Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

IDFA Amsterdam: Seven Key Success Factors at This Year’s Documentary Pitch Forum

The IDFA Forum is the leading European, and possibly international co-financing and co-production market for documentaries.

Our reporter Eli Brown returned to Amsterdam with the mission of spotting the Key Success Factors for documentarians, as measured by the responses from decision-makers to the pitches at this year’s Forum.

And here they are, Eli’s 7 KSFs at IDFA in NL …

 bEli Brown, producer

1. Access

Access is still key:

  • Projects like Promise, Freedom Fighters, The Road, Guantanamo’s Child, Afghan Justice, Almost There and With or Without You scored high on the collective commissioning editor’s (CE’s) charts because the filmmakers had established and secured an intense and intimate access. It wasn’t enough to just have access, though; the best pitches made it clear that they would show an unflinching portrayal – and very human one – of their main characters.
  • One project that earned many positive comments but didn’t have exclusive access was Pepe’s Tango. A film about the same character – the populist president of Uruguay, was pitched by different filmmakers at the 2013 HotDocs Forum. So, in this case, first to market may be more important than whoever had the access first.

winnaars_710x200 The Winners

2. Trailer

A good trailer can make a difference –especially when you engage the viewer with a compelling character:

  • Afghan Justice picked up a fan among the CEs with a compelling, character-driven trailer. CNN Films had beenunimpressed by the written proposal, but the trailer revealed such a strong central character that it renewed their interest.
  • The most complete trailer belonged to Almost There, which established character, setting, stakes, and act structure in a remarkably compact time frame. Left on the cutting room floor, though, was, “What happens in the third act?” Unfortunately for this team, a number of the CEs were most interested in the answer to that question, leaving a lot of “Let me see the rough cut and I’ll get back to you,” comments from CEs.
  • A brilliantly shot trailer can also garner fans, as Flickering Time Bomb, a beautifully shot trailer about the fate of the Afghan Film Archive did. It may seem obvious, but compelling visuals still make a difference (or maybe it should be reassuring that this is still true).

 3. Credentials

Your film-making team really does matter!

  • IDFA curates the pitches that are allowed in the Central Pitch – and all of the filmmaking teams that presented had significant track records. They often enjoyed pre-existing relationships with many of the CEs on the panel.
  • It’s not a surprise that most of the comments were positive throughout the two day pitching session – the panel knew that whatever the result of the projects they witnessed, it was likely that the final documentaries would be well-made.
  • Freedom Fighters (backed by ITVS) took the notion of the international film community a step further and stressed to the panel that, although they were U.S.-based, they were working as an international team. They were bringing in a Finnish editor and a Danish sound designer to help round out their creative approach, possibly in order to curry favor with some of the Scandinavian CEs on the panel. It seemed to work, as one CE commented favorably upon the decision.

 4. Crime & Justice

Or, rather, “Injustice” & “Crime”:

  • Pitches for Promise, Freedom Fighters, Guantanamo’s Child and Afghan Justice all centered on the issues of the legal system, and all received positive comments.
  • Promise is a story about star-crossed lovers in one of the first televised trials in US history. It suffered a bit from the choice of recording a central interview in German, which put off both the BBC and CNN from making immediate commitments.
  • My Takeaway: Even in an international marketplace, English remains the language of record.

5. Archive

Be careful how you use the archive:

  • The pitch for How To Save The World, a documentary about the personal story behind the founding of Greenpeace unearthed some rarely seen archive and personal footage. These were interwoven with more contemporary interviews, and they got the room buzzing. The team had a recent hit, too, with Donor Unknown, so CEs felt they could trust them to deliver the goods.
  • Another pitch that heavily focused on the archive was Greece, The History Behind the Collapse. It didn’t seem to get as much of a buzz, somewhat based on the fact that the archive seemed generic and not unique.
  • Flickering Time Bomb featured a few archival shots in its trailer, but they were used to powerful effect, showing that the clips represented the beginning of a treasure hunt for never-before-seen footage.

6. “War fatigue”

Battle scars are showing:

  • A couple of CEs commented favorably on pitches about war zones by stating that they were glad the projects “stayed away from the ‘do-gooder’ film approach.”
  • That might be another way of saying that there is quite a bit of ‘conflict zone fatigue’ for most of the CEs and even from foundation reps.
  • So, be on notice: if there’s an Afghan War doc in your development pipeline, it might not receive the critical acclaim that you were expecting from this group of jaded funders!
  • Pitches for Flickering Time Bomb, The Betrayal of Our Fathers and A Haunting History rose above the typical fray of “War” docs by focusing on strong characters and a slightly different angle beyond the conflict itself.
  • Perhaps, doc commissioners are ready to move into a post-conflict world in terms of what they want to see on their channels.

7. The Pitch

Don’t underestimate the  importance of the pitch!

  • It’s easy to think that these pitches are just a dog & pony show with little follow through.
  • But several previously pitched programs showed up in the festival this year, including Kismet and Happiness, with Kismet being nominated for a jury prize.
  • Happiness also was recently chosen for Sundance, so getting your project onto the pitch stage can help raise the profile of the project.


Speaking Engagements

Real Screen Summit 2014
Washington DC
Sunday, January 26, 2014 1:30 PM – 3:30 PM

How Audience Research Can Make or Break Your Pitch

Brad Dancer, SVP Programming, Planning and Research, Nat Geo Channel
Brent Stinski, Founder & CEO, Media Predict
Peter Hamilton, Moderator

This workshop will take you step by step through the program approvals process for typical channels highlighting the array of research tools that network executives use to help green light – or renew – your shows; outlining the research data that producers should have at their fingertips before they pitch network development teams; and analyzing how much the ‘gut feel’ of network programmers, producers and agents will give way to an approvals process that relies more heavily on consumer research input.

Asian Side of the Doc
Chengdu, China, March 18-21, 2014
Panel: Crowd-funding Platforms in Asia
Panel: 3D / IMAX/ BIG SCREENS for Docs

Cannes, April 5-6, 2014
Panel: How to Get the Funds: Co-pro’s and Foundations
Interview: Louis Vaudeville, CC&C Paris: The Apocalypse Franchise

AND, don’t miss Hot Docs in the Big TO
April 24 – May 4, 2014