Last weekend, the Southern Documentary Fund hosted a workshop at our office in Durham during its annual Artists Convening event. Four documentarians practiced pitching their films to a panel acting as potential investors. McKinney President John Newall was one of four panelists, all of whom were there to evaluate the pitches, not the documentaries.

“Because the stories these filmmakers want to tell are so personal, because the format is pretty long, and because some of the filmmakers had been working on their documentaries for years, distilling their message to investors proved very difficult,” explained John. The advice he gave on that Sunday afternoon to the SDF artists was the same he gives pitch teams at McKinney.

  1. Focus on an idea or an angle. Just one. For example, a filmmaker at the workshop was making a documentary about the murder of a New Orleans bisexual gospel icon. The idea could hinge on the city, the religion, the sexuality, the murder — all are viable, and all are (likely) equally important to the filmmaker. “The investor has only so much time and attention to give to your pitch,” explained John, “so make it count. Hone your idea to its essence.”
  2. Communicate the idea immediately. Grab the listener’s attention in the first few seconds, and don’t let go. “Seventy percent of any sale is the transfer of enthusiasm. And to make that transfer, you must show through your facial expressions, your eye contact, your movement how important and exciting your one idea is,” said John. “If I don’t feel what you feel about your project, you won’t keep my attention or see my money.” 
  3. Ask for what you need. “Believe it or not,” John said, “this is one of the most difficult things about a pitch — for an ad campaign or a documentary. In each instance, you must be clear about what it’s going to take to make your one idea a reality.” No matter how well an artist or advertising executive conveys an idea and transfers their enthusiasm, at the end of the day, they’re trying to make a sale. As John succinctly put it, “I get that you care about a black Democrat in South Carolina who became an assemblyman when he was just 22 years old and is running for lieutenant governor. Now I care, too, but I also want to get my money back.” 

John had a great time talking with passionate filmmakers about their projects and hopes that the advice he and the other panelists gave helps them find the investors they need to take their ideas to the big screen.