Creativity & The Pitch: An Essay

This essay was written in 2016 as part of graduate school research conducted at the Missouri School of Journalism's Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism.

In François Truffaut’s legendary conversation with Alfred Hitchcock, the latter described the relationship between a director and their film. “In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life,” Hitchcock famously said.[1] Creation is at the heart of any film, whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Creativity is a beast, and with it anyone who has ever created anything ultimately struggles. But where and when is this creativity shaped? A film goes through much tweaking from start to finish, and some filmmakers allow myriad voices to shape their ideas. Others might put up a wall and remain stoic when other creative minds offer their opinions. Thus, from story conception to film completion, when are the most important evolutions in creativity evident during the film process? This essay will examine one part of that creative process: the pitch.

When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if there are two types of creatives — "those who simplify, and the others, who might be described as 'complicators.' " Hitchcock agreed. He replied that some directors lose control over their work because they are obsessed with abstract ideas. “They're like a poor speaker who loses his head because he's overly self-conscious and is unable to make a point or get to the point.”[2] One place when a filmmaker temporarily gives up control over their film is during the pitching process, when ideas and story are laid naked, while other, often more experienced filmmakers can capture that idea, and twist it any way their opinions point it, for better or worse.

Using opportunities like a pitch forum, or an “elevator pitch,” reveals which filmmakers are truly invested in their story, and uncovers those that are either not so invested or need to work on their ideas. Said another, albeit fluffy way: “become one with your pitch.”[3] Pitching a film creatively also forces the filmmaker to truly take ownership of their story. “It forces you to own up to what the film is at a particular moment in time and that can change,” said Yael Melamede, who won an Academy Award with Inocente (Best Documentary Short, 2013), in an interview with IndieWire in 2014.[4] In a typical pitch forum, utilizing a creative teaser can also free up the filmmaker to let the teaser speak for itself and add their own personality with their spoken pitch, because repeating what is in the teaser is redundant, and wastes valuable time.[5] Both of these avenues of communicating ideas allow the filmmaker to essentially use two voices to pitch their idea. Pitching a film can be good for the creative process, explained one documentary journalism student that has participated in a pitch forum.

“I think having to take my film from an idea to something I could explain, helped craft a narrative, and [a] story, and how to creatively tell that story to fit with my original idea. It really took it leaps and bounds from the original concept,” student filmmaker Kellan Marvin said. While the pitch process afforded the young filmmaker a route to mold her story idea further, it did not necessarily offer a new view on the type of film she is attempting to make. “I was actually told to reign in some of the dream-like sequences during the forum which would take away a lot of the film's creative aspects,” she said. This is an important lesson when filmmakers are pitching their ideas. A film is the darling of its creator (even though in documentary film this might contradict Hitchcock). But when others who are not as close to the project as the filmmaker suggest alterations to the story, mode, or form, it is up to the director to figure out whether to give a damn about those edits. After a recent pitch forum, Marvin said, “My ideas are pretty much the same. Because my film is more experimental, the feedback I got was not necessarily ... in line with my vision for the film.”

So the film pitch might not always bear fruit if the filmmaker’s style does not mesh with the pitch’s antagonists (the judges). Big deal, right? Perhaps this is a communication problem? One documentary film student, Meg Vatterott, who has also endured the pitching process, believed the experience forced her to communicate her ideas more efficiently.

“The pitch process really pushed me to develop my idea, and be able to explain it in an interesting way that others could understand,” she said. Vatterott had the challenge of separating her film from others, making it more unique. While Vatterott’s film idea was not as experimental as Marvin’s, she still needed to get her ideas across in a short amount of time. “I would also say that because we were pitching to a couple pretty mainstream documentary judges, in our creative process we also had to find ways to appeal to them specifically.” The short time constraints of a pitch forum forced Vatterott to simplify her film for the benefit of the pitch judges. “I feel that I can visualize my film in my mind, but it was hard to relay that picture to others. So as I realized what was missing in my pitch to help them visualize that, I was able to think of new specific ways to achieve the vision I want.” Following her pitch, she had a clearer idea of the key points within her film, and said it boosted her creativity. Before the forum, she had many ideas that she wanted to try. “Now I feel more set on a few specific ideas I want to try in my film.”

Remaining creative during a stressful process can be a challenge. Student filmmaker Varun Bajaj used the pitch process to better understand his film. “I really spent time delving in my ideas and finding ways to communicate my ideas, visions, and dreams for my film through conversation and writing,” he said. “This made me focus and explain, rather than think and explore.” Bajaj used a pitch forum to make new connections, and it reaffirmed his belief that he was on the right track. “After the pitch, I was put in contact with a Muslim-American screenwriter in Detroit, who is the last big missing piece for my crew to make this film.” Not only did the pitch session ignite new creativity, Bajaj renewed his own confidence in making the film. “I am confident that my film is good and that I can execute it,” he added. “I know if I do it correctly, it will be worth seeing — and that gives me the motivation to actually go out and make it.”

Sidney Lumet wrote that everything becomes creative if the person doing the work is also creative. “Creative work is very hard, and some sort of self deception is necessary simply in order to begin,” Lumet wrote.[6] Volumes of psychology research could probably better explain how the mind generates an idea. But it is important to remember that ideas can be altered, evolved, or even destroyed, by both its author and by others that are allowed into the creative process. Some filmmakers use multiple ideas from many people in order to shape their film. Others are protective of their story, much as a parent shelters its offspring, and are not always eager to let new ideas cloud their own. Both types, however, share the need for taking an initial pop of imagination — the idea — and translating it to a story that will resonate with the filmmaker’s intended audience. Sometimes the hardest part of the creative mode is latching on to that first idea and not letting go.

Using creativity effectively seems to be the solution to so many voices contributing to a film’s story. Certainly, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) values creativity in documentary pitches. "Creative documentaries bringing new stories with international appeal" rise above all others, Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen said in an interview with the International Documentary Associatio about IDFA’s review process.[7] In the end, a filmmaker has to talk about their film as they would their first true love. Own the idea and the creativity, and this process becomes much easier. “They want to know why your topic is important, why you are the best team to make it and why it needs to be produced now,” said Jan Rofekamp, of Films Transit International, a Montreal-based international documentary sales agency.[8] A filmmaker only needs to keep in mind that they are the Creator, even if in a documentary God is the director.


[1] Truffaut, F. & Hitchcock, A. (1967). Hitchcock (p. 102). New York: Simon and Schuster.

[2] Truffaut, F. & Hitchcock, A. (1967). Hitchcock (p. 93). New York: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Dean, C. (2007). The Art of Film Funding (p. 29). Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.

[4] Bernstein, P. (2016). The Keys To A Successful Documentary Pitch from Hot Docs Pitch Forum 2014. Indiewire. Retrieved 6 May 2016, from http://www.indiewire.com/article/hot-docs-the-keys-to-a-successful-documentary-pitch

[5] De Jong, W., Knudsen, E., & Rothwell, J. (2012). Creative Documentary (p. 72). Harlow, U.K.: Pearson.

[6] Lumet, S. (1995). Making Movies (p. 145). New York: A.A. Knopf.

[7] Pitch Fests: Selling Your Project in Seven Minutes or Less. (2016). International Documentary Association. Retrieved 9 May 2016, from http://www.documentary.org/magazine/pitch-fests-selling-your-project-seven-minutes-or-less

[8] Pitch Fests: Selling Your Project in Seven Minutes or Less. (2016). International Documentary Association. Retrieved 9 May 2016, from http://www.documentary.org/magazine/pitch-fests-selling-your-project-seven-minutes-or-less