The Art of the Pitch; One Rookie's Diary
by Nathan Friedkin
I was working from my home office in Berkeley, Calif., putting the finishing touches on a fundraising website (www.DIAHthemovie.com) for my doc, "Down in a Hole," when an email came in from my friend in Boston. In a rush of virtual breathlessness, she told me that she was just accepted as one of five filmmakers to be a part of a workshop sponsored by New York's Museum of Television and Radio and the International Documentary Association entitled "The Art of the Documentary Pitch: How to Turn an Idea Into a Reality." (The session was part of MTR's 2004 Television Documentary Festival, which runs through April 25).
The panelists were impressive. Decision makers from POV, MTV, History Channel, and Films Transit were scheduled, amongst others. I thought about it. This event was less than two weeks away. If I apply and get accepted, I could also finish some follow-up production for my doc in NYC. Plus, truth be told, all this fundraising business was really getting me down. What an uphill battle. On the other hand, here was an opportunity to pitch for completion funds directly to major broadcasters. There was a flurry of emails, phone calls, and FedExing. A few days later Ron Simon from the MTR was on the phone -- and much to my surprise, I was given the last slot! I was going to New York to pitch my project -- and finish shooting my doc. Three minutes verbal. Two minutes clips. And then panel feedback. Wow. My sample was due in 24 hours, so I pulled an all-nighter -- stopping only briefly to help with the standard 3 a.m. milk bottle refill for my sons. Once my sample reel was on the way, it dawned on me that I had one week to answer a very important question: How do you pitch a project?
In what is now a habitual move whenever I have questions about the documentary industry, I turned to D-Word, (www.D-Word.com), the community website started by NYC filmmaker Doug Block. There I found an entire on-line discussion archived, titled "The International Pitching Forum" which featured Michaelle McLean, the Director of the Toronto Documentary Forum at Hot Docs. Michaelle wrote, "I've noticed a good pitch seems to be one where the pitch communicates that there's a clear question asked in the documentary and an intriguing answer or direction suggested." I wrote this down for future reference.
I also called on a friend of mine who is an award-winning documentary producer. In the past few months she had generously provided guidance and feedback as I was developing my project. Once again, she didn't disappoint: "Tell the storyline SIMPLY and directly. Let complicated details, if any, come out in the discussion. Keep in mind that you're there to tell the world that you're making this film. That's all, period. Think of it as a press release. Real deals are made in the corridors, not on stage."
The next week was a blur as I became mired in pre-production. I couldn't spend any time worrying about the pitch. Besides, I had a five-hour flight ahead of me. I would write my pitch on the plane.
5:35 p.m. Friday - somewhere over Utah.
Two glasses of red into my flight and I'm really stuck at how the hell to tell my story in three minutes. I've just written two pages of captivating prose. It's funny. It's engaging. It's sentimental. It's the first chapter of "Stand By Me." Yet it's all backstory, and I haven't even gotten around to describing the film yet.
This is going to be hard. And I'm feeling clueless at what to present. How do I impress these media generals, these conquering heroes of television and film? "Tell your story," a voice is saying. "Just tell your story." But another voice chimes in, louder and stronger: "What do you want? What do you really want?" Ah, it's the voice of Kevin Spacey from "Swimming with Sharks."
What do I want? Alright Kev. That's easy. I want them to like my film. I want them to fund my film. I want them to stop the entire workshop after my presentation and fight over each other for the rights to offer me all the completion funding I could ever hope for. Let them fight over my story. Let it get nasty. (Films Transit has MTV in a headlock.)
7:22 p.m. Friday - three hours into my flight
I haven't stopped working on this pitch since I sat down. I've written it now -- some background, a description of the narrative, but when I time myself with the little computer clock, it runs well over three minutes -- more like five. Plus I'm reading the whole damn thing off my LCD screen, like some newscaster on amphetamines. No way I can memorize this before my pitch.
