Into the Zone: Healthy Skepticism

Pitching your documentary to a prospective funder, programmer or distributor used to be something you only did in elevators or noisy bars while clutching a watery gin and tonic. Now, it’s become a formalized, high-pressure event in and of itself. Pitch forums at Hot Docs, IDFA, Camden, Tribeca, and AmDocs exist for filmmakers who must first compete to be selected to pitch and then, if they aren’t rejected right away, will actually pitch their project to an assembled panel of “decision makers” who–more than likely–will still reject them. Don’t we already face enough obstacles and deal with enough rejection on the road to finding a home for our movies? Do we now have to be told that even our “pitch” is unworthy? What’s more, we have to find the time and money within our strapped production budgets to submit to and then attend these forums. Give us a break; we haven’t even finished our movies!

These were the thoughts clattering around my skull as I attended an event called DocForest, hosted by the Seattle Documentary Association in a rustic Northwest forest setting, where doc filmmakers come together to share their projects, offer encouragement, support and constructive criticism, and eat, drink, and consume other legal (in Washington state) substances. DocForest is intended to be a safe place for filmmakers, and I wasn’t there as a reporter, so I won’t identify any of the people I refer to in this post.

Sometimes events like these end up being a mutual admiration free-for-all, with an unspoken “let’s keep it positive” vibe coursing through the various presentations and workshops. There was definitely some of that going on, but what I found refreshing was a healthy, honest skepticism about the present and future of documentary filmmaking. People voiced their frustrations, incredulity, and critical opinions with a righteous energy, and I soon discovered that many shared my suspicions about film festival fixes, funding favoritism, and, especially, the “Pitch” as simply one more way we can add yet another notch in our belt of failure.

The panel invited to share their pitching experiences and to facilitate a very casual pitch forum included filmmakers who crafted successful pitches in the past, a film festival programmer, and a distributor-producer who produced an Oscar-nominated doc a few years back. He started things off with a bracing declaration that documentary filmmakers “are losing power in an industry that is going nowhere.” It was the truest thing I heard all day. But there was more to come.

The festival programmer (and a filmmaker herself) stressed how difficult it is to get people to focus on what your film is about. One of the successful pitchers said it is “grueling to hone your message.” Another described the experience as nerve-wracking, one in which her co-presenter (and husband) gets physically ill at the thought of. The distributor said, more than once, that formal pitching “is a game,” a sentiment echoed by the filmmakers who, to their credit, offered clear-eyed assessments of the process, instead of sunny “we won” high-fives. One of the filmmakers said that if you can fund your film without having to go through the pitch process, “then by all means do it.”

Despite the pitching war stories and the several cold showers of reality, the workshop was actually quite helpful. It may have convinced many of us to never apply for one of these things, but it taught us to understand what is important to include in even the most spontaneous of pitches, how to be brief and clear, what to tell and what to show, when to listen and when to shut-up; even if all you really want is 3 minutes alone in an elevator with the director of the Sundance Documentary Fund. And our panelists–a very relatable bunch–said that even the pitch sessions you find at the smaller festivals could result in real dollars and real interest in your film.

A few tips if you’re making a formal pitch (not in this particular order): make sure the people on the panel have a history of greenlighting subject matter like yours; talk about your goals (money, distribution, pre-buys); tell what the film is about in one or two effective sentences first, then provide more detail or scene-setting (but don’t repeat in your verbal pitch what you show in your trailer); describe the what, when, how and the why of your film (as in “why” anyone should care); don’t be combative if someone clearly doesn’t like your film; follow-up later with more explanations if the panelists have questions or reservations; always include visual, oral, and written elements to your pitch; and realize that your trailer or teaser is 10 times more effective than anything you can say or write.

Fish Cleaner

As for me, I didn’t bother trying out a pitch for our film, Zona Intangible. We haven’t come up with a succinct description of the movie yet, and I didn’t have a short enough clip on hand. But I did have a trailer to show for another film I’m working on, and I already had a semi-pitch statement culled from a grant I applied for. So I gave it a go. It was nerve-wracking, even in the safe and friendly environment of DocForest, but what happened was surprisingly gratifying. People responded positively to my obviously unrehearsed pitch, and their emotional reaction to the minimalist mood of my trailer was extremely encouraging. Throughout the rest of the day, I received a lot of supportive feedback and useful critiques. Quite unexpectedly, a film that had been secreted away in my editing bins was suddenly made a reality.

But I’m still not sure I’m up to the “grueling” process. One of my main concerns about these pitch forums is that, right out of the gate, a filmmaker might start making compromises to satisfy a potential funder’s agenda, watering down the idiosyncrasies of their approach in order to get the money; or they may change the arc or focus of their film to fit a distributor’s bottom line necessities. To me, the important thing is to remain true to your vision to the end, to retain your artistic integrity–the only power you do have “in an industry that is going nowhere.”

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