Audience building for filmmakers presentation

June 16, 2014
posted by sheric

I have just returned from Europe where I participated in the Meetmarket at Sheffield DocFest and the Binger Filmlab’s Digital Filmmaking Week. It was great to get back out and meet filmmakers and industry people face to face instead of only online (yes, I did just say that!). I also got to sneak in a few plugs for the new book.

Since most of you could not attend these events, I have posted my Binger presentation on Slideshare and below. Notes are included as well. I hope you find it helpful.

Pitching your film project

June 5, 2014
posted by sheric

I am preparing to head to Sheffield DocFest this weekend where I will be meeting with various documentary producers to discuss their projects that are between development and post production. In attending these session for the past 2 years as well as several other film conferences, it never ceases to puzzle me at the disparity of what I think is going to happen in these meetings and what the filmmaker hopes will happen. Most are looking for funding, but few are really well prepared to pitch their projects. They are under the impression that a cheque book will appear at some point in the 15 minute session without really understanding what the executive across the table is looking for. In order to clarify the purpose of a pitching session, I offer words of wisdom from Stephanie Palmer. Her blog Good in a Room is a must read for all creatives who are faced with a pitch session. She gives these tips on preparing to pitch.

pitch your film project

1) What version of my pitch makes the project more likely to sell? 

Stephanie says: “You shouldn’t expect to sell anything in this context. You wouldn’t buy a car or a house in a five-minute meeting, and no one is going to shell out serious cash and risk their reputations when meeting you for the first time.” Your main objective in this meeting is to set up a line of communication in the future.

For myself, I am merely an emissary from the company and my job is to hear a bit more detail than what has been given to me prior to the meeting. I will then take down notes of my thoughts about how the project fits into the company’s goals, what the filmmaker is trying to achieve, my observations about the filmmaker personally and how challenging the project will be in the market. I send all of this information back to my colleagues who may or may not choose to have us follow up.

2) Should I use a “leave-behind” in a pitch meeting? Like a one-sheet, outline, summary, or poster?

Stephanie says:  ”In a pitchfest kind of situation, I wouldn’t leave anything behind except your business card which just needs to have your name, phone, and email. My experience is that I have never seen someone get interested based on something from a leave-behind, but it makes it easier to say No.”

I don’t want any physical material because I am traveling and I don’t have space to keep up with it. Simply an online link to material (press kit, film link, bio) is enough for me to include in my notes. Please do have a business card. It is shocking how overlooked this is, especially when everyone knows they are going to pitch. It is just unprofessional to show up at a planned meeting and not have a card.

3)  I know it’s important to build rapport. But how do I do that when I only have 5 minutes to pitch?

Stephanie says: “Research the people with whom you’ll be meeting and design a comment that demonstrates your respect for them. That builds rapport quickly.”

Good gosh this is so easy to do on me as it just takes one Google search of my name and information on the company am I working with to find out what we’re about. It is very surprising how few people actually do this and need me to spend our very limited time together explaining what The Film Collaborative does, the kinds of projects we have worked with and what we did with them. You can guarantee I’m looking you up ahead of time and finding out what you have done before and how you are presenting this current project to an audience, especially if it is in post production. If I don’t find anything in the search engines, it is a worrying sign for me because you are neglecting your professional skills. Every professional person now needs to have some kind of information available online and make sure that information is something you are happy to have others find.

4) My pitch is set and I’m not changing anything. Is there any other advice you can give me?

Stephanie says: “Speak slowly and take notes on what the decision maker says. The act of taking notes shows respect, will help you maintain your composure, and will allow you to look for patterns in the feedback you get so that after the conference is over you can decide how to improve your pitch, project, or both.”

I tend to prepare some notes and questions ahead of time that I may cover during our talk. It will be helpful for you to write these things down. Most of my questions will be about audience and I am particularly interested in whether you have done deep research on this for the project you are pitching. Believe me, most executives are thinking this same thing even if they don’t ask you. We are less concerned with the story structure and more concerned about how well the film will do in the market. Take this into consideration before the meeting.

I look forward to the gathering in Sheffield during the coming week and if you are in town, come up and say hi.

