There we are, consenting adults: producer on one side and commissioning editor on the other; one is eager, the other jaded from a thousand previous brief encounters. The mating dance begins behind closed doors. Perhaps there is an encouraging word, and, suddenly, hope turns to expectation, but more likely the advances are rejected as the editor loves another.
Pitching is a brutal business, but at least there were no witnesses. Then came the Forum.
Most of us would prefer to keep the details of our more intimate professional moments quite private, but suddenly that private act became a public congress, and pitching was exposed for all to see. For ten minutes, the hapless producer pitches to a dozen argumentative commissioners in a noisy room buzzing with business, an open cafž and a restless audience. Not for nothing is it often called a bear pit.
Watching the sessions can be painful, participating in them even worse. Seeing a struggling colleague go down in flames, or, even worse, ignored by the assembled experts, doesn’t do much for one’s confidence. Even optimists admit that many of the pitches haven’t got what it takes to capture the imagination, or the checkbooks, of the commissioners. Too often they are just being polite. And from the sidelines, we watch as a fellow producer goes under, gasping. We turn our eyes away and pray we aren’t next.
But then there are the few glistening projects which stand out like jewels.
They make me jealous of their originality, their obvious painstaking preparation or wonderful stories. They’re few in number, it’s true, but they create a standard towards which all of us aspire, and often they come from the most unlikely places. Many producers recall an amazing story of Icelandic field mice which stopped the Forum skeptics in their tracks.
The Forum has captured the attention of others and has been copied elsewhere, especially in Scandinavia. It has even spawned a side-industry in ‘pitching training’ at places like the Ebeltoft summer sessions, Docs Without Frontiers, and in the days leading up to the Forum itself. Is it possible that the black art of pitching can really be reduced to science?
I must admit to doubts about the direct utility of the process. Apart from putting your ideas through a rigorous workout, the atmosphere is too charged and the conditions just a little too artificial for the commissioners to commit. It generates a lot of heat, but not much light.
But there are wonderful moments. Anyone who ponders the future of a united Europe need only watch the intellectual struggles between the French and Anglo-Saxons for a cautionary warning. And where are the Germans? Little wonder the Forum organizers are reaching out to North America.
Despite my reservations, I’ll be back again this year. The business behind the scenes is exceptionally helpful, and Amsterdam itself is tremendously welcoming to the documentary maker. There is no better cure for a battered Forum ego than sitting at midnight with a packed audience, laughing or crying, angry or inspired by a new documentary. It’s the inspiration we all need to get through another year of pitching, whether it be public or private.