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The Risks and Rewards of International Pitch Forums

By Manori Ravindran

2016 Hot Docs Forum. Courtesy of Hot Docs

Vancouver-based doc maker Ryan Flowers preceded his roundtable pitch at the 2014 International Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) Forum by doing a set of push-ups with producer Sahand Zamani. The pair dropped to the ground in the Compagnietheater in a Rocky-style warm-up and, amidst cheers from bemused observers, worked up a sweat to present their feature doc Jimbo.

"It's a big thing," recalls Flowers, who was tackling his first feature film and pitch.

"It felt like I had to give a TED talk. It's not just rolling up and winging it—we really worked hard on the pitch."

The Canadian director spent around CAD$3,000 (US$2,250) to attend, with most costs covered by a $2,000 Creative BC grant, but Flowers says the $1,000 paid out of pocket was worth it just to meet commissioners from HBO Documentaries and Al Jazeera.

"I'm not sure how valuable it has been, but we have those people's actual contacts and we've met them face to face, so I think that is very [useful]," says Flowers, who took part in 15 meetings. "We got one pre-sale only, which was a Dutch broadcaster, but since the film's not done, I'm not sure if that has lapsed or not."

Elsewhere, Minneapolis-based director Sergio Rapu and producer Elena Rapu pitched their first doc, Eating Up Easter, last May at Toronto's Hot Docs Forum. The film covers the changing environmental and social conditions on Easter Island, and the team was in search of post-production funding.

"We got really great responses in the room, and it was a good opportunity to meet with these people and get to know the international community," says Rapu. "We've tried to follow up since but have not heard anything back, which has been a bit disappointing. No additional funds have come of it as of yet."

Flowers and Rapu's experiences are representative of countless filmmakers who attend international pitch forums in hopes of securing funding for their doc projects: While the deals are elusive, the contacts can be invaluable.

The costs of attending, however, are steep, if not prohibitive. There is an understanding that these forums are the domain of early-career filmmakers (with a few exceptions) keen to boost profiles, publicize projects and garner press coverage. But in a competitive market for docs and underpaid filmmakers, it is increasingly a challenge for some to justify the costs of flights, accommodation and pricy registration fees, only to come away with few deals, if any.

"People are not necessarily writing checks."

AIDC 2016 Opening Night Party. Photo by Eliza Bell

Despite the lack of deals for their project, Rapu speaks highly of Hot Docs and his first Forum experience, which helped to clarify the central themes around Easter and draw press attention. "Even though, financially, we may not see the return until much later, the bolstering of us as filmmakers and our project was well worth it," he reasons. "We're trying to ride that wave as we continue to write grants and follow up with other organizations."

Rapu spent US$3,885 to attend the Forum, with those costs covering registration fees for the team and flights, accommodation and transportation for the couple as well as Sergio's mother and infant, who could not be left at home. In addition, the filmmaker—who is director of development at Committee Films—estimates that missing a work week to attend cost him roughly $1,500.

"Given the way the industry is going [with] funding, we as indie filmmakers need to be really smart with the dollars that we have," he says. "I'm not sure if, two to five years from now, pitching at this type of a forum will be as mainstream as it is today.

"For our next project, we'll build in a much higher budget for [Forum] costs," Rapu continues. "But seeing as how people are not necessarily writing checks to you at the Forum and it's months after the fact that you continue catching up with them, I wonder if it's not as effective to buy a plane ticket and meet with this person at their office."

Another project pitched alongside Eating Up Easter was Saad Khan and Anam Abbas' Showgirls of Pakistan, which tracks three Pakistani burlesque dancers fighting for their place in society. The film was met with great interest at the pitch, but has so far failed to secure a broadcaster. The team spent roughly CAD$2,500 for both to attend.

Winning the Forum's Best Canadian Pitch award, however, opened doors to another major pitch opportunity with the Chicago Media Project, which unites impact-minded members with filmmakers. "[The prize] gave us a lot of legitimacy and enabled us to approach the Chicago Media Project, and they'd actually seen our pitch at Hot Docs," says Abbas. "They've been organizing a bunch of people they know who'd be interested in investing in the film."

The FACTory, AIDC 2016. Photo by Eliza Bell

Forums: A Cost of Doing Business

Hot Docs producer Dorota Lech says the "Forum as a concept is bigger than its individual pitches," enriching all participants involved, from observers to decision-makers to pitch teams, who are the ultimate risk-takers. "With the most to gain and the most to risk, pitch teams take major steps towards financing their films and often do finance their films out of these events," says Lech. "Festivals, agents and distributors track their work to pick up when complete. The value of the market validation accrued at the Forum table is immense."

The current registration fee for the spring Forum, per pitch team member, is CAD$734.50 (US$550), which covers an All Access pass to the festival. Hot Docs does not cover flights or accommodation. "This may create sticker shock for some folks," Lech admits. "However, for many it does not: They recognize that this fee is a bargain for the value of the experience."

The Forum will hear requests from filmmaking teams in dire financing situations and the Official Delegation Program for international attendees can also subsidize costs, but Hot Docs encourages film teams to write pitching fees into production budgets. "With the number of pitching forums around the world, this is essentially a cost of doing business," Lech explains.

Over in Spain, Docs Barcelona holds public pitch events each May for Latin American documentaries and interactive projects. Each pitch has a registration fee of €265 (US$273) per project (excluding VAT) for two people, granting industry and festival accreditation. Project director Elena Subirà says that of all projects presented over the years, more than 80 percent have been finished or are currently in production, and more than 60 percent have a financier on board that was present at the time of their pitch.

