Anatomy of a Great Pitch

Anatomy of a Great Pitch

Imagine this: you wake up and go about your daily routine. You get out of bed. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Comb your hair. Make breakfast. Walk your dog. Just like you would to start any other morning on any other day.

But today is not any other day.  

And as hard as you try to not think about it, nothing is going to get that fact out of your head. Like that dude in the climax of Star Wars: A New Hope, you just can’t shake it.

So, you put on your collared shirt, the one you use for special occasions. You fix the cuffs all nice and tight. Hell, even put on real pants (when was the last time you did that?), and head out the front door.

Today, you have a pitch. To an actual living, breathing studio executive. And oh, holy fuck balls, you are nervous.

How’s that song go? “Palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy? Blah blah blah, something about Mom’s spaghetti?”

Yeah, you’re basically like that the entire drive down Pico. Except you have enough wherewithal to not spew last night’s dinner all over yourself as you turn into the lot and check in with security. You park your car and start the long, slow walk to the office where the deed is to be done. As you walk through the front door and give your name to the receptionist, you know it’s go time.

So, you sit in the lobby and you wait. And wait. And wait some more. Before finally, fifteen minutes after your scheduled time, a bleary-eyed, twenty-two-year-old assistant whisks you to a conference room (where you wait for another ten minutes). Eventually though, a gaggle of executives enter all smiles and handshakes. It’s time for the pitch to begin.

You stand at the front of the room and begin talking. You lay out a brief overview, a bunch of plot points, dozens of characters, etc. You’re right in the thick of your spiel when you notice something alarming.

“Is one of the executives … looking out the window?” you think to yourself.

Yes, she is … she’s not even paying attention to you right now.

“That’s fine,” you think, "I can still recover from this! I just need to make sure everyone else is fully engaged in my presentation …”

Except the second executive is nose-deep in his phone. And the third one is sawing logs.

And then, it dawns on you …

Your pitch absolutely sucks.

Nobody wants their pitch to suck. Literally nobody. Because you’ve put tons and tons of work into this story. You love it! And you want other people to love it, too. But pitching, like many things, is closer to art than an exact science. And if you want to be successful, you’ll have to learn a few things about working a room. Things that this article aims to teach you.

Let me be perfectly transparent here: I have never given a pitch before. That wasn’t my side of the business. But I have been the person being pitched to. I’ve sat across the table from professional writers and been the gatekeeper to their paycheck. I’ve been in the room for excellent, highly engaging, edge-of-your-seat pitches, and I’ve been bored to tears by lots of really terrible ones. So, I think I have a decent amount of validity to talk about this topic.

Also, before you ask, no, I’ve never fallen asleep during a pitch meeting (but I damn sure know people who have …). It happens with more regularity than you might believe.

Anyway, let’s go over some DOs and DON’Ts of a pitch meeting:

  1. DON’T be boring. DO be entertaining.

It sort of helps to remember what a pitch is. And this might seem blatantly obvious, but I feel compelled to call it out—a pitch is your chance to sell a movie or TV series before you have written it. And what is the goal of a movie or TV series? Well … that depends on who you ask.

To the writer/director/actor, the goal is likely to tell a good story. But that’s not the primary goal of the studio or network executive. Those people want to sell tickets. Or sell advertising slots. (Remember, these people think of content as “filler for ads.”) And how do you sell tickets, or commercials, depending on your medium?

You present the audience entertaining content. You’re selling escapism.

So, how do you expect to get studio executives to buy your show, if you just stand in front of a room and read off notecards with a monotone voice for 20 minutes straight?

I want you to look at the people you are pitching to as your first audience. They are the initial viewers of your material. If they’re entertained by your pitch, and want to hear more, the chances of them buying your pitch are high. Just like if people watch the first episode of your series (or the first movie in your trilogy) and are totally hooked, they’ll want to spend more money/time on your property! That’s your overall goal!

So, the first, and honestly biggest, piece of advice I can give you is to make sure that you actively try to entertain during your pitch. And one of best ways to do that is …

2) DO be memorable.

Think about this: I want you to imagine yourself as an executive at a studio or network. Your day pretty much goes like this: get in, answer dozens of emails, make boring phone calls, sit in unexciting staff meetings, get yelled at by your boss, have lunch with a stranger (often not fun), come back, make more calls, answer more emails, take more unexciting meetings, go home, read bad screenplays. Rinse, wash, repeat.

I’m definitely being a bit hyperbolic here, but the general sentiment is true—Hollywood is not as glamorous as E! Network would like you to believe it is. For many, many folks, they’re just working a job. A lot of times, the work involved can be a bit dull…

So, how can you use this to your advantage? By breaking up the monotony of the day-to-day with something fun and exciting. Something different. Something memorable.

I still recall with vivid clarity a pitch I took years ago. The concept was based in some sort of Louisiana swamp, and when we walked in the room, the producers had turned off the lights, and had a soundtrack of nature sounds playing (frogs, bugs, etc). It really helped to set the tone of the story that we were about to hear, and it heightened the entire experience (and yes, we bought the pitch).

