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Ugly Animals, Balloon Wars, and Malcolm X: The Top 10 Projects of the Hot Docs Pitch Forum

This year’s program included 21 projects, with pitch teams allowed seven minutes persuade potential funders to get on board their new films.

On the scene at Hot Docs

T. Andrew Morton

At the the Hot Docs Pitch Forum, dozens of nonfiction decision-makers assemble at a grand wooden table to hear filmmakers’ seven-minute pleas to join their ranks. However, the world’s most important doc backer didn’t hear the pitches; Netflix’s Jason Spingarn-Koff was just outside Hart House Great Hall, darting about as he talked intensely or rapidly texted on his cellphone, swooping in to talk briefy to filmmakers before disappearing into a back-room meeting.

Netflix’s global dominance has diminished the importance of the attending broadcasters, funders, commissioning editors, and public media at the Hot Docs Pitch Forum, which has generated millions of dollars for docs-in-progress over nearly two decades. However, companies ranging from ITVS and ZDF are still vital, especially for documentaries that found their all-important start-up financing from a broadcaster — and therefore ineligible for Netflix consideration.

And, with Netflix buying fewer finished docs, the only way many docs can recoup their budgets is by cobbling together domestic deals with public media and international licenses at, say, $25,000-$50,000 a pop from German, French, Danish, Canadian and Italian TV stations.

IndieWire attended the forum and identified 10 of the strongest pitches, all of which centered on captivating central characters with stories driven by personal plights, passions, and conflicts.

“Born in China.” The new film from Nanfu Wang (“Hooligan Sparrow,” “I Am Another You”) was the most unanimously championed project; already supported by ITVS and Independent Lens and backed by Oscar-nominated producer Julie Goldman (“Life, Animated,” “Abacas”), the film chronicles the consequences of China’s One-Child Policy, mixing Wang’s own feelings as a new mother with the untold stories of those forever shaped by China’s massive social experiment. After seeing the pitch, broadcasters such as BBC, yesDocu (Israel), and NRD Germany also showed newfound enthusiasm for the project. The film received $30,000 from Laurie David and the Chicago Media Project’s First Look Prize; expect a 2019 Sundance launch.

Nanfu Wang Shooting "I Am Another You"

Nanfu Wang

Courtesy of filmmaker

“Mirror Mirror on the Wall.” Also set in China, director Sascha Schoberl’s “Mirror Mirror on the Wall” was this year’s most shocking project. Described as a tale about vanity and self-glorification set against the backdrop of China’s digital age, the film follows a plastic surgeon and self-proclaimed artist who live-streams plastic surgery, boosting his own and his patients’ fame. The project’s provocative promo reel yielded audible gasps and gaping mouths, as certain commissioning editors appeared wary of the project’s ethical challenges (Said BBC Storyville producer Mandy Chang, “I don’t know if I want to see a film about such an extreme narcissist.”)  But other broadcasters showed interest, from Norway, Finland, and PBS’ Marie Nelson, who noted that the project “speaks to a very deep aspect of our culture.”

“The Rashomon Effect.”  This film from “(T)ERROR” director Lyric Cabral already has producer Jessica Devaney (“Speed Sisters,” “Roll Red Roll”) and Field of Vision on board, including support from the Sundance Institute and Chicken and Egg Pictures. The film is an investigation into the police shooting of Michael Brown from the perspectives of those closest to it, and received enthusiastic support from the table, including Independent Lens and POV, and even international broadcasters, from NDR to Finland’s YLE. But all rights are still available.

“Case 993.” Another African-American story, notably directed by a person of color, Shareef Nasir’s project received the top First Look Prize of $75,000 as the film looks to shore up financing for a 2020 completion date. A gripping citizen-detective story following the filmmaker’s quest to resolve the contested history surrounding the assassination of Malcolm X, the project was sought by a bevy of broadcasters, including Independent Lens, Arte France, NDR, and Canada’s TVO, who all praised the pitch as “compelling,” with Marie Nelson specifically praising Nasir as the right person to tell the story as “someone who understands the intersection of history and political science and why this investigation is important.”

“Balloon Wars.” Filmmaker Sissel Morell Dargis is Danish, but her scintillating new project “Balloon Wars” came about when she joined a gang of Brazilian hot-air balloon-making outlaws in Sao Paolo. Because of fire hazards, creating hot-air balloons is illegal, but favela residents have taken to the practice as a creative outlet, and an underworld of “balloon gangs” have formed around the country. The film tracks an obsessed young father who sets out to build increasingly elaborate and magnificent hot-air balloons, despite the strains it puts on his wife, livelihood, and his relationship with his seven-year-old son. As Arte France’s Mark Edwards noted, “What’s striking about this is the ephemeral collective art form: It tells the fragility and beauty and energy of what they are doing. I think this is a film that will travel.”

“Agents of Influence” and “Joyce Carol Oates: Being Witness.” Both of these projects are conventional portraits: Richard Poplak and Diana Neille’s “Agents of Influence” is a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most notorious spin-doctors and election-riggers, British ad executive Tim Bell, who sold Margaret Thatcher in the ‘80s and helped hack democratic elections in Kenya and Ukraine. And in veteran Swedish filmmaker Stig Bjorkman’s bio-doc of the notoriously press-shy author, Joyce Carol Oates comes across as expectedly feisty, but also amenable and insightful. Many called it a natural fit for PBS’s American Masters.

“Nobody Loves Me.” Irreverent filmmaking duo Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reicher (“Remote Area Medical”) pitched another doc about marginalized communities: This time, about those endangered animals who humans view as “ugly” and therefore remain unprotected. As Zaman effectively closed her pitch, “Will only the cute survive?”

“Wishing on a Star.” Slovak director Peter Kerekes (“Cooking History”) unveiled “Wishing on a Star,” a whimsical look at an Italian astrologist who sends her lonelyheart clients on “birthday trips” to far-flung locations (from Tasmania to Siberia) to find fulfillment. Broadcasters admired the confidently absurdist tone and Kerekes’ self-assured direction.

“The Hottest August.” Acclaimed filmmaker Brett Story (“The Prison In Twelve Landscapes”) brought an exquisitely photographed and poetic meditation on the angst-filled summer of 2017, laden with everything from extreme temperatures to hurricanes to neo-Nazi marches. Edited by award-winner Nels Bangerter (“Cameraperson,” “Let the Fire Burn”), the filmmakers shot all around New York City, creating an archive “for future generations,” in Story’s words, “to show that we knew the world was collapsing and to understand our own paralysis.”

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