Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

How to Succeed at an International Documentary Pitch Forum: IDFA Takeaways, 1/2

We continue’s coverage of the deep dynamics of the great pitch sessions with a report on the recent IDFA Forum by New York-based documentary filmmaker Eli Brown.

By Eli Brown

What’s the vibe of one of the documentary sector’s great, global pitch sessions?

The IDFA Forum is a dramatic, three-day event held in Amsterdam in November.

  • More than 25 pre-selected teams pitched their partially financed concepts to the Central Pitch – a horseshoe-shaped table of potential funders from around the globe.
  • Additional pitch sessions were set in smaller conference rooms for Round Table pitches. These were for teams with less or no funding and broadcaster support.
  • ‘The money’ at the Central Pitch included the BBC’s Storyville strand, Arte, Knowledge Canada, NHK Japan, Tribeca Film Institute, Bertha Fund, ITVS, PBS’ POV strand, The New York Times’ Opinion Pages, ARD Germany, TVO Canada, YLE Finland, NRK, SVT Sweden, and many more.

This was all about the money:

  • Who’s got it?
  • And how to get it!

My goal for this report?

  • Capture the filters and language used by decision-makers.
  • Understand the trends in the kinds of programs that earn a seat at the Central Pitch.
  • Convey the highlights that really intrigued the commissioners.
  • Provide practical insights for future pitchers about how to plan and execute their moment at the high table.

Following are the pitches that I covered on Day 1, the 20th anniversary of the IDFA Forum.



IDFA starts with a bang — a BIG doc about the sleazy world of international arms dealers.

Joslyn Barnes, US
Johan Grimonprez, Belgium
Andrew Feinstein, South Africa
Budget: €1,258,000
Confirmed: €337,942


  • Most complete study of the arms trade by an author who has never been legally challenged on the subject.
  • Dramatic trailer was more of a teaser than giving a sense of the story.
  • Story seems to center on the ‘Beating the Iranian War Drum’ mixed in with an investigation of government culpability and corruption.
  • They ran out of time for their pitch.


  • Bertha Foundation: already on board because of the wide-reaching relevance.
  • ITVS: Big scope and personal story mix felt similar to “The House I Live In,” but wanted to know more about how they were going to blend it to make it controversial for a US audience.
  • ARTE: It’s a huge topic, but investigative documentary slot is a good fit for them. Worried about ambitious investigation that at the same time pose a wider reflection. Investigation might be enough on one’s plate.
  • TVO: Really interesting. Not clear what is ‘multimedia’ about the project.
  • Barnes responded: The book, the film, and as well as the potential artist installations in partnership with Grimonprez’s art gallery made it multimedia.

Random Takeaways

  • Arms trade is huge and has amazing relevance.
  • Access to military players and a powerful mood in the trailer helped this pitch.
  • Could’ve been a bit stronger in regard to their story structure, which had a number of commissioning editors (CEs) wondering how it would fit on their channels.
  • Budget was very daunting. They just don’t have millions to throw around at single projects – even worthy ones.



Sex Ed in Uganda mixed with the political struggle and a personal, intimate and cross-cultural lesbian love story.

Iiris Harma, Finland
Visa Koiso-Kanttila, Finland
Budget: €298, 278
Confirmed: €118,000


  • Character-driven, shows off in trailer to good effect.
  • Follows 2 women (1 Ugandan, 1 Finnish) running the program who are under pressure from government; as well as 2 characters from workshops.
  • There are some humorous moments in the Sex Ed class.
  • Not completed shooting yet.  Not sure how it will end.


  • SVT: It’s a matter of how you tell this story. Two great characters; the editor they picked is a great choice.
  • POV: Interested to see how it compares to “Call Me Kuchu” which was a big festival success last year.
  • TVO: Trailer made them wonder about the strength and point of view of some of the minor characters.
  • Sundance: The Finnish connection is intriguing and they were interested.
  • Ford Foundation: The topic is important, but wanted to know more backstory.

