It’s a biggie. Every screenwriter, who wants to make a living writing scripts, has to do it one time or the other.
Pitching is all about your social skills.
You have to figure out the temperature in the room, the instant you open that door. Scan the room. Get a sense of who is in charge, way before they all introduce themselves. Read body signs. Are they loose, are they tight. Is there a hierarchy in the room that has been already compromised, before you even entered the room? Look at the clothing. How many ties are there, or is it mainly jeans and jackets? How many women are there, how many men? Every small detail helps to determine, how the climate in the room is.
The funny thing is, these are all parts of your daily job as a screenwriter too. Figuring out what the character traits and flaws of your heros are isn’t all that different to entering the room full of producers, executives and what not. IT IS THE SAME!
Then you start with the Exposition. And by that I don’t mean the beginning of your movie or series, I mean small talk.
This is another important step to figure out, who is in the room with you. And for me, this is one of the most important parts of pitching.
This is the first moment where you can actively control the overall mood in the room. Wether they’re talking about sports, weather, traffic, vacations, it doesn’t matter, now you need to provoke emotions in them.
How do you do that?
For instance, if you are pitching a comedy, you want to sneak in your first joke here! BUT how? The way I do, I start with a little story. Yeah you heard right, a story. It needs to be very brief and can be completely made up.
For example, you pitching a comedy and one of the execs welcomes you and starts to talk about the weather of some sort, let’s say it’s raining, you go: Yeah funny thing, just this morning on my way here, I came across a guy, who was giving out water bottles for free on the side of the road. He offered me one and I asked him, why he was doing it, and he replied: I’m so fortunate toady, I figured I give s.th. back. This is just an example, maybe not the best one, but you get the idea.
(For all the executives reading this; not to worry I don’t start off with the same story over and over again.)
Since your selling stories, you might want to let everyone know from the start, that you are a storyteller and can be creative. The story doesn’t need to be true, but it has to come across, as if it were. Same as in the screenplay, right?
Another way is to start with a phrase s.th. like; my mother/father used to say… and so forth.
Or if you feel the room needs to dial down a little, because everyone is being too occupied with going home soon, you want to keep it brief. And if you want to sell them a drama the next second, you want to help them come down to your level by hooking them with a story, taken from the news, that is known to everyone in the room and has a certain tone to it that you can use for your own story pitch. So it’s like; have you heard of this…. and people will instantly respond to this by saying s.th. like: Oh yes, this was terrible, or this was cool etc. See? now you not only have their attention, you also get a sense of how they interpret things. Very, very helpful for your own pitch. BUT never ever talk about politics.I would even recommend not to start on sports either. Take industry news, gossip, or stuff that is generally interesting…whatever.
But if you don’t want to go all in right from the start, talk less and ask more. If someone in the room has a suntan, ask where he/she has been. Make compliments, but beware of the intensity. You don’t want them and you to come off as awkward. (This is a tricky one for me, so I recommend to be careful with this one, but you might be different!)
So now, that you got their attention, there is one thing you need to decide before you start pitching your story.
How early or late is it in the day? Are they exhausted already?
If you feel like they are exited to see you, exited to hear your story, you can expand your pitch up to half an hour. If not, you better be brief.
So, let’s say everyone is fairly exited to see you and it’s early in the day. (perfect conditions). You also figured out, who is who in the room, to a sense of who they are, through the small talk. Now, there are two possibilities:
- you pitch your story outline.
- you pitch your story more loosely and hit all the story beats
This is the part, where I would recommend going with Plan B. Pitch your story in way, you would tell a friend about a film that you saw and you desperately want him/her to see it too. This way you keep it exiting and vivid, whereas if you “simply“ present your outline, everyone will become bored after a while.
Include your main story beats, such as your act breaks, midpoint and the finale.
Get people exited about your main character, your hero, take some time to set him/her up. Give everyone a notion of who this person is about, the flaws, the wants and the needs, so that everyone later on, understands, why the hero acts a certain way, without you having to go back and explain why he/she does it this way. This, by the way, can instantly kill the interest in your story.
Pitch it in a way that everyone is invested in your story. Set up anticipation, set up conflicts, that pay of later on, so that they have to do the math, or better puzzle together your story. The best way to know if you are doing it right, is, if people interrupt you and say: I bet he/she is going to do this now. That’s when you know, they are actively invested.
But what do you do, if the conditions aren’t so perfect?
You pitch your logline!
Say what? Yes, if the room temperature is heated and everyone just wants to get the hell out, you need to hook ‘em hard.
Here is a little tip, that almost always works. After the small talk, don’t jump right in, have a little silence before you start. This creates the anticipation you need. And then stick to the premise of your movie. Tell the one thing, that is the reason why it should be made. You can do this by framing your theme into a question. For instance: Have you ever wondered what would happen if suddenly all electricity went out? or What would you do, if you were Hitlers right hand and one day found out that you could end the war, just by killing him? or What would happen, if someone really found Atlantis?
You get the picture. Make sure you create a hook, that immediately grabs their attention.
Then, after they understood, what the main goal is, present your hero.
Start by setting him up, so that they get a feeling for him. What is he/she like. Why should we feel for him/her? Why is he/she the right person for the job? etc.
Then create a mood. I usually take my opening image to do so. So if we go back to the example of Atlantis, it can be a little like this:
Imagine the hero floating under water. Blue water, the sun is breaking through, just enough to light up the darkness a little. The scene seems to be peaceful. He/she is in diving gear, BUT s.th, is awfully wrong, and now we see what it is. Blood is pouring out of here side. There is a huge bite mark. He/she is fighting trying to reach the top. Bubbles everywhere, blood mixing with the blue and darkening everything around the hero. Just before he/she looses consciousness he/she sees, wait a minute: are these buildings? Stone buildings? The heros eyes begin to tremble, and BOOM, he/she is unconscious. Was ist real? A fata morgana?
Yeah well, s.th. like that. Then you make sure, you skip to the act breaks. Take a little more time for your second act, make sure everyone understands, that you have enough ammunition to take everyone through the second act and then end on a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger? No way, people are desperate to find out how the story resolves. Yes they do, but hold their breath for just a tiny second and then burst it out. After that, shut up and LISTEN very, very carefully.
I hope this gives you enough inspiration to work out your own pitching habits. Please note, that what I described here, is based upon my own experience and therefore might not suit you, which isn’t s.th. you should worry about.
It is all psychology and thus makes it hard to generalize. It also depends on who you are as person. Are you introverted or extroverted? Rational, emotional etc. But never ever try to be something or someone you are not. Especially in the movie industry, if someone is willing to buy a movie of you, they are doing it because of you. You are a major key factor in all of this. So if you pretend to be s.th. you are not, you will find yourself in deep trouble fairly quick.
Overall, just be prepared, I suggest you try pitching your with friends first, and then examine the room and listen carefully to what they have to say and you will be fine.
The good thing about pitching is, once you get a feeling for the temperature of the room, you can always course correct, before you start to loose your audience.