In the first installment of realscreen‘s annual three-part complete report on the Hot Docs Forum, which took place at Toronto’s Hart House earlier this month, we examine all 26 feature doc projects pitched at the annual event, along with detailed commissioner responses and analysis.
The start of this month saw the 13th annual Hot Docs Forum kicking off at Hart House in Toronto.
The Forum features two days of public pitches from filmmakers looking to raise money from a table of assorted international commissioning editors, and between this event in the spring and its autumn counterpart – the IDFA Forum in Holland – some of the year’s biggest documentaries get funded.
Docs that have premiered at festivals so far this year, including The Queen of Versailles, How To Survive A Plague, Herman’s House and Buzkashi!, can all be traced back to pitches at either the Hot Docs or the IDFA Forums.
As such, expect to see at least a few of the projects detailed in this report premiering at festivals throughout 2013 to 2015.
This year’s Hot Docs Forum saw some slight changes in the spread of international commissioning editors attending, with what appeared to be slightly more North Americans and slightly less Europeans. More4′s ‘True Stories’ commissioning editor Anna Miralis and VPRO’s commissioning editor for docs Barbara Truyen were notably absent.
However, also notable were some new faces at the table, most interestingly Jason Spingarn-Koff, the series producer and curator for The New York Times‘ recently launched online ‘Op-Docs’ strand, who was looking for projects that might work online.
The Audacity of Louis Ortiz
Production company: Saving Daylight/Trilogy Films (United States); director/producer: Ryan Murdock, producer: Dawn Porter.
Budget: USD$36,800 already in place (from Kickstarter and Trilogy Films), $368,000 sought.
The first project to be pitched at the 2012 Forum hit a timely note as the U.S. presidential election season gears up, examining the life of professional Barack Obama lookalike Louis Oritz.
The film promises to use a humorous take on politics, with Oritz teaming up with both a former Bill Clinton lookalike and a Mitt Romney lookalike, but will also show the struggles being undertaken by many looking for work in the U.S. at present, with Oritz’s jobs impersonating the American president barely bringing in enough money to cover his childcare (he is a widower) and multiple sclerosis medication costs.
Weighing in first from the table of commissioners was Cynthia López, the exec VP and co-executive producer of PBS’s ‘POV’ strand, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. “We’re very encouraged by how you’re showing politics through the humor,” she told the pitch team, “and the struggles he’s facing on a daily basis.”
Meanwhile, HBO Documentary Films VP Lisa Heller offered: “This guy looks like a great character – I think what we’re all wondering is can he sustain over the whole film?”
Also expressing interest was the Times’ Spingarn-Koff, who suggested an edited version could work as a short for his online series. “This would be a very fresh addition to our election coverage,” he said.
Production company: La Compagnie des Taxi Brousse/Rappi Production (France); director: Denis Delestrac, producers: Laurent Mini, Guillaume Rappeneau.
Budget: $394,000 already in place (ARTE France, Centre National de la Cinematographie), $320,000 sought.
Realscreen first caught the second project of the day when it was pitched at Asian Side of the Doc in Japan in March this year, where it impressed attending buyers.
The film frames an argument that sand, more than fresh water or oil, is currently the most consumed natural resource on the planet today, and looks at the battles being fought over a drastically diminishing source of building material.
The pitch came with a dramatic trailer, promising to show the effects of smuggling amid situations in which whole beaches are being stolen.
Tomoko Okutsu, NHK’s producer for international coproduction and acquisition, offered praise for the project. “We’re very interested in this as an environmental issue – in Japan, we’re had this problem for some time with sand disappearing from our shores.”
Also positive was Mette Hoffmann Meyer, head of documentaries at Denmark’s DR TV, who said: “I might be interested if there’s no hold back.”
However, for Catherine Olsen, exec producer of documentaries for Canada’s CBC Newsworld, there was some concern over the split focus of the documentary. “I’m much more interested in the ‘mafia’ story,” she said, “than the coastal erosion story.”
Production company: Tripod Media (U.S.); director: Jocelyn Ford, producer: Wu Hao.
Budget: $101,000 already in place (Kickstarter, Google, private investors), $147,000 sought.
The Forum’s third project came with a dark, hard-hitting trailer. Zanta follows a widowed Tibetan street hawker as she struggles to raise her young son while battling against prejudice and economic strife in modern day China.
‘POV”s López weighed in first on the film, expressing positivity and interest in the project. She pointed out that ‘POV’ is opening its 25th anniversary with Jennifer Fox’s My Reincarnation, which also looks at issues surrounding Tibet. “We would want to see more of the story arc and what the characters are going through,” she added.
Meanwhile, Tribeca Film Institute director of documentary programming Ryan Harrington had questions about the director’s role in the film, and whether she would be appearing in it, to which Ford clarified that she will be “a secondary character” in the film.
Other commissioners echoed Harrington’s concern about Ford’s exact role in the film, although Knowledge Network’s Murray Battle offered support for the director getting involved onscreen.”I love when the filmmaker gets sucked in,” he said. “I would encourage you to pursue that.”
Following the pitch for Zanta, attendees were informed that the fourth planned pitch of the Forum, Shattered Pieces of Peace, would not be pitching since, unfortunately, the film’s Swaziland-based director had been unable to secure a visa to come to Toronto.
Production company: OneWorld Group (U.S.); director/producer: iLan Azoulai.
Budget: $35,000 already in place (Java Films), $356,000 sought.
The dark and gritty Zanta was followed by an even darker and grittier pitch, accompanied by an equally moving trailer. Holy Ghetto focuses on women forced into the sex trade industry in Tel Aviv, often after having been trafficked by members of the Russian Mafia.
