Build a Better Pitch Deck

Build a Better Pitch Deck

Writers,

How many have you have gotten an email like this?

“We love the script, send us over a deck!”

Or:

“We need a deck to pitch at our next meeting.”

What kind of deck? Cedar, walnut ... maple?

Oh, a pitch deck! The all-important tool to quickly summarize a project for executives and producers looking for a new film or a show.

So, how do you make one?

“Guess!” said basically everyone in Hollywood.

Well, guess no longer. Let's learn how to craft an engaging, visual pitch deck with everything you’ll need to convey your story in a short, easy-to-read document that can pique any exec’s fleeting interest. Just add water: your idea.

As a visual aid, I’ve mocked up an example deck for an existing show: FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows,” to give you some idea on the basic formatting. Download it here and follow along!

“What is a pitch deck, and why do I need it?”

Put simply, a pitch deck is a 5-ish page document that can quickly convey your story idea for someone in a position of power who might not have the time or mental bandwidth to read an entire script. Although most anyone would prefer to have their story experienced in full, 3-5 pages is a much easier ask for a busy executive than 30-120 pages. Think of it like a blurb you’d see on the back of a novel: a small snippet to interest the reader into reading the whole book.

Now, a deck is not to be confused with a series or show bible—which is a much longer and more detailed document, around 15-25 pages (or longer), specific to TV series. Whereas a pitch deck is an overview, a bible can be viewed as a full roadmap, detailing seasons, character arcs, etc.

“So, what do I include?”

The main components of a good pitch deck:

  1. A cover
  2. Your logline
  3. A synopsis of your film/pilot
  4. Character breakdowns
  5. Tone/visual style examples

The first thing new writers and filmmakers need to understand is that the film industry is a visual industry. Most executives, like myself, read thousands of pitches every year. With our limited attention spans—and frankly, our stretched-thin imaginations—the story you lovingly crafted could easily end up as another raindrop in a sea of ideas, just because you made the perfectly reasonable assumption that all you’d need was a traditional, 12-pt Times New Roman Word document.

In order to stand out, you’ve got to get creative.

A striking cover that conveys the feel of your piece is vital.  You definitely don’t need to design an entire poster—the poster I yoinked from Google no doubt had a team of talented artists putting it together—but you can definitely up your game just by playing with different fonts, shapes, colors, and stock imagery. One of the more clever covers I’ve seen (and still remember) was a mock “case file” for a crime series.

Your second page contains the logline of your project, as well as a brief synopsis. This is basically a litmus test for how well you understand your story. If you can’t summarize your plot in one page (two at the absolute maximum), chances are you need to go back and edit and clarify your points in the script itself. You won’t be able to include every single plot point, or reveal every character, so keep your synopsis pared down to only the most important information. Yes, even your huge sci-if epic or your intense period drama should be able to fit on one page. If “The Expanse” can do it, so can you.

The third and fourth pages are reserved for your characters. Obviously, you won’t have those pretty staged headshots that our existing actors do, but you can find headshots from similarly-styled characters (or an actor you envision in the role) to use instead. Each character gets about a paragraph explaining their primary traits and wants. Again, be judicious about what info you include here. You can leave out the extended backstories and ancestral lineage. You’ve got limited space, so every sentence counts.

The last section is an often-overlooked and highly-underrated part of your deck: the tone/visual style section. This should be the section where your story comes alive in the mind of the executive, giving them visual shorthand to spark their imagination. Color scheme, time period, production design, tone ... all of this should be included in these final pages. It can be a collage of stock photos, or you can use images from similar films with small bullet points explaining your choices. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s in keeping with the look and feel of your story.

Final Notes on Formatting

Ideally, your deck should have a distinctive, cohesive style that flows from beginning to end. You can achieve this by using similar fonts and paragraph formatting, images that complement each other, and most importantly, your unique voice.

Please, please PLEASE do not hesitate to inject your personality into your deck. This isn’t a technical manual, it’s a freakin' movie! Include asides, make jokes, get crazy (if it relates to the tone of the project, of course)!

The whole reason you have an executive reading it in the first place is to get to know you and your writing. And I promise: we'll truly be eager to read it.

*Feature photo by Marcelo Dias (Pexels)

Bri Janes is the Director of Management & Development at Pipeline. She reads, writes, and judges. Not necessarily in that order.
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