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What Happens When You Pitch Your Documentary in Front of 300 People?


 publiek by Kennisland (CC SA BY)

publiek by Kennisland (CC SA BY)

Every November documentary filmmakers from around the world get the opportunity to pitch their projects to commissioning editors from international television stations and other financiers at IDFA’s international co-finance and production market, the IDFA Forum. In 2014, a total of 50 projects were selected, including new projects by Heddy Honigmann, Janus Metz and Vitaly Mansky. The projects were pitched in a variety of settings: the central pitches in the main auditorium of the Compagnietheater (which features around 20 projects that already have 25-75% funding in place), the round table pitches in the small auditorium, and individual, one-on-one conversations with prospective financiers.

Most of the selected projects come from Europe, but a total of 20 different countries are represented at the Forum, from China to Japan and Chile and beyond. The projects cover a range of subjects and styles, including observational, investigative, historical, social and human interest documentaries.

As well as having the chance to pick up completion finance at the forum, 90% of the projects pitched at IDFA go on the be produced and a number go on to secure screenings at future IDFA festivals, so for the selected filmmakers the rewards can be high – but so are the stakes if the filmmakers misjudge their audience and get their pitch wrong. This is never more true than of being selected for the prestigious central pitch forum, which takes place in front of an audience of 25 commissioning editors and 300 filmmakers.

The filmmaker teams (usually a producer and director) are supported by a commissioning editor who has already committed to the project, and they have 7 minutes to present their project, during which time they must also screen their pitch tape.

After each pitch, the assembled commissioning editors and other funders are given the opportunity to express their interest/concerns and ask questions about the film. Over the course of several pitches a number of recurring, and sometimes contradictory, themes emerge from the commissioners’ feedback that can be useful to reflect on when planning your own pitch, whether at IDFA or elsewhere. Here are some of the comments from the IDFA Central Pitch in 2014 – although all the comments are project specific there are many insights that are transferable to any documentary in development, and can help you preempt potential objections to your own project:


  • He seems to be presented on a pedestal – is there any dirty laundry?
  • He’s an interesting character –  there is risk taking and arrogance
  • It could be interesting to show the dark side of the kitchen and the contradictions in a man… but what does he want for himself?
  • How are you going to tell the story of each character?
  • If the behaviour of the characters is portrayed as normal that isn’t very exciting for the film – where is the controversy?
  • The characters seem to be at peace with their choice – maybe you can find something that breaks that peace – when it doesn’t work, or someone goes outside the rules
  • I’m intrigued by the complexity of the character – his dark side and the journey to that place

Pitch tape

  • When I read  the proposal it seemed too intellectual, but the tape shows him to be a human being, which is good
  • It is an emotional and cinematic trailer – almost self contained. What other voices will be heard?
  • I identified with the man and see it as an entree into psyche of Iranians today
  • It’s a strong trailer – it reveals a hidden issue in Scandinavia
  • Humans want to break the rules but the people in the trailer are boring – they are not breaking the rules
  • I’m still not clear how film will unfold from seeing the trailer


  • What is the narrative arc?
  • It needs more of a dramatic spark to drive the story
  • It lacks conflict – I’m more interested in a ten year follow up

Comments on the approach

  • The retrospective point of view of a photographer is an interesting approach, as is the use of archive
  • Chronology is not enough e.g. when following characters over a year on an unfolding obs doc something else has to happen
  • As she is no longer around to speak her own words how do we ensure that the words attributed to her are truthful to what she said? If we died, would we mind if someone took our Facebook page and used it to promote an agenda – even if it is a good agenda?
  • You need to say that this is her story, told in her own words from the materials she left behind  – set up the premise so the audience understands the context and doesn’t feel forced into believing that this is what she said. Precedents have been set as long as you remain true to her words
  • I’m curious to see how you are going to use interviews and archive – will there be vérité of the unfolding negotiation process?
  • I need more more detail about the form the film will take as it’s not chronological / 1st person – where will the drama unfold?
  • I love the film’s poetic sensibility
  • There will be difficulties integrating a video game into a documentary. The TV, internet and gaming worlds are all different but this film can connect with all of them and talk about difficult subjects

Confusion about focus of the film

  • Is this a portrait of excellence or is there something else?
  • How will you balance between his achievements and his struggle?
  • This could be an important project, but how will the two stories – a filmmaker who has changed his mind over time and the use of propaganda – work together?
  • Will there be a bigger historical context?
  • If you focus on the Olympic angle, the film could get lost amongst all the Olympics coverage – get it out before then
  • What is the filmmaker’s connection to the story?
  • What in the end do I take away from it beyond seeing nice food and a nice guy who makes it?

Mismatch of pitch to commissioner’s brief

  • There are already lots of food programmes in Italy
  • We already have lots of programming like this on public TV in US
  • Campaign films can be a difficult word for broadcasters who don’t/can’t do campaigns

Lost in translation

  • The chef isn’t famous in Japan
  • This subject is not new or controversial in Denmark
  • This subject has no relevance to a Japanese audience
  • It will be like pushing a ball up a hill to get people around the world to understand the film’s significance outside of Latin America
  • A lot of context would be needed for US audience
  • The story is too away for a Japanese audience – it may work as an acquisition but not a co-production

Commissioner musings on themes and questions they’d like to explore

  • Propaganda, martyrdom and regrets. How can a country persuade young people to go to their deaths as martyrs? It’s resonant today with young people going to Syria influenced by images and the romanticisation of death
  • Regarding the use and misuse of images – how can you interweave the photographer’s story with the historical story and make it understandable to young viewers?
  • You must explain what the Iran/Iraq war was about to give the film context
  • How will the passage of time be handled in the character’s reflections?
  • If it could make reference to what is happening today, it would be interesting to New York Times audience
  • I like the idea of six commandments for polyamory
  • I love idea of finding out what void this phenomenon [Japanese idols] fills – also what happens to the idols when they retire?
  • The most interesting thing is the female POV rather than the male gaze.
  • There is risk of stereotyping but it’s a good way into understanding Japanese culture
  • The idea of innocence combined with loneliness is extraordinary. The men are feeling a part of something. Worth exploring the loneliness aspect as a way of understanding bigger things about society
  • It’s interesting to see what happens in strict societies
  • Not sure if the film will help to understand culture – I would like to hear more about what the women think about the men

 Emotional reaction

  • I feel helpless as a viewer in front of these types of film – how can we help the subjects of the film much earlier? By teenagers it is too late for a documentary outreach approach.
  • I feel motivated by seeing this film
  • It could inspire a range of partners around the table to think about what to do about this?
  • I’m  intrigued by family detective story that reveals secrets
  • It’s an emotional film – I want to see more – interesting to see how games can be used to help other people

Thinking of applying to pitch at a major documentary festival such as IDFA, Sheffield Doc/Fest or HotDocs? Read Pitching Tips for the Terrified From Sigrid Dyekjær  and How to Pitch and Sizzle



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