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Monday, August 4, 2008

What Not to Pitch

After having spent two days with writers lined up to pitch their stories to executives at the Fade In Pitch Fest and hearing dozens and dozens of pitches as I helped writers practice, I realized that for many writers, the distance between their knowledge of their story and the way they present that story can be pretty tremendous. It reminded me of an episode of What Not To Wear - again and I again I pointed out to writers what the strengths of their story were and showed them how to show those strengths off. I heard great, cool, smart writers with great stories pitch that story in a terribly boring and slam-dunk PASS way. With some simple discussion and rearranging of the pitch, suddenly what sounded convoluted and dull really sparked and sounded fascinating.

I had to ask writers practicing with me to please not apologize for 1) the fact that the (true, tragic) story made them a little emotional 2) messing up on the pitch 3) not really knowing how to pitch 4) the fact that the script was not as violent or explicit as other movies like it 5) the fact that there are probably better ideas than this one.

Would you go on a date with someone and immediately apologize for the stain that your date hasn't noticed yet and probably won't, on the lower left inside corner of your sleeve? Would you apologize for stumbling over a word in a sentence? NO. You want to exude confidence and authenticity.

There is a dynamic in Hollywood which is unfortunately borne out by a very few egotistical and unkind types, that writers are essentially schlubs who barely deserve the oxygen we breathe and it leaves writers with some serious self-esteem issues. And the Wave-inatrix is here to say BLEEP that BLEEP.

Do not apologize in advance and point out weaknesses in your story or your pitch. Do not apologize if you get momentarily confused or emotional about your pitch. Do not point out, in advance, that your idea probably isn't that great. If you don't believe in your story or your idea, how can you possibly translate that to the person hearing your pitch?

For many writers, pitching is akin to having open heart surgery with no anesthesia. We do spend so many quiet hours alone with our ideas and our stories and being in a situation like a pitch fest, where you are putting yourself and your story on the line over and over again can be very stressful. I did hear one pitch fest participant tell me that a jr. exec from a HUGE talent firm here in LA literally rolled his eyes at her, during her pitch, and said "You people really need to learn how to pitch." It was rude, it sucked the wind out of her - and it was probably true.

The pitch might not have been so great - not because the writer isn't a good writer or the story isn't a good story (although to be honest, there is a high percentage of that going on) but because the writer's frame of mind in that setting was that of supplicant not salesperson.

Are you a supplicant when you pitch? No. You are not. Sure, the person hearing the pitch is the person with the power and the money in the situation. Sure, it could change your life if your script gets read and liked. But Wavers, writers are not second class citizens. I cannot emphasize that enough. Of course you need to understand the dynamic going on at pitch fests: the people hearing your pitch have heard dozens of others that day, they'd rather be at a Dodgers game or home in their socks waiting for the Chinese food to come but this is their job and what they would really like, since they have to be there anyway, is to hear a GREAT pitch that will make their careers. Of course they'd like to bring in the new writer and the new script that makes them look like geniuses for having found you. They may seem cranky, tired or disinterested - or politely tired and disinterested - but they would LOVE to hear a great pitch. Just effing entertain them. And don't apologize - it puts you in a second class position immediately. It broadcasts - I don't really deserve to be here.

If you were on a date and that was the vibe you got from the guy or gal who showed up, how unsexy is that? You don't REALLY want to date me. But hi. How are you. What a huge turn off. Confidence is sexy, Wavers. In every walk of life. Charisma is sexy. Enthusiasm is catching. And we'd all love to hear a good story.

If you are clinically shy and pitching is an awful, awful experience and you don't feel you can overcome that - either get coaching or just don't do it. Query scripts the old fashioned way and if you get a meeting on the script, well, you're already halfway there. But for god's sake - a little more confidence, people! I know it's hard. The Wave-inatrix is clearly an upbeat, warm, friendly and outgoing person. So for me pitching is not difficult. I enjoy it. For others - it's not so easy. I understand that and I am empathetic.

Someone hearing your pitch is not necessarily someone who expects perfection from the pitch itself - authenticity is endearing. If you mess up, smile, back up and say it properly the second time. Be natural. Introduce yourself first. They know why you're there - no need for apologies or pretense. A pitch fest is like a sales convention. Sure, some of the people hearing your pitch would rather be somewhere else. It's a weekend for god's sake. But their companies have one directive: Find Good Scripts. Maybe your script is the script they're waiting for.

Know your genre. Tell me your title. Throw me a descriptive, brief logline. Make me enjoy your company. Make me FEEL the story you are telling. Make me laugh, give me the goosebumps. Hook me emotionally in SOME way. Make me remember your smile and your sincerity. Send me a thank you note.

One pitcher who practiced with me said, in a long, monotone monologue with an utterly expressionless face: sothebadguysbreakinthehouserapeandkillhisfamilysohewantstomakesurenobodyeverdoesthatagainsohe....

UH - somebody rapes and kills his family?!? And you just babbled right over that? Isn't that everyone's absolute worst nightmare?! The person listening has a family. They saw IN COLD BLOOD. They watch the news. It's a visceral fear. So why didn't I feel that fear when you said it? Holy BLEEP! That's HUGE! But it felt quite dull, actually. If you can't make me feel the emotion (laughter, passion, fear, whatever) in your script when you talk to me about it, I have zero confidence that I'll feel it on the page, either. Even though it might be on the page. Even though this is just maybe because you suck at pitching. But based on that pitch and I have about twelve others before I get to go home today, I'm thinking - would I want to work with this terribly shy, neurotic, unfun writer? Could I take this guy into meetings and feel great about that? Do I have one iota of confidence that his or her pages are good? Goodbye.

