Concept, Pitch, Produce.
A documentary should produce a fascinating story while maintaining a foundation of informative components. A defining quality of a documentary is its promise of truth. Even if small, there exists somewhere an audience interested in your subject matter for this exact quality. This uniquely differs from narratives – even genre pieces struggle in today’s climate without well-known talent attached. This is because more and more audiences are relishing new ideas, information and self-growth. Let’s face it, we all want to know more. And there’s value to informative pieces that other forms of media just don’t possess.
It’s this idea you must keep in mind when constructing your concept and pitch materials for producers. Your concept and, ultimately, your pitch needs to be compelling enough to entice the right producer. Remember, you have a reason for making your documentary. What brought you to it? Now, turn that around and show the world why it’s meaningful. This can be a private family story that you’re telling in a unique way, it could be a sporting event that holds significance to an entire town, or even birdwatching — just insert how greenhouse gases are affecting their migration period, and BAM! There it is.
In many ways, these potential producers are your first audience. So, you’re going to want to make it count.
For our documentary Esfuerzo, our concept and pitch materials centered around a subject that is regularly polarizing to the American press. Immigration. And this was the crux that we carefully weaved into the fabric of our story about a family of Mexican-American winemakers.
Our process begun like many of the micro-Indie level and transformed as we garnered interest. This is the point in the process where you need to channel your inner used-car salesman.
The concept for Esfuerzo had evolved over the course of our pre-production. We touched on this in 5 Rules for Your Documentary. We were originally slated to produce a film about Fidencio Flores and his new Esfuerzo wine label. The exceptional thing about Fidencio is his presence. He’s a striking personality who easily captures a room with jovial vibes of good fortune, often warmly proclaiming those in his general vicinity as “his family.” And in that moment, you believe him. With such a compelling figure mixed with the launching of his wine label honoring those workers who had picked the grapes, our team soon realized that we were only looking at the tip of a long and storied history.
In pre-production, when we were filming and recording preliminary conversations with Fidencio, he introduced us to his grandfather, Grape Master Armando Zepeda. It was that fateful conversation with Armando that gave us a window into a much larger story. His father was part of the World War II Bracero Program, which was significant to the United States’ agriculture industry while many Americans were busy fighting overseas. Mexican workers were brought into the U.S. and given temporary working visas. Armando’s father was able to send money back home to Mexico to feed his family during that time.
In coming decades, the Bracero Program was eventually deemed a form of “legal slavery” by the Department of Labor and was shut down by President John F. Kennedy. Armando dug into his wallet and produced a torn card. It was his father’s identification card for the program. It was in that moment we knew we had to change course.
THE “NEW” CONCEPT
Our concept changed from Fidencio and his new label to an immigrant story following three generations of farmers following their own version of the American dream. Each generation’s roots grew a little closer towards prosperity by their continuous effort.
As story producer, I felt it was important that we took time with our subjects before production. I hate to think what could have happened if we had decided to wait until we were in the thralls of production before we discovered this new-fangled concept. Now, we weren’t asking heavy or hard-hitting questions at this point. That time would come later. At this stage we were just having friendly conversation.
An important consideration was the notion that we weren’t discussing our concept with our subjects. These interesting stories and tidbits came up in pockets of random conversation, but later, when in production, we were able to get genuine responses rather than practiced, rehearsed monologues. And that’s important because audiences can smell bullshit.
Your pitch is everything. You don’t want it to be too long where you lose your audience, but it can’t be so short where it leaves them wondering how much effort was put into your idea. It should be a culmination of all features that make your project amazing. This involves not only concept, but well-thought out story progressions, the look of your piece, the team you put together, the cost it will take to make the film, and, if you’re searching for investors, the ROI; or, if you’re trying to appeal to producers offering resources, then tell them how your project could benefit them.
For our team, we constructed a plethora of pitching materials. This began with a treatment that included key information consisting of the title, logline, and introduction of the project, the background, concept, narrative synopsis, status of the film, budget, fundraising strategy, distribution and marketing strategy, creative personnel, and lastly our contact information.
We started by writing the copy for the treatment, and then created a slideshow in Keynote to make it look pretty. At this point, many filmmakers don’t have any photography on hand, so you may have to get creative. Since pitching materials are only for private use, we were free to use copyrighted materials.
GOING BEYOND YOUR MATERIALS
These materials are often times a work-in-progress and will need to be reinvented throughout the duration of production and post-production. As you market your film and find venues for it, you will need your pitching materials to accurately reflect your project.
It also behooves you to have a team member who is savvy with social media. This is the strongest way you can convey an audience for your film. This doesn’t mean creating pages that go untended for weeks and months on end. There needs to be regular updates. Posts two to three times a week seems like the sweet spot. You’re not annoying anyone, but you’re staying in their radar. A website is also important because it’s the storefront for your project. You can easily create a website on Wix that looks professional while also serving as a virtual pitching resource. (You can get an idea by checking out our website.)
