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I Want to Pitch My Idea, But What’s in it For Me?


Many (OK, all) filmmakers dream of being able to direct the films that they themselves originated. Unfortunately, if you are an inexperienced director – or even an experienced director who isn’t yet a ‘name’ –  it can be hard, if not impossible, to get a commissioning editor or other funder to take you seriously enough to trust you with  thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of their money.

Fortunately, there is a well-established way of overcoming this obstacle: teaming up with a more experienced production partner who already has a track record and level of trust with the necessary decision makers. They lend their name to yours to give you more credibility and offer the funder reassurance that they will supervise the production process and ensure that your project comes in on time and on budget.

However, many new filmmakers worry that partnering with a production company will mean that they will lose control of their project, or even have their idea stolen.

So what’s the reality? What happens to an idea before it’s officially greenlit, and what are the best ways of avoiding the pitfalls? This thorny issue was tackled during a panel produced by Sharron Ward of Katalyst Productions at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013.

Jes Wilkins, Head of Programmes, Firecracker Films said that ideas are the lifeblood of indies – all the more so for small indies who can’t afford a big full-time development team. He pointed out that one of the best ways of climbing the ladder is to have good ideas and indies will want to work with you if you are an ideas person.  Reputable independent production companies will always want to nurture good talent whether they are working in-house or are freelance, and those that have the best idea will be given the most opportunities. It’s not in his best interests to damage a potential long-term relationship with someone who brings him an idea even if it’s not right for him, because their next idea or the one after that might be the one that’s a huge hit.

But…and it’s a big BUT,  most ideas that Jes receives are very poorly targeted. Most ideas are completely the wrong tone for his company (productions include Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Unsafe Sex in the City and The Man With 10-Stone Testicles), and are pitched with sloppily-written cut-and-paste emails that have obviously been sent scatter-gun to dozens of other people. If you can’t be bothered to write a professional email or proposal there’s no reason for the recipient of that email to suppose you have what it takes to direct a professional film.

Jes’s top tips for pitching your idea to a production company are:

  • Make sure your idea is unique: it  takes something extraordinary to get noticed as there are so many  ideas out there
  • Do your research: when thinking about which production companies to pitch to, research which ones already have an existing relationship with the channels that are most relevant to your idea and approach them first
  • Don’t be paranoid: many people have the naive idea that their idea is unique, but lots of people pitch similar ideas at a similar time – it’s just something in the zeitgeist.

The first question that many new filmmakers have when pitching an idea is ‘how much money will I get for it’? John  Farrar, Creative Director, NERD, talked about the realities of doing a deal. He pointed out that directors often have an unrealistic expectation – often wanting to receive 75%-100% of production fee (which is typically 10% of the budget). However, this would mean that the indie would be supplying their expertise and production overheads (production management, legal services etc) for little or no share of the production fee (effectively working for free); add into this the fact that many productions go over budget the risk for the indie is immense.  Small indies – who might be most amenable to taking pitches from outsiders – are in a precarious position financially and whilst filmmakers often want to share in the upside they don’t want to share in the risks of incurring an overspend.

So what can you reasonably expect? John made the following suggestions:

  • Talk: don’t be afraid to innate a conversation with an indie about the type of contract terms you might be able to expect.
  • Walk: don’t forget that any deal is a negotiation so you can push for more, or decide to walk away if you can’t agree terms. Understand that every deal is different.
  • Agree: a good deal would be if you could negotiate
    • A lump sum fee for development
    • Salary whilst working on the production
    • A percentage of any back-end (e.g. foreign sales, format fees etc)
  • Flex:other things can also be subject to a negotiation such as credits and broadcaster approval of key production staff (some broadcasters will only work with directors on their ‘approved’ list).
  • Smile: be realistic and reasonable at all time – you are building long-term relationships.
  • Focus: on finding the best way to tell your story rather than obsessing over the deal;  those relationships that start off being about money are rarely happy and lasting ones.

Elizabeth McIntyre, Head of Production & Development, Factual, Discovery Networks International (W Europe) was also on hand to give a broadcaster’s perspective.

Elizabeth confirmed that it is a long-game and that channels and production companies want to build good relationships with (on and off-screen) talent that will last for many years; they don’t want to destroy a fledgling relationship by treating people badly. However, emerging filmmakers do need to be realistic in their expectations. If you have an idea but aren’t experienced enough to  direct it yourself you can ask to be involved in the production in other ways and to attend the edit so that you can learn about every step of the production process.  Elizabeth also recommended asking to attend the commissioner meetings so that you understand the decision-making process when changes are made to your idea/film.

She stressed that if the decision is taken to give your idea to a more experienced director it’s because  you are not ready to direct a prime-time show, and that this decision has to be taken to protect both the channel and for your own sake.  Being in over your head,  making mistakes and failing in a very visible prime-time slot can be very damaging to your confidence and it can be hard to bounce back. It is, she said, much better to aim your ideas at slots that specifically encourage first-time directors. Alternatively, go for that bigger slot but accept that someone else will have to direct and make the most of getting a different kind of experience on the production. Once you’ve learnt the ropes you can take that experience with you into your next idea.

Elizabeth also recommended turning disappointing rejections into learning opportunities: find out exactly why your idea was rejected and then use that information to adapt your ideas or approach for your next pitch.

Do you have an idea that you want to pitch? You’ll need one of these. Have a TV idea you want to pitch? You’ll need one of these 


Or watch the full panel session:


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