SISTER featured in Chicago Tribune


Caption:Sister Jean Hughes reflects on how much has changed since she first joined her order in the film ‘Sister.’ The documentary is one of the films going before investors at Good Pitch. (

Of the five films nominated for the best documentary Oscar this year, two of them — “How to Survive a Plague” and “The Invisible War” — got funding and support from Good Pitch. Two out of five. Talk about validation. Launched in the UK about six years ago, Good Pitch invites a select number of doc filmmakers to make their pitch to group of funders, TV networks and other potential partners.

Two years ago Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James told me the Good Pitch he attended in London was instrumental in getting him in front of the right people when he was working on “The Interrupters.” The list of major Good Pitch docs released in just the past year is even longer: “Detropia” (a humanistic look at Detroit’s economic woes), “Gideon’s Army” (examining the punishing grind of those who work as public defenders), “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (about the famous Chinese artist provocateur) and “Dirty Wars” (based on investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill’s book about U.S. military action in Afghanistan).

All came to fruition — at least in part — with the help of Good Pitch, which has expanded to other cities including New York, San Francisco and, starting next week, Chicago.

On Tuesday, seven filmmaking teams (selected from 150 submissions) will convene at the Cultural Center to get their shot. The docs are in various stages of production, and their creators were required to submit footage “to give us a sense of their filmmaking style,” said organizer Steven Cohen.

The films are all “impact” documentaries. So you’re not going to see someone pitching, say, a film about people who used to follow the Grateful Dead on tour.

“I’ll give you a good example,” said Cohen. “‘The Invisible War’ is a film about sexual assault in the military. The filmmakers wanted to show what was going on, and their film not only raised visibility of the issue, but it was actually being cited in Senate and Congressional hearings. And the filmmakers created a campaign around the documentary to help women come forward and talk about their experiences. And the end result is it got nominated for best documentary at last year’s Academy Awards.

“First and foremost, they have to be good films about important issues.”

“Important” is a tricky word when you’re talking about documentaries. Several well-intentioned film festivals show up each year with a roster of “important” films. The International Social Change Film Fest. The Human Rights Watch Film Fest. The Peace on Earth Film Fest. You can’t fault audiences for thinking these fests sound like variations on a theme: The Eat Your Vegetables Film Fest.

What’s the point if none of it sounds appealing as entertainment?

“It’s funny you say that,” said Cohen. “When we were deciding which films to include at Good Pitch, the thing you look at is: Does this film have commercial viability? Not simply because return on investment is important but because, in our view, a film that is not going to be watched by people is not a film that’s going to be able to make any real change. So you’ll never see a film at Good Pitch that isn’t story-driven and character driven in the way that a narrative feature would be. That’s why the Good Pitch films tend to be the ones that do get attention and play at Sundance and win awards.”

Of the seven projects making their pitch on Tuesday, three have local ties. “The Homestretch” details the lives of homeless teenagers in Chicago. “Sister” follows the stories of three Catholic nuns in the U.S., including Adrian Dominican Sister Jean Hughes on the West Side, who focus on social injustices rather than church dogma. “The Dreamcatchers” (which has a UK-based team) is shooting in Chicago as well, following a pair of former sex workers who now help other women escape prostitution.

Here’s how it works, per Cohen: “The filmmakers get seven minutes to make a pitch. They have to show a clip. And then each of the round table participants — funders, foundations, advocacy groups, advertising people, crowdsource funders (and boldface names scheduled to attend including Danny Glover, Gloria Steinem and Christie Hefner) — talk about how they might help. It could be anything from ‘We’ll give you money’ to ‘We have an organization that’s nationwide and we’ll do screenings at every one of our chapters.’

“And it’s pure live theater because it all takes place in front of an invite-only audience of 300 people” — spectators with yet more connections and/or deep pockets who might be interested in jumping on board one of these films as well.

Realistically, one of next year’s Oscar contenders might very well be in that room on Tuesday, getting a Chicago boost.

For more info about Good Pitch go to

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