Welcome to The Pitch. Each month, Kate Villevoye, VC member and independent filmmaker, speaks with a commissioner or executive producer at a leading international media platform to learn about the intricacies of their editorial processes and what collaborative opportunities exist for independent video journalists and filmmakers with an unmissable story to pitch.
Platform: Scientific American
Chief Multimedia Editor/Executive Producer: Jeffery DelViscio
Outlet Type: Editorially run magazine and online media platform
Editorial Themes: science, health, technology, the environment and society
Ideal Video Format: Short documentaries, hosted or non-hosted
Pitches/Submissions Considered? Yes
Where to pitch: email@example.com
Kate Villevoye: Hi, Jeff! We’d love to learn about the relatively newly-founded Multimedia Unit at Scientific American, and the types of themes and stories you’re covering.
Jeff DelViscio: We're still a very small and scrappy doc unit that also publishes three podcasts a week, and needs to do other things in addition to the short films. The short films are just one part of what we do; we're also building a platform on TikTok, for example.
Science and health means there’s an incredibly wide range of potential stories we cover. There's usually a health or science angle in just about everything out there, depending on how you want to look at it and where it sits in the world. But, you know, you have to try to pick a main conduit for projects to come in.
We try to focus on space and the cosmos, because that's historically a big area for us. And we have good editors in that field, with great expertise. Then, of course, climate change in all of its various incarnations — this could be health equity and environmental equity, or it could be literal basic research that's going on, or it could be some combination thereof. And finally, social justice and health equity coverage is a big one — so there are those three “temples” under which a lot of things fall.
KV: Got it. And how can filmmakers with a story to pitch get in touch with your team?
JD: It's been very organic in terms of people just personally reaching out, but firstname.lastname@example.org is where we can be reached. I will caveat it and say there are just three of us.
The other thing we try to do is provide supplementary funding, like helping filmmakers get grants. Supporting with letters of recommendation and so on for targeted funding on the production side of things. My philosophy is to try to make what we pay, what you take home, as opposed to what you need to pay to get the production done. The supplementary funding is an attempt to make the filmmaker as whole as possible, just in terms of getting the story covered and getting through post, but then also actually having living wages to take home. That is always the hope. I don't know an offhand number of how many grants we've gotten for folks, but over the years, we've amassed a good amount of production capital from other sources.
KV: What do you look for in a pitch?
JD: It's going to sound really dumb and obvious, but a good visual story. Something that gels, that makes sense, where you have a place that you can imagine... That it's not difficult for an editor here to put themselves in the visual place of the viewer watching it later.
Access to research and process is something that is really interesting for us: getting somewhere with a researcher, being on an oceanographic cruise with them, or going on an expedition out into the field with someone, having access to be there as data is collected and knowledge is generated. That really interests us: research in real time in a place where there's something to be learned about some mystery of the world. It seems silly, but it's true. It doesn't all have to be natural sciences. It can be a lab doing a really interesting thing that most people don't know anything about.
It's the access and the buy-in from researchers to be there, to know what they're trying to do — and experience some of that tension and sense of urgency behind that project, behind that research. That's usually a pretty good fit for us, especially when there's like research in real time and it’s not like every story that you'll find.
KV: And what is it that makes a good pitch stand out from others?
JD: Preparation, having your shit together, pulling some visuals, having an interview list showing that you've spent some time with the subject, and that you’ve invested time to to figure out the logistics. Proof that you've been digging, and that on some level, you yourself are fascinated enough to see this through. You have to be interested enough in this to make it into a good film.
There's a lot of coded stuff in science and health. It's really difficult to understand truly why things are important or impactful or interesting, and you've got to spend time and effort to get there, and we can pick that up pretty quickly if you haven't.
KV: I know you’re also producing plenty of podcasts. How do these various publishing formats complement each other, and what can filmmakers learn from that approach?
JD: VCers don't often talk about podcasts, but there are interesting opportunities in the podcast world as well. We host a three-day-a-week show called Science, Quickly, but we've also been doing featurettes called Fascination (as part of Science, Quickly), which are multi-part mini-series. I just had a filmmaker who originally pitched me a climate reporting trip up in the high Arctic in short film form, but now we’re also releasing a three episode podcast based off of the video report.
For those of us who remain locked to the internet as our publishing space, diversifying reporting from a documentary project of any kind is really important. When you’re getting only one short film out of a story, you're really putting a lot of pressure on that one output to do well and demonstrate a return on investment.
The more you can split it up and think about it in terms of a story that can fit in multiple spaces with multiple communities and audiences, the safer you are, just in terms of being able to get something out of it - and also kind of allows me to pay filmmakers twice. Just in terms of getting funding and proving impact and reaching people, you just have more bites at the apple that way, for sure.
KV: At what stage of research or production do you usually prefer filmmakers to reach out to you?
JD: It's nice to have a pitch with some meat on the bone. You can tell how committed someone is to doing what they're proposing to do just by the amount of work they've done. They may have some spare interviews, or at the very least a sense of where they’re going and who they’re talking to as opposed to a nebulous idea of what you want to do. The more a filmmaker can help us both assess the fit of the project, as well as the approach, the better. It just helps us move past the round of “I have all these questions that aren't answered.”
