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Don’t Fence Me In: Pitching Boundary-Crossing Docs at CPH:FORUM 2018

Coccyx

Of all the various fundraising tools and opportunities at filmmakers’ disposal these days (the majority of them still in the DIY vein), pitch forums present a constant challenge: are they still relevant? With formats increasingly resembling chat or even game shows, today’s pitch forums are becoming performance-driven, the implicit agreement being that decision makers will actively support at least some of the projects presented with funding, distribution and sales opportunities. As someone who works in a freelance capacity helping to choose projects for various pitch forums (although not CPH:FORUM), I see first-hand how the few projects that make the stage are chosen. They’re not always the strongest ones, nor are they even necessarily the ones ready to pitch publicly. It is the blend that is the trick, and so it’s quite often a mixed bag of experienced and brand-new makers; projects in various phases of production, from early development to post; and those at the start of their fundraising mixed with ones with already robust funding in place but still needing more. There are also simply those less-established directors and producers who hope that by participating in a formal staged pitch that their project can garner much needed exposure to decision-makers.

Like many film festivals that have attendant pitch forums, the team at CPH:INDUSTRY has worked hard over the years to find a viable balance of projects that represent the festival’s remit and vision, choosing filmmakers they believe in supporting in an abiding way, inviting decision makers who can meet the work in an intelligent and comprehensive manner, and choreographing the whole event as a seamless parade of exciting talent over the course of, in this case, two days. It is actually not a very honest portrait of anything except showcasing potentially strong work. But when your self-appointed task is to present a snapshot of the expanding landscape between artistic practice and political and social impact that is part and parcel now of most documentary festivals, things can get muddy quite quickly. I won’t go into too much detail about budgetary constraints and the slipperiness of locking in projects and decision makers for the final line-up here when there are so many other things to talk about. But when a significant number of directors pitching also happen to have films in the main program, it becomes apparent that some decisions (or concessions) were made for financial reasons. Filmmaking teams are not usually supplied any travel funding or accommodations to attend a pitch, thus making it a fairly costly proposition for those traveling from other continents, another instance where filmmakers are responsible for raising their own funding, unless they already have some kind of specific financial aid in place for events like this, or they are already invited to the festival in a different capacity.

Here, I’d like to share some of the more interesting moments of this year’s CPH:FORUM, which was exceptionally well-produced and organized by Daniella Eversby, Kartrine Kiilgaard, and their team in a beautiful, comfortable, convivial setting with good coffee, tea and glorious pastries because: Denmark.

The 26 projects were labeled with one of four possible categories by the Forum organizers. This caused a bit of consternation in a couple of cases that I’ll talk about in a bit. The categories that projects can fall under are: FICTIONNONFICTION, CINEMA, F:ACT (projects based more in journalistic practice), and ART — usually projects helmed by makers formally grounded in artistic practice and, more times than not, ones who have been embraced so wholeheartedly by the art/gallery world that they’re suffocating and ready to explore a different milieu. What I was deeply impressed by were the quality of the pitches themselves, each team (with a couple of exceptions) exceedingly well prepared, articulate, and professional with enthralling visual samples. However, I wouldn’t mind seeing a slight shift in format where the producer is not up on stage with the director because this is, and should be, a distinctly director-led endeavor. The audience in attendance doesn’t really need to hear from the producer about the financial and other business aspects of a project since they all basically say the same thing (if there’s any time left for them to say anything at all, making their presence on stage all the more awkward). Isn’t it more appropriate to let the makers shine and save the rest for one-on-one meetings? I realize a producer’s presence can provide moral support for a very nervous director, but they could provide that from the front row. Everyone is looking for pre-sales, distribution, co-production partners and money. This is a given. As well, all the facts of the status of the production are printed right there in the catalogue. But again, as I’ll probably say about every thought I bring up here, there were exceptions where a producing partner’s presence was vital.

