During my time as MGM’s Director of Creative Affairs, I had over three thousand pitch meetings where writers, directors, stars and producers would try to persuade me to buy their ideas. Over a period of years, I identified the techniques that were being used in all of the successful meetings. I also found three common meeting pitfalls to which even experienced writers fall prey. They are:
- Question Traps
- Unexpected Interruptions
- Testing Behavior
In a pitch meeting, a question is a trap if it falls outside your specific area of expertise. As an example, executives will often ask, “What are your ideas about casting?” Your answer conveys your sense of taste—which may be very different from the executive’s taste. So it’s not to your advantage to speak first. If your ideas don’t jibe with the exec’s ideas, your project is less likely to be considered.
Plus, professional writers know that they do not have the best information with which to answer the casting question. Executives have access to up-and-coming actors and get to see clips and reels from movies that haven’t been released. They are supposed to know which stars are cooling off and who might be the next big thing. You aren’t—and when you offer your advice, you’re trespassing on the executive’s turf.
Here’s how to handle this situation: prepare to mention a couple of well-known stars and well-regarded independent film stars and then turn the question back to the executive, e.g., “I think George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem or Gerard Butler would be great, but I’m open. Who do you think would be right for the part?”
Sure, talking about casting is fun. It’s exciting to think about which stars will be in your movie. But questions you get about casting, budget, production schedules or anything else that isn’t the story are traps. Your job is to provide a thoughtful, flexible answer, then turn the question back to the executive. All issues related to producing the script are their bailiwick. Your job is to stick with what you know: the story.
Some writers expect to have the executive’s full attention during the meeting, and feel that any interruption is disrespectful. However, when the executive’s phone rings, their assistant enters the room, or another type of interruption occurs, this is not a personal slight. This reflects the simple reality that anything that is a speculative project is a lower priority than a project that is actually in progress.
When you’re interrupted, this is the technique I recommend:
- Give the executive some space. Stay in the room and remove your attention from the executive if that’s appropriate. You can busy yourself with your waiting room materials.
- If appropriate, give the executive some more space. Offer to step outside the room or even to come back another time.
- Provide a summary. When the interruption is over, recap what’s happened so far. An effective summary reinforces your message and demonstrates your competence.
Executives will sometimes play devil’s advocate and grill a writer past the point of what seems necessary. This is partly because the executive may be expecting to receive a similarly rigorous interrogation if they take your idea to their colleagues and superiors. Also, sometimes executives want to know if writers can handle themselves under pressure. Making a movie is a difficult process, and if you can’t handle some tough, even annoying questions, you’re not someone the executive can count on. The way to handle this is to always keep your cool. Don’t get provoked, and don’t let the executive’s tone throw you off. Just answer the content of the questions and stay calm.
Now that you know how to handle these three common pitfalls, here’s one more mistake that most writers make: not following up. There were so many times that I’d be interested in working with a writer (just not on their current project), and I would ask them to follow up with me in a month and let me know what was going on. Less than one in ten ever did. The few that did follow up were much more likely to sell their projects or be hired for rewrite work.
How To Pitch Your Idea
I'm often asked, "What's the right way to pitch an idea?" There aren't any mandatory rules. But the term, pitch , gives the mistaken impression that when the time comes for you to discuss your idea, you're supposed to suddenly start overtly selling the idea to the listener.
A pitch is not a performance. It's a conversation to discover if there's a match between what the listener is looking for and what you have to offer. If you have a meeting with a producer or studio executive to pitch one of your projects, there are important guidelines you should follow when structuring your pitch.
An effective pitch should:
- Build rapport -- the most common mistake creative people make is that they start talking about their project before they have established rapport with the producer or studio executive. Find subject matter that creates common ground during "small talk" between you and the person you're pitching to. Doing so can be a major factor in selling your project.
- Establish a clear context for your pitch -- the simplest way to provide context is to define the genre of your script or to give a brief background of the story before you begin the detailed pitch.
- Create the experience of watching your script as a completed film -- comedy pitches should be funny and thriller pitches should have moments of surprise and suspense.
- Provide milestones for the listener -- include a few verbal cues: "As we move into Act Two," "At the midpoint of the story," or "In the final scene."
- Use concrete, specific language -- great pitches use precise words to create vivid visualizations. Avoid abstract themes and generalizations.
- Use set-ups and pay-offs to your advantage -- instead of telling the listener how everything turns out in your story, plant the seeds for the twists and surprising revelations to come.
- Recall the beginning of the meeting as you're leaving -- if you casually reference something personal that was discussed earlier, it's a very satisfying and thoughtful way to end a meeting.
Here are things to avoid in a pitch:
- Overselling -- the best meetings are conversational and interactive. Don't perform a rehearsed routine that sounds like an infomercial. If you believe in your project, your enthusiasm will shine through.
- Using comparisons -- don't compare movies to describe your project. Avoid descriptions such as, "It's Casablanca meets The 40 Year Old Virgin." These descriptions often confuse instead of clarifying. Unless you're purposely knocking off or spoofing a produced movie, avoid using movie titles to establish the context of your original idea.
- Describing every scene, character, or location -- at the most, your verbal pitch should be broken down into twelve distinct beats or segments: three for Act I, six for Act II, and three for Act III. Keep your description simple . If the executive wants to know more, he or she will ask.
- Using a lot of names -- refer to only the four main characters by name. It's hard to keep track of who's who in a pitch. Refer to the supporting characters by how they relate to the main characters.
- Being afraid to clarify elements of your pitch -- if the producer or studio executive looks confused, ask: "Could I make this clearer?" or "Do you have any questions at this point?"
- Disagreeing with anyone in the room -- even if you hate a studio executive's ideas or suggestions, do your best to take them at face value. It's perfectly acceptable to respond to these suggestions by saying, "Let me think about that and get back to you."