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SPADA 2010: the Big Pitch

It seems it’s de rigeur these days for a screen industry conference to contain a pitch competition to spice up a lunch break or fill another kind of space in the schedule. To what extent they’re taken seriously by anyone other than the pitchers themselves or primarily regarded as entertainment – or some combination thereof – remains an open question.

Whichever is the case, there’s definitely an audience for the aspiring gladiators willing to throw themselves into this particular form of lions’ den – and make no mistake, it takes a similar kind of courage or foolhardiness. While what is required of the pitcher may be the same as in a one-to-one meeting with a potential producer or funder, the environment in this kind of competition, with perhaps hundreds of witnesses, is nothing like such a meeting. I concur with those who suggest that just entering deserves real and genuine applause.

The prize for 2010: free travel to an international festival or market of the winner’s choice, anywhere in the world, plus a complimentary registration for next year’s SPADA conference.

This year only four contestants appeared on the platform, and I was not the only one wishing there’d been more. But apparently two other selected finalists withdrew shortly before kick-off. Among those four was one person who’d had to draft a new pitch from scratch in roughly 24 hours. The day before he was to pitch for the conference someone had picked up the project. Congratulations!

A confidentiality clause in the application to compete suggests I should not reveal too much about the individual pitches here, but I can say that the proposed shoot locations ranged from Canada to Africa, and from the whole world to very small town NZ. And the content? Three docos (two personal and one philosophical) and one TV series, a comedy posing as a mockumentary.

The format was the fairly standard 5 minutes maximum, with the ability to use audio, video or still images as support. Each of the four contestants (Sven Pannell, Bruce Gatward-Cook, Sumner Burstyn and David White) had something playing on the screens behind them as they spoke. MC (and finalist selector) Dave Gibson introduced one competitor by quoting him as having said, “If I don’t win this pitch and have to shoot another corporate, I’ll shoot myself!”

One problem with all the pitches, to varying degrees, was reading of the complete presentation rather than speaking without notes or from bullet points. Speaking more spontaneously makes for easier and more frequent eye contact with the audience and allows one’s belief in one’s project to be more strongly, energetically and passionately expressed. In this environment at least, pitching requires performance skill as well as content.

After the judges had conferred Gibson gave a brief critique of each pitch before announcing the winner, Sumner Burstyn, former journalist partner of director/cinematographer Tom Burstyn (This Way of Life). Their new project is titled Leonard’s Lovers, which Sumner explained thus: “In his home town of Montreal I met a group of women who’d all slept with singer Leonard Cohen in their youth, and I wanted to know what it was like!”

The film is also an exploration of female sexuality in middle-age: “You turn 50 and suddenly you become sexually invisible!”

In her acceptance speech, Sumner Burstyn came out with the best line of the conference: “If anyone has any doubt as to whether there is an audience for this film, one only has to have been at one of his recent concerts in NZ. Looking out over the audience, one could see a sea of grey-haired women – and barely a dry seat in the house!”

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