VIFF Documentary Pitching Session

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Fri, 11/29/2002 - 22:30

So you’ve got a great idea for a documentary. Now how do you sell it? This was the premise for a public "pitching" event at the Vancouver International Film Festival’s annual Film and Television Trade Forum on Thursday 26th November.

Five documentary makers were given five minutes each to pitch their projects to a panel of three commissioning editors: Nick Jones, Head of Programming for Channel 4 and FilmFour; Richard Klein, Commissioning Editor for BBC General Factual Programmes and Ray McCarthy, Commissioning Editor for Regional Programming for Ireland’s RTE. 

Although more formal than a real world "pitch" situation where the commissioning editor would typically establish a dialogue with the filmmaker, the format provided welcome insights and some salutary lessons in how to win support for a project. 

As was reiterated in not just this seminar, but throughout the events held at the forum, the idea is the thing. In the case of documentaries that means strong stories with unique angles, particularly when selling in foreign markets such as here where Canadian projects were being pitched to broadcasters from the UK and Ireland.

The projects covered very different subjects: illegal street-racing in Canada exposed from both the victims' and drivers' point of views; a transgender athlete struggles for acceptance in the competitive world of female mountain-biking; a 28-year-old with multiple disabilities strives for independence; Canada's "Erin Brockovich" fights the evil corporation that is poisoning her town and has ruined her life; the small nation of Tuvalu whose land is sinking under rising oceans takes arms against a sea of troubles.

The varied nature of the projects, all one hour or feature-length documentaries, also threw up a number of issues specific to each particular project. When the applause had died after each pitch, the panel didn't mince words in their analysis.

Documentary Pitch 1: Spinning The Wheel

Ronald Ng's at times tentative presentation for his street-racing doc Spinning The Wheel aimed to share the vicarious thrills of illegal street-racing in Canada and look at the motivations of the young men (and possibly women) behind the wheel. 

This street "sport" has resulted in much publicised deaths and maiming of innocent victims, including recently a Vancouver cop whose cruiser was broadsided. Ng said that he would intercut interviews with street racers with interviews with victims and their families and the average Joe in the street. He also planned to use footage from movies showing street-racing role-models. 

The subject-matter was considered exciting ("I'm interested in people imitating what they see on television," said Channel 4’s Jones), but the BBC’s Klein raised concerns about the morality of filming incidents which could end up with crashes, particularly when interviewing victims as well. The panel agreed that many viewers would be turning on the programme to watch the crashes. Ng stuttered to respond to this point. 

RTE’s McCarthy wanted more colour in the treatment, even if it was a couple of lines of sample dialogue for each of the key characters in the doc. "One of the things that I want to see is your passion," stressed Klein. 

Documentary Pitch 2: 100% Woman

Both the second and third pitches, Diana Wilson's 100% Woman and John Ritchie’s Ties That Bind, observational documentaries about individuals overcoming various trials and tribulations, underlined the importance of including a "taster tape" or visual material to support a project pitch. 

"You've got to spend hours and hours with these people. It's a lot of time to spend with someone when you could be cleaning the oven or something," quipped Klein, bringing a wave of laughter from the audience. McCarthy reiterated that he would be looking for "anything visual that lifts it off the page". 

Wilson, who brought a display board with photos of the subject personality (too small for the audience and the panel to make out) went in depth into the issues that could be drawn into such a doc. Her character is a trans-gender metalworker from Vancouver who competes in mountain-biking competitions and who since her operation has performed very well in female competitions. Naturally, there was outcry from her competitors who say she has the strength of a man. Can a transgender woman be a real woman? Does a woman who was raised as a man have cultural advantages? Such questions would be addressed, said Wilson, who gave an elaborate history of the subject’s life. 

"Too much detail," said Klein. "The concept was sold in the first two minutes," added McCarthy. Both said they wanted more on execution and structure. "Less is more" seemed the message for Wilson who managed to bury some of the most important information about the doc - like the fact that it is to be an hour-long - in the dense presentation. The panel’s curiosity had been aroused but something was missing. Nick Jones said it was the kind of thing that Channel 4 was interested in but "I want to know more about this person". Taster tape time. 

Documentary Pitch 3: The Ties that Bind

The third pitch, The Ties That Bind, presented by producer John Ritchie, was a heart-rending story of 28-year-old Chris Jordan, who suffers multiple disabilities including cerebral palsy. 

Jordan has been cared for by his parents all his life but wants to live a "normal" life on his own. The parents, both carers now in their sixties, have recently undergone surgery for life-threatening illnesses. 

The mother, fearing for her son’s future, has established a formal support network (CLAM) locally to help people like her son. The story, shot over a year and a half already, was about Jordan’s move away from home. 

It came in for some withering criticism, which Ritchie, although taken aback, took with impressive good humour. 

"Worthy but dull," pronounced McCarthy. He suggested that it might work as a shorter film or with an additional unique angle. 

Nick Jones added that Channel 4 and the BBC have a regulatory remit to deal with disability issues so there are often outlets for these kind of real life programmes. 

Richard Klein liked the title, but agreed with McCarthy that it needed more. He wanted to know where the story was. Klein said this reflected a common flaw which he saw again and again - an unclear story. "Where the hell is the film. Where are we heading with this? What’s the jeopardy point?" 

