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Conferences + Festivals

Doing it in Public: Not Naked, but Definitely Afraid

Stephanie Wessell

Writer/Director Stephanie Wessell

In January 2014, Writer and Director Stephanie Wessell started on Sheffield Doc/Fest’s mentoring scheme, Fast Track To Features. Beginning with a relatively undeveloped idea at the time, she nonetheless progressed through the three selective stages of the scheme to reach the final six and publicly pitch what is now a project-in-development, at the festival in June. These are her thoughts about pitching her documentary/drama feature project in public.

When I was told that I’d been selected to pitch my documentary/drama hybrid in the Fast Track To Features Showcase at Sheffield Doc/Fest, I had what you might call ‘mixed feelings.’

If the Facebook comments from my five fellow pitchers were anything to go by, I wasn’t the only one.  Some were delighted by the opportunity to tell more people about their project, while others expressed simple, uncomplicated terror. I identified with both views, probably landing somewhere between the two.

Whatever my feelings, I was going to have to do it. And I did do it. And what’s more (spoiler alert) I didn’t die and (even bigger spoiler alert) I enjoyed it.

I’m still surprised by that last sentence.

Pitching is a necessary skill, and I’ll continue to learn how to do it over many years, but during this first experience I discovered two major things: pitching, especially in public, is helped greatly by preparation, and practice.

Preparation

The applications for the various stages of the Fast Track To Features scheme required loglines, synopses, teaser films, etc, so I already had the basics of what I needed content-wise (albeit in constantly changing versions, as I continued to develop my ideas about my proposed film). However, a public pitch needed delivery of that information in person – with passion.

The format of the pitch event would allow six minutes for me to describe my project (including a teaser trailer). After that, a panel of top industry professionals would give me six minutes of feedback.

There would be lights. A microphone and a big screen. An audience of eyes and ears assessing what I had to say and – most daunting of all – top industry professionals giving judgment on a project close to my heart. This would be exposure, to a whole new degree, of an idea that until now I had kept largely under wraps. How could I talk for six minutes about something that was still forming in my head?

The answer had to be to just do it, at its current stage, and make clear what that stage was. But how to do that?

One article that really helped me outlines pitching advice given by Danish Producer Sigrid Dyekjær at IDFA 2013. It describes how Sigrid’s directors avoid nailing down the direction of their early-stage films by asking rhetorical questions, showing what they intend to explore. After all, a lot of documentary filmmaking is in the filming itself – a process of discovery on camera. Sigrid also gives some practical tips about presenting, suggests a structure to adopt, and dispels a few fears along the way. Read it, it’s good.

Another great help was a workshop I did as part of the Fast Track To Features scheme, given by international pitch trainer Christina Burnett of Wide Eye Pictures. Over the course of a one-day workshop, Christina knocked us into shape… not by using a one-size-fits-all approach, but by tuning into each pitcher’s own individual style and project. The take-home for me was that everyone should pitch differently because every individual and project is different, BUT they should still get across the points that help listeners to understand the film proposal in the simplest and most obvious way.

FTTFGroup

Fast Track to Features 2014 participants

Later, those of us on stage 2 of the FTTF scheme pitched to industry professionals and received feedback on our techniques. We had five minutes each, but it took a whole day to get through all twenty of us! What a day. Soaking up the pitches of twenty peers, as well as the advice given to them, was a great way to make us feel more familiar and at ease, and to recognize that just as projects come in all kinds of shapes and subjects, so do pitches. As in other potentially stressful situations, the more I witnessed others pitching, the less scary it seemed to become.

So, fully armed with as much advice and knowledge as I could glean from these sources and other supportive filmmaking friends and mentors, I got down to writing.

And rewriting. More on that coming up…

Practice

I practiced to the mirror. I practiced to my computer, recording myself and playing it back. I practiced to friends, both in the industry and out. And I got some wonderful advice, and steers, and a growing confidence in what I was saying… which in turn made me present more confidently.

And after each practice I tweaked the content.

Sifting through listeners’ good advice about my practice pitch was actually one of the hardest things about preparing for the pitch. The advice was all very good, but challenging and often conflicting. Which aspect of this complicated proposal should I concentrate on? How could I fit everything I was advised to say about it into just six minutes? I spent hours, days, and weeks fretting that I hadn’t included everyone’s advice.

But then I began looking on these advice sessions as tests of the strength of my idea, and my portrayal of it. Were the listeners getting the right idea about it? Which bits were they most excited by and what captured their attention? It was great for focusing my project. I also learnt to be selective about the advice, and trust my own vision. After all, I had got to this stage, and I knew my project better than anyone.

My conclusion? A good pitch should raise awareness and pique interest. It shouldn’t tell all, just get across the salient story and characters, and leave them wanting to know more.  My pitch wouldn’t be written in stone – my project would be allowed to change. I should trust myself more.

But I should still practice.

The Day

Photo by Jacqui Bellamy courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest

Wellcome Trust Pitch 2014  (Photo by Jacqui Bellamy courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest)

Sheffield Doc/Fest being Sheffield Doc/Fest, the public pitch wasn’t actually as scary as I imagined.

This is such a friendly, supportive festival. Yes, the feared microphone, big lights and big screen were there, along with the audience and distinguished panel of experts. And yes, we all felt nervous.

But the staff involved with Fast Track To Features had trained us well, and we were prepared. There was no prize money at stake, and the vibe was good. Everyone was there to support us and hear about our projects, and we felt proud to be selected… even if we were about to put our babies in the firing line.

My five fellow pitchers delivered great pitches about their wonderful films. I was struck all over again by how diverse the documentary format can be. They did fantastic jobs.

Then it was me. I stood up, took my position under the lights, and delivered my pitch.

I’d rehearsed so much it felt like second nature to speak the words. And it all went so quickly that I wondered afterwards if I had missed anything out (I hadn’t). After all the worry I felt in the run-up to these important six minutes, my overriding impression of that small amount of time was: was that it?

And then came the feedback. It was very to-the-point, which was quite a shock, after others’ more friendly advice during my practices. But still, positive comments were mixed with the negative, and I actually appreciated the directness. This was good learning.

I had already asked a friend to scribble down the panel’s feedback for me, so that I could concentrate on hearing what they had to say. I listened carefully, replying immediately to some of the panel’s questions when prompted, but not others. We had been advised to get as much advice out of our six minutes of panel response as we could, rather than waste valuable feedback time replying at length to questions we could deal with later. This tactic might also save a pitcher from appearing defensive: never a good look!

The panel gave their impressions of what they believed to be the heart of my story, advising how I might simplify and strengthen it. They also offered ideas about who to contact with it. It was good, intelligent stuff, and I was very grateful for it.

And then it was over.

I went back to my seat with the other pitchers, the winner was announced (well done and well-deserved, Rebecca Brand!), and then we all went to enjoy the rest of the festival. And boy, did I dance with such manic relief at the festival party that night…!

Weeks later, I can still honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed giving a public pitch. I feel more confident in presenting my ideas, and will be more at ease giving pitches in the future. Now, many more people know about my idea, which can only be a good thing for raising its profile as I continue to develop it, and myself. To have five industry people at the top of their game listen and advise openly, critically and honestly about my film idea was a gift, and so very, very useful.

And of course, to not die was amazing. Thanks Sheffield Doc/Fest, for asking me to do it in public.

 

 

 

 

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