Do You Really Want To Pitch?
I hate pitching. I hate that there is an actual insider WORD for it. I hate that entire competitions and seminars are dedicated to it. The word itself is ominous — one aggressive syllable that becomes the focal point of a writer’s business in Hollywood. The act of pitching most certainly came from the short attention span of producers and executives. I’d rather they just read a script. Or let me casually tell you about an idea in conversation. But it’s this THING. It’s “THE PITCH.”
It seems like a simple task: in 10 to 20 minutes, tell someone your idea. But make it entertaining, capture the spirit of the movie, get them excited and really SELL them on it. By the end of your pitch, the goal is for them to stand up and shake your hand and say, “Let’s make it!”
This never happens.
OK, sometimes it happens. But 99% of the time they smile and say, “Great, we’ll think about it.” An even better sign is when they immediately fire questions at you. That means they’re getting invested and are considering buying it.
As much as I hate pitching, I’ve been told I’m good at it. I’ve pitched countless projects to hundreds of people. I’ve pitched to low-level development assistants and the heads of networks. I’ve pitched to Harvey Weinstein. All of these situations are different, but a lot of it never changes. They always give you a bottle of water. They always make you wait 10 minutes. You always sit down on a crappy two-seater couch next to a giant vintage foreign movie poster. And some mental tricks consistently yield a better pitch.
From here on out, it’s tough love. I’m going to turn into a grizzled old coach and ask you if you really have what it takes. Do you really want to pitch to the big shots? Do you really want to go to the “big game?” Pitching expensive ideas to high-ranking people is not for the faint at heart, so you need to stop being the introverted writer and learn how to perform on a larger stage.
I used to take months to create a pitch document, then memorize several pages of an outline, sweating all the details. But a lot of that is time wasted. Any movie should break down into 15 bullet points. 15 sentences that sum up the major events and turning points for your character. The buyer listening to you doesn’t even want to know most of the details, especially most of Act 2. Sum it up. Find a couple of places in the story where you drill down a bit more and even act out a moment. But otherwise, set up the characters and the conflict and then hit the highlights. Entertain them, but keep it moving. Then, have a great, definitive ending. Do not EVER take more than 20 minutes to pitch something.
Once I’ve put in the time and lived with my 15 bullet points for a few days, I’m amazed at how fast they are committed to memory. Then I can start to add little details, a joke here and there, fill it out a bit. But keep it moving.
The day of a pitch I call “Game Day.” From the moment I get up, I know that the whole day is going to ramp up to that 20 minutes. I try not to get too memorized or too pumped up either. Don’t peak too soon. Leave it all on the field, not in the locker room! Conserve your energy. Treat yourself like an athlete that stays focused and steadily gets ready throughout the day. I’m not kidding. I don’t go to lunch with a friend beforehand or work on other stuff. You have to get in the zone.
THE SAMURAI SWORD ON YOUR BACK
When I arrive at any office for a pitch, I might seem loose and happy-go-lucky as I chit chat with the receptionist, but I am amped up with an inner confidence. I like to say I “walk in with my samurai sword on my back.” I use this phrase when I am entering a difficult meeting or confrontation, but I also think about it as I walk in to pitch. It means I have a secret, I have leverage, I have a weapon I don’t ever have to use but I know it’s there. And it gives me strength. Many times it’s as simple as saying to yourself, “I have the best idea in the world and you don’t even know it yet.” Or, “If you don’t buy this, you’re an idiot. You’re going to miss out.” Other times I’m lucky enough to have REAL leverage, like I know that I’m pitching this to two other awesome places later today. Or I just pitched it to someone yesterday and they’re interested. You’ve probably heard that it’s bad to have the “stink of desperation” on you when you interview for a job or audition for a role. A pitch is the same. But you have to be more than NOT desperate. You have to be way up in the positive. Release your inner swagger.
Whether you create the leverage in your mind or you have some for real, put that samurai sword on your back and walk in there like a badass. Smile, be friendly, but know inside that you have the goods.
