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I attended the day long Big Sky Pitch session at The Big Sky Doc Film Festival in Missoula, Montana last week. Here are the top 10 things I learned.

Some background: The documentary film makers  were all chosen in advance and all had strong stories. The film makers pitching to 3 people who controlled the purse strings at their organizations, (POV, ITVS and TFI Documentary Fund. ) The film makers requested funding from $15,000 to $250,000

Here’ s what I learned from the “purse strings“.

  1. Their constant question: “What is  your story arc?”
  2. What is the journey in your story?” Talk about it in the form of “this happens, then this happens and finally this happens”
  3. Who are your characters? What is your level of intimacy with them, what is your relationship with your characters?
  4. What is unique about your film?
  5. Where is the tension?
  6. Talk about your passion for the story.
  7. Who is the audience; where will the film land?
  8. Try to avoid stereotypes, instead find surprising situations and communities, especially in ethnographic films.
  9. What is the big question of your film (I call this the universal connection). Two examples: For The Waiting Room, a doc film about a 24 hours in the life of a Hospital Emergency Room, the question is; “What are you waiting for?”, in terms of your life, not just the ER.  For a pitch on a film about the life of serial inventor Jerome Lemelson, who holds more than 600 patents, the question is: “What should an idea be worth?”
  10. Why now for your story?

A few other tidbits:

They wanted character driven films.

They asked for interesting stories that are “quirky.”

If your film is difficult to watch or has unlikeable subjects (heroin junkie prostitutes—which are actually terms the we use to separate ourselves from people), how do you avoid having the audience turn away? They suggested to show off the characters as human & individuals. Have small payoffs, small successes in every act.

Make the sample reel about the story.

If you have multiple characters, focus on the main arc with the “A’ character then describe how their stories will intersect.

The film makers had 20 minutes total: 10 minutes to pitch (they all showed a short sample reel as part of their pitch) then  10 minutes for the “purse strings” to ask questions and offer feedback. One of the purse strings said “You should be able to explain your film in 2 seconds” (!) so make sure you can break your story down into one sentence that’s compelling.

They were pretty excited about Mapping Main street, a collaborative Public Radio project online, so I’m off to check that out next.

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