Perfecting the Pitch!

by ScreenCraft on December 10, 2014

You’ve written a world-class logline that has garnered you the attention of every producer in town (not to mention the admiration of your screenwriting peers); now you have to keep the momentum rolling by pitching your script so you can grasp that golden ring: a sale.

Pitching, like writing loglines, is an art form of its own. Robert Kosberg, who was considered the Pitch King in the 80s and 90s, sold a re-visulization of the popular television series Dragnet, by simply humming the famous theme song, “dum da dum dum,” and then naming the cast, “Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd.”

Most pitches will not that be that easy, so as a writer, not only do you have to have the skill set of mastering the craft of writing an amazing script and logline, but the art of selling while under a strict time limit. Think of pitching like the Olympics. It takes you years to get to the game and it lasts only a few minutes. (This should not also be how you think of sex.)

A pitch needs to be concise but engaging.
Detailed but not long-winded.
Entertaining and unique but not gimmicky.

One way to be concise and capture instant attention is to reference other popular films. (You would never want to pitch, “Ishtar meets The Lone Ranger.”)

Yes, your film is original, but every story has elements of other stories, so use examples of popular and successful films (or television shows) to help the executive understand quickly what your film is going to be like. Alien was sold with the pitch, “Jaws in space.”

The Die Hard franchise is probably one of the most overused examples:

“It’s Die Hard on a ship.” [Speed 2, Under Siege]

“Die Hard on a plane.” [Air Force One, Passenger 57, Non-Stop]

“Die Hard in the White House” [Olympus has Fallen and White House Down]

A pitch meeting can last as little as ten minutes (you did not make a sale) or as long as 45-minutes (you are getting closer); if other executives are invited into the meeting that is a great sign.

Another aspect of the art of pitching is being detailed, and having answers for every question, but not being long-winded, or boring. DO NOT get into minutia that has no relevance to the story even if you think it is cool. For example, this pitch will end after this sentence, “Once, when our lead was five, he spent the night alone in a dark, forest, which was part of his parent’s fifty-acre farm that had been in the family for four generations, and was actually part of a historic Civil War battlefield, where our lead’s great, great grandfather had heroically saved a squad of soldiers and won a medal of valor, and it was on this night alone in the woods that our hero first had to survive on his own, and that is how he becomes so self-sufficient and strong.”

Stick to top-level ideas and themes, but be able to answer details if asked. If the executive is engaged in your pitch they will have questions. Reiterate your logline, expound on the theme and what the heart of your film is, then give broad strokes of the story. If you are pitching a television show then you need to be able to explain the central concept and characters in two minutes and then how that concept will be able to translate into 13 - 22 episodes a season for six seasons. In TV, the pitch is about the concept, characters and how it/they have longevity; in film it is about how the story will grab people on opening weekend.

Remember, film is a collaborative art. The studio, production company, actors, director, will all want to add their ideas, which will hopefully make the story a fine jambalaya and not a goulash. Engage the listener so they feel involved. BUT, do not lead with rhetorical questions. “What would you do if…?” You are not playing a game of 20 Questions. The producers want you to share a great story, capturing their imagination so that they want to go on this adventure with you.

They are buying into you as a storyteller as much as the story. Can you sell the story? Make it entertaining? Do they want to know more?

Keep in mind these execs hear hundreds of pitches. There is nothing they haven’t heard before, but you still have to be special, presenting your story in a manner that makes them want to see the film—and be a part of making it.

Be firm but flexible. If they want to turn your simple love story into an epic, superhero, summer tent pole, then you need to state why that is not the story you have in mind, BUT, “I’d be interested in developing that story for you!” The point is, you want two results in a pitch meeting:

Sell a story
Build relationship

Sometimes it is not about the sale as much as nurturing the relationship. Even if they do not buy your idea now, you want the door to be open for another meeting. Remember, the junior executive you pitch today, might be head of production tomorrow.

Be entertaining. You do not have to sing and dance and you certainly don’t want to be gimmicky. Do not dress like a radical terrorist to sell your edgy war film. You will get results, just not the one you were hoping for.

Smile. Be confident. If you are pitching a comedy, be funny. If you can’t make them laugh in the room, how are you going to make them laugh on paper?

Walt Disney used to act every part of his animated films to explain to his animators what he envisioned. You should be prepared to do the same, within reason.

You have to be able to think on your feet. If you get shot down in the first two minutes, have a backup idea or a twist on the story so you can keep pitching. You want them to see you as creator, a storyteller. If you fold after the first negative reaction, you’re done.

Visuals are great--look books, sizzle reels, artist renderings. The Matrix was sold because the Wachowski brothers had a complete vision for that film. Not only did they have the script, but they storyboarded the entire film almost like a comic book. The executives saw there was a clear vision for the film, which the writers were invested in, and this made it easier for the studio to invest.

The point of the pitch is to be able to capture the executive’s attention and imagination, drawing them into your world and story so that they want to know more and be part of it. Your logline set up the pitch. The pitch takes them further into your story so that they want—NO—need to see the finished film.

Because they are going to spend more than a year of their life working on your project, the people you pitch have to want to invest that time as well as money. Executives are also staking their reputation and career on your story. Make it one they are willing to put their neck on the line to shoot.

Douglas King has been writing professionally for 25 years in film, television and print. He has pitched to all of the major studios and some of his meetings lasted more than 45-minutes.

For more instructions on how to write loglines along with hundreds of examples, check out Douglas King’s book, “Loglines: the Long and Short of Writing a Strong Logline” available on Amazon.

You can also read daily loglines on King’s blog and Twitter account @LoglinesRUs

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