Breaking In: The Zen of Pitching

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; …
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same …”

–“If,” by Rudyard Kipling

Maybe, when he wasn’t writing classic short stories and novels like The Jungle Book, Kipling was secretly writing movie scripts. That might explain why his immortal poem, “If,” is such useful advice for screenwriters. Trying to “keep your head” in this business is a never-ending challenge. But staying sane is critical to success. If you’re a movie star, producer, director, even an agent — “crazy” might even be considered part of your job description. But if you’re a writer, it’s a luxury you can’t afford. If you want to succeed in this business, you need to be able to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …”pitchingLast month, I promised to tell you what I’ve learned during my long career as a writer and story analyst. I quoted one of my favorite philosophers, baseball great Yogi Berra. Well, I’m about to quote him again. In his inimitable style, Yogi once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental.” The same can be said of finding success as a screenwriter.

Sure, talent and knowing your craft are the most important factors in whether you win or lose this game. But the mental discipline you bring to the process of writing and selling your script — your attitude, in other words — is critical.

Make no mistake: having a “zen” attitude to your career doesn’t mean being weak or passive. Quite the contrary. You must learn to apply your mental and physical energies in the right amounts, in the right way, and at the right time. You must be creative and assertive (but not obnoxious) in how you market yourself and your work. You do your homework, work hard, and, to use another baseball metaphor, you keep stepping up to the plate for another turn at bat — even if you keep striking out. And when it’s the bottom of the ninth inning, with two outs and three men on base, and you’re up at bat, you can’t choke.

Let’s apply this “zen” idea to a real-world script marketing situation. Here, as in baseball, the pitch is all-important.

Whether you call it a pitch fest, a screenwriting expo, or a screenwriters’ conference, it boils down to this: a chance to pitch your story to producers. Unfortunately, for many writers, it’s also a situation tailor-made for getting a whopping case of the heebie-jeebies.

There you are, at some big glitzy hotel, surrounded by thousands of other desperate screenwriters hopped-up on Starbucks lattes, waiting anxiously to pitch your script to CAA or Disney. I’m going to give you some tips here for sharpening up your mental game so that next time you go to one of these events, you’ll hit one out of the park.

1) You have no competition. Really. I know it may seem like the entire cast of Ben-Hur is competing with you at this humongous pitch fest or expo. But the truth is that if you have a great pitch, producers will want to read your screenplay — no matter how many other pitches they heard that week. They don’t have a quota that, once met, forces them to turn away good story ideas. And, trust me, most of the other pitches aren’t that great.

2) There are a lot of nervous, depressed writers at pitch conferences. They will want to bend your ear. If you let them, they will suck the life and spirit out of you like Edward in Twilight. Don’t let them. Steer clear of these blood-sucking vamps and leeches. Leave them to their misery so you can keep your own spirits up.

3) You know how they tell you that you will have five minutes to pitch your story to each producer? Well, you’ve really got only one minute. By the time you find your producer’s table, boot the seat’s previous occupant out of it, and exchange friendly small talk with the producer to ease into your pitch, you’ll have just one minute left. So plan for that, and make the most of it.

4) Ladies, wear comfortable shoes. I’m not kidding. You will be doing a lot of standing and waiting around. If you wear shoes that don’t hurt your feet or back you will have a leg-up, so to speak, on half the writers in the room.

5) Don’t overbook yourself. Instead of pitching to 10 producers before lunch, consider limiting appointments to no more than three or four, and resting between pitches.

6) Expect last-minute changes and be flexible. You may book time with a film company that produces highbrow Oscar-caliber movies set on English country estates — but they might be a no-show. So you get offered instead a chance to pitch to a producer of horror movies about man-eating washing machines. What to do? Grab the opportunity, and re-jigger your pitch to fit the replacement producer. (“You see, it’s kind of like Sense and Sensibility, but set at a crazy Maytag factory in Hampshire …”)

7) Stash your business cards and pitch appointment tickets in that clear plastic name-tag holder that is already hanging around your neck. That way, you won’t lose your tickets, and when producers ask for your business card after listening to your wildly successful pitch, you’ll be ready. You won’t have to frantically hunt around in your purse or wallet for your card while the next “pitcher” is breathing down your neck.

8 ) If possible, learn everything you can about the companies you’ll be pitching to — before you get to the pitch event. Know what movies they’ve made, and if you’re a fan it can’t hurt to single out one for praise when you meet each producer.

9) Always remember to thank any producer who listens to your pitch. If you’re polite in this business, you will impress some people and astonish the rest.

10) Know that if you fail to attract interest in your pitches at this event, this isn’t “the end” for your hopes of breaking in to the business. Yes, it might be a sign that your pitch or script needs work. But you can always rewrite it or start a new script, send out query letters, and go back to the pitch fest or expo again next year.

Get a chance to pitch Hollywood executives at Pitch Slam on November 9, 2014 for as low as $199!

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At a Glance:

  • One-day live pitch slam with top Hollywood Execs
  • Unique event that allows attendees to pitch to every attending Exec
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