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Alternative Funding

Where to Pitch Your Idea (and Avoid the Commissioners)


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Pitching is a bitch. Especially when you are just starting out. There seem to be so many different channels, all of them with closed doors.

But do you actually need to pitch your idea to a TV channel? No. It depends on  your motives for pitching. You might think that the only reason to pitch your ideas is to sell them, but depending where you are in your career, there may be different reasons for pitching, and cleverer ways of pitching.

First you need to know your desired outcome. Are you trying to get your foot on the first rung of the production ladder? Or are you an experienced producer trying to get your idea onscreen? Depending on your answer, you have a number of different choices:

1.    Production companies

This is your best option if you have no, or limited, production experience. No commissioner will take a chance on someone with unproven production ability. Get around that by partnering with an established independent production company.

Look at the credits of programmes you like and that are similar to yours and take a note of the production company. Do more research on their website. Call them and ask to speak to the head of development and ask if they would be willing to take a look at your idea (not all companies accept ideas from outside). If they are, arrange a meeting to discuss. Confirm it in writing, so you have a paper trail of who you’ve spoken to. Prepare your pitch and be clear what you are asking for:

  • Are you asking to partner with you to help you pitch to a TV Channel?
  • Do you want to produce/direct it  (and is that reasonable, considering your background and experience)?
  • Would you be willing to sell it for a format fee?

Alternatively, having good ideas is a great way to get your first job in TV. If that’s the case, research the companies you’d like to work for (what kind of programmes do you enjoy watching/do you want to make?) and approach them to ask if you can have  meeting. Take along a few ideas to discuss. Again, make sure you know what you want:

  • Are you essentially building a relationship with them so they remember you when a job comes up?
  • If they love your idea and want to develop it further, what do you want? A format fee? Or the chance to work on the production (which might be more lucrative both in terms of money and connections)?

Pros –  You will get taken seriously by channel (if you partner with the right people). You can piggyback on their production experience and commissioner relationships.

Cons – You might lose control of your idea. You need to negotiate your involvement.

2.    Mainstream TV Channels

This is the most obvious route to take, but also the most difficult. Commissioners like to work with people they know, and they’ve often built those relationships over many years. While it’s very difficult to get a commission from a large broadcaster (that still holds true if you have a long track record – even Simon Cowell has suffered his share of rejection), smaller channels can be more open. Some, particularly if you are in the USA, might be willing to take a meeting with you, and then worry about who’s going to produce it later.

Another way to get in is to watch out for new commissioners. They are just setting out and are looking to build new relationships (as they can’t muscle in on the bigger indie players,  who might not want to produce shows for a smaller channel).  Get in early, and open a dialogue – but don’t expect things to happen overnight. Think hare rather than tortoise.

Pros – If a channel knows it’s your idea, you are more likely to stay attached to your idea (rather than using an indie as a middleman). If the channel like your idea – and you – they might consider partnering  you with with a producer or indie they know and trust. You might get development money to work up your idea further. And, once you’ve got the greenlight, a production budget. Your programme will also have a guaranteed audience.

Cons – It is difficult to get a meeting, and once you’ve done a deal they want editorial control.

Check out the channels’ commissioning websites for more information.

Photo by iboy_daniel

Photo by iboy_daniel

3.    Smaller channels

Smaller, younger, more niche channels tend to be more open to new talent and are likely to be geared up to support new filmmakers. For example, Channel 4’s First Cut strand is all about giving new directors their first break. Be warned though, they still expect you to have a considerable amount of production experience, probably by having worked your way through the ranks as a runner/researcher/assistant producer.

Current.tv does accept brand new directors – when you upload your short film to their website it will become apparent whether you can tell a story. Films (or ‘pods’) that are popular with online users are considered for TV transmission. But you can also pitch your idea before you’ve shot anything. If they like it, but are concerned about your production skills, they will partner you with a more experienced producer/director.

Pros –  You are in control of your film (or as much as you can be when you are making a film for a channel). You will be given a production budget and you have a guaranteed audience for your work. It can be a good springboard for getting noticed, and you start building relationships with people who might move onto larger channels (keep them onside!).

