Writers are storytellers. But when they have to sell their stories, they often freeze up. That’s an unfortunate and unnecessary career handicap.
Pitching is (of course) a completely different skill set than writing – but it’s just as learnable a craft and instinctive an art. And you’d do well to get good at it. Just as the secret to good writing is great rewriting, pitching takes practice. But where do you even start?
At the beginning.
When an athlete is asked the first time to break down what they do instinctively into step-by-step instructions, often, the combination of moves they try to articulate seem disjointed. It’s only as the separate pieces come together into one graceful, natural movement that everything falls into place. You, too, can achieve that with your pitch: invisible (but flawless) structure, expressing authentic passion, resulting in genuine emotional engagement that inspires desired action.
Have you ever raved about a movie or TV show that you absolutely loved (or even an exciting sports game) to someone who hadn’t yet seen it? Spoilers aside, your enthusiasm was probably contagious enough to make your listener want to see it, too (i.e., to take action).
You want to make whomever you’re pitching to, be genuinely excited to read your script (or at least think it sounds marketable enough to warrant their paying a threshold Reader to vet it for them). Sure, you want to sell or option a script or secure an agent or manager – but those are all downstream goals. What are the real goals that can actually be accomplished during a pitch?
Primary Goal: Elicit a script request.
Secondary Goal: Network (Build Your Relationships and Reputation)
Share Your Passion
For each and every pitch, your challenge is to translate whatever it was about your idea that got so under your skin that you were inspired – nay – compelled – to dedicate weeks to years of your life to create a whole world of characters to express the concept.
No one can give you that passion. As a writer, you should’ve come preloaded with that. That should be why you’re here: crazy enough to pursue this line of work. No matter what you’re pitching, to whom, where or how – your pitch should always start with a fantastic logline.
Loglines in a Nutshell
Loglines are without a doubt the hardest things you’ll ever have to write. And the most important. Books, blogs, videos, workshops and panels galore cover loglines ad infinitum, so let’s just cut to the chase and assume that ya’ll know that you need (give or take) something like this:
[Title] is a [Genre] about [an interesting, proactive Protagonist] who wants to/must [P’s Goal] but [Conflict = obstacles that get in the way/stakes if Protagonist fails].
When [the inciting event happens], [our Hero], must [pursue the goal/drive the plot].
If your Protagonist is not pro-actively pursuing a plot-driven goal, then maybe you have more a character-driven or situational story, and you need to adjust your logline accordingly. If you have written a transformational character arc, make sure you point out your Hero’s flaw in your logline as it is key to your theme. An ironic twist at the end of a logline is always good for extra credit – especially for comedies and thrillers.
As always, look for the source of conflict in the story. In an action-driven piece, it will be in the goal versus the stakes against the ticking clock. In a character-driven piece, it will be in the situation. If you have created circumstances that accentuate a clearly defined central problem, perpetuating it from every angle (but never really actually solving it), then you may have yourself a TV show.
There are as many different kinds of pitches as there are opportunities. Let’s limit the spectrum of this blog to four environments:
- Brief Surprise Encounters
- Targeted Queries
- Pitch Fests
- Pitch Meetings
Each of these situations are wildly different. Inevitably, the approach, pace and architecture of each pitch will vary. If you have a chance meeting with someone on your Hit List in line at Starbucks, you may only have a couple of minutes to seamlessly work your brilliant logline organically into the conversation. This is the ambient white noise of LA.
If you’re targeting a handful of personalized query letters, cold calls or third party luke warm referrals, you might introduce your logline with a “What If…?” character or plot premise statement or close with the unique subject matter expertise you bring to the material.
The beauty to a pitch fest is that you can get right down to business. They know why you’re there. This professional speed-dating ritual is probably equally as painful on both sides. Of course, you want to greet them and build (quick) rapport, but with only 3 – 8 minutes all in, you’ve gotta race to get to and through your well-practiced spiel while ignoring the ballroom of competing hawkers all around you.
Most pitch tests are loud, noisy hot beds of chaotic, rushed desperation but a few organizations offer a higher quality experience by vetting both ways. RB and Joey Tuccio’s Stage 32’s Happy Writers’ Online Pitch Fests schedule professional, quality, cyber-face-to-cyber-face Skype pitches and NATPE’s PitchCon, a smaller and more intimate live event provides decision-makers specifically looking for TV projects a convenient forum to find them. Both deliver the actual decision-making executives they promise.
