The upcoming Sheffield Doc/Fest (10-15th June 2016) has many opportunities for filmmakers to pitch. It doesn't matter what length, format or level of your experience, there is a pitch competition for you, with more being added all the time. Click through for details.
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When people talk about the public service broadcasting remit of the BBC they often invoke the words of its founder, Lord Reith, who said that the broadcaster's mission was to " inform, educate and entertain" and in that order. As serious documentaries have become increasingly sidelined on mainstream television in favour of drama and reality formats, it sometimes seems that the only way to get a concentrated dose of information and education - with or without a smattering entertainment - is to buy a pass to one of the great international documentary festivals, such as Sheffield Doc/Fest or Hot Docs in Toronto. Films that do well on the festival circuit are then just as likely to find a general audience via one of the new challenger platforms, such as Netflix or Amazon, as they are on the traditional TV networks. Here is a selection of documentaries that played at IDFA 2015 and could be coming to a small screen near you in the future.
For anyone who has not been to Sheffield Doc/Fest before, it offers the chance to listen to commissioners from TV channels and film companies all over the world talking about what they are looking for from documentary makers and producers. It could also be the chance to pitch your latest project to some of them. And it’s an opportunity to watch the latest and best feature length documentary films.
As you often only have approximately seven minutes to pitch (particularly in a formal forum format such as IDFA Forum or at HotDocs in Toronto), you don't have time to talk about all the different elements of your film and how they fit together in a compelling narrative. Instead, you have to find the 'essence' of your film and present that. The popular Pitch and Trailer Workshop at IDFA 2015 explained how.
At Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015 one of the panels, which consisted of a range of funders and filmmakers, discussed how documentary producer/directors could best approach writing grant proposals for documentary funds. Writing proposals is generally the thing that visually-driven filmmakers like doing least. And, as Tracie Holder, Production Assistance Program Consultant to NYC-based Women Make Movies, pointed out: it's hard to know what a good proposal looks like as filmmakers never see other people's proposals. Tracie explained that a written proposal is your introduction to a funder, so it should establish confidence that you can deliver a fantastic film.The reader should be able to "ski down the proposal without hitting any red flags".
Go to one of the major international documentary festivals and you'll come away feeling that the genre is alive, kicking and having a party. ITV's Jo Clinton-Davis said at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 that the audience was searching for "gems in the schedule", but of all the commissioner panels, the documentary session seemed to be the one where the commissioners had the most trouble articulating/least enthusiasm describing what it was that they wanted or needed in their schedules; they seemed to be suffering a strange collective ennui.
Ever so often a show comes along that changes the landscape and influences everything that comes in its wake: Big Brother (contributors/contestants/celebrities confined to one location for the duration of a series), Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing With the Stars (celebrities pairing with professionals to learn a skill and compete), One Born Every Minute (fixed-rig shows). The latest show to be spreading its DNA far and wide seems to be Gogglebox. At Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015 a panel of Factual Entertainment Commissioners discussed their current needs.
If you are tasked with developing science programmes you face a number of challenges: the number of channels that actively embrace science is small, and sometimes those channels – in an attempt to attract as broad an audience as possible – can disguise their science content so thoroughly that it ceases to be science in the eyes of actual scientists. This makes for some uncomfortable conversations when trying to research and develop a science series or talent scout potential onscreen experts. Nonetheless there are commissioning opportunities out there for those dedicated and determined enough. A panel of science commissioners at Sheffield Doc/Fest discussed what science programming means to them and what they are looking to to commission in the coming months. Interestingly although many programmes and approaches were mentioned, few of them were recognisable as science.
In order to be successful when pitching to TV commissioners, it's vital to know what they are looking for. This is harder than it sounds, despite many broadcasters now sharing their commissioning briefs online (via their commissioning portals), because they are often vague and sometimes out of date. Another way to get a sense of what commissioners want is to attend a panel in which they outline their current needs. These panels are common at TV conferences and festivals around the world. Some commissioners are refreshingly candid, whilst other remain coy and seemingly reluctant to give away their secrets; others appear more interested in scoring political points against their co-panelists than helping the audience of producers understand what they should pitch. So they can be a mixed bag. And so it was with the Arts Commissioning panel at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015.
All 4 is the new umbrella name for all Channel 4's platforms, including online, which is the home to the Channel 4 Shorts strand. At a recent Sheffield Doc/Fest panel, the Head of All 4 and Digital Content, Richard Davidson-Houston, and Shorts Commissioning Editors Jody Smith and Issac Densu explained their remit to commission original digital content and how their audience differs from a mainstream terrestrial audience.
The first time Charlotte Fisher went to Sheffield Doc/Fest, in 2011, she was a total novice in the world of documentary making. She was a TV news reporter making a switch to factual programmes and although she’d made current affairs half hours, this was another world. In 2015 she went to the festival as a journalist, going to seminars and watching films; getting an overview of the whole festival. But she was also taking an interest with her other hat on, as a freelance producer at an independent production company.
After broadcast journalist Lisa Francesca Nand suffered her third miscarriage she decided to turn the camera on herself to document her experience and to try to find some answers as to why miscarriage might happen and how it can be prevented. After an emotional production process, the advice of a mentor and a visit to Sheffield Doc/Fest helped bring the film to completion and find a commission.
