I say “Pitching,” and writers groan. I’m no different. As a writer myself, my instinct is to say, “If I could tell you my story in 90 seconds, why would I have told it to you in 90 pages?” But pitching is a necessary evil. There are two sure-fire ways to assure your script never gets made: Don’t write it, and never tell anyone about it.
The terror that accompanies pitching is a kissing cousin of the natural human condition of being absolutely terrified of speaking in public. As Jerry Seinfeld famously said, “At a funeral, most people would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.” Speaking in public is terrifying. Performance anxiety can be crippling.
So why think of your pitch as a performance at all? Singing and dancing and juggling chainsaws have nothing in common with pitching your project. A pitch is a conversation, that’s all. A meeting. A discussion among professionals. The goal is not to razzle-dazzle somebody into taking on your script. You are deciding TOGETHER whether you are a good match to achieve a nearly-impossible goal: making a movie out of your (shared) creative vision.
See, your script is your child. You have nurtured it and nourished it to the point of existence. Now you have all the added pressure of trying to convince someone that your baby is worth their time. Your work and ego and sometimes the love of your family is all wrapped up in it. And I’m here to tell you, get all that junk out of there.
A successful pitch must be much more than simply convincing or selling someone on something. The best pitches are conversational. You start the conversation the same as you would any other discussion. Introduce yourself. Be polite and confident. Spend a few seconds on small talk. Express yourself as a friendly professional.
This portion of the pitch is often overlooked by writers. But when I’m hearing pitches, I put just as high a premium on the writer as I do on the writing. Producing a movie is a lot of hard work. Long hours in small offices that smell like stale coffee and congealed pizza. When the movie is in production, you might be outside through a cold night. You might be the last person in line for dinner, and get nothing but beets and butter. Not ideal conditions.
And if the writer I’m working with is not a team player, I would rather not work with that writer at all. No matter how good his script is. In a pitch, you are not just selling your script. You’re selling yourself. I would much rather get a script that’s a 7, and a writer whose personality is a 10, than a script at a 10 and a writer who’s a 7. After all, scripts can be rewritten and people can’t. Scripts are a dime a dozen. If I just wanted a script, I could go to LA, order an Uber, and ask the driver for his. Who are YOU? Why should I work with YOU? How will YOU make MY life easier?
Following the small talk, it’s time to segue into your pitch itself. Just tell them a little bit about the story. Title, genre, protagonist (who they are, what is their flaw), maybe antagonist, the goal, the obstacles. There is no need to dive into every nitty-gritty detail. I recommend making it as concise as possible.
Star Wars is a space opera about a young farm boy destined to save the galaxy from the mighty empire. Swashbuckling, space battles, and a mystical power called The Force all combine to create the perfect Summer Blockbuster.
Read that aloud. How long did it take? Less than a minute. But that’s enough information to hook an executive and determine if he’s interested. If he’s out with that much information, why do you think you could change his mind? Why would you want to? How committed do you think he would be to a project he doesn’t believe in?
The most successful pitch of my career was 10 words long. Following those 10 words, the script was requested 90% of the time. My current project started with a single word. In its feature screenplay format, the most common response was “I will NEVER make that. But I have GOT to read it.” From that sample, I got paying work, rewrite work, a much larger professional network, and now the project itself is being developed as a six-issue limited comic book series (You can buy swag to support it at http://tee.pub/lic/Hitlersaurus)! If you get some swag, you will be hailed as a visionary and brilliant humanitarian with an eye for the greatest pop culture phenomena in human history.
Your job is finding the true heart of your story, and it is a little challenging. It means stripping away all the hard work you’ve put into your script, and reduce it down to the bare bones in order to pitch it effectively. We don’t need to know your character’s backstory. We don’t need to know who you imagine casting as the lead. All we need is the hook. If you’ve been working on your logline, you’re most of the way there already.
If not, here is a little experiment you can try. Pick a movie you love – ideally one that your friends haven’t heard of. Now convince them to see it. The only difference between that movie and yours is that yours hasn’t been made yet.
It’s a safe bet that you don’t go through every twist and turn or talk about the characters’ backstories or what inspired the writer to create the script. You just say:
This lonely boy is wandering through the forest during the Red Scare, and befriends a 50-foot robot. He teaches this weapon of mass destruction about empathy and kindness while the government strives to control it. It will make your heart swell.
(You should see THE IRON GIANT, by the way. It’s amazing.)
Following your opening, the exec might not be interested. That’s fine. Not everyone is going to engage with your story. Now you still have four minutes left in your meeting. Don’t sulk away, your tail between your legs, the word DEFEAT painted on your face. Instead, use your time wisely. Ask the executive about himself. About his company. What type of show does he like on a personal level?
You might get a business card, so that after your next script, you can call him up directly and ask to send it. Maybe he’ll read your script after all, not with an eye toward producing it, but to give you notes (valuable!) or as a writing sample to hire you one day (paying work!).
If the exec is interested in your pitch, he will ask questions. It’s up to you to answer them, and that’s not always easy because the questions are impossible to predict. Some execs want to reassure themselves that you know your craft, so they will ask about act breaks, or the hero’s journey. Some want to know how it ends. Some want to know if there’s a part that’s right for a particular celebrity (the answer is always yes).
Which brings me to the most important piece of advice crafting your pitch. Know your script. The plot, characters, theme, arcs, A, B, and C stories. Know your structure and setups and payoffs. Know your page count and jokes and audience. Know what you are trying to say and how you say it. Know it cold. Be ready for any question they may ask.
The good news is that’s the easy part. After all, who knows your story better than you?