What the Behind-the-Scenes Drama of a Documentary Pitch is Really Like

What the Behind-the-Scenes Drama of a Documentary Pitch is Really Like
What the Behind-the-Scenes Drama of Documentary Pitch is Really Like

Last year, my team and I were Points North Fellows at the Camden International Film Festival—perhaps the most stressful and exhilarating experience of an already stressful and adrenaline-charged post-production process. Along with workshops, introductions to industry and going to New York to attend the Cinema Eye Honors—at the heart of the fellowship is the Points North Pitch. 

READ MORE: Here’s What It’s Like to Pitch Your Documentary at Points North Pitch

This year, we returned to Camden with the U.S. premiere of “Drawing the Tiger,” the film we’d pitched in 2014. I was so excited to go to this festival and just take it in, enjoy, but I found myself biting my lip and nails in Maine once again. The camaraderie among my fellow documentary filmmakers runs deep. Even though I was not pitching a film this time round, I was having serious sympathetic labor pains for those who were. And, it is actually part of what made CIFF so much fun—well, that and the super friendly people, gorgeous oysters and the great parties complete with tire swings and teeter-totters. CIFF feels like summer camp!

The bonding started at the airport. My husband/co-director and I shared a shuttle with a team of 2015 North Points Fellows, Suzan Beraza and David Byers, who were there to pitch their film, “No Soy Puta.” The drive was beautiful, but we barely noticed it because there was so much to talk about—so many filmmaking stories to swap. Although both Suzan and David have more films under their belt, when it came to advising them about the Points North Pitch, I felt like the veteran telling a war story.

The auditorium is huge and full of locals, filmmakers, and all the industry in town. Everyone at Camden goes to the pitch! On the stage, the panelists are lined up, sitting at a big long table. You, the pitcher, are in an alcove at the side of the stage, standing at a microphone. You have 7 minutes exactly to show your trailer and describe your project. And, yes. They will cut you off; it happened to me! Then the decisionmakers give you feedback… and they don’t hold back. 

Days before, I’d shared my Points North pitch experience with Jeff Unay and James Orara, director and co-producer of “Greywater”—filmmakers and friends who are fellow Seattleites. Jeff is an extraordinary filmmaker with a trailer that blows people away. However, he is so dang humble that his pitch was weak. I knew he was going to have to do some work. 

On the opening day of the fest, while I went swimming in a beautiful pond, sat in the sun and chatted with people at the festival hub, the fellows attended an intensive workshop dedicated to refining and rehearsing the pitch with a few industry mentors. I kept thinking about them. I remember it being such a long, hard day. It is funny actually, how difficult it can be to describe this thing that you are living and breathing—that you know inside and out. Pitching, it is an art—an art that is a part of, but very much a separate skill from filmmaking. 

I did not see Suzan and David again until the night before the pitch at the filmmaker dinner (lobster, hello!). Jeff and James were nowhere to be found. Suzan and David looked tired and did not stay long after their tails were gone. I remember the night before our pitch, I so badly wanted to join all the fun that was happening around me, but all I could think of was the next day and walking up on that stage: My name is Amy Benson and I am the director of Drawing the Tiger. My whole team skipped that night’s party to re-re-cut our trailer and run through our pitch.

This year, though, as my film team had a leisurely discussion with new filmmaker friends over dessert, we got a text from Jeff and James. Team “Greywater” wanted feedback! We dashed to their hotel. Jeff had reworked their trailer. It was stunning. But in the pitch, he was overexplaining—what I believe to be a classic pitch mistake. Now he, as its director, just had to complement it by filling in the blanks. The challenge of pitching your film is stating, simply: This is what my film is about at its core. This is why it is important. This is why I am the one to tell this story. And, I need this and this in order to do so. 

After wrestling around with these key elements, Jeff nailed it, and then he did again and again. He was ready. 

Jeff and James kept rehearsing while we continued onto that night’s party. I first had a drink to celebrate our sold-out screening that afternoon. Then, I had a drink for all the filmmakers about to pitch the next morning. 

The Opera House where the Points North Pitch is held was packed. Nervous energy everywhere in the room. We were all with those filmmakers. We all wanted them to win. Yes: There is a ‘winner’ of the pitch. Which doesn’t really make sense—competitive documentary filmmaking is kind of like competitive yoga. 

However, I’ve made a pledge to myself not to become a cynical filmmaker. So, I see it like this: Pitching your film to a 40-foot-long table of industry luminaries, representing brands like Sundance, CNN and HBO is like selling a car that you have designed from scratch and passion but are describing it to the possible buyers who all have different lists of criteria and want different options—like leather or plush interior, manual or automatic. Your film will fit somewhere. The pitch puts you on the showroom floor. 

While last year we did not win (disappointing in the moment, but after time just another loop on the rollercoaster that is this art), the opportunity to present our project in this arena created a ripple affect that months later landed us a large grant and a new executive producer.
Not to mention, it made us famous in the town of Camden. At the first night of CIFF at the opening film, two local women remembering me from the pitch last year asked, “Oh my gosh, you are a filmmaker. Are we in the right seats?” 

“I am pretty sure we all sit together,” I responded. They shared their candy with me. They came to our screening and sat in the front. 

All six of the 2015 Points North Pitch projects were contenders. Suzan and David’s made me well up. Sabaah Jordan took my breath away with the sincere and open passion with which she spoke about her film “Whose Streets?” about Ferguson. Katie Green and Carlye Rubin’s “No Place For Children” about juveniles in prison who have committed violent crimes made my stomach turn with tumultuous sympathy. 

I really wish I could have been a fly on the wall as the panelists deliberated. It took them over an hour. What were they talking about? Was the debate about the art of the pitches themselves, the projects, the filmmakers?

That evening, at a lovely art gallery reception, Jeff Unay with “Greywater” was announced the as the Points North Pitch winner. He was so thronged by well-wishers that I could not even catch his eye. I felt proud, happy for him. I felt sad for the other participants. 

But then, there we all were, drinking martinis and eating fresh-shucked oysters together among enthusiastic Mainer festivalogers, phenomenal filmmakers and major industry decisionmakers, fixing to go see a remarkable film and then off to yet another party. 

At CIFF, you can’t really lose. 

READ MORE: Here’s What It’s Like to Pitch Your Documentary at Points North Pitch

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