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What the Commissioning Editors Said at IDFA 2012 – Plus ça change

IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) is, besides being a great place to watch a wide range of documentaries, one of the key places where filmmakers can pitch their films to buyers from around the world.

There are a number of ways to do this, via one-on-one meetings (whether privately arranged, brokered via the festival team or the unexpected encounter where you are asked about your project on the fly – as I write this in the festival cafe someone is pitching to HBO Europe on the next table), via The Forum (where you pitch in front of a large industry audience), or in the more intimate round table format. Each situation presents its own pitching challenges but the commissioning editors’ responses more often than not remain broadly similar.

Forewarned is forearmed, so if you know what issues preoccupy the buyers  you can preempt them and make sure that you develop your project in a way that will give it the best chance of survival in the sometimes brutal gladiatorial arena of the pitch forum.

This morning I watched three round table pitches moderated by Rudy Buttignol (CEO, Knowledge Network, British Columbia): Back to the Square, Crossing the Baring Strait and White Elephants. The projects were very different in terms of subject and approach, but the feedback was remarkably consistent from all the commissioners around the table (who changed from pitch to pitch and represented broadcasters across Europe, Asia and North America). Their concerns can be distilled into the following broad concerns:

  1. Is this a current story? Will it still be current by the time the film is completed, or will it feel outdated?
  2. Does this film update a familiar story in some way? A previously unheard perspective perhaps?
  3. Are there universal themes that audiences on the other side of the world will relate to?
  4. Is the main character strong enough to sustain the narrative?
  5. Will the narrative sustain for 60 or 90 minutes? What happens? More importantly, what will we SEE happening?
  6. Will the film offer the audience any kind of historical or political context?  This is a particular a concern for broadcasters with a specific ‘knowledge-driven’ remit.
All three projects won at least some support from potential founders, with extra points given for pitch tapes that offered humour.
From my personal perspective, each film offered a way into understanding big issues (democracy/sexual equality, geopolitics and economic collapse respectively) through the very focused, personal journeys of ordinary people who are all trying to achieve their dreams in one way or another. And that, in my view, is much better than beating the audience around the head with an ‘important’ subject, so may they all succeed and make it on to the big screen in the not too distant future.





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