Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

How to Succeed at the IDFA Doc Pitch Forum, 2/2. Plus: ‘The NY Times’ on the Rise of Thom Beers’ Reality Empire

From ‘Modern Witch Hunt’ to ‘Killing in the Family’: This week Eli Brown covers 11 more pitches – and the commissioners’ responses – at IDFA Forum.

Read on below to discover which film wins ‘Best Pitch at IDFA’ … and what happens when commissioners put themselves on the line and pitch their own documentary concept.


The Reality Empire: Two Paths to the Throne

Thom Beers


  • Beers would probably be billionaire if he had been born a Brit.
  • That’s because in response to fierce lobbying from PACT and others, UK producers are legislated to own rights to programs that they they develop for networks.
  • Its the opposite in the US, where work-for-hire is the rule, and networks own and apply the leverage. Producers are left with a neglible hand of IPs, even for hit shows that they develop.
  • But Beers is testing the waters as a ‘brand-able’ channel in his own right.
  • Check out his Facebook page: ThomTvNetwork.
  • For a glimpse of Thom Beers at work, go to his YouTube channel.
  • And catch up on our own Takeaways on the ‘Preferred Producer’ system.

Elisabeth Murdoch

New Yorker magazine recently profiled a very different kind of struggle to the top of the Reality mountain:  Ken Auletta’s profile is of Shine’s Elisabeth Murdoch.

  • We say that Ms Murdoch is not so much the heiress of the ‘Dirty Digger’ but granddaughter of Aussie royalty… the kingmaker Keith Murdoch.
  • Read: How Did Rupert Become Rupert?


IDFA Forum (2/2)

By Eli Brown


(Photos: Thanks to IDFA)


The trials and tribulations experienced by Robert Cooper, the lead negotiator for the Serbian-Kosovo diplomacy project, as he worked with those countries on their journeys towards membership of the E.U.

Vibeke Vogel, Denmark
Karen Stokkendal Poulsen
Budget: €500,196
Confirmed: €169,000


  • We have unparalleled access to their character during the course of the negotiations.
  • Our film takes you behind the scenes of the characters and into the negotiating room.
  • We effectively set up the characters and tensions.


  • WDR: “Yes!” because the trailer showed such a strong character.
  • ARTE France: Great character, hard political topic, but not sure if they have a slot that it fits.
  • ZDF: They are definitely in, as well.
  • ARTE G.E.I.E.: They are restructuring and one of their strands is going to be “knowledge” which entails science and history. They liked how this doc highlighted how the E.U. was important in keeping and creating peace.
  • RTS: Loved the trailer, but would there be any context for those that don’t know the entire situation?
  • Filmmakers respond: There will be a brief introduction to the war so that you know what is at stake.
  • CBC: This is an example of a high impact trailer! Felt like a “pass” on paper, but after watching the pitch, now believe that the characterdriven nature of the film will make it work for a Canadian audience.
  • POV: Wants to know how much time will be in the negotiating room, since that held the most fascination for him.

Random Takeaways

  • Trailer! Trailer! What seemed like an arcane subject on paper sprung to life on screen for almost all of the CEs.
  • Strong characters still grab audiences better than anything else.
  • High stakes were also appealing. Documentaries and reality programs seem to share a lot of the same filters.



A personal film  revisits the murder of the director’s brother and becomes a window on to the black middle class in America.

Yance Ford, US (director)
Esther B. Robinson, US
Budget: €457,753
Confirmed: €243,000


  • The director couldn’t make the pitch, so the team relied on prepared statements, the trailer and a recorded audio pitch from Ford describing her motivations and approach to the film.
  • The trailer featured a lot of static shots with non-synchronous sound from the interior of Ford’s childhood home, and it gave a very different feeling than many other projects.


