Pitchers Craft Hits at SFFS Film Arts Forum

Gianmaria Franchini October 19, 2010

“For my first fundraiser," Jacob Kornbluth told SFFS Film Arts Forum last week, "I wore a suit, and other people wore suits and we were at a very respectable establishment. We raised zero dollars and I remember thinking, ‘This is not me. There is always going to be someone better than me at doing it this way.’ So I decided to have a low-key pizza party the next time around.”

“Pitching starts with understanding your audience and why your film matters,” he said. “When somebody is investing in your project, they are investing in you. That is a responsibility, so do your best to be prepared.”

The message given to independent filmmakers at the San Francisco Film Society’s Film Arts Forum: Pitch Perfect held at the Mezzanine could be summed up in three imperatives: Be yourself, be prepared and know your audience. The forum, the tenth presented by SFFS, focused on pitching film ideas—a crucial art for filmmakers that is often either overlooked or overdone. The session built upon the weekend's San Francisco Good Pitch event, which brought filmmakers together with foundations, NGOs and media to build coalitions and share information.

Distilling the essence of a film into a compelling two-minute sound bite comes with many challenges. Pitch Perfect, described by moderator and Director of Filmmaker Services at SFFS Michele Turnure-Salleo as “a networking, peer-to-peer group learning session and seminar rolled into one,” presented ad-hoc strategies drawn from a panel of experienced filmmakers, luminaries and producers to make those two minutes under the spotlight less harrowing.

“I think more and more, people need to articulate what they are trying to do on all levels, and pitching has been around a very long time,” said Michael Behrens, Pitch Perfect host and Filmmaker Education Manager at the San Francisco Film Society. “With Pitch Perfect, we wanted to bring an incredible panel with several different points of view together to discuss the idea of pitching. Essentially, what do you do once you have a fantastic idea and how do you articulate that to people when everything is on the line?”

The advice given was not meant to be simplistic. Each panelist recounted the particular difficulties they have had in doing something that can be arduous—being themselves, in stressful situations, no less. Local filmmaker and forum panelist Jacob Kornbluth (Haiku Tunnel, The Best Thief in the World) offered the above colorful account of his first pitch and fundraising session gone awry.

The four panelists, chosen for their varied experience with pitching for narrative and documentary feature films, held a curated but informal discussion that was at turns festive and professionally serious as the panelists doled pithy pieces of advice.

“You can’t be too aggressive. You have to be smart and knowledgeable,” said filmmaker Megan Gelstein, who has produced and directed films for PBS's American Experience and Nova series. “Cultivate your ego; and then check it at the door.”

“Often when people pitch they think they have to become a different persona—a ‘pitcher,’” said Turnure-Salleo. “In most cases your biggest asset is your relationship to the project, your own personal style and your ability to remain yourself in the moment.”

“The word ‘selling’ worries me a little bit.  You do have to be a salesperson, but being honest about your project is important,” said Jennifer Chaiken, Producer of Emmy and Sundance award-winning documentary, My Flesh and Blood. “In general, my pitching philosophy is giving them the fewest reasons to say, ‘no.’ Secondly, it is important to rehearse: know who you are pitching to.”

Filmmaker, activist, educator and co-founder of Chicken and Egg pictures Judith Helfand (Blue Vinyl, A Healthy Baby Girl) was more blunt: “I think the term ‘pitch’ sucks,” she said. “‘Story’ is better. No one really likes to be pitched to—just tell me a story.”

The Film Arts Forums, presented every other month by the San Francisco Film Society, are designed for Bay Area film and media makers to discuss issues and trends in the Bay Area filmmaking scene with experts. Past topics have include online distribution, the Sundance Film Festival, funding and horror films. 

All Film Arts Forums are concluded with a networking “laptop session,” where guests are encouraged to share footage and trailers from their own projects to colleagues and contemporaries. Pitch Perfect also included a lively informal pitch session, where audience members with film ideas “pitched” their films to the panel experts. But the audience walked away with more than just constructive criticism.

“I think filmmakers walk away from a Film Arts forum feeling empowered, relevant and like they can succeed as filmmakers in the Bay Area,” Behrens said. “I think they walk away understanding that they are in a community that celebrates them, and that we are going to continue to do our best to celebrate them.”

“One of the most enjoyable things I do at the SFFS is help with the Film Arts forums. They are intelligent, informative and you get a cocktail or two—it was a fun night.”

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