the stage on which filmmakers perform, seated at one end of the table, while moderators at the other end not only make sure that pitches are kept within the allotted time, but encourage comments and push buyers to think about the projects at hand. "[Pitching] is pretty nerve-wracking," says Kimberly Reed, who presented her directorial debut, Prodigal Sons. "You're sitting at a huge table with the most important decision-makers in the documentary world, in a room filled with observers who have paid a lot of money to learn from your mistakes."

If it sounds dramatic, that's because it is. The format, adapted from the Forum at IDFA, is a bit of theater. McLean cites one of her favorite moments from this year: "Angus McQueen of Channel 4 saying he'd get in a bun fight with Nick Fraser at BBC's Storyville over For the Love of Shakespeare--the TDF's first project brought by a Chinese broadcaster." But once everyone has participated in the show, it is in the back rooms, or the delegate's lounge, or on the terrace over coffee and a cigarette, where the real discussions are had. Is this program right for us? What does our budget look like right now?

What's hot these days? "Character-driven" is the buzzword echoing around those lofty rafters. And any time Nick Fraser sits next to a filmmaker, nearly all commissioning editors vow to throw their bucks in too. Stories with strong central characters, cinematic footage and proven filmmakers never fail to excite buyers, while historical footage and stories, personal films and "American" stories seemed to chill the room. For observers, the opportunity to hear straight from buyers and see what they jump on is the stock of the filmmaking trade.

From the broadcasters' point of view, Lois Vossen, series producer of Independent Lens and VP at ITVS, notes that "Filmmakers are less willing to make 'TV hour' versions of their programs, and are more determined to have the theatrical version on television." She adds that filmmakers could benefit from more understanding about how festival, theatrical and television markets differ. "I am always encouraging filmmakers to recognize the different platforms," says Vossen. "The different environments they create for an audience and how a film that plays successfully at a film festival may not have the same impact on television--especially in a longer version."

Commissioning editors with big budgets are swarmed during each break with informal pitches and swapping of screeners. Robin Hessman was one such observer/informal pitcher with her project in development, Russia's Pepsi Generation. The project is in mid-production, with 70 percent of the budget raised and some broadcast commitments.

Hessman's list of industry events is long. "I have been to Hot Docs 2005, Sunny Side 2005, IFP 2005, Sunny Side 2006, IDFA 2006 and Hot Docs 2007. The only time I officially pitched the film was in Thessaloniki in March 2007 as part of the EDN [European Documentary Network] pitching workshop." Going to events all over the world is costly and certainly begs the question, Is it worth it?--especially if you aren't on the official program. "I can't stress how much I feel it has been worth it," says Hessman. "Over these two years I have been able to get a real sense of who the international broadcasters are and what their individual tastes are."

McLean notes that many deals have been made over the years following pitches at TDF. Projects from previous years have even screened at Hot Docs, such as this year's world premiere of Oliver Hodge's Garbage Warrior. The international documentary community is active, yet according to McLean, "Only 13 percent of the total number of delegates was from the USA [mostly buyers]. Producers are surely missing out." US-based producer/director Cathryn Czubeck pitched her rough cut A Girl and A Gun and notes, "I have an Americana-themed film, so it was great to find international support...Both NHK [Japan] and CBC [Canada] were very interested after hearing my pitch."

Want more on TDF? Joel Heller, producer and host of Docs That Inspire podcast, followed the progress of producer/director Kimberly Reed as she pitched Prodigal Sons at the Forum, and Heller and I co-hosted an interview with McLean. Both podcasts will be available this month at

Agnes Varnum blogs from