Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fifteen Observations from a Pitch Fest

Last week my guest blogger Phillip Mottaz wrote about his experiences attending a pitch fest. Coincidentally last week I hosted a much smaller pitch event for the Singapore Media Academy (This is my second year doing it – my lessons from last year are posted here, here and here) Like last year, it was a great opportunity for me to watch other writers pitch and hear the feedback of industry professionals, without my being caught up in my own pitch anxiety. Here’s are some things I observed or heard:
  • Don’t look for approval, just tell your story. One of the development execs complimented a writer on his presentation and noted that it’s disconcerting to listen to a pitch when the writer’s watching you with an expression of, “do you like it?” I would say this goes to one of the key elements of successful pitching: confidence. 
  • Don’t lock in your casting too much unnecessarily. Particularly with ages, allow a range. If you say the character is 37, you may eliminate, in the mind of the producer, an actor who is 30 who they want to work with. Sometimes a character must be a specific age for the story to work, but otherwise say things like “mid-20’s” or “in her 30’s” or “around 40.” 
  • Tell the ending or be prepared to. These pitching events are usually designed to convince someone to read your script, so some writers pitch the set-up but don’t tell the conclusion. In a pitch fest context that’s fine (however if you’re trying to sell a story in a meeting you must tell the ending). Last week one of the writers tried the “no ending” pitch and was immediately asked how it ends by a group of execs that were clearly into the story. She seemed surprised by the question, though she handled it well. You need to be prepared to answer that question. Again, this goes to a bigger issue: anticipate likely questions based on your pitch and be prepared with answers. 
  • And when it comes to answering questions, answer but don’t defend. When asked about their story, some of the writers’ responses had an undercurrent that suggested it was the panel’s fault they didn’t understand something. During a break in the pitching, writer Matt Federman did a Q&A where he pointed out that if a producer doesn’t respond to something, replying, “But you should respond to this” won’t change their mind. 
  • Write a book. I found it interesting that one particular writer pitching a good story that was a tough sell commercially was told by more than one panel to consider writing a book first then selling the movie rights. This was assumed to be a way to make difficult material more marketable. 
  • Tell it through the characters eyes. The character will pull us through the story. Tell the story from the characters perspective. I don’t mean act out the character, but frame the story from their point of view and how they feel. This is particularly important when pitching the kind of things that we sometimes don’t think of as character based. If you’re pitching sci-fi, fantasy, historic, or other stories that take place in an unfamiliar world, the character is our entry point. Don’t just describe the world, take us through it with the character. Also, the shorter the pitch the more important character becomes. 
  • Know how you will end your pitch. This avoids the trailing off ending, or the last minute adding of extraneous information. Like a gymnast, you need to stick your landing. Then shut up and let the buyer talk. 
  • Dramatize the important beats. The story should work emotionally, not intellectually. Don’t just tell us what happens, tell us how it happens and how the character feels about it. 
  • Get to the point. One writer got interrupted after going into elaborate detail for several minutes on the “status quo” opening of the script. Finally the panelists stopped her because five minutes in they still had no idea what the movie was about. Other times there was a long elaborate set up about the world and themes of the story without a clear conveyance of what the core idea was. If they don’t know what the logline of your story is and the primary source of conflict within two minutes, they’ll tune out. Front load your pitch. 
  • Related, one of the producers said that although they are looking to be emotionally moved by a story, in the back of their mind they’re asking, “How can I sell this?” How will they sell it to their boss? How will they sell it to the audience? That’s why it’s important to lead with the concept. The plot detail is less important. 
  • Also, they’re not dumb. They hear hundreds of pitches and read hundreds of scripts a year so they know story. If you are explaining things clearly, they’ll get it. In fact, they’ll probably be ahead of you. Don’t belabor simple stuff. And if you have to give multiple examples to illustrate a character trait, you’re using the wrong examples. 
  • Much of this leads to one of my big overall observations: Pitching is largely about managing detail. Too much and they lose the big idea of the story. Too little and it feels mechanical and un-dramatic. How do you achieve balance? Talent and practice. 
  • Pitching without notes is great – it allows eye contact and engagement – but it’s risky. Losing your place and getting flustered is not a plus. So you should probably have some notes, but try to be prepared enough that you don’t really need to refer to them. 
  • Get everyone in the room comfortable. This is another place where confidence comes in. If you’re anxious and desperate it will make the buyer uncomfortable. It’s also why telling how you got the inspiration for the story is a great way to open. It feels more natural and less like you’re “selling.” 
  • Don’t apologize or make excuses. (Unless you spill something on them or something!) What this means is, don’t tell them that you’re a bad pitcher or that you didn’t get enough sleep last night. Again, project confidence in yourself and your story. 
Those were the notes I jotted down while listening to the pitches and responses. Overall I would say my big takeaway is that good pitching consists of two things: clarity and confidence.


Beth Stilborn said...

Excellent advice on pitching, whether one is pitching a screenplay or a novel, actually. Thank you!

FundMyFilm said...

this is an excellent article. resharing on on my Fund My Film facebook page.

Unknown said...

'Write a book.'

Sure. That's a shortcut.

Unknown said...

Amazing information thanks