Friday, September 6, 2013

How to Pitch a Movie or TV Show


Pitching: all working writers have to do it at one time or another, but in the aspiring writer world, it's a topic often mentioned but rarely parsed. Which is a shame, because if presenting your ideas (or your take on an idea) is essential to the professional writing process, perhaps we should talk more about it. Luckily, there are few illuminating resources and demos available. This blog collected some good pitching links in 2011, but we felt it was time for an update. 

The Hollywood Pitching Bible, by Douglas Eboch (writer on Sweet Home Alabama) and Ken Agaudo (producer on The Salton Sea) is a no-nonsense, cut-and-dry examination of pitching movies and TV shows. Segmented into brisk chapters, the book covers everything from pitch structure, room etiquette, and even what ideas you should be pitching in the first place. Already boldly assuming that the reader lives in LA or NYC right in its forward, The Hollywood Pitching Bible feels like a sharp weapon by your side as you brave the intimidating arena of pitching. It's worth a look. 

Note from Amanda: If you're specifically looking to pitch TV, also check out Small Screen Big Picture by Chad Gervich. He outlines exactly what goes into a TV pitch - and when I pitched a show to a TV studio, the advice I received from my producer was exactly in line with what Chad wrote. 

I haven't pitched a ton, so the following is certainly not a list of rules you must follow (everyone pitches differently)...but in both TV and feature pitches I've done, I've structured them this way:

1. Intro - why are you the perfect person to write this? Why are you passionate about the idea? Embarrassing childhood and dating stories welcome. Don't be afraid to geek out - people respond to passion. 

2. The concept - what's the show/movie? What's the world? What's it ABOUT on a thematic and emotional level? What movies or shows are tonally similar? 

3. The characters - who are we following? What are their qualities? What's an example of how they would react in a certain situation on the show? What's their backstory? How do they interact with and conflict with each other? What are their arcs (over the movie, or the series?) - what do they have to learn or deal with? Where are they going to go? How will they change? What are they discovering?

4. The pilot story/plot - if you're pitching a TV drama or a movie, then you'll want to go through the plot (but not get SO specific that your pitch gets too long or that things get boring). This is hard. When I pitched a movie, I noticed some of the producers get bored, so I cut some things out on the fly. Keep assessing your audience. They might want to spend more time on one area and skip over another. If you're pitching a TV comedy, the pilot story is less important - you really want to sell them on the show/world and the engine for creating stories, rather than one single episodic story.

5. Episode ideas - for a TV show, have ideas about where the show is going or what some episodes might be (again, dramas and comedies are a bit different here). But I pitched three different stories that got into the areas I was interested in. Any of them could have been the pilot.

6. Questions - Ask if your listeners have any questions. You may get a lot, you may not get any. Once a producer told me he didn't have any questions, and "Quit while you're ahead." 

I like to write out my complete pitch (which should take about 20 minutes or less) in prose a Microsoft word document. For me, it ends up being about 8 single-spaced pages, or 4,700 words (I talk quickly). Then I'll memorize it, but also print it out (or write it out in shorthand) on 3x5 index cards. Some writers say you shouldn't read off of anything, and I don't really READ the pitch, but I bring the cards in case I have a brain fart and totally forget something. The cards are there more as a security blanket just in case I need to look down. Also, I think index cards are better than full sheets of paper, because if you DO end up reading off them a bit, you'll be forced to look up and make eye contact when you have to move on to the next card. If you're afraid you'll use the cards as a crutch, write out the pitch in shorthand instead of printing out the whole thing. I find that if you just write out the first sentence of each paragraph, it will jog your memory and make you remember what you wanted to say - but since all the words aren't on the card, you won't keep looking down. 

Keep in mind that this advice is for formal pitch meetings. Often, you'll go on general meetings where you're asked about your ideas or what you're working on - but you won't give formal 20-minute pitches in these situations. In these cases, you just need to say a bit about concept, characters and/or why you're interested in an idea (it could literally be a 30 second explanation to start off with). Think of it more as testing the waters. Is this the kind of thing the company or person would want to do? See if the person responds to your idea and has some ideas to add. A lot of my generals have been kind of like brainstorming sessions. Producers, execs, etc. might also tell you why your idea won't work, or how it's too similar to another idea - which can be a little soul-crushing, but also helpful. They might have some insider information that will save you time and energy. But it's good to spend some time on small talk and also have a few mini-pitches ready for your general so that if an executive immediately shits on your idea, you'll have something else to talk about. Luckily, you don't usually have to guide a general meeting - the other person will be asking you questions and telling you about their company. I did have one meeting where two executives just stared at me until I said "Okay, so here's what I write about..." but I'm happy to say that's more the exception than the rule. 

Again, for more accounts of how people pitch, check out the links I compiled in 2011

Okay, back to Rob:

We're able to read professional scripts, but unfortunately we can't sit in on professional pitches. Luckily, Max Landis (Chronicle) detailed pitching techniques on a recent(ish) episode of the Nerdist Podcast, and even offered his own take on a Peter Pan prequel live on air. Even A-lister Damon Lindelof (Lost, Prometheus, World War Z) just sat down with Vulture, and, after detailing the current climate of tentpole movie pitches, was challenged to pitch the legend of John Henry as a blockbuster film. Lindelof did. Four different ways.

In another Nerdist writers podcast, THE GOLDBERGS creator Adam F. Goldberg also detailed his TV pitching experience at ABC, which included showing real home videos of his childhood. Usually pros advise against using aids or gimmicks - but since the show is based on his family, the authenticity of the ancillary materials really helped execs to see his vision. 

But part of improving your pitching skills comes just from practice. You can do this on your own, with patient friends, or even to professionals willing to volunteer their time. Just this last year, The Great American Pitchfest celebrated its 10th anniversary and continues to be a yearly festival where hopefuls can go, pitch, and receive feedback on both their idea and their Don Draper game. [Amanda's note: I wouldn't necessarily count on pitchfests as the only thing you do to launch your career, but I do think it's good for people to get practice.]

So, yes: pitching can be scary, but resources are out there to study, demonstrate, and help you prep. Keep an eye out and remember them for that next time you realize that, in so many cases, before any of us will ever get the chance to be paid to write something... we'll probably have to talk about it first.

What was your first pitch like? Chime in!

4 comments:

Waves of Gray said...

First of all, I was thinking just the other day how I wished there were more resources that addressed this subject, so this article seems like an answer to a prayer!

I have not yet had the opportunity to pitch at a studio, although I have pitched in more informal circumstances. I am still working on feeling comfortable selling my idea without feeling stupid, and remembering that everyone's goal is making good films (and making money). In that regard, they are on my side since they're hoping I have that million dollar idea, so I should not feel intimidated.

I'm not sure if most writers have that point of view. I'm sure my confidence will grow as I gain more experience.

Chris Ming said...

Awesome post Amanda! Thanks for breaking down your process, that's super helpful. Elliot and Rossio have posted a great pitch breakdown someplace in the interwebs, about how they use poster boards and flashcards, etc. to guide the room through the pitch.

Amanda said...

Happy to help! And thanks for the tip about Elliot and Rossio.

Roger Market said...

Thanks for the advice! It's nice to know the nuances between movies, TV drama, and TV comedy.