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Against All the Odds: The Curious Case of the Man Who Got His Idea on TV Despite No Industry Contacts

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At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013, a panel (produced by Sharron Ward of Katalyst Productions) discussed the thorny issue of what to do when you’ve got a great idea for a documentary, but don’t have the channel contacts to get it commissioned. Jes Wilkins, Head of Programmes at London-based Firecracker Films presented a case study that proves that it can  be possible to secure a commission without a track record, but underlines the fact that there are no short cuts.

Some time ago,  Jes  was approached by Nick Sweeney who was an NYC-based  director of fashion videos but effectively an industry outsider with no TV background.  He had an idea for  a feature-length documentary on female body builders called Iron Maidens that was a good fit for the kind of films that Firecracker makes –  “attention-grabbing, talked about content with our brand of bold and stylish film-making” –  such as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Babies Behind Bars, Dad’s Having a Baby and The Man With the 10-Stone Testicles.

Nick had shot and sent a short taster to Jes that  proved that he had a good angle on the subject and had a talent for directing.  A taster tape is crucial when pitching to channels, and now indies are also expecting something on tape from individuals who are pitching them ideas, especially if those ideas are dependent on characters and/or access; a paper pitch just isn’t enough.

Iron Maidens (Preview) from Nick Sweeney on Vimeo.

Jes could see the potential in Nick and  liked the idea  enough to start pitching the documentary round the channels in the UK. Channel 4’s First Cut strand (which has a remit to commission films from new directors) showed early interest, but as the strand is aimed specifically at helping emerging UK talent, Nick,  an Aussie living in NYC, didn’t qualify. (Iron Maidens was later picked up by Melbourne-based Princess Pictures).

Undaunted the two kept in touch and over the coming months Nick sent Jes a couple more ideas, which kept the relationship alive. Then Nick got in touch with an access-driven idea that completely matched Firecracker’s slate of films about extraordinary subcultures.

Nick’s idea was to follow a  family business that had turned around its fortunes by manufacturing a product aimed at a very niche market. It had great characters, a headline-grabbing subject and tapped into the current US success of reality series about family-run businesses. Suddenly they weren’t looking at a one-off film but a potentially long-running, returnable series. This is the Holy Grail of development – and a model that Firecracker had previously stumbled on with the unexpected hit one-off Cutting Edge documentary Big Fat Gypsy Weddings that turned into a global brand.

So with some perseverance, an eye for a good story, a good knowledge of the production landscape Nick eventually got his idea for a documentary- Men in Rubber Masks – off the ground with Firecracker Films – and throughout all of this Jes and Nick have yet to meet in person!

So, how can you replicate Nick’s success?

  1. Know the market and pounce on ideas that fit the zeitgeist
  2. Be prepared to invest in shooting something, especially if you want to direct – iPhone footage is fine to start with
  3. Research production companies that have a similar style/ethos to you and your proposed film/TV show
  4. Be resourceful – Nick kept sending emails to every email address permutation he could think of for Jes until they stopped bouncing back
  5. Your first idea should not be your only idea – don’t be deterred by rejection
  6. Keep the relationship warm with regular contact
  7. Don’t give up!

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