The Art of Pitching: Special Report on the IDFA’s Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries

At the Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, producers get the chance to strut their stuff. Whether they consider it a blessing or a curse is another story. Exploring the constructed high drama of the Forum and which Euro producers give...
December 1, 1997

At the Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, producers get the chance to strut their stuff. Whether they consider it a blessing or a curse is another story. Exploring the constructed high drama of the Forum and which Euro producers give the best performance

For more than 25 years, Amsterdam’s Paradiso club, a converted church near the city center, has been a Mecca for rock fans. But, for three days every December, the club stages a very different set of performances as the leading independent players in international television documentary production stand up and face the music, and pitch their latest projects to an audience of broadcasters from around the world.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries has had a profound effect on the annual Amsterdam Documentary Festival, or IDFA (International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam) to give the event its formal title, of which the forum now plays a key part.

‘Before we set up the Forum, IDFA was a fairly rarefied occasion specializing in theatrical documentary. TV executives attended, but not very often and not in large numbers. Forum has injected a new constituency into the festival,’ says Chris Haws, head of commissioning, production and coproduction at Discovery Network (Europe). It was Haws, along with fellow European documentary makers Thomas Stenderup and Jacques Bidou, who launched the Forum in 1993.

Thanks largely to the event, Amsterdam is now widely regarded as Europe’s leading documentary festival, outflanking both Marseilles and Sheffield. But, what has been the impact of the Forum on the filmmakers who have taken part, and those who will once again cast aside their inhibitions and step into the spotlight which could make or break their pet project?

Europeans are justifiably renowned for their cultural achievements. They are arguably less accomplished, however, when it comes to selling them. This is in marked contrast to the Americans, who are internationally famous for their ability in selling everything from armaments to automobiles.

Sometimes it seem as if your average Yank masters the art of the pitch before he or she has learnt how to program a video recorder. Is persuading a broadcaster to invest in a documentary any different? It seems it is. By and large, Euros who have experienced first hand the rigors of the Forum claim to have acquitted themselves well, although there are exceptions; it seems the Germans in particular have much to learn concerning the black art of pitching.

‘In this trade you tend to spend a lot of time doing one-to-ones with busy people who don’t want to give you much of their time,’ says distinguished British producer Brian Lapping, a veteran Forum attendee. ‘But at the Forum there are a group of professional people, some of whom are serious potential purchasers, plus others who either know your programmes or are interested in finding out more about them. You’re nervous beforehand, but you know you’re going to be talking to professionals.’

Lapping has participated in every Forum to date. Some of the projects he has pitched at Amsterdam have collapsed; others, however, have taken off, none more spectacularly than the award-winning, six-part, US$3 million Death Of Yugoslavia.

Initially backed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, the series was subsequently coproduced with coin from several broadcasters, with Discovery America and Austrian broadcaster orf leading the way, following his Amsterdam pitch. At this year’s Forum, Lapping is touting a film examining the Northern Ireland peace process. The BBC is on board once again, with PBS also apparently interested.

New rules for the 1997 Forum require that each of the 60 projects (whittled down from 141 qualifying entries) being presented must be supported by at least one broadcaster. Previously, the projects fell into two categories – those with and those without broadcaster support. Lapping reckons that securing the backing of a broadcaster makes a big difference psychologically when you’re out there doing the pitching: ‘It gives you extra authority because it means the film is quite likely to happen.’

When the Forum was introduced five years ago, many of the participants found doing an open pitch in front of around 40 commissioning editors nerve-shattering, to say the least. ‘Initially it scared the shit out of both the producers and the commissioning editors. A lot of them had never seen anything like it before,’ recalls Haws.

This was all grist for the mill. The organizers had quite deliberately set out to squeeze the last drop of drama from the event. ‘We wanted to make the experience terrifying and intimidating, but also great show biz,’ says Haws. The lighting and seating arrangements, with the broadcasters’ representatives arrayed behind a huge horseshoe-shaped table, aimed to reproduce the excitement of the boxing ring or a gladiatorial contest straight from ancient Rome.

It is hardly surprising that not every filmmaker thrives under these conditions, but there have been some surprises. Against the odds, the Icelanders have revealed themselves to be consummate pitchers. One of their concepts, The Greatest Wood Mouse In The World, sounded less than scintillating on paper. Yet, at the Forum, the Icelanders caused a sensation with a highly amusing presentation. They returned home with funding from Norway and Scandinavia. Subsequently, National Geographic stepped in and doubled the budget. The rest is history.

Berlin’s Zero Films was less fortunate. The company pitched a $350,000, 90-minute documentary highlighting the German actor Klaus Kinski. ‘It was a very personal film, so we decided the director, Christopher Rueter, should do the pitching,’ remembers producer Thomas Kufus. ‘He was very nervous and uncomfortable with the situation. The pitch wasn’t very good and we didn’t raise any money although I’m confident it was a good project. Germans aren’t used to doing business in this way.’

Zero will be back at the Forum this year, only this time Kufus will do the presentation himself. He is pitching a 90-minute documentary, budgeted at $250,000 and directed by the acclaimed Didi Danquart, in which the filmmaker examines the relationship between himself and his twin brother, Pepe, also a director.

