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DOCUMENTARY TIP #5: Places to Pitch Documentary Ideas

A really great place to pitch if you are newer to the biz, or even a seasoned producer, is at a conference or film festival. Conferences such as Hot Docs in Toronto, WestDoc in Los Angeles, Independent Film Week in New York, or IDFA in Amsterdam, will have pitching sessions where you can sign up to pitch to broadcasters and funders. You have to register for these conferences and pay a fee (and usually you have to apply to get a pitch session), but the connections you make from these pitch sessions can prove invaluable and could get you your funding.

Also if you register for the conference and are not able to get a one-on-one pitch session with a certain broadcaster who you just know is the right one for your project, then these conferences will have lots of other activities such as screenings, panels and cocktail parties during which you can possibly get some face time with that person.

You could also pitch at a festival such as Sundance since many industry types show up to large fests like Sundance, Toronto, Tribeca, Berlin, as well as documentary only fests like Silver Docs and Hot Docs in North America and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival in England—these are an unbelievable place to network. They don’t usually have actual pitch sessions that you can sign up for, so you will have to wrestle with the crowds and get to the front of the room after a panel in order to speak with that person.

Keep in mind too that even that festival in your own town or within driving distance of you may have some programmers or funders attending. For example, we just had the Santa Fe Film Fest earlier this month here, and I was able to network with a great number of industry, including Cara Mertes of the Sundance Documentary Fund and a programmer from Al Jazeera’s English Channel (they are looking for programming, btw). So be on the look out for fests in your area, and network at them.

Just some words to the wise—when you don’t have a scheduled pitch session, and you are approaching these people after a panel or screening for instance, understand that they have boundaries, and may even have places to get to—so try and read their vibe and body language as to whether or not they are open to speaking with you—sure you have passion for your project and you may even be desperate for funding, but remember to be respectful.

I once heard a story told to me by the head of a major international documentary fund about how they got followed by a filmmaker into a bathroom and was pitched while they were on the toilet. This angered the funder so much that they vowed they would never fund that filmmaker. So use your common sense!

I have approached programmers and funders at fests and conferences to pitch them, or even just to say hello and tell them I appreciate all that they do for docs around the world, or how I really enjoyed this film they help make and distribute—something where I make a connection. Because the business runs around connection and relationships, and being someone who is seen as nice as well as creative will get you a long way.

Another thing to be aware of when making impromptu pitches (or even scheduled ones) is that people will probably only want your business card—they will most likely decline to take your proposal, or work in progress or sample dvd since by the end of the fest they will need extra suitcases just to get all the dvd’s and proposals home. Just remember to get their business card as well so you can mail them these things in the coming days.

A few other things to be aware of is that you should only pitch 2 projects at a time, and pitching only one is fine. Most funders and programmers do not like the shotgun approach where you give a laundry list if ideas. Also, don’t blindly pitch—know whom you are pitching to whether it’s a scheduled or an impromptu pitch. Otherwise it’s a waste of everyone’s time and you look unprofessional. And make sure you are not pitching an idea that Michael Moore is doing as well. Know what is being made out there—look at indiewire; festival websites; funders press releases on their recently funded projects; join film organizations and go to conferences and film festivals; be a part of on-line doc communities, and network with fellow filmmakers. You are a part of a community, so take advantage of that!

Finally, if they do not like your pitch, no worries. Just be confident and keep the faith that there is a home for it somewhere. If they do like it—great! Be happy, celebrate! Then do a quick follow up email in the next few days saying that you are so happy they like the idea, or that they are on-board with the idea, and what would they like to see next.

So there’s a primer on pitching at fests and conferences—to find out more about how to pitch, check out our up coming Documentary How To audio course on pitching, coming soon!