For documentary filmmakers, pitching forums provide one way to present their film projects to a group of distributors and film festival programmers. The format is pressured: Filmmakers have just seven minutes to pitch their projects, and then several minutes to receive feedback from the panel of potential funders. Each year, Points North Institute, which runs the Camden Film Festival in Camden, Maine, selects six fellows to receive $2,000 grants and an all-expenses-paid invitation to the Points North workshops. The fellows’ workshops, which take place every September, include intensive training in how to pitch projects. We asked Sean Flynn, program director at Points North, what their fellows learn about pitching.
PDN: What is the mission of the Points North artist programs and its pitching forum?
Sean Flynn: Our current mission statement emphasizes supporting the next generation of nonfiction storytellers. We are supporting people who are still early in their careers, and stretching the form of what documentary can be. We’ve tried to highlight documentarians who are doing interesting things with creative nonfiction. This year, we expanded to include a program on interactive and immersive media, which includes VR and interactive installations. In the past, we’ve had people coming [to speak] from the photo world, like [photographer] Susan Meiselas, and people from public radio. It’s exciting to think about building a platform that will be interdisciplinary, while always keeping documentary film at its core.
PDN: What’s the advantage of attending the pitch forum?
SF: The Points North Pitch is now part of a larger program called the Points North Fellowship. We select six filmmakers and bring them in two days before the festival starts for an intensive pitch training workshop. It’s usually led by colleagues who come from Hot Docs or Sundance—people we believe are some of the most stellar mentors in the business. They understand the funding landscape, but they’re also incredibly supportive and generous. They can help filmmakers get at the essence of their projects and articulate what they’re trying to do. Ironically, that’s sometimes the hardest thing for storytellers to do.
Many of the filmmakers and artists we work with are extraordinarily talented in their own creative process, but when it comes to promoting themselves or pitching their own work, it can be a stumbling block. We’ve found the value of the Fellowship is really in that preparation stage. Fellows come in with a certain language for how they describe their project. Just by testing it with a smart, supportive audience, they can walk away with a more clarified, impactful way of describing their project to potential supporters or partners.
PDN: So the intensive workshop offers a pitch rehearsal?
SF: It’s about creating a safe, supportive environment where you can go through those first shaky trial runs. A lot of people come in cold. They’ve never stood in front of a room full of their peers and tried to articulate their project in seven minutes. It’s an opportunity to step back from your material and your research, and hear honest feedback. We’ve found that invaluable.
PDN: How does the language the filmmakers use to describe their projects change after the workshop?
SF: A lot of it is about “positioning.” That’s a marketing word, but funders, broadcasters, programmers, or anybody who is exposed every year to hundreds of projects—they have to find the ones that cut through the noise and will resonate with their audiences.
There are different strategies, but the main idea is finding what makes your work distinct from everything else out there. You might be doing a story about immigrant rights. There have been hundreds of stories dealing with similar issues, but you might have incredible access, a particular twist, or some visual conceit that will make it different from the typical documentary on immigration. What is the filmmaker’s voice and what’s their artistic approach? That’s something that filmmakers struggle to bring to the surface in a pitch.
One thing I say is that when you’re pitching a project, make sure you’re telling your own story. It’s important for people investing in your project to know how you came to this project, why you’re the right person to tell this story, and to make them want to be part of your story.
It always comes back to the audience. In this world of unlimited media channels, what’s going to make me pause and pay attention to the story you’re telling? Having a deeply personal connection to the story is a great place to start.
PDN: What’s the format of the pitch?
SF: Everyone is given seven minutes on stage. That’s usually split between a verbal pitch and a work sample. We suggest that the work samples be no more than four minutes. Most are cut as works-in-progress trailers. My recommendation is to find a way in those four minutes to convey the key elements: a sense of character, how the story will move or change over time, and show that there’s potential in the project to be a feature film. It takes a lot to fill 70 or 90 minutes and hold an audience’s attention, so you want to show the depth, the visual style, [and] the editing style.
PDN: You have 12 funders, broadcasters and programmers lined up at a table to listen to pitches. It looks terrifying.
SF: We recognize that the format of the event feels very high-stakes. Other pitching forums—the big ones are Hot Docs [in Toronto] and IFDA in Amsterdam—are framed as a marketplace. They’re meant to be a place where deals are made. Over the years, that role has maybe diminished a bit [because] there’s a glut of content out there. Broadcasters can afford to wait until a project is at the rough-cut stage before they sign [a deal for] a project.
We try to take some of the pressure out of the pitching forum by saying that it’s an opportunity to introduce projects to relevant funders and to facilitate relationships that will be ongoing. And we try to make sure that it’s a space for constructive criticism. I give a pep talk to the funders before we go out on stage. I tell them that our job is to support all six of the projects: Even if one is not the right fit for your broadcast slot, you can help the filmmaker by giving notes on how they pitched or how the story could be spun.
We open the forum to the general public, and have about 350 people packing the Camden Opera House. That can add to the intimidation, but most fellows tell us that it gives them confidence because the audience is cheering for every project.
PDN: What can you tell us about The Feeling of Being Watched, which won this year’s Points North Pitch Award? [Editor’s note: The award, sponsored by Modulus Studios in Boston, included approximately $10,000 worth of sound mixing and color correction services.]
SF: [Director] Assia Boundaoui is a young Algerian-American journalist. This is her first documentary project, and she is coming into the documentary world with little in the way of connections or an established network, so we were excited about her and her project. Domestic surveillance is an incredibly important topic. The film shows what it looks like from the perspective of a community being surveilled, and she’s telling the story from the inside. Assia is an example of a filmmaker early in her career who can come to Camden, get feedback and meet colleagues who will help her current project and the development of her career in the long term. She’s based in Chicago and it’s important for us to support artists who are working outside New York or LA. We want to be a place where talented storytellers from every part of the country can be championed and highlighted.
PDN: Any advice on how filmmakers can use the feedback they get at a pitching forum?
SF: I think it’s important to pay attention to patterns in the feedback. If a lot of people have confusion about who the main character is, or how the film will be structured, it’s worth trying to figure out how you can address those things next time you pitch. But you also have to remember that you’re never going to please everybody.
Information on the Points North Institute Fellowship can be found at pointsnorthinstitute.org/artist-programs.