The Do’s and Don’ts of Pitching
The Do’s and Don’ts of Pitching
So...many...pitches… That’s the God’s honest truth about what often runs through my mind when I check my inboxes. On social, on email, and anywhere I can be hunted down, I get your pitches. Lots...and lots...of pitches. And the reality is- that’s a big part of my JOB! And while I may not be coming across as super enthusiastic at the moment, I am always excited to discover a concept that resonates with me, that’s unique, that is pitched well. The problem is, lots of these pitches that I sift through, for lack of a better word - suck.
So I’m here to tell you a few ways to not only not suck, but to soar. Whatever story you’re telling, here are some “Do’s and Don’ts'' to address before giving a verbal or written pitch of your screenplay or series. Keep in mind, I’m specifically thinking of the pitch sessions you can sign up for on Stage 32. 8 minute slots, or 2 pages written.
Would you go to a job interview without researching the company you’re interviewing for? I hope you answered no, because a pitch is basically the beginning of a job interview, and if you don’t know who the heck you’re “interviewing” with, you’re going in with a deficit. Especially in this day and age, there’s no excuse for not knowing your audience, at least to some degree.
I always know when a writer hasn’t checked out my production company via a simple Google search, because they pitch me a feature set in Medieval times with a cast of elves and warlords, dragons and battle scenes, Lord of the Rings meets Star Wars. For the love of all that is holy! Google search us! We (Whitewater Films) are known for truly independent features, usually distributed through arthouse theatres; character-driven and relatively compact in nature, and with budgets well under the 93 million dollar Lord of the Rings. Don’t waste our time, and just as importantly, don’t waste yours!
If you’re pitching to someone who is simply the wrong audience for your kind of content, it doesn’t matter how dazzling the pitch itself is, because it just won’t be a fit. And then you could wind up feeling rejected, when in reality it has nothing to do with your pitch! It’s just that, you’re pitching “tall, dark, and handsome” to a person who’s more into the “short, light, and ugly” type. You get the gist. Give yourself the best chance for success by identifying the type of content this particular person or company is known for, and presenting the material you have that’s in their creative world.
Poster for "Standing Up, Falling Down" by Whitewater Films
“Duh” you say. Not duh. I see a surprising number of pitches that tell a small piece of a story, or tell the setup to a story, or describe the characters and the themes of a story, but they don’t...quite...get...totheactualSTORY!!! (Sorry...got a little out of hand there.) But seriously- what a tease! It’s like you’ve handed me the buttered popcorn and sat me down in the theatre and what plays? Half of a trailer. I sit there thinking what an interesting protagonist, or how autobiographical and brave, but then just as I’m thinking wait for it...“it” never quite appears.
I’m left there, in the dark, overly air conditioned theatre(it’s so cold), having watched half a trailer and holding my batch of buttery popcorn thinking what just happened. I know your story is complex and layered and it may seem impossible to do what I’m suggesting here, especially in only 8 minutes!
Step away from the complexity and approach it in the least complicated way possible. Start by getting really, really simple; childlike, really, in your preparation of the pitch. What was always at the beginning and end of stories as a child? “Once upon a time” and, “The End”. Give us your version of “Once upon a time…then STORY STORY STORY...The End.” If you’re having a hard time diluting the “story” part into something that fits within an 8 minute pitch, step back from it. Get your aerial drone out, and fly high enough so that all those complexities look like tiny ants crawling along the Venice Boardwalk, but the major 6-12 events, the major plot points, those are clear! They’re bold! They’re vivid! They’re that guy that walks the Boardwalk with the boa constrictor around his neck! They’re the troupe of acrobats with the guy who jumps over his six friends...You can’t miss these plot points! They’re integral to the Boardwalk experience!
By the time you’ve landed your drone safely, you’ll see that the framework for your pitch has revealed itself. When you string these plot points together, they really do make that beautiful arc that we call a movie(or a tv show). In rare cases, you may want to leave out the very ending, or the big reveal. That’s fine, I trust your judgement on that. But you’ve got the essentials of any great story: a beginning, middle, and end; and I’m leaving the theatre with a belly full of popcorn and enough clarity to tell all my friends what just happened.
Cinema and Television are visual mediums. Say it with me! “VISUAL MEDIUMS.” Yes! EVEN in a psychological thriller. EVEN in a single-location concept. EVEN in an adaptation of a play. ESPECIALLY in the adaptation of your novel. If you spend even 50% of your pitch telling me about yourself or about the inspiration behind your project, you’re not speaking in images. If you spend even 50% of your pitch telling me about the protagonist’s backstory, you’re not speaking in images. If you spend even 50% of your pitch telling me about your characters’ thought processes, inner emotional life, and motivations, you are NOT speaking in images.
