Much has been said about the content of a pitch: title, length, character, etc. But does anyone wonder why some pitches hit home and others fall flat even when talking about similar films?
Such were the concerns of the Scottish Documentary Institute when they invited me to Edinburgh to teach a workshop on trailers followed by a second day of one-on-one discussions with the filmmakers. Their generous programme “Bridging The Gap” trains 12 pre-selected documentarians, out of which the seven winning pitches will have their short fully financed.
The stakes were as high as the imposing Castle Rock, which we could see from our conference room. Each project gave us a chance to explore one of the four linguistic devices used to start a pitch that trigger puzzlement and/or intrigue and consequently generate a question or further interest in the listener.
These devices are: shock/humor, perspective/universality, contrast, and unresolved statement. Shock/humor is easy to understand: a single sentence can convey shocking information or make us laugh. Shock and humor share a category because they provoke an immediate visceral response. Richard Simpson had a chance to use this technique in May the Faith Be with You, a story of two brothers who founded a new religion based on the film character Yoda and the teachings of Star Wars. Many openings were equally suitable.
Perspective/universality is used when a story can benefit from being put into a bigger spatial or temporal context in order to emphasize its importance or scope. This strategy worked well for Jane McAllister in pitching Mr. Scott: A Maker of Sporrans. In her first draft she tried: “The ultimate Scottish souvenir today is quite often made in India. Mr. Scott is one of the few remaining traditional manufacturers living in Scotland.” This is more enticing than just saying Mr. Scott makes sporrans and is an angry yet loving man.
Contrast in an opening brings together two clashing ideas: since they can’t be reconciled in our minds, they create curiosity. This was useful for Johanna Wagner’s portrait of her father, who can’t live in the present unless he’s fully immersed in the past, surrounded by precious photographs and with old radio programs blasting in every room.
Finally, an unresolved statement is the type of opening that by all appearances seems to clearly state something yet offers more questions than answers. In his doc The Space You Leave Behind, about the everyday life and rituals of runaway teenagers’ parents, James Newton had a unique chance at this technique: “For the past 20 years, every night before going to bed, 84-year-old Tim leaves a handwritten note on his door addressed to his son.” One immediately wonders, Why? What does the note say?
Some docs can use different techniques equally well. Some have only one way to capture someone’s imagination. And that’s just the beginning. Then you need an even more enticing closing statement. But that’s in Part 2 next week.
Conclusion: A good pitch opening tickles the brain and quickens the tongue. Nothing beats a funder or investor eager to speak after you pitch.
Internationally renowned author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers including the Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy. In addition to private consultations, lectures, and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. Ms. Rossi shares her knowledge and research of story structure and the creative process in columns and articles in trade publications. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.
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Article by Fernanda Rossi • edited by Marcia Scott • photo by Tania Retchisky
Fernanda Rossi, 2008. All rights reserved. This article can be reprinted in its entirety for educational purposes only, as long as no charges of any kind are made. Partial reproductions or modifications to the original format are strictly prohibited.
Get more development and pitching tips in Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch
Find out how to make a compelling trailer in Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making Your Documentary Fundraising Trailer