Some film projects seem like they effortlessly raise budgets from grants and funding agencies, while others get quagmired in development hell when the people with the money decide to pass. What's the difference? Well, it could be how you are pitching your film! No Film School sat down with Camden International Film Festival's Sean Flynn to talk about important aspects of pitches, ten years of CIFF, and how to apply for the brand new Points North Fellowship -- which not only helps you perfect your pitch, but has you deliver it in front of the Industry's top funders!
Every year, the Camden International Film Festival is host to an increasingly popular event: the Points North Documentary Forum. This year the forum (open to all festival passholders) will feature three days of workshops, masterclasses, panels, networking events, one-on-one meetings, and notably the Points North Pitch -- an intriguing event even for filmmakers who aren’t on stage pitching. If you've read through our summer edition of the massive list of grants for filmmakers, you may have noticed the brand new CIFF addition: the Points North Fellowship. If you have a documentary with a compelling 3 to 4 minute work sample that gives delegates a clear understanding of your story and visual approach, then you should consider applying. Sean Flynn was kind enough to sit down and give No Film School readers few pointers on how to do just that!
NFS: Camden International Film Festival is the home of the Points North Documentary Forum, the Points North Pitch, and this year, the new the Points North Fellowship. Can you breakdown these different programs?
Sean Flynn: The Points North Documentary Forum started as a small sidebar with a few industry panels during the 2009 CIFF. The following year, we expanded the program to include two full days of workshops, masterclasses and panels, and we started the Points North Pitch, a live pitching forum for documentary filmmakers that follows a similar format to events like the IDFA and Hot Docs Forums. Selected filmmakers have exactly 7 minutes on stage to pitch their feature-length work-in-progress and get feedback from a panel of 12 leading funders, broadcasters, distributors and producers. These pitches have consistently helped filmmakers start new relationships with industry supporters that have led to grants, producing partners and distribution deals down the road. Filmmakers selected for the pitch also participate in an intensive pitch training session led by industry veterans like Ryan Harrington (Tribeca Film Institute), Andrea Meditch (Back Allie Films) and Judith Helfand (Chicken & Egg Pictures), and they almost always walk out of that session re-energized with a new perspective on how to pitch their films.
The Points North Fellowship will allow us to build on the success of the pitch and create a more robust launching pad for five documentary projects, helping filmmakers build relationships with the industry and develop skills needed to finish their films. It’s exciting for us because it allows CIFF to become an organization that not only screens finished films, but also invests in the filmmaking process and in the development of a new generation of documentary artists.
NFS: You must have heard many, many pitches over the years. What would you say distinguishes the best ones? What's the quality that makes funders hear a pitch and want to back the project?
SF: One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is don’t forget to put yourself in your pitch. Most funders receive hundreds, or even thousands of pitches and proposals each year, many of which tell stories that overlap with each other in some way. So, for instance, when there are several filmmakers working on a projects about the North Dakota oil boom, it becomes even more important to demonstrate that you have unique access and can tell the story with a distinctive voice. Usually this means including the story of how you came to make this film and why you’re passionate about it as part of your pitch. At the end of the day, funders are interested in supporting you, the filmmaker, as much as they are interested in your film.
NFS: What do you think filmmakers will gain from the Points North Fellowship?
SF: As in previous years with the Points North Pitch, fellows will have opportunities to build relationships with industry supporters that can help them advance their projects in concrete, meaningful ways. We cover accommodations and provide a travel stipend, so fellows should pay very little out-of-pocket to participate in the program.
The four-hour pitch training we’ve run in the past will be expanded into a full day of workshops and focused mentorship prior to the festival. The pitch will continue as usual, giving fellows an opportunity to get on the radar of some of the industry’s leading decision makers. In past years, we’ve had representatives from HBO, A&E, POV, ITVS, PBS, Tribeca, Sundance, ZDF-ARTE, BBC, Participant Media, Discovery, Al Jazeera and Cinereach. One filmmaker will go home with the Points North Pitch Award, which includes a $1000 cash prize from Documentary Educational Resources, three consultations with the Tribeca Film Institute, and a discounted post-production package from Modulus Studios.
Four months after the festival, all fellows will be able to attend the Cinema Eye Honors in NYC and follow up with industry delegates that they met in Camden. That way the pitch is not just a one-off event that allows them to trade business cards. Ideally it’s just the start of a longer-term process of connecting with key stakeholders and building a community of support around a film project. The Points North Fellowship will accelerate that process and give filmmakers contacts, tools and greater confidence that they can carry into future pitch events, markets, grant proposals, crowdfunding campaigns and the eventual release of their films.
NFS: You're selecting 5 documentary works-in-progress. What sort of documentaries are you looking for?
SF: Like the rest of our film programming, we try to include a wide range of subject matters, styles and filmmakers from different backgrounds. That said, we’re always on the lookout for “cinematic” documentaries with strong visuals and characters that would play well in a theatrical or festival setting. Many of the past films selected for the pitch have tackled an important social issue, but they’re not all necessarily advocacy films.
Our focus is typically on emerging and early-career filmmakers, but we’ve had established filmmakers pitch at the forum as well -- people like Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan) and Robb Moss (Secrecy). What’s most important to us is that the fellowship provide opportunities and exposure that a filmmaker might not otherwise have.
NFS: What counts more, the work sample or the written information?
SF: It’s impossible to say which “counts more” since we value both highly, but we tend to look at the work sample first and then read the written application for context and a better sense of the overall arc of the film.
NFS: What do you look for in a synopsis?
SF: A good synopsis should put the work sample in context and communicate the filmmaker’s overall vision for the film. What is the story and where is it going? What kind of experience will the film create? If these questions are not fully conveyed by the work sample, it’s even more important that they come across in the written materials.
NFS: What would you say is the most important thing you can see in an application that makes it stand out?
SF: There’s no single thing that makes an application stand out. Sometimes it’s a trailer that grabs your attention and immediately makes you want to see the finished film or get to know a character more. Other times it’s the filmmaker’s thoughtful or unique approach to the subject matter.
NFS: This is the 10th anniversary for Camden International Film Festival. Congratulations! What's in store for us this year?
SF: Thanks! We’ve got big plans to turn our 10th anniversary into a celebration of the documentary film community and the local Maine community, both of which have embraced and supported us for the past decade. It’s still early in our programming season, so I can’t say anything too specific, but we’re looking forward to launching the second phase of our Aging in Maine Engagement Summit and statewide screening tour. I’m also excited about continuing our Doc/Tech program, which brings together storytellers working in different media that are experimenting with new technologies and innovating on the documentary form. Looking into next year, we’re aiming to continue expanding the Points North Fellowship and offer filmmakers new development opportunities outside of the festival weekend.
Thank you, Sean!
If you are interested in applying for the Points North Fellowship, the deadline is July 18th! Start on your application here. Good luck!