The doc focuses on several of the women who have suffered exploitation, along with a young American who is working to provide a shelter for the women.
ITVS International program manager Cynthia Kane responded first to the pitch, telling the director: “It’s a really, really strong project, and a very harrowing story.”
DR TV’s Hoffmann Meyer added that she was encouraged by the presence of Chico Colvard (Family Affair), who presented and is supporting the project, but still had questions. “I loved Family Affair,” she said. “I’m very interested in what your main story is and what the purpose of it is. Also with the title, what does the ‘Holy’ bit come from?’
Meanwhile, Knowledge’s Battle said it could work for his network, since he is lining up a season of nine films about Israel.
Production company: Mattru Media (Canada); directors/producers: Ngardy and Allan Tong.
Budget: $98,000 already in place (Sundance Institute, Telefilm Canada, Kickstarter), $276,000 sought.
Leone Stars returned to Toronto as one of the relatively older projects on offer to buyers. The film claimed victory last September at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Pitch This! Competition (and with it CDN$10,000 in development funding).
The project follows the Sierra Leone Single-Leg Amputee Sports Club’s pursuit of a world championship, and shows the challenges facing the team as they face internal conflicts and accusations of corruption. “The war on the soccer pitch is a microcosm for Sierra Leone and Africa,” the filmmakers told the commissioners.
Despite being a relatively better known project, buyers were still keen to praise the film. ITVS’s Kane lauded the project, saying it “fits the international mission for ITVS,” while López at ‘POV’ said “the story is remarkable – this is a real look at what happens to those boys lost.”
Also positive was CNN senior producer Jennifer Hyde, who said that while PBS may be interested in the doc, “until the deal is done we can have a discussion.”
The project also won encouragement from BBC ‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser, who said that while the project wasn’t a fit for ‘Storyville,’ it would fit on one of the UK pubcaster’s other sections. “I’ll do my best to broker a deal with [BBC strand] ‘This World,’” he said, “because I really love this.”
Production company: Storyline Entertainment (Canada)/Maremoto Productions (Chile); director: Maria Teresa Larrain, producer: Lisa Valencia-Svensson.
Budget: $201,000 already in place (Chilean Audiovisual Fund, Britdoc Foundation/PUMA grant, Shaw Media Hot Docs Development Fund, YLE, Chicken & Egg), $141,000 sought.
That the next project pitched went on to be awarded the CDN$40,000 Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, really emphasizes the goodwill felt towards it by all present in the room.
Shadow Girl, from Chilean-Canadian filmmaker Teresa Larrain (The Art of Art Modeling), documents the director’s descent into blindness, using flashbacks, recreations and interviews with blind street vendors to tell her own experience of losing her sight.
“The hardest thing about going blind is not the loss of your visions, it’s the loss of your independence,” the director told the table.
First to react was Lorenzo Hendel, commissioning editor for Italian broadcaster RAI’s DOC3 strand, who said: “I’m totally fascinated by this story.” Also positive was TVO commissioning editor Jane Jankovic, who told the director: “I’m really very taken by the lyricism of the doc – witnessing someone going from the seeing world into the blind world.”
Meanwhile, Tribeca’s Harrington said he thought the trailer was “just such a beautiful piece,” but added, “I do share some concerns about how all these beautiful threads will come together. But we love Storyline Entertainment and loved Herman’s House [which Storyline produced].”
Among the more visibly moved by the pitch was ‘POV”s López, who praised the director for coming forward “in a Forum filled with filmmakers, distributors and broadcasters. I applaud your courage.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in your position and take that, and craft something for all of us,” she added.
Finally, DR TV’s Hoffmann Meyer said that while she was interested in the pitch, she can’t coproduce something that has involvement from sportswear manufacturer Puma. “I think that’s a very important point to make,” she added.
Production company: 112 Weddings LLC (U.S.); director/producer: Doug Block, producer: Lori Cheatle.
Budget: $315,000 already in place (HBO, Tribeca Film Institute), $246,000 sought.
The strongest pitch of the Forum’s first day came from New York based filmmaker Doug Block (The Kids Grow Up, 51 Birch Street), whose trailer for 112 Weddings brought much laughter to the Hart House hall.
As a part-time wedding videographer, Block has spent the past 20 years filming what is arguably the most important day of many peoples’ lives and, as he approaches his own 25th wedding anniversary, the filmmaker has decided to go back to revisit many of the couples he has filmed over the years. The results are often hilarious, and the archival footage is great.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s the definitive film about marriage,” said Block, “but 112 weddings can give you a pretty good idea.”
Many commissioners lined up to praise this project, which with HBO’s backing is more likely than not to be made, but among the interested parties was Submarine Entertainment’s Josh Braun, who said that while he rarely looks at unfinished projects for theatrical potential, this had caught his eye and had “high potential” theatrically.
“Our company’s looking broadly for films that could work in North America theatrically,” he added, saying “it would be critical to have a theatrical window – and I know sometimes that’s a problem when HBO comes in early.”
Among the effusive commissioners were the BBC’s Fraser and Knowledge’s Battle, the latter of whom said the doc would be “a perfect fit for [Knowledge's] ‘Storyville’ – it’s a film about love.”
Battle also asked whether the rights would be available for Canada, and HBO’s Heller confirmed that they would. Meanwhile, TVO’s Jankovic joked: “I just hope what makes for a happy marriage isn’t really boring couples.”
To this reporter, of all the projects pitched at the Forum in 2012, Block’s has perhaps the greatest potential to crossover and succeed on a wide number of international networks, including almost any female-skewing net that airs wedding-themed programming.
-Stay tuned for part two of this report, publishing shortly