Hot Docs Jots

Welcome to the Hot Docs Forum 2018


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We're heading into our 19th edition of the Hot Docs Forum, a renowned international financing event aimed at securing co-productions and funds for feature length documentaries. The Forum is the flagship industry event of Hot Docs conference and market, and could be the launch pad for your next documentary.

A little about Hot Docs

Last year, Hot Docs industry conference and market was attended by 2,650 international delegates. The conference featured an impressive roster 15 conference sessions, 15 Close Up With... meetings, 14 networking events, seven Micro-Meetings, six workshops, three Kickstart panels for emerging filmmakers, along with our annual Doc Summit, numerous international co-production meetings and three emerging filmmaker mentorship programs where selected filmmakers participated in an intensive story workshop through fellowships with Hot Docs. We also hosted official delegations from Atlantic Canada, Bermuda, British Columbia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, the Nordic Region, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, and the USA.


But getting back to the Forum...

"The world series of documentary financing." - Indiewire

The premise of the Forum is simple: held over two consecutive mornings (May 1 and 2, 2018), 20 teams each have seven minutes to pitch their project to a table of the world's leading commissioning editors, financiers, and industry professionals. Following the pitch, each receive eight minutes of moderated feedback and, in some cases, on-the-spot financial commitments. Following these morning sessions, the teams move to three afternoons of one-on-one meetings with select buyers to follow up with additional information. The teams are also eligible for pitch prizes: the Hot Docs first look prize, which provided $100,000 to two projects in 2017; the $10,000 Hot Docs-Corus Pitch Prize for the best Canadian pitch; and the Cuban Hat Prize.

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Why pitch?

Pitching forums and other types of public crowd-sourcing and crowdfunding are huge industries, much bigger than any individual pitches. For observers, public pitch events are an education on film funding, storytelling, team work, and our international doc community. The insights shared in the room educate observers on the film landscape, funders' needs, and how projects come together. In attending public financing events, observers can study how stories are presented and learn to improve their own pitching skills.

In terms of companies and individual investors who attend these kinds of events, decision makers have a one-stop shop to some of the best of documentaries coming to the market. At Hot Docs, we also host a group of angel investors who scout films for private contributions.

While we guarantee that teams come out of our program with more skills and connections, guaranteeing deals is another story. Filmmakers have the most to gain, and the most at risk, because pitching is a step toward financing, as well as an investment in their career. In addition to being financed, the market validation accrued at the Forum table can be significant. Many teams secure direct funds and other benefits such as working relationships with decision makers for future films.

For everyone, pitching Forums are networking and marketing opportunities. Ours is a business of relationships and we are here to facilitate those. Catherine Olsen, documentary consultant and former commissioning editor of CBC's The Passionate Eye, calls the Hot Docs Forum: "an extraordinary marketing opportunity and 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."

When asked about the Hot Docs Forum, Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the IDA responded that, "the Forum gives filmmakers a unique opportunity to present their work not only to a panel of experts sitting formally around the decision-makers table, but also to their peers, funders and supporters in the room. It builds a network of support for each project. To be selected to pitch at Hot Docs helps filmmakers sharpen the focus of their film and it validates that this is a project of significance that you must pay attention to."

Pitching forums can be an effective way to present your film to the international marketplace and gain financial, as well as other, partners. It's also a chance to be spotted by the world's top festival programmers, film funds, sales agents, distributors, and other industry supporters. Noland Walker, senior content director of ITVS and co-curator of Independent Lens, shared his experiences and noted that, “as someone who has sat at that long Forum table—both as film director who is pitching and as a broadcaster/funder who is listening to other filmmakers pitch—I cannot say enough about the tremendous opportunity the Forum presents to figure out how to make people excited about you and the story you’re trying to tell. The energy in the room is incredible and two hundred onlookers will focus the mind.”

Dawn Porter, who pitched in 2011 adds that, "there's really nothing like the experience of presenting at the Hot Docs Forum. All the commissioners you are chasing and trying to get five minutes with are all focused on your project—at least for a critical seven minutes! It’s terrifying but fun."

