I’ve pitched a lot-movies, sitcoms, series concepts ... a lot; and it strikes me that certain similarities keep popping up at each pitch-road signs, trends, tendencies, call them what you will. Learning to identify these similarities may help writers read the situation and avoid the many pitfalls. Because the fact is, there are rules to a pitch, and woe to the writer who breaks them. These rules aren’t written down anywhere, mind you, but there’s a certain pitch etiquette that you must observe. If you violate that etiquette, the meeting is over, and no one will even bother to tell you why. I’m here to tell you why. Here are some rules based upon pitch situations that I or my brothers (and sisters)-in-arms have encountered.
RULE NUMBER ONE: Their Time Is Valuable.
We all know about putting on our game face, prepping the dog-and-pony show and treating the pitch like performance art; but don’t overdo it. Most producers and story executives who read scripts won’t go much past 20 pages unless you’ve given them a reason to. In other words, if you haven’t hooked them by then, it’s too late. A pitch session is no different. When you step through the door, the clock starts ticking.
With that fact in mind, understand that one to two minutes of small talk up front is about the most you can hope for, and that should be orchestrated by the executive. A comment or a small compliment from you about a project the company has produced or is now producing may get you off on the right foot by letting the executive know you’re familiar with what his company does. If you have friends or business associates in common, dropping a familiar name may help establish a certain comfort level. Beyond that, “Looks like rain” or “How about those Lakers?” will only eat up valuable time.
My first pitch was at Mork & Mindy. I was writing with a partner, Danny Morris, at the time, and we had done our homework. We had sneaked onto the Paramount lot, then onto the set and watched rehearsals and run-throughs from the shadows. We had managed to lift a script or 10 from the show and sweet-talked an agent into a “casual” relationship-one where we made the calls and set the meetings, simply using his name to clear the way. Once we actually got ourselves a job, the agent would sign us. The point is, we were ready. We set up a meeting with a story editor, went in and pitched ... 16 stories!
Yes, you read it right-16. We were there for nearly two hours. It was only our good fortune that the gentleman to whom we were pitching, George Zateslo, was a supremely nice guy. (Bless you, George, wherever you are!) He listened patiently. He took notes. He gave us feedback. He didn’t nod off once. (Falling asleep qualifies as a “warning sign,” of course, but if you can’t figure that one out, you’re already doomed.) Only later did we discover our blatant violation of pitch etiquette. We had taken far too much of George’s valuable time.
My best advice is to go in with three brief, well-prepared story ideas and pitch the hell out of them. Keep a couple more loosely sketched out ideas in your back pocket, just for insurance. Consider that you’ve probably been allotted 20 to 30 minutes, tops, to do your job. Don’t leave it to the executive to devise a creative lie of some kind just to get you out of there. Be finished within that time frame. If you’ve just bowled him over, he’ll grant you more time and attention. If you haven’t, the last thing he wants is to be trapped in a room with you listening to 16 pitch ideas for two solid hours.
RULE NUMBER TWO: Know Thy Producer.
It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking TV series or film. The point is, you don’t treat every producer the same way. If you’re pitching to a film producer, study up on him to find out what he’s produced. It’ll give you an idea of what attracts him. Then, gear your pitch to those tastes. If it’s a series, then for heaven’s sake get a bible beforehand. The last thing you want to do is pitch something he has already done, or worse, something the show has already rejected for reasons you’re unaware of “because you didn’t get a bible.” If you come to the meeting uninformed, you’ll never meet in this town, or at least with this producer or executive, again. (The equivalent of bibles for most shows can often be found on the internet, these days.)
RULE NUMBER THREE: Be Brave.
Not brazen. Not cocky. Just brave. After all, it is a stressful situation. But, it’s only stressful for you, not the executive. Whatever he throws at you, you somehow have to smile without twitching, breathe without gasping and sweat without, well, sweating. Some executives like to test our mettle. Some executives or producers like to see what we’re made of, because pitching isn’t only about stories. It’s about people and relationships. It’s collaborative; and once you’ve sold this script and been given many thousands of their precious dollars for you to go off and do your thing, that’s when the stress really begins. If you can’t handle it in a pitch session, well ... So, be appropriately condescending at the appropriate times and respectful all of the time, but never grovel. Just remember, they need you as much as you need them, even if they are currently being paid for their time and you are not.
RULE NUMBER FOUR: Keep It Simple-meaning “conceptual.”
What I’m advocating here is to deliver a pitch that can easily be re-pitched by the person you’re pitching to. Still with me? Because here’s the cold, hard truth-the executive to whom you’re pitching will not be the one who will make the final decision. Your executive has a boss who is much too busy to meet with a lowly writer because he’s meeting with the really important people. This person is generally referred to as “The Greenlight Guy,” or “The Big Giant Head,” or something considerably less eloquent that you wouldn’t call them to their face. This is the one true person who can turn your pitch into an assignment. Therefore, when your pitch is finished, understand that your fate now rests in the ability of your current story executive to pass on your dynamic idea with the same passion and commitment with which you’ve pitched him. And, just like some people can’t tell a joke ... well, you get the picture. So keep the high points high. Make the concept unforgettable and hang a “visual” on it that he can’t get out of his head. Most importantly, outline the major pitch points in written form-just a paragraph or so. That way you can hand him something tangible and hope that if he can’t pitch, at least he can read.
