The Art and Craft of Pitching: A dance with the devil inside the inmost cave…
July 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
Yes, pitching your screenplay ideas is an art and a craft indeed. If you are lucky enough to get into a room and garner the attention of a producer or executive, you’ll only have a few minutes to hook them or lose them. Always remember this fact going in: Your idea is the most important thing in the world to you — it’s not to them. They hear dozens of pitches a week and if they’ve been in the business long enough, they immediately know if your idea is right for them or not. Do your homework before you take the meeting and know of the kind of material the company or producer develops. You don’t want to pitch a romantic comedy to a company that produces action films, or pitch an hour police procedural to a TV company that produces sitcoms.
It’s also important to know who you are pitching to and their background. Most likely unless you are an “A list” writer with heavy credits, they will only know your writing from what you submitted for consideration. Get to know them before you take the meeting. They’ll be impressed if you know their work and credits. I always make sure I’ve watched their movie or TV show before going into a meeting just to familiarize myself with their work. It shows respect for them and your professionalism as a screenwriter. I also look up their credits and investigate if we’ve ever worked with the same people before. This happened recently at a pitch meeting I took with a producer. I learned that we both know a good friend of mine who used to work with the producer years ago at a studio. It helps to break the ice and gives them a little more confidence in you.
I hope it goes without me stating, but I will remind you it’s extremely important being on time for your meeting. In fact, be early because it’s a given they will always make you wait much like you do at the doctor’s office. It’s okay if they are running late, it’s not okay if you make them wait because you are late. Once the meeting starts, always stay calm. It’s easy to get nervous and lose focus. You must know your ideas completely and answer any questions if they arise. The worst thing is not to have an answer or a creative solution worked out before they start asking the hard questions.
The meeting will probably last twenty minutes and you’ll have about half of the time to pitch your ideas. After the obligatory small talk, you should open first with a quick overview in a few sentences to prepare them for your presentation. This is the short logline that sells the bigger concept so they know what to expect. As your time is precious and limited, using visual aids with your pitch is an effective tool to communicate your concept. You can present them on your iPad or laptop and they can include a sizzle reel, a mock trailer, photos, paintings, or a promo video with fast paced images to present the concept, characters, location, tone, and story arc of your film or TV series pitch. When they clearly understand your solid vision, it builds their confidence that you can write the idea you’re presenting and this can help to close the deal.
Then pitch the idea and take no more than about five minutes. Feature ideas should include the major beats and the act breaks to keep them focused on where you are in the story. If you are pitching a TV idea, you’re pitching the pilot episode and the set up for the entire series. Again, include the major beats of the overall show idea and always leave them wanting more.
Keep your ideas well-structured, but also stay fluid and be able to improvise. If you’re pitching and suddenly realize that you’ve left something out, soldier on and try to make the save. It helps to give your ideas breathing room so the producer can fill in some of the blanks with their creative input as they hopefully see your story. Always practice your pitches before the meeting and memorize them like you would dialogue.
Never allow their reactions (good or bad) to affect your pitching. If it’s going badly, it’s extremely difficult to receive that immediate feedback in your face as your idea is clearly going up in flames. I was in a pitch meeting where the producer was staring into space with a vacant expression and playing with the couch cushion during our pitch. It looked like my then writing partner and I had put her in a trance. We obviously were not hooking her with the pitch and I felt like Daffy Duck in that Bugs Bunny cartoon “Show Biz Bugs” where Daffy keeps trying to win over the audience’s approval with even more daring stunts. The producer sat politely and listened and when we finished, she immediately thanked us and ushered us out. Keep faith in your idea because a pitch meeting is like rolling dice — you never know how it will turn out.
Pitch meetings can become bizarre experiences that leave you wondering how did it go so well or so wrong? I recently pitched two TV pilots to a very successful film/TV production company and it was my best pitch meeting ever. I knew going in that my original pilot they were considering was not the kind of show they would produce, but I wanted to showcase my writing ability with a heartfelt piece of original material. If I was lucky enough to get a meeting, I wanted to have in my arsenal, two follow-up pitches of the kind of shows they actually do produce. Luckily, the executives liked my writing and brought me in for a meeting.
I rehearsed the week leading up to the meeting and when I was waiting in the lobby, I centered myself and did not have any expectations about the outcome. This removed any fear. I wasn’t even stressed they were running late. When I pitched, I was calm and focused on every point. They took detailed notes and the meeting was a success. I walked out feeling a creative high because the outcome didn’t matter. I had accomplished exactly what I set out to do: Showcase my writing and offer up more ideas for consideration. I never thought for a minute they would buy my pitches just from this one meeting. A few days later they got back with very kind words and will keep me on their list for staff writing positions.
Sometimes it doesn’t always go that well. Here’s one that goes down in the history books—my worst pitch meeting ever.
After a pitch meeting, the producer or executive may give you constructive criticism, but they will never say “No” or “It’s not for us” to you directly. They will always follow-up after with your agent or manager with their answer. They also don’t usually make an offer for your pitch at the meeting either. No reputable producer will ever force you to make a decision about anything at your pitch meeting—unless they offer to buy it “in the room.” That means they make you an offer on the spot and you decide to take it or leave it. That’s rare, but your representation should always handle any further discussion. It’s part of being a professional screenwriter.
That’s all you can hope for in most pitch meetings. It’s all about putting your face and personality in front of the potential buyers. If they read your writing and like it, you’ll get a pitch meeting and a chance for an audience. If they pass, you move on to another producer or company and try again. Selling a pitch is extremely difficult if you are a writer without credits because producers need to know they can trust to you deliver the goods as pitched. So, if you don’t sell your pitch but they like your writing and ideas, you just opened a door and a place to revisit with your next idea or script. One meeting begets another and you start to build your network of possible employers who start to know your writing.
Mastering the art and craft of pitching is an important part of your screenwriting arsenal. Practice, do your homework and always be professional. The ability to pitch will serve you well during your entire career.
“What they now tell you is the agent got a date with an executive and you’re going to pitch a story. Pitch? The pitch stuff used to be Sandy Koufax. He was pitching. Me, I’m no pitcher. Most of the time you sit there and pitch to the executive, and you know his face and you study it, and then finally you figure out where you know his face. He was the mail boy at William Morris, and now you’re pitching a story to him. Then suddenly you’re so ashamed of yourself you say, “Forget it. You wouldn’t like it anyway,” and walk out.”—Billy Wilder in “The Great MovieMakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age” by George Stevens, Jr.
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“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then.”—William Faulkner
Hemingway said it best, “I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.”
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