You need to know what you’re going to say from the moment you open your mouth. Getting started, those first few moments are crucial. A pitch should sound spontaneous, but I recommend memorizing the first sentence out of your mouth. Memorize the words like a robot. Because when you get in that room and the small talk ends and they say, “Okay, what do you have for us?”, you cannot pause or stammer. You’ve got to launch right into some confident words and set the stage. And your brain will NOT want to do it. There will be all kinds of mental interference shooting around in your head so you need the muscle memory of that first sentence to just kick in. Just start saying the one pre-memorized sentence you have and the word machine in your head will start working. I swear by this.
READ THE ROOM
I’ve performed standup and theatre for many years so this is easier for me than some people. But if they lean in, you lean in. If they laugh a lot, get funnier. If they are quiet and withdrawn, keep things laid back. This is a dance between you and them, the performer and the audience. Jokes up front are always good. Maybe even stand up and walk around at some point. Gesture wildly during the action scenes! Unless they don’t like that. Then chill out. At the end of the meeting, you want that buyer to remember that they liked you. Even if they don’t buy the project, you’ll be back again. Make them enjoy being with YOU more than the project.
STOP WHEN THEY SAY YES
This is great advice from an old manager. If you are halfway through the pitch and the buyer says, “I get it. I love it.” Stop. Wrap up fast and get out of there. Don’t continue on and say, “But you haven’t even heard the best part! He has a brother who dies in his arms…” NOPE. Anything else you say may now pull the buyer back from that “yes.” “Dead brother? Oh, maybe this isn’t for us.” Save the rest of the story for another meeting. Get out of there while you’re hot. And if you finish the whole pitch, same thing — wrap up fast and get out of there. Don’t linger with more small talk. Don’t kill the heat you just created in that room. The End, then GO.
FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS ARE ALL “INTERESTING IDEAS”
I don’t care if they give you the dumbest suggestion ever. “What if it took place in space?” All you say in this meeting is, “That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that.” Because their dumb idea shows you that they are interested enough to even HAVE ideas. They are getting invested. Let them. Then get out of there and fight about that dumb idea later… after they start paying you.
If they have questions, you had better have the answers. “What is this story really about?” “Who do you see playing this character?” “What audience is this movie for?” “Explain the rules of this world.” I’m sad to admit that I’ve fumbled the ball a few times because I didn’t have these answers.
I’ve pitched with one or two other people on several things and to be honest, it’s difficult to manage. If you do it, make sure everyone knows what points they are covering. You need to run it together several times. Try to interject with each other naturally, even if you’ve rehearsed. What you don’t want is for the other guy to kill the momentum you just created and slow things down. Or the other guy is not as prepared. Or the other guy gets a lot more nervous before pitches than you do and wants to run the pitch a couple times on “game day.”
This is why I mostly pitch alone. I can speed up or slow down and change what the pitch needs to be, mid-stream. That’s REALLY difficult to do when you have a partner. If things need to change in the room, you both have to do a lot of silent communicating. Once before a 20 minute pitch, my manager pulled me aside to say, “This guy has the attention span of a teenager. You’ve got to keep this to 5 minutes max.” For the next two minutes, I sat in the reception area and mentally edited my pitch. I had to bob and weave on the spot. If I had to do that with a partner, it would have been a major reset. We might have had to push the meeting.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had writing partners who were completely in sync with me and things went very well. But it takes an extra level of prep and coordination.
PITCHING IS TALKING
After all the preparing and psyching yourself up and political maneuvering to get in that room, you have to throw it all away and stay loose. Pitching is such a heightened event and has become so mystified by insiders that this 20 minute dance can start to have too much importance. That can lock you up. You may sweat too much and feel like the world is going to end if this pitch doesn’t go well. Just remember that when all is said and done, pitching is just talking. It’s just one person telling another person a good story. Treat it like you are describing your favorite movie to your friend. Even if it’s really Harvey Weinstein.
At the end of the day, remember, no matter who is staring you down as you sit on that crappy two-seater couch, YOU know more about that story than anyone in the room… than anyone in the world. They need YOU. Because they need to find something shiny and new and you are the one that has it. So act like it.