Session Report on Masterclass: Pitching

This report is provided by masterclass facilitator Tanya Evans.

All the participants who signed up for the masterclass on pitching were asked to bring along a ‘pitch’ for an idea that they hoped to develop into a television or radio documentary or a book. They were asked to present their pitch in three different formats: a sentence, a paragraph and a page. We asked for the page-length version to contain more information about the sorts of elements that might make up their work including whether they would be including visuals, what form of presentation would be used, its form etc.

I started by asking our expert panellists to introduce themselves to the audience and to give their top tips for pitching proposals. I then divided up the participants and we spent most of the workshop working through their pitches according to genre and improving them in light of expert feedback.

Alex West began his career as an archaeologist. It was while working in this field he began to make films on archaeology. He joined the BBC in 1988 and worked on over 40 factual and doc series, formats and specials. He was an Executive Producer on the original BBC series of  Who Do You Think You Are? He has produced history programs for many of the world’s broadcast networks, including BBC, ABC, SBS, Nat Geographic, Discovery, Channel 4, PBS, Five, and TLC. In Australia he produced Ned Kelly Uncovered and Utopia Girls presented by Dr Clare Wright, and shortlisted for the 2013 NSW Premiers award for history in the audio-visual category. In 2011 Inside the Firestorm, the story of the black Saturday bushfires, won 3 AFI’s as best feature length documentary. In 2012 Immigration Nation was nominated for the AACTA/AFI as Best Documentary Series. It was also nominated for the Prime Minister’s prize for Australian History in 2012. In 2012 Alex produced Dirty Business: How Mining Made Australia for SBS. The series was variously reviewed as ‘truly groundbreaking’ and ‘spellbinding’. He is completing two contrasting history projects for ABC. The Art of Australia presented by Edmund Capon and Bodyline: The Ultimate Test presented by writer and comedian Adam Zwar.

Michelle Rayner: has been at the ABC for over twenty years, and has worked across the organisation, largely in radio. At Radio National, she’s produced science and arts programs, and began making history features in the mid 1990s. Michelle became Executive Producer of the Hindsight program slot in 2003, after spending a year at the BBC, producing documentaries and feature programs for Radio 4. Michelle has an MA in History, and in 1999 she won the NSW Premier’s History Audio-Visual award, for a documentary about the history of the Blue Mountains.

Phillipa McGuiness: is Executive Publisher at NewSouth Publishing, where she publishes Australian History, memoir and biography, current affairs and politics. She is also working on developing various projects into television documentaries. She was formerly Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and a member of the Humanities and Creative Arts advisory committee of the Australian Research Council. She is also a member of the board of RealTime Arts magazine.

Phillipa kicked us off by saying that those who planned to pitch their ideas should be able to describe their project in one pithy sentence. It was important not to undersell your work and to present it with as much freshness and original focus as possible. She also suggested that timing was an important factor to address: pitchers should be able to state why a story is important and why it should be told now. If writers were academics it was less important to state their academic credentials than it was to tell a story. Nonetheless, they need authority and gravitas in order to sell their story.

Alex followed by saying how few television projects get funded per year. About 95% of the projects pitched to the ABC are rejected per annum. He told us that he has a success rate of about 1 to 25/30. Pitchers needed to prepare themselves for rejection and to learn to constantly re-write their ideas. Writers and producers should be aware of cycles and to try to grasp the zeitgeist in order to get their programs made. He also suggested that pitches need to be contextualised in a package. Questions that need addressing include: why should a program be made now, what information will inform it and how will it be made? He also reiterated that a writer’s relationship with a producer is really important. These relationships take time to nurture and flourish. The audience was told that subjects do not need to be deeply researched before being pitched. An initial pitch does not need intricate detail but bullet point propositions should be clear, punchy and direct.

Michelle told the audience that she welcomes pitches at all stages with open arms. Typically Hindsight receives a steady flow from historians and she is emailed frequently with program ideas. She said that it is important that those pitching ideas for programs are as clear as possible about what they want to do. Advice about clarity and clear communication skills was repeated throughout the afternoon. Unlike television, radio’s budgets are miniscule so pitchers need, to some degree, to be able to make their own program. They should be prepared to write up and possibly present their own work. She suggested that writing for radio is finely crafted and a skill that is rarely talked or written about. It paid to listen to as many programs as possible in order to learn the craft.

Initial questions from the participants concerned funding and how historians could get in touch with production companies. Alex suggested consulting the listings provided by Film Victorian, Screen NSW, Tasmania and other states. Other suggestions included:

Development funding information:

Screen NSW also contains a link to these top tips for pitching films:

A question was asked about whether pitchers should be worried about people stealing their ideas. Alex responded by saying that he couldn’t work with someone who was secretive about their ideas at the pitching stage. How could he know how best to make a program about a subject that remained hidden? Secrecy was important when programs were in production but not before.

Participants were divided into groups depending upon the genre within which they wanted to work.

Michelle worked with participants keen to make a radio documentary including Lisa Murray, Katrina Gulliver and Dave Earl.

Alex worked with those hoping to pitch television program ideas including Mike, John, Ian, Belinda, Janet, Dick and others.

Phillipa worked with Lynette, Richard and Cassie Mercer who all hoped to write a book based upon their research.

All those participating were encouraged to make their writing and presentation as bright and sharp as possible. They were advised to grab people’s attention with their ideas and to think carefully about the historical sources they would reveal and use to present their story. They needed to limit their ambition and to stake their claim to their knowledge and expertise. All participants were advised to make their stories as engaging as possible, to craft their narratives, no matter what genre they were planning to work in.


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