Lisbon Docs 2014, Colm Quinn

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Our feature doc project Going Viral was recently selected as one of 22 projects from across Europe to participate at the LisbonDocs Pitching forum and workshop organised annually by the European Documentary Network and hosted by Portuguese doc outfit ‘Apordoc’.

LisbonDocs presents itself as a more intimate pitching arena in contrast to the larger events held at Sheffield, IDFA or Hot Docs, yet it still attracts heavy hitting commissioning editors from the likes of  ITVS, PBS, and ARTE amongst many others, not to mention quite a few sales agents and distributors.

My producer Ciaran Deeney and I went over to Portugal for a week of pitch workshopping before presenting our project publicly to a group of commissioning editors. With the rain soaked streets of Lisbon presenting the visible scars of a struggling economy, both myself and Ciaran felt right at home from the moment of arrival. As two austerity hardened dubs arriving into town with a project that explores the more absurd reaches of economic marginilization, things took an ironic turn for us when we learned that the venue hosting LisbonDocs was one of Portugal’s largest banks.

On our first day in the bank we found ourselves alongside a group of documentary makers with impressive track records, some of whom had picked up Oscar nominations along with awards at Cannes, Berlin and Sundance. Searching for Sugarman creator Malik Bendjelloul was a previous participant at LisbonDocs.

Leading the event was Paul Pauwels, Director of the European Documentary Network. From the outset he spelled out the harsh truth that anybody hoping to leave Lisbon with a cheque in their back pockets had better think twice, that nowadays commissioning editors simply do not have the power to make such snap judgements without wider consultaiton. Thankfully he delivered this harsh truth cloaked in enough solid gags to make us realize how crucial a sense of humour would be to a week of pitch workshopping with a miniscule chance of any real funding at the end of it.

Being a hugely experienced documentary producer himself, Paul outlined the critical importance of pitching a project well in order to develop relationships with commissioning editors over a longer period of time. He also stressed what a valuable opportunity LisbonDocs would be to develop co-production opportuinities with other Europan states. His points would all become relevant for our project.

Three days of intense pitch workshopping commenced. The format saw teams of six projects placed into a group, with each project being pitched in front of two tutors who would evaluate how the project was presented. This method would be repeated four times with different tutors before each project would then get pitched and judged in front of the entire group.

With 7 minutes being the allocated time to screen your 3 minute promo and verbally pitch your project, the challenge was in figuring out what relevant information to include in such a short space of time, and how best to communicate it. Each tutor pairing would focus on different aspects of a project, pitch and promo. As we received feedback on our fumbling early pitch attempts, it became apparent that our project’s strengths needed to be framed in very particular terms if it was going to connect with a potential funder.

Tracie Holder, a US based documentary producer, was one of the tutors forced to endure our inital pitching blunders but she clearly understood the aim of our story as putting a human face on wider global economic trends. She allowed us to develop that aim and define it more clearly within our pitch.

As the week of workshopping unfolded, Going Viral was developing from the type of story we feared might be too local toward something that embodied the challenges faced by someone trying to survive in today’s shifting global economic landscape. Each time we pitched the project it seemed as though the universal nature of this struggle and the humour it contained were crossing cultural boundaries. On finding out we had we had been scheduled as the first of the 22 projects to pitch in front of the commissioning editors, we were clinging to whatever positives we could find.

As the main pitch day arrived, we were a mix of both exhaustion and nerves after an intense week of workshopping and a growing sense that our project might yet come away with something. The auditorium in which we pitched had solid projection which allowed the promo to gain a few laughs in the right places. Whether our verbal attempts matched up to the onscreen presentation is debatable. The questions we were posed by the commissioners enaged with our characters and story in very direct terms, which allowed us to feel we at least communicated something clearly.

That afternoon a series of meetings were arranged between the project teams and commissioners. Paul Pauwels’ dampening of expectations earlier in the week was proving accurate, despite some very positive enngagement from the US based commissioners and a European sales agent. In terms of potential pre-sales, the one thing that commissioners were demanding was a full rough cut of the film, which for us was still many months off. However in getting to that rough cut stage we did receive some notable co-production interest from other producers in attendance.

Leaving Lisbon there was a strong sense that our project had evolved from a tiny local story to something that contained the sort of resonances that might really travel. The challenge we now face is to stay on top of our evolving story while somehow assembling our budget in a piecemeal fashion from both Irish and international sources. With initial support provided from the Irish Film Board we’re hopeful that if further funding can be secured that Going Viral will emerge blinking into the world toward the end of 2015.