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The Reeler Blog

Reeler Pinch Hitter: Pamela Cohn, Producer

Filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Beau Bassett are reunited at the Sundance Independent Producers Conference (Photo: Farai Chideya)
[Note: Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale is taking some time off, but The Reeler is in the good hands of trusted friends and colleagues. Pamela Cohn is a freelance producer, writer and filmmaker living in New York. She writes her own blog on documentary at Still in Motion.]

Since 1985, the Sundance Institute has hosted producers from all over the world at the Sundance Resort near Provo, Utah, for four intensive days of meetings, panel discussions, screenings and programs. I was one of 80 lucky filmmakers to receive an invitation to this year's Independent Producers Conference. The accommodations are wonderful (I stayed in a mountain home with a freshwater stream running beside it), lovely food is served in abundance and there's plenty of booze in the evenings. Then there's the requisite karaoke madness that follows the cocktail hour -- it's great fun watching The Devil Came on Horseback co-director Annie Sundberg channel half of Peaches and Herb in a duet of "Reunited."

The diversity was impressive; filmmakers from literally all over the world were in attendance. At dinner the first night, I sat at a table with participants from Israel, Egypt, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Peru and other exotic places like Seattle and Boston. Sundance Film Festival director Geoff Gilmore hosted an orientation, noting the year's biggest change was the focus on issues regarding creative production and the crucial aspect that plays in independent filmmaking. Another significant difference was the expansion of a separate track for documentary films, allowing filmmakers, like me, with a specific interest in making nonfiction to pursue a more concentrated focus on the practical, real-life scenarios and issues we face daily.

I'll be writing more in-depth about certain subjects, supply transcripts and interviews from several of the panels, and reviews of the films we saw on my own blog, and I'll be reporting on the ever-burgeoning landscape of online media, marketing and distribution for Renew Media's blog. But a few of the activities --including several conference firsts -- bear noting here. For starters, the organizers held the event's first Speed Dating session, a pretty standard activity at film festivals in which filmmakers are "set up" with industry folk for a quick how-do-you-do (we had 10 minutes with each of our dates). It's a good test to see how fast you can get your film idea across in an effective, thoughtful way in front of key decision-makers. Nerve-wracking? Yes, but also a lot of fun.

I "dated" filmmaker Paul Cohen (who has worked with everyone from Sir John Gielgud to Orson Welles, Michael Apted to Jean-Luc Godard and is currently Filmmaker in Residence at Florida State University), Emanuel Michael of Unison Films (distributor of Sundance Lab project Eagle vs. Shark, which Miramax released this summer) and European Documentary Network director, Leena Pasanen. We were supposed to have six dates. It seemed as though math was not the organizers' forte, however, and they didn't get their hook-up stats correct. It was great anyway; the casual atmosphere lent itself to taking meetings whenever you could catch someone to sit on the grass or at a picnic bench. This accessibility was one of the best things about the conference, where panelists from Sony Classics co-president Michael Barker to ThinkFilm captain Mark Urman to Cinetic Media kingpin John Sloss to producers Effie Brown, Ron Yerxa and Barbara Boyle were so generous with their time.

Later came the conference's first Online Shootout, a k a What You Need to Know to Self-Distribute Online. The panel was moderated by Sundance Online Film Festival director Joe Beyer and included Dan Adler of the soon-to-be-launched Fanista, Richard Doherty of Microsoft, Ted Sarandos of Netflix and Jason Turner of Mediastile. Using a stopwatch (manned by Sundance's resident sprite, Rosie Wong, and her mean trigger finger) and a timed-response format, Joe asked these experts to help explain the wild west of digital rights management and security, digital platforms and how to get your content on them and how to promote your work online where content can have a long (and unpredictable) shelf-life.

On Saturday it was time for the legendary (and much-dreaded) Art of the Pitch session, an opportunity to be humiliated and sent to your room by a panel of eight industry heavyweights with an auditorium full of fellow participants, panelists and guests looking on. Limited to two to three minutes, we stepped up to the mic and pitched our projects to Rich Klubeck (UTA), Bob Berney (Picturehouse), Cassian Elwes (William Morris), Craig Emanuel (Loeb & Loeb) Micah Green (CAA), producer Lynette Howell, Cara Mertes (Sundance Institute) and Graham Taylor of the Endeavor Agency.

Trying to outwit and out-bitch each other, the panelists used the pitches as fodder to "instruct" on what to do and what not to do when pitching a project. Elwes pointed out that if we thought this was nerve-wracking, it was nothing compared to sitting in front of one person in his office on a busy day, trying to sell him on your film as he answers phone calls and e-mails and yells at his assistants. They were pretty merciless, but it was instructive; coerced by his fellow panelists, Elwes (by far the snarkiest person on the panel) stepped down from the podium in a show of good sportsmanship and pitched Howell's film Half Nelson. He took it on the chin from the audience. (His pitch was kind of lame; he said he was nervous!) He also awarded $500 of his own money to each of two winners -- one for the best narrative pitch and one for the best documentary pitch. The winners -- Katrina Browne's doc Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North and Patrick McDonald's narrative Oliver Twisted -- were announced at dinner that night, awarded their prize and also received a one-on-one meeting at any time in the future with the person of their choice from the pitching panel. Very cool.

Posted at August 8, 2007 9:11 AM

Comments (2)

who did you think offered the best advice in the panel?

If you identify yourself, I might just tell ya. ;0

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