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Pitching Made Purrfect

Okay, so most of you out there are screenwriters trying to court producers with a killer logline and sample pages from your script. But, trust me, as a producer, a former studio exec and now as The Script Broker (TM), once we get in a room together, over watery tea or bad coffee, with or without your agent, you need to wow us with your pitch.

Yes, that's the pitch for your existing script - the spec you and/or your agent are trying to sell. That's right, sometimes even after listing your logline or getting a response to your query, it might be necessary to verbally pitch more of your script to help secure the option and/or sale. Most often this happens over the phone. Telling (or retelling) the quick logline for your script is usually the first stop. Next is the "short version" or the "long version" pitch. Short or long, if your pitch doesn't grab it will likely get a 'pass'.

Most of you are already familiar with the term pitching, but if you're just starting out, here's a quickie definition: In Hollywood "pitching" is a term used to refer to those times when you verbally tell your story to a potential buyer. Your intent is to sell whoever's in the room on the commercial viability of your idea. Your goal is to not only sell your idea, but to establish rapport and support for your project as you swim up the studio or other financing food chain. (Pitching in a workshop or mentoring setting is an opportunity for feedback on what's working with your presentation and what may still need work on the way to pitching your story in the real world.)

You are probably saying, that's a lot of pressure; can't I just have you read the script? Unfortunately, for all of us out there looking for material to sell and/or buy, there is such a volume of product we have to find ways to 'filter' out what we want to read. Even your agent, once you have one, has to have that pitch down. And you can help at the sidelines, developing a sizzling five minutes. Your agent will kiss you for doing their homework. So it will be a win-win, and it can certainly impact the possibility of a sale!

I recently moved from a home office to an office in Beverly Hills; I was wildly amused that every day I overhear agents and producers pitching scripts and writer's ideas to each other, in cafes, in the street, even in bathrooms. It reminded me that Hollywood is an industry town and its industry is storytelling. As important as it is for Ford to churn out picture perfect automobiles in Detroit, it's critical to your success to refine a five-ten minute pitch in Hollywood; otherwise, your wonderful script may never get read. Okay, sure it will sit on a pile and a reader will read it. But a killer pitch will give you a competitive edge and make the producer say, "I've got to read that myself!"

So how do you do that? Here are some pointers that may help.

PITCHING POINTERS:

1) BE PREPARED: Know whom you're pitching to! Research not only who you are pitching your story to, but also who your intended audience is in the marketplace. For example, what are past successes in your genre? What are the movie and/or TV credits of the people who are "taking your pitch?" Once you have your story down and are ready to 'go out with it,' practice by talking your pitch into a tape recorder, pitching to friends, other writers or to yourself in a mirror. Some people write it out while talking out loud. Some people even write jokes to insert during the pitch. Others do jumping jacks while practicing their pitch (but of course not during the pitch!). Use whatever works for you. I knew one set of writer/producers who practiced their pitch one hundred times before 'going out with it.' For the memory challenged, it's acceptable to use a cheat sheet or card with bullet points. But practice is imperative and don't forget to use improv. Sometimes our best ideas come when we're just shooting from the hip, but usually these improvisational moments are paved by a good foundation of practice. Some of the people you pitch may have ideas of their own to add to your pitch or story. Acknowledge their ideas. It doesn't mean you have to use the ideas, but don't reject them. Some of the ideas may even be good. They may make your story or your delivery of your pitch even better for the next person you pitch.

2) KNOW YOUR TOPIC: Whatever you're pitching, research the background of your story, topic, and characters. Know what first attracted you to the idea. Buyers' are often intrigued by a story's passionate origins. I know I am. And, be prepared for questions, questions, and more questions: i.e. write up what you think buyers will ask about your story. Also, anticipate (while staying positive) what can go wrong and what they could want to know. For example, what do I do if I accidentally spill coffee on an exec's floor? Humor cannot remove coffee stains, but sometimes a good topic-appropriate joke can smooth out the tension in a room. The key is to know your pitch so well that you are, above all, relaxed.

3) KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO HAPPEN: What is it that you want to occur out of pitching this story: Rapport with those listening to your pitch, good communication, a sale, making people laugh, a new relationship with a filmmaker you respect? Being clear and focusing on what you want to happen can affect your presentation in a positive way. Your goal - not just telling your story, but getting your story sold. Also, one thing to keep in mind: This is your story. Everyone has a different idea of what works and what doesn't. Everyone has a different idea of what'll sell and what won't. But if you keep hearing the same feedback about your story from several different sources, then it may be important to pay attention to what people are saying. It's rare an idea is so original that people just don't 'get it.'

DURING THE PITCHES

4) BREAKING THE ICE: Do your homework. If you're pitching to a class, workshop or pitching fest, who's going to be there? What is the background of the professor, lecturer or buyer? If there is an opportunity for an introduction, you must be ready. Practice introducing yourself; i.e. have a quick log line on yourself in the same way you prepared one for your story. Introductions may go more smoothly if you're prepared. For starters, sincere flattery will get you everywhere. Acknowledge that you're a fan of their work, mention specifics. Also, at the beginning of your pitch, before reeling off your story, find common ground whenever possible, i.e. golf, movies you both like, the trials of parenthood, colleges attended, etc. This helps set up a relaxed 'sales friendly' atmosphere.

