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The Pitch Forum Industrial Complex

May 5, 2022

I’m just back from a pleasant few days at Hot Docs, which just celebrated its 30th Birthday (woot!) and its first year back to an in-person pitch forum. Pleasant is probably the best word for anything Canadian, right? The weather was not – the rain was nonstop – but the people and the event were quite pleasant. Even when they admitted to one another in hushed tones that they weren’t quite sure what the heck was going on.
Sure, pitches were being made. People had flown 35+ hours in some cases, all in the hopes of staring down the moneyed folks at the table in Hogwarts Hart Hall and hoping to loosen their pocketbooks, not just their lips, in response to their pitch. But I’m pretty sure most of the money that fell from trees was just from the organization and its donors who gave $50K CAD to the main “First Look” pitch prize winner, as well as a handful of other cash awards. While I can’t be 100% sure, I’m willing to bet that was more than was given to anyone by any of the “decision makers” sitting around the table. 
In fact, I wasn’t the only one who noted that it was odd to see who was even at the table. Sure, it looks great to have Netflix, Amazon and NYT Op-Docs reps sitting there, alongside five PBS reps (!). But who is fooling whom here? The first two aren’t putting money down for anything, much less what was being pitched. The middle one there can give you 5K and tell you that your dream project – that you just spent gazillions of dollars making, and a ton of time and money on top of that to attend and pitch it – would be interesting to them as a short, and hey, we’ll give you about $5K for that honor. And the last five folks are great, but can only save/serve so many projects per year. 
At some point in the past, these forums made a lot of sense. Commissioning editors from public broadcasters would go around the world, meet up, hear from projects and say – hey, you take the UK for X dollars, I’ll take Asia, someone else will take Italy, and we’ll have ourselves a movie. They couldn’t email one another yet, there was no Vimeo or and it was a somewhat efficient way to do business. Now, filmmakers pay a lot of money to go around to forums, where the “Pitch Forum Industrial Complex” comes together (the term was texted to me by a producer friend) with their costs covered by the organizers or their organizations, and… give some often unhelpful feedback, demur when asked if they would support the projects (most of them don’t even have the authority to make decisions if they wanted to), and say let’s be sure to stay in touch. The table-sitters then make sure to leave the room post-haste so they don’t get cornered by anyone and go to their own private dinners and talk about how much they love visiting City X in support of films, but after a drink or two, admit they aren’t sure why they keep coming, either.
Now, I must stop here for a second and make a few things clear. I love Hot Docs. I am friends with the organizers, and they have worked their asses off to put the forum together, and genuinely want to help filmmakers get films made, and then seen. I’ve moderated the forum in the past, and I am collaborating with them a bit behind the scenes to try to bring some brand folks into the fold, because at the end of the day – I think Hot Docs is a vital part of the ecosystem. And I am also a fan of the people who run CPH:DOX, IDFA and other forums. All of them are good organizations, with amazing people – and I want to be invited back in spite of this missive here, because I too want to hang out with some of the folks in the Complex. But, the field is only going to move forward and improve if we somehow put our heads together and figure out a better way. Not just the way we’ve always done it. As Ray McKinnon said in his Oscar winning short, The Accountant: “If a man builds a machine and that machine conspires with another machine built by another man, are those men conspiring?” It’s a tough question, but one we need to pick apart and think about to make change.
On the plus side – for many filmmakers, this is the only chance they will get to pitch to some of these important gatekeepers. In fact, for many not just at the table pitching, but in the audience watching, it’s their only chance to put a face with a name, and ever have a chance of learning who makes the decisions. It’s also a great place to learn what does and doesn’t work in a pitch. And it legitimizes many projects within the field – we pitched at the forum, we aren’t just another of the thousands of docs being made each year, we are getting into the system. And, as I mentioned above – at the end of Hot Docs, a few filmmakers won actual cash money prizes. And outside the forum’s main pitch hall, there are lots of meetings being set up, casual encounters happening, and let’s not forget – film’s premiering to incredible audiences and press. All good things.
But… the forums are also in need of a revamp. Everyone knows it, too. You hear it from the sales agents, from the buyers/decision-makers, and from many of the filmmakers who just pitched. You talk about it in every meeting that you take outside of the forum(s, plural, as this is not just about Hot Docs but all pitch forums). But few people I speak to have much of any idea how to change it for the better, even if they know it no longer works. I do have some ideas – some are my own, others are ones from other people I spoke to this week (unattributed). What if…
- You weren’t allowed to sit at the table unless you committed to spending at least $X amount on one project publicly.
- Or they had to commit to putting up $X amount into the First Look type award to be given to the best pitches at the end, even if they don’t actually buy anything. The filmmakers have a lot more incentive because they might win more real unrestricted cash, and they get feedback; the buyers are less on the spot because they are helping the field, but not feeling obligated to pretend they might buy something; and maybe the audience also gets a vote?
- The films were all such top-notch, in-demand projects that anyone who wants to sit at the table has to pay – a lot – to attend. Like $5K or more, because they are going to see a pitch they can’t see anywhere else. Sales agents, producers and many others would have to agree to change how they operate to make this happen, but they could, collectively. 
- We turned all of the sales process into a timed app – buyers have 24 hours after the Forum to make a decision, and they don’t get another shot at the film.
- The forum is more about feedback on the pitch itself (kinda like the way it works at the Points North Pitch in Camden) and less about the buyers. 
- The moderators are allowed to eject you from the table if your response to the pitch is identical to what someone else had just said, and you are just repeating the same stuff with more words and less eloquence (anyone who attended this year knows exactly who I am thinking about). 
- Audience members can donate via QR code to an individual project in real time.
- We set up a think-tank of sales agents, producers and filmmakers – not buyers – who have attended at least three of these things, and they make recommendations to the forum organizers based on their collective wisdom, which would undoubtedly be better than my ideas, and most likely better than the organizers, as they are all too close to the system to see a way forward.
Ok, these might not be the best ideas (except that last one), but the point is, we need smarter ideas, and not just more of the same.
Now, since I’ve just critiqued the entire industry on the backs of my friends at Hot Docs, some kudos. Congrats to Hot Docs on turning 30! The fact they could do this, and just after a pandemic is a real coup. Congrats to the new president of Hot Docs, Marie Nelson, who was announced this week and who everyone seems to agree is a great new leader. Congrats to outgoing president, Chris McDonald, who has built (With his colleagues) the single best doc organization in North America and possibly the world, during his tenure (and is also a good friend and person to hang out with on a festival jury!). Congrats to the forum leaders, Elizabeth Radshaw and Dorota Lech, who didn’t build the Industrial Complex, and will undoubtedly be part of the solution to its issues. And kudos to all the filmmakers who pitched their projects – I hope to see many of them, if not all of them, sometime soon. Though they might not be screened for me by anyone who was part of the Pitch Forum Industrial Complex.