Because of the desired partnerships with Sundance Institute, Doc Society in the UK, and other extra-European entities on behalf of the festival specifically and the cinema landscape of Denmark in general, CPH:FORUM is not solely a Euro-centric event. In the past couple of years, more and more North Americans have been invited to pitch. Denmark is a very small market, and even though there is the supposition that Scandinavian makers are well funded with robust budgets, most films made there are not usually shown outside the region with the exception of a few film festivals. Nor should they necessarily be since most are distinctly made with a regional audience in mind – and that’s okay. Some might think they could stay afloat in an international marketplace, but they’d be wrong. There is much about long-form “nonfiction cinema” that was once innovative and fresh in Danish documentary, but much of it has become derivative of itself. When so many people are using the exact same lexicon and verbiage to describe what they’re doing, that’s worrisome. An event like this should attempt to blow fresh air into tired ideas, providing much needed inspiration. By bringing filmmakers from other regions and disciplines (although there were absolutely none from Africa, which is odd considering that a heap of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish filmmakers go to that continent to snag stories all the time, ditto the Balkan region), one can see how even broad cultural tendencies can affect one’s worldview.

Most projects contained very heavy subject matter without respite, not one comedy in the bunch. Just as clobbering a depression can set in listening to one pitch after the other as when one habitually watches a spate of hard-hitting documentaries one after the other. The whole world just seems even grimmer and more hopeless than ever. It was rough going emotionally to encounter all of these stories, no matter how vital. I can say the most honest moment in two days of pitching was the very last presentation on the second day, a fleeing refugee story filmed by the family themselves called Midnight Traveler with the Afghan director, Hassan Fazili, coming to us via video from a Hungarian detention facility, assisted by the live presence of producer/editor Emelie Mahdavian and producer Su Kim. Fazili and his wife are professional filmmakers, and no one gave them a camera to shoot their experience. They did that all on their own with artfulness, fear and panic, and intense intimacy and tenderness. When asked by someone on the panel how the film will end, Mahdavian brusquely said it ends with the family in a Hungarian detention center. No one’s “changing the world” with this film, a slogan still very much in use in documentary circles that I really wish would die. There is tragedy without surcease or solution in our world. The work that is vital is in the revealing, not necessarily in the resolving. The perceived or explicit task of providing tidy solutions is always the death-knell of the creative impulse.

The format of the pitch is straightforward: each producer/director team is introduced, and four professionals working in various capacities come up on stage with them. Even though the matchmaking here was off a few times, there was clearly an effort to bring up the appropriate people to greet the project, whether they were from the film world, the art world, distribution, sales, exhibition channels, etc. I very much like this plan; it’s so much better than staring at an endlessly long table of 20 (or more) people that have to stay up on the stage for the entire time. As well, it created a nice flow of movement throughout the event.

The team has seven minutes to pitch, including showing a teaser or visual sample of the project. Then, a moderator will prompt each of the four experts to weigh in with a very specific question or comment to clarify, encourage, or challenge, and this is also supposed to take seven minutes. Since all the one-on-one meetings were already set, it renders someone saying, “I’d love to meet and talk more” utterly superfluous. They’ve already met or will meet, and many probably already know about the project and/or are already attached to it. The event was gracefully and efficiently on point through the work of moderators Ingrid Kopp of Electric South and Tribeca Film Institute and Jess Search of Doc Society on the first day with Search joined by Tabitha Jackson of the Sundance Institute on the second day. Since we’re naming names, I also want to acknowledge Leah Giblin from Cinereach. I applaud how articulate, thoughtful and open hearted she is when she talks to filmmakers. More of that please to replace snotty, inappropriate comments that are profoundly unhelpful.

I’ve chosen to highlight projects that affected and/or interested me personally; the presentations that seemed to hit some magic sweet spot and made me feel glad that pitch forums do exist; and/or, where some odd or unexpectedly awkward occurrence happened during the presentation that turned out to be instructive for us all. (I discovered after choosing my little survey selection that it’s heavy on North Americans and Swedes, for some reason, but don’t read too much into that.)

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