Sometimes a Friday question is worth a whole post. So here’s one from Cap’n Bob Napier about pitching.
Ken, I recently worked at a writer's conference helping people practice their pitch before meeting with an agent or editor. In 99% of the cases they presented a summary or synopsis or plot rundown, but never a pitch. Would you discuss what sets a pitch apart from a synopsis, etc.?
Pitching is an art. When you walk into that room you’re not a writer, you’re a salesman. You’re Don Draper.
Your goal is to get the person you’re pitching it – be it an agent, network, studio, investor, whoever – excited. It’s way more than just about spelling out the synopsis.
So here are some tips. They apply specifically to pitching comedies although I imagine most of the same principles apply to dramas and cooking shows.
First: Your appearance. Guys, you don’t have to wear ties but show some respect. Nice shirt, maybe a jacket. Don’t show up at a network meeting in a workout suit (I’ve seen this happen). For me to give women fashion advice would be like the Pope giving sex tips, but unlike men, most women are smart enough not to show up at CBS in sweats.
Bring with you a beat sheet that has the salient points of your pitch. Don’t bring a presentation that you read aloud. That’s death.
If possible, you need to appear confident and relaxed. And it’s easier than you think. Those meetings always have a false sense of casualness. Everyone’s breezy, there’s usually five minutes of charming chit-chat. Meanwhile, you’re dying inside and they’re so sick of these meetings they could scream. But it’s all smiles and will help put you at ease. As a general rule, I find it’s best not to take a shot at them for not buying something you pitched last season. That sets a bad tone.
When you pitch, make eye contact. With everybody. Usually there will be the alpha dog (VP of Development, head agent, studio exec) and two to five assistants. Make eye contact with all of them. Some writers make the mistake of only playing to the big decision maker and ignoring everyone else. First off, that’s incredibly rude. Secondly, you want everyone on board. The more people in your corner the better. And guess what? These assistants often go on to become alpha dogs themselves. And they have a very good memory for assholes.
I’ve seen male writers only look at the male executives and ignore the women. You can’t believe how they are loathed.
Don’t mumble. Don’t say “you know” or “like” a thousand times. Don’t stop every few minutes to refer to the beat sheet, pause, and then resume.
As for the pitch itself:
Rule number one: Be enthusiastic. This is a killer idea! You’re passionate about this one. To say, “I see a lot of vampire movies are selling. Why I don’t know but anyway here’s my vampire movie” is to say, “Hi, I’m wasting your time and mine.”
If you’re pitching a movie the rules have changed. Producers and studios generally now like the whole movie worked out. You have to walk them through the entire picture. And if it’s a comedy point out block comedy scenes and trailer moments. Maybe even have the tag line for the one-sheet.
Start with the concept and why you think it’s so great. The arena is completely unexplored. This is a relationship you’ve never seen. You’ve found a way to do THE SORROW AND THE PITY but really FUNNY.
I suggest you really rehearse your pitch. You can get so lost pitching a movie, laying out unnecessary details and omitting others. Confusing the buyer is not a good thing. Neither is boring the shit out of him. If you’ve pitched for a half-hour and you’re still in act one you are so toast. Do a dry run or two for your agent or significant other.
Another usual tip I’ve found when pitching movies, have Martin Scorsese attached and have him at the meeting.
For television: If you can distill the series into a few lines, that’s a great start. For ALMOST PERFECT with Nancy Travis we said, “This is about a single woman in her thirties, having trouble with her personal life and working life and on the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life. Both are full-time jobs. How does she balance both?” CBS bought it right there.
For comedy pilots, have some jokes in your pitch. And this is very important: don’t bail if they don’t laugh. Some network executives are great audiences, others are like playing tennis against a blanket. But just plow forward. Just cause a network doesn’t laugh doesn’t mean they won’t buy your show. And on the other hand, we always have ABC rolling in the aisles and they never buy.
One more note about pitch jokes – don’t you laugh hysterically at them. Boy does that wreak with desperation.
Spell out the concept, and what the series is about. Networks want to know if the idea has legs. Will there be several years worth of stories? Where’s the funny in the series?
Give quick sketches of the characters. Again, sprinkle in laughs.
Then have four or five stories. All you need are brief summaries. But enough so they get the idea of the series.
After you’ve rundown your pitch the network will generally ask you a few questions. This is not a bad thing (unless they're hopelessly confused, that's bad) The more they talk about the idea the more you can get them excited about it.
A sitcom pitch should be about twenty minutes.
Props and visual aids are at your own peril. Sometimes they help, most times they don't. We once went into a pitch that related to the food industry with a producer who thought it would be good idea to bring in tons of chicken and side dishes. The network was horrified. All through our pitch they just stared at this food wondering what the fuck to do with it.
And finally, when they say, “Okay, this sounds good. Let us talk it over” that’s your cue to say “thank you”, get up, shake hands, and leave. Don’t keep pushing. Don’t suddenly remember something about a character you forgot to mention. Get in, make your pitch, and get out.
Like I said, pitching is an art. But unlike the ability to write, it can be learned and practiced and perfected.
And then there’s this: You can give the greatest pitch in the world. You can be Paul Harvey, George Clooney, and the Juiceman all rolled into one but if the idea itself is shit it’s not going to sell. Likewise, a great idea can sometimes survive even a subpar pitch. But most ideas are somewhere in the middle – that is until you step into the room and blow ‘em away.
Best of luck. Make Don Draper proud.