Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

How to Succeed at a Documentary Pitch Event: Toronto’s Hot Docs Forum 2012, Part 1

Hot Docs Forum was a two-day session held in Toronto’s Westminster-style Hart House.

  • Around 25 teams each pitched their partly-financed concept to a long table of potential funders.
  • ‘The money’ included the BBC’s Storyville strand, ARTE, Knowledge Canada, NHK Japan, Tribeca Film Institute, PBS’s POV strand, The New York Times’ Opinion Pages, ITVS, YLE Finland’s digital platform, and many more.

“We’re In!!”

By the end of the second pitch, I was caught up in the high stakes, and by the feeling that hundreds of producers and students would dearly like to be sitting in that room with us. I decided to take notes.

My goal?

  • Capture the some of the filters and language used by the decision-makers
  • Convey the kinds of qualities that earned instant financial backing for some films… Or not for others!
  • Provide practical insights for future pitchers to help them plan for their Hogwarts moment at the high table

The Notes

  • My iPad notes are partial. They were the best I could do.
  • Apologies in advance if I didn’t quite get it right.
  • I will gladly make corrections.


Karina Astrup very kindly offered to capture the scene during Day 1.

  • Karina is an independent producer whose film Despite the Gods successfully premiered at Hot Docs.  She is an Oslo-based Australian.
  • Many thanks, Karina!


Here are several pitches that I covered on Day 1… with my Random Takeaways.



A reporter is drawn into the struggles of a widowed Tibetan hawker on Beijing’s mean streets.
Jocelyn Ford, US
Wu Hao, China
Budget: $248,000
Confirmed: $101,000


  • Underside of China / Han / Tibetan stereotypes
  • Ethnic tension: can ‘feel it’
  • Powerful and personal story that hinges on struggle for son’s education
  • Women’s roles in traditional society


  • ITVS: very interested; want to see more of story arc, and of Zanta’s challenges to keep her son –
    • “What other characters you will develop?”
  • Tribeca: Love the drama and emotion. Unsure of reporter’s role in story?
  • Filmmaker: The reporter is in the film after Zanta asks her to go to the police station and protect her
  • Story is about: ‘two women from opposing side of the world coming together for a common purpose: the welfare of a child’
  • Knowledge Canada:  Likes docs where a reporter gets sucked in to stories they’re covering. Love complexity of story.  Interesting + powerful
  • Basic conflict is between traditional society and modernity- between Han and Tibetans. And within the Tibetan culture.

Random Takeaways

  • I’m interested in how China is portrayed in the Western media, and how China’s Documentary Channels respond to edgy films
  • In this film, China was initially “bad.”  A place of dark Han racism against Tibetans.
  • However, Tibetan traditional life is revealed as brutal towards widows like Zanta.
  • She is ultimately somewhat liberated in Beijing in a way that she couldn’t have been in Tibet.
  • Verdict from this complex, engaging pitch: China is ‘half bad’ — like most places


Sex trafficking on the seedy side of the tracks in Israel.  Russian mob. Broken women. An American evangelical gives service.
Ilan Azouli, Israel / US
Chico Colvard, US
Budget: $391,000
Confirmed: $35,000


  • Character-driven
  • Draws on most basic elements of humanity and encourages viewers to reflect on their own lives


  • ITVS International Call: Wants to know timeline to advise producers on call dates. US citizens qualify for Open Call
  • CNN, Jennifer Hyde: Overall Current Affairs remit. Heavily character-based material is our way of addressing  into a current affairs issue
  • DR Denmark, Mette Hoffman:  Why ‘Holy’ in title? Title is confusing!
  • Rai. Lorenzo. Strong story.
    • Choose Olga or the American ‘rescuer’ as central characters.
    • Make a choice: Either Investigation or Character.
  • Knowledge Canada: Interested. Scheduling 9 films from Israel
  • CBC: Catherine Olsen: Insight into Russian mafia. Hope there’s a life after sex slavery?m Hidden camera not new.

Random Takeaways

  • Titles matter more than ever because viewers have so many options. They have to see it all!
  • A Chinese producer says: “We couldn’t show this film in China. Sexuality and prostitution are taboo topics.”


Sierra Leone’s amputee football club is an inspiring legacy of a vicious civil war. The player’s ambition: Win the Amputee World Championship in Texas. ‘Dodgy business’ enters the picture as the pastors who operate the club are accused of profiting from foreign donors.
Ngardy Conteh, Canada
Allan Tong, Canada
Budget:  $374,000
Confirmed: $97,728


  • “Underdogs of the underdogs.
  • “Inspirational, and with the twists and turns of a Dickens novel.
  • “Civil war returns to the soccer pitch”


  • ITVS: interested. WIll meet later.
  • POV:  Riveting. A follow up to a story we’ve done on Sierra Leone’s Civil War
  • CNN: Important story to us. Make narrative clear and elegant –  hard to tell where its heading
  • BBC Storyville: Very interested for This World slot
  • Denmark’s DR: There are a lot of amputee team films. Make it charming and accessible. Be careful of complications of politics
  • NHK: Our World Documentary channel is also a sport-themed channel.  We are looking for current affairs context on SL and Africa at the moment
  • Tribeca: Personally like this pitch, but we have already funded films in this arena
  • Rai: I’m confused because the focus shifts from sports to corruption. Keep focus on the characters!!
  • ARTE:  Not sure.
    • Not investigative enough.
    • Falls between a personal story and a metaphor for a situation
  • CBC: I like it that it’s not just another story about victims coming together. Captures politics from a new angle

