Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Anatomy of a Documentary Pitch Event: Toronto’s Hot Docs Forum 2012, Part 3

Our Anatomy of a Pitch Session concludes in part 3/3 of our extended coverage of Canada’s Hot Docs Forum 2012.

25+/- producers pitched their projects.

  • What worked?
  • Which projects fell flat?
  • How easy is it to break in?
  • Or does the system favor established, award-winning talent?

For our coverage of the earlier pitches:

Photo: Karina Astrup (Shadow Girl pitch)

Meanwhile, outside the bubble of the Forum, there were sellout crowds, long lines and standing ovations at Hot Docs screenings.

  • Hot Docs operates the superbly-renovated Bloor Cinema
  • It is enjoying higher than expected audiences for its unique all-docs program.

All of this testifies to the health of the genre in Canada, despite troubling budget cuts!

Here are my notes on the pitches and the feedback…



Vardan Hovhannisvan, Armenia
Budget: $280,000
Confirmed: $59,000


  • African story about elephants
  • Beautiful, intelligent, heroic animals
  • Being killed by poachers who cater to the exploding demand for ivory
  • Film follow a traffickers in China and Laos
  • The hero is an eccentric conservationist who is threatened by poachers and ivory merchants


  • SVT Sweden: We’re supporting this important story; an unusual investigative film. (SVT’s contribution is $9,000)
  • Hi Fidelity: We have two of Vardan’s films on our Oasis channel. We like it that the elephant is at the center of the story.
  • CBC: Our ‘Nature of Things’ strand is interested in seeing how it plays out. It’s a tough story for a prime time slot because audiences don’t like to see animals killed. Use investigative theme to draw in a wider audience. There are lots of films about elephants. It’s a little hard core for CBC.
  • ITVS: We have funded the filmmaker. We’re interested in characters who will take on the world. “Come to ITVS International Call”
  • BBC: Slightly crazy character. Build action around him. Keen to take story to Natural History unit in BBC
  • Israel: Like eco-thriller. What motivates him? Is he a great character? Or is he on an ego trip?
  • YLE: I don’t see it as a Wildlife film but as a character-based thriller. Fascinating but slightly crazy guy. Gutsy. ‘Has balls like an elephant’
  • Rai: Want to see more of the character. Less eco-thriller.

Random Takeaways

  • The decision-makers who supported the film disagreed on how it should be realized, which raises the barrier to future success. Also, the Americans were largely silent.
  • Another ‘Bad China’ film. That’s 2.5. Definitely more than a coincidence.    


Christoph Jorg
Gonzalo Arijon
Budget: $610,000
Confirmed: $240,000 (ARTE France: $210,000)


  • 40% of Rio population lives in 1,700 favelas
  • Most are run by drug lords, and they are beset by brutal clashes with police
  • They are located near rich areas, on hillsides, with great views
  • Governments are under pressure to integrate favelas back into the state
  • Police / army send in ‘pacification teams’ now in 19 favelas
  • But is there motivation speculative real estate?
  • Story is told through 3 different favelas: violent, where services come, and after services established.
  • Not a Current Affairs film! Its about people. A character-driven doc. But have to establish context.


  • ITVS: Independent Lens, in line with our work.
  • BBC: Like the pitch. Not clear if it’s an investigation or told from the story of people as their lives are being transformed.
  • NYT: Intriguing.  Offer platform in Opinion Section. Build awareness of your project.
  • NHK: Have done films about gentrification of favelas. Timing important because of World Cup.
  • YLE: Lots of possibilities. Timely.
  • CBC: Need more on characters. Timing is important.

Random Takeaways

  • Commissioners are attracted to an experienced team. “They can deliver!”
  • Presentation was very wordy. Many around the table didn’t have an opportunity to respond.