Poster for "The Boy Behind the Door" by Whitewater Films
So, troubleshoot all of those plot points you found in #2(above), and make sure they include image-based language. If the only words your plot points include are phrases like “She decides to do this, and then she feels this way, and then she thinks this”- you need to go back, and find the imagery. As a listener or reader of your pitch, I need to be able to “see” your film or tv series unfolding on the imaginary screen in my mind. Why? Once again: “Visual medium! Yay!”
As much as possible, you want to take me by the hand, sit me down in that damn theatre with that damn popcorn and say, “now watch THIS!” Draw the moving pictures for me. Don’t make me do the hard guesswork of where it is “she” is doing this “thinking” and “deciding”. Draw the picture! Treat me!
It’s like when I mention oh, say, The Wizard of Oz for example. Before you even make a conscious choice, there’s an image that pops into your mind, right? Maybe it’s the ruby slippers. It could be the yellow brick road. Or it could be Judy Garland melting hearts and belting against a hay bale. You couldn’t pitch me The Wizard of Oz without describing some of those images. It wouldn’t be right! Sacrilegious even! Image-based words are the single most effective pitching tool for setting expectations, not only of your script on paper, but of the film itself as you imagine it to be, upon completion.
When someone tells me “Don’t,” the first thing I want to do is DO, so I’ll spend less time on the “Don’ts,” but try your best to avoid these things.
Particularly in a verbal pitch, you’re going to want to practice. Practice at least three times for anyone who will listen. This could be someone in the industry (another writer, for example) or a layperson(your mom). This practice is more for you than it is for them. Like, if your grandma doesn’t know much about filmmaking, she may not give you the most insightful feedback on your pitch, but if you’re really telling a story, it will make some sort of impression on her.
So you can ask your practice listeners things like, did I seem nervous?, was I speaking too fast/too slow?, how did the story make you feel?, was anything unclear? And what you’ll take away from your own reflection is wow yeah I was super nervous or I think I put grandma to sleep or I spent a lot of time talking about the character’s motivation, so not very image-rich. And make sure your practice is within a few days of when you’ll be pitching to an exec or producer, so you’re warmed up. Practicing a year ago at Christmas, maybe not as fresh.
Poster for "The Last Shift" by Whitewater Films
The inner critic will be there. That’s a given. And if pitching especially scares you, there’s never going to be a time when you feel like pitching. You’re not suddenly going to wake up one morning without nerves, so don’t get caught in the when-I-feel-like-it-figure-eight-loop-of-death, because let’s face it- you may never feel like it.
There’s a great John Wayne quote that says “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway”. So just assume you’ll always be scared to death, and saddle up. The inner critic telling you that you need to wait until you’ve won 47 screenwriting contests, and taken 68 classes, and reached nirvana, and become one with the earth, and botoxed, and lost twelve pounds, and learned to speak Swahili- well, you get the picture.
You can be aware of the critic, and then give it a sweet and succinct “F*** YOU”, while launching into your pitch, and saddling up anyway.
Never in all of time has anyone been able to know, for certain, that their movie is going to make “millions and millions” of dollars and win “dozens and dozens” of awards, and even if you have a crystal ball and somehow know these things to be true, it makes you come off as very green and mildly crazy to say so outright. The closest you should come to doing so, is to name comparable projects that won awards and made money.
So, it’s “My project is Million Dollar Baby meets Armageddon” but not “I have a bazillion dollar money maker that’s the best idea in the world because it’s judgement day but she’s a boxer and I know for sure this is going to be a gigantic box office hit and the boxer chic is going to win an Oscar!!!” Just give me the basics.
In fact, I’ll give you my “comparables” or “nutshell” tips now. Choose at least one comp that made great money at the box office. Don’t only choose comps that were critical successes but made no money. Don’t choose two comps from 40 years ago. One of the comps should be from within the last 10, if not the last 5 years. If you must compare it to The Wizard of Oz go ahead, but the other comparison should be recent. And again, please do not tell me that your movie is going to make enough money to feed orphans around the globe and save the rainforest and repay the national debt and build cities of gold and- yeah. While I admire your confidence, just don’t do that, thanks.
A quote for the road:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it.” - Martha Graham
About the Author
Sarah is originally from Madison, Wisconsin. She made her screen debut in the acclaimed short film Leave You in Me. Her vulnerably raw work in the film garnered her Best Actress Award wins at the NYC PictureStart Film Festival and LA's Show Off Your Short Film Festival. Shortly after the film's comp...