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DOCUMENTARY TIP #9: Pitching in the International Marketplace

Ideas can be easy to come by. But the money for these ideas can be hard to find. One of the key ways to connect the idea to the money is through a pitch to a funder, like a commissioning editor within the International marketplace. CarolAnn Short, a member of the DocuMentors staff, recently attended a panel at IDFA on pitching and financing called “Financing and Producing: Starting Smart”. The panel was moderated by Debra Zimmerman of Women Make Movies, and included panelists Mila Aung-Thwin,  Producer/Director at EyeSteelFilm, Heino Deckert of Deckert Distribution, and Olaf Grünert, Head of Thema for ARTE, France.

The panelists set out to address the following questions: How do you convince financiers to fund your documentary project? What are alternative financing models? What are some dos and don’ts when setting out to navigate in the international documentary financing scene?

The panel first addressed the idea of what is “the Pitch”? The pitch is a concise presentation of the idea for the film. This presentation can be verbal, or it can include visual aids (like a rough cut or trailer). Directors or Producers will typically make pitches to Commissioning Editors in hope to attract financing to complete their documentary film.    

Aung-Thwin shared this pitch experience: His first pitch at Banff went poorly—people on this panel challenged his ideas, asked if he had considered other approaches to the film he was pitching—but he was narrow-sighted and set in his ways. After leaving the pitch session and for the next three years, he and his team reconsidered the comments from the panel and proceeded to reformat the film. They approached CBC again and gained their support; these efforts resulted in their film ‘Up the Yangtze’.

What did Aung-Thwin learn from this experience? As a young filmmaker, he admittedly went to the pitch believing his approach was flawless—the commissioning editors did not agree. His advice from this experience was to listen to comments from the experts, and try to understand why they have the questions they do. ‘Just be willing and able to listen (and later really process) the suggestions of the experts,’ was his suggestion.

The Panel then addressed where do you Pitch? The largest formal pitch opportunities occur at Hot Docs (May 5-6, 2010), and IDFA (November 22-24, 2010), North America’s and Europe’s best ops to pitch docs. The Panelists felt that these were the ideal places to pitch your doc projects. (Other opportunities exist in the U.S. including FIND Film Week in NYC.)

All panelists agree that if you are not part of the Forum at either IDFA or Hot Docs that you should typically NOT approach commissioning editors to pitch your project at these venues. They request that you send your film via mail or with a link to your website after the festival. Ultimately, use discretion, be tactful, and be respectful. If you try to give your materials to a commissioning editor at a conference or festival, 99 times out of 100 they will refuse to take it, and instead request you mail it to their office to be processed appropriately.

Next the Panel addressed how to prepare for your Pitch: Know your story—not just the facts—the story. It is important to understand your point of view and the broadcaster’s point of view to determine if it is a good match or not—your story is not for everyone. Also, know who is your audience, and how do you foresee distribution?

Your dream project may be of interest to only a small audience (known as a niche film); you would therefore have very specific funders. An example of a niche film is “Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam,” a Muslim punk rock doc that Aung-Thwin and team produced and then distributed on USB sticks for $20-30 (an alternative distribution method).

In addition, the panelists mentioned that with doc distribution in Europe, everything will end up on television … but this is not the case in the US or in Canada, so filmmakers should always think of the best audience and venue for their story. ‘RiP: Remix Manifesto’ (co-produced by Aung-Thwin) was offered at a “pay what you can” price and individuals could screen to friends in their living rooms. Similarly, ‘Super High Me’ made $1 million by this distribution model.

The Panel also discussed that one needs to know the length of your proposed film before pitching. Only 10-15 countries have slots for films of 90 minutes. So know your market before determining the final length of your film. That said, you can still cut different length versions for different territories—‘Up the Yangtze’ had five different lengths due to the needs of different broadcasters. The panelists and moderator all agreed that short docs are a great starting point for new filmmakers. Half-hour educational docs are very marketable in the US, however an educational market does not exist in the EU. There is also a market for shorts with short film fests, as well as regular film fests.

Panelists then went on to discuss how Americans filmmakers are leading the pack in alternative funding methods—by necessity, since funding for doc films in the US is not as prevalent as in other countries. It is noted that to have successful alternative funding campaigns, a community needs to be created to establish and sustain interest in the film. Some of the proven funding approaches include the following: Pass the Hat. A hat is literally passed around a room with potential donors asked to contribute to the film funding after seeing a rough cut.

Another way to raise funds is through online contributions. A filmmaker can sell shares of film for $50+. Robert Greenwald did this successfully with a couple of documentaries, giving associate producer (or similar credits) to donors. (Please note: alternative fund raising approaches and the contracts associated with this fundraising should be approved of by a media rights lawyer.)

Finally, the Panel addressed the question of whether or not you really need a rough cut? They all agreed that a rough cut is imperative. The rough cut shows that you have access, it demonstrates your visual aesthetic, and that you have a story that is at least starting to develop. The rough cut also demonstrates your progress and the likeliness of your project getting finished.

So, what happens after your pitch is accepted? Again the panel had consensus that a ‘yes’ does not always mean yes. You must follow up immediately—get a letter of interest and then get a Letter of Commitment or Letter of Intent. Not everyone can say “yes” on the spot, most commissioning editors must go back to the network/company ad see how your project fits into their portfolio or plans.

Check out our detailed audio tutorial,  Navigating Film Markets.

Find lots of solutions to your doc needs in Making A Documentary: Tools and Tutorials.