Moving away from a magazine style approach to more authored programmes, especially by artists themselves seems to be the way that arts programming is moving at the moment according to a panel of arts commissioners at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Partnerships with arts institutions and co-pros with other channels are also de rigeur.
In a session chaired by Guardian journalist, Liese Spencer, the commissioners outlined what they were looking for, what they viewed as particular successes, their key challenges and what they were most jealous of.
(Photo courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest – Jacqui Bellamy)
What makes specialist factual special? How can broadcasters make it relatable? How do we best use talent? To what extent can broadcasters take risks and what kind of special factual content punches through? These were just some of the key questions in the Specialist Factual session at Sheffield Doc/Fest chaired by filmmaker and journalist Ruth Pitt. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest – Jacqui Bellamy)
At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016, a panel explored looked at how the commissioning of singles, specials and series has changed in recent months. Chair of the panel, Emma Read (Emporium Productions), introduced the session by explaining how there has been many changes in the world of documentaries in the past year with BBC3 going online, Netflix, Vice and Buzzfeed streaming popular documentaries and a ‘changing of the guard’ at the BBC and ITV. She feels that there is much more clear blue water between the channels this year than in the last few years, largely because of this ‘changing of the guard’. Emma asked a panel of commissioning editors how these changes have influenced their commissioning decisions and what programmes they are particularly looking for. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield/Docfest – Jacqui Bellamy)
Given that we are witnessing the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World war it seemed fitting that Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016 ran a session entitled How to Document the World’s Biggest News Stories:Telling the Refugee Crisis.
Chaired by Roger Graef, the panel included Siobhan Sinnerton, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for News and Current Affairs, James Bluemel, Director of Exodus: Breaking Into Europe coming soon on BBC1, Ahmad Al-Rashid, a Syrian refugee who is featured in Exodus and James Rogan, director of BBC’s forthcoming series Welcome to Britain (working title) for BBC3. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest – Reem-Khabbazy)
A documentary about the Welsh steel plant threatened with closure won the Vice Rule Britannia pitch at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016. Sibling filmmakers Shelley and Jamie Jones won £25,000 for their documentary Port Talbot: A Little Town Built on Steel focusing on a group of employees who are contemplating their futures in the face of the company’s possible closure. (Photo courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest-David Chang)
When people talk about the public service broadcasting remit of the BBC they often invoke the words of its founder, Lord Reith, who said that the broadcaster’s mission was to ” inform, educate and entertain” and in that order. As serious documentaries have become increasingly sidelined on mainstream television in favour of drama and reality formats, it sometimes seems that the only way to get a concentrated dose of information and education – with or without a smattering entertainment – is to buy a pass to one of the great international documentary festivals, such as Sheffield Doc/Fest or Hot Docs in Toronto. Films that do well on the festival circuit are then just as likely to find a general audience via one of the new challenger platforms, such as Netflix or Amazon, as they are on the traditional TV networks. Here is a selection of documentaries that played at IDFA 2015 and could be coming to a small screen near you in the future.
For anyone who has not been to Sheffield Doc/Fest before, it offers the chance to listen to commissioners from TV channels and film companies all over the world talking about what they are looking for from documentary makers and producers. It could also be the chance to pitch your latest project to some of them. And it’s an opportunity to watch the latest and best feature length documentary films.
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. The popular Pitch and Trailer Workshop at IDFA 2015 explained how.
At Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015 one of the panels, which consisted of a range of funders and filmmakers, discussed how documentary producer/directors could best approach writing grant proposals for documentary funds. Writing proposals is generally the thing that visually-driven filmmakers like doing least. And, as Tracie Holder, Production Assistance Program Consultant to NYC-based Women Make Movies, pointed out: it’s hard to know what a good proposal looks like as filmmakers never see other people’s proposals.
Tracie explained that a written proposal is your introduction to a funder, so it should establish confidence that you can deliver a fantastic film.The reader should be able to “ski down the proposal without hitting any red flags”.
Go to one of the major international documentary festivals and you’ll come away feeling that the genre is alive, kicking and having a party. ITV’s Jo Clinton-Davis said at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 that the audience was searching for “gems in the schedule”, but of all the commissioner panels, the documentary session seemed to be the one where the commissioners had the most trouble articulating/least enthusiasm describing what it was that they wanted or needed in their schedules; they seemed to be suffering a strange collective ennui.