You’re coming in to tell a story to these people. Use the surroundings, and your imagination, to your advantage. However, you also need to make sure that you …

3) DON’T overdo it.

There’s a limit to the amount of creativity you can bring to these sorts of meetings. At the end of the day, you’re still a professional pitching to professionals. And I can’t tell you exactly what that limit is, because it’s inherently going to vary. But there are some things that just … don’t work well.

An example I can recall was a pitch where, I kid you not, someone brought a dude dressed in a squirrel costume. Literally, they had a gigantic animal sitting in the room for the entire time. While this was certainly a point of conversation throughout the whole office, can you imagine how awkward this was in the room? Yeah, it’s funny at first, but a pitch will usually last a whole hour. After that costumed character goes through his initial routine, what’s he supposed to do the rest of the time? Just sit there, that’s what. Awkwardly waiting for us to finish. How are executives supposed to concentrate when a life-sized furry is sitting mere feet away from them?!

Summary: be memorable. Be bold. But also think about the logistics of doing something crazy before you actually do it.

4) DO be brief. DON’T over-pitch.

There is a limit to everyone’s attention span. At a certain point in any presentation, people are going to phase out and stop paying attention. You don’t want to reach that point. Not when a story you love, and a dream career, is on the line.

In my experience, the best pitches last somewhere between 18 to 22 minutes in total. There’s usually a 5-minute prelude from the producer about why they love this story and think it’s a fit for the network. Then the writer outlines the material they are trying to sell. Which leaves plenty of time at the end for executives to ask questions before saying their goodbyes. This is an excellent meeting flow, but there are numerous instances where this goes horribly wrong.

I once had to sit in on a horrendous meeting where the writer was clearly ill-prepared by his producers. I know this because a) the producer wasn’t even there, and b) the series breakdown didn’t go twenty minutes. It didn’t go thirty minutes. It didn’t even go forty minutes. It went for nearly FIFTY-FREAKING-MINUTES!!

Can you imagine how glad we all were when this poor scribe finally stopped talking? We all got lost ages ago! And this all happened because… well, actually, this is such an important point that I’m going to make it its own category…

5) Absolutely, unequivocally, DO NOT pitch your entire series in a single meeting!!!

Again, this just goes on for too long! I don’t care if you have the most engaging series ever, if you try to do this deep a dive into your universe all in one sitting, you’re going to lose your audience! You can not possibly break down every episode (or movie) you have planned and make it engaging.

"Game of Thrones" didn’t do this. Star Wars didn’t do this. The damn Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t do this. So why in the hell should you??

Again, I don’t want it to sound like I’m placing all of the blame on this poor writer. I’m not. His producers had to have heard this pitch ahead of time and should have put the kibosh on this before ever stepping foot in the room. But somehow that didn’t happen. And it was the kiss of death for this meeting.

In my opinion, pitches should be kept to the bare minimum of material necessary to explain the world. If you’re pitching a series, tell us about the pilot. Have the rest of season one ready if you’re asked about it, but don’t propose information that might confuse or exhaust the executive. Much like when you’re writing a screenplay—you need to manage your audience’s energy level.

Anyway, last but not least ...

6) DO use visual aides. DO use videos. DO whatever you need to so that the audience understands your story and characters.

I cannot stress enough how helpful visual aides are when you’re being pitched to. Too many writers assume that because they understand all of the characters in their world, all the different elements to the universe, and how all the pieces fit together, that we will, too, with hardly any explanation necessary.

That’s rarely the case, in my experience.

The best pitch I ever sat in was an adaptation of a series of fantasy novels—objectively one of the hardest things in the world to explain cold. Think about it: how do you communicate the depth of a series like this, one that doesn’t take place in our world (a universe we all have a frame of reference to) if the people you’re pitching to haven’t read the books and understand the world like you do? But this writer did a sublime job! Because the visual aides he presented were executed perfectly.

Every time he brought up a character’s name, a specific actor would pop up on the conference room screen. This made it SUPER EASY for us to know exactly who all these characters were and how they fit together. Plus, he made sure to speak directly to the conflict points of the series, and kept his presentation to a solid time.

We bought it in the room.

Additionally, the use of cinematic reels have become popular, as a way to help executives envision the tone and type of material they are buying. These will usually take scenes from other movies, and cut them together to act as a sort of “trailer” for your film. Obviously, a lot of this depends on the quality of your editing skills, but when done right, there’s no better tool at your disposal.

In case you’re one of those “too long, didn’t read,” people, here’s what I want you to take away from this read—

Be fun.
Be entertaining.
Be memorable.
Be engaging.

And for the love of Christ and all that is holy, stay the fuck away from that gigantic squirrel costume.

Godspeed ya’ll, and happy writing.

*Feature photo by Rolffimages (Adobe)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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