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Arts Documentary: Moving to More Authored Approaches

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)

Making Factual Special

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)

Commissioning Singles, Specials and Series

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)

Telling the Refugee Crisis

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)

Vice Rule Britannia Pitch – Warmth, Humour, Grit and a ‘Sign of the Times’

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)

Trailer Tactics From the IDFAcademy

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.

Science Commissioners: Go Big or Go Home

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.

How to Win a Commission for a Short Documentary on All 4

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.

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

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)

How to Pitch and Sizzle

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?

Pitch Forth!

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.

How to Pitch an Interactive Documentary Project

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.

Good Pitch…

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)

Opportunities for Filmmakers on Alternative/Challenger Platforms

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.

Doing it in Public: Not Naked, but Definitely Afraid

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.

…Bad Pitch

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)

Pitching Tips For the Terrified From Danish Producer 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. (Photo (C) TVMole)

World Congress of Science and Factual Producers – Tips From a First Time Attendee

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.

I Want to Pitch My Idea, But What’s in it For Me?

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.

Three Good Reasons Not to Pitch Your Documentary Idea

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 in Cannes

“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 […]

What a Pitch!

If you are gearing up for doing business at MIPDoc, MIPTV, orHotDocs in April, Cannes Film Festival in May, or Sheffield DocFest in June, you’ll want to make sure your project is in the best possible shape to attract potential buyers, funders or production partners, so here are some top development tips: 1. Develop your […]

The Development Toolkit: Proposal, Trailer, Pitch

The three key elements of your pitch are the paper proposal, the trailer and the verbal pitch. In this panel, which took place at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s DFG Day in 2011 three experts talk about how to hone your pitch materials: Andrea Paterson, Development Producer, Fresh One describes an effective written proposal. Fernanda Rossi, Documentary and […]

What the Commissioning Editors Said at IDFA 2012 – Plus ça change

IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) is, besides being a great place to watch a wide range of documentaries, one of the key places where filmmakers can pitch their films to buyers from around the world.

There are a number of ways to do this, via one-on-one meetings (whether privately arranged, brokered via the festival team or the unexpected encounter where you are asked about your project on the fly – as I write this in the festival cafe someone is pitching to HBO Europe on the next table), via The Forum (where you pitch in front of a large industry audience), or in the more intimate round table format. Each situation presents its own pitching challenges but the commissioning editors’ responses more often than not remain broadly similar.

Forewarned is forarmed, so if you know what issues preoccupy the buyers you can preempt them and make sure that you develop your project in a way that will give it the best chance of survival in the sometimes brutal gladiatoral arena of the pitch forum.

A Pitching Frenzy at Sheffield Doc/Fest

This time last year I came to Sheffield to pitch my own documentary idea. I’d spent the preceding weeks metaphorically biting my nails and pacing up and down, as I prepared for my first proper, and public, pitch. Having worked as a reporter in news and current affairs, for over a decade, I had never had to pitch an idea before. At least not formally in front of a panel of four commissioning editors – oh, and did I mention the church hall of 150 spectators!

Up until that point, pitching meant phoning the editor or head of news, saying I’d like to do a news piece or feature or half hour on…whatever it was… then putting a few lines in an email and waiting for a yes or no. There was no nail-biting as of course you had your day job to worry about – i.e. getting your 2-minute report sorted for 6pm and in fact it was usually a yes – perhaps with a few provisos usually regarding time and money!

But this was something totally different…

Pitching Tips Straight From the Commissioner’s Mouth

Pitching is such a tricky thing because you rarely get the opportunity to see other people do it, so you just have to take a deep breath and hope for the best. And chances are you won’t walk out of the door with a commission (research by The Research Centre suggests you have something like […]

Can You Spot a Story?

Television is all about telling stories, as is pitching TV ideas to commissioners. But do you know what a story actually looks like? Test yourself by taking this short test in which you are asked to decide whether a short piece of text constitutes a story or not. After ten examples you get your score. […]

Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch by Nicola Lees

There are some simple principles to successfully developing and pitching your ideas, whether you are working for a global ‘super-indie’ production company, or are a documentary filmmaker pitching a passion project. The extraordinary thing is that no one will tell you what they are! Greenlit is the first book to reveal, step-by-step, how to originate, develop and pitch your factual/non-scripted TV ideas in a global market.

Get insider tips from: * 10 TV development producers – who have a combined 50+ years experience of developing and pitching ideas at all levels; * 20 senior executives who have sold some of the world’s most successful shows, to: * 16 channel executives, who between them have worked at: * 18 TV channels in: * 7 countries across 4 continents.

Greenlit is available now from Amazon and all good bookstores.

Development and Pitching 101: Pitching

Two years ago, when I was writing Greenlit: Developing Factual/Reality TV Ideas From Concept to Pitch, I had to write a book proposal before I could submit my book to an agent. Knowing nothing about the world of publishing I bought a couple of books on proposal writing and studied them carefully and followed their advice to the letter.

