Chris WhiteChris White is POV’s director of programming & production. He spent two days at the Realscreen Summit in Washington, D.C. last week, hearing producers pitch their films at a speed pitching session. Here’s the inside scoop from a programmer’s perspective, and some tips on how to craft a successful speed pitch.

As a select group of independent documentary filmmakers make their way through the snow banks in Park City, Utah, each hoping their film will be the next non-fiction phenom to fetch five or ten million dollars, there is another event 2000 miles away in Washington, DC, where other producers try to sell their wares. Suits, ties and sports coats replace the fur-lined boots and goggles of the Wasatch Mountains, but the hopes are the same — get the work out there, get it seen by as many people as possible, and make some money to pay the rent.
Real Screen SummitThe Realscreen Summit, sponsored by the Canadian Brunico Communications, is a market and meeting place for producers and programmers of non-fiction work of all genres. The atmosphere is decidedly more commercial than Sundance, with less emphasis on filmmaking as an art form than on programming as commodity. The industry presence at the Summit is dominated by media giants such as Discovery Communications and A&E Television Networks. There are 45(!) delegates listed under the Discovery banner, and that’s not including six for Animal Planet and six for the Travel Channel, both channels owned by DCI. A&E has eleven people attending, with twelve more representing the History Channel. Among many other broadcasters, PBS is sending a few people, with HBO, Sundance and POV each sending one lone representative to add a little seasoning to the stew.

So I don my trench coat and head to gloomy D.C. for two days of meetings with producers. I’ve been invited to participate in the “speed pitching” session and to give a 30-minute talk about POV and our submission and selection process. I have individual meetings with about 15 producers lined up on top of that, so time is short.

I hop off the train, jump in a cab, quickly check into the hotel and head straight to the speed pitching session. As I head into the Renaissance Ballroom to find my seat, I pass a group of thirty or forty nervous-looking producers who have been put in a holding pen outside the entryway. They are anxiously waiting to deliver their three-minute pitches to programmers whom they’ve pre-selected in the weeks leading up to the Summit. As I sit down, I see I’ve got TruTV (formerly Court TV) on my left, MSNBC behind me, Jennifer Adams from PBS a few tables over, HBO’s Jackie Glover and an A&E rep across the room. Programmers from Playboy Channel, Retirement Living TV and Speed Channel are trading barbs in the corner.

Once all the programmers are seated comfortably, the frightened producers are corralled into the room into yet another holding pen where they will wait before being delivered to the slaughterhouse. The producers are instructed by the Realscreen Commandant that there will be ten rounds of three-minute pitches. When the signal is given, they may proceed to their designated tables and sit down. However, they are not to speak to the programmers until the bell has rung. There will be a signal after two minutes and a final warning with fifteen seconds left. Tension fills the air.

Everyone ready? No, it appears the A&E guy has slipped away to go to the loo. So we wait, and wait. The producers titter nervously. Finally, Mr. A&E strides confidently back into the room and we begin.
“You can go to your tables, but do NOT talk to the programmers!” More nervous laughter. DING DING. “Start your pitches!”

So, here’s the drill. The clock starts. There are brief introductions, and I slide my card across the table and encourage producers to feel free to follow up if they have any questions after their time is up. Looking slightly relieved, but knowing that twenty seconds have already passed, the pitch begins. Fifteen or twenty sentences later we hear, “One minute left!” Eyes widen and they start to talk faster, trying to wrap things up, say what they want to say, and get a little feedback. “15 seconds!” A look of sheer panic overcomes them as they shove DVDs, business cards and one-sheets into my hands and try to sputter out a few last words. Time is up. Producers who continue to talk are politely tapped on the shoulder. If their lips continue to move the Commandant grabs them by the scruff of the neck and hurls them back into the pen. And so, we begin again.

So, what is the point of all this? Why would you subject yourself to such torture? It does seem like a silly exercise, and a bit perilous, but I actually think it can be quite useful. The fact of the matter is that programmers can be very busy people, with a lot of producers trying to claw their way in front of them. With the speed pitch, you get a face-to-face introduction, a business card, and a quick sense of whether they have any interest whatsoever in your production. Equally as important is that you are forced to refine your pitch.
Every producer should know how to describe their project in three minutes. That may be all you’ve got, so take advantage of it. What’s the concept? What’s the format, one-off or series? Who are the characters? Who’s telling the story? Why? What’s the tone? What’s the budget, and what do you want from the programmer? If you answer these questions up front I can more accurately assess if it’s right for POV Although it hasn’t happened yet at Realscreen, there have been many instances in which a five-minute conversation has turned into a broadcast on POV Catch my interest quickly and then arrange a follow-up meeting.

So, how did my producers do? Pretty well, for the most part. There were a handful of works-in-progress that had the ring of a POV film about them — productions worth tracking. One project focused on the impact of Religious Land Use legislation on a community in upstate New York, and the conflicts that arise when religious real estate developers exploit the law. Another project of interest was a story about an elite American athlete who, after breaking her back, travels to India to undergo stem cell therapy with great success — a personal and scientific look at the stem cell debate.

There were several “probably nots,” such as a look at a no-carbs, high protein diet among First Nation aboriginals; a history of the Irish Mob in NYC; a raft trip through the Grand Canyon with a group of amputee veterans from the Iraq War; a travelogue with Cal Ripken as he journeys through China, bringing a modern-day form of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” to the Republic. I rarely reject a film outright, because the manner in which a subject is presented can vary a great deal — an unconventional look at a conventional topic might still qualify as a POV. For those in question I’ll say, “I’ll know when I see it. Send it to me when you’re finished, or close to it.”

And then, there are those that are just plain misses. Some producers don’t know anything about POV, so what they’ve pitched is a complete mismatch. A 13-part series on the Civil War. A “mock reality doc” about Native American healing practices in which scripted actors explore the science of spiritual healing. So I’ll leave you with one last word of advice. Know who you’re pitching to. If you don’t know about a particular broadcast venue’s programming criteria, then ask questions first.

That’s it for now. See you at HotDocs! In the meantime, “Start (working on) your pitches!”

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Chris is POV's director of programming and production. He and his team work closely with the executive director in the areas of programming, production and PBS station relations. Previously, he worked as associate producer and production office manager on the documentary Blue Vinyl (HBO, 2002). Chris spent a number of years as vice president of sales and acquisitions at Angelika Films International, and at BNN-TV in New York as associate producer on projects for the History Channel and the Smithsonian Museum. He also produced the children's program An Introduction to the Italian Renaissance for the Museo Italo-Americano in San Francisco.Chris's top five documentaries (this month) are:1. First Person Plural, Deann Borshay Liem2. Hybrid, Monteith McCollum3. Tintin and I, Anders Østergaard4. Fog of War, Errol Morris5. Crumb, Terry Zwigoff