Anyone who's ever played certain junior high party games knows a lot can happen in seven minutes. It can be heaven, maybe, if it goes well.
And if you happen to be a participant in the annual WESTDOC Pitchfest, and your seven minutes goes really well, you may walk out with a prize package worth $25,000 to help you finish your documentary film or series. That's what was at stake on Wednesday as a dozen filmmakers pitched their hearts out to a panel of extremely distinguished film and TV execs at the Pacific Theaters in Culver City, in the hopes of taking home that top prize. As it turned out, though, winning wasn't everything. Getting the right person's card may have been the even better score.
Pitchfest was the penultimate moment in the four-day documentary and reality TV extravaganza that is WESTDOC, now in its third year. The program assembles distinguished speakers and panelists, all of whom are tastemakers in the nonfiction film and television industry. It also houses networking programs such as The Sit-Down, in which broadcasters and producers lay out to filmmakers what types of programming they're looking for, and Face Time, in which film and docuseries-makers are given the chance to meet one-on-one with network execs to get feedback on their pitches.
But Pitchfest was the only place that offered a tangible jackpot: $10,000 cash to the best idea, as voted on by the audience, as well as a prize package containing valuable production and post-production resources. And who were the VIP panelists giving critiques? A smattering of execs from PBS, NatGeo, WeTV, Travel Channel, Discovery and a half a dozen other networks you're dying to have pick up your show. We could sense palms starting to sweat.
“Try to remain positive, but be honest,” the panel was told by the host at the start. But who ever learns and grows from coddling? Thankfully, the panel didn't listen.
Up first was Ian Wellman and Frank Wolf with their project The Last First, a piece about some crazy accountant-by-day-adventurer-by-night types who were planning a trek across the icy Northwest passage. After a brief introduction the filmmakers rolled their sizzle reel — a required component of the pitch — that in two to four minutes should, theoretically, sell their project. Theirs included no small amount of dramatic footage. Water erupted on the giant movie screen. The shots of cracking ice evokes audible gasps. The orchestra swelled. Pearls were clutched.
But David Padrusch of Travel Channel wasn't all that impressed. “It's beautifully shot, but you've gotta get to it faster,” he told the filmmakers. “It” being the meat of the story. In a sizzle reel, it turns out there's just no time to waste.
It was a common theme, echoed to many of the pitchers. “Don't be afraid to give it away,” said moderator, panelist and ridiculously accomplished executive producer Elizabeth Jane Browde (What Not to Wear, Untold Stories of the ER, Intimate Portrait) to the creators of Heart: From Flatline to Finish Line. Theirs was a tale of cardiac patients dead set on completing an Iron Man race. The two filmmakers themselves had each flatlined, then went on to become triathletes. One teared up during her speech. But hey, that wasn't on film. “I got more emotion out of your presentation than your tape,” Megan Lawrence of WeTV told them.
After a pitch by the creator of Big Voice, a film about a high school choir teacher who inspires his students to greatness, Lee White of the William Morris Agency apologetically asked, “Why do we care?” It was a fair question. Could the film be interesting sure? But relatable, and more importantly, compelling? From the sizzle reel, one couldn't tell. Sadly, no sale.
Though the judges had their critiques, all the stories were tantalizing. One couldn't help but be intrigued by Black Coral, the tale of elderly men who scuba dive up to death-defying depths far below the legal limit, nor Quiet Riot Movie, (a working title, we hope) about the band's drummer who works to put the pieces back together after the death of their lead singer. Anyone who ever played the 8-bit back in the day was intrigued by My Oregon Trail, a series about a modern man's journey up the still-treacherous route.
“You're more than great,” Browde told Oregon's filmmaker and star Sandor Lau. “But this project is distracting.” Feeling he was far better in front of the camera than behind it, her advice was to ditch the film all together and make a talent reel for himself. This to a veteran doc maker? Ouch.
In the end, the audience chose the winner to be Spirit/Will/Loss, a piece about artists persevering through various physical and mental obstacles. They got the big check and the prize package, and all the Pitchfest glory. But who was really the big winner? Perhaps the makers of the Holy Land, a film about the Israel-Palestine conflict from a family perspective, about which the PBS rep simply said, “See me after.”
Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter at @MySo_CalLife and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts.