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The Pitch

Episode 6: POV

Learn about the ins and outs of pitching to media platforms around the world.

Kate Villevoye

March 13th, 2024
Episode 6: POV

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.


The Essentials:

  • Platform: POV

  • Co-Producer: Robert Y. Chang

  • Outlet Type: broadcasting showcase on PBS for independent nonfiction films

  • Editorial Themes: social, political, and cultural issues, captured through a focus on community, family, love, loss, and joy.

  • Ideal Video Format: Long- and short-form documentaries

  • Pitches/Submissions Considered? Completed or near-completed film submissions only

  • Where to submit: https://cfe.pov.org/

  • POV Call for Entry guidelines

“Bring together a community in support of your film, otherwise it's a very lonely process that I liken to trying to thread the eye of the needle while falling down a flight of stairs.” These are the words of Robert Y. Chang, Co-Producer at POV, the longest-running broadcasting showcase for independent nonfiction in the United States. Robert knows what it takes to bring a film to fruition, and in our latest installment of The Pitch, we get his invaluable takes on the art and practice of documentary filmmaking and learn what tastemaker POV looks for in a project.

Kate Villevoye: Hi Robert! Can you share with us how POV operates when it comes to sourcing the films it showcases on PBS?

Robert Y. Chang: At POV, we have approximately 16 or so broadcast slots a year for our feature films, and we have approximately six episodes of POV shorts, which can comprise one longer short or several briefer shorts. The run times are around 25 minutes each for the shorts.

Because of our long-standing relationship with the independent documentary scene, we are frequently present at many festivals. There was a contingent at Sundance; I myself headed east during that time to go to When East Meets West and FIPA Docs out in Europe. We'll have representation at the Berlinale, and we make a strong effort to connect with both international as well as regional festivals where documentaries are highlighted — documentary film festivals such as Big Sky, True/False, Full Frame. We're constantly on the festival circuit assessing films, whether on panels or juries or at various markets to meet with filmmakers who have completed or near-completed projects. And even if we're not physically present at the film festival, it doesn't mean we're not looking at what films are playing at those festivals and doing outreach to the filmmakers. Through these efforts we're able to get a strong sense of what's on the horizon of films that will be released in the festival world in the coming years.

Robert Y. Chang

We also have an open call, and all of the submissions that we receive — even from filmmakers and sales agents that we've worked with before — all come in through this public call. Everything gets pre-screened by a member of a committee of approximately 20 or so members of the independent film world, who know our programming very well and who reflect a diverse range of perspectives and opinions on the stories that are being featured in the documentaries.

It's a lot of work, but we try to ensure that every film that's submitted is eligible and gets screened by at least two or three screeners. And once it does well enough on that front, it moves up to the programming team for consideration. There are a number of films in our upcoming season that came in through our open call that we didn't have prior relationships with the filmmakers.

We also have an open call, and all of the submissions that we receive — even from filmmakers and sales agents that we've worked with before — all come in through this public call.
—Robert Y. Chang

KV: If you look back at last year’s film program, how many of those docs were discovered at festivals and how many came through the call for entry?

RYC: I would say probably 50/50, maybe 60/40. The majority of the films we are aware of prior, but there are always those films that come through that we had never heard of before.

But, on the flip side of that, we get upwards of a thousand submissions a year, so there are a lot of films that are submitted that we don't have the space for in our slate.

KV: As POV joins a production at completion or near-completion stage, what type of contract do you usually enter into with the filmmaker?

RYC: What we do when we license a film is that we license the rights to a US broadcast of the film.

We typically license a film for a period of four years, after which it returns back to the filmmaker. So we work as a broadcaster, but we don't own the content. The filmmaker who took on the burden of risk and oftentimes spent three to five years of their life or longer working on a film — they own their film and they have the opportunity to exploit those rights in different ways, whether it's streaming or other ways. They also have the opportunity to sell rights to other territories that might be interested. I do know that a number of broadcasters that I've met with from around the world keep an eye on POV; they will also often consider a project once they've seen it on POV.

Student at MIT graduation in "Brief Tender Light," 2024.

What do you look for in a documentary feature or short? What makes it the right fit for POV?

RYC: There's definitely a distinct sensibility to a POV film. It's a non-fiction piece that has a unique and subjective voice or perspective on its topic; the storytelling is exemplary and oftentimes aesthetically unique. The film should offer a springboard for discussion, dialogue, and increased cross-cultural awareness of the world that we live in, and has a national and international resonance.

In general, POV films take an average of around three to five years to make, consistently giving a breadth and depth to the storytelling not available in other showcases. POV films are about diverse communities not commonly represented on television. We push for artful nonfiction films that represent the full spectrum of human experience, that bring viewers on an emotional journey that connects individual stories to broader issues and themes.

We would never say that we're a social issues documentary series; rather, we believe in what our namesake is – a strong and distinctive point of view. That can either be the subject, the community, the participants, the filmmaker, or the setting in which the documentary is made.

I think one of the things that's very distinctive and unique about POV's programming process is that it's not one person's taste or perspective that is being consolidated into a series. Rather, it's a whole collective of folks who come in together and agree that these films reflect the POV ethos and should be part of POV.

And that produces a broader range and a more robust slate of programming, we feel, than other models that are potentially faster moving, less democratically, and are more an imprimatur of a particular curator.

These Palestinian-American dancers use traditional Dabka to connect to their culture in "Coming Home," 2023.

