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Three Good Reasons Not to Pitch Your Documentary Idea

Photo by Dominic's pics CC BY 2.0

Photo by Dominic’s pics CC BY 2.0

Everybody  – well, everybody who went to film school / did media studies at university / fancies themselves as a filmmaker – has a TV or documentary idea that they want to pitch. Nay, MUST pitch, otherwise their life won’t be complete.

I once attended a screenwriting class. I wrote a rom-com; the tutor likened it to A Clockwork Orange. I decided I wasn’t a rom-com screenwriter. However, there was one piece of advice that we were given in class, which has stuck: you need to write at least ten screenplays before you send one out. In other words, you need to take time to learn, and hone, your craft before expecting anyone else to take you seriously.

Commissioning editors commonly complain that they actually hear very few good documentary ideas, and this is probably because people are pitching their projects before they are ready. So here are three good reasons not to pitch your documentary:

  1. You don’t yet have a good story to tell. It’s not enough to have an interest in a subject, however passionate you are about it. You need a proper narrative, with a beginning, middle and end.
  2. You believe that if you make your art, success will follow. It won’t. You need to be half artist and half entrepreneur if anyone is going to a) fund and b) see your film. If you don’t change your mindset, go ahead and make art, but do it for yourself and friends and family.
  3. You refuse to sell out. The advantage of rejecting the system and working as a noble starving artist is that you won’t have to compromise your editorial vision at a funder’s behest.  But maybe the uncomfortable truth is that your work just isn’t good enough to secure funding (and secretly you know that). Seeing as there are some shockingly poor documentaries that have secured funding, that should act as a huge red flag.

So what to do? Educate yourself: find good stories, study storytelling, watch lots of documentaries, attend open pitch forums and acquaint yourself with the basics of proposal writing, budgeting and distribution. And then, only then, when you have an idea for a documentary that tells an important story, that you are prepared to promote and market for months or years, and that has an identifiable audience that will make it attractive to funders, go ahead.

You can see a variety of public pitches at Sheffield Doc/Fest, held annually in June.

Other useful resources:

Greenlit: Developing Your Factual/Reality TV/Idea From Concept to Pitch walks you through the development process and help you understand the TV/documentary landscape.

Trailer Mechanics helps you explore your motivations for making a documentary and help you to start organising the structure of your film, and create a pitch tape that will secure development or production fudning.  You can see Fernanda Rossi in action here, where she explains some of the concepts she outlines in the book.

Give Me the Money and I’ll Shoot! reveals what makes funders, buyers and investors tick so you can tailor your pitch accordingly


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