Cons – The smaller channels have less money, short or limited slots in the schedule, and smaller audiences. You are constrained by their very specific brief – for example, you might only be able to pitch 5-8 minute films, or one-off documentaries or programmes on a specific topic.

4. Conferences and Festivals

Numerous film festivals and conferences have sprung up, and many of them are geared up for pitching, either formally or informally. They are a great place for making contacts, but you do need to plan ahead and be organised if you are going to make the best use of your time. Each festival is different, but they are likely to have one or more of the following pitching opportunities:

  • Formal ‘meet market’ type pitching sessions, one-on-one sessions for which you have to apply for slots.
  • Pitch briefings – where channel execs brief producers on their current priorities – not pitch sessions as such, but you might be able to get a couple of minutes with them and get their card at the end of the session.
  • Speed Pitching – you have 3 minutes, or so, to pitch your idea before the bell goes.
  • Pre-arranged meetings – you have to be on the ball and approach channel executives’ PAs well in advance of the conference to try to get a slot in their schedule.
  • Informal  meetings –  you might be lucky enough to bump into them in the bar or the lift – use the opportunity to introduce yourself and get their card. Don’t pitch in the bar.
  • Pitch competitions – there is usually a sadistic session where hopeful producers are invited onstage in front of hundreds of other attendees to pitch to a panel.
Photo by marharepa

Photo by maharepa

Pros – There are lots of opportunities for entering pitch competitions, meeting commissioners, hearing them speak, and building relationships. You can at least be in the same room as a commissioner. And you can also approach some of the many international buyers.

Cons – Festivals and conferences are hard work and it is very competitive. Some are better run than others, and there have been rumours circulating that you have to know someone on the festival panel to get a screening slot. The same might hold true for pitching slots (but don’t let that stop you). Your idea might not get picked up (but you knew that, right?). It can be expensive to attend, and it’s exhausting. Do your homework to make sure you are going to the right festivals for your type of show (it’s no good taking a reality show idea to a documentary festival, and vice versa).

Plan your attack with the International Conference and Festival schedule

5.    Grant funding

There are many foundations and grants who have money they want to spend on developing and producing films (usually documenataries with some kind of educational slant). But find the right one and you are relieved of having to knock on TV commissioners’ doors.

Pros – There are a lot of people who want to fund films, and you are likely to find a funding partner who shares your ethos.

Cons – It can be difficult, and time consuming to track down the grant-makers and fill in their application forms. Each grant foundation will have very specific criteria, which means it is easy to see if your film will be a good fit, but it does mean you really need to tailor your applications to each individual foundation.  They might have run out of money for the current year. They are unlikely to give you the full amount you need, so you will have to piece together funding from different sources. The more people you have involved in funding your film, the more politics there will be. You won’t get your reality series funded.

6.    Online

With the advent of online video sites and blogging, a growing number of filmmakers are circumventing traditional funding routes. If you can screen your film online, you don’t need to ask a TV channel to invest in y0ur film. Unfortunately, you do still have to find the money to make it, but people are doing that online too, with various funding models, including:

  • Crowd funding – you can invite people to donate, via your blog on which you have uploaded a trailer and details of your project, to help you make the project.  Swarm of Angels and IndieGoGo are examples. The Age of Stupid was crowd-funded by 223 donors who raised £450,000.
  • Maxing out your credit cards – you don’t need me to tell you that’s a bad idea, do you?
  • Fundraising parties.

Pros – You have complete control over your film, and you retain the distribution rights and profits.

Cons – You have to do it all – raise the money,  make the film, run the website, do the marketing, create a viral buzz. And after all that there’s no guaranteed anyone will actually see your lovingly-crafted film. Which means there are no profits. Nada.

Thinking laterally, and knowing that you have several pitching options,  helps you keep the faith when it seems almost impossible to get anyone to listen to you. Write down what your dream outcome would be, and then, from the above list, write down a list of the steps you can take to make it happen. Remember, there’s nothing to stop you combining two or more methods – fortune favours the flexible. (As does yoga, which you might need to help you unknot your shoulder muscles should all else fail.)

Photo by Evil Erin

Photo by Evil Erin

Get more pitching and funding insights in Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot! Finance Your Factual TV/Film Project.


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