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Masterclass Series Highlights: Pitch Briefing with Paul Pauwels and Amelia Hapsari

Masterclass Series Highlights: Pitch Briefing with Paul Pauwels and Amelia Hapsari

September, 01 - 2022

Paul Pauwels (commissioning producer) and Amelia Hapsari (Ashoka Changemaker) shares their extensive pitching knowledge for the selected filmmakers in a private Masterclass, to prepare them for their pitch to the Decision Makers. This webinar was part of Docs by the Sea Forum 2022, an opportunity for filmmakers from Storytelling Lab and Editing Lab to meet with international producers, commissioners, distributors, festival/market programmers, and sales agents.

As a documentary producer, why do you go to pitching forums?

Paul: In the first place, of course, to get financial support for your project. You to meet the people there and make relations with them. You pitch one project in one session and you also bring your other project in your luggage with you. Your main aim is to get to know the panel members, and making sure that they remember you. 

I don’t consider taking part one time in a pitching forum as a success. Do it several times and build up the relation with the community. Finances, they look for professionals of whom they can build a long-term relation. Nobody wants to invest in prototypes, the risk is too big. So, the main aim is to come home with some money or at least promises of support, but mainly to become a part of the international community of documentary filmmakers in the future.

What do you consider a success when you go to a pitching forum?

Paul: I should say that 25 years ago, 30 years ago, people on the panel could be decision makers, so when I could do a clear convincing pitch, it could happen that people on the spot said, “Yes, I’m in.” Eighty percent of the cases they would keep their word. In those times, that’s what I consider success.

Now, the people that you are going to meet are not the final decision makers anymore. The people that want to be interested in your project and in working with you are going to return to their places of work, and pitch your project in front of others. They have to be able to repeat your pitch.

What I consider a success is if people are interested in what you’ve been telling them, if they come up with good questions—questions that will allow them to receive answers that can make them understand the project better. And when in the end they say, “Let’s talk, let’s meet again, let’s see where we can take this”, you’ve opened the door. Now it’s a question of making sure that it doesn’t get shut again. This is why the Q&A, and the one-on-one is so important.

Do not be disappointed if nobody takes money on the table, that takes time. Financing is a long and difficult process. When I was producing, the average time of financing for a documentary was 2-4 years. Now the media world has changed, things get faster these days, but not that fast. 

Amelia: For example our Dare to Dream projects. We pitched the first time in IDFA in December 2015, and the first project only finished two years later in 2017, and then the rest of the films from the series finished one by one. Pesantren was just released this month. So it does take a long time, especially for creative documentaries, because the financing route is never clear. It’s rare to have one stop and get everything. Of course when you can have Netflix then it’s probably like that, but it’s very rare, especially in creative documentary because there’s no pattern that you can follow, and each film takes very different routes even though you have the same producer.

What are some of the “top don’ts” in pitching forums?

Paul: Remember that of the 15 minutes you have only half, the rest will be for Q&A, which is more important than the first 7 minutes. You should avoid overloading people with information.

Don’t improvise. You have to have a script for your script. You have to know exactly what you’re going to say, when you’re going to say it, how you’re going to say it. Be your own devil’s advocate, look at the long list of things you could talk about, and decide. Information that is nice to know, but not essential, take it out.

Too much information, and people will get lost. The mental age of a commissioning editor is that of a 6-year old child. You really have to make things very clear, and not overcomplicating. 

Pitching is giving information, but also a kind of performance. Pitching is also about seducing; you are seducing the person on the screen or in the panel to create a relation with you. This relation is so important, you have to avoid any arrogance. For me, I want to be with a person who leaves me with a feeling that I want to work together.

Amelia: I notice a lot, in Docs by the Sea especially, that a lot of people are presenting during the pitch (for example up to 4 people), it’s great that everybody wants to share the stage, but it can get confusing, especially for moderator, especially when there’s a person who doesn’t show their face during presentation but suddenly shows up during the Q&A.

Since we have so many people pitching, how can we know what we’re good at compared to the others?

Amelia: Each decision maker in the room is looking for something different, they’re not looking for “the one”, the winning thing. The competitors are not the people in the room, they’re your mates, supporters — because like Paul said, if the projects are all good, the decision makers feel good, and they feel enthusiastic, and then they listen more, they’ll be wanting to come back to Docs by the Sea again, and they’ll want to speak to you because the selection has been amazing.

Your competitors are projects that have similar topics with you, who have become big. In that case, you’ll need a selling point that differentiates you.

Some practical tips:

  • Produce 2 pages of document, giving essential information in a very brief and precise way.
  • Use strong visual that can intrigue those who see it. Make them curious.
  • Think carefully about the title. It’s a selling argument, it’s advertising.
  • Introduction: very briefly. Main characters, team, who are you (director/producer), brief production information, contact information.
  • The logline in two sentences. Seduce me. You’re not giving real information about the project yet, but you’re hinting at it.
  • Synopsis, in a brief way. What’s the film about, who am I going to meet, when is the set, how does it start, where do I think it will end. Tell me how the project is going to look and feel like. What are the artistic elements that you are going to use: camera work, voice over, archive, the pacing of the documentary, animation. How are you going to use the sound. Maybe also talk about research.

Paul: Don’t lose time studying or finding out about other people’s pitching. You have to trust yourself.

  • Pitch with confidence. Decide your strong selling and buying argument.
  • SWOT analysis is a useful instrument. Look at your project as if you don’t know anything about it. Put yourself in the role of a commissioning editor, map strengths and weaknesses, special opportunities that can make this film popular, any event-related opportunities, what could be a threat to the process (then try to find solutions).
  • What you should be concentrating at: how can I present my project at the best possible way to this panel? Look at who’s sitting in the panel: who are they, what are they looking for, what kind of documentaries do they support.
  • In the pitch document, that is supported, you can mention your preferential potential partners, and we as moderators can bridge the dialog.
  • My success is your success, your success is my success. If all of the pitches are of high quality, people enjoy themselves, great subjects, well presented, this is what we need. It creates positive atmosphere that will be beneficial for your project.

A successful pitch is very clear, very well-structured, easy to remember, then at the Q&A they find out that you really believe in yourself.

How to balance between having a plan and keeping things open when answering hard questions?

Amelia: Commissioning producers were once producers so they know. However, they’ll want to see whether you have a plan. If you think A is gonna happen, but turns out not, what are you going to do? If you find a question you can’t answer, you can say it honestly.

Paul: This is also why SWOT analysis is important, because if you think of yourself as a commissioning editor, questioning yourself, you’ll know you’ll ask these kinds of questions. Changes are bound to happen, but what are you going to do about it? If you have these possible questions prepared, then you’ll also have the possible answers prepared. Never lie.