Over May 2 and 3, more than 100 doc-world decisionmakers amassed during Hot Docs, North America's largest nonfiction film festival, to attend the event's co-financing market. In addition to networking and meetings three-letter entities like POV, the CBC and the BBC, the Hot DocsForum gives filmmakers 20 minutes to make deals that address the real problem: Money.
In that time slot, filmmakers have seven minutes to pitch their projects, with the rest of the time allotted to fielding questions from the distinguished figures seated around the massive tables in the center of the impressive, high-ceilinged Hogwarts-like meeting hall of the University of Toronto's Hart House. If this isn't imposing enough, the pitch teams are surrounded on all sides by more than 100 silent observers — other filmmakers, industry, and journalists, all curious to see the panel's reaction.
Depending on the project, reactions are often more entertaining and edifying than the pitches themselves. While constructive feedback is the general rule of the day, some decisionmakers often call the projects as they see them, bypassing pleasantries to say what most of the room is probably thinking, sharing tough but often spot-on opinions with a filmmaker who brings a terrible title or unfocused trailer to the proceedings.
Out of the 25 pitches presented at this year's event (23 pre-selected and two drawn raffle-style from submissions made by observers to the traditional Mountie's Hat), I was able to catch 18. Of those, about half had significant issues ranging from a lack of originality to trying to cover too many disparate topics or too many characters, or simply not succeeding in finding an engaging way to reveal their theses.
One interesting but not-quite-there pitch was notable for the unusual reaction it engendered by the commissioners – Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam's "Caught in the Net," about a treatment program for "Internet addiction" in China. Experts asked and re-asked the pitch team about their critical take on the program they're documenting, concerned about potentially giving Chinese propaganda a free pass.
Of the remaining, the following eight should be on programmers and documentary fans' radar:
"Let the Fire Burn"
Director/Producer: Jason Osder
Executive Producer: Andrew Herwitz
Production Companies: The Film Sales Company
Proposed Delivery: 1/1/2013
Financing Sought: $260,000 of $520,000 USD
Synopsis: On May 13, 1985, the city government of Philadelphia and MOVE – an organization combining elements of a Black power movement with a back-to-nature religion — collided after a decade of simmering tension in a violent armed conflict that ultimately led to an out-of-control inferno that claimed the lives of five children and six adults, and destroyed more than 60 homes.
I had the opportunity to see an early cut of this project and was blown away. Osder tells the story with a remarkable immediacy, entirely through archival footage of the confrontation and the televised public fact-finding commission that followed — the result is riveting. I'm confident that this will be much talked about when its completed and the assembled decision makers responded incredibly well.
"Vidal v. Buckley"
Directors/Producers: Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville
Executive Producers: Julie Goldman and Julie Yannatta
Production Companies: Tremolo Productions/Media Ranch Productions
Proposed Delivery: 1/1/2014
Financing Sought: $300,000 of $600,000 USD
Synopsis: During the presidential campaign in the Summer of 1968, the opposing political ideologues William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal met for 10 nationally televised debates intended to boost ratings. The intellectually strident and emotionally charged results were a portentous shadow over a televised democracy that has led to the polarizing partisan name-calling that makes up most of what's on the air today.
Another project that generates much of its power through archival footage, Gordon and Neville ("The Troubadours") impressed the commissioners with their pitch, especially the ability to draw a clear connection between these debates and the current state of political journalism and punditry.
"Svalka: Yula's Journey"
Director/Producer: Hanna Polak
Producer: Piotr Uzarowicz
Executive Producer: Jan Rofekamp
Production Companies: Hanna Polak Films/Goat Hill
Proposed Delivery: 10/1/2012
Financing Sought: $306,764 of $337,900 USD
Synopsis: Polak followed an 11-year-old girl living in an immense garbage dump on the outskirts of Moscow for 11 years, demonstrating that whatever the circumstances, we all strive for dignity, kindness, joy, and, most of all, a desire to love and be loved.
Polka had attendees buzzing with her premise — capturing not only a marginalized community but through a longitudinal project that allows the audience to see a young girl grow into a young woman. The trailer was powerful, and if the glimpses shown of Yula's life are any indication, this will be an impressive and fascinating feature doc.
Polak's pitch was the winner of this year's Cuban Hat best pitch — a plucky award that presents cash collected from Forum participants and observers during the event. This year, the award was over $1,600, and included currency in the form of Canadian and US dollars, Euros, Malawi Kwacha, Colombian Pesos, British Pounds, and more, including a Toronto transit token. The hat went to Nick Fraser, voted favorite commissioner by attendees.