He suggested that - after viewing a taster tape - "if it worked, we’d use it, but I don’t know if we would preinvest". Klein suggested if it just needed a further 15,000 dollars for completion then they might consider that. "If the money’s there already and it’s 99% ready. Then, of course, I’m interested." 

In response to the onslaught, Ritchie stressed that his subject was an engaging, amusing person and that the doc had been accepted in Canada for broadcast and was near completion. What was the end point? Rictchie said it was his subject moving out of home. Klein jumped in, "That’s where the documentary really starts for me." Ouch! 

Documentary Pitch 4: Deal Of The Month

The final two pitches, Deal Of The Month and The Mouse That Roars highlighted increasing concern about the environment. 

George Orr pitched a documentary about Trail, "the ugliest town" in "Beautiful British Columbia". The provincial economy of BC, of which Vancouver is the biggest city, grew historically by extracting resources - forestry and mining. That is slowly changing and with it the related social and health issues that occur with heavy industry. But Trail, Orr argued, a town built around a lead smelter, is "the last of its kind", "a dinosaur", a place where "the pay is good but eventually you die of lead poisoning". 

Orr, whose background is in journalism, argued that little had been reported on the high incidence of thallium-poisoning (lead-related poisoning) and other misdemeanours. He stressed that the industry, the union and the community were complicit in allowing deadly poisons to be emitted into generation after generation of local people and the environment at large. 

He also related how one of his key subjects had agreed with the company to be sterilised before taking employment so that she wouldn’t have children while on the job. She was laid off a month after her operation. 

The story is about the "Erin Brockovich of BC", now 50 years old, fighting back against wrong-doing and indifference. The treatment was not fleshed out in great depth, and seemed at an early stage in development. 

"I’m aghast at this story," said Jones, echoing the shocked reaction of the audience. He wanted to know what characters would be involved. Klein liked the "angry pitch" but said the legal issues made him nervous. "I would need plenty of evidence". Access to microfiches and files that the company used to view the employees would be essential. He also asked who is guilty, and what the target was. 

To his credit, Orr stuck to his guns saying that the doc was about the relationship between the town and the industry. "It’s a bit like a dysfunctional family that you kind of bend into shape to keep the family together." 

McCarthy raised another pertinent and difficult issue: facing the consequences of such a documentary. "If you created a laser of attention on this company and it had to close down, how would you feel?" Orr seemed to waiver at first, but suggested that anything that encouraged the company to clean up its act would be good. The company was rich enough to fix things at Trail. The question remains, would it clean up its act or abandon Trail altogether? In fact, many questions remained at the end of this pitch - particularly legality issues - which undermined the strength of the pitch.

Documentary Pitch 5: The Mouse That Roars

The final pitch of the day rounded off the event on a welcome witty and light note although the subject matter continued to address serious environmental issues. 

In The Mouse That Roars, Laurie Long talked about how the nation of Tuvalu whose small country is threatened from the rising waters caused by global warming is fighting back. Tuvalu is a group of nine coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, half way from Hawaii to Australia. It comprises of a flat area all of 26 sq km. 

In 2000 the nation made the headlines when at the peak of the internet boom it leased its domain name ".tv" for $50 million in royalties over the next twelve years. The money has been used to buy membership of the United Nations and the nation was planning on taking legal action against the US, Australia and Canada for reneging on commitments to reduce global warming. Ironically, it would be the first to leave the UN because the lands had disappeared under the rising Pacific. 

Long said Tuvalu is not willing to be "the canary in the climatic coal mine"; the story is about the underdog fighting back. 

Long’s pitch rippled with colour and humour. Perhaps because it was the last pitch and energy levels were flagging, the panel were muted in their reponse. The story, to me, seemed the strongest of the bunch and the most universal in its appeal. Who knows, the panel members may have had similar projects brewing. Or perhaps it reflects a general fatigue in the UK with "worthy environmental issues". 

The eloquence of the pitch caused Klein to comment that it would make a good magazine article. He asked, since Tuvalu was unlikely to follow through with its threat to sue where the end point of the doc would be. Submersion? 

Long agreed that there were a lot of magazine articles out there but little television on this subject. This was a humourous piece and envisaged the experience of Tuvalu being a rallying point for environmental groups world wide through footage shot at the United Nations and on the islands of Tuvalu. There’s a great documentary to be made there. 

In Conclusion

In summary the panel raised some important points about making a pitch work. 

The story is crucial - and that means an original or unique idea that has a universal appeal. When pitching an idea, be succinct and get to the point. Avoid too much story detail but give enough information about the key characters to show that you have an interesting and well-researched piece. 

All of the filmmakers could have better handled the question and answer situation, so do as much preparation as possible and be ready for the curve ball. The panel also want to be convinced that you are capable of doing the job. Blow your own trumpet about your experience and ability.

If you have it, offer a "taster tape", especially for observational documentaries that focus on just one or two characters or if you have limited experience. 

Unless you know the commissioning editor - and much of their business is with people they already know - most pitches are put forward in writing. The same rules apply here, although ideally you want to get to the stage where you can meet face to face. 

Finally, timing is all-important. Know who you are dealing with and what they are looking for - do they have a strand or series coming up that fits in with what you are doing? To put it in crude capitalist terms, if you want to sell you need to find buyers who want your product at your price. It’s important to have something to say, but it’s also a business.