Monday, September 20, 2010

How to pitch a pilot or movie

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.


Troy said...

The entire pitching system begs a question that is rarely asked:

Why do writers have to pitch (orally) at all?

I know the legal arguments, I know the laziness arguments, but the fact remains: Writers write. Most aren't concurrently great at pitching - though yes, you can get better at it with practice and Ken's tips.

So what's wrong with that?

What's wrong is that we (Hollywood, the audience) most often reap what we sow: Movies and TV shows originated by great pitchers...

...but not necessarily great writers.

Which explains a lot about Movies and TV.


Jack Ruttan said...

But that's life. Who else is going to back up your idea?

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
blogward said...

And then there's the meeting where the showrunner starts telling you why your show should be like the one he's in the process of getting signed off. Here, look at the script. See?

tb said...

I called Marty and he's on board, so I'm good to go

Troy said...

@Max Clarke:

Good reply. Your point about 'sizing up the writer' as someone they're going to have to work with is certainly valid.

I should clarify that when I asked why writers have to pitch "orally", I meant to imply that pitches should be made the way writers could present them best... writing.

Of course, in-person meetings and interviews would necessarily follow, but it seems to me the actual IDEA would get its best chance if executives were willing to read them, instead of insisting on an oral pitch.


Troy said...

Wow, Max Clarke's comment disappeared while I was writing a response.

Things really do move fast on the internet!

Max Clarke said...

Sorry Troy...and the world.

I thought my reply was long. Started to trim it down, but I deleted it without doing a copy/paste first.

Guess my point was that studio executives view pitches as job interviews. If they are being asked to sign on to a potential multi-year deal, they need to know if they can work with this guy.

Google is infamous for running their job applicants through interviews that last hours and include problem-solving tasks. Every company/industry has their own way of evaluating talent.

If I ever wrote a great story, I'd see the steps I took toward a tv show or movie deal as part of the ride. Besides, writers can be an introverted lot. Making pitches brings them in touch with people who can actually make those words come alive.

Carlos Matthews Hernandez said...

Yea, I don't have an issue with writers/creators having to pitch.

Those writers/creators may end up being show runners or execs of the shows and they'll have to communicate with their staff.

Studios need someone that can manage others comfortably.

rob! said...

Make Don Draper proud.

The only way to do that would be to nail all the female execs after the meeting.

Stu said...

It truly is an art. I pitched a comedy series with a producer friend last year. All the execs found HIM hilarious, and me sheepish. They kept saying things like "You're the writer? But he's the funny one!"

Well F me. I didn't know then that we were selling ourselves, but that's exactly right. And it makes sense. But if you're introverted you need to leave that shit at the door.

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks for taking my question, Ken. It sure is rough on the guy/gal who's a great writer but lousy pitcher. Maybe there should be a job called Relief Pitcher, one who can represent a writer in a meeting.

Wallis Lane said...

And whatever you do, don't tell them you're writing "a show about nothing."

D. McEwan said...

"Another usual tip I’ve found when pitching movies, have Martin Scorsese attached and have him at the meeting."

Best advice I've ever heard.

"if the idea itself is shit it’s not going to sell."

If only that were true. Supertrain, Manimal, need I say more? There are 2000 other examples.

escalante blogger said...

@Jack Ruttan

You, yourself will prove it.

LouOCNY said...

Then there is the way Star Trek got pitched to NBC:

After failing with CBS, Herb Solow, who was in charge of Desilu's TV development, did a smart thing: He brought in Roddenberry, and did all the talking himself - and whenever an NBC exec asked Roddenberry a question, Roddenberry (who was kind of a rumply, soft spoken, vague guy anyways) would answer him in vague, mumbly terms. This impressed the NBC guys for some reason, possibly thinking that this guy Roddenberry might be just a little out there - just the guy to do what would be a kind of 'out there' show for television.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your writeup on pitching. I've worked with people that really suck at it and this could actually help them. You're a writer, you definitely know the game. Thanks Ken.

Keith said...

Instead of bringing in food you should have brought in simple menus with the characters/descriptions listed in their respective sections: Side Dishes - Bob Finkelstein: This wacky neighbor will leave you wanting more, etc.

Personally I think any prop that doesn't provide information about the show falls on the hokey side.

Howard Hoffman said...


Care to give this guy a critique of HIS pitch session? His use of his beat sheet really sucks...along with his actual pitch.

Abie the Fish Peddler said...

"Boy does that wreak with desperation."

The phrase you were going for was "reek of desperation."

Dzof said...

Thanks for the post. I like to ask writers to pitch something they've written when they come in for a job interview.

If they can't share an idea by telling it to me, then in the future we'll have to do all our story breaking by passing Post-It's around, and it gets quite expensive to use them that way.

Dzof said...

Thanks for the post. I like to ask writers to pitch something they've written when they come in for a job interview.

If they can't share an idea by telling it to me, then in the future we'll have to do all our story breaking by passing Post-It's around, and it gets quite expensive to use them that way.

Baylink said...

And Matt Weiner is sitting back now with his hands behind his head, saying "my work here is done".

jerrywojtas said...

Hi, my name is Gerald. I have written a Pilot Episode to a TV Sitcom Series and a few episodes after that. I live in Chicago, and I have no clue how to get a hold of an agent or tv executives.

Unknown said...

Hey guys, the fact is that a writer can be an excellent writer but that doesn't make him a sales man or more specifically a pitching expert.

I have learned this the hard way when I waisted years trying to get my pitch through and when I hired a company to represent me, it got sold to a network that I have already pitched to and got turned down.

I strongly recommend reading

as it helped me a lot. The process was very streamlined and I got valuable reviews for my ideas. As I said, one of them got picked up and I didn't have to do much.

Anonymous said...

There's a really helpful book on this topic called The Hollywood Pitching Bible.