Thursday, August 14, 2014

How Eric Heisserer Pitches

Today I am featuring a guest blogger: Eric Heisserer. Eric wrote and directed The Hours, starring Paul Walker. He also wrote the 2011 The Thing, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 version of The Nightmare on Elm Street, plus the upcoming Story of Your Life. I asked Eric to describe his pitching process to get quotes for the second edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. His approach was so interesting I asked if I could use it as a blog post. He kindly gave permission. So here is how Eric pitches:

I despise pitching. I used to say I preferred writing on spec to pitching because I felt the proof is always in the writing, but that was just a clever excuse draped over my anxiety in the room with executives staring at me intently. Like everything, repetition and practice has made it bearable. You improve by doing something over and over. And if you're looking to make screenwriting a career, you have to accept that you'll work up a hundred pitches (or more) in your tenure.

Here is what I do for a pitch now: I use visual aids. Note cards. I find a dozen or so images that really speak to the look and feel or the tone of the project I'm pitching, and sometimes I'll even "dream" cast the movie or TV project, selecting photos of actors that most closely fit their characters. I avoid using much text on the cards, because as I've learned you don't want your audience reading what's on the card instead of paying attention to your story. The one vital element I include on the cards? Character names. Execs hear an absurd number of pitches per week, plus they have a ton of projects going, and so it's difficult for them to remember who your hero is versus the villain or the love interest. Having a quick reference (with a photo of an actor beside it) is helpful for them.

The cards are helpful for me, too. If I veer off-topic or forget my place, I can look down at the next photo or concept art in my stack and pick up where I left off. Occasionally I will break out a story pitch by sequence, laying down a couple of visual cards for every sequence in the movie (typically 7-10), but if I'm not working with sequences, I make sure to announce at regular intervals what page we're on in the story. This puts the audience at ease, because they've been stuck in pitch meetings before that drone on for twenty minutes until the writer mentions "all of that is backstory, here is where the movie starts." Execs want signposts so they know where they are within the narrative.

Finally, I've come to realize I can't pitch on something unless I have a personal, emotional connection to it somehow. A story from my own youth. A main character drawn from my father or in-law. An event that changed my life or the life of a loved one. It's critical your audience understands where your heart is with the story, they don't want it to be merely business. Or to put it this way: If two writers come in and pitch, and both takes are competent, the one who demonstrates why it matters to them or how it's based on a personal story will get the job, because it suggests the material will be written with passion and emotional drive otherwise missing from the other take. Whether this is true or not, it's how many execs operate, and it's how I've come to realize I write best.

Of course, sometimes your greatest tool in a pitch can be rendered useless, so try to find out the circumstances of the pitch meeting beforehand. Since I use note cards with visuals, I make sure not to pitch over the phone, but one time, for a project at Dimension Films, I was brought into a conference room where three execs were ready to hear my pitch... along with the head of the company via Skype on a TV screen at the end of the room. He was the one I had to impress, and he had no way of seeing the cards. Furthermore, the connection wasn't the greatest, and when he talked to me the transmission would clip parts of his words, which meant that's likely how he heard my entire pitch.

Needless to say, I didn't get that job.

Thanks Eric! You may wish to follow Eric on twitter - his handle is @HIGHzurrer

And now about the aforementioned 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible - it is now available on Amazon! (eBook editions should become available in the next few weeks). The new, expanded 2nd edition includes:

-More information on pitching for producers and directors
-Expanded section on pitching for television
-More sample pitches
-Expanded section on pitching for assignments
-Anecdotes of successful movie and television pitches from the creators who sold them
And much more!

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