While a TV proposal is no longer than one page (at least in the first instance), a book proposal runs to about 25 pages, plus sample chapters. At first glance, the two types of proposals seem like very different beasts, but as time went on, it became apparent that there are a lot of things we can learn from a book proposal that will help us with pitching TV ideas. (Photo by Tim Morgan CC BY 2.0)

How to Pitch 360 Degree Content

At the recent Sheffield Doc/Fest, a panel of Multiplatform commissioning editors and producers talked about developing and pitching 360 degree content (i.e. content that exists on more than one platform: TV, online, books, DVD, live events, YouTube, Facebook etc).

The panel included:

* Lyndsay Duthie (etv productions)
* Nick Cohen (BBC Multiplatform commissioner)
* James Penfold (etv productions)
* Matt Locke (Commissioning Editor for Education and New Media at Channel 4)
* Jane Mote (UKTV Director of lifestyle, factual and new media, UKTV)

Click through to see what they said.
(Photo by gadl CC BY-SA 2.0)

Westdoc Twitter

If you weren’t able to make it to Santa Monica to attend the Westdoc conference, you can keep up with what’s going on in real time – who’s commissioning what, and how to pitch –  via twitter. Just follow the #westdoc thread.

How to Work the Room During Your TV Pitch and Secure a Commission

Everyone has their own pitching style and every commissioning editor will prefer a certain kind of pitch – which is why it helps to know your enemy.

In the UK, commissioners at all levels tend to prefer an informal ‘creative conversation’ in which you both collaborate.

In the US, you might have a one-to-one pitch with a development executive, or you could face a room full of senior executives who sit back and listen to your pitch. If it’s the former, you’re likely to be grilled about the details of your proposal, as they have sell it up the chain of command when you’ve gone. If you manage to secure a meeting with senior executives, you”ll need to make a more formal presentation, before moving on to deal manage a discussion and field questions.

Whichever kind of pitch you face, there are a number of principles you can apply to make things run smoothly and move you closer to a commission.

Six Ways to Allay Your Commissioning Editor’s Fears and Sell your TV Programme

You might think that all you need to get your TV programme commissioned is a good idea. Not so.

Assuming you have a really good idea, and have sprinkled it with fairy dust for luck, it is still unlikely that you will get your idea commissioned. Why? Because your commissioner is scared. They’re scared of commissioning a programme that might fail. And failing programmes put their jobs on the line. Which makes it your job to allay those fears and make it easy for them to say yes.

Here are six fears you need to address in your proposal and pitch. (Photo by Kables)

Where to Pitch Your Idea (and Avoid the Commissioners)

Pitching is a bitch. Especially when you are just starting out. There seem to be so many different channels, all of them with closed doors.

But do you actually need to pitch your idea to a TV channel? No. It depends on your motives for pitching. You might think that the only reason to pitch your ideas is to sell them, but depending where you are in your career, there may be different reasons for pitching, and cleverer ways of pitching. (Photo by heiwa4126)

Seven Lessons from a Life in Development

When TLC rebranded in 2005, they introduced the notion of ‘life lessons’, along with collectable ornaments and a section on their website for ‘grown-up fun”. In the same spirit I’d thought I’d share some ‘development lessons’. Unfortunately, I don’t have matching knick-knacks, and you’ll have to provide your own grown-up fun. (Photo by pimpexposure)

Pitching a Home Run – Part II

NYC-based Fernanda Rossi is an internationally renowned author and story consultant. She has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers – including the Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy – and she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. In this two-part article Fernanda explains how to pitch your documentary film. This week she looks at how to end your pitch positively. (Photo by Tania Retchisky)

Pitching a Home Run – Part I

NYC-based Fernanda Rossi is an internationally renowned author and story consultant. She has doctored over 200 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers – including the Academy Award® nominated The Garden by Scott Hamilton Kennedy – and she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. In this two-part article Fernanda explains how to pitch your documentary film. This week she concentrates on the opening statement. (Photo by Tania Retchisky)

Six Pitching Lessons from the Dragons’ Den

Dragons’ Den: Success From Pitch to Profit, is a book that profiles the dragons and examines case studies of people who have successfully or unsuccessfully pitched in the den. If you read it with your development head on it has a number of lessons that can be applied to the development and pitching of factual TV programmes. (Photo by e-magic.)

Talk to Your Colleagues to Cross-Fertilise Your TV Programme Ideas

In some companies, people can go months without speaking to colleagues in the next (or even same) office. But the person on the other side of the wall might be an expert in the subject area you are researching, or they might know just the person to front your new DIY show.

How to Get Your Idea in Front of a Commissioner

You might have the best idea in the world, but if you never pitch it, it will never get commissioned. But getting your idea in front of a commissioner can be the most challenging part of the process.