Ever so often a show comes along that changes the landscape and influences everything that comes in its wake: Big Brother (contributors/contestants/celebrities confined to one location for the duration of a series), Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing With the Stars (celebrities pairing with professionals to learn a skill and compete), One Born Every Minute (fixed-rig shows). The latest show to be spreading its DNA far and wide seems to be Gogglebox. At Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015 a panel of Factual Entertainment Commissioners discussed their current needs.
If you are tasked with developing science programmes you face a number of challenges: the number of channels that actively embrace science is small, and sometimes those channels – in an attempt to attract as broad an audience as possible – can disguise their science content so thoroughly that it ceases to be science in the eyes of actual scientists. This makes for some uncomfortable conversations when trying to research and develop a science series or talent scout potential onscreen experts. Nonetheless there are commissioning opportunities out there for those dedicated and determined enough. A panel of science commissioners at Sheffield Doc/Fest discussed what science programming means to them and what they are looking to to commission in the coming months. Interestingly although many programmes and approaches were mentioned, few of them were recognisable as science.
In order to be successful when pitching to TV commissioners, it’s vital to know what they are looking for. This is harder than it sounds, despite many broadcasters now sharing their commissioning briefs online (via their commissioning portals), because they are often vague and sometimes out of date.
Another way to get a sense of what commissioners want is to attend a panel in which they outline their current needs. These panels are common at TV conferences and festivals around the world. Some commissioners are refreshingly candid, whilst other remain coy and seemingly reluctant to give away their secrets; others appear more interested in scoring political points against their co-panelists than helping the audience of producers understand what they should pitch. So they can be a mixed bag. And so it was with the Arts Commissioning panel at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2015.
All 4 is the new umbrella name for all Channel 4’s platforms, including online, which is the home to the Channel 4 Shorts strand.
At a recent Sheffield Doc/Fest panel, the Head of All 4 and Digital Content, Richard Davidson-Houston, and Shorts Commissioning Editors Jody Smith and Issac Densu explained their remit to commission original digital content and how their audience differs from a mainstream terrestrial audience.
The first time Charlotte Fisher went to Sheffield Doc/Fest, in 2011, she was a total novice in the world of documentary making. She was a TV news reporter making a switch to factual programmes and although she’d made current affairs half hours, this was another world. In 2015 she went to the festival as a journalist, going to seminars and watching films; getting an overview of the whole festival. But she was also taking an interest with her other hat on, as a freelance producer at an independent production company.
After broadcast journalist Lisa Francesca Nand suffered her third miscarriage she decided to turn the camera on herself to document her experience and to try to find some answers as to why miscarriage might happen and how it can be prevented. After an emotional production process, the advice of a mentor and a visit to Sheffield Doc/Fest helped bring the film to completion and find a commission.
When you are developing a documentary there are many things to consider: access, narrative arc (is there an unfolding story, sufficient jeopardy and conflict to make commissioning editors take notice?) and creative approach. One thing that many filmmakers avoid thinking about – often until too late – is who the potential audience is and how to find the money needed to get the film not only into production, but finished. But these two things should be integral to the development process as they are invariably intertwined: a broadcaster or online platform is not going to fund a film that doesn’t directly appeal to its core audience.
Filmmakers who have more of an independent streak, who feel that they must operate outside of the mainstream – for idealistic reasons as much as necessity – are sometimes tempted to think that the normal rules of funding don’t apply to them. They think if they film it, the audience will come. But they won’t. In order for a film to be successful it needs fans (funders in the first instance, and audiences later on), not just at the point of release but right from the start of the process. No-one knows this better than Dunstan Bruce, a vocalist with the anarchist band Chumbawamba for 23 years.
Shepperton Studios based crewing agent Kate Watson recently attended her first Sheffield Doc/Fest; with many of her agency clients having worked on documentary films it was a great opportunity to dip into their world. But she soon ran into her first problem: how do you choose from 150 films?
In this, the latest of an occasional series I look back at some of the films I saw in 2014 at a variety of festivals including IDFA and Sheffield Doc/Fest. As usual I’ve roughly divided them into groups according to narrative approach; within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. Some films could easily be placed in a different category but I’ve put them in what seemed to be the most prominent storytelling style for that film.