Random Takeaways

  • If you can show your story structure in your trailer, it helps to clear things up for the pitch!
  • Who you choose as your editor can build a CEs trust in your ability to pull off a tough edit.



How does Russia deal with the memory and legacy of Joseph Stalin?

Silvie Cazin, France
Thomas Johnson, France
Jenny Westergard, YLE
Budget:  €431,000
Confirmed: €232,400


  • Director read from a prepared statement. Has a long history with Russia.
  • Trailer focused on man-on-the-street.
  • Trying to schedule a Putin interview.


  • CBC Canada: If this is about Putin and Russia today, they’re interested. If it’s about the history, it’s a pass.
  • This comment was shared almost universally by the commissioners.
  • NHK: We might acquire it, but they wouldn’t pre-buy or co-produce.

Random Takeaways

  • Russia’s present is fascinating; Its past is old news. Making the history relevant to the present day is critical for success with a historical doc.
  • Director read from a prepared statement and lost a lot of the power and passion for the subject by holding tightly to his script. Pitching in your non-native language is difficult, but a bit more rehearsing and a looser approach would’ve made the subject come alive more.
  • Make sure your trailer is current for the project – this is a big moment, not a time to come up with an out-of-date trailer that doesn’t showcase your project to its best.



Can a politician and an activist clean up Naples, Italy, and turn it into a model for handling garbage in the future?

Raffaele Bruneti, Italy
Budget: €273,800
Confirmed: €90,000


  • In Naples, trash was always tied to the Mafia. But a reformer politician sweeps in with the help of a “zero-waste” guru.
  • In the end, the mayor does clean it up – by shipping the waste to the Netherlands!
  • Trailer is more of a “character tape” and gives a sense of the tone (lighter, maybe a little comedic).


  • Knowledge, Canada: Know the filmmaker and thinks he’s the right guy to tell the story.
  • TVO: Toronto has a huge garbage problem and a mafia. Confusion about the character tape and who would be the main character (the guru or mayor)?
  • CBC: Do you have a mafia character? That would be integral to adding conflict.
  • NHK: Japanese love Italy and have a big garbage problem, but they were concerned about the roles of the characters, as well.

Random Takeaways

  • Humor plays well with the Commissioners.
  • The trailer is key. Big characters, conflict and humor make a difference.
  • Director’s track record can play an important role in garnering broadcaster support.



Turkish soap operas are taking over the world. Go behind the scenes with the people who make them and the people who watch them in the Arab world.

Rea Apostolides, Greece
Nina Paschilodou, Greece
Budget: €227,508
Confirmed: €151,400


  • Trailer has great production values, it’s well-shot, takes advantage of the actors and actresses to give it a bit of a behind-the-scenes look, as well.
  • Pitch person seems comfortable with the material and is well-practiced. Fascinating look into how television shapes culture.


  • Sundance: The challenge is how you connect the creators of the soap opera and the people who watch them. The way this is done wasn’t shown in the trailer.
  • A number of commissioners saw the trailer at DOK Leipzig and commented on how it had already changed in response to their concerns. This showed a production team that was willing to work with commissioners from feedback.
  • Tribeca: Wondered how this would translate to US audience given the lack of popularity of Turkish soap operas.
  • CBC: Curious about the opposition to the social changes being spurred by the soap opera. Are they causing problems in the viewers and actors lives?
  • Apostolides: Yes, they were going to show how it impacted people in Saudi Arabia.
  • YES (Israel): Turkish soap operas are popular in Israel, but there were a lot of characters in the trailer, so it was hard to follow.

Random Takeaways

  • Listening to criticism and developing your vision as you go shows you’re a strong partner to work with. You can get into multiple pitch forums with the same commissioners for your project.
  • Trailers set up expectations for the project, so make sure that you fine-tune it to match your program as much as possible.
  • Speaking from the heart and off-script made the presenters seem more comfortable, relaxed and in charge.



