PITCHING – – A NECESSARY EVIL
by Kathie Fong Yoneda
Pitching – it’s the art of communicating (be it verbally or literally) the essence of your screenplay or project, usually to an agent, studio executive or producer. While fewer projects are optioned on a “pitch” alone, more writers are pitching their wares as a means of enticing potential buyers to read their completed scripts.
“Pitchfests”, weekend marathons of pitching to potential buyers, are also major components of many screenwriting conferences. One-on-Ones, ten-minute meetings with featured speakers or presenters, are also guaranteed “draws” for writers to attend and have the opportunity to tell Hollywood about their latest and greatest project.
Pitching, especially the verbal kind, does not come naturally to most writers. After all, writers seem to prefer to let their words-on-paper do most of the talking for them. With the high volume of never-ending scripts flooding the studios and major production companies every month, pitching has become “a necessary evil” for screenwriters to face and conquer. But did you know that there are different types of pitches? And do you know when to utilize them to “sell” your work? Let’s go over the types of pitches you are most likely to use.
You are attending a film festival. You get into the elevator of a posh hotel and notice there is only one other person in the elevator with you. It’s Clint Eastwood, who just happens to be the perfect actor for the lead role in your very latest screenplay. He presses the tenth floor button. You recognize that this may be your golden opportunity and you have approximately ten to fifteen secondsto tell him about your project.
While this scenario may seem highly unlikely, having less than a minute to tell someone about your project IS a very likely, common situation. Would you be able to tell your story in less than a minute? For many writers, this is sheer terror. But, with preparation, the “elevator pitch” can be one of your most useful selling tools. Here’s an “elevator pitch” which might have enticed Clint Eastwood into starring in In The Line of Fire.
EXAMPLE: An aging Secret Service agent goes after a deranged would-be assassin who plays mind games by reminding the agent of his one big failure – the agent was unable to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As he’s tracking the assassin, the agent must also prove himself in the eyes of his rookie partner and the rest of the Presidential Secret Service squad, including an attractive female agent.
An elevator pitch shouldn’t take more than ten to thirty seconds to pitch and should be no more than a few sentences in length. You’ll notice that the first sentence clearly lays out the major storyline and even brings in the main character’s motivating backstory which will propel him throughout most of the movie. You’ll notice that the second sentence also provides the groundwork for the sub-story, the romance between Clint Eastwood’s character and the attractive female agent. The overall pitch signals an intriguing plot that combines danger, action, suspense, and romance with a complex lead character against a nefarious foe.
The elevator pitch is what many writers use at the fast-paced pitchfests where the producers and development execs only want to hear a couple of sentences about your project before deciding it they want to hear more details. The elevator pitch is a slightly longer “logline” which can serve as a set-up for your five minute pitch.
A written version of the elevator pitch can also be used as a major component of a writer’s query letter to producers or agents, which brings us to the next type of pitch.
The Pitch on Paper
Many a well-prepared writer has given thanks to those fickle screenwriting Muses for having a P.O.P. or pitch on paper. A pitch on paper is your movie laid out in written form. It’s a brief, one-page synopsis of your project which has just enough details to “whet” a producer’s or agent’s appetite and to distinguish your project from others.
Basically the P.O.P. consists of the following:
* A logline that gives the potential buyer a general idea of the storyline.
* The first paragraph contains the set-up of the story – the main character, his present situation, his enemy/foe, where the story takes place, and the character(s) and incident that moves the main character into action.
* The second paragraph is a brief overview of the challenges the hero or heroine must face in the mid-section of the
* The third paragraph is a quick summation of the ending OR a summation of Act III that ends with an intriguing question or situation designed to leave the climax to the imagination of the potential buyer.
Here’s an example of how Sleepless In Seattle may have looked as a “pitch on paper”:
LOGLINE: A young boy’s call to a radio psychologist sets into motion a series of events which could unite his widowed father with a magazine writer. Only a couple of things stand in the way – the boy and his father live in Seattle and the writer is already engaged and lives in Baltimore.
