It was all laid out for us. Buyers from all over the world. BBC, Channel 4, Discovery Channel, HBO, RTE in Ireland, NHK Japan. As well as our local commissioning editors from SBS and ABC. It was the annual Documart event, a must see since its inception in Melbourne ten years ago.
The event has some of the trappings of a TV gameshow. There are a number of rounds, during which a pitching team has seven minutes to pitch, including showing clips, and then there is eight minutes for discussion. If the pitch goes well, commissioning editors get out their cheque books, promising a presale on the spot – or at least the promise of further talks. If less well, there are stony looks around the circle.
A moderator steers the discussion, prompting to stimulate interest: “Ingemar, this is the type of project that your network SVT would be interested in, isn’t it?” or “Nick Fraser, this sounds like one for the BBC.”
Panel members submit questions: “Is this film going to be the same story repeated five times, or are the five characters completely different?”
As the pitching team slugged it out with the panel members, sitting around a huge circle, a few hundred documentary filmmakers were able to watch. A bit like Gladiator. We felt the pain if the producer got a mauling, the joy when editor after editor butted in to sign up. Deals were made before our very eyes.
The international commissioning editors were impressive. Sharp, and having obviously done their homework, they would make comments like “I’ve read your treatment three times now and I still can’t understand what the film is about.”
Nick Fraser from BBC’s Storyville was often quick out of the blocks, with incisive questions. If the pitcher bluffed he would interrupt quickly “you haven’t answered my question. Whose story is it?” Other regular offerers of insight included Ralph Lee from Channel 4, Iikka Vehkalahti from YLE TV2 in Finland, Mette Hoffmann Meyer from TV 2 in Denmark, and Mitchell Block from HBO.
The acoustics and visuals were excellent. Every speaker had a microphone in front of them that they only turned on when they wanted to speak. Two cameras picked out the questioners and projected their image onto the three huge screens at the front of the room. The filmmakers’ clips were similarly projected.
Each person around the table tried to be positive and there was a sense of politeness and respect for each pitch, even on those occasions when it became obvious the pitch had fatal flaws.
One thing that became obvious was the freedom for many of these commissioning editors, if not all of them, to pick up the occasional program that had no local content at all. On the other hand, the Australian buyers could not touch a program that had no Australian element – with the possible exception of a purchase when the film was made.
The moderators were excellent, including our own Susan Mackinnon from the FFC. They managed to wring every last drop of utility from the pitch’s allotted eight minutes.
The pitchers were excellent too, in the main. There was the occasional tendency to wing it, to promise whatever the buyer seemed to want to buy. And there was also the occasional defensive retort. Certainly the pitchers must have needed a stiff brandy or three after their ordeal – pitching to 30 buyers in front of an audience of 300 is not exactly easy. But they did it well.
Most of the pitches were for 60 minute docs, with quite a few offering 60 or 90 minute versions, and a couple proffering longer series.
What seemed to matter to the buyers was the clarity of the story and the charisma of the characters. It seemed unwise to cram the pitch with too many characters or story threads. Whose story is it? What’s the story? Where’s the focus? These were common questions. Occasionally a buyer would make the comment: “we’ve already got one of those” or “we did a drama last year covering the same subject.” Sometimes they would say something like “I don’t think this film would engage the preoccupations of our audience sitting down to watch at 9 pm on a Tuesday.”
Ingemar Persson from SVT in Sweden offered this: “Filmmakers have to be like corks in the sea. No matter how much they get pushed down, they keep on bobbing up again.”
For the spectators, the event was good entertainment as well as a valuable shorthand insight into the making of a documentary deal, and a window into the predilections and passions of local and overseas buyers.
AIDC Documart: the day the market came to us
by: Mark Poole
Thursday 24 February, 2005