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Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.

 

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Hot Docs 2011 Part 2

Forum

THE HOT DOCS FORUM - Special Guest Blog
by DocuMentors Member, Carolyn McCully of Citygate Film

Though it is an open pitching event, the Hot Docs Forum is not a public session at the Hot Docs festival. It is a separate two-day meeting during which 26 producing teams (and one team randomly chosen out of a hat full of business cards) pitch a table of approximately two dozen commissioning editors and funders. The rest of us--around 150 or so--are filmmakers with at least one broadcast credit who have applied to attend and watch the proceedings.

Each team is allotted a set amount of time to pitch their projects, screen a trailer, and field questions and comments from the broadcasters and funders at the table. The rest of us follow along by reading the projects' treatment and production notes in a book produced by Hot Docs. Set in the Gothic Revival-style Hart House on the campus of the University of Toronto, the Forum is reminiscent of medieval jousting tournaments, minus the blood. The producer teams gallantly ride into the arena, sometimes to attain victory, other times to be knocked off their horses.

What quickly becomes evident is that few projects have broad appeal for those assembled, due to their own programming objectives. But nearly all want to know more about the characters of the film. If there is one thing I take away from the Forum it's this: Pitch the relevance of your topic in person, but craft your trailer to showcase your characters. And that's actually hard to do! I learned this last year but see I can still be guilty of incomplete character studies in pitching trailers. I think one reason for this is that as filmmakers, we tend to think in terms of marketing trailers that pitch the topical relevance and provide hooks for social activism. But those stand-alone internet trailers aren't what commissioning editors are looking for. They want to know who is in the film and what the narrative arc will be. This group tends to be well-informed on social and political topics because they are pitched about them all year long, so what they want to know is how your film will tell a fresh story about those issues. They are leery of campaign films. They want to know the strength of a film as a narrative.

I highly recommend all filmmakers attend a pitching forum while your project is in development. By the second day at the Hot Docs Forum, I could anticipate when the broadcasters would object to projects with too many characters, a planned free release on the Internet (a momentum-killer for broadcasters who want to monetize their own premieres), narrow niches that don't fit programming strands, and unfocused structures. That said, I'm sure all the filmmakers are aware of these pitfalls, too. These problems are hard to avoid when you are very close to your own subjects and projects. I am also guilty as charged! So I applaud the bravery of filmmakers who are willing to let us all learn from them.

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