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A Pitching Frenzy at Sheffield Doc/Fest

Bucy McDonald and Lisa Salem at 10 x 10 – photo (C) Charlotte Fisher

by Charlotte Fisher, Producer/Director

So I’m back in Sheffield for the 2012 Sheffield Docfest – the Cannes of factual television without the palm trees. There’s so much on that in the first 24 hours I’ve seen three very different but equally inspiring documentaries: The Island President about the Maldives and global warming, Jaywick Escapes which follows some of the characters who have washed up in this declining seaside resort and Lost and Sound about hearing loss and the impact of music on those who are partially or entirely deaf. I’ve been to panel sessions on 30 years of documentaries on Channel 4 and the ethics of funding your documentary and I’ve just come out of a pitching session where the winner gets £10,000 to help fund their documentary. Oh, and although I missed the fantastic opening night film Searching for Sugar Man – I did see him perform live at the opening night party and now I see why everyone was raving about the film.

Virgin pitch

This time last year I came to Sheffield to pitch my own documentary idea. I’d spent the preceding weeks metaphorically biting my nails and pacing up and down, as I prepared for my first proper, and public, pitch. Having worked as a reporter in news and current affairs, for over a decade, I had never had to pitch an idea before. At least not formally in front of a panel of four commissioning editors – oh, and did I mention the church hall of 150 spectators!

Up until that point, pitching meant phoning the editor or head of news, saying I’d like to do a news piece or feature or half hour on…whatever it was… then putting a few lines in an email and waiting for a yes or no. There was no nail-biting as of course you had your day job to worry about – i.e. getting your 2-minute report sorted for 6pm and in fact it was usually a yes – perhaps with a few provisos usually regarding time and money!

But this was something totally different. And it was not something I’d ever imagined doing. I’d discussed an idea with Nicola Lees who as well as being the woman behind TV Mole also runs the mentoring scheme at Women in Film and Television – and she suggested putting it forward to the Grierson pitch at Sheffield in an attempt to win £10,000 of development money. This would then be spent making my taster tape – if I won. I’d never been to Sheffield Docfest before and now I was going to do a live pitch. It all seemed very unlikely and anyway first I had to write a formal documentary proposal. I wasn’t too worried about getting down to the final six who had to pitch, as hundreds of people would be applying who had far more experience than me but I reasoned it would be good practice.

Fast forward to expression of shock, brief pleasure and immediate regrets on receiving the email from Grierson and DFG congratulating me on being chosen as one of six finalists. There was no way out now so I started work on my four minute pitch – to be accompanied by a power point presentation of slides. Guess whether I had needed to do a power point presentation in news or ever before. Nope. This was going to be a challenge on all fronts.

Practice makes perfect?

My friends and colleagues at WFTV got me to practice in front of them while Nicola timed me. In this type of pitch forum if you go over the allotted time the panel will ring a bell and cut you off. This is not considered a good outcome. Nicola also told me I need to do it live from memory, which she reckoned would be no problem as I had been live reporting for years. Thing is with live reporting is – you can’t see the people watching you. And although in TV news the gallery gives you a 30 second and 10 second count – they don’t usually cut you off mid sentence, the producer may just get a little cross afterwards if you run over.

Anyway the DFG/Grierson pitch was three days into the festival which meant plenty of time for worrying. Then I found out I was first on out of the six . My mentor, Will Hanrahan, founder of FirstlookTV, took me for a drink the night before and gave me some final tips . I then spent the day itself timing and re-timing the pitch, flicking between my slides which were actually very useful as visual cues for keeping the pitch going as I had no cards or text to fall back on.

Power play

When I arrived at the Chapel – one of the 15 venues at Sheffield – I overheard one of the finalists tell another finalist that the last time he pitched this idea in competition he had won. I found this a little off-putting, but then another finalist ran in with minutes to spare having driven direct from the north of Scotland. She was incredibly nervous and my own nerves vanished as I tried to let her know what was had missed. Then I was on.

Amazingly I did my pitch to time; the PowerPoint went as seamlessly as if I’d spent my life in conference halls; my mentor gave me an encouraging smile and I felt it had gone as well as could be expected. Then the panel started asking their questions . I was prepared to describe the technical aspects of 3D filming, stereoscopy, depth perception and parallax, the type of cameras we would use, the cost of 3D filming and so on. So I was relieved when I was asked about access. This was not complicated to explain and I had the access.

