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Trailer Tactics From the IDFAcademy



Every year, in the heart of Amsterdam, the IDFAcademy organises a series of workshops for emerging documentary filmmakers, covering all aspects of production from raising the finance and finding your audience to discussions with veteran and trailblazing directors to masterclasses on aspects of the craft of storytelling. As the Academy runs as part of the IDFA Festival, participants can also attend screenings, networking events and benefit from one-to-one meetings from a variety of industry experts. Some of the projects that started life at the IDFAcademy go on to screen in the main festival; this year, eight films developed at previous IDFAcademy sessions made it onto the big screen at the IDFA festival.

In 2015, 80 filmmakers from 29 different counties took part. The next IDFAcademy runs from 17th – 20th November 2016; accreditation for the Academy opens on 1st July 2016).

Trailers with Integrity

In 2014 they ran The Pitch and Trailer Workshop, which was one of of IDFAcademy’s biggest hits, so it was repeated again in 2015. Mikael Opstrup, Head of Studies at the European Documentary Network,  introduced the principles of pitching, saying that “it’s not about selling, it’s not about lying”.

However as you often only have approximately seven minutes to pitch (particularly in a formal forum format such as IDFA Forum or at HotDocs in Toronto), you don’t have time to talk about all the different elements of your film and how they fit together in a compelling narrative. Instead, you have to find the ‘essence’ of your film and present that. Finding the essence of your project is what takes the most work, and 90% of the effort of pitching should be expended in an intensive process of exploration and synthesis. Danish producer Sigrid Dyekjaer explained this process in detail during a previous IDFA masterclass. Once you have done this work, the pitch will almost take care of itself, as you will understand your project so intimately and instinctively, rather than as a shopping list of characters, themes or scenes that fit together in a complicated jigsaw. Often, one or more of those jigsaw pieces are missing during development – or can be tossed to one side by a critical commissioning editor, so it’s useful to understand your film in a way that allows you to still see the picture even if one or two of the elements are still a work in progress.  But the process of finding the essence of a project is always painful.

Step into Your Film

Editor Jesper Osmund went on to explain what makes a good pitch tape. Obviously having to produce a pitch pilot before you have properly started shooting is frustrating and difficult, but it helps to view it as an opportunity to “meet your film visually” for the first time. There are many ways of doing this so it’s hard to recommend a foolproof blueprint. However, there are two basic types of pitch pilot:

  1. A trailer about the film – that introduces characters, arguments, themes etc.
  2. A trailer trying to ‘be’ the film – that showcases the director’s visual style, or concentrates on showing a scene play out.

“The pitch pilot is the door that makes me step into your film” – Jesper Osmund


During the workshop Jesper offered the following tips when planning what to include in your pitch tape:

  • Focus on what you want to convey
    • Don’t try to incorporate too many elements
    • Don’t make a music video – show your filmmaking skill and the depth of the project rather than set a series of unconnected images to music
  • Think of your pitch tape as one of the building blocks of your pitch, alongside your written synopsis/proposal/treatment and the verbal pitch
    • What does the pitch tape add to the presentation? What does the viewer need to know?
  • Be strategic about the timing of when you introduce the pitch tape
    • Play it too early and your audience might not understand it without hearing the context
    • Play it too late and the verbal pitch can seem too abstract as the  listener can’t visualise the project
  • Introduce your characters in a way that makes the most sense for your project
    • Choose to present  several key characters  as vignettes
    • Choose one character  and a three-act structure within the pitch tape to show their anticipated narrative journey
    • Choose a key scene to illustrate a pivotal/emotionally charged moment in the story – this is more effective than a montage of pretty shots
  • Be bold and address issues of concern
      • If you have made controversial or difficult-to-describe creative decisions, provide the proof of  your concept in your pitch tape e.g.  in Sofia’s Last Ambulance the audience never sees the patients, just the ambulance crew. The filmmakers also didn’t want to use a musical soundtrack; instead they wanted to create soundscape of ambient noise to help illustrate the narrative. Because both of these creative decisions risk raising objections in the the more traditionally-minded commissioning editors they showcased both of these techniques in their pitch tape to show exactly how they would work and, more importantly, how they were effective as storytelling devices.

    Every Face Has a Name

    In this example, Jesper explained that Magnus Gertten, the director of Every Face Has a Name, wanted to make an archive-based documentary but didn’t want it to be a purely historical film filled with anonymous people.  He found some Swedish newsreel from 28th April 1945, which showed holocaust survivors arriving from concentration camps, and embarked on some research to identify some of the people featured.

    Black and white archive of people disembarking from a shop is intercut with people in the present day watching the archive for the first time and giving their personal commentary on what they see culminating in their surprised/shocked reaction as they spot themselves  and family and/or friends on the screen. As they attempt to interpret their own emotions from the expressions they see in the archive, their personal stories of liberation emerge – stories that would have otherwise remained unspoken.

    The pitch trailer takes a character-base approach, and hooks us in with a key emotional moment, but doesn’t explain what the longer narrative will be over the course of the film – this would have to be done in the verbal pitch.

Testing, testing

The best test of whether a pitch tape is effective is to test it on lots of people before you use it in a formal pitch. But people are notoriously bad at asking for effective feedback seriously reducing their chances of getting any kind of useful insights. If you ask someone what they ‘think’ about your pitch tape, they will invariably offer you some positive and encouraging words, but this is likely to be of little use beyond falsely boosting your confidence. It’s much better to be specific with your request, for example you could ask them to note the following:

  • How did you feel when you were watching? What emotions – positive and negative – did you feel?
  • Where did the tape hook you in? At what point were you most engaged?
  • Where did you lose interest or concentration? Why?
  • Can you describe the final film in a sentence or two?
    • “This is the story of….”
  • What do you think/hope will happen in the final film?
  • What do you feel confused about?

Being focused in your request for feedback means that the person giving the feedback feels they have permission to give constructive criticism and frees them from having to be polite. When receiving feedback from someone, listen actively (with your eyes as well as your ears); don’t contradict or explain (ask for clarification instead); and notice your own emotions as the feedback that makes you feel the most uncomfortable might be the feedback you most need to hear.

Refine and refocus

Also, don’t forget to ask a number of different people for their input; include industry colleagues and people who might be representative of the kind of audience you might expect and note any useful patterns. When new filmmaker Ronel Thomas practiced his pitch and showed his trailer to a range of people in preparation for his pitch at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Mini Meet Market it became apparent that women and men responded very differently to the material, which helped focus what the final verbal pitch should emphasize knowing that the audience was exclusively male. Had the audience been female, a different emphasis could have been applied to make the pitch more effective and appealing to them.


For more tips see:

Pitching Tips for the Terrified

How to Pitch and Sizzle

Ten Tips for a Tasty Taster Tape



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