Producer/cinematographer Lucy Knox, who pitched Burlesque Blokes with director Isaac Elliott. Image: Curious.
It was a packed house at the second annual ‘Pitch Australiana’ competition held on March 4 at the recent AIDC. Presented by Vice Australia, Screen Australia and AIDC, Pitch Australiana sees four filmmaking teams vie for a $50,000 funding award, with the successful short documentary project going on to be screened on SBS Viceland as part of the Australiana series.
Friends and families of the pitching teams came along in support, but many more were there to watch and learn.
Director Isaac Elliott, who pitched his film Burlesque Blokes with producer/DOP Lucy Knox, found the process a useful challenge. ‘It’s hard as a filmmaker to sell yourself, and sell your work, and say look what I’ve got, it’s better than all these other people’s work – which is essentially what you’re doing,’ he says. ‘The competition aspect of it … it feels problematic, but it’s part of it. You’re in competition for the money, but you want all the other teams to tell their story as best they can.’
Unlike many other pitching forums, where there is no limit to the number of projects an investor may take on, Pitch Australiana has only one winner. It’s also a very public event. ‘I’ve done face-to-face speed pitching, where you talk for thirty seconds then show your trailer video, but this was a bit more long-form, and had an audience,’ Elliott says. ‘The biggest thing is getting comfortable selling what you’re making. It’s the same in all job interview settings. Where this is different is it’s like Australian Idol for documentary.’
Producer Samantha Dinning is no stranger to pitching on a grand scale, having pitched at The FACTory at AIDC in 2018. Pitching her project Boxed In with director Natalie Nalesnyik at Pitch Australiana felt much less scary. (Their team also includes producer Philippa Campey.)
‘Having pitched The FACTory last year, I had the bones of knowing how to structure this one,’ Dinning says. ‘We did some pretty rigorous story workshopping. What Boxed In started out as and what it became are really two different things.’
She puts this down to the feedback process from the Pitch Australiana mentors, filmmaker Matt Bates (Shut Up Little Man) and Anu Hasbold from Vice Australia, who mentored all the finalists. ‘Matt was really direct and really awesome, and really just smashed us,’ Dinning says, laughing. ‘I think he did it to the other teams, too, but it was really constructive.’
The teams were notified that they had made it to the competition finals about six weeks prior to the event, giving them time to shoot extra content for their trailers and hone their pitches. On the Saturday before the finals, the teams were invited to come together for a practice session, where they received more feedback from mentors and peers.
‘We didn’t do particularly well in the training,’ Elliott says. ‘Our pitch was too long, not focused enough. So we went home, tightened it, practiced and practiced and practiced, and then forgot it all when we delivered it!’ Despite a few hiccups with his memorised pitch, Elliott hit his stride when it came to the seven-minute grilling from the panel. ‘You need to know your material, know your characters, know your story. I never felt like they were throwing curve-ball questions, but maybe that was because we knew the answers. A question won’t throw you off if you know your subject.’
Dinning says she learned from her FACTory pitching experience not to try to memorise the pitch, at the risk of forgetting it all when the nerves kicked in. She read her pitch this time around and found that nerves didn’t really affect her.
So what advice would Elliott and Dinning pass on to newbie pitchers?
They both agree that having a good mentor is crucial. So is clearly defining your story.
‘You can never do enough story development,’ says Dinning. ‘Keep bashing it until you find that one sentence that gives your story a setup, a through-line and some sort of resolution. Make sure that your pitch always relates back to that. Story is number one; all the other stuff – your personal connection to it, the process – should all relate back to that golden nugget story thread.’
Elliott found it helped to go back to basics. ‘A three-act-structure works for everything, so just default to that,’ he says. ‘That was our big epiphany – to make sure very clearly there’s a three-act structure there. It’s kind of the basics of storytelling, and once you start thinking of your verbal pitch in the same sense, you’ll start getting some structure and some flow to it. And that’s critical.’
Despite the stiff competition, Dinning and Elliott both enjoyed the camaraderie that developed between the teams. Elliott says he felt relieved that his team was last in the line-up. ‘I got more relaxed as we went on – and started feeling like we’re all in it together.’
Dinning says tight teamwork is also important in such a pressurized situation. ‘Working as a team can help with the nerves, knowing you’ve got each other’s backs. And breathing! It’s key – to life, really,’ she laughs.
Both Dinning and Elliott are happy with how their pitches went. ‘All the projects are pretty amazing, and it makes you wonder what projects are lost to the world of pitching, because obviously not every project gets up,’ Elliott says. ‘I’m sure that there are people out there that are amazing at pitching, but I’m sure funders and investors can see through the razzle-dazzle. I think we all did as well as we could have, and I think if they select us it’ll be based on the content and not the delivery, and that probably goes for all of the pitches.’
The winner of Pitch Australiana will be announced in the coming weeks.
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