A documentary about a boy who undergoes a radical form of surgery to treat a violent case of Tourette’s syndrome has won the Summit Showdown pitch competition at the Realscreen Summit.
Pitched by Aaron Lewis (pictured, center)of Brooklyn-based production company ModernEpic, the heartfelt Very Messy and Very Beautiful beat out doc series pitches about drones, Navy SEALs and the Jonestown massacre to claim a prize package that includes a pass to the 2017 Summit, custom music by sponsor Vanacore Music and a GoPro Hero4 Session Waterproof HD Sports & Helmet Camera.
During his five-minute pitch, Lewis explained that the idea was conceived while he was shooting at a summer camp for kids with Tourette’s – a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes motor and vocal tics.
The doc focuses on a young boy suffering from a particularly violent case of the syndrome. After he is placed in a medically induced coma and undergoes an experimental neurosurgery, he is cured of most of his symptoms.
The Showdown was hosted by Property Brothers‘ Drew and Jonathan Scott (pictured) and this year’s panelists of judges included Denise Contis, Discovery Channel executive VP of development and production; Hamish Mykura, National Geographic Channels executive VP of programming and development; John MacDonald, executive VP of women and family networks for Corus Entertainment; and Allison Page, GM for HGTV, DIY Network and Great American Country.
The judges scored the pitch 30 out of 40 and praised Lewis’ heartfelt delivery during the presentation.
“You can tell it’s a passion project,” said Contis. “That passion and that love will trump anything.”
As far as critiques went, she echoed comments by other judges who wanted to see more lightness in Lewis’ sizzle, which showed the doc’s protagonist punching holes in walls, attacking his mother and pounding his legs into a hospital bed. She also suggested featuring other characters more prominently – such as a mother or teacher – to add a sense of levity and other perspectives.
“I needed more lightness and humor in order to stay with it,” observed Page. “I needed more moments of him laughing.”
In addition to suggesting the reel provide a better sense of where the boy is now in his treatment, Mykura noted the project is exactly the kind of doc his former colleagues and UK pubcaster Channel 4 would buy into, and said he would provide Lewis with contact info following the session.
“I’d advise you to pitch it to them immediately,” he said.
Very Messy and Very Beautiful narrowly beat out three other hard-hitting contenders.
Ken Musen and Melissa Thrasher of C-2K Entertainment – an LA-based shop that is moving into the unscripted space – pitched a six-part doc series that follows investigative reporter Marshall Kilduff as he revisits the 1978 case of cult leader Jim Jones and the deaths of more than 900 followers from apparent cyanide poisoning in Guyana.
Styled as a Making a Murderer-style series, Return to Jonestown revisits the case through declassified FBI files and 14 survivors, some of whom suggest that Jones wasn’t the only person responsible for the deaths.
Musen called it an “untold story,” but the judges were unclear on what revelations the program would add to the now-familiar incident and were sceptical that the story would play as a series.
MacDonald said he likes conspiracy theory stories but told Musen “you didn’t sell what those conspiracies might be.
“Is it six hours of television that people want to tune in for?” he asked.
“You’re definitely in one of the sweet spots of TV at the moment,” said Mykura, who was similarly sceptical but noted that crimes of the sixties and seventies are hot right now. “It’s not just the murder, it’s the floral suits and sideburns.”
However, Page was in – though only as a viewer, and not as a buyer for HGTV.
“I’d watch it,” she said, rebuffing other panelists who suggested the pitch was too dark. “Sometimes you really want to go to a happy place [with what you watch] and sometimes you want to go to a dark place.”
Meanwhile, Peter Reiss of The Woodshed pitched a docuseries hosted by an ex-Navy SEAL who travels the globe visiting other former SEALs now employed in high-octane jobs such as SWAT team cop, pirate apprehender and smokejumper.
Billed as “Dirty Jobs meets Deadliest Job Interview,” Life After SEALS was well-liked by the panel, though some of the judges felt the pitch could have been more focused.
Page thought the title made it sound like a docusoap, adding that it took too long to see examples of the jobs in the reel. Elsewhere, MacDonald suggested Reiss broaden the appeal from a male-skewing series by bringing in a real person unfamiliar with the world of the SEALs who could add an element of “the everyday.”
The other judges agreed that the pitch needed more warmth and stakes. “You’re very much in the zeitgeist of what Discovery is looking for,” said Contis. “But what are the stakes? It feels a little follow-along.”
Finally, Geoff Clark and Lisa Lapan of Something Kreative pitched The United States of Drones, a Vice-style doc series investigating the social, political, cultural and military implications of drone technology.
Naturally, a buzzing drone flew through the room during the pitch – a touch the judges appreciated but not enough to clinch the pitch.
Contis said she has been pitched a ton of projects in “the drone space” and wanted more clarity around the format and episode structures.
“It’s like you put everything in the mixer and pressed a button,” said Mykura.
The others agreed that the show idea needed more focus. Clark replied that that was all in a 20-page deck provided to each judge. But given the five minutes the contestants had to pitch and the two minutes the judges had to offer feedback, there was no time to peruse it.