SAM is a Seattle architect, a widower, and father to young JONAH. Jonah recognizes his father is lonely. Troubled, Jonah calls one of those late-night radio psychologists and talks about how worried he is for his dad. In Baltimore, magazine writer, ANNIE, and her FIANCE have just announced their engagement to her family. As she’s driving home, she tunes into the talk show and feels a connection to Sam. Annie’s best friend BECKY suggests that she do an article on radio talk shows. Realizing that Jonah is right and he needs to get on with his life, Sam contemplates dating again.
Sam takes the plunge and calls the DECORATOR on one of his projects. She ends up asking him for a date. Annie writes a letter to “Sleepless in Seattle”, the radio psychologist’s nickname for Sam, but tosses it in the trash. Becky rescues the letter and sends it off to Seattle. Unable to get “Sleepless in Seattle” out of her mind, Annie arrives in Seattle to do her story. She sees Sam embracing another woman and quickly returns home.
Annie plunges back into her wedding planning with her Fiancé, while Sam makes plans to spend the weekend with the Decorator, much to the disappointment of Jonah, who sneaks out of the house and takes a flight to NYC, hoping to meet Annie at the top of the Empire State Building. Will Sam realize where Jonah has gone? Will Annie listen to her heart? And will Sam and Annie finally meet?
You’ll notice that most of the storyline is set up in the first paragraph and fewer details are given in the second and third paragraph. In summation, each of the paragraphs coincide with the basic three-act structure: beginning, middle, and end.
Some writers prefer to do one long paragraph for their pitch on paper, which is basically two sentences on each act. P.O.P.s are sometimes given to a potential buyer at the end of a pitch meeting. It helps the producer or exec to refresh his/her memory after a day of hearing several pitches. Some agents or smaller production companies might be intrigued by your query letter, but are not yet willing to take the time to commit to looking at a 110 page script. They may ask you for a one-page synopsis (or P.O.P) of your project.
If you want a copy of the SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE script to study how the above works click HERE. .[If you use IE you can Right Click and choose Save Target As]
The Big Pitch
For those situations when you have a one-on-one consultation or a potential buyer is intrigued by your logline or elevator pitch and wants to hear more, you should be ready for “the big pitch”. .
Writers should approach the big pitch as a verbal “trailer” for the film they envision. Like the visual “trailer” of “coming attractions”, the big pitch should contain the highlights of the story you are telling and it should be told with confidence and style.
Here are some pitching pointers if you are fortunate enough to be invited to pitch your project at a studio or production company:
In pitching, a concise, well-told story can either open or close those career doors for a writer. It’s important to know in advance that most pitch meetings will last less than a total of 20 – 30 minutes tops.
Most of the meeting will consist of general introductory small talk before the pitch. In most cases, the actual pitch will take anywhere from five to seven minutes, although five minutes is probably preferable. After the pitch, time is allowed for any questions or suggestions from the potential buyer, followed by some parting inquiries or comments from you, the writer.
Know Your Audience
Research the studio or production company where you’ll be pitching. What kinds of movies or television projects do they produce? More importantly, what kinds of projects DON’T they produce?
For example, a writer once made the mistake of pitching a “slasher” movie to the execs at Walt Disney Pictures. Needless to say, it was an immediate “pass” and left the executives with the impression that the writer hadn’t spent much time researching the studio’s development slate.
There is no excuse for not researching a studio or production company in advance of a meeting. The Hollywood Creative Directory lists credits for produced work beneath each production entity’s name. And many production companies now have websites listing their produced credits. The key is to look for studios and production companies who have shown an interest in producing films/projects in the same genre as your own.
In addition, it’s important to keep up to date on any “deals” that a studio or production company may have made recently, especially with actors or directors who may have a production company on the premises. Reading the “trade papers” (The Hollywood Reporter, Variety) can often yield this type of valuable information. Again, The Hollywood Creative Directory has a section in the back which cross-references personnel with the names of production companies and studios with whom they are connected.
