Hot Docs 2013 – Program Director Sara Archambault pitches at the Forum and lives to tell the tale

For several years now, I have sat on a variety of pitch panels. From a privileged seat like this, these are great events where I see new work, hear from smart colleagues, smile at a turn of wit, and wince at the inevitable awkward moments. Like most of my brethren on “that” side of the table, I try to be kind, constructive and fair in my comments to these filmmakers struggling to make their vision come to light. I try to imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes. But what I have learned is that nothing can prepare you for what it must be like to be in those shoes until you are actually IN them. And that, my friends, is what I did in Toronto at the Hot Docs Forum 2013.

The Hot Docs Forum is one of the most highly regarded broadcast markets in the world. At this event, a small number (this year: 19) of projects are selected to pitch to a group of broadcasters, commissioning editors, funders, and distributors from around the world in the hopes that a match (co-production? Pre-sales? A promise of further conversation?) can be made. It is held at the Hart House on the Victoria College campus. Imagine the Hogwarts School from Harry Potter and you’ll get a sense of the majesty (I find it hard to believe I didn’t find any secret entrances behind bookshelves…I looked).

I was invited, along with director Andrew James, to pitch our film STREET FIGHTING MAN

at the Forum. The staff at Hot Docs did their best to prepare us for weeks prior to the start. They gave us access to a directory of industry representatives participating in the forum and they encouraged us to reach out and begin conversations with the folks we would like to connect this. They helped us edit our pitch and offered pitch training prior to our “debut.” They did their very best to make us feel welcome and calm.

But despite these efforts, I’m unsure that anything could have prepared me for sitting at the head of this table.

(The Forum room at Hart Hall.)

It’s kind of like the Knights of the Round Table meets the Roman Colosseum. Okay…not that dramatic. But you can sense the stakes at the table – that great combination of excitement, tension, nervousness, and maybe a little fear. And luckily in this sport, the spectators are more likely to be cheering you on than looking for a bloodbath.

Andrew and I spent a LOT of time rewriting and rehearsing. We rehearsed in coffee shops. In the hotel room. Walking down the street. We only had 7 minutes to express what we needed to for what we thought would make the most winning pitch. The sample would eat up about 3:30 – and we were excited about the new trailer we had to show. The visuals would be powerful. So, in the 3:30 we had left, we hoped to communicate:

  1.  The strength of our stories and characters. Who are they? What is the arc of the story?
  2. Why does this story need to be told now? What is its relevance to this cultural moment
  3. Why are we the team to do it?
  4. (Given the international market) How is the story we are telling a universal, human story that could travel to many markets?
  5. Who are our partners?
  6. What is our timeframe for completion?
  7. What level of support are we looking for?

Cramming all of that in to 3 minutes and 30 seconds is no small task. We got a LOT of conflicting advice from a host of people we trust and admire. We took in what we thought would work, scrapped the rest and went with our gut.

We were the second pitch on the first day of the Forum. I had never been there before and my knees were KNOCKING. I am an over-preparer by nature, so it was very difficult to sit calmly watching the first pitch when I just kept going over my own in my head. Instead, I should have relaxed and listened to the voices at the table. Soon they would be responding to me and I should get to know them.

The first pitch was phenomenal, an Israeli team pitching a film called CENSORED VOICES. Before going up to pitch, the director confided in me how nervous she was. “Me too,” I shared. She added, “I’m just nervous because English is not my native language. I hope I say things correctly.” Always good perspective – everyone has their own hurdles to jump when it comes to public speaking!

When they were done, Andrew and I pulled our chairs up to the table. Everything went as we rehearsed it. We spoke confidently and we told this story we know so well that it is written on our hearts. And then the footage began to roll. And it was the wrong footage.

We still have no idea what went wrong. We had a grant deadline right before coming to Hot Docs and I wonder if some DVDs got mixed up. But it didn’t matter. We just had to go with it.
The sample was a 10 minute sample and we had to signal to the booth to stop rolling at an appropriate time. The footage was still good, but didn’t quite work with our storytelling approach for the pitch. We quickly shared that this was not our planned sample, but that we hoped the table still got a sense of our work. We lost some time, so we had to wrap up quickly and (delete given the time), we dropped the last three points of our pitch (partners, timeline, and need) to remain focused on what matters most – the story, the characters, the artistry, the appeal. Had I the benefit of witnessing the other pitches, I would have learned that they ALL go long and I could have just bought another 30 seconds to finish up. A note for the next time!

(Sara and Boston-based filmmaker James Demo.)

We were blessed with a warm reception from around the table. In some cases, this was the first time we were getting direct feedback from people who we had been in some form of conversation with over the course of a year. It was incredibly validating to hear responses to the work when you feel, so often, that you are working in a cave alone! Following the pitch, we were able to make several meetings and create traction for the project in ways that we could never have done without Hot Docs.

Lessons learned?

  1. Pitch often. Practice anywhere you can. Get to know the strengths of your story and start to enjoy telling it. The more you feel comfortable telling it, the more others will enjoy hearing it.
  2.  If your project is a party, you are the hostess. Your job is to make people feel welcome, fed, included, comfortable. You can do that in your pitch.
  3.  Pitches are stories. Craft them as you would your film.
  4. Find ways to make direct contact with the potential broadcasters, distributors and collaborators who interest you most. If they engage with you, this could lead to more conversation down the road.
  5. Your competitors are your friends. We connected with so many filmmakers during the Forum and we all cheered each other on. These are the folks you will likely see most on the festival circuit if you are lucky enough to travel with your film. Make some buddies, and future collaborators.

These are some tiny takeaways. I feel so lucky to have taken part in the Hot Docs Forum. Hot Docs is an incredibly well-run, well-curated, professional, fun event. Go if you can. I’m glad I did.

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