Perfect Pitch

A great idea for a film. We’ve all got one somewhere. It might be a rarely visited, vague concept at the back of the mind. It could be a greatly cherished and constantly perfected storyline you are too embarrassed to share with anyone. Perhaps it’s taken such a hold of your consciousness that it has been developed into a script and stuffed down the back of the sofa in a fit of self-doubting disappointment. Or maybe you are so convinced that your idea for a film is so great that any producer worth their salt would snap up the rights in no time, realising that they have a bona fide, profit making, “do you think we should hire Leo or Tobey?”, Oscar winning classic on their hands.

Either way, there’s one thing having an idea, and another thing making that idea into a reality by pitching it in front of a panel of film industry professionals (as well as about 200 odd onlookers). But this is exactly what 48 brave souls did in a lecture theatre at UCL on a balmy Tuesday night as part of Raindance’s Live!Ammunition! event.

Raindance is the UK’s largest independent film organisation and exists to discover, foster and champion new talent and audiences in the world of British Independent Film. With a combination of film training, a film festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Raindance aims to play a vital role in all aspects of independent filmmaking in the UK.

Live!Ammunition!’s format is pretty simple. If you have an idea for a film, or a script, or a film that has already been made, you turn up to the event with a fiver, queue up, hand the fiver in, and get the chance to pitch your idea for two minutes in front of a prominent panel of film professionals. The most successful pitch as voted for by the panel wins all the money in the pot, as well as some pretty good exposure. The event is a great way to network with other people connected to film, and ensures invaluable lessons in terms of the do’s and don’ts of film pitching.

The most recent Live!Ammunition! event was organised in recognition of the talent of women working in the film industry – which meant that people were pitching to an all-women panel. They included writer and actor Morwenna Banks; producer of East is East and The One And Only Leslee Udwin; Emma Clarke from the UK Film Council; Tracy Scoffield, Head of Development and Executive Producer, BBC Films; and Nahrein Mirza, Head of Development at Littlebird Pictures.

This particular panel gamely sat for a good couple of hours, listened to the 48 different pitches and offered constructive criticism to each and everyone. As well as the usual glut of coming of age stories and chick flicks, the content of the pitches themselves ranged from a history of the suffragette movement, to the trials and tribulations of a female British gladiator, and from a satirical examination of the modern world of art, to the adventures of a little girl who is also an agent for MI6 (this particular pitch was given by the one and only child at the event, who was either a very brave and intelligent young lad, or a shyster who decided to try and flog a British version of Agent Cody Banks. Either way it worked as he got a book and a place on a scriptwriting course for his troubles).

The eventual winner on the night was an engaging pitch about a trio of young girls growing up in straight-laced Catholic households in Kilburn during the advent of punk in the 1970s. The decision to award it first prize (including 48 x £5 i.e. quite a bit of cash) was unanimous, and you may well find Another Girl, Another Planet arriving at the cinema in the not to distant future.

Raindance run a variety of pitching events throughout the year, so you can contact them directly for more information if you fancy giving pitching a go. That is, as long as you don’t mind standing up in front of a large group of people, and can handle the possibility of your long-cherished project being politely, but firmly, ground into the dust. However, even if you don’t want to pitch, attending such an event is a great experience for those hoping to make it in the film industry.

One of the panel members, Leslee Udwin, producer of East is East and The One And Only was kind enough to speak to Future Movies and give advice on how to give a good pitch, her feelings on the position of women working in the film industry, and her experiences as one of the UK’s leading producers.

Future Movies: How did you get involved in the Live!Ammunition! project?

Leslee Udwin: I was simply asked by the Raindance Organisation whether I’d join the panel, and accepted the invitation. My time is in short supply because I am currently managing two films, three companies, and two young children, so I was very tempted to say ‘no, thanks’, but I am firm believer in ploughing time, help, and support back into our industry and, especially, encouraging and advising new blood, so I do give the time to honour this principle.

FM: What will impress you more about a pitch, its style or its content?

LU: Undoubtedly its content. For me, the most important ingredient in a film is its script, its story – the distinctive voice of its writer… I look for stories that are about people, their relationships, how they live they lives and how they deal with conflicts and dilemmas that are universal; I’m never interested in genre or style or action or effects. The only influence the ‘style’ of a pitch might have on me is that if it’s delivered with real conviction and passion, I’d take it more seriously and give it more time/consideration.

FM: If you only had one sentence to do it in, how would you pitch East is East and The One and Only?

LU: East Is East: Manchester 1971 –caught between bellbottoms and arranged marriages, their English mother’s laissez faire collides with their Pakistani father’s tyranny as the eight Khan children hilariously strive for citizenship of the modern world.

The One And Only is a warm, sharp, and ultimately feel very good romantic comedy about love, sex death and adoption; set in Newcastle, on the banks of the Tyne, it is a fairytale about how to find true love – a sympathetic, sometimes edgy, but always funny account of how sometimes, just sometimes, things work themselves out..