Courtesy of DocsBarcelona

Elsewhere, the Australian International Documentary Conference's one-day FACTory event in March is now Australia's primary pitching forum, following the end of Good Pitch Australia in November. Registration fees amount to AUD$880 (excluding GST; US$647), which provides an All Access Pass.

Of the nine projects pitched at the 2016 FACTory event, two secured deals, allowing them to go into production, and another received "solid interest" that allowed the project to move ahead.

AIDC director Andrew Wiseman says, "By bringing many influential commissioners and funders to one event and having them in one room, we can save filmmakers the expense of traveling to them."

Meanwhile, the IDFA Forum's Central and Round Table pitches take place over three days. The festival does not cover flights and accommodation, and applies a €550 (US$573) registration fee per project (excluding VAT).

Head of Industry Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen says the objective for most attendees is to network and locate potential new funders or co-producers. Her team tracks participants' experiences at each event by distributing two surveys—one following the November event and another four months later.

Results of the second survey sent to 2015 Forum participants showed that, of the 58 projects selected to pitch, close to 70 percent of participants filled out the survey, with 80 percent stating they were successful in finding money. In other words, 32 of those 40 projects secured funding.

"What we see over the years is that less money is secured [by March], but more money is in negotiations," explains van Nieuwenhuyzen. "But in the long run, we do not measure the [trajectory for that project] again, so I don't know what the outcome is because the negotiation can go either way.

"What I also observe is that it's a long way for producers to secure that money to finance the films, and often they go from one market to another. Maybe they don't pitch in Amsterdam, but the initial meeting with a potential funder is in Amsterdam, then six months later in Sheffield they meet this commissioner again. It's a long process."

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Costs Too High to Harbor

Many established doc makers speak positively of forums and the role they play in film financing, but few are as effusive as Nima Sarvestani. The Iranian doc maker has pitched at IDFA's Central Pitch five times. He presented his latest documentary, Prison Sisters, at the 2015 Forum, and the film screened at this year's festival. "When you pitch at IDFA, many people see your project. It doesn't matter if they like it or not, doesn't matter if it fits their slot or not. They know that Prison Sisters is a project that's coming," says Sarvestani, adding that forums are the "biggest stage" available to new filmmakers.

Similarly, Finding Hillywood director Leah Warshawski has pitched projects six times over the last 10 years at forums including Hot Docs, IFP, Big Sky Doc Festival, Napa Film Festival and Sebastopol Peer Pitch. She presented her feature Big Sonia, co-directed with Todd Soliday, at the 2015 Hot Docs Forum, and the film recently world-premiered at DOC NYC. "We try to generate positive press and meet as many people as we can, but none of our pitches have directly led to funding," she says. "We have always had to cover all of our travel for pitching. Each city is different, but New York and Toronto are very expensive."

Attending pitch forums was not in the fundraising budget for Big Sonia, but the director says it should have been. "It's just not as ‘sexy' or ‘easy' to raise funds for pitch-forum travel while you're making a film," she explains. "It's hard to ask people to pay for you to go to New York and pitch your film, even though you know it's good for the project.

"Forums are incredibly helpful for filmmakers, but they're very expensive to get to when you're trying to raise money to make your film. It would be helpful to offer hotel and travel discounts or pay a stipend."

Dartmouth Films founder Christopher Hird says the grand tour of documentary forums is prohibitively expensive for many filmmakers. The London-based Dartmouth Films comes in to produce and fund independent docs at various stages of completion and often outside the broadcast system. The outfit has worked with innumerable directors and supported such films as Particle Fever and How to Survive a Plague. "Often you go to these forums and there are people there who—you can tell based on the conversation between the broadcaster and the person who's pitching—[have been in] Leipzig but they were in Barcelona before that, and before that Sheffield, and before that Edinburgh," says Hird. "These are frequently filmmakers who come from countries where there is funding to support this constant tour, and if you meet people on that regular a basis, then you build up a relationship with commissioning editors. But I'm skeptical that that one trip can build a sufficiently powerful relationship."

Courtesy of DocsBarcelona

Hird acknowledges that forums serve primarily as networking hubs, but says filmmakers should not be paying thousands for these opportunities. The exec calls the economics of forums "cock-eyed" due to high fees and travel costs—often a sizeable chunk of a doc budget—paid by filmmakers seeking funding, versus the complimentary passes bestowed by festivals to decision makers.

"What you have at these things is, on one side of the table, some extremely well-paid TV execs and on the other side, financially struggling independent filmmakers," Hird observes. "For me, if broadcasters were seriously interested in creating a forum in which new and emerging filmmakers stood a better chance of getting their ideas in front of them, or raising money for them, they might want to devote a bit of energy to thinking what might be a way in which all of that could happen but without all the money being spent by people who can't afford it."

Hird proposes that big broadcasters support forums by paying some of the costs harbored by pitching teams. He also suggests that more commissioners from public service broadcasters could travel from their countries to meet with promising filmmakers, citing Channel 4's "Pop-Up" program for up-and-coming TV talent. "Rather than expecting filmmakers from all corners of Europe [to travel] to Sheffield or Amsterdam, you would say, ‘We're going to have a roadshow in which we're going to go—within a certain country—to a certain amount of cities.' You increase the frequency of them and you reduce the distance the filmmakers have got to travel.

"The financial risk is being borne here by the sector of the industry least able to bear it," says Hird.


Manori Ravindran is a London-based journalist and International Editor at Broadcast magazine, where she covers television and documentary. You can follow her on Twitter at @manori_r.