Salesmanship Rules Filmmakers Use: 3 Golden Tips

*This is an extract from Elliot Grove’s book: Raindance Writers Lab (Focal Press 2013)

These salesmanship rules work for a pitch meeting for a screenplay, or just about any situation where you are trying to get the deal, whether it is in the film industry or not.

3 Golden Salesmanship Rules

1. Never say a number

This is likely one of the most effective salesmanship rules:

He or she who says the first number loses.

Think back to the times that you had to negotiate payment for a job. Do you remember having to answer the request ‘Make me an offer’?

For research and a laugh, walk into any car salesroom anywhere in the world. Car salesmen are trained to get you to say a number. And they are not beyond lying to get that number out of you. A car salesman always asks you what your budget is – what you want to spend. If you resist naming a price, the salesman will badger you until you say a number, using phrases like ‘We’ll work with you/Let me paper you into this deal/I’ll speak to the manager, but you have to give me something to work with’. And before you know it you are saying something like $200 per month.

The minute you say a number, you lose. If you say a hundred to a hundred-a-fifty a month – do you think for a minute that the salesmen heard the number one hundred? And the irony is that in theory, the car salesman should be at the disadvantage because the cars all have huge red price stickers on them.

Similarly, in a pitch meeting, the person you are meeting, whether he is a producer, agent, or story executive will often ask you what you are looking for as payment for your script. Never say a number! You may over-price or under-price yourself. Always make it very clear that the person that they need to speak to regarding money, or price, will contact them later. You will make yourself look more professional, and can limit the content of future meetings to the creative issues involving them and you. If you don’t have an agent or representative, now is the best time to get one. Other alternatives are to use a friend or a solicitor.

At the time of re-writing this book, I have been working simultaneously on a novel to be illustrated by a world-famous artist. As a result of his attachment to the project, and a few contacts in the film industry, it was relatively easy for me to get an agent based on the prospect of immediate publication. I found myself sitting in the editor’s office of a British publisher known for publishing a series of the most successful children’s books of all time, all of which had been made into blockbusters. Sniffing, I suppose, my great talent and the prospect of duplicating this huge money machine, she leaned over and said ‘How much do you want?’. I had been forewarned by my agent and responded ‘What is the retail price?’. She said ‘Between $12 – $30, depending on whether or not you actually get this artist to illustrate’, ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘And how many copies are you planning to print?’. ‘Two hundred thousand’, she said. ‘World-wide, or just Europe?’ I said. ‘We’ll have to see how it goes’, she said.

Can you see how we were kicking around the price, without actually saying a number? Author royalties are ten percent of wholesale, and wholesale is thirty-five to forty percent of retail. I guess it’s a good thing to brush off your mental arithmetic skills!

Hint: Never talk money with a producer. Not only will you come out short-changed, but you could scuttle the deal.

2. Never go to money

By this I mean you should try to get the person who you are pursuing with your script to come to your place of work. If they never come to you, you are dealing with an onanist. The theory is that, if the person will not leave their yacht, penthouse, or mansion to come to visit you, then they will never take you seriously.

This rule definitely applies to producers attempting to raise money, but, as a writer, it is always more difficult to get a story development person out of their office – they are simply too busy. Try, however, to get them out onto neutral territory: a coffee shop, or park bench.

Never suggest lunch. A lunch meeting can take an hour or more. If you have not met this person before and he doesn’t take to you, or if your pitch is wrong, he will feel totally trapped by you.

Hint When they start calling you when they start trying to hang out with you, then you know you are getting hot.

3. You don’t ask, you don’t get

If you are ever in the second part of a meeting and you notice that the person you are meeting glances at his watch and you have yet to ask for the deal, you are automatically in the third part of the meeting.

You must ask for the deal the minute you are in the second part of the meeting. Of course, you don’t blatantly ask if they want to buy your script – that would be tacky and an ineffective marketing approach. However, you can say: ‘I hear you are looking for a thriller’ or ‘Since your most recent project was a hit, isn’t it true you are entertaining romantic comedies like the one I have?’

You basically try to build accord with the person you are selling to. If they say ‘No’ then it is your job to discover what kind of ‘No’ it is, for, in my experience, there are three different kinds of ‘No’.

Believe it or not, when I was really broke, I became a professional debt collector. My job was to call up corner store owners who had defaulted on their extortionate loans for wet/dry vacuum cleaners. Some of you will recall such machines in many corner stores in the mid-nineties. My job was to get them to settle their debts, either by rescheduling their payments at a better interest rate or by repossessing the vacuum cleaners. It was on this job that I learned the three kinds of “No”.

“No” number one means: ‘The house is on fire. Emergency! No! I can’t speak to you for another second”! Fait. Enough. They’re busy. Maybe you can call back later. When you are pitching a script the equivalent might be that the company has just been bought-out, and no one knows what the new owners want to fund. Put the contact to one side for a few weeks and call back later.

The second type of “No”, the “No” I hate, is the “maybe No” and sounds like this: ’Can you put some details in the post and we’ll review your material and get back to you (if we are interested)?’. No way. You bet. Sure thing. That’s the huge pile of stuff besides the desk that nobody looks at. I got so many actual ‘No’s’ that I didn’t even bother sending stuff out to the “maybe No’s” – they just never responded and I, as a commissioned salesman, was charged for postage.  I’d just pass the file over to the student lawyer who would start court proceedings.

I used to think there were only two kinds of “No” until one day I had a revelation: these people didn’t really mean “No” – they just needed more information. They were frightened to get a telephone call from a debt collector and they were fearful about the consequences. I changed my tack with comments like: ‘Let me explain why I think we can sort this problem out right now. It will only take a few minutes’. Of course, my success rate rocketed.

The third kind of “No” was the ‘No with reservations’. This became a joy to my ears because it meant that they wanted more information. It meant you had a chance to close. The way to handle this situation was to learn to recognize objections and then offer alternative information to make them feel comfortable with the transaction.

Trial closings

The final aspect of ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’ is the trial closing. You have to ask for the deal. You say things like: ‘I understand you are looking for a thriller,’ if that is what you have. Or, ‘How would you feel if Kiera Knightly was playing the lead?’, if you want to evoke an image of the lead female role. If you haven’t asked by the time they sneak a sideways glance at the LCD clock in the upper corner of their computer screen, you are automatically out of there – you have struck out and you are in the third part of the meeting.

Can you remember talking to someone who is really boring when you have an important meeting to go to? Remember how you go into all sorts of convoluted gestures in order to see what time it is without this boring unfortunate recognizing what you are doing?

In your pitch meeting you have to start asking for the deal as soon as you are in the second part of the meeting: ‘Is this the type of thing you are looking for?’ or ‘Did you find it scary?’. And so forth.
Fade Out

I am sure you have some terrific pointers that I have missed. Add them, if you will, in the comments box below.

Happy Selling!



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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