When someone asks you what your screenplay is about, and you tell them, you are verbally pitching your script to them. If they ask you for a written summation – a treatment – you are submitting a written pitch. Either way, there are some basic pitching essentials.
The word “pitching” is really a misnomer as it conjures up visions of a snake-oil salesman peddling questionable wares to an unsuspecting public. But if you took pitching out of the film business, the entire industry would collapse. Every movie ever made was made as a result of pitching. And the film industry is a people business, which means that your communication skills are very important.
In the film industry, pitching is the process which you as a writer, director or producer, use in order to impart your passion for your project to others – cast, crew or financiers. British filmmakers’ pitching skills are very primitive compared to those of their American counterparts. While some British producers like Nik Powell and Steve Wooley are legendary in their pitching abilities, most British filmmakers do not pay enough attention to this very valuable and necessary skill.
Pitching is the fundamental foundation of the film business, and if you took pitching away from writers, directors, and producers, you would not have any film industry. If you are unable to pitch properly and effectively you are doomed as a writer of screenplays (unless you can align yourself with a director who can pitch for you).
Hint: Pitching is the single most important skill anyone, including writers, should acquire in order to succeed in the film industry.
In our everyday life, we pitch all the time. When your best friend or dearest relative calls up, they will ask you ‘What’s new?’ You will then pitch them either a problem at work (to elicit sympathy) or prospects in love or work (to gain support or admiration). People who can’t succeed at this elemental task are often referred to as ‘cold’ or ‘loners’.
The Structure of a Pitch Meeting
In order to pitch properly it is important to understand the structure of a pitch meeting and the various signs, cues and clues of the meeting, how to read them, and how to capitalize on them.
Any pitch meeting has three parts (just like your screenplay): Beginning, Middle and End. Here, the elements of a pitch meeting are broken down, along with a list of the goals you must achieve, in order to sell your screenplay. I also list some tools you can use in order to help you achieve your goals:
Most pitch meetings are fifteen to twenty minutes long, and the first part can take anywhere from twenty-five to fifty percent of the time, depending on variables beyond your control.
Your task in the first part of the pitch meeting is to schmooze with the person you are seeing so that they can get to know you, and so that you can get to know them. Remember that the person you are meeting is nervous too.
We do the same thing in our everyday life – when we see a friend in the street we say ‘How are you? What’s new? How did the job interview go?’ and in the UK we usually comment on the weather. At the start of a pitch meeting, both sides are trying to figure each other out, and both parties are nervous. The only difference is that the person to whom you are pitching is usually more experienced at pitch meetings and therefore better able to cover up his or her anxiety.
If you have been able to do some proper research, then you might start off by commenting on their recent television interview, the news article on a current project or the success of one of their projects which is similar to your own.
Your first goal in a pitch meeting is to see whether you are pitching to a left brain or a right brain person.
Our minds are divided into two. The left side controls rational thought, the right side controls the subconscious and the emotions. While you are schmoozing, cast a glance around the office to see if you can ascertain clues about the type of person you are meeting. Do they have wall charts with circled deadline dates hanging next to profit and loss statements (left brain – number man)?
No one is totally left or right brain, but most people lean one way.
A good tool for determining whether or not you have a right brain or a left brain person is to place two items on their desk a few minutes after you start the meeting – a neatly typed one page synopsis of your script and an object from the script, maybe the revolver, a photograph, or a map of the enchanted island. Observe which one the person picks up. A left-brainer, who favours logical analytical thought, will probably pick up the typed sheet, while a right-brainer, who thinks more creatively, aesthetically and intuitively, will most likely be drawn to the object or image. It is useful to know what sort of thinker you are dealing with as this will influence the way you pitch and improve your chances of success.
Author, producer, and publisher Michael Wiese, while working at Viacom, had the good fortune to stumble across the home video rights to boxing fights in the forties and fifties. His innovative approach to this worn material was to edit out the knockout rounds from the films and edit them together for home video and call it ‘Boxing’s Greatest Hits’. In order to enhance the value of the product, he decided that an image of Don King would make a great cover jacket.
Through his observation and networking, Michael ascertained that Don King was a right brain person and was therefore easily carried away with the emotion of an event. A video jacket with Don King’s face was prepared in advance of the initial pitch meeting. Michael went with an assistant who was told that, when cued (approximately half way through the start of the meeting), he should place the box upon the desk where Don King could see it, leave it there for exactly five minutes, then remove it, but he was to count the number of times Don King made direct eye contact with the image of himself for a period longer than three seconds. King did this an incredible thirty-seven times during the meeting. Needless to say, he did the deal.
You will know when you are at the end of the first part of the meeting when the person you are pitching says ‘how can I help you?’ or ‘What do you have?’. You are now in the second part of the meeting.
Start with your basic premise, the so-called “twenty-five words or less”. Do not read from notes. Reading from notes is the kiss of death at any pitch meeting. You want to establish direct eye contact with the person you are pitching. If you read from notes it will appear that you do not feel totally comfortable with your material, or that you are not passionate about your project.
See if you can gauge the person’s interest. If his head is going ‘Yes, yes, yes’ then you have time to give an expanded, more detailed pitch.
You are waiting for him to say ‘Could you have your agent or representative contact our head of business and legal affairs?’ Kerching! You have done the deal.
Often, however, after you have finished your short introductory pitch, you will hear instead ‘No thank you.’ Your task now is to discover why. Is it because you are pitching to the wrong person? Maybe the circumstances of the company’s finances have changed drastically since your appointment was made. Maybe they just didn’t like your idea.
Whatever the reason, you then reach back into your quiver, select another arrow, and fire it off. It is a good idea to take at least three fully developed pitches to a meeting. Maybe you start with a pitch other than the one you were asked to bring, just to warm up. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable.
Often too, after your initial twenty-five words, you will hear ‘No’ expressed in a different phrase – a phrase that will strike terror into your heart: ‘Stop, please, we have something exactly like that.’ More commonplace is something like ‘Isn’t it amazing that there is such a common currency of ideas in circulation?’
If that happens to you, make a positive choice. Yes, it is a bummer that the company you are pitching to already has something similar to your idea. But hey, at least you have proven that your ideas are commercially viable! It is extremely rare that film companies steal ideas from writers. What does happen, however, to beleaguered story development executives is that they think that they have heard something similar to your idea from someone else. Development executives can hear dozens of story pitches in a week and it is likely that they have heard something similar to yours in the last month, or in the last one hundred pitches.
So move on.
Reach back into your quiver and pull out another arrow – another of the three fully prepared pitches you have brought to your meeting. It would be a shame to go to a one-on-one meeting, especially considering all of the time and effort that it takes to set one up, with just one pitch, so be prepared.
Hint: Development people are nervous about meeting you and hearing your pitch too. They just have more experience than you do. So relax.
You will know when you are in the third part of the meeting when you either hear ‘ No thanks’ or what you are dying to hear: ‘Could you have your agent or representative contact our head of business and legal affairs?’ Kerching!
However you arrive at the third part of the pitch meeting, your task is to leave as quickly as possible. Do not make small talk, do not comment on the weather, the news, or the jukebox in the corner. Just leave. If you linger you overstay your welcome and the minute you leave will be the minute that your contact details are destroyed.
Film people are notoriously insecure – so insecure in fact that they seem over-polite. If you make small talk in the third part of the meeting, don’t mistake the person’s interest as anything other than a polite attempt to disguise his efforts to lean over and push the eject button.
This is an extract from the book: RAINDANCE WRITERS LAB (Focal Press 2009)