“How long have you spent with these women,” I was asked?

Oh a couple of days I said happily – after all in news I’d normally have about 20 minutes over coffee, to warm someone up before filming them cleaning their teeth and then doing a 15 minute interview.

My smile disappeared fairly quickly. My mentor looked worried. This was perhaps not the right answer- although it was the truth. The questions that followed were straight forward although there was a suggestion that my 3D project was too ambitious and that maybe the timing wasn’t right.

I then sat down and listened to the other five pitches. None of them pitched from memory – all used their laptops or cards as reminders. Note to self: doing it this way would massively reduce my stress levels – although it may have looked more convincing just talking to the audience or the panel – I don’t know. But more importantly perhaps the others were the kind of projects that were likely to bring tears to people’s eyes. Ironically the kind of projects I would normally be wanting to make myself, but I had wanted to do something more quirky for a change. But when one of the pitches actually did make one of the panelists cry, I knew I could not win. And as one man explained how he had already spent months filming with his subject – who was also his brother – I also understood very clearly that spending two days with my girls was not going to cut it.

This year though I was able to watch people pitching in an objective way – I was not worrying about my own project and I could see what works and what doesn’t. I watched the 10×10 session run by DFG which gives preselected filmmakers the chance to show a 10 minute trailer or pitch tape – and then get 10 minutes of feedback from the audience. There was huge variety in the projects being screened and it again showed how many great stories there are out there waiting to be told – and how many talented people wanting to tell them. The feedback all seemed very constructive and this seemed like a great opportunity for people wanted to improve their taster tapes.

A thrilling sort of spectator sport

I also decided to go back to the Chapel – the venue I had pitched in for the Grierson Trust award – and watch the ” Women mean Business” pitch backed by Worldview and the Community Channel. Six filmmakers had been shortlisted to pitch an idea for a short film telling a positive story of women in business in the developing world. They had three minutes each, followed by some questions from the panel – and the winner would get £10,000 to make their short.

There were some incredible stories about a woman in Afghanistan who had set up a furniture manufacturing factory; a former prostitute in Uganda who with one sewing machine has set up a boutique employing other former prostitutes to keep them off the game; a midwife on a motorbike in Ghana, and a team of women clearing landmines in Cambodia.

The panel made it clear by their questions they were looking for strong characters, characters who developed; a narrative arc and jeopardy. In the end they chose the pitch from the youngest filmmaker amongst the finalists, who is an MA student at Falmouth College. Emma Fry has had not yet met her subjects face-to-face (the female Cambodian landmine team) but the panel felt her pitch showed there was plenty of room for development, plenty of jeopardy as these women risk their lives daily and that her pitch answered all their questions and was ” clear and organised”.

Afterwards Emma was clearly surprised but delighted she had won – not least because she had cancelled her £600 plane ticket to Cambodia to start filming her student project so she could come to Sheffield: “I felt very strongly about my story. I did really believe in it. I practised so much but I was very nervous. I wanted it so badly, but I was up against a lot of documentary professionals so I didn’t think I would be able to win. I really just came along to meet people.I had to do a 10 min pitch for my tutors for my masters degree, but that’s very formulaic . You break it down into characters, access, safety etc. So I thought I would use the best bits of that. If I was listening I would want to know exactly what was happening in a short a time as possible, getting across the passion without getting ahead of yourself.”

Ruth Carslaw, a friend who was pitching at Sheffield this year for the second time told me she had learned a lot from the experience:

“I love the story and the characters and I loved the pitch, I enjoyed it today more than last time. It was a nice atmosphere. Talking to each other beforehand. Everyone said the same thing, just enjoy it. But if I’m thinking about ways to improve I’ve learned from really listening to other people’s pitches. If you are going to pitch, really go and listen to other people. Apart from that it’s all about preparation. Preparing and feeling calm before you start. ”

Now I’ve watched and learned, perhaps I’m ready to go back in 2013 and put my new found knowledge to the test. But most of what I got from Sheffield this year was inspiration and a reminder why I have worked in TV for 15 years and that I still want to share other people’s stories.



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