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The Keys To A Successful Documentary Pitch from Hot Docs Pitch Forum 2014

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire May 2, 2014 at 10:35AM

Here are some highlights from the 15th Annual Hot Docs Forum and tips about how to best pitch your documentary project.
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Hot Docs Pitch Forum
Hot Docs Pitch Forum

Imagine a reality TV show set at a documentary film festival in Canada where teams of producers and directors from around the world pitch their feature film ideas to international broadcasters and financiers. That's the short version of a pitch for the Hot Docs Forum, a two-day pitching event which wrapped yesterday at Hot Docs 2014.

From North Korea and Russia to Palestine and Norway, the 20 projects highlighted in the 15th Annual Hot Docs Forum represented 13 different countries selected from 128 submissions. The projects -- which address a range of political, sociological and personal issues and feature anarchists, hijackers, authors, burlesque dancers and more -- come to the table with varying amounts of funding and, in some cases, a broadcast partner or even a distributor. One thing they all have in common is that they are all seeking financial support from the round table of commissioning editors, programming executives, funders and delegates from around the world.

Read More: Advice from the Experts at Hot Docs on Finding Your Documentary Voice

It's unlikely that anyone will walk away with a deal (although it's been known to happen!), but a successful pitch can at least begin the conversation.

Each team has seven minutes to pitch their project (including a trailer). If they go over time, the moderator rings a bell (which adds a game show feel to the proceedings). After the pitch, the decision makers around the table ask the filmmakers questions and weigh in with occasionally critical, but generally productive comments.

"It's a film about three unlikely heroines surviving on some of the most toxic land on earth," said Holly Morris, producer/director and executive producer (along with Anne Bogart) of "The Babushkas of Chernobyl," a project which has already raised $115,000 via Kickstarter, the San Francisco Film Society, Chicken and Egg Pictures and the New York State Council on the Arts.

They're seeking $100,000 in finishing funds to complete post-production on the film.

The response around the table was generally favorable.

"I love the characters and the way you have amazing access," said Naomi Boxer, programmer at TVO. "I'd love to see how you're going to shape the story. I really look forward to seeing your rough cut."

"The Babushkas of Chernobyl"
Yuli Weeks "The Babushkas of Chernobyl"

"The babushkas are amazing and it's a great timely piece that addresses the Ukraine as well as these nuclear issues," added ITVS' Claire Aguilar.

For "(Dis)Honest - The Truth About Lies," the project came to the Forum in a strong position. The film already has a broadcasting partner in CNBC, which came on as a co-production partner. The film's director, Yael Melamede, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, "Inocente."

Read More: Hot Docs' Tips On Making Your First Documentary

Though it's got good credentials and was generally well received by the group, some programmers felt that the project lacked an international perspective. BBC Storyville series editor Nick Fraser felt it was too "positive and perky about lying…In Britain, we need something dark because basically, British culture is dark and we spend our lives excoriating liars."

Afterwards, Melamede told Indiewire that the presentation - and the discussion that followed -- was productive. "I think it went really well," she said. "I see these pitches as an incredible opportunity to present the project to a room of broadcasters and an audience, but also to oneself. All of those are really important. It forces you to own up to what the film is at a particular moment in time and that can change." This wasn't her first experience with the forum. "The last time I presented a film here, it ended up winning an Oscar ['Inocente']," she said, "but the film that we presented was very different from the final film."

As Melamede pointed out, one of the best parts of attending or participating in Hot Docs Forum is listening to other filmmakers' pitches -- and learning from them what works and what doesn't. The process also allows filmmakers to determine the right -- or wrong -- partners.

When pitching, "the key is to be able to be precise about what you're most passionate in a film, why it's important, what drew you to the subject and what you hope people's takeaway will be," she said. 

Though each pitch varies in tone, they need to deliver certain basic elements.

"You've got to have a great story, compelling characters, unique access, good filmmaking skills, good timing and a little luck," said Chuck Braverman, a producer and director from Braverman Productions.

The Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize was awarded to Shot Glass Productions’ "Tempest Storm," a feature-length film about one of America’s greatest living sex icons, who, at 84, is still the reigning queen of burlesque. Disbursed from the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Funds, the $10,000 cash prize is awarded to the best Canadian pitch at the Forum as voted on by attending international buyers.

The Cuban Hat Award, which offers "real cash, no strings attached" support for powerful and unique projects was presented to "The Blue ID," pitched  by Burcu Melekoglu, Basak Callioglu and Vuslat Karan, which explored the status of LGBT in Turkey through the story of a trans man. The Cuban Hat Award is decided from ballots collected from Hot Docs Forum Observers and the cash prize is raised by literally passing the hat around the room.

This year’s "Cuban Hat" prize includes $1347.15 CND, $125 US, $27 EUR, 5000 pesos, as well as indiegogo support, an EyeSteel story session, distribution advice from Debra Zimmerman of Women Make Movies, a story editing session with Charlotte Engel, a screening and Skype session from Mette Hoffmann Meyer as well as  two 2015 Hot Docs Forum Passes. 

This article is related to: Hot Docs , Hot Docs Film Festival, Hot Docs, Festivals, Filmmaker Toolkit Festival Strategy, Filmmaker Toolkit: Festivals






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