Stuff I'm Reading

Post DVD.Com, We Need a National Digital Lending Library: As Netflix closes their DVD unit, renamed some time ago, we are losing access to thousands of films that are not on streaming. "Of the 23,000-plus movies released in the U.S. since 1899, streaming services offer only 7,300—and that includes foreign titles," according to Ted Rall in the WSJ. He goes on to propose one solution - "A government entity with relevant experience such as the National Archives’ vast Moving Image and Sound Holdings in College Park, Md., could be tasked with the creation of a national digital lending library. Authors and publishers are required to supply the Library of Congress with copies of books when they apply for copyright. Filmmakers could be required to do the same. Congress could dictate that works become available via a digital lending library after they haven’t been commercially streamed for a set number of years." Great idea, and someone should start working on that (I tried it once, and it ain't easy). (BN)

Canada's Bill C-11: A lot more to say on this in the future, but the other big talk of the town at Hot Docs was the Canadian government's recent adoption of C-11 - the Online Streaming Act - which essentially compels internet companies like Netflix, etc to carry more Canadian content, and pay into funding streams to support more Canadian content. It's been a bit controversial, and a lot of details still need to be finalized, but it's a great thing for the field, and something we should consider pushing for in the US as well. (BN)
Upcoming Sundance Talk
Staying Relevant In an Evolving Industry: Next week, I'll be joining prolific producer Ted Hope for a chat in the Advisor Studio at Sundance (online). From the description: The film and television industry is ever changing. Getting your film made and finding consistent work in the field can be a challenge. Join veteran producers/ industry consultants Brian Newman and Ted Hope as they discuss how to navigate your career as a producer and filmmaker in an evolving industry. Learn how to stay relevant, sustain yourself as a producer and stay true to your vision with awareness of gaps in the market. Learn more and register here. (BN)

Fierce, Feisty, Fearless - The Ruby Lerner Archive: Ruby Lerner, who founded Creative Capital among many other big things - has launched her online Archive. Ruby was one of my mentors and is a friend, and an inspiration. Her work on behalf of filmmakers at IMAGE Film & Video (which I later ran, and which was the former name of the organization that runs the Atlanta Film Fest), and in particular at AIVF, were much needed and are sorely missed. What she built at Creative Capital is simply amazing. She was also very active in many of the battles in the arts world over the years, and now you can access all of her creative and activist work in one place. Visit the archive here. (BN)

An AI ChatBot Seems to Be More Empathetic than Physicians: In a study in JAMA, they found: "In this cross-sectional study of 195 randomly drawn patient questions from a social media forum, a team of licensed health care professionals compared physician’s and chatbot’s responses to patient’s questions asked publicly on a public social media forum. The chatbot responses were preferred over physician responses and rated significantly higher for both quality and empathy." Wow. Read about it here. (BN)

Experimenting with AI and other Tools for Art in the Classroom: Lance Weiler has been experimenting with how new technology impacts film and other arts since 1998, when he was the first person to fully distribute their film digitally with The Last Broadcast. Back in 2013, he pioneered a class (now an Institute) at Columbia University, where he helps students use all kinds of new technology for new storytelling experiments. He's currently focused on how AI might impact our creativity, and Zachary Small of the NYT wrote up a nice piece about the potential (and what some see as peril) of AI and art. Definitely worth a read, and I'm glad to see my friend, Lance, get his work exposed to a broader audience. 

And if you want to think more about art and creativity, you could do worse than following that article with a watch of Kirby Ferguson's last chapter of Everything is a Remix: AI and Image Generation. It came out about a month ago, but I just watched it this week, and it's another great film. (BN)
GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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