Pitching does NOT come naturally to a lot of writers. But the ones who are absolutely clinically shy are in the minority, in my experience. Mostly, writers feel cowed and intimidated by who they are pitching to. Because of the name of the company they work for, their clearly expensive clothes, their fabulous haircut, their youthful sneer or academic scowl. NO NO NO NO NO. You are every bit as worthy as the person you are pitching to.

What are your strengths? Great smile? Great hair, nice clothes? A good handshake? Work it, Wavers - work it. And learn to recognize the sexiest, most interesting parts of your story and trot that out first. Because if you don't seem excited about your script, then I can't possibly get excited about it either. It's a fundamental truth. What's cool about your story? Why do people need to see this movie? Tell me about the set pieces, tell me what the upshot of the plot is, make me feel your story.

I was told that the very nice gentleman who gave the "how to pitch" talk at the beginning of the pitch fest sounded bored and was pretty negative in pointing out that most pitches will go nowhere. Maybe he's right - okay he's right - the chances are not huge. Writers do need to be aware that truckloads and trainloads of scripts arrive in Hollywood every day and that lots of writers are fighting for attention. Everybody wants to be Miss America. Sure, you should be aware of that. But that attitude of defeatism is no way to get revved up for a pitch fest. Believe in yourself and believe in your story - BE that person that makes the day worth it for the person listening. Yeah, that's right - make their day. Because if you don't believe that's possible, you have just wasted everybody's time, most importantly - your own.

I rarely rant but I'm ranting a little. Because I love writers and I believe in them. And I don't like this cultural acceptance that we are second class citizens. I don't buy it and either should you.

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PJ McIlvaine said...

HOW TO PITCH 101, excellent as always!!!

dgm said...


Can I add, "don't be afraid to look them in the eye" and "just imagine them in their underwear"?

Kirkland said...

Once again I say it, I suck at pitching. It is, for me, far worse than being tortured by a slow dip in boiling battery acid, rolled in gasoline and set on fire, then covered in the favored food of sharks, tossed in the deepest part of the ocean to be eaten alive.

I prefer the above death to pitching (and it certainly feels the same whenever I had to pitch) because, well, I SUCK AT IT. I get twitching, nervous in the extreme, and I stutter.

Am I good writer? Well, yeah, as good as one can be given that I'm a moron. But pitch my screenplay?, I just can't do it. And yet, despite myself I've had my fair share of successful mediocrity. Imagine though, how much more successful I'd be if I could pitch well? I'd still be a moron, but at least I could sell my script without writing letters and begging my agent to, "Couldn't you pitch this? Let me write, you pitch, and I'll give you an extra 10%, how's that sound?" I could save myself a boat load of money, too.

E.C. Henry said...

Kirkland, in the immortal words of David Cassidy, "I think I love you." And I'll throw this in myself, "Can I take you out for a drink sometime? Maybe, we'll even end up getting married."

Okay, so maybe that's a little over the top. But we're very simular...

Julie, pitching makes me nervous, but I don't really mind doing it. My biggest peave is that these supposed" buyers never seam like there actually looking for anything. I go into most pitches thinking to myself, "It doesn't matter what I say, or do, I'll never get a request for the script no matter what I do."

Julie, you spend a lot of time on the writer's side of the ledger, but I'm very currious how many success stories come from these pitch events? How many takers of pitches are really looking for stories to champion? Because from my perspective it seams like the prod co. reps are there mostly for a free ride, and they're not apt to buy ANYTHING regaurdless of how well it's pitched.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

I disagree with this comment from your post --

"Would you go on a date with someone and immediately apologize for the stain that your date hasn't noticed yet and probably won't, on the lower left inside corner of your sleeve? Would you apologize for stumbling over a word in a sentence? NO. You want to exude confidence and authenticity"

If I liked my date physically and feel the crazy wild positive vibe, I would overlook the weaknesses.

Just in script pitching. If the story is great, I would overlook the weaknesses.

What's the big deal?????

Just realize this...

-Dialouges in real life are messy.
-Life in general is very messy.
-Writing is messy but can be messy art.
-The best scripts being optioned for over $500,000 are messy but brilliant.

Good agents know this: sometimes people/writers who are messy in their presentation but are harmless and really brilliant.

Producers and agents who are too picky are wasting our time. As a result they are wasting their time.

The best screenwriters are not good pitchers!

Julie Gray said...

Hi Anonymous - gosh that is such a common name, it seems! You misunderstand me. It's not that making a small mistake will put you out of the running during a pitch, it's that many writers FEEL that it will and so are apologetic and overly nervous. Of course writing is a messy art. I do not think it empirically true that the best screenwriters are the worst pitchers, by the way. Not sure where you gathered that opinion. What I am trying to say is this: of course we are all imperfect. Just put your best foot forward and don't be apologetic if your pitch is not perfect. But do your best and be prepared. Try to be charming.

Anthony Peterson said...

Great post Julie.

A really successful business friend of mine once said; "the guy with the biggest kahunas always wins".

Writers generally lack egos - and this is all too often perceived as a weakness by people that with excessive egos.

Believe - in yourself & your script. Period.