Here’s what it’s like to pitch your film idea at a festival

One filmmaker shares his experiment of pitching a project at Sheffield DocFest's MeetMarket, which connects artists with a variety of people who might be able to help them realise their dream.


Rupert Clague

Photography by

Anh Do and Lilian Corrigan

“Ten years ago I heard Lubomyr Melnyk perform for the first time. Playing 40 notes a second, the 74-year-old pianist conjures transcendental landscapes and imagistic visions – sonic waterfalls, cloudbursts, and rivers of sound…”

It’s two minutes in and I’m sitting across from my first meeting of the day. The commissioner listens thoughtfully amidst a hum of animated conversations. A sense of possibility, excitement, and apprehension fills the air. Time speeds up and slows down. Hearts stir. Everyone here is looking to find that elusive spark. Welcome to the MeetMarket – speed dating for cinema.

Sheffield DocFest is an internationally renowned non-fiction film festival set in the heart of the Steel City. Its skyline is punctuated by chimneys reflecting the city’s industrial past, though today it’s been recast as a creative hub, a crucible for ideas. For six days Sheffield will play host to filmmakers, VR creators, investors, and enthusiasts from all over the world. There’s a great egalitarian vibe to the scene: the same pass gets you into every film, talk, and party, melding locals and imports together.

Some months prior I’d applied to present my film, The Peace Piano, at the MeetMarket, Sheffield’s famous pitching forum. Following an arduous written application, I was elated to be selected as one of 48 projects invited to come face-to-face with international broadcasters, streamers, distributors, and programmers.

In prepping for my pitch, I imagine myself as a master steelworker from Sheffield of old: galvanising ideas; honing my film’s structure; and forging a story that possesses strength, brilliance, and market appeal. Each conversation will be a quenching process to tamper my vision into something robust. (I’ll be honest with you, I have no idea how steel is made).

The event will take place in the imposing Cutlers Hall – a Grade II listed building which dates back to 1638. In this cavernous space, knife and tool makers once met to carve up trade-related matters; today it more often serves as a wedding venue.

I’d been asked to rank the delegates I’d most like to meet in the hopes we’d match. While no one expects to seal the deal at the MeetMarket, with some 20 meetings confirmed, I’m hoping to leave with some numbers. Tomorrow a swathe of round tables will be filled with budding suitors, each seeking the perfect partner to sweep their film off its feet. Will I find lifelong artistic romance?

The opening night drinks take place in Sheffield Cathedral, where old friends and new come together to worship at the altar of cinema. Despite being a collaborative art, filmmaking is so often a solitary act. I’ve been single-handedly nurturing my own film project for years and am struck by how life-affirming it is to commune with other storytelling hermits. At last, here’s a crowd that not only understands the struggle but has lived it.

I feel the pull of the open bar, but after a few soft pitches, I tear myself away to get my beauty sleep. Much like the night before a first date, you find yourself wondering what to wear. You want to be confident and comfortable, true to yourself but also show that you made an effort.

Breath mints? Check. Arrive on time. Be a good listener. Show enthusiasm. Make eye contact. Actively engage, don’t lecture. Read the room. Be clear and concise. From the time each delegate sits down you have 30 minutes to convince them to get into bed with you, metaphorically speaking. I assure myself I can let my film do the flirting.

As part of my pitch, I’ve brought along a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and invite each delegate to close their eyes and experience Lubomyr’s music for themselves. I’ve been filming people’s numinous reactions to this music for years so trust the process, but how will financiers respond?

Luckily everyone is game and agrees to lose themselves in the music – no easy feat in a crowded hall. I come to savour these moments, a chance to take a sip of coffee, compose myself, and quietly confer with producer Aimara Reques who sits beside me, a recent addition to my team.

As if administering an ink-blot test, I ask them to reveal what the music made them see: “Soaring above clouds!”, “Immersed in colossal waves!”, “Underwater dancers!” “Yes!” I reply breathlessly, “and my documentary feature intends to create a sensory experience of feeling, living, and breathing that sonic world, Lubomyr’s life, and his legacy.”

It’s thrilling to have an answer for every question asked of me, or better yet, to actively engage with industry professionals about a story I’ve held in my head for so long. I’m in full flow. The commissioner leans in, “Why now?”

“In these dark times, we need uplifting, experiential films like this,” I say. “Moreover, Lubomyr – born a Ukrainian refugee – longs to return to his country to bring the healing powers of his music to his compatriots at the time they need it most.”

I hit play on the sizzle, excerpts of scenes to showcase my film’s potential and the scale of its ambition. If someone is going to invest they want to see what they’re buying into. While I wax lyrical about the creative, some delegates want to get down to brass tacks: “What’s the story? What’s your unique access? How much?” I counter: “What excites you about my project? How can you help me creatively realise it? How soon?”

A bell rings 30 minutes into the meeting signalling the end of the encounter; the delegates stand up and move to their next table. “Remember me!” I whisper, hoping there was enough mutual interest to warrant a second date. The energy mounts with each rotation. Walking to grab my seventh coffee of the day, I observe my fellow participants navigating their own conversations; revealing vulnerable glimpses of their true selves; each courageously seeking a relationship.

Being constantly engaged is exhausting, especially when it permeates beyond the market. At the National Geographic party – gasping for red wine – I inadvertently get talking to a streaming commissioner. She asks what I’m pitching. Taking a deep sip, I begin again, “Ten years ago…”

While I yearn for cinematic love (or to leave Sheffield with a novelty oversized cheque), I’m delighted to be embraced by every person I speak to; heartened by the opportunity to consider future partnerships; and excited for the next steps. Do I send follow-up messages immediately or leave it three days?

As the last day draws to a close, the hall is filled with mingled emotions – delirium, curiosity, and even bittersweetness. Friendships bloom, relationships ignite. The MeetMarket is over. We emerge from the great hall and I reflect that emotional connections can be forged even in the briefest of moments, a whirlwind of boundless potential inherent in every interaction.

(And to all the financiers reading this, “Call me!”)

Published 30 Jun 2023

Tags: Sheffield Doc/Fest

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