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The Top 8 Pitches at the Hot Docs Forum: What Worked and What Didn’t

The Top 8 Pitches at the Hot Docs Forum: What Worked and What Didn't

No one was handing over big checks of money at the Hot Docs
Forum, the Canadian documentary festival’s international co-financing market
event. But along with IDFA’s pitching sessions in Amsterdam in the fall, there
may be no higher profile place in the world to pitch a nonfiction project. With
69 buyers from some of the world’s most esteemed broadcasters and documentary
backers—from PBS to CNN, Arte to ZDF, the BBC to the CBC—one industry attendee
dubbed it “the world series” of nonfiction pitches.

READ MORE: 6 Tips on Making Your First Documentary Film

For two days, The Forum takes place inside the hothouse Hart
House room, where some 200-industry onlookers sit on wooden bleachers
surrounding a central table, where nerve-rattled pitchers have approximately
seven minutes to hawk their projects. Twenty doc films had their precious
chance in the spotlight. Prodded, questioned, encouraged and cajoled by the
veteran broadcasters sitting around the table, many doc producers emerged triumphant,
with promises of meetings and potential investment, while others were left
scraping their wounded egos off the wooden floor.  

By all accounts, the second day’s pitches were stronger than
the first.

One of the most formidable pitches was also in need of the
most financing. “The Jazz Ambassadors,” directed by Hugo Berkeley (“A Normal
Life”) and already partnered with Channel THIRTEEN in New York, was seeking
over $1.6 million to complete its ambitious project. The film tells the story
of the American government’s efforts to win the Cold War by dispatching jazz
legends like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzie Gillespie on a
worldwide music tour in order to dispel negative propaganda about the blight of
U.S. racism. The pitch’s strongly edited excerpt of archival footage clearly
laid out the film’s lucid argument and central conflict: the struggle of these
musicians between patriotism and outrage. Companies including Arte in France, NHK in
Japan and PBS in the U.S. all showed enthusiasm for the project.

Two of the most successful pitches also came as surprises to
the attendees. Though the projects’ written treatments didn’t catch the
attention of broadcasters, their spoken pitches and accompanying visual
material ended up swaying the backers.

One of these was MC2 Communication Media’s “Living with
Giants,” winner of this year’s Shaw Media $10,000 Pitch Prize for a Canadian
project. The film enters the world of Paulusie Kasudluak, a young Inuk facing new
responsibilities and transitions into adulthood that prove overwhelming. The
filmmaking team brought an extraordinarily beautiful trailer, which combined
intimate footage of the young man and his family with imaginative imagery
associated with the mythic dimensions of his Inuit heritage. Broadcasters, like
Chris White, newly installed chief of POV, appreciated the project’s intimacy,
while others hailed the scale and beauty of the imagery. Even the table’s perennially
most outspoken critic, BBC Films Storyville’s Nick Fraser found the trailer to
be “moving and beautiful,” though he challenged the filmmakers to come up
with a better, more reflective title.

When one of the teams’ filmmakers tried to justify the
title, another stepped in, saying he’d be happy to find a new name for the
project. One of the unspoken rules of Hot Doc Forum, it seems, is to graciously accept
the advice of the experts.

Another surprise came with the pitch of “When Good Sleeps”
(working title), a U.S.-German production about a controversial Iranian
musician who escaped his native country, after receiving a fatwa against him,
and who now lives and performs, under constant threat, in Germany. With seed
financing from the Catapult Film Fund and backing from German broadcaster WDR,
the project looked on the page like another vague story of an activist
musician.

But with the pitch, which clearly outlined the film’s
three-act structure, and the accompanying footage—which revealed a compelling
character, the high stakes of his situation and an intriguing Romeo &
Juliet story—the decision-makers became convinced. Chris White said the pitch
“hit all the right notes for POV,” while Fraser called the pitch “fantastic,”
with only one reservation: the filmmaker’s decision to use animation, which
seemed to undermine the strength of their characters and their verite footage.

Other warmly received pitches, singled out for their
lighter, refreshingly humorous approaches, included Vaishali Sinha’s and Mridu
Candra’s “Ask the Sexpert,” which follows a longtime Indian sex-advice
columnist against a backdrop of the country’s ban on comprehensive sex
education in schools; Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s “Big Sonia,” (a former Indiewire Project of the Month) about the
filmmaker’s grandmother, a Kansas City-based Holocaust survivor; “Post-Punk
Disorder,” a hilarious Finnish sequel to “The Punk Syndrome,” about a group of
mentally disabled punk rockers; and a surprise randomly selected “Mountie Hat”
pitch from the crowd of participants, “Searching for the Mercury 13,” about a
secret 1950s U.S. program focused on training female astronauts.

Few filmmakers could humble the distinguished industry
professionals offering criticism and support, but when documentary veteran
Frederick Wiseman showed up in the hot seat with his latest project, “In Jackson
Heights,” the tables seemed to be turned. The third in a trilogy of films about
communities—after “Belfast, Maine,” and “Aspen”—”In Jackson Heights” provides a
mosaic of the rich diversity of the area—the trailer shows an array of different
peoples (Jews, Muslims, Hispanics, East Asians, transgendered people, etc.).
When Danish broadcasting doc chief Mette Hoffman Meyer suggested Wiseman
consider making a shorter version than his usual 3-hour standard in order to
play in primetime slots, Wiseman shot her down, suggesting that his
complicated subjects demand a long running time. The audience cheered, extra
delighted by the fact that a filmmaker had finally been able to stand their
ground.

Certainly, many of the other pitches didn’t turn out that
way. Projects such as South Africa’s “The New Missionaries,” U.S.’s “Selling
our Daughters,” Poland’s “Reporter,” Quebec’s “Thief’s Bazaar” may have to go
back to the drawing board.

If there was any consistent concern among the industry experts
regarding the pitches, it was the fleshing out and definition of the project’s
central characters. Those projects with compelling and clearly defined
characters, and the filmmakers’ ability to articulate a clear point of view on
their principle subject, rose to the top. Perhaps at such early stages in the
process, when narrative arc can remain ill defined, it was a memorable
protagonist that won over the most cynical of broadcasters.

Ultimately, documentarians must recognize that nonfiction
filmmaking can be a long and complicated process. For ITVS/Independent Lens
executive Noland Walker, the Forum provides “a good opportunity” to explore
that process, “to drill down with questions about a project and challenge the
filmmakers,” he said, “just as it’s often good to challenge a subject.”

READ MORE: Making a Living at Documentary Filmmaking is Harder Than Ever. Here’s Why

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