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How To Successfully Pitch Your Documentary, According To Filmmakers Who Have Done It

Non-fiction filmmakers at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest MeetMarket share their secrets for pitching to potential investors.

The Sheffield MeetMarket

The Sheffield MeetMarket

Courtesy of the Sheffield Doc/Fest

The Sheffield Doc/Fest is one of the world’s premiere non-fiction film festivals, celebrating both the art and business of documentary film. The business part is a key component, as Sheffield’s MeetMarket has unlocked over $53 million of deals for documentarians since its inception in 2006. It’s for this reason that the filmmakers at Sheffield, while in addition to being top-of-their-field artists, are also experts at how to pitch their projects and getting investors onboard.

To tap into some of that knowledge, IndieWire reached out to six of these experienced filmmakers who have had success pitching and are participating in this year’s MeetMarket, to get their advice about what does and does not work when presenting your project to investors.

READ MORE: How Field Of Vision’s Quick Production Turnaround Is Changing The Way Documentaries Are Made And Seen

What Works

Maya Gallus, “A Female Gaze”: “This is a film about women filmmakers and how their ‘gaze’ reveals itself in the work. The topic is urgent right now as there is much in the news about the paucity of women at the helm in film and television and why we need to correct this gender disparity. It’s really a film about how the stories we tell reveal who we are as a society. So the timing is excellent. Funders are open and ready to listen. And there is no other contemporary film on the subject.”

Al Morrow, “Sour Grapes”:“Humor always helps in a pitch no matter what the subject or overall tone of the film. I always try and bring out the lighter moments in a story.”

Lindsey Dryden, “Canary In A Coal Mine”: “Successful pitches for me and my teams have been the ones where we’re clear about our story and how we’re going to tell it, succinct, and obviously really excited about the film. That enthusiasm is infectious, especially when it comes from a strong, skilled team.”

Jessica Wolfson, “DID IT! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary”:Sometimes you get wrapped up in the pitch and forget to read the reaction of the person you are talking to. Having a partner at the table is great because it allows you to take a moment and assess the situation while the other person is talking. At the IFP Film Week, [co-director] Paul [Lovelace] and I were able to do that. This helped us make the pitch more engaging for the other end of the table.”

Jeanie Finlay, “Luxury Bitches”: “Being accepted to pitch is not the be all and end all and money will not just appear from sky. It’s worth seeing if people have time to meet outside of the official timetable. A pitch is essentially just a meeting. The most important thing is following up with commissioners and financiers afterwards. Lots of people give ‘great meeting’ and you can have a lot of exciting discussions, but if that isn’t followed up afterwards it was just a lovely meeting.”

READ MORE:  Why Documentary Filmmakers Must Take Care of Legal Business Early and Often

What Doesn’t Work

Lindsey Dryden, “Canary In A Coal Mine”: “I think filmmakers often make a couple of key mistakes (and we’re all guilty of them from time to time). The first is pitching too hard: talking endlessly, lecturing whoever they’re meeting until their eyes glaze over, and not listening. Secondly, filmmakers often don’t tell the actual story: they describe their subject or theme or context, but don’t tell you what’s actually going to happen, how the story will unfold, and how they’re going to tell this story in a unique way. These are things documentary filmmakers can’t know for certain – and films like ‘Call Me Kuchu’ and ‘The Overnighters’ are brilliant examples of completely unexpected twists – but we should be damn good at imagining how our stories might play out.”

Sara Stockmann, Producer of Bobbi Jene”: “It is understandable that pitch teams want to give a 360 degree understanding of their project and in doing so they often get lost in too many details and factual information.”

Maya Gallus, “A Female Gaze”: “Too much extraneous talk. Get to the point: what is the story, who is going to be in it, do you have special or unique access, and what will the audience see. Show a clip. Then let them ask questions.”

READ MORE:  The Critical Role Non-Profits Played in Getting This Year’s Tribeca Film Festival Docs Made

Advice To Filmmakers Get Ready To Pitch

Al Morrow, “Sour Grapes”: “The trailer is everything. If you have a strong trailer that works as a three minute experience and shows the potential and scale of the story you’re most of the way there. It needs to look like your film will look. You can’t say, ‘here’s a trailer, but the film will be different/better.'”

Sara Stockmann, “Bobbi Jene”: “Know whom you are talking to. Do your research on the decision makers. It doesn’t make sense to pitch a project to a decision maker who is not open to the kind of story you are presenting. If you have a great project you will find funding, but don’t waste your energy on 50 meetings. Instead select the five top on your list and save your energy for these. Financing is building a dialogue. Try to collect information from the person you are pitching to. It will come in handy on a future project.”

Lindsey Dryden, “Canary In A Coal Mine”:  “A pitch doesn’t have to be formal: it’s the opportunity to have a conversation about the amazing thing you want to make, so keep it conversational, know how to describe your film in a few bullet points, let your passion for the story shine through, and remember to listen. The people you’re pitching to are usually interesting and talented folk who want to discover the ways that you’re interesting and talented, so keep it informal and enjoy the exchange.”

Jessica Wolfson, “DID IT! From Yippie To Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary”: “[T]ake some time to think of questions you think someone might ask about your film, particularly the more challenging aspects. Because they will ask these questions. Being confident in your answers and in the vision of your film, this will help make a successful pitch.”

Maya Gallus, “A Female Gaze”: “Establish why this film needs to be made now, and why you are the one to make it. Emphasize your passion about the story or access to the subjects – anything to differentiate yourself from the pack.”

Jeanie Finlay, “Luxury Bitches”: “Lastly, do not attempt to pitch to people after 9pm. I saw a funder being accosted on the dance floor last year at about midnight being given proposals and DVDs by an eager filmmaker. I would put money on it that it didn’t result in a commission. Just go to the parties and have fun and let other people do the same.”

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