"An Honest Liar"
Directors: Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein
Production Company: Left Turn Films
Proposed Delivery: 3/3/2013
Financing Sought: $398,000 of $800,000 USD
Synopsis: A chronicle of the career and crusades of the world-famous magician James "The Amazing" Randi as he exposes the frauds perpetrated by psychics, mentalists, preachers, and faith healers. Going behind the scenes with the 83-year-old Randi as he orchestrates his latest undercover debunking mission, the film reveals how easily our perceptions can be fooled — by magicians, con artists, and even documentarians. But what happens when Randi, who has dedicated his life to exposing lies, learns that his partner of the past 25 years is not who he claims to be?
Measom ("Sons of Perdition") and Weinstein ("Being Elmo") engaged in some playful trickery of their own during their pitch, assuming each other's identities as they introduced the project. They have decades worth of archival footage to draw from to tell Randi's story, and a great and unexpected twist in the developments to his personal life.
"The Audacity of Louis Ortiz"
Director/Producer: Ryan Murdock
Producer: Dawn Porter
Production Companies: Saving Daylight Prods./Trilogy Films
Proposed Delivery: 9/1/2013
Financing Sought: $368,196 of $405,000 USD
Synopsis: In the South Bronx in 2008, an out-of-work man with worsening multiple sclerosis and no health insurance gains a new lease on life when someone notes his remarkable resemblance to presidential candidate Barack Obama. But his new impersonation career is not without a catch – as he potentially loses sight of himself, is the price of fame too high? Without other job prospects, does Louis have any other choice?
While there was concern from some experts as to what the project's ultimate shape would be, Murdock and Porter's pitch was a great way to kick off the Forum's first day. Ortiz's story intersects with a number of topical issues – the recession, health care, and the presidential campaign – so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Director: Inna Sahakyan
Producer: Vardan Hovhannisyan
Production Company: Bars Media
Proposed Delivery: 4/1/2013
Financing Sought: $221,779 of $280,674 USD
Synopsis: After a decade of protecting African elephants in Kenya, Cambridge scientist Max Graham has stumbled across a new and urgent threat: China's increased demand for ivory, resulting in an increase in poaching of 150 percent each year. Max's plan is to follow the smugglers back to the source by planting GPS chips in the tusks of poached elephants, becoming an international detective to save them.
Described as "'The Cove' with elephants," Hovhannisyan's pitch had a mixed response from the experts who were unsure about the balance that will be struck between the nature doc elements and the investigative aspects. The general feedback seemed to be that the more it focuses on Graham, the better – a sentiment with which I concur.
"Sands of the Skei Queen"
Director/Producer: Ryley Grunenwald
Producer: Pascal Schmitz
Country: South Africa
Production Company: Marie-Vérité Films
Proposed Delivery: 7/1/2014
Financing Sought: $185,791 of $461,048 USD
Synopsis: When titanium-rich mineral sands are discovered in the amaMpondo community's lands in the pristine Wild Coast of South Africa, the government approves a massive highway project that all-too-conveniently dovetails with an Australian mining company's need for road access to the sand dunes. This sparks a battle between the tribe and the government, and within the tribe itself.
One of two pitches strangely focused on sand, this was better received, though Nick Fraser very correctly advised Grunenwald and Schmitz to change the inscrutable title. Of particular interest here is less the environmental aspects and more the cultural/political clash – when the Mpondo royal family speak out against the development, the South African government dethrones and replaces them with a puppet it can control.
Director/Producer: Doug Block
Producer: Lori Cheatle
Production Company: 112 Weddings LLC
Proposed Delivery: 4/1/2013
Financing Sought: $246,235 of $561,235 USD
Synopsis: Filmmaker Doug Block has been a part-time wedding videographer for the past 20 years. When asked to officiate at a wedding, he realizes he may not know as much about marriage as he thinks, and sets out to revisit a wide range of the couples – mostly strangers – whose weddings he has filmed to see if they can offer insight into what makes some marriages work and others fall apart.
While I missed Block and Cheatle's ("51 Birch St," "The Kids Grow Up") actual pitch, I was able to see the trailer, which is effective and funny. This was the most buzzed about pitch of the Forum's first day – it was mentioned to me by a number of attendees as the project that stood out head and tails above some of the more lackluster pitches, and found an equally positive reception among the decision makers at the table.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).