  • Bertha Foundation: She’s from Long Island and would like to talk more: was very moved by the trailer.
  • CBC: The story and the emotion are remarkable, but border between US and Canada can sometimes be an issue with POV/PBS.
  • Simon: We’ll make it work for this project.
  • Knowledge: Also shares a border, but it’s not an issue!
  • WDR: Universal story about grieving, loss and family trauma. Didn’t see it as a film about race. Liked that it dared to have a slow pace — but was unsure how it would come together.
  • ARTE: Trailer didn’t work as well for her because it felt so claustrophobic. The director said that the film wouldn’t be “psychotherapy for the filmmaker” in the pitch, but this CE thought that’s exactly what it was.
  • BBC: Liked the trailer, but it would need to be recut for a mass audience and focus more on the Justice issue to reach a European audience and less on the personal grief angle.
  • YLE: Disagrees with the BBC. Stick with what you’re doing!
  • BBC: Well, then it won’t sell! (Ah, a little passionate conflict at the table, finally!)
  • SVT: Trailer really gets the one emotion down well, but wants to see if the rest of the film will develop more.

Random Takeaways

  • A trailer can be polarizing, and this project split the CEs along stylistic lines.
  • What may be “played out” in the U.S. (stories on the “justice”), might seem like a fresh take in Europe.



Follow up on a journalistic report about the genocide in Sri Lanka that occurred under a media blackout.  -But the filmakers have footage that was smuggled out to reveal the atrocity.

Zoe Sale, UK
Callum Macrae
Budget: €238,970
Confirmed: €88,426


  • Can a documentary make a difference?


  • Britdoc: Completely behind this program. This needs international attention.
  • Bertha: Supported it already and would like to add additional production money.
  • Ikon: Extremely powerful and disturbing and would like to follow up.
  • NRK: It’s one of the most important stories of war crimes in the last 10-15 years.
  • TVO: What makes this work are the personal testimonies and strong character-driven narratives.
  • CBC: Was familiar with the earlier journalistic report, and we’re struggling with how to get this on air. The images are fairly graphic and there’s a real limit to how much of that you can show and find an audience.
  • ZDF/ARTE: Feels this kind of program gets at the fundamental heart of documentary making.
  • ITVS: Don’t think it will work for a U.S. audience because of the unclear narrative and assault of disturbing imagery.
  • POV: Could find a home on Frontline more than POV.

Random Takeaways

  • Disturbing material, no matter how important, is still a risk and a challenge for broadcasters.
  • The CEs were very sympathetic to the “important story” told with first-hand accounts and wanted to make it work.
  • Lots of foundation money in on this untold, horrific story.



The “Moderator’s Hat” Pitch: This was a project picked out of a group of business cards placed in a hat. As such, there was no trailer ready and the pitch team talked for the 8 minutes about the genesis of their project, an examination of an enclave of Jews in the Caribbean.

Sherman De Jesus
Cecile van Eijk
Budget: NA


  • Story moves from Eastern Europe to Curacao, tracing three families as they search for their family roots.


  • YES: It was hard to tell without any of the characters or seeing anything. Less interested in history and more interested in the core narrative. It’s too early for us to get involved.
  • NDR: They’d be interested in seeing a treatment, when the filmmakers have one.
  • NYTimes Op-Docs: The fact that there are Jews in the West Indies is the “a-ha” moment in your film. The tracing Eastern European roots is not terribly interesting (and has been done a lot). Follow that thread and you might have something.

Random Takeaway

  • If you’re in the audience, and you have a project to pitch, make sure you’re ready to do it before you put your hat in the ring. It seemed like they might’ve done a disservice to their project because they hadn’t prepared for the pitch in a manner in which to really grab a CE.
  • Now, more than ever, trailers seem to be the currency of the pitch.



The story of Louis Sarno, a white man who moved to the rainforest of Central Africa to live his life with a pygmy tribe. As his health begins to fail, he decides to take his oldest son to New York City to contemplate his and his family’s future.

Alexandre Topndowski
Michael Obert
Jutta Krug, ARD/WDR

Budget: €494,002
Confirmed: €370,000


  • Trailer shows the overall structure of the film and introduces the characters well, but seems to focus on the kid adapting smoothly to a lot of the modern New York City environment.
  • Louis Sarno went to college with Jim Jarmusch. For some reason, this was stressed a couple of times during the pitch.
  • Unique access to the character, but this is the first film for the director, though he has experience as a writer.