Advice for documentary films from John Battsek

April 16, 2014
posted by sheric

I will be attending this year’s Sheffield DocFect, one of the biggest documentary festivals in Europe, to meet with documentary producers and generally get a feel for what is happening with independent films in Europe. I went last year as well and I attended this great masterclass with producer John Battsek of Passion Pictures (Searching for Sugarman, The Imposter, Manhunt). Luckily, Sheffield DocFest has uploaded the class to their Youtube channel [link below].

Passion pictures documentaries

I pulled out a few nuggets of advice for the documentarians because you may not have over an hour to devote to this video.

On what makes a documentary “theatrical”:

“Lots of archive, lots of music, all of it is expensive, but makes a difference…We bring cinematic ambition to the way we shoot, the way we cut, the music we put on the films. We gravitate toward projects that feel cinematic in scope….In doc making the editor is as important as anyone. You need an editor that can really realize a cinematic vision.” During the session, Joe Bini is singled out for editing praise, The Mill for graphics and Philip Sheppard for composing.

On finding the story that will have large audience appeal:

“The core story needs to be universal, something people can connect with, but ultimately it has to transcend that. It needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. Something people can identify with on many levels. Sugarman is about a failed musician, but not really. It is about love, family, ambition and lack of ambition, honesty and a philosophy on life that is admirable. It moves people in so many different ways. Fire in Babylon is about cricket, but it’s not. It’s about a culture rising up against their masters. It transcends the sporting story and becomes about guts, defiance, facing adversity and all sorts of things.”

On Sundance being the key marketplace launch for documentaries:

“Sundance is the key festival for launching feature documentaries. They offer great programming, but also it is the first major festival of the year and American buyers, in particular, go there aggressively wanting to outdo their rivals. Also, I think the high altitude messes with their heads! 5 years ago we had 3 films at Sundance; Crossing the Line, My Kid Could Paint That, In the Shadow of the Moon. We screened them and everyone went berserk. It was just before the bottom fell out of the world. We got into a bidding war, the kind you read about in the trades. The prices just kept going higher… For years, people blamed us for making the bottom drop out of the prices paid for docs because ultimately none of them performed as well as they should have.

In terms of getting into the festival, not sure what to say except that we’ve been incredibly lucky. We’ve been there for 7 consecutive years. I know the programmers really well, I get on with them, it is definitely a festival that looks out for its alumni. Not that producers are alumni, only directors are.  If you are trying to get into Sundance and you can work through someone they are familiar with and trust, it is very helpful.


Models for funding documentaries

January 21, 2014
posted by sheric

During the 2013 Sheffield Doc Festival, an international panel of documentary producers spoke about the different methods they use to find funding for their work. While 3 of the panelists were fortunate enough to come from countries that provide tax payer funded initiatives for filmmakers, producer Julie Goldman of Motto Pictures was the representative from the US. We do have some government funded programs for documentaries, but only for films that meet a certain criteria (ie, largely social good topics). I summarized some of the points Goldman brought up during the panel, a video of which has been posted on Youtube and runs about an hour and a half (link below if you have time to watch all of it).

-Goldman’s company, Motto Pictures, has helped produce a wide range of award winning documentaries such as A Place at the Table, Buck, Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry and God Loves Uganda. The company was founded in 2009.

-Every film has a different funding model; from cobbling together multiple grants over years to commissions from major broadcasters. Buck was already fully financed from private investors when it came to the company. This is a rare occurrence.

-One of her biggest pieces of advice is about striking at the right funding moment. You have to be ready, agile and go for opportunities when they open up. If there is suddenly a new channel buying documentaries for their new programming initiative, you have to be there from day one because in a short time, they could be out of business, but you will have gotten some presale money at least. Be on the lookout for new funds opening up all the time.


