Perfect pitch

Content creators meet content buyers in the Rockies

Fill a remote Canadian resort town beside a placid lake with the television industry’s heavyweight broadcasters and then bring in the world’s hungriest content creators and you have the industry’s equivalent of a Rocky Mountain cattle market.

This cattle market has the gloss of lectures, clinics, and group discussions, but make no mistake about it, what goes on at the Banff World Television Festival is the high-pressured buying and selling of one of the world’s most sought-after — and perishable — commodities: Television’s Next Big Hit. Banff is the perfect platform for The Pitch.

Last year, $160 million in deals were either initiated or inked at Banff. This year, from June 11-14, 1,400 delegates are gathering to pitch and be pitched.

Taking center stage at the festival are the annual pitching sessions. Projects are presented by emerging and experienced producers to an international market of programmers, commissioning editors and financial execs, with the hope that they’ll take the bait.

In the festival’s “Pitch It” event, content creators have a slate of pitching opportunities, sessions where buyers can grill the pitchers on everything from budget to co-production to casting. The “iPitch 2006” segment will focus on pitching to the digital media, interactive television and the red-hot arena of multiplatform projects.

The art of the pitch not only drives Banff but also drives the industry. Before you get it on the air, you’ve got to know how to sell it.

“The art of the pitch is about doing your homework,” says Robert Montgomery, CEO of Achilles Media as well as CEO of the Banff Television Festival. “It’s about understanding what a broadcaster is looking for. It’s as fundamental as watching the channel before your pitch. What have they commissioned before? What elements have been important? How do they look at other platforms: mobile, IT, the Internet.

“Our fundamental role is facilitating relationships between content creators and the people who can do something about those ideas. Before the festival opens, there’s a whole day of learning how to pitch. We call it ‘Rookies in the Rockies.’ Pitchers learn who to pitch, how to pitch, where to pitch. It’s about how to push people’s hot buttons.”

“The good pitches tend to have a very compelling hook,” says Laura Michalchyshyn, executive vice president of programming and marketing at the Sundance Channel. “In three sentences or less, can you describe your story in a room full of cynical, slightly jaded programmers who’ve heard hundreds of these before?”

Execs like Michalchyshyn are also interested in the exploitation of these programs beyond the linear channel. “Does it have potential for the Web?” she asks. “We’re all focused on the multiple-platform strategy — which is the means of survival in our industry now. We expect it with every single program that we are commissioning.”

The good pitch is also about presentation. “Those pitching rooms are huge at Banff, 200 to 500 people,” Michalchyshyn says. “I’m going to be at Banff looking for interesting stories that may not have been covered, or are being told from a perspective that’s never been seen on television in America before. Banff introduces productions that have international co-production appeal opportunity.”

The Sundance Channel found just such a project at Banff. ” ‘The Man Who Would be King’ was pitched at Banff a year ago and it was a one-off documentary, and so we’re doing that as a co-production with National Geographic International,” says Michalchyshyn.

Mary Ellen Iwata looks for the ultra- simple pitch. “If it takes someone too long to explain the idea, it’s going to be too complicated to produce,” says this VP of development for HGTV, U.S.

“The key element is whether the writer or producer knows what their series is about,” says Christine Shipton, vice president of original programming at CanWest Global, who has attended 19 years of Banff fests. “I get pitched projects where they haven’t thought it through. What is the story about in the bigger scale of things? It filters down to three levels: one is the universal theme; one is the actual play of the show week to week; and the third is how that theme plays out in the central characters. ”

Shipton also looks for who is going to write the show (“because ideas are a dime a dozen; it is all about the execution of the idea”), the target audience (“In television, that is so fundamental”) and the passion (“Why is this pitch important to the person pitching it?”). Put those three together with what Shipton calls “the clarity of the core idea,” and prospective sellers have the four truths of the perfect pitch.

Has Shipton ever heard the perfect pitch at Banff? It seems so. “Last year at Banff, I got the idea for one series and one mini-series,” she claims. “They are both in development, and we are hoping they are going to go into production this summer.”

For those doing the pitching, the Banff experience isn’t for fainthearted roookies. “It’s kind of like ‘Filmmaker Idol,’ ” says one of last year’s winners, Brett Gaylor, who pitched his “Puff Daddy” doc. “You stand up there and you have all these judges: There’s the nice one, there’s the mean one. It’s a three-minute pitch and afterwards they grill you for 10 minutes.”

A 2003 victor, Daniel Cross, who won for the doc “Chairman George,” agrees that it is tough but worth the effort. “The great thing about Banff is that instead of bugging people on their way to the toilets,” he says, “you have everybody’s attention for those three minutes.”

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