Follow the search for a 20YO girl who disappeared trying to migrate from Eritrea to Israel through Sinai, a dangerous stretch of desert dominated by smugglers and other lawless characters.

Keren Shayo, Israel
Osnat Trabelsi, Israel
Budget: €252,362
Confirmed: €124,500


  • Trailer featured many tense moments involving family members. Commissioners responded strongly.
  • There’s a Swedish character who helps mediate negotiations – gives it a strong international angle.
  • The producers are looking for co-production companies to work with since as Israelis they can’t film in the Sinai, where the majority of the action will take place. This confused the CEs a bit.


  • Britdoc: Looking for investigations funded on the belief that filmmakers are the new investigative journalists. They were impressed with the trailer and the emotion of it.
  • RTS: Wasn’t sure how the Sinai aspect would fit the story structure.
  • Shayo: The Sinai story will comprise half of the film. Shayo revealed that it’s possible to simply call up the torture camp and you can get someone on the phone there. This was pretty shocking. It was clear they had high-level access to the subject.
  • ARTE France: Not sure what slot would work because it wasn’t clear if it was an investigation story, a geo-political story, or a character portrait.
  • SVT: Liked the Swedish connection and the untold story nature of it, but wasn’t sure about the narrative arc.

Random Takeaways

  • Commissioners were concerned about supporting a project that didn’t have a key production piece lined up.
  • A trailer could pick up significant interest at this point, so putting together a “devastating” trailer can gain significant notice for project.



Forensic expert Joergen finds himself in a moral dilemma when he is to examine a group of “living” Iraqi civilians who might have been subjected to torture.

Helle Faber
Danish Film Institute
Budget: €389,106
Confirmed: €299,000


  • A human rights take on “The Killing” from Denmark.
  • Helle Faber’s previous films were festival hits: “Putin’s Kiss” and “The Accidental Terrorist.”


  • They had unique access to follow from the start to the end of the investigation.
  • Compared it to CSI – except for real.
  • Takes an in-depth look at the Iraqi conflict from a unique perspective.


  • BBC Storyville: Liked it a lot. The trailer sells it. They like the dynamic between the lawyer and forensic scientist.
  • POV: Liked the unique Iraq war introspection and the terrific trailer.
  • ITVS: Thinks that they will be in on it, but wondered what the courtroom conclusion would be.
  • Faber: The revelation of the final piece of evidence, rather than the courtroom would probably be the conclusion of the film.
  • ARTE France: The personal nature of the story (from the forensic scientist’s POV) makes it a difficult fit for their slots.
  • NRK: Wasn’t sure it would hold up as a feature-length doc because of the personal POV.
  • Knowledge: Very interested because it really gets into the head of the scientist.
  • NHK: “We are doing a 2013 thematic week on Iraq War and this would be a great fit.”

Random Takeaways

  • Room seemed split on whether a personal story was a plus or a minus. The ‘plus camp’ thought it was a VERY strong plus.
  • The trailer really pushed it over the edge for a couple of CEs. In a short pitch, images always speak louder than words.
  • The qualifications of the filmmaking team convinced one CE to want to meet for more in-depth conversations regarding the story-telling approach. Having a strong filmmaking team with a good track record is always a benefit.



Eurocrisis: The Movie. Eurocalypse will find, identify and describe both the causes and the culprits of the European economic crisis, in a gripping, wide-ranging investigate thriller of a film

Ben Lewis, UK
Femke Wolting, Netherlands
Nick Fraser, BBC (as writer)
Martin Pieper, ZDF
Barbara Truyen, VPRO
Budget: €627,202
Confirmed: €165,000


  • This project was called for at last year’s Forum by Nick Fraser. He cried out for a program about the Euro crisis, but in the ensuing months didn’t receive any proposals that nailed the right tone and scope. He decided to write it himself and find some good production partners.
  • All the usual suspects lined up for this one since it was co-produced by most of the heavy-hitting European CEs.
  • The director had a film in this year’s IDFA competition, with a light tone. Producer was responsible for last year’s festival hit, “Meet the Fokkens.”
  • The project was fairly muddy and not cleared up by the very light and humorous trailer. It made each European city a “character” and re-named it after the economic principle that they violated. It was very confusing!


