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Developing Factual Ideas

Pitching Tips For the Terrified From Danish Producer Sigrid Dyekjær

Sigrid Dyekjær on the left (Photo (C) TVMole)

Sigrid Dyekjær (Left) -Photo (C) TVMole

You can learn how to pitch; you don’t have to love it, but you do have to do it.” – Sigrid Dyekjær

If you are planning to pitch your documentary to funders you’ll no doubt spend much time on displacement activities such as dusting and doing the washing up rather than knuckling down and actually preparing your pitch. Nobody likes pitching; it’s an uncomfortable, exposing and potentially embarrassing experience – especially if you are unfortunate to be pitching your project at one of the big forums such as Hot Docs in Toronto or  IDFA in Amsterdam. Never been to a forum before? Scroll down to see what that actually looks like (and weep). But if you are going to get your film financed you’ll have to pitch it at some point, there’s no getting out of it so you may as well get used to it.

At IDFA 2013, Danish producer Sigrid Dyekjær came to the rescue with her inspiring pitching tips in a session called The Future of the Art of Pitching.  Sigrid Dyekjær is the founder/co-owner of Danish Documentary Production and was due to pitch some of the projects she used as case studies at the IDFA Forum later in the festival.  You can read the commissioners’ reactions to one of them,  A Modern Man, directed by Eva Mulvad in Realscreen’s forum report. Eva also joined Sigrid onstage for a Q&A during the pitching masterclass. You can also read Indiewire’s assessment of the pitch for Ballroom Dancer in which Sigrid was supporting first-time forum pitchers directors Christian Rasmus Bonke and Andreas Koefoed.


Sigrid hates to develop a film on paper prior to shooting anything, so her method of developing documentaries is to send her directors out with a camera to find stories; she said that she’d rather give her directors cameras than computers. The directors are given the space and time (often up to a year) to find the film ‘in the camera’ before they make the decision whether to pursue the project and turn their rushes into a pilot (pitch tape). “We don’t want a funder to say “can you make this film?’ WE decide if we are doing the film, not the financiers, so we just start making the film, and then during the finance and development phase, conversations during pitching are helpful in focusing and developing the film.”

Pitching is not magical – it’s a practical tool

Once they have worked out their vision they then work hard on learning how to convey that vision to other people, funders in the first instance. The trouble is that directors are often not used to articulating their vision and resist having to do so. However, like it or not, as a director you will have to talk about your project to various people in order to get it made: funders, people who you want to film, crew and ultimately the audience. In order to help the director find the right words to describe their film, Sigrid brings PR Agent Freddy Neumann on board early in the development process.

Freddy’s job is to help the team agree on a unified way of talking about the film:  “It’s a challenge to find the right words to use to describe the project – from pitching to publicity you need a coherent message for all team members in order to build the brand of the film.” When you choose the words for your pitch you are also starting your marketing campaign.
Freddy starts by asking the team some challenging questions:

  • Why should I watch this film?
  • Why bother me with your film?
  • Why bother the audience with this film?

He’s always looking for the elements that make the story unique and words to describe it that the audience will connect to. “If this pitch is identical to another I’ve seen it won’t start the branding process.” You’ll need slightly different pitches for different audience, but all must contain the essential core of your film. Once the team has decided on the words, they will present a united front whenever they talk about the film.

The Pitch

Photo courtesy of IDFA

IDFA Forum pitch  – Photo courtesy of IDFA

It’s important for someone, usually Sigrid as she’s the producer, to take responsibility for preparing the pitch (to avoid those diversionary tactics). In a formal forum-style pitch, the producer will typically sit alongside the director at the table, perhaps with a TV commissioning editor if they are backing the project and looking for co-production partners. When prepping you need to think about who you are pitching to and how many people there will be; a pitch to someone you want to film will be more informal and intimate than pitching to 200 people at a forum, which will necessarily need to be more formal and polished, not least because you are usually limited to a seven-minute slot, including your pitch tape, so you need to make the most of the limited amount of time you have available to you. Remember too, that the people sitting around the table will each have their own individual agenda and will be looking for different things from your pitch so don’t be surprised if the reactions you get are mixed; it might just be that the film is not yet at the right stage to appeal to some of the people who might eventually want to buy in to your project. And those people in the audience might also be potential funders, even though they don’t have a seat, or voice, at the table, so it’s vital to think about how you can engage them too.