Practice Makes Perfect
It only makes common sense to practice your pitch beforehand. It’s best to practice in front of people who are NOT familiar with your story. This will help to focus on any sticky plot points or confusing story lines.
And while practicing in front of your parents, spouse or siblings can provide some comfort and “reassurance”, you will get a much more honest appraisal of your work if you pitch your project in front of your writers’ group or a friend who works in marketing or sales.
Be sure and ask the following questions after practicing your pitch in front of your group or friends:
* Did they have any comments or suggestions?
* Did they get a feel for the characters?
* Did they understand what the hero/heroine was trying to accomplish?
* Did any sections of the pitch feel too slow or too fast?
* Was the storyline logical and clearly laid out or were there any confusing pieces of plotting?
* Is this a movie that they would pay to see?
* And if not, why not?
Have A Backup
Be prepared to pitch two projects, knowing that you’ll probably only have time to pitch one. This is especially handy when you’ve invested time and money in attending a pitchfest. Why have a backup pitch?
* If the executive or agent you’re pitching to doesn’t appear attentive when you’re halfway through, you can quickly wind up your story and go on to your next project.
* Also, you never know when a potential buyer will ask if you have other projects in the works. A true writer always has several projects in the works.
Show Some Style
Be enthusiastic when you pitch. Keep in mind that studio and production execs listen to as many as five to six pitches every day. Having heard hundreds of pitches, I can assure you there is nothing worse than someone who is mumbling their story into their lap.
You can ham it up a bit, but don’t let your theatrics overshadow your story. Here’s an example of someone who went “over over the top”:
The project was a modern day version of the popular fairy tale Cinderella. Every time the Fairy Godmother was mentioned in the pitch, the writer threw “magic dust” into the air and waved a “magic wand”. By the end of the pitch, my hair and my office was covered with gold and silver glitter. I remembered the pitch – but obviously, not for the right reasons!
Here’s an example of someone who used just the right amount of theatrics:
To emphasize her 1960s nostalgic setting, a writer started out by playing the first 16 bars of a popular song from that era before launching into her pitch. She’s not sure if the musical introduction was responsible, but it got the executive to listen attentively to her pitch…which was optioned on the spot!
Remember to speak clearly – not too quickly and not too slowly. Look at the buyer when you’re pitching. It’s fine to refer to your notes from time to time, but don’t “read” your movie to us.
Start With A Logline
Start off with your logline – a one or two sentence summation of your movie. The logline should accurately convey the essence of your movie as well as a sense of why the public should rush to see your project. Think of the “one-sheets” (giant posters) that advertise the movies.
Some writers often use other successful projects to convey a sense of story and tone. An obvious example is West Side Story: A Puerto Rican barrio in New York serves as the backdrop for a star-crossed romance a la Romeo and Juliet.
Go On To The Basics
Next, state the genre, time period, and where a majority of the action takes place.
EXAMPLE: This contemporary bi-coastal romantic-comedy takes place in Seattle and Baltimore. (Sleepless in
It is important to state the genre at the beginning of the pitch as a means of setting the scene and the tone of the project. I once had a meeting with a writer (who obviously hated pitching) who didn’t show much inflection or emotion in his pitch. Thus, I thought the project was a drama and informed him that we’d recently bought a number of dramatic projects. We both were embarrassed when he declared that his project was, in fact, a comedy!
Introduce Your Main Characters
Introduce your main characters with a brief but “telling” description which gives us the following information: age range, major personality traits, job/career, etc.
EXAMPLE: Axel Foley, 20s, is a get-it-done Detroit cop who never quite follows the book (Beverly Hills Cop).
And while there’s no need to introduce every single character in your screenplay, don’t forget to include the antagonist and any secondary characters who have a major impact on the storyline.
