What will pitching and networking events look like after the initial COVID-19 crisis eases?
This paper is the preliminary result of a working group set up by DAE – Documentary Association of Europe. The aim is to gather, organize and share experiences, insights and ideas on innovations of documentary project presentations and pitches during and – more importantly – after the Covid-19 crisis.
In a series of discussions attended by directors, producers, distributors, commissioning editors, forum organizers et al. we addressed the current situation of cancelled, postponed and virtualized forums and the lessons we can learn for the future. We also observed several industry talks and pitching at virtual events, and listened to presentations made by colleagues who have run virtual forums.
The group was led by Christian Popp, documentary producer YUZU Productions and Head of Industry Days at FIPADOC International Documentary Festival. He is the author of this paper together with the working group, edited by Brigid O’Shea.
Out of the present:
The Covid-19 lockdown has hugely impacted the fragile documentary industry
Disruption is everywhere: markets, forums, training programs, working times, schedules, delays, communication tools…
This situation has already been described and observed elsewhere by many stakeholders in our industry and is not the focus of this paper. Imagining the documentary pitching world after Covid-19 is difficult but we can try to sketch it: in the short term, lockdowns will continue as will virtual forums as a reaction to the absence of physical forums. In the next 1-2 years restrictions (event size and social distancing measures) will continue and impact not just the design but also the reality of physical events. In the long term, maybe we can go “back to normal”.
“Back to normal” is necessarily in parentheses as the current situation will change our industry. The purpose of this paper is the exploration of this new normality.
Physical and virtual
Prior to the lockdown, we were already participating in virtual and distant pitching. Part of our pitching and training reality had already moved remote, physical forums being the highlight of a complex communication network for project development. To mention only a few initiatives: the online pitching sessions of former EDN, remote training at Ex Oriente, Rough Cut Service or the Pitch the Doc platform.
The virtual Industry platforms set up in reaction to Covid-19 (i.e. Thessaloniki, Zagreb, Copenhagen, Kyiv, Nyon, Munich and more to come, Barcelona, La Rochelle, Cannes) have only accelerated this tendency. We are getting used to zoom meetings, recorded project presentations and industry panels on a flat screen. Most of these virtual events emulated the physical events that we are used to with some adaptations.
A bit of history:
To better summarize similarities and differences we attempted to define a pitching forum/industry event in terms of managing three assets: space, time and knowledge exchange. Let’s stay for a moment with the pitching forums we know.
The size of each pitching forum compared to another is important. Depending on the scope and focus, a smaller event can be sometimes more productive than a bigger one. The event location is also highly relevant as it often defines a forum’s specific features. East Doc Platform in Prague is a hub for Central and Eastern European industry. Nordisk Forum taking place in Malmö/Sweden showcases projects from the Nordic Countries etc.
The space’s design (size, layout, flow of participants, capacity etc.) all contribute to the essence of an event and is key in its characteristics.
How many pitching forums does our industry need? This question has been growing in importance over the last decade: the profusion of events, creates a busy year calendar for producers, directors, distributors, decision makers. What on one hand can be seen as an effervescence of the industry has been described often sarcastically as forum hopping, travel circus, even pitching fatigue.
Yes, we love being with each other, feeling that we are a family. Yes, we need constant inspiration, impulses, exchange, mutual reassurance, solidarity. We need project presentations in an efficient and constructive way, but we also need social events and dinners, coffees and other unstructured networking possibilities to get work done.
Training and knowledge exchange are an essential part of documentary events. We share experience with our peers, participate actively in debates on hot topics, learn and improve, either informally or in a designed set up as part of industry talks or a training curriculum.
For all three assets, curation and design of the events are essential to make it attractive and efficient, worth attending, worth the time and money. But let’s face it: the world described above is not compatible with social distancing.
Memories of being together at the European Film Market in February 2020. Are such encounters relegated to the history books?
Anticipation – Remote and Physical:
Physical and virtual spaces should be designed and used in new ways. But with painful constraint comes opportunity – we are all experiencing a digital rebirth.
We expect there will be an increase of remote only, online events. While it usually takes months to prepare a physical pitching forum, a virtual one can be organized quickly and efficiently. No room to be rented, no food and drinks to be provided, scaling the forum, dividing into smaller groups is simple in the zoom era. You can attend a forum from your sofa in your pajamas, even better, you can attend several forums almost simultaneously. Green, no travel costs, no queues at the accreditation desk, no rain.
No sun either and no hugs, no spontaneous encounters, shared lunches, no parties. And less emotion. As one commissioning editor pointed out in the discussions that you cannot feel the energy, community, passion, at least not to the same level. Not everything is great online, but short, focused, highly-curated niche events would be refreshing, efficient and a boost for our industry.
We are about to enter a complex hybrid forum landscape – with physical events adding complementary virtual elements to their on-site offerings. Again, this is nothing new, but will be taken to a next level.
Mid-size events will likely adapt more easily than the flagships of our industry. Limiting the number of people in a venue and distancing them from one another has obvious implications, including complex decisions to be made about access. Up and coming talent have always been welcome to join experienced professionals in these spaces and we’ve been happy to make room for newcomers as observers, part of delegations etc.. What else can be offered than prerecorded materials to strengthen diversity and access? Many up and coming talents are already expressing fears that they are not able to access the professionals who support not only their projects but their career trajectory in a hybrid landscape. We do not want to create a new system of gatekeepers or a two-class system: the attendees and the digital observers.
