Balls of Steel: 6 Screenwriting Pitching Lessons from the Sharks

In order to break into screenwriting, first and foremost, we have to sit our butts in the chair and write a great script. We all get that. But what happens after you write that script?

You sit your butt in front of someone and try to sell it.

Like it or not, you have to get used to pitching your product. And that is precisely what a script is – a product.

Recently, I started watching a show called Shark Tank on CNBC and ABC. If you haven’t seen it or heard about it, STOP READING RIGHT NOW and go DVR it! Seriously, this is my new favorite reality show, besides Dude, You’re Screwed. Don’t ask.

Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec

Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec

The show provides a platform for entrepreneurs to get investors for their products or services. The ‘Sharks’ consist of five incredibly wealthy and successful investors who listen to the pitches. They can opt out as quickly as they want or compete with other Sharks for a piece of the pie. The goal is for the entrepreneur to get a commitment of money and/or expertise, most often in exchange for giving up a percentage of their businesses. Watching them negotiate deals is fascinating, but the real learning opportunity for screenwriters is in the pitching itself.

I’m not suggesting screenwriting pitch meetings are exactly like this, because they aren’t – you’ll never get a monetary offer for your script during a pitch. But there are a lot of lessons to be learned from watching these entrepreneurs struggle to get the Sharks’ interest.

1. Know your product. You could be asked questions about anything – your protagonist, your plot, your act breaks, your theme, your budget, your inspiration for the story, and on and on. If you don’t know your product inside and out, they won’t have faith that your product is any good.

2. Know who you’re pitching. Every executive has a specific interest. Maybe that manager specializes in action writers, or that studio only makes slasher films. Make sure you know who you’re talking with, what they’ve developed in the past, and why they are the person or company that is the right fit for your project. People love it when you know something about them. It makes them feel special, which will leave them being impressed by your research, hence having a warm and fuzzy feeling about you. Which leads to…

3. Have a personality that makes people want to work with you. Hard-working, confident, positive attitudes can be the tipping point to get someone interested in you and your script. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs pitch the Sharks with amazing ideas they all loved, but ultimately, every one of them bailed because of the crappy personalities of some wannabes. If you are smug, inflexible, or a know-it-all, you’ll never make it to first base, let alone a homerun. I’ve written about having a positive attitude before, but it bears repeating… over and over and over again. Don’t suck. Period.

4. Know when to shut up! You have an offer on the table to read your script. Now, get their email address, say thank you and get out! The only time you should keep talking is if they still have more questions, which they probably won’t because they’ve already asked to read it. Or perhaps they ask what other projects you might have. Then, by all means, talk. But if you pitched so well that they said yes, zip your lips! The other night, I watched an inventor have three amazing deals on the table when he started to ramble, inadvertently saying things the Sharks saw as red flags. Within 30 seconds, two Sharks said, “I’m out!” Another minute later, the last one threw in the towel. No deals left. Don’t be your own worst enemy; know when to stop talking!

5. Know when to listen. Every brutally honest thing you’re going to hear the Sharks say is exactly what a Hollywood exec is thinking when you pitch… but most won’t say it. They’ll politely listen and nod their heads. But inside, they’re blood pressure is either rising through the roof or you’re putting them to sleep with a boring product. Listen carefully to their questions and effectively answer them. If you dodge a question, they’ll either think you don’t care enough to pay attention or you’re just stupid. Either of which will make them pass. Listen very carefully, especially if they are saying ‘no’ but offer feedback. If you can think quick on your feet, you might even be able to spin the pitch on the spot to give them what they want, which will also impress them with you ability to collaborate. But you won’t know what they want unless you listen. Hear me?

6. Know your weaknesses, because they’ll smell them coming a mile away. There was one eager entrepreneur who had Mark Cuban on the hook… until, she not only let her weakness show, but she also started making excuses for it. That’s all it took for him to say, “I’m out!” right before declaring, “I can’t work with someone who finds the excuse rather than finds the opportunity.”

That is a very important statement, so read it again. No one wants to hear an excuse. If you have a problem, own it and then fix it. I work really hard, and I expect everyone who partners with me to work just as hard. I don’t have time for excuses. I want to work with people who will make the most of every opportunity presented.

Look at yourself and ask, “What is keeping me from succeeding? What is my responsibility in the shortcomings of this product?” Figure that out, and there’ll be no stopping you.

Pitchfests are a perfect way to practice pitching. I went to many before I had studio meetings. I can’t stress enough how valuable they are for learning the art of the pitch. There, you might have wiggle room for bluffing because it’s only five minutes, but when you get into a studio meeting and don’t know what you’re doing, Dude, you’re screwed.

What are some of your pitching tips or nightmare stories you learned from? Post them in the comments below so we can all keep learning together.

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