In order to pitch effectively, Sigrid says you need to think about the right words, word by word, and then plan the actual presentation. Once your pitch has been written and practiced until it’s perfect, not only in the words you say, but the way  you say them – you need to find the emotions in your pitch and use them to hook in the audience. She usually starts off serious, introduces some humour or intrigue to get them curious, and then reassures them by anticipating and addressing some of the concerns that the buyers might have e.g. delivery date.

Sigrid’s seven-minute pitch format is:

1. Producer: short introduction to the project and the director

  • It’s a story about Who, What, Why, Where and When.
  • Why it’s interesting / relevant / timely e.g. “they will be the first amateurs to go into space”
  • Overview of the themes “an instruction in how to make dreams come true”
  • Make the tone of the pitch match the film eg. funny or serious

2. Director: short description of the story

  • Characters – detail about their personality and the conflict between them
  • What the characters mean to the director
  • What is interesting in their personalities e.g. archetypes

3. Two-three minute pitch tape

  • “Here you will meet the characters and see what they are struggling with”

4. Producer: conclusion

  • Update the story to date, and what is happening now/is likely to happen  e.g. “we are going into production next month…. we expect to deliver by the end of next year”
  • The ‘ask’ e.g. “we are looking for development funding/completion funds etc…”

She described the perfect pitch as being like a fish:

  • the introduction is the nose
  • the body of the pitch is the film’s narrative
  • the tail slaps them with something interesting at the end

Pitching is, she says, a form of performance art. The professional person – you the director  – needs to be confident when pitching even if the ‘private you’ has self doubts. The trick is to steer a course somewhere between the professional – confident and business-like – and the personal – friendly and charming – in order to engage the audience. Be too self-conscious though and you could come across as cold and impersonal rather than professional or defensive and paranoid instead of personal. Remember that you are playing a role; any criticism is not personal, so stay objective as you listen to peoples’ reactions to your pitch.

You always learn something new about the film every time you pitch

Eva Mulvad, a director who works with Sigrid has been pitching for a year and, she says, it’s getting better and better. Although at first resistant, she now sees pitching as a creative opportunity to get to know the project better, to learn the good parts of the project and discover the problems that will need to be faced in the edit.  She’s found that talking about the film is a good way to get in touch with the creative side of  her films, whereas she used to worry that doing so would make the film ‘squarish’ as too many people’s opinions boxed it in. She’s also realised that although she isn’t really interested in the ‘selling’ part of her job, being able to pitch is essential if you want money for a longer edit, nice music and a good colourist etc. Being able to pitch well enhances your film and what the audience will see on screen; it allows you to do your very best work.

Eva’s main issue with pitching is that she’s uncomfortable selling something that she doesn’t yet know how/if it will happen, but a trick she uses is to pose questions rather than promise certainties. e.g. Will they get kicked out? Will she get a job? You just have to get the fantasy going for the buyer. Sigrid advises sticking to talking to what you do know about the film as much as possible and stay away from what you don’t yet know.

Performing the pitch

Sigrid employs the services of an opera singer to help her directors learn how to use their bodies to pitch more effectively, techniques such as grounding the feet, breathing and yoga exercises; you should stand solidly, breathe slowly (or just breathe!), project your voice from your diaphragm, use appropriate pacing and tone, and move your attention to all parts of the room as you speak. You need to bring the energy to the room because the audience will likely be exhausted from listening intently to back-to-back pitches.

Watch social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body language to see how you can change your non verbal communication so that you are projecting a positive image:


After the pitch

Once your pitch is over it’s very tempting to relax and tune out, but it’s vital that you stay alert as pitching is as much (if not more) about listening as talking. Typically in a forum pitch there will be a ten minute feedback session from the assembled buyers. This is an opportunity for them to say what they liked, or didn’t like, about the project and to express any concerns. Sigrid warned that you shouldn’t be defensive and dismiss people’s concerns as that will just give them a reason to say no. Also, when in a formal time-limited pitch don’t talk back to them, answer their questions or engage in a discussion as you want to get everyone around the table to give their reaction, and ideally commit to supporting your project. If you get involved in a dialogue with one funder you are wasting valuable time and diminishes  your chance of getting money. Just say “we can have a one-on-one to talk about this afterwards” – if you answer their questions or get engaged in a discussion as it wastes your 10 minutes and diminishes your chance of getting money.


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