Why are all the public pitching forums so important – or not?

Truls Lie

Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Jean-Luc Godard and Marcel Ophüls met in Geneva some years ago. Ophüls criticises the other for not writing a treatment and contract on a film in the Middle East they earlier talked about making together. At that time Godard walked around with him in Ophül’s kitchen garden, but was hesitant about providing any guarantees or writing a treatment for such a film – and the project later stranded. In Geneva, Godard rudely starts to whistle and roll his eyes when Ophüls complains about the missing paperwork and signatures he needs to nance such a film. Annoyed, he shouts “look at him!” Godard then defends his rudeness by asking why he should have bothered? He tells Ophüls that they could have easily bought a cheap airline ticket, stayed in a cheap hotel in Israel and Palestine for a week, shooting with one of today’s excellent, cheap video cameras. And then back home the discussion about a film – based on their materials – could have started. In the material they would nd the film – or no film at all.

Godard and ophüls in Geneva
Godard and ophüls in Geneva

If you really have to make a film…

The point is that the material is crucial, just like the trailers at the public pitchings around the festival circuit. DOX has [in the following pages] asked some commissioning editors and distributors at pitchings, and they all consider the trailer the most pivotal factor in their decisions. A trailer can also save a bad presentation. As for Godard, in the material the film lies hidden. Although the treatment paperwork and presentation can be convincing, it doesn’t perform if the material is bad. Remember also that Godard once told us that the script is only made for the financiers, later you throw it away to concentrate on really making the film.

I am telling you this, to underline that sometimes too much planning and financing kills the film on the way. That’s why more and more doc filmmakers are not only learning to shoot themselves – on, for example, a Canon 5D or Sony NEX camera – but also how to edit their material on Final Cut or Adobe Premiere. They have to get the film done within a reasonable timeframe – especially as and when real events unfold. They cannot wait or spend time – like some do – in ten pitching forums, and use up to 10,000 euros to get some financing. If you really have to make a film, you must do it yourself. If the access, the characters, and the storyline are strong or significant – the film will later be seen (and bought).

So should filmmakers stop running around pitching forums? Of course not. But don’t expect much, budgets are limited, and the TV stations usually look for the big market entertainment stories. So usually if you don’t have a one-character-driven narrative – they will all ask where the “story” is. So pity those making a topic-driven film or associative reflections.

One remark: Attending a tutored workshops that prepare you for pitching is time well spent – tutors give advice to get your documentary sharpened, deepened or richer. Having been a tutor myself, I have experienced how you can inject good energy into a project by strengthening the individual qualities of both the film and the filmmaker, getting the film to communicate. A workshop is o en a must-do.

But there is an overabundance of filmmakers today – it’s a jungle where only the fittest survive. Over the last year, I have – as a fly on the wall in Amsterdam, Leipzig, Sheffield, Lisboa, Jihlava, Thessaloniki and at Nordic Panorama – attended important pitching Forums in Europe. My impression is close to what the ever-present Peter Wintonick describes: “Most public pitches have taken their form and format from the television they so greatly desire to emulate. There are pitches in the form of game shows and beauty contests, where a lot of money and fame can be won. There are pitches which are dating games and one-on-ones. Pin the tale on the Donkey, spin the bottle and musical (commissioner’s) chairs. There is pitching as personals column matchmaking affairs. There are public pitches in the form of talk shows and lotteries where chances are taken with no money down. There is pitching as sports event, soap opera and comic opera. Almost all can be real tragedies, if you haven’t prepared or performed well.”1)See an earlier issue of PoV, povmagazine.com

Sometimes these fast 7+7-minute pitching peaks can remind you of a circus; so too all the criticism from the losers, who are not slow to complain if they are one of those tragedies. Likewise, access to unique stories and characters is told to have been sold too cheap – they should have been paid to come to the arena, not have to pay to be there… Additionally, the behaviour of the producers and commissioning editors promises more than they can deliver. And filmmakers also have to play roles in these forums, as Wintonick lists them: “ The erudite, the sardonic, the resistant, the comic, the obstructionist.” In this circus let me mention what I witnessed in Leipzig at Documentary Campus – where a producer and a director started their pitch by dancing to a tune in the horseshoe-shaped floor space between the buyers …

But are today’s systems of public pitchings in need of a makeover? The people in this issue of DOX are defending the status quo – because they need the personal contact with the filmmaker to gain a deeper understanding of who is able to perform and complete what’s needed to make an important doc.

But pitching fora have maybe not utilised the power of the internet as they should. EDN 2)See for example http://www.edn.dk/activities/edn-activity-texts/ edn-activities-2012/edn-online-pitching-sessions-2012-historical- documentaries/ is now inviting pitches directly on the web for selected topics like art and historical films. I would also suggest that the web could be utilized as a big “pitch database” for filmmakers for direct access to tv-buyers and get feedback on their work-in-progress. I am not just talking about crowdfunding, but a database where also NGOs and others could use their time more efficiently by searching for what they are after. The trailer would be central in such a structured database, supplemented by extra material and documentation. If you want to meet the filmmakers, use skype. So who out there will take up this database challenge?

And regarding the tv-buyers and commision editors: When it comes to the distribution of the finished film, more and more documentaries join in as webdocs to be streamed online. This is also the place for short docs, which never had any chance in television – since they don’t t the 52-minute slots. These are the more specific films like art, genre- or topic-driven docs – or those deeper reflections we call essay films. Anyway, the internet audience is watching less and less of 500-channel TV, or even the 57 channels Bruce Springsteen sang about. This audience will also leave their comments, something which is not possible in cinema or television, and possibly make micropayments – both are appreciated payback for the filmmakers (whether through Amazon, Net ix, MUBI, Distrify or others). Today’s big television buyers at the pitching forums goes for a market that doesn’t necessary guarantee high quality or a movie that matters. Like Jay Rosenblatt once told me, if his film had to be 19 minutes, it had to be 19 minutes – he didn’t care if there was no television slot for that. Today television’s time-limited slots and entertainment-value requirement are filtering out a lot of important works by independent filmmakers – works by people like Godard; or others who remain true to themselves.


References   [ + ]

1. See an earlier issue of PoV, povmagazine.com
2. See for example http://www.edn.dk/activities/edn-activity-texts/ edn-activities-2012/edn-online-pitching-sessions-2012-historical- documentaries/