KV: What themes would you say are most important to your viewers?

RYC: I think themes of community; themes of family, themes of love, loss, and joy. Those are some of the themes that connect with our community. Models for thinking of building a world anew are as important as those frameworks, for more critically engaging with the world in ways in which it may not function as well. I think that's always the balance that we see on the programming team.

In terms of the focus of the films, one of the things to keep in mind is to take a look at our catalog of films from the past 37 years, and consider whether they see their film amongst them.

KV: And how important is creative storytelling?

RYC: I would say very important. I think it's something that our audiences expect of POV, and we certainly take it into consideration. No one film will do everything, and it's a matter of, you know, do the aesthetic choices that the filmmakers make match the perspective that is being articulated or expressed in the film? And the work that many filmmakers have done in the domain of disability aesthetics, whether it's Reid Davenport and Keith Wilson’s I Didn't See You There or Set Hernandez's Unseen, or more recently as well with Adam Isenberg, Noah Amir Arjomand and Senem Tüzen’s Eat Your Catfish: these are all films that sort of challenge the relationships of looking and what it means to render the experiences of the disabled community into an audiovisual experience. Those are three films with very strong, distinctive aesthetic sensibilities.

KV: With your experience working with filmmakers at distribution stage, do you have any helpful takeaways for filmmakers trying to bring a great story to life on film?

RYC: What I would encourage filmmakers to do is to go to film festivals and attend as many free pitching panels as they can. Actually participate in the film community with the people on the front lines, who will be watching your films. Be a member of that community, whether it's through cooperatives like FilmShop and their DocShop Collaborative Workshop — and the Video Consortium of course has a vibrant community.

Oftentimes filmmaking is a very solitary endeavor, but we need a community to come together to support a film to see it to completion so that it will circuit into the world and be seen by folks. That's really important.

I remember as a filmmaker I would see the credits of a film go by and I'd be like, look at all the time that they spent writing grants. It feels like it's a non-stop effort of writing grants, trying to rustle up enough money to make a film. And yes it is. But part of all of that is building allies and supporters along the way. Just because you didn't get a grant doesn't mean somebody won't remember your application when you do end up meeting with them three years later. This actually happened recently - many years ago I sat on a funding panel and I remember a number of grants that I read that ultimately didn't get funded because there's never enough money to go around. But then several years later I had the chance to connect with the filmmakers, and they were surprised that I was already quite familiar with their film.

And this is because, many times, the folks in the industry are supporting other industry efforts that bring in filmmakers and bring in a broad range of voices and perspectives. So, don't be shy of applying for things that your projects are qualified and eligible for. If you've ever made it to the second round where they're requesting more information, know that you have support somewhere within that institution. There is a person out there in that organization that is fighting for your project.

Bring together a community in support of your film. Because otherwise it's a very lonely process that I liken to trying to thread the eye of the needle while falling down a flight of stairs.

"Eat Your Catfish" tells the story of a woman paralayed by ALS as they plan a wedding, 2023.
Director Noah Amir Arjomand on set of "Eat Your Catfish," 2023.
My own sense of success is a little bit broader than that because it's my own investment in the industry that keeps me at POV. And that is when the filmmaker is able to make another film and release it afterwards. It's not just what POV is able to accomplish, but what we enable our filmmakers to accomplish.
—Robert Y. Chang
We would never say that we're a social issues documentary series; rather, we believe in what our namesake is – a strong and distinctive point of view.
—Robert Y. Chang

KV: I’d love to know how you define success in the documentary world at POV. When do you feel a project that POV has been a part of has been successful?

RYC: I think that the series has its own metric for success. My own sense of success is a little bit broader than that because it's my own investment in the industry that keeps me at POV. And that is when the filmmaker is able to make another film and release it afterwards. It's not just what POV is able to accomplish, but what we enable our filmmakers to accomplish. It's about helping ensure that they learn enough through the process of having their first film go out that they can go out and do it again. Another project that they love and are committed to.

KV: I love that. It didn't kill them, rather, they're thriving!

RYC: Yeah. Burnout is real. And I can't wave a magic wand to do that, right, to solve filmmaker burnout in an industry that is going through such volatile changes at the moment. But putting in place resources and support for the filmmaker during the process of the broadcast is something that POV has always done. There's no way for a filmmaker to be able to coordinate a national broadcast across 300 stations otherwise, right? Both in terms of our community engagement efforts through POV Engage, bringing the film's off screens into communities through our network of over a thousand community partners.

Finally, a tip from Robert: Subscribe to POV’s newsletter because that's oftentimes the most direct way that we'll communicate about opportunities that are outside of the algorithms of the social.

Themes of community; themes of family, themes of love, loss, and joy. Those are some of the themes that connect with our community.
—Robert Y. Chang
Mother and daughter confront the loss of memory due to dementia, "Wisdom Gone Wild," 2023.
Director Reid Davenport shoots the circus outside his apartment building in "I Didn't See You," 2023.
Camera attachments on Reid Davenport's wheelchair in "I Didn't See You," 2023.

Have an idea for The Pitch? Send Kate a note directly!

Field Notes is edited by Melinda Thompson.

If you've ever made it to the second round where they're requesting more information, know that you have support somewhere within that institution. There is a person out there in that organization that is fighting for your project.
—Robert Y. Chang
Director So Yum Um with her father in his liquor store in "Full Liquor Store," 2022.
The director's father in front his liquor store in "Full Liquor Store," 2022.

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