Editor’s Note: From Script Magazine archives, previously published in our print magazine.
HOW TO PITCH AT A FESTIVAL
A guide to speed pitching in a loud and distracting environment.
A standard activity at festivals now is to offer sessions where filmmakers and screenwriters can pitch industry executives, development people and financiers. The grandfather of these events is at The Rotterdam Film Festival which started the offering to filmmakers. Script now offers Screenwriters World Conference where a room-full of executives here five-minute pitches all day. With all these inroads to industry players, writers and filmmakers should know how to best take advantage of these opportunities.
Pitching is often equated with the image of a filmmaker having drinks by a pool with an Armaniclad executive in Hollywood. The most notable scene that comes to mind is Richard E. Grant’s “Chinese jack o’ lantern” pitch to Tim Robbins in The Player.
This upscale sort of leisurely pitching is usually done by well-writers pitching a studio on a script that has probably not been written yet, and the writers are hoping to get paid to write it. The executive will most likely have no other scheduled pitches for that day, and the meeting will take place in a comfortable office on the buyer’s home turf for at least 30 minutes (maybe even an hour has been blocked out). Hopefully, the listener will have asked his assistant to hold calls. The exec might even turn down the sound on his IM and leave his BlackBerry® on his desk.
However, when pitching at a festival, the executive you meet might be hearing 10 other pitches that day—or that hour. The meeting will probably be in a loud, open space; and his phone will probably be on because he is away from his office and almost always is waiting for an important call. In some cases there might even be other filmmakers at the table, with each of you having been allotted only five minutes to tell your story. So, as Dennis Hopper asked Keanu Reeves in Speed while holding a bomb, “What do you do? What do you do?”
The following are some notes to help you be effective in festival speed pitching.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF PITCHING?
The reason to pitch is to generate enthusiasm for your project or script. The executives, producers or financiers you are pitching are receiving anywhere from three to 20 projects a week in their office. During one of these speed pitching sessions, they may be hearing that many in a week or a weekend. When the executives leave, you want them to focus on your project. You want them to actually read it and not just hand it off to a reader or not deal with it at all.
You also want to position the executives with your story—maybe fill in some blanks they feel might be missing on the page. Let them realize the characters more by putting names of famous actors in their heads. In short, speed pitching is a lot like selling a car—getting the execs to read a script is like getting consumers to take a test drive. To entice them, you try to explain how good your project is and why they are going to like it. You point out some of the better features so the executives recognize them as they come upon them. You should also leave some of the best parts of the script for them to discover on their own.
WHO TO PITCH
Some festivals and markets that offer pitching sessions have a two-way system for writers and filmmakers to get together with executives and financiers. The event managers put together two guides or listings. The first list has all of the projects with which executives can choose to meet. Often you have to be selected to be included. This list will go out to executives up to a month in advance. The executives then choose which projects and filmmakers they have an interest in meeting.
Your listing will ask you for a short summary of the script, not much more than a logline. There may also be room for a description of any attachments and other key people involved, as well as a projected budget amount, and in some cases what you are looking for in terms of money. Some will even include a small picture of the director or writer.
The other type of listing goes to the writer-filmmaker and is a directory of companies that will be listening to pitches. As the writer or people representing the project, you might have the option to meet various network and studio executives, as well as independent producers.
So, how do you pick the companies with which to meet? In most cases it’s good to meet with anyone willing to take a meeting with you. Even if the company ends up not being right for the particular project you are pitching, you’ve made a contact with someone whom you will be able to draw on later.
The question is how to get people to choose your project. If you are lucky enough to have a recognizable actor attached, you will often draw attention. If not, attaching a producer or executive producer who has a track record will often alone be enough for someone to ask for the meeting. If your project has neither, don’t worry. Most companies attending aren’t expecting those sorts of attachments, and that’s why a project that does have attachments jumps out. What becomes most important is how you describe your project. Your short description should be the one that sounds the most interesting even after they have read through 30 to 50 other project summaries.
Explain your main characters briefly but with enough detail so that an executive can get a picture of the person in his head.
A good exercise to help you would be looking at a recent festival guide. Most of the films will be unknown to you. See what attracts your attention, what movies are described in a way that makes you want to see them. The people choosing projects to meet with are operating on most of the same instincts.
Keep the description brief. Describe at least one of the main characters. Do not give away the ending.* Do not review your own work by using words like hilarious, dramatic or compelling. Be clear about what the genre is. Sometimes a description of the story can be interpreted as comedy by one reader and drama by another. You want to give a few sentences that clearly describe your project and its plot.
When you are in an environment like Screenwriters World Conference—where you have literally five minutes to sit down, introduce yourself, give your pitch and exchange contact information with an executive who has been sitting in that room all day—the biggest challenge is to be remembered. Keep in mind that particular executive could have heard 70 pitches prior to yours. You need to stand out among your peers.
At the festivals where you pick whom to meet with, and you can’t meet with everyone, go to the Internet and see if the company has a website. See what the companies have done and what they are trying to do. If the company doesn’t have a website, go to Google.com or Yahoo.com and do a search for the executive attending. This preparation will not only save time during your pitch; but also, if you do not have to ask the executive about himself or what the company does, it will show that you already have that information. If you are going into an event where you are able to choose the companies and executives that you pitch to, it will always help if you know something about them. It will show that you did your homework and that maybe you are bringing your project to them specifically because you honestly think it will be a good fit, not just pitching blindly to anyone who will listen. Executives will pick up on this preparation, and most will be flattered that you bothered to look into their careers or are able to name a project on which they worked.