I only have one hour and 39 minutes left on this, my second and final laptop battery. This is bad. I don't think the panel wants to be read to. But how do I communicate the beating heart of this film in three minutes. What is the beating heart? Maybe that's all I need to illustrate tomorrow. Not all the details. Not everyone I've interviewed, but the beating heart. And maybe if everyone at that table can hear it, can feel it, then I'll get an opportunity later to have a meeting, where I can get into all the compelling details of this project. For now, it's the heart that counts. Can I stand there at the Museum of Television and Radio in 15 hours and in three minutes, and make everyone know the heart of my film? Time to start editing.
8:10 p.m. Friday
Well, I've chopped it down to three and a half minutes. But I'm still reading like an adrenalized auctioneer. And I still feel compelled to deliver a brief synopsis of each story chapter. I can't tell if it's any good or not. Really, I can't. I think there is a heart somewhere in there, but the beating may be in the eye of the beholder. I'm going to break for now and maybe come back to it tonight, once I get to the hotel.
3:08 a.m. Saturday morning - Holiday Inn Midtown NYC
OK. I've decided to go back to my five-chapter synopsis but am shortening each chapter to a few lines. We'll see how I feel about it in the morning.
11:15 a.m. Saturday - Day of the Pitch
I read the pitch to my DP at breakfast. He times me. I barely make it under the three-minute time limit. "You're not going to just stand there and read are you?" he says. We walk over to the MTR. It is a beautiful spring day. I'm nervous, very nervous. My five-year-old calls on the cell phone. "Throw a good pitch," he says. He thinks the Yankees are giving me a tryout.
3:24 p.m. Saturday
Central Park is crawling with people of every shape and size imaginable. I'm sitting here on the grass taking it all in with a great sense of relief. My first pitch is history. And I think it went alright.
There were five of us seated in the second row of the Museum's fancy downstairs theater. The room was packed. I was second in line and was able to make some minor adjustments based on the feedback my friend received after her pitch. You are at a distinct advantage if you can hear the panel speak before you present.
At the last minute I changed my game plan and decided to drop the five-chapter synopsis in favor of an emotional anecdote. Turned out that was a bad move. After I was finished, the panel said they wanted more structure about the story. But overall the feedback was strong. I raised interesting questions and had them wanting more. And one broadcaster quickly emerged as the clear favorite for my project. It was a positive learning experience, and I'll share some of the lessons that I took away from the panel:
* Always start out with a confident introduction about yourself and what kind of film you are making.
"My name is Nathan Friedkin and I am making a first-person, feature-length documentary about friendship and bipolar disorder."
* Engage the panel right away with your first few sentences.
"How far would you go to help a friend who was in trouble?"
* Answer the questions: Why are you making this film? Why does it need to be made? What do you need to be the one telling it?
"I am making this film because I felt that my friend's life was going to end in tragedy if I didn't try to help him in someway. Bipolar disorder is a major problem in the United States that touches most everyone in one way or another. Because this is a personal story about a friendship that spans 24 years, I have a unique approach to the subject matter.
* Don't assume that just because you find your characters compelling, a broadcaster will. Explain why your main character is compelling.
"When Doug was a teenager, he was a nationally ranked tennis player. He excelled in athletics and was so good looking that he used to make the girls whisper. Later in his 20s, his talent as an actor emerged. His future was a bright one until the illness took over."
* Don't edit a montage or use music for your sample reel. Just a simple scene or two, plainly edited is more effective.
It was mentioned repeatedly that afternoon; learning to pitch your project is an essential skill to master in this fiercely competitive marketplace. If you can't sum up your idea and all the best elements about it in a few minutes time, chances are you probably don't have a very good handle on your material. Reminds me of the saying, "If you can't say what you mean, how can you mean what you say?"
Putting my documentary before broadcasters who are experts at dismantling any weak links was all at once terrifying, stressful, humiliating, and masochistic. And I can't wait until I get a chance to do it again.