Sunday, June 08, 2014

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.

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 (the way Peggy did in the midseason finale).


Matt said...

I do a lot of interviews.

My only advice is that if it is your first pitch, wear a tie. It will be noticed.

VP81955 said...

Any suggestions if pitching a film to a production company, particularly of a star whom you feel would be perfect for this property?

Tudor Queen said...

When you mentioned the pitch for "Almost Perfect" I couldn't help remembering how good the first season was, and then the network decided to completely change the premise - she lost the guy - and the show wasn't nearly as good.

By Ken Levine said...

Tudor Queen,

I couldn't agree more. We did some very inventive and funny shows the second season but the series lost its theme. And we knew it at the time.

Steve Mc said...

I invested in a trip to LA to go to a pitchfest. It was literally like speed dating (complete with the bell ring after 5 minutes). A great way to edit your pitch for time. If the person likes what you have they generally ask you to send them the first 10 or 20 pages (which you could never do otherwise without an agent or manager ). My advice with this is to be prepared to 'think on your feet' to address their questions and suggestions. And don't be so over prepared with a rehearsed pitch that you can't engage in conversation if they interject. Also best to not go to these things with just one script. If they immediately don't like your period drama idea they may stop you and ask "What else have you got?" And be careful about making assumptions about what a production company is looking for (if they haven't been very specific). The rep for Noah Wyle's production company (not long after he came off ER) was surprised by how many writers there thought it was a shoo in to pitch their medical drama to them.

Pete Antry said...

One more note about pitch jokes – don’t you laugh hysterically at them. Boy does that wreak with desperation.

And it reeks havoc on the meeting!

AAllen said...

1. Buy Must Kill TV by Ken Levine

2. Read Chapter 18

3. Do the exact opposite of what "Tara Durban" does. (Hmm. That name sounds familiar.)

Greg said...

Mention of "The Sorrow and the Pity" always cues, "So, you're going straight home to bed?" Great line.

Greg said...

... which Google says I slightly mangled. Sorry 'bout that.

Anonymous said...

This post brings to mind one of the great unanswered questions: what the hell was the pitch like for Flashdance? I've talked about it with friends and posted about one message boards and we never get any futher than "Okay, so in Pittsburgh there's this beautiful girl who works as a welder in a steel mill and she wants to be a ballet dancer. Oh, and she has a second job as a dancer in a bar/club."

How does that not get laughed out of the room?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I heard the story that The Gambler, staring Kenny Rogers was pitched to CBS, with the producer just holding up a poster of the album cover.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Sid & Marty Krofft said to make your pitches as visual as possible, so whoever your selling the idea to can actually see what it is you're selling, as opposed to a 12-page outline that nobody would really read anyway; especially if your show is quite a stark contrast to everything else on TV. In the cases of their shows, their pitches were almost always large books that were filled with artwork: character designs, setting designs, then the basic premise of the show was pretty much storybook fashion.

Jason said...

"One more note about pitch jokes – don’t you laugh hysterically at them. Boy does that wreak with desperation."

Like watching a Mike Myers movie.

Heather Alexander Treulieb said...

Loved your information on pitching. My life is like "Mad Men"
stumbles onto the set of "Sound of Music" and that's my life story. A sitcom, "Rumors", because that's how things get started.

Heather Alexander

Anonymous said...

"One more note about pitch jokes – don’t you laugh hysterically at them. Boy does that wreak with desperation."

Oh, so you too have seen Chris Hardwick pitch a series.

Jerry David said...

Ken i really appreciate your help to new writers like me in your blog..i learnt a lot from you in writing but unfortunately pitching doesn't apply the same way in my country. We just can't go to an agent or production company and pitch the idea..they are almost business men without any imagination to pick up shows by what's works here is actually shooting the idea so they can see it if here's a couple of questions i wish you read them and help me..I'm planning to shoot my comedy pilot..the problem is that i even read that in the US it's too long for an unknown cast and indie production as no agent or producer will spend 22 minutes to watch it so better do a 3-4 minutes i'm torn between making a pilot or just a trailer.
It's my first attempt and I'm on a limited budget so the trailer maybe more i can add best scenes from other episodes not only the pilot. And most importantly the time the producers here will spent. On the other way shooting the whole pilot will give a full presentation of the writing, direction and actors performance. Another problem my script is about 36 minutes! I'm trying to cut it into 22 minutes as much as if you please another question is 36 minutes a deal breaker even for pitching?
So to sum up my really long story:
- 36 minutes or 22 minutes pilot?
- Pilot or trailer?
I really appreciate any help or advices you can give to me.