5) INTERACTION: The best major league writers include their audience in their pitch. Sprinkling questions about what the next beat of your story might be can get the buyers' mental wheels turning. Your audience begins to see the story, and getting them thinking a few beats ahead will help to make them feel included, creative and part of your story as it unfolds. Be careful not to give your 'leave behind pages' too soon. Many execs love to cut to the chase and turn to the last page while you are still talking. So, hold off until after your pitch to give them 'paper.' But if you have one-sheets, story boards or visuals that support your pitch, make sure everyone in the room is given a copy or that they can see them or have a chance to look at them as they are passed around.

6) YOUR POSITION: Take time to take in your audience. A famous director once told me to "drink in the room." And be alert, energetic, entertaining, keep it alive, and keep yourself interested. If you're pitching to several people, try to position yourself so you can pitch in one direction. You don't want to divide your attention and lessen your impact.

7) THE IMPRESSION YOU WANT TO MAKE: Many deals fall through because the exec or the producer gets the impression that the writer is "rigid or territorial" about their screenplay. 99.9% of all scripts are re-written after there is an agreement to purchase or option a script. When you sell your story, you are also selling yourself. A creative exec in most cases will not pursue your script if they get the idea you will not re-write your script according to their needs. If they get the idea you are a prima donna, i.e. difficult to deal with, they will in most cases 'pass'. There are too many writers out there who will take direction for them to want to deal with a writer who won't. Screenplay writing, especially at the studio level, is a highly collaborative medium. Don't forget, the producer has to satisfy directors, distributors, financiers and actors. To get them all happy at the same time requires re-writes. How you take development notes from producers is definitely a part of what they will consider when thinking of working with you.

8) THE CLOSE & THE SALE: Acknowledge their time to take the meeting, i.e. "Great meeting you, thanks for your time; when should I get back to you? Is this something we could work together on?" Most of the time, determining the heat in the room, i.e. how much they may want to buy it, is difficult. So, perhaps you might give a quick recap or overview of the story and then,
most importantly, be silent. The silence lets them think about your story and it gives them an opportunity to respond. In sales terms, 'the close' usually means the moment that the seller (in this case writer) tries to lock up a sale or purchase of her/his story. This is usually something that is done by an agent, but the writer has to set up the friendly, relaxed sales atmosphere in the first place so that the producer or buyer wants to work with them. Without the hook of the pitch, the fish have nowhere to bite. A solid, well-crafted pitch is the first entry point for a sale.

9) DON'T BE DESPERATE: Often the writer will be so desperate for a sale or acknowledgement of their work, that they will push for some kind of answer as to the buyer's interest right away. I know you work hard, alone in front of your computer, and you're dying for feedback. But don't push for it. This is not a good idea, as buyers need time to think about whether the story works for them. On the other hand, a writer will usually get a feeling of interest one way or the other. Buyers often have to go to other people for answers and do not want to be put on the spot. The main thing is to be respectful and don't over stay your time in the pitch. Also, have one or two other stories up your sleeve ready to pitch, at least in log line form. That way after your pitch is done, you can ask them, 'what else are you looking for?' Don't pitch more than three ideas. However, if there's interest in your first idea, don't push to pitch the others; just let them consider that one. Stay with and sustain the passion you have for that one story you just pitched. Since many execs are paid to say 'no,' you might find yourself tightening up inside because they've 'passed on your idea' and don't want to buy it. Don't be grumpy, but be grateful you had an opportunity to make a new contact. You may want to meet with them to pitch another story later.

10) TIME FRAME: Other than a classroom or workshop setting, a good, well thought out, entertaining, professional pitch can be from 5 to 20 minutes. In most cases your script will need to be boiled down to ten minutes. Usually, you'll start with a thirty-second pitch to grab them (a slightly expanded version of your logline listing). If there's a nod to continue, you'll move on to your longer version. In a very short time, you'll have to cover plot, theme and characters. Of course, try to make sure that you include those three most memorable scenes - funny or dramatic - that help 'sell' your story.

You may be asking, so after I pitch them when will I hear back if they're interested? How long will it take us exec types to read your script after it has been pitched successfully? Every buyer is different; it has been my experience that execs or producers will tell you at the time of the pitch if they're interested. They might wait to discuss the idea internally with the rest of their staff before getting back to you or your agent to get a copy of your script for a read. Once the script is in our hands, it can take anywhere from a few days to two weeks to four months depending on interest, work load and production schedules. We do our best, but sometimes it does take a while for us producers and execs to get back to you after a pitch. Don't hesitate to call every three weeks to see how the script reading is doing. However, the following words from an exec at Showtime are perhaps worth considering: "I'm always thinking what would this writer be like to work with over the long haul. If a writer calls too often, is too pushy or is being arrogant or confrontational (Why haven't we heard back already?'), I'm probably going to say ­ next'." As a former studio exec and now as a producer, one thing I have found is that a little honest humor, while showing respect for the process, can be effective as a friendly reminder. You can even joke about your script's place in the reading pile... i.e. "has it reached the summit yet or are we still stuck at base camp?"

In closing, a great pitch can really help move things along more quickly for the writer. Most of all, keep your pitch short, entertaining and focused. That way we will be eager to see how your wonderful script unfolds. Who knows, we might move it to the top of the pile!

Good luck and happy pitching!!

Written by: Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein of Noble House Entertainment
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