After three long days at Amsterdam’s Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, observers came away with one shining, painful insight: Marketing is a Necessary Evil.
One particularly illustrative example was the pitch for a Swiss film called Vita Utopiae. The producer had a tough tv sell on her hands anyway: a 110-minute film shot on 35mm, with a 2 x 52 version for the small screen. In her eight-minute allotment, she attempted to describe a complicated project: a film about ideas, which – as I understood it – would aim to make some indeterminate statement about history via depictions of how seemingly unrelated people are connected.
Listeners were generally confused; buyers labelled the film ‘too complex.’ There were language barriers, admittedly, but when it came right down to it, no one knew what the film was about.
Frustration was tangible by the time Discovery Europe’s Chris Haws leaned over the table toward her and said, ‘If you can’t capture it in 20 words for TV Guide, if you can’t say it in 40 seconds, you won’t get an audience.’
The producer, visibly offended, responded, ‘That’s not my job.’
The response was instantaneous. Nearly every buyer, either aloud or by way of exasperated grimace, said, ‘Oh, yes, it is.’
The producer in question was by no means the only one whose pitch did not perform as hoped that week. Consensus from observers was that the majority of pitches were weak, ill-prepared or unfocused. On the other hand, there were smart, targeted pitches that worked – and they weren’t necessarily for populist, easy-sale films. Good ideas died at the Forum because of poor salesmanship, and less-creative ideas drew a great response when the right person was behind the microphone.
It’s lamentable that all roads end at the little screen when it comes to doc financing these days. Serious filmmakers are entitled to their woe in some cases, but producers can’t entirely reject the value of good marketing. If the film is produce-able, then it should be explainable. If a producer doesn’t have the skills to do so, then he or she should enlist the expertise of someone who does. Either that, or produce a film for which they share a vision.
If a film is to be seen, someone’s going to have to sell it. And it starts with the pitch.
Mary Ellen Armstrong,