If you’re smart, you’ve already done your due diligence on who you’re pitching to and can replicate the Cliff Note version of what you’d do in a legit, scheduled pitch meeting (below).
Official Pitch Meetings
The Holy Grail. Actual real buyers. Hopefully with development money and access to distribution. One or more Execs have actually set aside time specifically for you, wanting to hear your specific pitch (that they might actually be interested in) or perhaps they are looking – now or in the near future – to hire a writer like you.
Before you go in: practice, practice, practice. You cannot over practice a pitch. Think of an actor who is so far off book they have the freedom and confidence to improvise, to be present and aware.
Trust your material. You know it (you wrote it). Relax. If you have practiced your pitch on your family, friends, writers group and anyone who would listen, you should have earned your confidence. Sure, you’ll still be nervous – you’re a writer not an actor or comedian. But if you record your pitch on video tape – and, like an athlete – study the playback, painful as the feedback may be -it’s also priceless. Fix the pitch and polish, polish, polish.
Just as screenplays are highly structured, so too are pitch meetings. Now you’ve got a Hollywood eternity of 15 to 45 minutes to just squeeze in all of the following (in about this order): greetings, relevant and interesting intro, break the ice, build rapport, honestly acknowledge them for some of their work that you admire, don’t rush but segue on to the genesis or emotional inspiration for your project, slip in the title and genre to make sure they’re oriented, knock that logline that you rewrote more than your script out of the park, and move gently into your well-rehearsed pitch making it seem like more of a conversation than a presentation. Phew! (That’s “all” you’ve got to do!)
Hit a key milestone five minutes in and give them some mile markers: “That’s when we break to Act Two…” Don’t steam roll over them. Engage their imagination. Check in with them periodically. Ask questions. Show respect. Is the type of project they do or might be interested in?
Don’t just list the events of your beat outline. They want you to entertain them with a story – not just outline the structure. As you weave through your key turning points, make them FEEL the twists and turns. Hopefully they’re laughing if you’re pitching a comedy or on the edge of their seats if its a thriller. Emulate what the viewing experience could be through your verbal storyselling.
You already know: Show, Don’t Tell
Don’t Tell: Sell!
(sell, Sell, SELL!)
Don’t be so myopically focused on the artistic elements that you lose sight of (let’s be honest, here) – what the money guys (or gals) are in the room for: to discern how marketable what you’re pitching is. Can they make money off of it? It is Show BUSINESS.
And speaking of which, using comps can be Risky Business. If you’re going to reference comparable precursor films or television programs, please use restraint with the “It’s ABC meets XYZ” mashups. Know your audience. Don’t mention their flops. It’s probably not even wise to use the labor of loves of their predecessors. Models you referenced for structure, theme or even casting inspiration while you were writing will only be of interest to your fellow writers. For the suits, offer up genre, rating or tone touchstones that were box office or ratings hits that appeal to your same demographic.
Questions are great. The more there are, the closer you are getting to a deal – so welcome them. PREPARE FOR THEM. This is the benefit of all that practice. What confused your friends when you pitched originally? Where were the slumps that bored practice listeners? Hopefully, you’ve pruned all that out. Know what the tough questions will inevitably be in advance – and be prepared with a kick-ass answer. Maybe even hold back a surprise twist knowing that this will be an obvious question to ensure they participate – and you are armed and ready.
If appropriate, this is your one chance, inside the ivory tower, to hear from the Horse’s mouth what they’ve got up their development sleeve – and what they’re really looking for. Mixed metaphors aside, dig about (gently) to ascertain future opportunities.
Ask for the Order. Would they like to read the script? Can you send a pitch package? If they say yes…? Hallelujah! – and get the hell out of the room! (Do the jig when you’re out of their line of sight!) A good salesman knows when to shut up. You cannot do any better than a “Yes” and anything that comes out of your mouth after this will only offer them fodder to second-guess their decision. Say, “Thank you,” and leave.
If they have to pitch it further up the food chain (which inevitably they will), delicately offer that you’d be willing to come back and pitch it to anyone else who needs to hear it. If they’ll allow this, it takes the onus off them for a repeat, diluted performance and ensures you nothing will be lost in translation. Not to mention: you get to meet their boss (and begin to build that relationship, too).
Pitch your heart out. You already poured it onto the page, right? This is the second course. GOOD LUCK! I hope you knock it out of the park!