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A View from the Bleachers: Catching Pitches at IDFA’s FORUM

The Pitches That Get Documentaries Funded

Against the backdrop of the world’s largest documentary festival, doc makers, broadcast commissioning editors and funders gather each year for the FORUM, IDFA’s co-financing and co-production market. It’s the opportunity to consider what IDFA hopes are the most promising new projects that will be completed within the next couple of years. According to organizers, the event has an extremely successful track record, with 90% of pitched projects reaching completion.

In addition to those actively involved in making their pitches — typically directors and/or producers,  introduced by a funder or commissioning editor who’s already committed to the project — presentations are also watched by silent observers, including the press and, most significantly, other curious filmmakers, many looking for practical examples on how to give a successful pitch.

In the Central Pitches, observers surround the proceedings from the veritable bleachers, watching the action in a sort of gladiator arena where about 25 broadcasters and funders weigh in on what they’ve heard from the pitching team. Round Table Pitches are more intimate; a smaller group of observers look on as eight or fewer industryites hear about new projects.

Not available to outside observers are the hundreds of one-on-one meetings that the FORUM-participating filmmakers can go into more depth about their projects, including showing more material beyond the trailer and discussing character and story arcs in more detail.

There are a few key factors in successfully pitching projects at events such as this. Taking heed can put documentary filmmakers and their new projects on the radars of some of the most influential decisionmakers in international broadcasting and film funding; ignore them and you risk leaving empty-handed. A selection of pitches observed on Tuesday help to illustrate how to do things right.


The pitches have time limits. Teams who were well prepared retained their ability to be succinct, both in their presentation and in responses to questions from the broadcasters. Those who were less prepared risked creating an anxious energy as they felt pressed for time, which could undermine the impact of the pitch.

  • Director Matt Wolf (“Wild Combination”) gave a particularly polished pitch for his project “Teenage,” a creative exploration of the pre-history of the teenager through proto-versions that appeared between the two World Wars. Wolf knows his material and demonstrated as much as he addressed the audience. When questioned about the project’s ability to connect with different national conceptions of youth culture, Wolf referred to transmedia opportunities, such as those already offered by the project’s smartly conceived website.
  • First-time documentary feature director Zachary Heinzerling also impressed with his pitch for “Cutie and the Boxer,” a portrait of artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara that is, at its heart, a love story. Heinzerling’s confidence came through as he introduced the audience to his unique subjects, New York-based Japanese artists who have struggled with their careers and marriage over 40 years. As evidenced by his trailer, the filmmaker explained that he employed a deliberate approach that harkens back to the Japanese New Wave, revealing his characters through extended intimate takes.
  • Both Wolf and Heinzerling, in contrast to some of the other pitches observed, didn’t allow themselves to get tripped up. When commissioning editors nitpicked, they didn’t waste valuable time responding at length. Instead, they allowed themselves the opportunity to receive additional feedback from others at the table. They clearly understood how best to convey the most salient aspects of their projects through a short verbal presentation and a well-constructed trailer that hinted at the depth of their content without overwhelming or confusing the viewer.


Trailers are a key element at events like the FORUM. Filmmakers can be great talkers, but if the visuals don’t match up, they’re going to have a problem. In contrast, a gripping trailer can assuage the doubts that might come up due to a weaker pitch — a filmmaker may not be the best public speaker, but if s/he is able to tell a story well visually, that’s going to score some major points.

  • One of the best trailers observed was Danish first-time feature director Berit Madsen’s teaser for “Break of Dawn,” about a 16-year-old Iranian girl’s dream of becoming an astronaut. In a few striking minutes, Madsen establishes an extremely likeable protagonist in Sepideh, the obstacles to her desires in the form of her threatening and repressive traditional father and the unexpected chance at success when she’s contacted by her idol, Anousheh Ansari — the first Iranian who traveled in space.
  • Another successful trailer was “The Lovers and the Despot,”a stranger-than-fiction account of cinemaniac North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s kidnapping of South Korean film actress Choi Eun-hee and her director husband Shin Sang-ok to create propaganda. Veteran UK producer Sandra Whipham (“Enemies of the People”) was joined by directors Robert Cannan and Ross Adam for the successful presentation, which promised an approach balancing a real-life dangerous political thriller with a sense of humor.
  • In contrast, less-successful trailers or scene selects shown by some other pitching teams failed to clearly convey characters, stories and storytelling ability. In the context of public pitches, less is more. Those filmmakers who, for whatever reason, chose to show multiple clips or extended trailers often showcased perhaps too many characters, themes or developments, leading to confusion for some commissioning editors as to what the focus actually would be, how the story would be told and why they should react in a particular way to certain characters.


Informing both of the above points is the final factor: Clarity of purpose. A good pitch involves the ability to clearly articulate what exactly the project is, why the filmmaker feels s/he has to make it and why the funder should want to be involved. The pitching team’s preparedness, verbal presentation and visual presentation is the direct result of this clarity of vision.

  • Danish director Katrine Riis Kjær was perhaps the best example of this clarity. Her project, “Mercy Mercy,” looks at the dark side of international adoption. While following a Danish couple in their quest to adopt an African child, the director discovers some difficult truths about the industry that has developed, exploiting African parents and children alike. Rather than sit back, Riis Kjær was compelled to reveal the whole story. Her trailer is heartbreaking, displaying unparalleled access to all parties in the case, while her overall presentation made the project one to keep an eye out for.
  • In the case of “The Life and Mind of Mark Defriest,” director Gabe London impressed with his passion for the project, which he’s been working on for nearly a decade. The film tells the story of a notorious petty criminal who has been incarcerated for 30 years, due in large part to his proclivity and talent for escaping from prison. Presenting with noted producer Daniel Chalfen (“Gone”), London had a great hook for a project: Defriest himself. While the pitch overindulged on presenting clips and failed to engender empathy from some of the commissioning editors, the project and its subject still stood out as intriguing and worthy of feature doc treatment.

Among the established filmmakers presenting projects among the 58 selected were:

  • Michael Madsen (“Into Eternity”), with “The Visit,” a speculative project on the philosophical implications of alien visitation; 
  • Jonathan Stack (“The Farm: Angola, USA”) and Saralena Weinfeld’s “The Vasectomy Project,” about one doctor’s mission to end overpopulation and poverty
  • Peter Lom (“On A Tightrope”) with “After the Revolution,” on the aftermath of the Egyptian fight for democracy
  • Laurie Gwen Shapiro (“Keep the River on Your Right”) executive producing director Shawney Cohen’s unusual family portrait, “The Manor”
  • Nahid Persson Sarvestani (“The Queen and I”)’s “My Stolen Revolution,” about the fate of her brothers and others, including herself, involved in the 1979 Iranian Revolution
  • Janus Metz (“Armadillo”) and Daniel Dencik’s “The Expedition to the End of the World,” following an Arctic voyage
  • Maite Alberdi (“The Lifeguard,” at IDFA this year) with “Tea Time,” a portrait of a group women who have been friends over 60 years.

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).

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