Kufus reckons he has learnt a lot from observing how the Americans and Brits operate at the Forum. ‘I was very impressed by a New York documentary maker, Jonathan Stack, last year, who wanted to make a film about a prison in Arizona,’ he says. ‘Everyone was very amused by his pitch. The British are very good because they come from a strong television-documentary-making tradition and can attract coproduction money. This is much more difficult for Germans.’

If the Germans have faced an uphill struggle at the Forum, the French have fared better. Yves Jeanneau, a producer with Paris-based Les Films d’Ici, claims that he and his countrymen have become every bit as good at pitching as the Americans are. ‘It’s something that is quite new in our culture but we are trained for it now,’ he says. ‘The problem is not to do with the producers’ lack of expertise at pitching, it’s more to do with the broadcasters and the fact that they are not comfortable taking a position in public. During the Forum, a lot of them won’t come out and say what they want.’

This view is not supported by the Emmy- and Oscar-winning British producer Jon Blair. He has generally been impressed by the caliber of questions asked by the broadcasters. ‘The level of discussion was often higher than some of the talks I’ve had with U.K. commissioning editors,’ Blair says. ‘In Britain, I am a relatively highly regarded producer but quite often you’re treated as a novice filmmaker straight out of film school who doesn’t know what they’re doing.’

Haws claims that, sometimes, during the Forum the broadcasters will not only ask all the right questions of a producer, they’ll even put their money where their mouths are. ‘There will be that rare occasion when a deal is done across the table. The time when the moderator demands 200,000 francs from so-and-so and he actually coughs up,’ he says.

This, however, is highly unusual. In fact, although the festival boasts that 70% of the projects pitched are either fully funded or in production a year later, it is often difficult to be certain whether a film receives backing as a direct result of being showcased at Amsterdam. Forum producer Joan Morsell admits, ‘It is successful, but it’s always a big ‘but’ because we’re never sure that the finance is forthcoming because of Forum. You can form a decision on the spot but it’s not always possible.’

One IDFA veteran, who preferred to remain anonymous, claims that a significant proportion of the 70% of ideas that are green-lit 12 months later would have been given the go-ahead regardless of whether they were pitched at the Forum. However, even he agrees a lot of good films would have remained in development without the Forum.

Simon Nasht, head of coproductions at London-based Cafž Productions, maintains that, whatever its limitations, the Forum provides a litmus test for any documentary concept. ‘If you cannot convince a bunch of people who watch documentaries for their livelihood that your film is worth making then you are whistling in the wind,’ he says.

‘The Forum may not be the Holy Grail; it hasn’t made financing a documentary in Europe radically different from how it used to be five years ago, but it is a way of getting it together and matching independent filmmakers with broadcasters. Of course a lot of the real business is done afterwards in the bar.

‘Unfortunately a bad pitch can destroy a good project. I’ve seen it happen, so you must approach the Forum cautiously. Equally, a rotten project is not going to get taken up no matter how good your pitch is.

‘In terms of pitching documentary, the Europeans are better at it than the Americans because they do more of it. They’ve got to talk to their audience, and we’ve got to talk to ours. I would hate to be an American documentary maker. It’s tougher for them than it is for us, and it’s not easy for us.’


IDFA, which takes place this year from November 26-December 4, has emerged as one of the world’s leading documentary festivals since it originated in 1988. This is largely thanks to the introduction of the Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries in 1993.

The Forum has played a key part in increasing attendance from around 200 delegates in 1992 to almost 700 last year. The three-day session aimed at stimulating global coproduction has established the festival with television documentary makers around the world.

This year, 60 producers, selected by a continental European selection committee, will be pitching their films to a panel of international commissioning editors. Under revised rules, each producer must be accompanied by a broadcaster who has agreed in principle to back the project. The pitch can last a maximum of seven minutes, and is then followed by an eight-minute question-and-answer session in which the editors discuss the project with the producer and the broadcaster who is supporting the film.

This year, for the first time ever, the Forum has been opened up to non-European Community filmmakers. Although the majority of pitches will come from France, Britain and Germany, there will also be presentations from producers based in the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa, Switzerland and Russia.

IDFA was set up by festival director Ally Derks because she believed that documentary-making was being eclipsed by feature films and deserved a higher profile. ‘IDFA is one of the premier documentary festivals in the world largely thanks to the efforts of Ally and her staff,’ says Chris Haws, an executive with Discovery Networks (Europe), who helped spearhead the Forum.

‘The festival is very well run,’ he adds. ‘It has a lot of local support in Amsterdam. The event takes itself seriously without being stuffy. There is a national tradition for excellence in documentary in the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland, which IDFA reflects.

‘The festival is more mature than Sheffield because it has been going longer, and is less tv-driven. It isn’t a market, although there are market elements to it. Marseilles is more market-oriented. IDFA focuses more on aesthetic issues than deal-making.’

There are two main prizes at the festival; the Jorls Ivens Award for documentary films and the Silver Wolf for video. This year’s event, the tenth, features several retrospectives. Included are the ten best films screened at IDFA since it began; a look back at historical documentaries with special guest Marcel Ophuls; and D.A. Pennebaker’s favourite films.

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