For doc-makers, pitching is often a necessary evil when it comes to bringing their projects to life.
In a session titled “Pitch Perfect” at Hot Docs on Monday (May 1), Hot Docs Forum alumni discussed how they made their projects stand out in the documentary market and how their pitch translated into a finished film. Panelists included producers and directors of 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, Bill Nye: The Science Guy (pictured) and Ask the Sexpert — all films which successfully received funding in past Hot Docs Forums.
The group offered advice to doc-makers on how to fine-tune pitches and suggested ways to carry a project through to completion.
While topics ranged from preparation to confidence-building, teaser trailers proved to be a particularly contentious issue.
As part of the Hot Docs Forum, the chosen filmmakers have seven minutes to present their film to a round-table of the world’s leading commissioning editors, financiers and industry professionals to win funding and get feedback. The time is usually split between a trailer or clips from the film and a short presentation.
As part of a question period during the panel session, audience members inquired how much production goes into these short trailers and where the funding to produce those film snippets comes from.
There is no easy answers. David Alvarado, director of Bill Nye: The Science Guy, which enjoyed its world premiere at SXSW earlier this year, says he and his team spent a month putting together a trailer for a pitch session at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and a condensed version for Hot Docs. Alvarado admitted the teaser took a lot of money and time, but because documentaries are ultimately a visual medium, they are necessary to show that a film is worth investing in.
“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” said Alvarado. Filmmakers need money to create their teaser, but potential investors need a teaser in order decide whether to fund the project.
Mridu Chandra and Vaishali Sinha of Ask the Sexpert said that while they were able to secure grant money prior to pitching at Hot Docs, they had to decide whether it was best spent on the teaser trailer or on making the film. Ultimately, they used the grant money for both.
“It’s a major problem in the industry,” said Beth Levison, producer of 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, that filmmakers are expected expected to come up with trailers, and there are very few funders willing to give money before they see sample footage.
When it came to the basics of pitching, Levison said a successful pitch should be broken down into three basic principles: What’s the story you’re telling, why does it need to be told, and why are you the best person to tell it?
Another tip from the panel was to remember to not pitch for generic funding — you have to know what your goal is, whether it’s to raise funding for a crew or a composer.
However, they added, showing a bit of flexibility in your pitch can also be beneficial if you secure a partner who’s willing to explore different directions. This can make them excited about collaborating and working with you.
Of course, not all pitches are going to pan out. Chandra and Sinha said filmmakers need to decide if they can continue to make their film without outside funding, and need to be prepared to change the scope of the project depending on the answer.
A previous version of this article attributed a quote to the basics of pitching to 32 Pills director Hope Litoff. A correction had been made to show correct quote attribution, Beth Levison, producer.