There's no way you can know everything when you pitch an editor, especially one you've never met before. It's always going to be a cold call. Referrals can kind of help if I know where people are coming from or who they've worked with before, but that's not a total necessity. It does help to have a little bit of a sense of their work to show that you can be accountable for stuff that you've worked on before.
KV: Do you have a rough yearly estimate of the amount of films commissioned and the amount produced in-house? Is there a ratio you usually adhere to?
JD: It's a good question. It's a bit of a moving target, it really depends on what we have cooking and what we don't.
We have these global films and they're bigger budgets. So there's funding there. And when that's running, we basically have about four films a year that we're doing that aren’t necessarily internally. They could be commissioned films.
If I look back at any given year, it sort of depends on how quickly we can pipeline films and get them going. The limiting factor is editor time once we actually commit to a film, so I think probably not more than five to ten films a year in terms of new commissions. It's a slate that fills up pretty quick.
We're not producing 20, 30, 40 films a year. We just don't have the people and honestly don't have the budget, but the ones that we actually do make time for, invest in and commission, we spend a good amount of time really making them as good as they could possibly be and funding them as fully as they can possibly be funded.
JD: Shot ably and creatively is the real requirement. In terms of the technology used to do it, we are very flexible. If it's interesting, I don't care about the amount of grain. It's the details of the work, not the details of the method that matter more to me. I care about the story. I don't care about the gear.
We're actively trying to figure out how to work with more local filmmakers. A lot of science stories are very much global stories, and global stories can be really expensive to tell because of the logistical complications there. But if you have a better reach into global communities where some blooming storytellers are living, then you have a better opportunity to tell them on the ground with people who actually live there as opposed to sending people in.
KV: What were some of the best pitches you've ever received or films that you ever commissioned, and why?
JD: I really enjoyed and was personally educated by this five-part series we did called A Question Of Sex, which filmmaker and VC member Meghan McDonough pitched to me. It started out with the idea that science doesn't really understand chromosomal sex differences at all, and it certainly doesn't act on it. What are the ramifications of all that downstream, in terms of misunderstanding ourselves as beings?
Every really hot button social issue going on right now around sex and gender and inequality is wrapped up into this, and fundamentally comes from science not wanting to take the time to understand this in a deeper way, and there's a whole bunch of sexist and gender-based blindness. It talks about all of science’s fallacies, and its arrogance and its blindness. It's a human system like everything else, and it's not better than anyone else.
Another project is called Guardians, produced by Dominic Smith and Andrew Robinson. There was a giant Sequoia grove that was burned during a wildfire. The film follows two researchers taking this all in for the first time. I really liked it because it just felt like a very intimate film. Part of what makes these stories impactful and interesting is when the researchers are not just automaton scientists, but they have a real stake, with deep emotional connections to the stuff they're studying, and you can feel it.
Overall, we're still very much in a kind of “getting things going” phase, and it's happening amid all the changes in social media and all the continuous layoffs in journalism. Trying to start things while everything seems to be falling apart is a difficult thing. But that doesn't mean you stop trying to do it, so part of it has just been about forging on and trying to make films as quickly as you can. We haven't actually even started to scratch the surface on what we can make.
KV: How do you and your team at Scientific American measure success in the doc world?
JD: Documentary has gotten real weird — like, what does it mean to succeed doing it? Is it getting into festivals? We don't do feature length docs because we don't have the infrastructure or time for it, but like, shorts are kind of in this limbo land anyway, right? There's some festivals for them but they don't get license deals or picked up, really. Streaming doesn't feature shorts in any real way. It's YouTube and festivals — that's pretty much it. And maybe in vertical format in the future, on TikTok.
Success in that particular case really depends on the story and what you're trying to get across. It could be: what impact does it have for a community that's featured? Maybe the success there is that the short gets seen by the right people and funding comes in. And so it becomes a sort of a mechanism to make some change in that place.
Or maybe it's just about creating something with really solid factual information to fight misinformation about climate change, for example. Say we get some Pulitzer funding for it, it goes on to an education campaign after the film is published. And the filmmaker goes around to schools, talks to kids, and shows the film. Then it's gotten to a place where it's part of the education system and that's really useful.
It kind of depends on the project. I don't commission films to try to get millions of views on YouTube because that's not how YouTube works, and that's not how algorithms work. You can't really do that. And the whole point of doing a documentary short is to be able to spend time developing a story with nuance and hopefully some visual beauty. We'll do our best to make sure that as many people see it as possible. But there's no guarantees in this world. And that's not why we make the film. It's because there are important stories, ones that fit within Scientific American's public service remit. And it's worth making the investment to try to get them out there as far as possible. And that's where my return on investment is: creating visual journalism, storytelling that's impactful, interesting and real, to hopefully be consumed by as many people as we can get in front of.
There are all these perverse incentives out there in the internet land, that motivate people to create loud and obnoxious bullshit for the sake of tickling the algorithms. And it's a hard road to walk, to say “I'm not going to do any of that. I'm going to spend a bunch of money helping a person get to a place where they can tell a story that's honest and interesting, welcoming to people who aren't science people, because it feels accessible, and it educates hopefully, and informs, and that's what it's supposed to do.”