  • Knowledge: It’s not sexy, but it looks good. He likes to take his viewers places that they don’t normally go.
  • RAI: Liked that it was a great small story with universal topics. Wants to be a part of it!
  • ARTE: Had a lot of questions on the backstory.
  • RTS: Was disappointed in the images in the trailer as they seemed too simplistic and didn’t stress the character interactions.
  • Filmmaker: There would be character interaction in the film, between him and American family.
  • BBC: Interesting, but why was the trailer not about the father-son dynamic as much? And why do I care about Jim Jarmusch?
  • POV: Intrigued, but didn’t see enough of the son (Samedi) to get a sense of him as a character.
  • NHK: Maybe a possibility for acquisition, but had a lot of questions about the overall flow of the narrative and how much would be in Africa versus America.
  • Tribeca: Wanted to see some higher stakes in the footage. It was a promising project.
  • YLE: Liked seeing the “modern world” through the eyes of the son.

Random Takeaways

  • Unique access is still a hard commodity to top, especially when you have an unusual story attached.
  • Trailer was a split from the audience – some CEs wanted more information about the narrative, others wanted a little more character interaction outside of the main characters. The best trailers showcase all of these elements with an economy of storytelling that piques interest and also conveys the scope of the doc well.



Made by the team behind “Enjoy Poverty!” They build an art center in Africa as a way of pointing out the hypocrisy of showing problems in areas of the world without allowing the art to benefit those areas directly. Very “meta.”

Pieter van Huystee, NL
Renzo Martens, NL
Budget: €441,892
Confirmed: €92,200


  • Trailer has a very humorous tone and Martens is an artist who works hard to provoke. The CEs get into a heated discussion about the merits of the project.


  • SVT: A fan of Renzo’s work and hopes to be part of the project.
  • YLE: Loves provocations – this creates a lot of internal dialogues.
  • BBC: Simply didn’t understand the project and also seemed a bit put-out by the assertions that there weren’t “good films being done about Africa” which underlies the theme of the film. Is this about the bad faith of Amsterdam leftists? Should this be called “In Praise of Cynicism?” Would the filmmaker be happier if the center thrives or collapses?
  • Filmmaker responds: I don’t think the film is cynical.
  • Tribeca: The “white man going to help black people” aspect made him a bit nervous. But, on the other hand, Renzo’s reputation precedes him… so, would be interested in talking about the project.
  • Knowledge: I love art films with social constructs, but I didn’t get this film.
  • TVO: I got the film and I like provocative films, but I think you’re reinforcing what you’re critiquing and that made me a bit uncomfortable.
  • ARTE: How are you going to criticize is important but a bit confusing. And I don’t want to be confused as a viewer.
  • POV: The U.S. is a pretty confused nation and I’m pretty confused by this, as well as a bit uncomfortable with the paternalistic tone. Would want to see a longer version before making a decision.
  • YLE: I like that this bucks the trend against making predictable films.
  • BBC: We don’t make predictable films! This film is just documentary masturbation.

Random Takeaways

  • This was by far the most entertaining pitch.
  • CEs seemed to be divided on the topic and approach, but the provocative pitch definitely got the attention of the room.
  • If you have a film that stirs up the audience, it’d be good to practice your rebuttals beforehand. The filmmaker wasn’t very clear in defending his goals and aims. Seemed to be surprised that people might not “get” the project.



Personal and intimate film about a gangland godfather in the Cape Flats area of South Africa.

Neil Brandt, South Africa
Riaan Hendricks
Budget: €146,129
Confirmed: €76,300


  • Just received a grant from the HotDocs Blue Ice Fund.
  • Trailer shows claustrophobic and intimate footage of a group of gangsters talking about how to carry out a “hit,” but didn’t reveal the structure of the program.
  • Unique access to an old friend who was a convicted gang leader.


