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Hugh Gibson on Pitching: Set a Scene and Tell a Story

Breakthrough Mentorship Program Alum Hugh Gibson was just awarded the richest film prize in Canada. His first feature “The Stairs”, which premiered at TIFF in 2016, was honoured with the $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award by the Toronto Film Critics Association. We spoke to Hugh on how he’s learned to effectively pitch and put his ideas out into the world.

Selling your idea is partly about getting the right team on board. How did Executive Producer Alan Zweig become involved in “The Stairs”? (How did you initially approach him and get him excited about the project?)

I watched A Hard Name, which was a big influence. A mutual friend serendipitously put us in touch. Alan watched my work and was interested in my ideas. We openly discussed what a partnership would entail, which established a good relationship.

You’re no stranger to festivals. In fact, “The Stairs” just premiered at TIFF last year. What advice would you give early-career filmmakers for networking and making the most of the festival scene?

Putting yourself out there is good, as long as it’s respectfully and with class. Research is important. Spend time getting to know the right festivals and partners for your film so you don’t waste time – yours and theirs – on the wrong ones. I’d strongly encourage watching films as part of that research.

Gibson receives the 2016 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award

What have you found to be the most effective way to “sell” your idea to others?

Speak and think visually. Set a scene and tell a story. Describe what we’ll see or what takes place in a scene. Describe a movie, instead of an abstract idea. Making a personal connection can also help. Part of that is sounding natural – not like you’re reading off a teleprompter.

[Also important is] defining what makes the film different or distinct from the many other films on similar topics. Defining what’s new or surprising piques people’s interest.

“The Stairs” took about 5 years to make. Looking back after this process, is there anything you’d do differently? What would you tell your “pre-Stairs” self?

You learn by doing. I wrote myself a note about 4 years into the process: “Stop being scared of failure. If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed.” I keep it nearby as a reminder.

The Stairs, 2016


Pitching is obviously about deeply understanding your story and characters. What part of “The Stairs” did you emotionally connect with? Did you find that your understanding of the story and characters evolved over time?

My understanding evolved over time as I learned more and more, and as more events transpired. Making emotional connections was a large part of the film; there’s too many to list. As the project evolved and became increasingly focused, certain dominant aspects emerged and asserted themselves, such as the idea of humanizing people and lifestyles that have been de-humanized – creating a narrative that could upend commonly held perceptions about drug users and street involvement.

Can you share one or two take-aways from the Breakthrough Mentorship Program?

Doing Breakthrough helped me understand the film I was making. It forced me to step outside myself (as producer and director) and see how the project looked to neutral observers in its current (developing) form. That’s not an easy task, but it’s very useful. And it developed skills that are remarkably handy, such as public speaking and focusing ideas into something brief and straight to the point.

To apply for the 2018 Breakthrough Mentorship Program, click here. Application deadline is Dec 5, 2017. 

The Stairs, 2016