Back on August 16th I moderated a panel on “The Art of the Pitch” at Screenwriters World Conference. The other panelists were screenwriter Rob Edwards, screenwriter Patty Meyer, script consultant Daniel Manus and producer Calix Lewis Reneau.
Because I was moderating I wasn’t able to take notes, but here are a few of the insights I remember.
I started out by asking what was the key to a successful pitch. Most of the panelists talked about the importance of selling yourself as much as selling your idea. The primary goal of most pitching is to build a relationship with the listener. We also discussed what a big risk you are asking the listener to take, so you have to convince them you are responsible and reliable. You also have to be someone they’d like to spend a lot of time with over the next couple years. As Daniel Manus said, “You have to be normal.”
Someone made the point that this means that when you are trying to sell the pitch is not the time to debate plot points. In the room you have to be the most cooperative, easy-to-work-with writer ever. Once the project is underway you can choose a few story battles to fight.
Another key to success everyone agreed on was the importance of passion for your project. Passion is contagious – and the lack of passion will make the listener think even you are bored by your idea. Rob Edwards described how he learned to pitch by pitching his favorite movies, such as Star Wars, into a mirror. He tries to capture the same passion for his ideas as he has for those great movies.
When I asked what the biggest mistake writers make when pitching, Calix mentioned not doing your homework and pitching the wrong kind of material for the buyer. You have to be aware of the genre and budget levels the company makes. Another mistake one of the panelists mentioned was continuing to talk after the buyer has said yes or no. I brought up the pitfalls of focusing on plot over character.
Somewhere along the way the question of “telling the ending” during a pitch came up. All of the panelists agreed that you must be ready and willing to tell the ending of your story. If you are trying to get someone to read a full screenplay, you may not volunteer the ending, but if you are asked, “How does it end?” you should tell them. Of course if you are trying to get someone to hire you to write a screenplay, they aren’t going to do it without knowing how the movie ends.
During the question and answer session, a woman said she had several movie people interested in an idea of hers based on a true story, but she felt she couldn’t tell the story in two hours. Pretty much everyone on the panel responded, “Yes you can,” which naturally didn’t make the woman very happy.
I think my fellow panelists are right – any story can be told in two hours. The key is figuring out why you are telling that story and building a plot that supports that central idea. Then discard everything else. However I think there’s another thing to consider: knowing your market. People who make feature films are in the business of making feature films, and feature films are two hours long (roughly). If you can’t tell your story in that time frame, don’t pitch it to feature producers!
All in all it was a great panel and over much too quickly. And that was largely because of my wonderful panelists!
The second edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is now available!