  • YLE: If it were not for the fantastic assembled team, he would be VERY critical of the pitch. It helps to have the head of BBC Storyville on board as your writer.
  • Lichtpunt: We trust the filmmaking team to get it right.
  • Knowledge: Has run many hours on the crisis and trust the filmmaker, so they’re on board.
  • POV: The structure of the film is a bit confusing, so maybe they’ll be interested after a rough cut.
  • NHK: Also interested to see a rough cut and make a decision based on that.

Random Takeaway

  • Sometimes it’s more who you know than what you’re producing, which further illustrates the importance of building a strong, well-connected team when you bring big ideas to market.



Amanda Nyholm Jacobsen is found guilty of a $22 million fraud and forgery. Everybody condemns her but filmmaker Rebecka Rasmusson is fascinated. Who is Amanda and what made her cross the line?

Stina Gardell, Sweden
Rebecka Rasmussen, Sweden
Budget: €390,339
Confirmed: €115,000


  • They get right to the trailer that reveals the character of Amanda Jacobsen in very intimate interviews. She came to Denmark from Iran and became a successful businesswoman. And then she stole a lot of money and her husband killed himself. They see the film as a detective story.


  • RTS: They have fantastic access, but they were worried about how trustworthy she is.
  • TVO and IKON: Portrait and access are interesting, but wanted to know more how the subject would be treated narratively.
  • VPRO: Liked it, but wanted the story-telling approach to take advantage of the sensationalist nature of the story more. Said that it was being told in a very Swedish ‘undramatic’ style. Wanted more emotion.
  • NRK: Liked the low-key storytelling.
  • CBC: My favorite docs are about con artists, so how you play around with that story could be the deciding factor.
  • YLE: Didn’t like the title because it tipped the filmmaker’s point of view before you had even watched a frame of the film.

Random Takeaways

  • The Crime topics that are hits for U.S. cable nets like ID are also a draw with International CEs.
  • Everyone loves a good whodunit where the filmmaker enjoys unparalleled access.
  • The trailer didn’t help the CEs understand how the filmmakers would tackle a challenging narrative.



A film about a mother/daughter relationship where the girl who is reaching for young adulthood can’t see, hear or speak.

Min-Chul Kim, S. Korea
Seung-Jun Yi, S. Korea
Budget: €244,900
Secured: €74,100


This team was behind last year’s festival hit “Planet of Snail.” This seems like a logical “sequel” in that it tackles similar themes in a similar style. Their trailer was shot over 3 days.


  • Tribeca: Loved “Planet of Snail,” would like to make this work.
  • Sundance: After 3 days, this shows incredible promise; very interested.
  • ITVS: Loved the observational approach and “Planet of Snail.” Interested in the social context in South Korea.
  • ARTE: Might be able to come on board as a co-production with YLE!
  • BBC: Wanted to make sure the film was more about communication and language than disability.
  • NHK: Also wanted to make sure that there would be some deeper understanding, not just a show about disability.

Random Takeaways

  • If you win numerous festival awards with your first film, it’s probably a smart idea to follow it up with a similar piece to catch the wave of sequel-itis. But…
  • Make sure that you have a compelling character to hang the new piece on, and showcase them appropriately.
  • Though the trailer was culled from very little material, it captured the look, feel and approach — and hooked the CEs right away!

(Photos: Thanks to IDFA)


Eli Brown is an independent producer and post-production consultant with 15 years of experience creating broadcast programs. He is based in New York. Visit him on the web here.


  • Eli Brown’s IDFA report, part 2.
  • World Congress of Science & Factual Producers, part 3


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