The last couple posts I’ve done have been lessons from a pitch fest I observed last month. Here are a few final “dos” and “don’ts” I took away.
DO GIVE YOUR PERSONAL CONNECTION
All right, I’m about to share one of my secret weapons for pitching, one that I saw validated during the pitch fest. I always start my pitch by explaining why the story is personal to me. Of course most stories are not autobiographical, but you want to find something in your own life that connects you to the story.
When you’re pitching, you’re not just selling a story, you’re selling yourself. If you can explain how the idea is in some way based on your own experiences, you’re explaining why you’re really the only writer who could write this story.
One of the writers at the pitch fest had a big sci-fi monster movie idea. But she started the pitch describing a bit of her life and how it metaphorically influenced the world of her story. And it did (it’s important that the personal connection is genuine).
The panelists really responded – probably because her pitch had a hook and a good character (see my first pitch fest post). But I did notice they sat forward eagerly when she opened her pitch with the personal connection. They were intrigued. She pitched what was essentially a B-movie premise in a way that emphasized the heart and soul of the movie, and painted herself as uniquely qualified to write it.
DON’T SOUND LIKE YOU FOLLOWED A FORMULA
After the event, one of the panelists commented to me about some of the writers’ use of screenwriting terminology. He said sometimes he could identify which book they read by how they told their story. He said he wished more had written stories that came from their heart.
Now possibly these writers did have deep personal investment in their stories. But if so, it wasn’t coming through. Overdoing the structural terminology during the pitch can have the opposite effect of creating that personal connection – it can make your story sound lifeless and formulaic.
I’ve always counseled writers that it is okay to use terms like “first act” and “midpoint” and “climax” in their pitches. The buyers know the three act structure terms and will understand the signposts you’re using. It can help give them a sense of where they are in the running time of the story. But these things should only be signposts, not the focus of your pitch.
Don’t forget, you’re telling a story not building a bridge.
DO LISTEN TO FEEDBACK… BUT DON’T ASSUME IT’S RIGHT
Last post I counseled you to listen carefully and make sure you absorb the feedback you get from the people you pitch to. That’s true not just in the post-pitch section of your meeting, but after you leave the room as well. Usually you’re going to pitch the same idea many times. Producers and executives in this industry, despite their reputation, are mostly smart and savvy people when it comes to story. So if someone makes a suggestion for your story, it’s worth considering whether to incorporate it before the next session.
One of the writers at the pitch fest took that to heart. He had a comedic idea that centered on a shocking and controversial act by the main character. The first panel responded dramatically to that moment in the pitch, laughing loudly – and it’s hard to get industry people to laugh, believe me. The discussion afterward was spirited. But the feedback was that the audience may have a difficult time with the event. The panelists suggested the main character should fake the act, rather than actually perform it (I’m keeping the specifics vague out of respect to the writer’s confidentiality).
The writer in question listened and absorbed that feedback. For the next panel, he changed his pitch so that the main character faked the act. And the new panel didn’t respond nearly as well. I felt for the poor guy – the original panel steered him in the wrong direction.
So what could he have done differently? Should he just ignore feedback? No. But perhaps he would have been better off listening to the panelists’ visceral response – the laughter and engagement with the idea – rather than their specific suggestions for change.
Wow. This pitching stuff is hard.
Welcome to Hollywood.