FM: Is it any easier for women to ‘break into film’ now than it was when you made your first documentary film Sitting Target?

LU: It’s never easy for anyone, male or female, now or ‘then’. It’s pretty much the toughest call there is, and only perseverance and real commitment and passion win through. A handful of new opportunities have and will in the near future open up for women, because the whole debate about the paucity of women in the industry is currently in the air, and on the agenda of various bodies and organisations. And this will help a bit in its limited way. The only way to break in as a producer, writer, director, is to have an amazing project to offer… in other areas within the industry, I’d say people should offer their services to shadow a technician, or to be a runner, for free [if they’re hitting a dead-end because of the enormous competition there exists for all paid roles] – just to get the experience, and that way they have a chance to impress and, hopefully, to be asked for on the next production.

FM: Do you think there should be a degree of ‘affirmative action’ when it comes to women working in the film industry? Is it possible for the industry to be a level playing field?

LU: There’s no reason whatever why it shouldn’t be a level playing field. It will always be much tougher, in the background, for women who have families (they’ll suffer greatly by the unsociable hours and totality of the commitment required) – but if they’re willing to work it out and make the personal sacrifices, there’s no earthly reason why they shouldn’t be employed. I do believe in ‘affirmative action’ – it’s important to raise the profile of the question of the inequality that exists, and affirmative action does this. It also, of course, helps in some small measure make a difference for a few individuals, and every little bit helps.

FM: What do you think makes a good producer?

LU: The heart and stamina of an ox; resilience, perseverance, and optimism that flies in the face of the apparent impossibility of the task at hand and all those ghastly statistics; an impassioned love of the project in hand; patience to deal with giant egos and childish demands; a keen and razor-sharp legal mind; the ability to persuade and inspire; good business acumen; courage; lunacy.

FM: Would it be fair to say that producers do not quite have the kudos of directors? If so, why not?

LU: I think it’s simply because most people don’t really know what a producer does. Some think they simply raise the money, or hover around in the background waiting to go to the premier. Also there are many kinds of producers (associate producers, line producers, executive/co-producers) and this creates a kind of veil over what a real/key producer does. The industry is geared to giving adulation to directors and seeing them as the ‘film-makers’. In fact film-making is the most collaborative art there is, and those who contribute, and particularly in unseen ways, are not as celebrated as they ought to be.

FM: You have produced both documentary films and feature films. Which have you enjoyed producing more, and what are the major differences in their production?

LU: I’ve enjoyed producing both drama docs. and films. The ‘Birmingham Six’ film I produced for Granada (Who Bombed Birmingham) gave me an enormous sense of reward, pride, satisfaction because it made a real difference to people’s lives (it led in a direct and concrete way to the appeal which was allowed and freed the six men after 17 years of wrongful imprisonment). Equally, the sense of achievement which East is East yielded to all of us involved in making it, was pretty amazing, too. The difference in production between the two lies chiefly in the area of legal considerations and restrictions vs. freedoms with what one can include in the finished films. When dealing with a real story, based on real events and people, one has to tread incredibly carefully with lawyers to avoid libel suits arising form unintended distortion of the truth (very hard to avoid with dramatising of events). One can only include facts that are unassailably provable in a court of law.

FM: Did you have any memorable moments in the production of Who Bombed Birmingham?

LU: One memorable moment during production was the night I was doorstepped outside my home at about 11.30 at night, by a special branch officer replete with pork-pie hat, who asked me why I was ‘associating with terrorists’ and told me that people have had their careers ruined for far lesser things than I was engaged in. The other favourite moment was the morning after the film was broadcast on ITV, when Margaret Thatcher stood up in The House of Commons and boomed: ‘We will not have trial by television in this country!’.

FM: It could be argued that the UK film industry is not in the healthiest of states. Do you feel this is the case and if so, what measures do you think need to be put in place in order to revive it?

LU: I think the prime problem in this country is that we adopt ‘quick fix’ measures for problems we perceive in the short term, without taking an overview of the industry as a whole. We say: ‘distribution needs support, so let’s pull back on funding development and put more money into fixing distribution’, and then three years down the line, we find there’s nothing to go into production and we shift again. The government has taken good and helpful steps to support our industry (with tax-incentivised funding schemes and grants of lottery monies), we need to ensure that those managing these funds free themselves from formula-thinking and really support new voices, new blood, unexpected and distinctive projects that will freshen up cinema content.

FM: What kind of films would you like to see coming out of the UK?

LU: Films that are strong on story, script and performance (these are the areas of our real strengths), that do not mimic American formulae, or make the wrong decisions because of commercial pressures (to have stars, for instance), that speak to people about their lives, that have something distinctive, fresh and individual to say.

Future Movies would like to thank Lyndsey at Idea Generation for her help with arranging this interview.

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