Traditional hierarchy, with the central pitch on top, followed by round tables and finally one-to-one meetings will be reversed. This was already a trend before the Covid-19 crisis, with a renewed worth placed on intimate, focused exchange and encounter.
How do we handle an essential aspect of our industry which is social interaction? Are spontaneous encounters possible in a virtual space? We’ve seen here with our working groups and at HotDocs that it is possible, especially when they are clearly defined in their purpose and offer. There could be an increase of online resources showcasing people and projects. The success of such tools will depend very much on their ability to match expectations and results, remaining based on human interaction rather than matchmaking algorithms. Do we need to embrace a cultural shift: that online tools to enrich our experience (such as project platforms for research and follow up) may not ever entirely replace real-life encounters but could take over a bulk of work currently not being performed efficiently?
Training, project preparation, follow up around the physical event could all be transformed into digital offerings. We could describe these offerings as virtual satellites of the main planet, adding value to a global offering. To spin the astronomic metaphor a little further, a key issue here will be the gravity of the main event, its force to keep on a steady orbit (not too far, not to close) its satellites before, during and after the physical event. However, work still needs to be done to ensure this space is a place for everyone.
Speaking of which…the profusion of the offer in terms of remote markets we are experiencing today is overwhelming and confusing.
For example: MIA, taking place in October is producing an industry session about the future of the sector in May. B2B Doc launched a series of masterclasses beyond the schedule of its actual event in April, the Banff World Media Festival is running for four months (!), The Marché du Film in Cannes (and Cannes Docs) is running the same week as Sunny Side of the Docs. This abundance is great and shows how dynamic and resilient our industry is. We need to rethink our usual schedule and timing, create a new visibility of our offer, and coordinate in a new radical collaboration to avoid competition and scheduling conflicts.
Zapping from one event to another presents the obvious danger of lost focus and superficial participation and/or observation. Thus far, on a micro-level, the design of each pitching event has been trial and error. It seems that pre-recorded pitches and live round tables / one-to-one meetings are more convenient. Long events cause “zoom fatigue”. There are scheduling issues, juggling private and work-related commitments, time zones and internet connections. We do not have a record of testimonials and outcomes of participating in these events, something this working group will continue discussing.
Renewed focus on industry sessions and training
This crisis gives us a good opportunity to think about what kind of sessions we are creating and for whom. For many, the industry sessions taking place remotely are an opportunity and a burden. New, inspiring constellations of speakers and debates are emerging, as is access to professionals who we in continental Europe may not always have.
Still, the profusion of the offer is confusing and overwhelming. There is a need for better curation, channeling of the offering and communication around it. Newcomers and the needs of emerging talent should also not be forgotten in the planning of these events. Meet the Experts, spaces for interaction outside of a formal meeting or pitch but more structured than a digital cocktail should also not get lost or lose priority. Our suggestion again is radical collaboration: is there really a need for several similar virtual sessions about distribution at similar events taking place close to each other? Coordination, even co-production of these sessions would save resources and time.
As sessions are often recorded and made available for a longer period, a single resources site where they could be shared, updated, followed by live discussions and replaced when they are out of date would be an excellent asset.
Challenging times: a call for reinvention
There is no real conclusion after 8 weeks of this ongoing crisis, but this is a call for reinvention and creativity. We need to find the right balance between remote and physical events. Both are here to stay.
Some food for thought
- We need to collectively redesign the interfaces of the remote and physical offer for our industry, including considering the inclusion implications of technology and data protection
- We need to avoid the jungle and work on the visibility of a clear and comprehensive market that is easy to navigate
- How do we avoid a two-class society of those who have the means to attend physical events vs those from emerging industries and economies? How do we not appropriate discriminatory practices in our old system in the digital space?
- The reshaping of our events will also change the ways projects are presented. The traditional formula of the 7 minutes presentation followed by 7 minutes Q&A is challenged in remote pitching by new, creative ways of pre-recorded presentations, showing that there is room for innovation, also for on-site forums.
- The documentary industry is a business of people not of projects. How we socialize in the future hybrid market space will be key to creativity and collaboration?
There is likely an unprecedented economic crisis looming on the horizon, which will also affect documentary production and exhibition in a profound and long-lasting way. If used right and through solidarity across the whole industry, the new tools we are experimenting with right now can benefit us all: physical and virtual meeting places, a springboard for more visibility and success beyond our local markets.
How we reshape our forums should also be a reflection on how we bridge gaps: the goal always to be more inclusive, create opportunities for unheard voices and diversity in our industry and the documentary films we make.
Some links for further reference:
- The Challenge of Realising a Digital Festival During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Experiences and an Exchange of Best Practices – One of the first public discussions featuring Meeting Point Vilnius and CPH:DOX as well as Head of Unit Audiovisual Industry and Media Support Programmes, European Commission, Lucia Recalde.
- B2B Doc’s Pitching Forums: What we’ve learned so far, with DAE members Zane Balcus & Brigid O’Shea.
- Four film festivals discuss the future during Visions Du Réel via Variety.