RULE NUMBER FIVE: Don’t Explain.
“Oh,” you may be thinking, “I thought that’s what pitching was-explaining my idea.” No! This one is hard, fast and etched in stone. If he raises an objection, never disagree and never explain! The reason is simple. It will do no good. If he’s confused about the story or suffering from a misconception of some kind, that’s your fault anyway. The upshot is, he’s found a fatal flaw, and you’ll never convince him that he hasn’t.
The situation is akin to trying to explain to someone why a joke is funny. It doesn’t matter. Either he laughs or he doesn’t. If he voices a question pertaining to your story, that’s one thing. If he voices an objection, immediately dump the story and move on to the next one. Trying to counter a specific objection with logic is pointless for one good reason: The objection is only the text. The subtext is “No.” Learn to recognize the fact, accept defeat and move on.
RULE NUMBER SIX: Get Excited!
Just like the audience sitting in a darkened theater watching your story unfold on the screen, the executives to whom you pitch are waiting for you to tell them how to feel. If you’re excited about the story, they’ll get excited about the story. Hopefully. Energy begets energy. Let them know that you really LOVE this story-truly, madly, deeply-and you’re just busting at the seams to write it. There is a tendency among studio story executives to not feel positive about something unless somebody else feels positive about it first. Obviously, it’s more advantageous if that someone is their boss, in which case the decision becomes a slam-dunk. However, since you are the only other person in the room, it’s going to be left to you to generate the excitement necessary to sell the story.
RULE NUMBER SEVEN: When They Stop Listening, Move On!
How will you know? It’s easy. Just watch their faces. Of course, we’re not talking about the obvious things here, like yawning, looking at their watch or answering a phone that hasn’t rung. These are highly educated people, well-versed in the fine art of hiding their true feelings. Most of them will at least make some small effort at politeness and try to appear interested even when they’re not. So you have to look beneath the surface. When you drop that killer story twist on them, that big emotional moment you’ve been building up to, it should warrant more than a slight smile and a barely perceptible nod. You’re looking for raised eyebrows, genuine surprise, active interest or most importantly, what you hope will occur in the next rule.
RULE NUMBER EIGHT: If The Executive Starts Talking, Shut Up!
“My story takes place at a remote mountain resort ...” you begin, and the executive says, “Like in Alaska?” “Yes!” you shout gleefully as you secretly scratch the word “Colorado” off your note pad. “And, the hero is a hunter ...” The executive jumps in. “Of bears!” My God! It’s uncanny! Of course, it was originally mountain lions, but hey. Because, you see, you know you’ve got the executive hooked when he begins to add elements to your story-when he starts to run with it. If it’s something he likes, something that shows promise, the immediate urge to put his personal stamp on the story takes over. If he starts pitching back to you, let him! It means you’ve won. For God’s sake, don’t correct him! (“Actually, Colorado is better, because ...) No! You’ve sold your story. Don’t fight it. Of course, the resulting changes may not resemble the story you originally started with, but that’s not the point. The point is, you got the job and that’s what you’re here for. So, don’t stay married to your original concept. Instead, fall in love with the one he pitches back to you, regardless of how much it might suck. Fight those creative battles later, after you've signed the contract.
RULE NUMBER NINE: Use Your Last Pitch To Set Up Your Next Pitch.
The technique is a lot like name dropping at an industry party. It lets people know you’re in the loop. You’ve already pitched at one honest-to-goodness company, so you must not be a complete flake. When you call in hopes of setting up another meeting, feel free to let it slip that you just met with Producer Joe Dynamic over at Residual Films. Maybe it was even Joe who suggested you call them because you’ve got a couple of hot ideas that are just right for their company. At least, that’s what Joe thought.
RULE NUMBER TEN: Follow Up.
There are many reasons for following up. For one thing, it keeps the door open and it is an excuse for you to call someone who otherwise might never take your call. It keeps your name familiar. It’s also an opportunity to bond, however slightly, with some of the most important people you will ever encounter in the business: the receptionists and personal assistants. Don’t make the mistake of looking down your nose at these “underlings.” They are a direct pipeline to the people you need, and their feelings about you could mean the difference. Besides, some day soon they might be running the show. Acknowledge them. Learn their names and make them your friends.
The most important reason for following up, though, is to let those producers know how grateful you are that they allowed you to pitch to them. And you should be grateful. In a nation of nearly 300 million people, on a planet of billions, there are a meager 11,000 or so privileged enough to claim membership in the Writers Guild of America. Of those, only a fraction will be granted an audience with a legitimate producer or story executive in the course of a year. It’s an elite club, and now you’re in it. Whether your stories were accepted or rejected, you’ve already won. Enjoy it.