However, whether you agree with my selection or not, you may find inspiration to help you decide what techniques will be most useful in developing and shaping the narrative of your own films. Having a clear idea of how you are going to tell the story will help you pitch your idea more effectively to potential funders. (Photo courtesy of IDFA)
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. 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 that 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. (Photo by Kennisland (CC BY SA)
When pitching a TV show or independent documentary it is now almost impossible to get away without having to make a pitch tape of some sort (sometimes several over the course of your production). You can write pages of your directorial vision, storylines, subplots and mission to change the world, but nothing takes the buyer straight to the heart of your film like a well shot pitch tape (also known as a teaser, sizzle, pilot or sample, depending on where you are in the world and the context in which you are pitching). But what makes a pitch tape effective?
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 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 generally pitching a project at Sheffield.
When labouring at the coalface of a development slate, you need as many tools as you can get your hands on to excavate those elusive gems that are eye-catching enough to catch the eye of a commissioning editor. During a Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 session Dan Biddle (@DanBiddle), Twitter UK’s Head of Broadcast Partnerships, explained how producers can mine Twitter for breaking news stories, research, audience collaboration and marketing.
As you might expect of a digital platform, Twitter is all about the metrics, and has a host of audience user data that reveals information about Twitter users’ lives. For example, mentions of shopping indicate that Sunday is the biggest day for heading to the shops in the UK and more people go for (or talk about going for) a run on a Monday and Tuesday than they do at the end of the week, when the pub beckons.
But how does this help us in development? (Photo (C) TVMole)
Many documentary festivals have a market or forum attached where filmmakers are able to pitch their ideas to an assembled panel of potential broadcasters or other funders, often in front of an audience. Power to the Pixel is a similar forum that is dedicated to the development and funding of cross-media projects such as the interactive documentaries A Short History of the Highrise and Alma: A History of Violence.
At Power to the Pixel 2014, eight projects were pitched in the Finance Forum: Block Seven (pictured); The Flickering Flame (a Ken Loach biopic that won the €6,000 ARTE International Prize); The Infinity Engine; My Enemy, My Brother; How to Kill Uffie; On Screen Off Record; Urbance and Loving Long-Distance.
Although the assembled commissioning editors and digital content executives were briefed to offer advice on where the producers of each project might go for finance, inevitably there were questions about the structure, content and viability of projects. Here is a round up of the most common concerns and suggestions that may help you better develop your own interactive content.
If you are lucky, you will have established, built and nurtured relationships with the people in power long before you need to ask them for money; maybe they’ve been tracking your career for a number of years and are receptive to discussing your new projects in a collaborative and supportive way. But more likely, you’ll find yourself a situation where you are forced to pitch cold to someone who has never heard of you, who doesn’t know your work and has never heard of your project. That’s intimidating enough, but then you’ll find that you have to do this to a panel of people you’ve never met, and in front of an audience of up to 200 of your peers. And once you’ve pitched under the bright lights of the auditorium, you have to stand there while they deliver their equally public assessment of your project.
Panels generally respond well to the following elements being in evidence in the project and expressed via the pitch. (Photo (C) TVMole)
It’s hard to get an idea commissioned as a large indie; it’s even harder if you are working solo. However, the changing media landscape means that there are an ever increasing range of outlets and platforms in need of content. At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 a panel of commissioners from emerging/alternative platforms outlined opportunities for more independently-minded filmmakers.
For anyone frustrated by the glacial decision-making and risk averseness of traditional broadcasters (and indies), new digital platforms offer filmmakers an number of advantages.
One of the many commissioner panels at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 concentrated on arts programming and revealed a new trend among arts commissioners: the desire to see art in action. Most channels seem to be moving away from having a host or experts talking about art towards wanting to see artists actually performing and creating art, removing the barrier between artist and viewer.
In January 2014, Writer/Director Stephanie Wessell started on Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Fast Track To Features scheme. Beginning with a relatively undeveloped idea, 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. Here are her thoughts about pitching her documentary/drama feature project in public.
Following on from Good Pitch… advice from observing what commissioners and buyers responded well to in public pitches at Krakow Film Festival’s Dragon Forum 2014 and Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Fast Track to Features 2014 here are some tips on what not to do in a pitch.
Negative feedback can generally be put into one of two categories: that which relates to the idea for a film and that which relates to the physical delivery of the pitch and description of that idea. If you watch a lot of public pitches you may notice that those who get to pitch first are given constructive feedback preceded by some encouragement and positivity about some aspect of the project. Those filmmakers unlucky enough to be pitching last, at the end of the day, or both, may find that the decision makers are fatigued and therefore a little less diplomatic in their critiques. (Photo (C) TVMole)
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. (Photo (C) TVMole)
Here’s a list of some of the most memorable documentary films I saw, roughly divided into narrative style; the films grouped at the top of the list I generally found most enjoyable and satisfying and within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so you’ll have to make up your own mind. Some films could easily be placed in a different category but I’ve put them in what seemed to be the most prominent storytelling style for that film.
