Vancouver Film and Television Forum 2009: Storyville Pitching Session

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Thu, 10/08/2009 - 18:37

Following the Vancouver Film and Television Forum's Storyville morning session, with the introductions to the panel of commissing editors, we had the pitching session in the afternoon. What a contrast to the last pitching session that I saw at the VIFF Trade Forum.

Admittedly that was back in 2002 - then the producers made their pitch to the commissioning editors via a lectern. It was almost like they were giving a sermon. There were no visuals on screen, or teaser footage from the doc for the audience or commissioning editors to see.

At the 2009 public pitching panel, each producer had a little video promo or footage for their project. What a difference the visuals make. The images on screen were by far the most vital element of all the pitches here and you could really get a strong sense of what stories would stand up.

Seven projects were pitched over the duration of the afternoon.

One of the strongest presentations was the first by Gary Marcuse, a former CBC commissioning editor in BC, who has gone back to producing with his partner Betsy Carson. (Incidentally, the CBC was derided throughout the forum for recently withdrawing support for documentary filmmaking.)

His project "After Mao’s War Against Nature" (Face to Face Media) looks at the disastrous ecological legacy of Chinese communism and tries to identify grass roots environmentalism in China.

Marcuse came from a strong position - the project was already 90% funded and they were looking for the last 10% of their budget. But the presentation was also excellent.

Marcuse gave a fluid description of the background and project combining it with a varied mix of footage and images from a research trip that the team had made to China. He laid out the goals of the production through interview clips with key subjects, and some astounding black and white archive clips from the communist era, such as smiling villagers beating the bushes for birds in the notorious Kill a Sparrow Campaign.

The commissioning editors seemed impressed - some admitted they hadn't seen some of the archive footage before. However, as with all the presentations, the main line of questioning turned on what story the filmmakers were going to tell and how they were going to tell it.

Marcuse's presentation was almost too detailed. The BBC's Fraser (pictured, top left) suggested that there were two films here, while SVT's Arnö said there was a lot of information for a 60 minute doc. He suggested making a diary type documentary as a way of "carrying the baggage".

Meanwhile, Aguilar found the story idea fresh, but she questioned the choice of some of the people that were introduced in the presentation. She wanted to hear voices that reflect the kind of environmental policies now pursued by China, rather than hearing from a few lone environmentalist voices.

This seemed a little harsh since the project seemed to be more about catching an emerging movement - in the Q&A after his presentation Marcuse reiterated that the backbone of the film is about China's shifting relationship to nature.

Aguilar's comment echoed an earlier query from the panel about the kind of access and support the Chinese government - not known for their liberal attitude to the press - would give the Canadian documentarians.

Bongo, directed by Leah Nelson/Jay Grandin and produced by Leah Mallen of Twofold Films Inc., was another pitch that had almost too much in it. Bongo - nothing to do with the drum - is about street boys of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania who are trying to climb out of the poverty trap through the local street rap.

The panel warmed to the project but it was generally a luke-warm response. Eisenhauer (pictured, top right) kicked off first, suggesting that the film was almost completed. "For a co-pro it is too late," he said.

Fraser felt the footage didn't give him enough about the characters or give him the sense that the music was "really wonderful". Mertes, of the Sundance Institute, suggested doing a web version first and developing a feature from there as a way of helping the boys in the film.

Murray Battle of Knowledge Network, was already behind the project, so was most positive about it calling it a "beautifully shot film" with a "modest" budget - and he knew the music well after the CD got stuck in the player of his car.


"Elephant paintings have soul." Even if you believe this, it's probably a statement you want to use carefully when pitching your project to hard-nosed commissioning editors.

Director/Producer Patricia Sims's project "Elephants Never Forget", about elephants who paint and the way that their artwork is helping to conserve habitat for other elephants in the wild, had the biggest price tag of all the projects at $845,000. You know there's an audience out there for this kind of thing, but this panel did not seem part of it.

Again the main issue CEs brought up following Sims' presentation was that the story was unfocused. There seemed to be competing stories - was it a film asking "What is art?" or a conservation story? As Hoffman-Meyer asked, tongue-in-cheek whether the artist elephant in Calgary Zoo preferred to paint to being out in the wild, and remarks such as "I'd need to hear more from the artist" were dropped, you knew that the producer had lost the panel.

"Family Portrait in Black & White", by director Julia Ivanova and her producer brother Boris Ivanov, about a Ukranian mama rearing a brood of sixteen orphaned black children in a country of Slavic blue-eyed blonds was a surprise (at least to me) hit with the panel.

It wasn't exactly clear how this situation arose from the presentation, nor in the Q&A afterwards, but that didn't seem to matter: the immediacy of the subject matter - and the devotion that the children show for their increasingly overwhelmed mum was clearly apparent on screen. The presentation went straight for the heart strings and tear ducts.

The CE's were effusive in their response. "Wonderful", "fantastic", "beautiful" they came back. Cheque books seemed at the ready.

In "Rajaneeshpuram: The Battle for Antelope" director/producers Lawrence McDonald and David Paperny, and writer/researcher Doug Murray, plan to follow the money from the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (dubbed the "Rolls Royce guru" on the account the number of rollers that he had) after his community Rajaneeshpuram was forced out of the town of Antelope in Oregon in the Eighties.

A fascinating backstory in itself, the panel had some reservations about where the narrative goes in the present day. Access was the big issue here. How close could the filmmakers get to the "today story."

A focal point of the film would be the Osho International Meditation Resort, a place that apparently happily marries spirituality with material comforts. The Osho organisation was painted in sinister terms with a melodramatic teaser - yet at the same time in the Q&A the team also said that when you read the movement's teachings that a lot of it makes sense. This offered rich possiblities, but there was too much mystery surrounding the story itself. Fraser said he'd need to see more, see the structure: "I'd like to see an assembly."

Sometimes a subject doesn't really warrant the full television documentary treatment. "Shutter" seemed just that.

Directors Sally Aitken, Jessie James Miller, and Dan McKinney and producer Peter Klein put forward a documentary revolving around one image - an "iconic" photo from the Sixties era.

Since it's supposed to be iconic I should only need a brief description to tell you about it. "Flower Power" was a picture of a young woman placing a flower in the end of a soldier's bayoneted rifle during an anti-Vietnam war protest in 1967. The filmmakers planned to build a whole documentary around the photograph looking at what happened before and subsequently to those in it and to the photographer.

The panelists thought that the subject only warranted a short treatment - perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. The web was suggested as a better medium for such a project, particularly since there was no guarantee that the story of the individuals would actually be interesting at all to a sufficiently broad audience.

Nick Fraser's first comment was that the photo itself wasn't particularly "iconic". But he liked the idea of possibly doing a documentary of truly iconic images looking at what makes them iconic and by comparing different images and backstories try and discover how collective memory and history raises these images above all others.

The last pitch, Karen Porter's "Ton Up!", looked at the fashion and attitude of motorbike-riding, studded-leather-jacket-wearing rockers from the Fifties.

Porter had visited the UK and Paris to hang out and shoot these original, wild, old boys and their machines.

The consensus seemed to be that the subject matter was slight, but fun, and would probably fit in with programming about youth culture, which seem to be on CE's radars.

Karen Porter looked the part in her black leather jacket and gave a refreshingly chatty presentation. By the end of it, the commissioning editors had virtually persuaded her - against her initial reluctance - to put herself in front of the camera. Not a bad effort for a first time pitch.