Hanna Polak Films
Jan Rofecamp (Film Transit International)
Budget: $338,000
Confirmed: $31,000


  • Set in a vast garbage dump in Moscow
  • It’s an illegal squatter settlement. Vulnerable to police who are corrupt and enjoy impunity.
  • Hanna Polak met an 11YO in the dump and followed over 7-8 years.
  • Has a happy ending!
  • Svalka says: “If I’m offered the slightest chance, I take it to the fullest”


  • Hanna Polak earned an Oscar nomination for a previous film, Children of Leningradsky
  • Distributor Jan Rofekamp is on board


  • ITVS: Come to Open Call
  • ITVS: Incredibly strong trailer. love to see a cut for the following season
  • Tribeca: Strong. We met in Prague last month. A finalist in Tribeca. Hope to have good news
  • CNN: Extraordinary work. Riveting storytelling. Not necessarily news and current affairs. Strong for us.
  • Hi Fidelity Amazing project. Love happy ending.
  • Knowledge: Audiences love watching a child grow up on camera. You have amazing access over such a long time,
  • BBC: Fantastic. Really great./
  • ARTE: Difficult to find a slot. Fewer long programs / ‘grandes formats’. Maybe more next year. Very interested in finding a place for a beautiful film.
  • Rai: Congratulations!
  • NHK: Terrific access. Potential for longer than 1 hour. Like to know about more other characters
  • Israel: I like to see children growing up. There are many Russians in Israel, and this helps.

Random Takeaways

  • Once again, commissioners are attracted to an experienced, award-winning producer.
  • Svalka went on to win the best pitch award.
  • I met Jan Rofekamp in the lobby of my hotel as I checked in, and he shared his great enthusiasm for Svalka. Golden rule of marketing: if you invest in attending a pitch fest, don’t pass up a single opportunity to promote your project.


Tyler Measom
Justin Weinsten
Budget: $800,000
Confirmed: $250,000


  • A battle for critical thinking against fake psychic practitioners
  • An 84 YO magician, James, the “Amazing” Randi
  • He exposes frauds in an entertaining fashion
  • His life has some not so honest aspects: his partner is now in trouble with the law
  • Has millions of fans and enemies
  • 2 million page views on Facebook after posted trailer
  • Funding flowed in
  • Filmmaker made Sons of Perdition
  • Combines History and Verité


  • Elegant pitch
  • TV and feature documentary deliverables


  • BBC Storyville: Genial, funny, entertaining footage. Want to know how much of film has to deal with Randi’s present troubles versus history
  • Sweden: How is project funded?
  • Israel: Wonderful project. Are there confrontations with charlatans?
  • Filmmaker: Yes! He has ruined lives and beliefs. And people hate him.
  • Denmark, Love it. Strong story line. Different way of dealing with weird beliefs
  • Independent Lens: Great team of wonderful filmmakers. Have been in touch for 5-6 months. Our audiences will love it.
  • Tribeca: Project has been submitted a couple of times, and now is a good time to talk.
  • CBS: Perfect project for our Passionate Eye strand.
  • Knowledge: Really like it.
  • ZDF: Concerned about layers. Not clear view on the structure. Need more information.

Random Takeaways

  • Part of the promise of a pitch fest is that a great project will burst out of the pack and a stampede of commissioners will throw funding at the new sensation.
  • Sitting in the Forum audience, I always feel a bit like ‘Second Hand Rose’ when I hear that a project like An Honest Liar has been pitched around a lot, including to many of the commissioners sitting at the table.
  • But that’s what seasoned producers do: they network and pitch all the time. That’s what makes them ‘preferred producers’ – whatever their genre.
  • So it’s a challenge for the pitch organizer to find the balance between new talent, and new but already shopped work of established producers.


Jason Osder
Andrew Herwitz
Budget: $285,000
Confirmed: $90,000


  • Five children were killed and 60 + homes were burned when Police fire-bombed a West Philadelphia row house that was occupied by the MOVE sect
  • Archival story without narration
  • Filmmaker experienced MOVE bombing event as an 11YO, and it shook him at the time
  • They show three scene selects and not a trailer
  • Interviews with survivors won’t be used. Archive is more compelling
  • Can depict the past in the  present sense
  • Question: ‘How does unthinkable become normal?”