  • Knowledge: Had met pitch team already, but needs to see more to make a decision.
  • Al Jazeera: Interested in the role of the wife (not shown in trailer).
  • TVO: Interested because of the unbelievable access. Why are they allowing that?
  • Filmmaker: They don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they are doing.
  • Sundance: Reads like an actual movie. Had concerns about the legal issues that might arise from a group of people in a documentary planning a murder.
  • NHK: It almost felt staged, so they weren’t sure about it.
  • POV: This film raises troubling ethical concerns — how much is being “created for the camera.” As a CE, I’m not sure what to believe.
  • RTS: We have responsibility when we show these films. We can’t just make an apology for a murderer.

Random Takeaways

  • Maybe there is a line that broadcasters won’t cross, after all!
  • Unique access is definitely a selling point, but a trailer that shows them more characters and story can really seal the deal.



The team behind “A Film Unfinished” investigates the footage that exists of the storming by Israeli forces of a flotilla of activists heading for Gaza. The Army wanted to disrupt all media transmission, but some footage did survive the encounter.

Itay Ken-Tor
Yael Hersonski
Budget: €319,273
Confirmed: €110,000


  • WDR: Bring it to Germany!
  • VPRO: We would like it, as well. If you have the material, it’s a go!
  • NYT: This is an interesting counterpoint where you could use Op-Docs to do a shorter version to promote the longer program.
  • CBC: Really interested in examining the optics of confrontation.
  • YLE: Absolutely interested, but wants to know how you will construct the narrative.
  • Filmmakers: We need more than just financial support — we need the support of a large group of international broadcasters on board to give it the “international community” support.
  • ARTE: If it’s an investigation into what happened on the boat, it would be interesting. Less interested in the essay on images.
  • DR: Devastating footage and an excellent opportunity to make a film about the fear of Israel.
  • BBC: If you’re just telling a story about different viewpoints, that doesn’t seem very new. Is there a new conclusion?
  • Filmmaker: I have my own conclusions regarding the event.
  • ARTE (responding): I thought it was going to go into more about how the images were used for different political aims. The voiceover and point of view for this piece are very important.

Random Takeaways

  • A strong trailer helped this film win the “Best Pitch” at IDFA this year.
  • The formal approach to the topic led to disagreements from different CEs as to what was most important for their audiences.
  • A lot of CEs favor the “investigative” angle on programs, but most were not keen on seeing a re-hash of current events and needed something to set it apart.



A horrifying and intriguing story of murder, Satanism and society’s scapegoats. It follows the prosecution of a mother accused of murdering her husband.

Pauli Pentti, Finland/Germany
Pekka Lehto
Budget: €715,926
Confirmed: €405,000


  • The trailer details an incredible story, but the tone of the voice over sounds almost tongue-in-cheek and detached.


  • WDR: Fascinating story that just seems unbelievable. Wasn’t sure how it would be told narratively.
  • Filmmaker: It will start in 2013 with the case being tried again, but I’m not going to solve the murder.
  • VPRO: It’s interesting, but the cheeky English VO plus Nordic murder mystery was confusing regarding the tone.
  • CBC: Reminded them of “Innocence Lost” and would love to be involved.
  • SVT: Extraordinary story that hasn’t reached Sweden yet.
  • NRK: My concern is it’s so well-known in Finland, are you making 2 versions?

Random Takeaways

  • Films from the northern European countries seem to be capitalizing on the success of series like “The Killing” by grabbing real-life but fantastical murder stories.
  • Trailer showed a compelling murder mystery, but the voiceover tone confused a number of the CEs. Once again proves that the trailer is of huge importance in a crowded marketplace.



Kyoko goes behind the headlines of a train crash in Japan that killed 100 people – because of an 80 second delay in the train schedule. She unravels the culture of punctuality and speed by following the journey of two survivors.

Mike Lerner, UK
Kyoko Miyake
Nick Fraser, BBC
Budget: €290,000
Secured: €142,500


As if out of respect for the topic, Miyake’s pitch came in a few seconds early.


