ESoDoc and the art of pitching

25 Sep

I am honored to having been invited to be part of ESoDoc’s documentary pitch, in Bardoneccia (Italy), this September. Honored because in the past years it is Kat Cizek and/or Mark Atkins that took that role, and I am well aware that it is difficult to replace them… the stakes were high!

ESoDoc (Europen Social Documentary) is a training initiative offered by ZeLIG School for Documentary (It) and supported by the European Union’s MEDIA Programme. The way it works is that you present a documentary project idea and, if you are selected, you then have six months to develop your idea to a level where you feel confident to pitch it to commissioning editors. During those six months ESoDoc provides a framework of support, through its extended professional network, and it also organises three one week long workshops – the last of which is all about “how to be ready for a pitch”.

Stefano Tealdi, Heidi Gronauer and Hugh Purcell at ESoDoc

Stefano Tealdi, Heidi Gronauer and Hugh Purcell at ESoDoc

So there I was: part of the pitching panel (composed Martin Atkin, Editorial Director at Large Blue; Flora Gregory, Documentary Commissioner for Al Jazeera; Fabio Mancini, Documentary Commission Editor for RAI3 and myself) and ready to comment on 11 projects. My role was to give feed-back on transmedia and interactive ideas so, in a way, I had the easy role of the “good cop” as I am not representing any commissioning company, and therefore I could concentrate on “constructive feed-back” rather than “I like it, or I do not like it”, “I’ll commission it, or not”. This freedom of action gave me great pleasure and I realised that thirteen years of teaching gave me the skills to listen to the candidates’ wishes and then try to help them to fulfil their aims (rather than mine). There you go: university jargon is all about “transferable skills”… and this event was a living proof for me that there is such thing as a transferable skill!

The other thing that I took back from my experience in Baronecchia is the overwhelming interest for transmedia production, from filmmakers, but also the total absence of clarity for what such word might mean. Several projects where games, or just web-docs, but all of these where pitched as transmedia – even if only one media was involved in it! So the feeling I had is that the attitude was “we should do something on the web” without a clear understanding of the “why” and “how”… and I spent most of my time questioning with the candidates whether their idea would benefit, or not, from a digital form. ESoDoc participants are documentary makers: they love telling stories, and this is perfectly fine! Long life to linear documentary, was my motto, only go interactive if your story, or your approach, demands an expanded space for user involvement!

In opposition to the general excitement for the digital form that I could sense in ESoDoc’s participants, I noticed a form of suspicion from the commissioning editors. I do not want to generalise, but I had the feeling that they still see i-docs as a “nice to have”, but as an expensive exercise that doesn’t pay off with audience numbers. But is this the case? Do we know how to analyse i-docs audiences outside of numbers of clicks? Are we not going through a shift in media consumption that we do not know how to measure yet?

This actually reminded me of how people where speaking about digital advertising (or online papers) ten years ago. The general feeling was that sales would never work online (because people liked to go in shops and check the quality of their purchases) and that interactive advertising was niche. Ten years later is turns out that people do go to the shops indeed, but that they do not buy there. They go back home and buy what they have seen in the shop at a better price through the Web. And then, if we are speaking about demographics, most kids are not watching TV on television sets anymore! Could you imagine today a Nike campaign without a digital strategy? How do you reach people that live and breathe through their mobile phones – if not through their mobile phones themselves?

The other thing that I noticed during the pitches, is the general tendency to present ideas within a format. Each documentary seemed to have to fit within a clear structure: strong story, one main character and a clear narrative arch. Commissioning editors are effectively acting as the creators of a style – a style that is supposed to be more interesting for the audience. This is a catch 22 situation where one cannot remember anymore if the premises are still founded – as current audiences are changing their way to consume content! So the result is that documentary form is been put in a box: a box that limits creators and makes the whole package less appealing to younger audiences. Aren’t we lucky in i-docs not to have to fit into any rigid format? In a world where all is to be invented no one is to say what works and what doesn’t… let’s enjoy this as much as we can!

The bottom line: I am wondering if TV commissioning editors are the right people to pitch interactive projects to. They do not get it, and their interest is in defending their own industry, not in creating an alternative one. I hope that in the future more digital companies can come to i-doc pitches. YouTube, Netflix, Guardian Online and all the companies that make their living out of interactive content should be involved into this kind of exercise. After all: we are speaking about how to re-invent factual content so that it can interest all the levels of the population. Interactive factual narrative has the potential to bring back to the table important topics such as life, well being, contemporary ethics, the meaning of politics and dreams for the future. It is about grasping new ways to communicate universal issues to very different people; about using personalisation, levels of engagement and creativity to open up essential discussions… who could resist to such an exciting prospective?

Thank you Hugh Purcell and Heidi Gronauer for having me at ESoDoc! It has been a very inspiring and informative experience!

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