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Everything Filmmakers Need to Know about the SILVERDOCS Conference

SILVERDOCS International Documentary Film Festival is the United States’ largest showcase of the years most provocative, compelling and transforming documentaries.    Because of the festival’s reputation and scale, it attracts some of the most prominent names in the documentary film world; both well seasoned veterans and up and coming stars.

SILVERDOCS organizers capitalize on this wealth of knowledge each year and offer a five-day Conference running parallel to the festival.  Before joining the staff at the Center for Social Media, I worked as the SILVERDOCS Conference Assistant and gained valuable insight on the inner workings of this one-of-a-kind event.

After weeks of preparations, late night emails with panelists, and early mornings in the office, we pulled off yet another successful Conference, showcasing over 50 events.  Popular topics from the 2012 lineup included funding your film through crowd sourced resources, story production, masterful editing techniques, creating the perfect trailer, engaging your audience, and unique distribution strategies. 

 Below are some of my Conference ‘take-aways’ for serious filmmakers, making significant films, but who may be new to the 'behind the scences' of the docufilm world, including conference do’s and don’ts that could make or break your film.  I've included my insight on why being first in line on registration day is worth it, why attending happy hour is a must, and why this specific week has the unique ability to connect ambitious new filmmakers with the game changers in the industry.  If you like what you hear, and can't wait for SILVERDOCS next year, the Toronoto International Film Festival and International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam are both right around the corner, offering similar opportunities. 

Don’t be late!  

 Sign ups for certain Conference events are on a first come, first serve basis so if are hoping to pitch a project to Tribeca Film Institute funders, or sit in on an informal chat with Sundance reps, get your name on the list right away.  Hot ticket items this year were 30-minute story pitch sessions with expert, Richard Saiz, informal Q & A sessions with The Documentary Channel and 5-minute pitch opportunities with eight different Discovery Channel affiliates or NEH reps. While most of the panels do not require you to sign up before hand, the events that do require it are often the best opportunity for undivided attention with experts.

Don’t leave early!

 All the spots for the pitches were taken?  You can only come one day but are eager to meet someone from ESPN Films?  No problem! Come to happy hour and mix and mingle with Conference panelists and festival attendees.   This is an opportunity to chat with festivalgoers from filmmakers screening their films to industry people the events attract.  It’s an informal hour where friends are catching up with friends they haven’t seen since Sundance or Cannes, so don’t start a conversation about a project that is years in the making, taking ten minutes to explain.  But if you can capture the attention of just the right person with just the right idea, the happy hour environment is ripe for brainstorming and networking.

Come with an ‘elevator pitch’, and lots of business cards.

SILVERDOCS is unique in that it is in the offbeat, quirky downtown area of Silver Spring.  The AFI Silver Theater, as well as the popularity of the festival, have helped put this place on the map in the last ten years, but it’s still an oddity of chain restaurants with a ‘Disney-like’ feel just a few miles from downtown Washington, D.C.   Filmmakers and guests all stay within a few blocks of the theaters (which are all right next to each other) meaning you are just as likely to run into industry people waiting in line at Starbucks as you are at a Conference event or film screening.  Like at happy hours and late night parties, big names are accessible due do the makeshift campus atmosphere.  If you approach them with the right charisma and charm, they may humor you with a few minutes of their time.   Having a ‘less than 30 seconds’ pitch of your project is critical for moments like these.  Pass on a card, and maybe they will call!

As a novice filmmaker, eager to embrace and understand this ever-evolving film world, working the SILVERDOCS Conference gave my career a jump-start with some of the most influential names in the industry now in my network and their useful, "best practice" advice in my back pocket.  I would recommend attending to anyone who wants to stay relavant in emerging trends, sees the value of networking, isn’t intimidated to say hello, and has a heck of a good project in the works that could use some TLC from people that make things happen.  

See you at SILVERDOCS in 2013!