There are other factors outside of networking and publicity to be considered. Jason Ishikawa, head of International Sales at Cinetic, notes that "foreign pre-buys and/or co-productions can help spur increased domestic funding, which is something every project should look into." And Ryan Harrington, former director of Docs & Specials at Discovery Channel, vice president of Artist Programs at Tribeca Film Institute, and currently the acting director of Programming at Hot Docs reminds filmmakers that having a commissioning editor who, "really speaks that language of financing and production," can be helpful in presenting the project to other editors and broadcasters.

In terms of the financial benefits, Paula Eiselt, director of 93Queen and recipient of the inaugural first look prize advised that, "the 2017 Hot Docs Forum was one of the most exceptional experiences we had while ‘birthing’ the film!  To have the opportunity to share—and essentially test—the story with international discussion makers while we were still in progress was a tremendous, and deeply impactful, privilege. The Forum was the perfect way to connect with buyers—both before and after our pitch—and not only were the meetings terrific, but since Hot Docs they have borne real fruit!!"

Producer Jessica Devaney, who pitched alongside director Assia Boundaoui in 2017, notes that, "The Hot Docs Forum was such a strategic convening for The Feeling of Being Watched. Including winning second place in the inaugural first look pitch prize, we raised $233,000 USD in grants, all from organizations we met with at Hot Docs. Pitching in the Forum raised the profile of our film and helped us make the most of the table meetings."

Keep in mind that not all projects are suited for a big public debut. Consider the timing, topics, and production schedule of your film. Before apply, ask yourself: What are my goals for this project? What kind of partnerships and/or financing am I seeking? Am I prepared to present my film to a room full of industry decision makers? Is this the best time? Am I ready to commit to outside partnerships?

Most importantly, the Forum provides a window into the trends and tastes of the ever-changing marketplace. In it, we witness how deals are being made and how the rules are shifting in this new digital age.

What makes a good pitch?

Your approach to pitching will vary depending on topic and what you're looking to accomplish; however, a few generalizations can be made about successful pitches:

1. The filmmakers have access to a unique subject and/or protagonist. They have delineated clear and creative storytelling that is compelling to a wide array of international decision makers and viewers. 

2. The team works as a unit and gives the audience confidence in their partnership. They are prepared to speak to their roles, know what they are looking for, have a solid knowledge of the players in the room, and are ready to answer questions about a variety of relevant topics including the validity of the budget, the access to protagonists and stories, and the feasibility of delivering the film according to the projected timeline.

3. The pitch teams clearly delineate what will be shown on screen, avoiding jargon and metaphor. They are able to speak to the unique value of the film and understand how it fits into the documentary landscape.

4. If seeking broadcaster support, the teams are prepared to speak to both a feature length version and a 52-minute (or TV length) version of the film, the latter of which would be a likely requirement from a broadcast partner.

5. The pitch is matched with compelling visual materials that give decision makers a taste of the filmmaking and an understanding of the topic and/or subjects.

6. The team follows up on feedback they receive around the table following their pitch. In today's shifting market, cheques are no longer written on the spot and in many ways the hard work starts after you pitch.

Who's done this?

Hot Docs Forum success stories include: Sean Fine and Andrea's Nix's Academy Award®-winning Inocente, Paula Eiselt’s 93Queen, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, Erika Cohn’s The Judge, Anjali Nayar’s Silas, 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, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, and many more.

How to submit?

Forum submissions are now open, with a final deadline of January 2018. Check out our Submission Guidelines & Form to apply. 

Any other advice?

If you decide pitching at the Hot Docs Forum isn’t right 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 documentary 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 25, 2018.

See you at Hot Docs 2018!

- Dorota Lech, Industry Programmer & Forum Producer


Dorota is an industry programmer and the producer of the Hot Docs Forum. She also works at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Programming department. You can find her on twitter @dorotamischka.

With over 175 contacts and vital information about the international broadcast and digital players, the Hot Docs Guide to Decision Makers is an invaluable resource for any producer. Find our 2017 guide on sale here.

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