  • Sundance Institute: Was first in on this project. ‘We discovered a rare gem. Offers relevance, yet the story has a haunting drive towards conflict. Overall, it captured us. We felt proud we discovered something unique.’
  • CNN: We had success with the WACO story.
  • Tribeca: Compelling! And we may well get behind this film.
  • MSNBC: Jonestown and such topics work for us. Creative challenge is to create a narrative arc without narration. Like the personal connection to material. That often brings a good result.
  • PBS: Deep dive on historical events work on PBS.  Stay in touch. I’ll introduce you to American Experience.
  • ITVS: Footage is riveting. Like to continue conversation.
  • POV: Very interested
  • BBC: Like this. American ‘law & order mayhem’ is not as surprising to Europeans as it is to you Americans. Like to see an edited 20 minutes, but don’t know that I can get Brits interested in this story.
  • Israel: I like it.

Random Takeaway

  • I was studying in West Phila on the day of the MOVE bombing, and had followed the horrible build-up.
  • With such a strong personal connection, I came away with a special hope that these filmmakers succeed with their project.


Heather Millard, Iceland
Thorkell Hardarson, Iceland
Budget: $225,000
Confirmed: $45,000


  • Thorkell and Orn Marino Arnason are known as the Markell Brothers. As filmmakers, they have proven that they are adaptable to many genres
  • The film portrays trend leaders


  • SVT: Sweden is the most ‘trend sensitive country in the world’. We all dress alike. Are interiors look alike.It’s an important topic for us. Wonder about access. And the film must be more beautiful that you’ve shown.
  • ARTE: I have questions about format, style, access.
  • BBC: How do you deal with the “bollocks” factor? Business stories are more interesting about failures than successes.
  • Israel: See more films on fashion, and these play well. We have a Fashion week.
  • Independent Lens: We supported a previous film. Not a natural topic for us. We supported Helvetica. We will take a look.
  • TVO: Can we see a thought process?
  • Filmmakers: Yes, we can see a forecast and follow the market response.

Random Takeaway

  • Content loses to character. Pitch was too content-driven for the long table.


Lucie Tremblay, Canada
Patrice Sauve, Canada
Laurie Finstad Knizhnik, Canada
Budget: $825,000
Confirmed: $385,000


  • About a ‘nose’.
  • A film about scent.
  • Revolutionary process of understanding scents and perfumes
  • Film links food, sex and pleasure
  • From Romans to 21 Century
  • Explore connections smell and emotion
  • Little science
  • Creative inspiration: Amelie, Peter Greenaway.
  • Amelie soundtrack on pitch reel


  • DR Denmark: Science slot. Need hour version
  • NHK: Don’t find a fit, but could talk to cultural channel.
  • ITVS: No! Talk to PBS. Personally can’t wait to see it.
  • BBC: Won’t under any circumstances work in UK. Who is it made for?  UK market wants to know how to make food? How to get it? Not into Science of it.
  • Sweden: Interesting topic. For Science slot and not Art slot?


Jamie Kastner
Hans Robert Eisenhauer
Budget: $912,000
Confirmed: $205,000


  • Surprising road trip to get to the root of a stereotype – “that Jews are funny”


  • Goldmine of footage
  • Clips are representative of film


  • Latin America: Argentina may support.
  • Sweden: will continue talk in Sheffield
  • NHK: Jokes are difficult to translate in Japan
  • ARTE: definitely something for ARTE. People love to laugh. Good to be uncomfortable and then to relieve the feeling by humor.
  • POV: Need to see more. Strong filmmaking team.
  • Canada: Shaw Media. Need a lot of talent at the table. Bring more bodies to the team.
  • TVO: Interested in seeing more. But why does it matter?



  • To the Hot Docs team and delegates for their hospitality and friendship.


  • A profile of POV, a leading US documentary slot that was strongly represented at the long table in Hart Hall


Speaking Engagements

Sunnyside of the Doc
La Rochelle (June 26-29).

  • Watch out for the 3D / Giant Screen panel. Is there a new model built on (1) new digital giant (but sub-IMAX) size screens plus (2) premium commissions by 3D and documentary channels? Who are the players?
  • Also: China’s huge documentary market: Where is it heading? What do they pay?

Culver City, Los Angeles (September 9-12).

Come to my workshop on the basics of the business:

  • What do US factual channels want?
  • How much do they pay?
  • Who gets the work?
  • Why? (September 9, afternoon)