The stars/heros were a teenage refugee from Honduras, a Mayan activist from Guatemala, a park ranger from Bolivia, a mentor to struggling teenagers in Los Angeles. The power brokers were foundation leaders and media executives. The supplicants were storytellers, filmmakers and activists. At stake was a chance to change the world.
They all came together in a single day last week at the first Miami edition of Good Pitch, an extraordinary event you probably haven’t heard of unless you’re in the documentary film world. Organized by BritDoc, a non-profit British film foundation, GoodPitch brings together documentary filmmakers who make movies about social justice issues with people from foundations, NGO’s, activist non-profits, film festivals, and media platforms – who can fund the films, get them seen, and hopefully use them to change the system and the world.The result is a dizzying blend of world-charging idealism, philanthropic generosity, complex deal making and stark competition.
Since its 2008 launch, Good Pitch, which is co-sponsored by the Ford Foundation and Sundance, has raised $29 million for the six to eight films lucky enough to be chosen for each event. And that doesn’t include the potentially still more valuable chance to get picked up by the likes of the Tribeca Film Festival or Netflix or Vice Media – or the United Nations, the ACLU or the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“It’s not just the money – it’s the time, knowledge, creativity and new relationships,” Cara Mentes, director of the JustFilms Initiative at the Ford Foundation, which co-sponsors with the Sundance Film Festival, said at the opening of the Miami event.
Good Pitch has been held in London, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Toronto and Chicago. To that illustrious list now add Miami, which hosted GoodPitch last Tuesday at the New World Symphony’s sleek, soaring New World Center on Miami Beach
The process initially sounds confusing, but turns out to be quite simple and direct. Eight films were selected for the Miami event. The filmmakers, after two days of intensive coaching, had seven minutes to stand up at the center of the NWS auditorium and present their film, and their cause, to a table of heavyweights, who might offer money, a screening, an advocacy campaign, a crucial connection. The 400 plus other participants were also invited to offer encouragement, opportunities, and advice.
The possibilities – of those few minutes, of this one day – are potentially transformative. ”At that table there’s unbelievable resources,” said Jill Bauer, who learned the scrambling indie life as co-director of the film Sexy Baby and the Netflix series Hot Girls Wanted. “Those people are completely tapped into the issues. There are connections all over the place.
Among the Good Pitch films that have made a splash are Virunga, a multi-award winner about the battle over a threatened conservation area in The Congo; Invisible War, about the hidden epidemic of rape in the U.S. military; and The Square, about the struggle for democracy in Egypt.
Presiding over the very long day was BritDoc CEO Jess Search, a charismatic k.d. lang lookalike in a slim white suit who introduced, coaxed, flattered, explained and charmed everyone with that inimitable British brand of casual eloquence. “Today, with your help, we’re gonna put rocket boosters on these films,” Search announced, commanding the crowd to introduce themselves to their seat neighbors. “We’ve got policy makers and policy un-makers. You may be sitting next to a poet from Miami or a park ranger from Brazil. They’re both here, so someone must be sitting next to them.”
The level of dedication, years of work, talent, passion showcased in these films – as well as the dramatic stories they told – were enormously inspiring. Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis’ 500 Years capped a trilogy of films and over 30 years of work documenting the resistance of indigenous people in Guatemala to genocide and corrupt governments. (Footage from one film was used to help convict Guatemalan general Rios Montt of genocide.) The Negotiators followed the secret, years-long process to create a peace agreement with guerillas in Colombia. The Pushouts showed a California teen who escaped gang life to become a counselor, and returns to his home town to help the mentor who changed his life. (The film’s title was part of a campaign to change the word “drop-out,” which implies that the kid is at fault, to “push out,” to show they’ve been forced from school by an unjust system and circumstances.)
<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/221315889″>THE PUSHOUTS</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/thepushouts”>Big Pictures</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Unaccompanied Children, the only Miami film on the program follows children driven to leave Honduras by gang violence and struggling desperately with an often draconian U.S. system for refugees. The Age Of Water shows the efforts of a mother and kindergarten teacher to uncover the pollution in their water system that is sickening children in their small Mexican town.
All the films had someone heading an “impact campaign” – a detailed plan to use the film to educate and advocate for the cause being documented.
“We want the film to reach into the community and reframe how young people are seen,” said Dawn Valadez, director of The Pushouts, after her presentation.
Good Pitch takes place in an increasingly crowded and chaotic media landscape, and a society where social and political advocates fight to get the attention of decision-makers and populations. Documentary films, which combine the informational impact of journalism, the emotional sweep of storytelling, the visceral struggles of real people, and the visual power of imagery, can stand out amidst all this. And that is making them more valuable to institutions and change agents of all kinds.
“More and more media entities and brands are starting to look at social issues in a way they never have before,” Nick Carter, a veteran of Democratic political campaigns who is now director of advocacy for Vice Media – a title you certainly wouldn’t see at a traditional newspaper. “It’s ok to talk about it, but what are we going to do about it?”
That doesn’t even take into account multiplying TV and online outlets’ constant thirst for content. All those channels gotta show something – and in an age of upheaval, social storytelling and political passion are hot.
“Our film is a political thriller,” said Petra Costa, the soft-spoken director of Impeachment, about the ouster of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Added co-producer Shane Boris, “even House of Cards tweeted that they can’t compete with what is happening in Brazil.”
GoodPitch has been so successful that it is expanding, staging local versions (there was a hyper-local Miami iteration the day after the main event) and helping organizations in South Africa, Kenya, India, Taipei, Colombia, Argentina, Australia and East Asia become regional GoodPitch2 producers.
Beyond the practical help, the attention and energy surrounding GoodPitch affirms to the filmmakers, that others also care about the grueling battle to do some good.
“It recharges your batteries about humanity and human nature,” said Pamela Yates, director of 500 Years. “My mantra is more community and less competition.”