The 17th edition of the three-day Forum, the annual co-financing market component of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam was held earlier this week with a series of pitches by filmmakers seeking input and potential co-production support from some of the biggest names in international broadcasting. Subjects on day one were varied – from the devastating environmental impact of tar sand oil development in Canada in Tom Radford & Niobe Thompson’s “Tipping Point: The End of Dirty Oil” to an expose of a traditional Afghan practice of selling young girls to older men in Nima Sarvestani’s “I Was Worth 50 Sheep.” While attending broadcasters often expressed enthusiasm for participating projects, there were also times when they questioned whether certain films were the right fit for their programming and challenged filmmakers on the clarity of their pitches.
The Forum’s daily schedule is split into two types of pitch sessions – Central Pitches, featuring projects that already have the commitment of at least one major broadcaster, pitched to a large open forum of commissioning editors; and Round Table Pitches, consisting of both projects in earlier stages of development as well as others that are nearing completion, pitched to a much smaller group of broadcasters in a more intimate discussion setting. In addition, while these Round Tables are taking place, other project teams engage in separate, in-depth one-on-one meetings with broadcasters.
The Central Pitches involve a brief presentation about the project from the director, producer, and broadcaster, followed by a trailer. Moderated by Karolina Lidin (Nordic Film & TV Fund), Jess Search (Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation), Rudy Buttignol (Knowledge Network), and Axel Arnoe (SVT), these Central Pitches are delivered to an imposing but usually supportive group of about 30 broadcasters representing industry from all over Europe, North America, and Japan, including Channel 4, BBC, ARTE, POV, ITVS, NHK, and the Sundance Institute.
Seated at tables facing the pitching teams and moderators in an almost tribunal U-shaped arrangement, the industry are asked to weigh in on the pitch by the moderators, who keep things moving along and occasionally help produce memorable exchanges between broadcasters, as when BBC Storyville’s Greg Sanderson comicly retorted, after a moderator suggested that were Channel 4’s Hamish Mykura to pass on a project, BBC might take it on instead: “Actually, I think it would be the other way around.” Aside from these moments of levity, the goal chiefly seems to be to reveal if the pitch piqued various broadcasters’ interest enough to lead to follow-up one-on-one meetings to discuss more details.
In addition to indicating their expertise when it comes to their audiences’ interests, the broadcasters displayed an at times surprisingly wide range of knowledge on the subjects presented, culled from exposure to past projects that have come their way, but generally showcasing that the Forum is serious business with serious players who know a fair amount about a variety of topics.
This breadth of knowledge comes in handy, since, based on the Forum catalogue descriptions and the pitches witnessed earlier this week, there is a great diversity of subject matter among the proposals. While they are overwhelmingly focused on serious social justice issues, eschewing more light-hearted fare, the topics are nevertheless distinct. Also striking is the range of specific pitching approaches taken by the participants. Some pitchers delivered expertly prepared presentations which clearly delineated the project, its production status, and their goals for the completed film, including the already mentioned “Tipping Point” and Miguel Salazar and Angus Gibson’s “Looking for Colombia,” about the long-awaited examination of the culpability of the military in the 1985 Siege of the Palace of Justice in Colombia.
Other pitches, in contrast, seemed too vaguely sketched out, such as one project which aims to question the efficacy of development aid programs for Africa, but seemed too large and unruly a subject and not clearly explained at all, while others confused or struck panelists as perhaps too local in interest, such as another which focused on a Finnish government advisor falsely accused of being a Stasi spy. And still others perhaps suffered a lack of clarity due to language issues, which left some broadcasters wondering what the story’s focus and trajectory would be even after follow-up questions to the pitching team.
The Forum attracts a roomful of industry and filmmaker observers, situated in seating surrounding the proceedings, eager to hear about new projects likely to appear on the international documentary festival circuit in the near future as well as in the programming offerings of various broadcasters, given the successful completion rate of past participants – the Forum catalogue lists 17 films participating in IDFA 2009 which were pitched in past Forums, for example. At the same time, the sessions offer a crash course in the pleasures and perils of pitching projects for observing filmmakers not fortunate enough to have been selected to participate. For these filmmakers, attending the Forum actually offers chances to win a pitch session – moderators collect business cards in a hat and draw two winners who are allowed to pitch their projects to the assembled broadcasters the next day.
By the nature of the program, of course, aside from these lucky winners, the audience is not permitted to participate in any official way during the sessions – they may not ask questions or offer feedback. The audience’s role is purely observational. One expects that the less-seasoned filmmakers among the observers pick up some useful tips on what makes a pitch effective, as well as what not to do, which in and of itself is practical. Additionally, they can learn more about what the broadcasters gravitate toward programmatically, and what doesn’t tend to be a fit for their programming strands.
Interestingly, many pitchers opted not to go into much detail, if any, regarding their financing and production needs. Granted, the specifics of their budgets and production status is available to the industry in the Forum’s catalogue and is probably better suited to focused individual meetings with interested potential partners rather than the larger presentation in the Central Pitches.
This begs the question, however, posed by some attendees after Monday’s sessions, about the value of the Central Pitches as compared with that of the Round Tables. While they can be informative and entertaining, most of the information the pitchers present in the short time that they have is already available in the catalogue to a much deeper extent. The trailer is usually the only new thing on offer, together with a sense of how well or how poorly the filmmakers can present their ideas.
Most pitches observed on Monday morning were met by broadcasters with the same basic responses: “It sounds interesting, but we have a meeting already scheduled and we’ll talk in more detail then,” or “I need to see a rough cut to determine if it works for my programming strand.” In contrast, the smaller Round Tables and one-on-one sessions allow the filmmakers to communicate with fewer broadcasters in greater detail, ultimately better serving both. Forum organizers may wish to rethink exactly what they hope to accomplish from the Central Pitches, and who the Central Pitches best serve – those pitching, those receiving, or those silently observing.
The filmmakers selected for the Forum often have a track record of successfully producing previous films and have managed to get some part of the way to completing their current projects – they have commissioning broadcast partners attached – so it doesn’t seem that the Central Pitches need to function as presenting experience for those doing the pitching. It would seem that the Central Pitches might benefit from a re-imagining to determine a more practical benefit for the pitching filmmakers, or to re-focus the Central Pitches away from accomplished filmmakers to instead make them more explicitly for neophytes who need practical pitching experience and training.
[Basil Tsiokos is Programming Associate, Documentary Features for the Sundance Film Festival. Follow him on Twitter at @1basil1.]