When you are developing a documentary there are many things to consider: access, narrative arc (is there an unfolding story, sufficient jeopardy and conflict to make commissioning editors take notice?) and creative approach. One thing that many filmmakers avoid thinking about - often until too late - is who the potential audience is and how to find the money needed to get the film not only into production, but finished. But these two things should be integral to the development process as they are invariably intertwined: a broadcaster or online platform is not going to fund a film that doesn't directly appeal to its core audience. Filmmakers who have more of an independent streak, who feel that they must operate outside of the mainstream - for idealistic reasons as much as necessity - are sometimes tempted to think that the normal rules of funding don't apply to them. They think if they film it, the audience will come. But they won't. In order for a film to be successful it needs fans (funders in the first instance, and audiences later on), not just at the point of release but right from the start of the process. No-one knows this better than Dunstan Bruce, a vocalist with the anarchist band Chumbawamba for 23 years.
Shepperton Studios based crewing agent Kate Watson recently attended her first Sheffield Doc/Fest; with many of her agency clients having worked on documentary films it was a great opportunity to dip into their world. But she soon ran into her first problem: how do you choose from 150 films?
In this, the latest of an occasional series I look back at some of the films I saw in 2014 at a variety of festivals including IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest. As usual I've roughly divided them into groups according to narrative approach; within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. Some films could easily be placed in a different category but I’ve put them in what seemed to be the most prominent storytelling style for that film. However, whether you agree with my selection or not, you may find inspiration to help you decide what techniques will be most useful in developing and shaping the narrative of your own films. Having a clear idea of how you are going to tell the story will help you pitch your idea more effectively to potential funders. (Photo courtesy of IDFA)
Every November documentary filmmakers from around the world get the opportunity to pitch their projects to commissioning editors from international television stations and other financiers at IDFA’s international co-finance and production market, the IDFA Forum. After each pitch, the assembled commissioning editors and other funders are given the opportunity to express their interest/concerns and ask questions about the film. Over the course of several pitches a number of recurring, and sometimes contradictory, themes that emerge from the commissioners' feedback that can be useful to reflect on when planning your own pitch, whether at IDFA or elsewhere. Here are some of the comments from the IDFA Central Pitch in 2014 - although all the comments are project specific there are many insights that are transferable to any documentary in development, and can help you preempt potential objections to your own project. (Photo by Kennisland (CC BY SA)
When pitching a TV show or independent documentary it is now almost impossible to get away without having to make a pitch tape of some sort (sometimes several over the course of your production). You can write pages of your directorial vision, storylines, subplots and mission to change the world, but nothing takes the buyer straight to the heart of your film like a well shot pitch tape (also known as a teaser, sizzle, pilot or sample, depending on where you are in the world and the context in which you are pitching). But what makes a pitch tape effective?
In January 2014, Writer and Director Stephanie Wessell started on Sheffield Doc/Fest’s mentoring scheme, Fast Track To Features. Beginning with a relatively undeveloped idea at the time, she nonetheless progressed through the selective stages of the scheme to reach the final six and publicly pitch what is now a project-in-development, at the festival in June. These are her thoughts about generally pitching a project at Sheffield.
When labouring at the coalface of a development slate, you need as many tools as you can get your hands on to excavate those elusive gems that are eye-catching enough to catch the eye of a commissioning editor. During a Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 session Dan Biddle (@DanBiddle), Twitter UK's Head of Broadcast Partnerships, explained how producers can mine Twitter for breaking news stories, research, audience collaboration and marketing. As you might expect of a digital platform, Twitter is all about the metrics, and has a host of audience user data that reveals information about Twitter users' lives. For example, mentions of shopping indicate that Sunday is the biggest day for heading to the shops in the UK and more people go for (or talk about going for) a run on a Monday and Tuesday than they do at the end of the week, when the pub beckons. But how does this help us in development? (Photo (C) TVMole)
Many documentary festivals have a market or forum attached where filmmakers are able to pitch their ideas to an assembled panel of potential broadcasters or other funders, often in front of an audience. Power to the Pixel is a similar forum that is dedicated to the development and funding of cross-media projects such as the interactive documentaries A Short History of the Highrise and Alma: A History of Violence. At Power to the Pixel 2014, eight projects were pitched in the Finance Forum: Block Seven (pictured); The Flickering Flame (a Ken Loach biopic that won the €6,000 ARTE International Prize); The Infinity Engine; My Enemy, My Brother; How to Kill Uffie; On Screen Off Record; Urbance and Loving Long-Distance. Although the assembled commissioning editors and digital content executives were briefed to offer advice on where the producers of each project might go for finance, inevitably there were questions about the structure, content and viability of projects. Here is a round up of the most common concerns and suggestions that may help you better develop your own interactive content.
If you are lucky, you will have established, built and nurtured relationships with the people in power long before you need to ask them for money; maybe they've been tracking your career for a number of years and are receptive to discussing your new projects in a collaborative and supportive way. But more likely, you'll find yourself a situation where you are forced to pitch cold to someone who has never heard of you, who doesn't know your work and has never heard of your project. That's intimidating enough, but then you'll find that you have to do this to a panel of people you've never met, and in front of an audience of up to 200 of your peers. And once you've pitched under the bright lights of the auditorium, you have to stand there while they deliver their equally public assessment of your project. Panels generally respond well to the following elements being in evidence in the project and expressed via the pitch. (Photo (C) TVMole)
Industry intelligence, how-to articles and international pitching and funding opportunities – everything you need to get your factual TV programme commissioned.