If possible, use your subjects to your advantage. Whether you’re introducing your subjects and experts via photos, video, or in person, it’s helpful to show the personalities that will embody the film. For us, this was particularly useful, as we invited potential producers to join us in Solvang to meet Fidencio personally. And as the gracious host he is, Fidencio offered wine along with enjoyable anecdotes.
There was no definitive pitching time for us. In fact, we were pitching Esfuerzo before, during, and after production. For us, we never had any single producer, rather a combination of hands and resources that made it all possible. From Hurlbut Visuals donating cameras and equipment to our director Alana Maiello investing thousands of dollars of her own money, and even to the Flores family assisting us with food and lodging, we were able to make production happen.
During production, we were constantly pitching to other filmmakers who donated their time and energy to make this film possible. This saved us hundreds and, most likely, even thousands of dollars in the long run. By the time we had a finished product, we again found ourselves pitching to key contacts. This included our network of Mexican-American wine enthusiasts, Hispanic media conglomerates, and even Univision.
YOUR SIZZLE REEL
Materials such as the sizzle reel helped garner attention and compliment the many, many emails to potential producers. Since sizzle materials are only for pitching, you can also use copyrighted materials like music and imagery. However, you give yourself the best advantage by making your sizzle come off as professional as possible. It’s important to be original while also consisting of qualities that are noticeable in other successful documentaries. The sizzle can have a duration of 2 minutes on the short end and 10 on the long end of the spectrum.
If you’re creating your sizzle before production, you may have issue with finding content to punch up your material. Even sometimes after production you might be lacking in some form of footage. And that’s okay, there are services that can help balance out your imagery.
Filmsupply was a great resource for us. To fill in some atmospheric space between talking heads, we needed powerful and engaging shots that matched the imagery we already had. Filmsupply has partnered with teams of amazing filmmakers from all over the world that provide amazing photography to their highly curated catalog. This was especially useful for conveying the natural allure for the film. We were attracted to large, limitless spaces, nostalgic textures, and pristine production quality. This was not only useful for our sizzle but for our film as well.
When considering the “right” producer it’s important to ask yourself exactly what you require of them. Do you need someone who is going to provide a name or finances? Then, you’re searching for an Executive Producer. Are you in need of resources in the form of equipment or production space? Do you need someone who has an agent or can get you into the room of, say, Netflix? You need to know exactly what you want in order to choose the right producer, because once you bring them on, you need to know if and when they can deliver.
For us, we thought it best to rely on multiple producers rather than just one. This helped elevate our network for when the film was ready to show. Also, in our case, we considered ourselves producers because we were, well, producing the film at our own time and expense. Esfuerzo is a short film that we hoped to adapt into a feature, so the ROI was minimal. In many ways, we considered the short film itself as a pitching material. So, when we brought others on to our team, we wanted to make sure they understood and believed in that material.
This would become especially important later when deciding on the best producer to adapt the short film into a feature documentary. But that comes much later in our process.
DON’T JUMP THE GUN!
You’re going to kiss a whole lot of toads before you find the one. Not that I’ve ever kissed a toad – or a producer, for that matter. Like writers and actors and directors, there are millions of “producers” out there. And no matter where you’ve started, you’ve probably worked with that one producer who made all those promises and saw such great things for your project only for absolutely nothing to happen.
That’s because there are many more inexperienced producers out there than qualified ones. Typically, when you hear “I’m a writer!” or “I’m a director!” there’s always some apprehension for the person stating it. You’re probably thinking, let me judge you by your work first. And that’s fair. But when you hear “I’m a producer!” that same apprehension isn’t always present. And that’s because we want to believe people are out there who can help take our project to the next level.
ARE YOU REALLY SURE?
Don’t sign with just anyone. At least right away. If you’re being pressured on anything of that nature, then it’s probably a bad sign anyway. You want to be extremely sensitive to the quality of person you are going to be working with through many pressures and anxieties. You want to be able to depend on them, not struggle for a phone call or find they have some wiley pitching strategy that goes nowhere.
Do your homework and be careful not to let your ambition cause you to jump the gun. This was a learning experience for us. We interviewed quite a few candidates for the job and this process truly opened our eyes. There were producers who we later found never produced a project before, there were others who were more concerned with the glamour of the Almighty Dollar than the subject of the project. But as we met, vetted, and combed through candidates, we were able to bring on like-minded individuals to compliment our team.
TO SUM IT UP…
When it was all said and done, the best kind of a producer for our short documentary was to bring on many. The fact is at this level we didn’t necessarily have the network or contacts to bring on a well-known EP or provide us with a large portion of the budget. And that’s okay. In the end, this caused us to also have more of a sense of ownership to the film. Yes, there were other hands at work in making it all possible, but it was that communal feeling that gave Esfuerzo it’s identity. It takes a lot of voices to convey a lot of voices — and that’s exactly what our film was highlighting.
One major takeaway was we benefited greatly by constantly updating our concept and pitching materials. That was one of the defining factors that created a future for our project. And as far as finding one producer — if you can, great! — or consider approaching people willing to do favors. It takes many hands to effectively complete a film.