Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: So You Think You Can Doc

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OK, so it wasn’t exactly the United Nations General Assembly, but the power in the room was palpable.

Last week, while President Obama and other world leaders met further uptown, I attended The Good Pitch, the climactic event of IFP’s Independent Film Week of panels and screenings in New York City. The Good Pitch is an opportunity for filmmakers to get financing, advice and make vital connections to a mass of reps from NGO’s, distributors and financiers. For the Good Pitch in New York (this was the fourth in the series this year, after London, Toronto and Washington, D.C.), there actually were some U.N. attendees, as part of the U.N.’s new creative community outreach initiative.

The Good Pitch at Independent Film Week, New York

The setup of the Good Pitch is quite inspired: eight pre-selected filmmakers, who are in need of support for projects that are in various states of production, make seven-minute presentations to a panel of about a dozen industry movers and shakers. The presentation includes a trailer, followed by a discussion with the panelists.

The genius of the session is in how the hyper-articulate and sharp moderator Jess Search, who hails from the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, eggs the panelists on to help the filmmakers. While the audience looks on — and occasionally cheers, the filmmakers make essential hook-ups, not unlike getting rewards or immunity on Survivor.

As fun and upbeat as Search keeps the proceedings, the serious foundations of the event were first laid down by Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Mumammad Yunus, who is the subject of one of the documentaries at the Good Pitch, To Catch a Dollar. He has helped the impoverished people of his native Bangladesh with a micro-credit program that runs counter to the way the rest of the world works. “Everything we do is based on distrust,” Dr. Yunus says of the status quo. He credits a 60 Minutes segment for bringing his program to global attention, and expressed his appreciation for the world of documentaries, saying he hopes that they can help him “change the mindset of the world.”

The first filmmakers to pitch were Beth Murphy and Sean Flynn, who presented What Tomorrow Brings, about a girls’ school in Afghanistan. Murphy discussed her desire for financing, distribution and help with outreach. She showed what I’d call a very polished trailer about a pretty compelling subject.

But not everyone was totally buying it. The industry folk weren’t throwing softballs. Richard Saiz, the senior programming manager from ITVS, criticized the film for a lack of focus on what he thought was important: the greater context of war in Afghanistan. When Search asked Saiz if he would hold a meeting with Murphy and Flynn, he flatly said, “no.”

Apparently, there’s some backstory to this. ITVS is already producing a film by Murphy and Flynn, so it seems Saiz was being a bit harsh for show.

Still, it gave a good taste of a salty pitch meeting. And Fork Films’ Abigail Disney didn’t let up on Murphy and Flynn either, suggesting that films focusing on girl-school issues risk veering toward “flavor-of-the-moment” territory.

But Murphy wasn’t fazed. She told me that she had been well prepared, and trained by her Working Films backers to really hone her pitch. “The expectation is that it will be friendly because the people who are at the table have signed on to be there, because they want to be involved,” Murphy says. “As filmmakers, we couldn’t ask for more than the contacts they had there.”
Murphy and I discussed how the Good Pitch format really champions the new format of doc distribution. No longer do filmmakers just pray for theatrical distribution, followed by a television pick-up. “There are so many new ways of distributing films and having an impact,” she says. “The answer is in partnerships, and making partnerships as early as possible.”

To that point, it was exciting to see Save the Children’s Eileen Burke passing her card to Murphy at the pitch table or Joy Peterson from Whole Foods telling To Catch a Dollar director Gayle Ferraro that she would like to figure out a way to “leverage the millions of Whole Food customers” to help get the word out on her film.

If you’ve never been, I’d highly recommend attending the next time the Good Pitch comes around. In fact, I’d suggest to the good people behind Good Pitch that they provide a telecast — at least on the Internet — so more doc lovers can enjoy the closest thing the documentary world has to So You Think You Can Dance.
Let’s call it: So You Think You Can Doc.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki