Paul Pauwels is the EDN (European Documentary Network) Director. Previously he was the head of the Belgian production company Congoo and former director of the European Television and Media Management Academy (ETMA). He continues to work worldwide as a tutor and moderator. Pauwels is sharing his guidelines for a successful documentary pitch. In this first part of the series, Pauwels offers some overarching advice for preparing your pitch and what to put into writing.

Part 1: Pitching 101: Writing the Pitch, and Other Pitch Preparations »
Part 2: The Ws That Build a Successful Pitch »
Part 3: When You’re in the Room »

Pitch Basics

  1. A pitch is the beginning of an adventure, not the end. A good pitch doesn’t necessarily end with the film going into production. On the other hand a bad pitch doesn’t necessarily have to mean the end of the film. Learn from mistakes and do it better next time.
  2. Be aware that there are different pitching situations:
    • The artificial situation: an organized event, where everybody knows what is going to happen and where there are some clear rules. Your audience is waiting for you, but they will still have to be convinced.
    • The real-life situation, in which you either: Go and see the producer/commissioning editor and pitch the project in private; run into a producer/commissioning editor and get an unexpected chance to pitch; or get invited to present your project by a producer/commissioning editor. In these cases, the rules are less clear but you have to be ready to pitch at the most unexpected moment and still do a good job.
  3. Be aware there are different financial sources to pitch to and that not all projects are suited to pitch to all kinds of financers (broadcasters, public funding, private investors). The arguments you’ll use to convince different funders might vary and you might have to write a different description for each target.
  4. Don’t consider pitching workshops as a teaching session or a classroom situation, but see them as a way of sharing experience and information. Learn from others and accept that others learn from you. In the end, we all profit if better documentaries are produced and broadcasted. My success is your success, and yours is mine.
  5. In many cases the producers/commissioning editors are not the sole decision-makers. They take your project home and have to pitch it to their colleagues – so they become your voices. Help them do a good job: Give them the right information.
  6. Don’t become a pitching shark. You don’t want only one film to get financed. You want to build a good working relationship for the future. Producers are your partners, not walking wallets.
  7. Don’t speak too fast when talking in a pitching session where translation is available. The translators won’t be able to keep up and will make mistakes. It might be a good idea to give them the bulleted outline of your pitch, so that they can follow the structure and read the names of people and places that are not familiar to them.
  8. The follow-up is important. Keep in touch with those producers who showed interest! Keep them informed about how the project is evolving. However, don’t push too far. Don’t become a pain who bombards people with phone calls and emails. If you manage to get a co-production deal in place, then you certainly must follow up closely and keep in contact with the producers. Let them know what is going on and how things are evolving. They are now part of the production team. Treat them as such.

Elements to Put in the Pitch and in the Written Proposal

  1. Make sure that the information in the oral pitch and the written presentation is presented in two different ways. If they hear what they have already read, then there is nothing to discover. The producers will get bored during the pitch, they will lose interest and stop listening which could mean that they miss essential information. Keep some surprises up your sleeve.
  2. Layout is important. Don’t hesitate to ask for advice from a specialist.
  3. Use a BIG title and try to find a nice visual style to illustrate the idea and the feeling of the film.
  4. You might need two documents during the pitching session:
    • A brief teaser document for your film with a short synopsis.
    • A longer, more detailed summary of your project and your company. In this one, you will have to add a treatment to the synopsis that explains what kind of film you are going to make (visual style, use of sound, pacing and rhythm, interviews or not). Describe the elements that you think might help the producers understand what your film is about.

    Tips: Don’t forget to add a company profile to the two documents, and don’t make your CV’s too long – only stick to the essential facts.

  5. Keep the budget information simple. Have a maximum of 10 budget lines that explain how you will organize the film financially:
    • Rights and development
    • Pre-production costs
    • Production costs: crew, equipment, travel, etc.
    • Post-production costs

    In many cases, producers and programmers cannot accept promotion and marketing costs or film prints to be part of the budget.

  6. Make sure the essential information is on all of your documents: name of the company, address, phone, fax and email. Very often this gets overlooked.

Collateral and Clips

Here’s how to get the attention of the producers/commissioning editors:

Your “business cards”

  • Use a well-designed flyer in the first contact
  • Prepare a well-edited written proposal for the second stage

These two elements are your business cards. These are the first items the producers/commissioning editors will see from you. Make sure they make a good impression.

Film clips or trailers

  • Be very critical. A clip can make or break a pitch.
  • Show it to others before you show it during the pitch.
  • Check what formats can be used during the pitch and try to go for the highest quality one.
  • Be ready to pitch without the clip if something goes seriously wrong.

Other elements

  • Use your imagination and surprise the producers/commissioning editors — in a good way.

In the next post in this series, Paul Pauwels shares the 7 “W”s that will help you build a successful pitch.

Part 1: Pitching 101: Writing the Pitch, and Other Pitch Preparations »
Part 2: The Ws That Build a Successful Pitch »
Part 3: When You’re in the Room »

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POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 300 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.