Oftentimes you will not be able to meet all of the executives that you had hoped to meet during a speed pitching event, whether it is because they did not choose your project or because time didn’t permit. At many of these events, executives are wearing name tags; and you will be able to spot them as they walk down the street or take a call outside on their cell phone. Many times writers will approach an executive at these inopportune times to give a quick pitch of their project. This is a mistake because the executive will most likely be unable to give you his full attention at that moment which will eliminate the possibility of you or your story being remembered. Furthermore, most executives will find it rude or annoying to approach them at a time that was not scheduled. If you are remembered, it may not be in the most favorable light.
WHAT TO PITCH
As stated above, a writer pitching a Hollywood studio is often pitching only an idea. However, most companies attending pitching festivals are smaller or independent companies that do not develop from the idea stage or would be unlikely to pay you to write a script from its inception. Armed with this information, you should pitch a well-written script or a project— one that has some attachments of actors, director, or money.
Do not try to change gears and start pitching a TV idea or a short film you shot at film school. You can bring up some of your past accomplishments or other projects on which you are working in order to describe yourself, but stick to what they are expecting—great ideas for movies.
“Hello, my name is … I’m a screenwriter from Ohio. This is my first script, or I’ve written this many screenplays. I had a project optioned by … or I won this award.” If this is your first project, you should then give a very brief description of your background, especially if it relates to your story. If your screenplay is about a teacher and you used to be a professor, then give the producer that information. If you are there with a director or producer, make sure you explain who those people are and how they came to be part of the project. You don’t want the person you’re pitching sitting there wondering who is the other woman sitting with us and what is her role.
• Have confidence in yourself and your project.
Many times writers will be nervous while pitching and get flustered during their time at the table. If your project is good, which you obviously believe it is, have confidence in it and bring that confidence to the meeting. If an executive sees someone apologizing for his project before he has even given the title, that project probably won’t be on the top of the pile come Monday morning.
• Start your pitch by saying the title.
If you feel a comparison to a movie will help explain the tone or the type of story you are pitching, then use one; but don’t use so many that your own movie gets lost. Do not assume because the executive you are pitching chose to hear your pitch that he remembers what it is about. He chose it from a list weeks before and is in the middle of listening to multiple pitches in a short amount of time. Unless he starts asking you questions, act as if this is his first exposure to your project.
• Know your pitch.
Remember that your story will always make sense in your own head; but to someone who has never heard it before, it could be difficult to understand, especially in a rushed and loud environment. Explain your main characters briefly but with enough detail so that an executive can get a picture of the person in his head. What are their names? How old are they? Be descriptive. Then go into the plot. Be clear about your story. You should be able to get through the major plot of your story in three to five sentences. Stay away from subplots unless they are crucial to the story. End your pitch at a point where the executive wants more.* Do not prepare as if you have to fill the entire time you have, whether it is five minutes or half an hour.
CLOSING THE PITCH
After you are finished, be prepared to answer questions. Questions usually mean there is an interest. Make sure you know your project inside and out so you can answer the questions being asked. The questions may range anywhere from the budget, shooting location or in what type of actors you would be interested.
Save a minute or two of that time so that the executive can ask questions about the story or about you. If you’re still explaining the plot when the one-minute warning comes, you probably are going to be too rushed to get any type of reaction from the executive at all. It may even be hard to exchange contact information with him as you are being rushed from the table.
Send your script, if it’s requested. Some events do not allow you to leave a script or treatment behind unless the executive specifically asks for it. If he does ask for it, I find it is always better to send the script via mail a few days after the pitch takes place. There are a couple of reasons for this. One reason is that the executives probably have a heaping pile of scripts accumulating under their chairs as it is. If you leave your script in their hands as you get up from that table, your project is only going to join that pile; and any impression you made may get thrown in with all the others. However, if you send the script later, you can compose a cover letter that will remind them of not only who you are but also what the story is about as well as to thank them for taking the time to read it.
Some festivals have mailboxes; but often when you go to put something in them, you will see they are already crammed with other projects as well as postcards and other festival solicitations—another reason to send the project directly to the office soon after the festival. A script that comes by itself in an envelope with a cover letter to the office door is better than going into a mass pile that the executives are going to not only have to lug home with them but also then to the office on Monday.
After you have sent the script, you now have an excuse to call the executive or his office to make sure he received it. Again, this gives you a better chance for him to remember your name and your project. Wait at least two weeks. If you can’t get the executive on the phone, don’t be dejected. Remember, he might have 15 new scripts on his desk. Be persistent but also be pleasant. Don’t make calling you back a chore. If your pitch accomplished what it was supposed to, he will read your script. Remember the goal of the executives attending these pitch sessions is to find good projects. They want to like your script. Their job is to find great scripts and turn them into movies.
* Ed Note: The preference for hearing the ending varies greatly among producers. At Script events, we have heard producers strongly advise to give the ending, and others have vehemently disagreed. Be prepared either way!
Save Your Seat Today for Screenwriters University Online Pitchfest! Meet Hollywood Executives from the Comfort of Your Own Home, September 26th to 28th!
Before starting 4th Row Films, DOUGLAS TIROLA was head of production and development at Emerging Pictures. Previously, Doug was a partner with Ira Deutchman at Studionext where he served as head of production and created the series Cheerleaders with Bob Balaban for producer Ed Pressman. He has written, produced and directed projects for Paramount Pictures, New Line Cinema, Nickelodeon Movies, Lions Gate and Twentieth Century Fox.
SUSAN BEDUSA is director of development for 4th Row Films. She is co-producer on the feature film Funny Peculiar and the documentary Anytown, USA. She has also served as co-producer on the television pilots The Great Date Experiment and Do I Look Fat In This? Previously, she has held positions at Chicago Films, Amy Robinson’s Productions, Michael Corrente’s Revere Pictures and Studionext. She additionally served as director of development at Emerging Pictures where she worked under Fine Line founder, Ira Deutchman.