Hit The High Notes
Stick to the major plot points and character revelations only. There is no need to describe each and every scene, but it is recommended that any sub-plot that is key to the main storyline should also be mentioned to give an idea of the depth of the story.
It’s also helpful to indicate where you are from time to time.
EXAMPLE: By the end of Act I, Axel is thrown out of Maitland’s Beverly Hills’ office building – Axel is ready to declare war (Beverly Hills Cop).
This lets the executive or producer know you’re aware of key plot points and story structure.
Allow for Discussion
Afterwards, allow a few minutes for any questions and comments from the executive or producer. You may be asked and should be prepared to answer the following:
* Do you have a completed script or treatment on this project (most potential buyers won’t schedule a pitch meeting unless you do)?
* Does your project have any “attachments” (that is, a committed producer, actor or director). Don’t worry if you don’t have “attachments”, as many venues prefer projects with as few encumbrances as possible.
Some buyers play it close to the vest and may not have any comments other than, “We’ll get back to you.” On occasion, some will pass on the spot.
However, if a producer/executive liked your previous work and if your pitch was well-told, you may be asked to contact the producer when your next screenplay is close to completion, even if the project you just pitched doesn’t fit into their present development plans.
This is also the perfect time to ask what is on the studio’s or production company’s “wish list” of projects. What genre of films are they looking for? If you have a project that might be suitable, it’s appropriate to mention it. If the potential buyer has the time, they may even ask you to tell them a little bit about it. If they do not ask you about the project, don’t force the issue, however.
It’s important to be open to all comments and responses given. Some writers file suggestions in a feedback file.
If a specific plot point is questioned by different potential buyers, you should consider reworking and clarifying that particular area of the project .
Don’t be surprised if an executive or producer tells you they (or another studio/company) have something similar in development. Similar story ideas seem to come in waves (remember 18 Again, Vice-Versa and Big?). Few people remember the first two films mentioned, but most people fondly remember Big which was released last, but was the most successful of the three movies in which the protagonist changed ages, either going from an adult and becoming a child or being a child who gets his wish to become an adult. “Something similar” doesn’t mean someone’s “stolen” your idea. “Something similar” can mean a project is set in the same historical period or has a very similar “hook” as your idea.
If the buyer shows an interest in your pitch, ask if they’d like to see the screenplay. If you haven’t completed your screenplay, give them an idea of when it might be completed.
Legally, the buyer can’t ask a writer for written material without the agent’s or entertainment attorney’s knowledge, but many writers carry a one-paragraph summary of their project (the one-page pitch on paper) with them and hand it out at the end of the meeting. Just be sure your name, your agent’s name (if you have one), address, e-mail, and phone information is also included.
Executives and producers hear dozens of pitches each week and may need a summary to refer to if they want to take further action on your project with other executives. Most writers would rather have a potential buyer refer to a summary they’ve written, than to rely on the exec’s or producer’s memory.
If a buyer is “high” on your pitch and asks to see the script, have a copy available. If you do not have an agent, request a release form. If you have an agent, call the agent immediately after the meeting and let him/her know that a script of your project is with John X at Z Films, so your agent can record the information and follow up on it.
Don’t Give Up
Keep in mind that there’s more than one studio or production company around. One rejection doesn’t indicate failure.
If, however, you’ve pitched your project to several entities without so much as a nibble, you may want to consider shifting the focus of your efforts on your next project and put the first one aside.
Distance and time will sometimes yield new ideas and insights that can improve your initial work.
Remember that a pitch meeting is usually only given to writers whose work has been favorably read. If you are fortunate enough to have obtained a pitch meeting, please make sure you are well prepared. Because time is at a premium, writers (especially those who are less experienced or “unproduced”) may not get another opportunity to pitch to the same person again, unless that initial pitch was exceptionally well-told.
For more of Kathie’s insider information get her new book THE SCRIPT SELLING GAME.
For the KATHIE FONG YONEDA WEB SITE clickHERE