  • Knowledge: Always looking westward for stories, so they are very interested.
  • POV: Fascinated by how a small choice has such impact and would love to see more.
  • ITVS: An incredible visual metaphor and wants to see more.
  • WDR: Great insight into Japanese society – already involved!
  • NHK: It’s an important issue in Japan, but they have their own internal production team working on it, so they have to discuss how to work with them.
  • TVO: A very universal story – everything is so accelerated now.
  • ARTE: Not sure where it will fit, as we are also preparing a show about “slowing down.”
  • RTS: Punctuality is part of the Swiss genome! I’m interested, but maybe in a shorter version.

Random Takeaway

  • A tight pitch that seemed to pique a lot of interest and had clear character, story and visuals that were clearly demonstrated in the trailer.



Follow-doc about 3 characters tracking human rights abuses from the makers of “Born Into Brothels.” They’ve been shooting with unparalleled access in Libya, Syria and in the homes of their characters.

Marilyn Ness, USA
Ross Kauffman
Ryan Harrington
Budget: €772,143
Confirmed: €245,900


  • Film has a lot of foundation support.
  • Human Rights Watch has given them complete access, but it won’t be a hero-worship film.


  • Britdoc: They were first money in and continue to support it.
  • WNET: I like this project, but we’re interested in short series. If it could hold up as a series, that would be interesting for them, especially with an American character.
  • VPRO: A good fit for them, but needs to be about why they do it as well as what they do.
  • YES: Human rights organizations are under attack by the right wing. It’s important for YES to be involved — will they be coming to Israel?
  • NYT: Intriguing because it presents an unseen perspective. Could be a good fit with a new initiative they are doing in partnership with Britdoc.
  • TVO: Would hold the filmmakers to a “warts-and-all” look at it.
  • ARTE France: They have an investigation slot that would work for this.
  • SWR: I like the title because of “A-Team.”
  • POV: If you don’t work with WNET, we’d be interested.
  • ZDF/Arte: I had big problems with the trailer. It’s too flashy and I would want to concentrate more on the intimate nature of the work.

Random Takeaways

  • The trailer was high-octane paced, action-movie style with corresponding music cues to emphasize this.
  • This seemed to work for most of the CEs, but ZDF/Arte wanted a more intimate feel to the material.
  • The lesson is that trailers can definitely cut both ways.
  • It’s an exciting project — and a great way to end the Central Pitch.


  • A great team trumps a great trailer.
  • But a great trailer can turn a bland proposal into a greenlight!


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



Impact Media Summit
New York, January 23-25, 2013.

The Impact Media Summit, formerly History Makers International is happening in New York City from January 23-25, 2013.

We are pleased to have as a partner again this year and are offering an exclusive association discounted ticket for $649.

The ticket includes:

  • Strategic, international networking opportunities
  • Face-to-face meetings with decision makers
  • Exclusive .Connect networking tool
  • The Impact Media Awards Gala, recognizing the very best in History, Current Affairs and Non-Fiction programming across TV and digital platforms.

Don’t miss out on doing business with key industry players, including:

  • Jennifer Hyde, Director of Development, CNN
  • Michael Katz, VP International Programming & Production, A+E Networks
  • Caroline Behar, Head of Acquisitions & International Coproduction’s, FRANCE 5
  • Ralf-Peter Piechowiak, Executive Producer/Senior Commissioning Editor, Contemporary History, ZDF
  • Tom Koch, VP, Sales and Distribution, PBS International
  • Sarah Jane Flynn, Senior Director of Original Factual Content, Shaw Media
  • David Royle, EVP, Programming & Production, Smithsonian Channel
  • Ann Julienne, Head of International Development Documentaries, France Televisions
  • Stephen Hunter, VP of Production, National Geographic Television International
  • Ed Hersh, SVP, Content Strategy, Investigation, Military Channel/Discovery Communications

Register today and don’t miss out on this event!