SOME ADVICE ON PITCHING
December 13th, 2014
Writers at different stages in their careers will pitch under different circumstances. An “A” list writer can pitch just an idea in a room with the hope of walking out with a deal. New writers might be pitching a completed screenplay at a pitch festival with the hope someone offers to read the script. A query letter is a kind of pitch, but “pitching” itself usually refers to a verbal presentation.
In the world of screenwriting, a good pitch successfully communicates a story. Pitching is goal oriented, since the writer usually hopes there is an end result. The end result could be to sell a story in the room, land a development deal or convince someone to read a script.
Before I offer up some simple suggestions, I’ll say that, most often, pitches fail because of the story not because of the pitch itself.
Writers blame a lousy pitch on nerves or their fear of public speaking. But, coincidentally, a pitch often goes awry in the same spots the screenplay does. For instance, a screenplay with a passive protagonist (no real dramatic task at hand, no mission, no purpose) will come through loud and clear in a pitch. Although some writers are great in a room and always manage to entertain, a bad story will always come through as a bad story. A writer can practice his pitch all he wants, but he cannot polish a turd.
In Hollywood, there is an abundance of turd polishing. Go to any pitching event where amateurs hock their wares. The polishing is fast and furious. From an aerial view it resembles the synchronized dancing at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Wax on. Wax off. ShamWow, motherfucker. It will do no good.
However, if the story is in tip-top shape, here are some suggestions based on my experiences from both sides of the table.
KNOW YOUR STORY
Since most stories are archetypes, the listener will have some idea of what your story is about and the direction it’s going without your having to say too much. For example, I’ve read scores of scripts dealing with the cloning of Christ (usually using DNA from the Shroud of Turin). Almost each of these scripts has a scene where a main character dies and the cloned Christ child resurrects him/her. Of course, as the wide-eyed writer tells me about this moving scene – a beat he believes he birthed into literary existence - I’m already a step ahead of him.
Because I’ve read tens of thousands of screenplays, quite a few similar to the one you’re pitching, I’m going to have lots of questions (based on previous scripts I’ve read). I might ask a question about character motivation or story logic. My question might be rooted in various elements that undermined those other screenplays to see how your story avoids the trappings.
Know your story. Have the answers.
Some pitches can take a long time. For instance, if a writer has been sent off by the studio to come up with a “take’ on a novel, his pitch could be twenty minutes or longer. My producing partner and I once had a 50 minute pitch, because we had no writer attached to the project and had to provide every little detail to the story (which was eventually set-up at Paramount). The fringe industry has created opportunities for writers to pitch in hotel conference rooms under the watchful eye of a timekeeper. These pitches must be kept short, and it’s good practice. What happens if you’re at a party and you have the opportunity to pitch to someone? You don’t want to monopolize all his time. You want to be able to communicate your idea with as much brevity as possible.
Some writers like to start their pitch with a question pertaining to the story - like if you were pitching MINORITY REPORT: “What if you were arrested for a crime you hadn’t yet committed?” Or maybe just a statement: “Imagine a world where criminals are caught by cops before they commit the crime…I have a sci-fi action drama called MINORITY REPORT about a cop who…(insert logline here). The idea of a brief pitch is to NOT TELL THE STORY. Simply paint it in the broadest of strokes.
The biggest and best reason for this is that you want the person who’s listening to be able to pitch this idea to his boss or co-workers. “Yeah, so I heard a great pitch today about a cop in the near future who arrests criminals before the crime is committed but finds himself in big trouble when he’s accused of a murder he hasn’t yet committed...” Presenting your story in a clean cut, truncated version allows him to pass the word in the same manner. If you present a long and complicated pitch, he might not have a handle on it and won’t bother talking to people about it.
The best way to be brief is to begin with the genre and logline. In Michael Hague’s book “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds,” I talk about leading with a logline. But on page 26, he suggests not to lead with a logline. He says that a logline doesn’t allow the listener to enter the world of the story. It pulls the rug out from under the story. I disagree.
My rationale is simple. A pitch can often consist of a lot of information, and a logline helps to orient the listener before the journey.
It’s sort of like getting directions from Google. They always provide a map with a marker to denote your destination. That map gives you the big picture of the vicinity you’ll be visiting. It gives you an idea of where you’re going. Then underneath, you get the step by step directions.
That’s how I envision a pitch. The logline is the map. It gives the listener an idea of the neighborhood he’ll be visiting. No details. Just the big picture.
The step by step directions that follow are the specific details. In the case of pitching, they are your story points that allow you to take the listener on a journey.
Stay on course. It’s easy to get spooked during a pitch and start jumping all over the place. Writers with a tight story have an easier time staying on track. Writers with a meandering screenplay will often meander in the pitch. You want to avoid going off on tangents and getting into unnecessary details. Only tell us what we MUST know to understand the basics of the story and characters. Getting into too many details can be confusing to the listener and she might not track what you’re saying.
Going back to the map analogy, you’re giving us the directions with a few landmarks. But it’s not advisable to turn down a side street that takes us farther from our destination. Stick with the major story points, throwing in a few set pieces within the context of what you’re pitching.
Remember that dramatic storytelling is all about cause and effect, and you want to duplicate that in your pitch too. So, only set-up things in the pitch you plan to pay-off. Leave the other stuff for the screenplay.
ENGAGE THE LISTENER
The best pitches are interactive. The listener is engaged, asking questions, guessing where the story is heading. However, if you’re doing all the talking, the listener can very easily tune you out, as he contemplates a zillion other things on his mind. But when the listener is actively engaged in your story, it immediately becomes more personal. A really good pitch evolves into a dialogue. By starting off with the logline, for instance, you give the listener the opportunity to ask questions. For instance, he might ask, “So tell me about the protagonist.” While it appears that he’s navigating the pitch, you’re really in command because you’ve actively engaged him.
KNOW WHEN TO QUIT
Don’t be a steamroller, unaware of the listener’s interest level. Be in tuned to where he may be at and gauge his interest level at all times. Talking too much allows the listener to hear things he doesn’t like. Often, I hear a pitch that intrigues me. I’m ready to read the script. I’ve expressed my interest, but the writer ignores me and keeps talking – hoping to excite me more. And then he says something that turns me off – like a plot element that sounds stupid or illogical or whatever. If he had quit while he was ahead, I would have read the script. Now, it’s a pass. As a result, I won’t read his work, which shuts down a potential opportunity.
Have the common sense and confidence to know when to stop pitching.
About the Author
Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher. For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors. He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program. Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor. He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University. He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey. He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.