The Formula for a Winning Pitch

By January 25, 2019Blog, Featured, Screenwriting

Pitching a film or television series to an executive or producer can be terrifying, but it doesn’t have to be. Because here’s the secret: Most executives don’t want to hear how smart you are, how clever your ideas are, or how much research you’ve done on the subject you’re pitching. Sure, those things can be important, but what executives really want is the same thing all of us seek when we go to the movies: to be entertained. They want to hear you tell them a compelling story. That’s it. They want something that will wake them up from their often monotonous work weeks. They want something different, something new, something that in one way or another, they’ve never heard before. Because you can bet they’ve heard your pitch before, or at least, some version of it.

So how do you make your pitch stand out? How do you ensure it has all the elements an executive wants to hear and includes little that will waste their time? I spent the last year+ pitching movies to executives, and here is the formula I’ve found most effective — aka, the formula that has sold the most movies.

WHY ME?

I start out every pitch, whether it’s for an original television show, film, or an open assignment, by telling the room why I am the only person on the planet who could write this thing. Your movie might be about zombies who battle vampires on the moon, but no matter how outlandish the premise is, there must be a reason why you specifically relate to this film. You need to convince executives that this movie is in your DNA, and that if given the opportunity, you could write this movie in your sleep.

Executives, like all of us, love to be told stories, so I begin my pitch by telling a story from my life about how this specific story relates to me. And thus, how I could write the shit out of it. The more personal your story, the better. I like to say things like, “Just like our protagonist, I also experienced these emotions/growth, etc…” or “And this is how I know exactly what the protagonist is facing. I’ve been there, too.” Make them feel like your hero’s story is, in some way, your story too.

COMPS

The easiest way to convey the tone and themes of your film is by using comps. For example, you could say “it’s Die Hard meets Toy Story,” or “it’s an edgier Stranger Things,” or “it’s if Wes Anderson directed Clueless.” Using popular and well-received films to express what you hope your film will feel or look like will paint an immediate picture. Instantly, the room should get an idea of what you’re going for.

But this is easier said than done. It might feel like you’re pigeonholing what your story is about, or perhaps your story is so original, so out there, so completely different that it is impossible to describe with preexisting films. Even so, you should try. If anything, using comps is a jumping off point. A way to develop an easy foundation for what you can then expand upon.

THEMES & TONE

Every movie is more than just a series of entertaining images on screen. Every movie — OK, most movies — have something bigger to say. For example, 2017’s Get Out isn’t just a horror film about a man meeting his girlfriend’s parents, it’s a psychological thriller that explores race and discrimination. Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House is more than a story about a family who was tormented by spirits in the house they grew up in. It’s a narrative that dissects mental illness and coping with grief. And of course, movies from every genre — from horror to comedy, has something larger to say. These themes don’t necessarily need to be political, but they should say something about the human condition. And often, they should seek to present or address a bigger philosophical question — something universal, something more than one person can relate to.

It might seem obvious, but telling the executives exactly what the underlying message and themes of your project are will be paramount in selling your film.

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CHARACTERS

Without diving too deep, I like to give the room an idea of who my main characters are and the personal journeys they will go through. You want to convey early on that you know exactly where your characters begin in Act One and where they will end up at the end of Act Three. Because every good movie has distinct arcs for its main (and often supporting) characters. While in television characters can remain unaltered over the course of one or several seasons, movies need completed arcs for their characters. You want to show the room you’ve done your homework, you’ve spent time figuring out the emotional turmoil your hero will go through, and how he or she will come out a changed person on the other side. 

STORY

OK, so you’ve offered a personal story about why you are the only person who can write this film, you’ve offered comps, you’ve explained what the movie is about thematically and tonally, and now you’re ready to dive into the meat of your narrative.

A few tips in doing so: Firstly, don’t deliver every scene and plot point. You want to hit your big marks like the inciting incident, midpoint, B story, etc. but don’t go overboard. No matter how intriguing your story may be, execs will get tired if they have to listen for too long, or, God forbid, cut you off because you’ve run out of time. (This happened to me once and it was completely embarrassing. While I thought I was being over prepared by delivering a detailed story, the executive thought my pitch was far too long). Be wary of their time — keep it short and sweet.

Secondly, read the room. Almost every pitch I’ve ever been in has turned out differently than I anticipated. This is usually because I hadn’t met one or more of the execs beforehand and I didn’t know their specific taste, their sense of humor, and their general way of communicating with writers. As you begin your pitch you’ll get a sense of what the room is responding to. Sometimes they like jokes, sometimes they hate jokes, sometimes they want you to speed up, sometimes they want clarification. All this to say, be prepared to make changes and improvise on the spot.

And if the idea of improvising scares you, you’re not alone. It terrifies me. I’m someone who likes to be a hundred percent prepared before I step into a room. Yet oftentimes, the document you’ve painstakingly slaved over isn’t the exact thing that will land you the movie. So be ready to make small adjustments on the go. Think of your pitch as more of an outline to be filled in in the room rather than a monologue to be memorized.

That said, bring notes with you. You can have your entire pitch in a notebook or just a few bullet points — whatever makes you most comfortable. I’ll often bring in the full version of my pitch as a safety blanket in case I panic and forget everything I’ve prepared. (This has never happened, but it’s nice to know I have it just in case my brain completely fails me.)

Thirdly, make sure you have a killer finale. Though I advise keeping your story length to a minimum, one place to luxuriate is the end. After the finale, I like to offer a final denouement — the last moment that ties together everything in your narrative. It’s the final breath in your story, an exhale that allows the audience to muse upon what they just saw. For example, In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s the moment when the arc is lugged into a warehouse to seemingly be forgotten about until the end of time. It’s a bookend and is often a parallel image to your film’s opening.

Giving them the specifics of this moment cements that you’ve done your homework. Your vision is distinct and complete. It’s also a way to offer a final emotional punch that will leave the room feeling like they’ve gained something — AKA, that same feeling you get right after watching a really good movie.

The last thing to remember is this: pitching is hard. It can be brutal. Writers, with all of our sensitivity and capacity for emotional storytelling, aren’t necessarily extroverts or great performers. And though being good in a room doesn’t necessarily have a correlation to how well you can write a movie, the two skills, unfortunately, go hand-in-hand. So don’t be hard on yourself: Realize that you are not alone if you find pitching difficult. Like anything, it takes practice… and maybe a pre-pitch shot of tequila.


Anna is an editor and screenwriter. She previously worked at Bustle as an Entertainment Editor, as well as Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and BuzzFeed.


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