-The projects she spoke most about were God Loves Uganda and Buck. God Loves Uganda was a labor of love project which took 3 years to piece together full financing. First, they applied and received money from Sundance Documentary Fund, Tribeca Gucci Documentary Fund, Tribeca All Access, Open Society (George Soros), tons of little bits of money,  but still had a huge gap in the budget. They proceeded production in stages with the small tranches of money and everyone was deferring and thinking they were never going to get paid. Finally, the project received money from ITVS Open Call, but it was complicated. ITVS is the funding body for independent films for public television in the US and they go to different strands such as POV and Independent Lens. They can become an equity investor and license the TV rights for 4 years. Because they are funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, there are some things they are intransigent about and others where you can find flexibility. They take an equity position in the project and they have that going forward from any means of income the film has, not money from festival prizes, but any sales the film gets. While the God Loves Uganda made it through to the final round of the vetting process, they didn’t end up getting the money at first. But at that time, one of the strands, Independent Lens, had discretionary funding for projects they were interested in and they gave some funding. It was still an ITVS project, but Independent Lens had an option for it, a first look. But Goldman thinks now that funding isn’t available anymore. Again, look for those funding moments and be ready to strike. The final funding piece  came from the Ford Foundation.  They fund projects and you do not have to be a US citizen to apply for them. They have an incredibly helpful website and an initiative called Just Films which funds $10mil for films of a social justice nature each year for the next 5 years. It may or may not be renewed in future.

-In all grant inquiry letters, don’t just explain how your film fits into a broad funding initiative. If it is a big organization, chances are they have branches that are concerned with specific issues and if your film touches on more than one of those (say, LGBT AND freedom of expression or minority rights), it helps the organization fulfill more than one mission and is more likely to receive funding because those divisions can work together and often share the funding resources. It could even result in getting more money.

-God Loves Uganda was an example of the miserable-while-you’re-doing-it-but-happy-in-the-end funding model. The model for Buck was much happier. The film centers around Buck Brannaman who is the original horse whisperer. He runs well regarded training sessions and he is a really popular and loved figure in the horse owning world.  People wanted to give money to have this film made about him when the director decided she was going to do it so the film was funded by all private money by the time it came to Motto Pictures. Buck was released theatrically in the US in 2011 with revenue of over $4 million, which is a big hit for a documentary. But the exhibitors took 65% of that. Out of the 35% that goes back to the distributor, IFC Films, they took 25% out of that plus their costs for marketing and prints. And then the sales agent takes their cut. Basically, the film was in the red for a long time even though over 200,000 DVDs were sold. While DVDs rarely sell in this volume, the audience for the film was older and it was a really good DVD audience. It is only now (2013) that money is starting to come in to the producer.

-However, director Cindy Meehl had another source of revenue planned and it is VERY important to consider this. She planned these 3 camera shoots on beautiful Montana ranches of the horse clinics Brannaman holds annually to be used as footage in the film. It was very professionally captured footage. She then released extra footage as a 7 part DVD (at $30 a pop) for people who can’t go to the clinics or want an introduction before they go. Those DVDs that she produced are selling like CRAZY and she is making a lot of money on them. It was very smart and her investors are getting their money back more quickly that way. If you have a subject matter that could have ancillary value to a lucrative niche market, it is very clever to plan for monetizing it outside of the feature film during development and while in production.  Said Goldman, “At the time, we shrugged and thought, whatever. We weren’t horse people so we didn’t understand or have faith in it. She had total faith in it and she was right.”

-The final model, if you’re lucky enough to win it, is commissioning. A big entity like HBO or Participant Media will pay you a fee to make a film for them and they own the film.  You will never see another penny other than your fee and you had better not go over budget. This model is almost exclusively for the well established documentary filmmaker.

-The panel only briefly touched on a new model, crowdfunding. Only the producers from Canada and the US had any experience with it and felt that the amount of work involved in running a campaign is grossly underestimated. But the point was raised that funding and distribution are moving from the institutional to the social and increasingly audiences are taking their recommendations from friends and those they trust.  It stands to reason they will also pay, either to create or to see films that are made by filmmakers they like and trust. For now, crowdfunding of documentary is mainly working for those who don’t have big production budgets, but do have either name recognition or issue recognition to tap into an existing audience.

Other funding bodies that documentary makers should be aware of include:

Influence Film Foundation


Hartley Film Foundation



For the full Sheffield DocFest panel including explanations from producers from Canada, UK and Netherlands, watch the video

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