Random Takeaways

  • For the feature funding model to work, producers must assemble a virtual constellation of co-producers, pre-buyers and acquirers. But as the Rai, ARTE and CBS comments indicate, these potential players often have opposing viewpoints about how to tell the story. That makes funding all the more challenging, even for projects that do enjoy a positive response.
  • Many of the channels that once funded lots of docs and specials aren’t at the table. Discovery. Nat Geo Channel. Nat Geo Television. Sundance Channel. And more.
  • Read about The State of the Single Doc Economy


A filmmaker loses her sight to macular degeneration. Her journey weaves between Toronto and Santiago.
Maria Teras Larrain, Canada & Chile
Lisa Valencia-Svensson, Canada
Budget: $342,000
Confirmed: $201,250


  • Point-of-view of blind gaze: creates a different way to look and see.
  • Film goes beyond blindness


  • YLE on board, plus a Chilean fund
  • YLE: she feels rather than sees. Emotional arc is so strong that you don’t need to worry so much about story. Really amazing. Super music. Needs to be a film about seeing versus blind-ness
  • Rai: Like to come on board. Need to develop story
  • TVO: Beautiful lyricism. Like concept of ‘blind gaze’
  • Tribeca: Beautiful piece. Want to help you figure out how to make financing work. Concerned  about how to bring the stories together into a 3-act narrative
  • POV: Applaud your courage!

Random Takeaway

  • Won a big vote from the Hot Docs audience for a pitch that captures a filmmaker’s tremendous personal courage!


Documentary filmmaker Doug Block visits couples whose weddings he had once filmed as their professional wedding videographer.
Doug Block, Brooklyn
Lori Cheatle, US
Budget: $561,000
Confirmed: $315,000

  • HBO is on board
  • Tribeca is a big fan. Fun. Enlightening. “I was suffering from compassion fatigue after a run of social issue films”
  • Submarine: Looking for theatrical films. Needs a theatrical window, which is sometimes a Question with HBO. Has humor. Relatable. Has international potential as a big theatrical doc. Can be a phenomenon!
  • BBC. “Don’t be a self-indulgent NY filmmaker”
  • New York Times Opinion Page. Could be a video counterpoint to our weekly profiles of weddings. What is the Takeaway?
  • Knowledge: people love films about love
  • CBC. Unpredictability is wonderful. Want to be part of this film’s success.
  • NHK: needs hour.
  • Filmmakers plan both a theatrical and broadcast hour

Random Takeaways

  • Doug Block is an established documentarian who has enjoyed the backing of HBO, POV and others.
  • Commissioners and funders are drawn to successful people.
  • They are wary of the risk and additional workload involved in developing novices.
  • Doug is a big promoter of his own work. He gets lots of press. That is very attractive for funders who are always desperately short of marketing resources.
  • His presentation is very relaxed and engaging.
    • The commissioners can be put off by a hard sell.
    • Don’t miss Doug’s blog The D-Word

A young Swedish doctor leaves the comfort of her family and professional life in Stockholm. She finds happiness as a flying doctor in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Frida Kempff, Sweden
David Herdies, Sweden
Budget: $501,000
Confirmed: $101,000

  • ARTE: We have a slot for intimate stories related to society issues. Very interesting. Very talented
  • Rai: Like it… strong character… touching. Issue is ‘how to make a doc about a question?’ Needs more than just her personal story.
  • ZDF: maybe too somber
  • NHK: universal story that might work for Japanese audiences. Need characters in CAR.
  • (Filmmaker: Yes. Her family, colleagues and patients in Sweden and CAR are strongly-drawn characters.)
  • TVO: strong character at a crossroads works for us. Need to strengthen secondary characters.
  • SVT: We will back it.
  • Knowledge. It’s hard to find young people who will give access to their thoughts about the meaning of their lives. Very much like that quality in this film.
  • POV:  familiar story. May acquire it, but only if it is truly extraordinary.
  • ITVS: The doctor lost her sister to cancer, and that adds a psychological aspect to her story and to her relationship with the mother who she leaves behind

Random Takeaways

  • The Americans are largely silent on this one. Foreign locations. Africa. Subtitles. All negatives despite an inspirational life story.
  • I saw the pitch through the eyes of my 17YO daughter and her friends! I wished they were in the room.


  • More coverage from the Hot Docs Forum
  • A profile of POV, a leading US documentary slot

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?
  • Westdoc, 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)


  1. Very insightful. They ought to have you at the table. The absence of many channels that show docs is particularly striking – these projects are competing for a small amount of funding for very few slots. And it’s hard to see how those ‘sounds interesting’ promises translate into a full budget for any of the films.

  2. Peter, this is great! Wonderful to be a fly on the wall from afar, as I couldn’t make it to hotdocs this year. I can’t wait to read part 2.

    It’s fascinating to see the differences in responses between countries and public-vs-private broadcaster. I admit I had to look a few of them up too: YLE? Apparently Finland. SVT seems to be Swedish. Who knew? The Canadian producers all seem very nice (typical) but of course they have no, or little money, so really who cares.

    Some of the comments strike me as sort of stock responses though. Like “what’s the take home?” Such reductionist, quick n’ dirty TV-think. But it’s also important to realize these are the attitudes you’d have to deal with at an event like this.

    I was also a little confused about the format. My understanding was the filmmakers have a short amount of time (10 minutes?) to show a trailer and pitch the film. In your write-up of each pitch, you have the first few responses attributed to the “moderator.” Who is this, and why do they seem to be weighing in on the films so much?

    Many thanks for your comments, Ben. The expert moderators sometimes recapped the pitch or very briefly added context, for example by referring to the partners who are involved. Their contributions were always helpful, and took less time that my notes seem to indicate.

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