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Secrets to Success: The Hot Docs Forum 2016


What is the Hot Docs Forum?

The Hot Docs Forum is a renowned international financing event aimed at securing co-productions and funds for feature length documentaries. The Hot Docs Forum is the flagship industry event of Hot Docs, North America's largest documentary festival, conference and market, and could be the launch pad for your next documentary.

The premise is simple: Held over two consecutive mornings (May 3 and 4, 2016), 20 film teams have seven minutes each to pitch their project to a round-table of the world's leading commissioning editors, financiers, and industry professionals. In return, they receive eight minutes of moderated feedback, and in some cases, on the spot financial commitments from decision makers. Following this, the teams move to three afternoons of one-on-one meetings with select buyers to follow up with additional information. Yes, it is exhausting, but it’s worth it!

Catherine Olsen, international documentary consultant, executive producer of Passionate4Docs and former commissioning editor of CBC's The Passionate Eye, calls the Hot Docs Forum "an extraordinary marketing opportunity... a chance for you to create buzz not only about your current project, ‎but buzz about yourself as a filmmaker.” She adds, “I can't begin to tell you the number of times that a project that left me cold when I read the treatment, surprised me and ended up being the one I invested in after I saw it pitched publicly."

More than 300 key industry decision makers attend what Indiewire calls "the world series of documentary financing." Last year's Hot Docs Forum featured 20 projects from 15 countries, 10 of which were international co-productions, and nine of which were directed by women. The Cuban Hat Prize, totalling over $5,000 in cash and services, was awarded to the best pitch as voted by observers, and a $10,000 Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize was awarded to the best Canadian pitch as determined by a small committee of international commissioning editors

What few know is that, behind the scenes, the lead up includes a month of one-on-one consultations with our Hot Docs Industry team, who help shape and hone the pitches and to develop strategic approaches to finding financing from select buyers. Additionally, prior to the big event, the teams participate in two days of onsite training with industry experts to prepare for their public debut.

Jason Ishikawa, senior director of Acquisitions, Financing, and Sales at The Film Sales Company, notes that "foreign pre-buys and/or co-productions can help spur increased domestic funding, which is something every project should look into.” But filmmakers should keep in mind that not all projects are suited for a big public debut. The timing, topics, and production schedules of the film have to be considered. Prior to applying, filmmakers should ask themselves: What are my goals for this particular film? What kind of partnerships and/or financing am I seeking? Am I ready to present my film to a room full of industry decision makers? Am I ready to commit to outside partnerships?

What makes a good pitch?

While there are no cookie-cutter examples of what makes the perfect Hot Docs Forum pitch, the most successful I've observed do share some similar traits:

1) The team is confident and present themselves as a unit. They come prepared with their presentation, a solid knowledge of the players in the room (in and around the table), and ready to answer any challenging questions about topics such as the validity of the budget, the access to protagonists and stories, and the feasibility of delivering the film according to the projected timeline.

2) The pitch teams clearly present what will be shown on screen, avoiding jargon and metaphor, and the unique value of the film is highlighted within the broader documentary landscape.

3) The teams are prepared to speak to both a feature length and a 52 minute (or TV length) version of the film, the latter of which will likely be a requirement from a broadcast partner.

4) The oral pitch is matched with a strong teaser and/or scene select that gives decision makers both a taste of the filmmaking style and a solid understanding of the topic and/or subjects.

5) A unique subject and/or protagonist, in combination with the style storytelling, are compelling to a wide array of international decision makers.

6) The film team is determined to follow up on the feedback they receive around the table. In today's shifting market, cheques are no longer written on the spot, and in many ways, the hard work starts after you pitch.

Why pitch?

Pitching forums can be the ideal way to present your film to the world. In addition to accessing financiers, pitching at Hot Docs is a chance to be spotted by the world's top festival programmers, agents, and other industry supporters. Dawn Porter, who pitched in 2011, notes, "There's really nothing like the experience of presenting at the Hot Docs Forum. All the commissioners you are chasing and trying to get 5 minutes with are all focused on your project - at least for a critical seven minutes! The Hot Docs team does a great job preparing you for the pitch - giving feedback on samples and helping you practice. I really feel like the pitch was the international coming out party for Gideon's Army. The exposure and attention the film recorded just took off from there. It’s terrifying but fun."

Past Hot Docs Forum success stories include: Sean Fine and Andrea's Nix's Academy Award®-winning Inocente, David France's How to Survive a Plague, Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights, Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman's Sembene!, Doug Block's 112 Weddings, Mor Loushy's Censored Voices, Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation, Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army, and many more.

Are there alternatives to the Hot Docs Forum?

If you decide pitching at the Hot Docs Forum isn’t for you, we offer a wide range of Industry Programs designed to help you network, finance, and find distribution for your projects. Hot Docs Deal Maker offers opportunities for financing through one-to-one pre-arranged meetings with international commissioning editors and film funds. Welcoming titles across all genres, this program is ideal for commercial projects and broadcast appropriate one-offs and series. 

If your film is in the final stages, we encourage you to apply to Distribution Rendezvous, our one-to-one pre-arranged meetings with a slate of international sales agents and distributors seeking rough cut or market ready films. 

Submissions for Hot Docs Deal Maker and Distribution Rendezvous open January 27, 2016. 

See you at Hot Docs 2016!

Dorota Lech
Industry Programmer & Forum Producer

For detailed company profiles, submission guidelines and contact info for commissioners who participate in the Hot Docs Forum, along with 200+ other broadcasters, distributors and funders in attendance, the Hot Docs Guide to International Decision Makers is an invaluable resource for any producer. Find our 2015 guide on sale here.

Photo credit: Joseph Michael Howarth

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