However, whether you agree with my selection or not, we can learn from the different narrative approaches chosen by the filmmakers you may find inspiration to help you develop and shape your own films. Having a clear idea of how you are going to tell the story will help you pitch your idea to potential funders (and ulimately the audience) more effectively, and also help you keep on track schedule- and budget-wise. (Photo: Jingle Bell Rocks! courtesy of IDFA)
IDFA in Amsterdam is always my chance to concentrate fully on watching films over anything else and typically watch around 25+ films over the course of several days. This focused immersion in documentaries is guaranteed to be thought-provoking and often throws up several interesting themes or trends; here’s a round up of my top three favourite films from IDFA 2013 with an attempt to articulate what makes them successful. I’ve chosen these documentaries on the basis that of the 22 films I saw these were the ones I found most enjoyable and that have stayed with me, and I would definitely watch them all again. But beyond being enjoyable, what can we learn from these films that could help us when developing and pitching our own films? (Photo courtesy of Dogwoof)
Sophie Robinson is a London-based producer/director with a host of science TV credits such as Horizon, Meet the Ancestors and Your Life in Their Hands. She’s just embarked on her first feature-length documentary My Beautiful Broken Brain here she shares what she’s learnt from launching her first crowdfunding campaign.
The World Congress of Science and Factual Producers (WCSFP) is the go-to festival for TV producers working on the more serious side of factual programming (if reality TV or factual entertainment are more your thing try Realscreen in Washington DC or try WestDoc in Los Angeles, or Sheffield Doc/Fest for documentary and factual TV).
WCSFP is a roving conference that is being held in Vancouver for the 2013 Edition. London-based TV producer Amelia Vale went to the congress for the first time in 2012 and here shares her tips for anyone thinking of attending this year.
Attending a big documentary festival, such as IDFA in Amsterdam, is something you should do at least once, and attending the major documentary market is essential if you have a film you are trying to fund. But it can be an intimidating experience if you are a festival virgin, and all the more so if you are going alone. But sometimes going alone means you are open to serendipitous meetings, able to change your schedule without consulting with your travelling companions and see all the films you want to see without having to resort to trade-offs and compromise. Still, it helps to have a plan before you go so you can take full advantage of the festival , so here are some tips to get you started: (Photo by TVMole)
Commissioning editors can receive up to 80 programme proposals a week; few will be read from start to finish. Many commissioners never read past the first paragraph, or even the title. On average, they make a decision within 40 seconds. Usually that decision results in the proposal being filed in the bin.
So how can you make sure a commissioner keeps reading to the end of your proposal? Here are ten ways to make your proposal stand out and keep your commissioner reading to the end.
At IDFA in 2012, I spent five (glorious but sometimes bruising) days watching documentaries. Some of those films were great but many weren’t. Here’s what I wish documentary filmmakers were taught in film school:
Often when developing a film, it’s easy enough to come up with an idea or a subject for a documentary. What’s harder is to work out how best tell the story. What can be helpful, and should be part of your development process, is to look at other films to see what narrative techniques they used and to what effect. Choosing an approach early in your development process will help you to structure your idea, plan your schedule and budget more accurately and, ultimately, it will mean that you are better able to describe your film (i.e. pitch it) to potential funders.
Here’s the full menu of films I watched at IDFA 2012, roughly divided into narrative style; the films grouped at the top of the list I generally found most enjoyable and satisfying and within each group of similar films I’ve listed in order of preference from best to worst (my favourites are in bold). Of course this is highly subjective and some of the films I disliked intensely have won awards, so watch to make up your own mind. (Photo: Charles Bradley: Soul of America courtesy of IDFA)
Natalia Quintana, a NYC-based self-shooting producer with reality TV credits such as Hardcore Pawn, Say Yes to the Dress and What Not to Wear. She’s just embarked on her first feature-length documentary Comics Are Everywhere! Here she shares her experience of launching a crowdfunding campaign and shares her tips for anyone considering embarking on the same journey.
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 at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013.
There’s something slightly discomfiting about people who think the only way to help is by pointing a camera at someone worse off than themselves; especially if they insist on feeling righteously aggrieved at being ‘forced’ into being an impoverished artist in order to save the world. Besides which, although there is a growing awareness from NGOs about the possibilities of using documentary films to raise the public profile of their issues, broadcasters (who have more money for funding) are pushing back, reluctant to fund films that push a particular agenda. Nick Fraser of BBC’s Storyville documentary strand and Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Head of Documentaries and Co-productions at DR TV, Denmark are particularly outspoken about this, as you can see in this video from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012. (Photo by HowardLake CC BY SA 2.0)
At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013, a panel (produced by Sharron Ward of Katalyst Productions) discussed the thorny issue of what to do when you’ve got a great idea for a documentary, but don’t have the channel contacts to get it commissioned. Jes Wilkins, Head of Programmes at London-based Firecracker Films presented a case study that proves that it can be possible to secure a commission without a track record, but underlines the fact that there are no short cuts.
One of the more interesting funding stories heard at the festival came from Andi Hector-Watkins who has managed to fund her documentary through a variety of non-traditional sources. Andi, a London-based ethnomusicologist and filmmaker, shares an office at Chichester University with cellist Laura Ritche who was taught by the world-renown Hans Jørgen Jensen, a professor of cello at Northwestern University, Illinois. On discovering that Hans Jensen is not only hugely influential, but is also a great character with a compelling back-story, Andi decided to make a film about him.
At this point, Andi might have struggled to raise money for her film due to the niche subject matter (classical music), the lack of arts slots in the TV schedules, and the film’s length, which is currently planned to be a 30′ single (slots for one-off 60-min documentaries are rare; slots for one-off 30-min are nonexistent). Despite this – or more likely, because of this – Andi has been able to find funding in some unlikely places.
Everybody – well, everybody who went to film school / did media studies at university / fancies themselves as a filmmaker – has a TV or documentary idea that they want to pitch. Nay, MUST pitch, otherwise their life won’t be complete. I once attended a screenwriting class. I wrote a rom-com; the tutor likened […]
Seduced and Abandoned was one of the documentary films shown at Cannes Film Festival 2013, a year noted for its jewel heists as much as its films. Documentaries have been only recently acknowledged at Cannes; the dedicated Doc Corner was only introduced in 2012. A year later, documentaries make up around 10% of the films […]
“I thought it was going to be a documentary, but it was great!” (Cannes Film Festival audience member after screening of Seduced and Abandoned) Seduced and Abandoned is a documentary by writer/director James Toback and actor Alec Baldwin that explores the world of film financing; the film also doubles, in the words of Baldwin, as […]
It is generally accepted that the industry-wide pitch to commission rate is ten to one, and for some people even that’s optimistic. Here are some of the tried-and-tested tricks that will help you get your idea gets commissioned. (Photo by Hub☺ CC BY SA 2.0)
“The more idealistic you are about your work the more cunning and savvy you have to be about the business side” of it says, Ira Glass, presenter of NPR’s This American Life. In this lecture to journalism students he describes what makes good journalism, and how to tell important stories in a way that does them justice. Some of his other observations include:
Don’t wait for permission to make the work you want to make… just start
Be super-ambitious – keep trying things until luck kicks in and you find your story
Amuse yourself – it’s not enough just to be idealistic, you have to love your work if it’s going to move the audience and ultimately make a difference to the world. Provoke a reaction – and humour is a good reaction.
It should be your goal to make memorable work – people remember things that make them smile (Photo by JD Hancock CC BY 2.0)
The world seems to be split into two: Twitter Evangelists and Twitter Rejecters. Although I think it might be fairer to say that the world isn’t so much divided, as at the two ends of a continuum. Most people start as a Rejecter, but given the time and opportunity, will become an Evangelist and will […]
When you pitch a TV show you have to be able to describe it so that potential funders know what you are talking about. One way of doing that is to use short-hand words, such as format, reality competition show, or more recently occu-reality (shows based in the work place) and comedy-reality (real characters in real situations, cut for humour). One of the most contested genres is documentary with purists insisting that it is one thing (pure observation with no intervention from the director, perhaps) to others playing more fast and loose with the term, happy to include biopics, essay-films and character-driven narratives. Here, Asif Kapadia, director of Senna, one of 2011’s best documentaries, explains why he doesn’t consider it to be a documentary (and why I think it might be a super-hybrid-documentary).