Are You Afraid of Pitching?
Halloween is coming up and I had all these thoughts about doing a podcast on horror. But by the time this podcast comes out, you are going to be so tired of people talking about horror movies, so instead of talking about horror movies, we’re going to talk about what’s really horrifying to many writers… pitching.
The source of the most abject terror for screenwriters is definitely having to go into a room and pitch your work.
There are exceptions to this rule. There are writers who love to pitch. I’m a writer who loves to pitch. But I didn’t start that way. When I started, this is how I experienced something as simple as having to make a phone call:
Okay, I’m gonna pick up the phone. No, no, I’m not ready. I’ll walk around. I’m going to pace around. I’m going to do some deep breathing. Now, I’m going to write down exactly what I am going to say. No, that’s not good enough. You know what? I should read the trades. I should read the trades just so I have something to talk about. So I’m up on everything. I’ll read the trades. Oh, it’s already four o’clock. It’s kind of late to call somebody. I mean, they’re probably ready to go for the day. Maybe I should just repeat this whole process tomorrow…
That was me, believe it or not, as a young producer. I was terrified of using the phone. In fact, I had to learn how to use the phone in order to do my job, and it was scary for me to get up there and pitch somebody else’s project, much less my own.
So, I want to talk to you about how I overcame that fear of pitching, as well as some ways that you can overcome your own fear about pitching your screenplay.
That process starts with understanding where that fear comes from. Like in any good horror movie, the real fear is in the anticipation.
Jaws is not scary when you see the shark. Jaws is scary when you don’t see the shark. The first season of Stranger Things is so freakin’ scary before you see the Demogorgon. When you finally see the Demogorgon, it’s fine… but it’s kind of anticlimactic compared to all the thoughts you had in your head.
In True Detective, you’re waiting for this horrible confrontation with this horrible killer. But the real interesting things happen way before that. When you finally find out who the killer is, it’s actually not as scary as all this stuff leading up to it.
The monster is only scary when it’s under the bed or in the closet.
The first rule for confronting your fear of pitching your screenplay (or any fear) is to get that monster out from under the bed or out from inside the closet where you can deal with it.
Psychologically and physiologically, there’s also an interesting thing that happens in your mind when you run from fear. It’s how your brain learns that something is “really dangerous.”
The more you run, the more your brain knows there is something to fear. And the more you’re like, meh, the more your brain says, maybe this isn’t so scary. Maybe this isn’t such a big deal.
Now, I don’t want to oversimplify the psychology of fear. There is a lot of psychology underneath fear. But there are some simple cognitive-behavioral things you can do. Remember, you’ve got to get that fear out in the open and confront it as quickly as you can.
Back to that example of young me making that phone call. What was the worst part of what I was doing? It was putting those phone calls off until the next day because of fear. That gives me another night to stew on today and imagine how bad it’s gonna be tomorrow.
We’ve got to get that fear out.
The next step in overcoming the fear of pitching is better understanding the nature of fear.
We’re more afraid of things that we aren’t used to than things that we are used to.
Think about COVID. When COVID first happened, most of us were terrified. It was brand new. Everyone in the country was like, “Man, I hope they can get those vaccines in time.”
Then, after a year of oddly getting used to it, some people don’t even want vaccines. It’s just not that scary to them anymore. We get used to things that used to seem completely intolerable, and they become tolerable. And unlike with COVID, pitching can even become pleasurable.
In order to confront your fear, you need to recognize that you might not be able to fight the big dragon right away. You’re not taking down the Night King on your first day.
Part of confronting the fear of pitching is breaking the fear into manageable steps.
Each day you can take a little step, and then another little step, and then another little step… In that way, you build a rhythm and make this something you just do so it all becomes that much less terrifying.
That might be a day just spent talking about your script to yourself.
I’m just going to pitch it to myself in a bunch of different ways. I’m going to record some videos of myself talking about the script, play them back for myself, and see if there are any that I like.
Maybe then I’ll take the next step and talk about it with a friend, or my mom, my dad, my best friend, another writer.
Maybe I’ll take the next step and go to a public place and talk to some strangers about it.
Maybe I’ll take the next step and make a list of low level producers I can practice talking to about it.
Maybe I’ll take the next step and go to a pitch fest where I can just practice. (Please trust me, you’re not going to sell your script at a pitch fest.) But maybe I can just go to a pitch fest where I can practice.
(On that note, make a note: Pitch Festivus – our free annual pitch fest – is coming up on December 9.)
You want to break the steps down so that you’re confronting a little piece of your fear each day.
Outside of the cognitive-behavioral approach to overcoming your fear of pitching, there’s also an emotional component.
Most of us are insecure. It’s not necessarily even that we’re insecure about pitching. We might just be insecure about our work as writers. So many of us wonder is our script really that good? Are we really that good? Are we really even ready to pitch? Should we be pitching anybody? Do we deserve this? Are we ready to take that step?
Because of this insecurity, a lot of writers, who are otherwise perfectly reasonable, decent, wonderful human beings, when pitching suddenly turn into the worst kind of used car salespeople.
You probably understand what I’m talking about here.
I was a producer very early in my career, and there was a very talented manager who worked at the same company that I worked in that represented actors. We weren’t close friends, but we were acquaintances and I respected him. One of my very good friends was a wonderful, gifted actor. And I wanted him to meet this manager. I thought that they would hit it off and maybe he would get some representation.
So I threw a big party, and I invited my manager friend and my actor friend to the party, and as soon as I could, I found an opportunity to gently introduce them.
And my actor friend – who was the nicest guy, lovely to talk to, such a people person, just a wonderful dude – suddenly started acting like a used car salesman. His conversation with this manager sounded something like this:
Oh, my god! You’re a manager! I’m an actor! Can you help me?!
Many of us as writers do that, too. You’re at a party, you meet a producer, and suddenly you turn into this salivating dog. You’re a producer? Will you make my script? Will you read it? Will you do it?
As opposed to saying, Oh, you’re a manager? Cool! What are you working on? What are you into? What are you interested in? What gets you excited?
Many writers think of pitch interactions being like the elevator pitch. As if all pitches happen while you’re going up an elevator, and if you don’t finish your pitch in time, you’re screwed.
But it’s not true.
Sure, there may be some kind of ticking clock if you’re competing in a pitch fest,but real pitches are like most other human interactions. There’s nobody standing there with a stopwatch. And you don’t show up and instantly launch into a song and dance.
You come in and you say, Hey, what’s up? It’s so nice to meet you. You drink some water, you have a coffee, you chat, you make small talk, and you get to know the person.
So many well-intentioned writers are so busy rushing to the pitch, they never even take a moment to get to know the person they’re pitching, or to share anything real about themselves.
I think the mistake happens on two different levels. On the simplest level, that mistake happens because we’re trying so hard to make the sale in the room.
I want you to think about this:
What would happen if you didn’t try to sell your script?
What would happen if you tried to find the people who you would love to work with instead? The people you respect? the people with whom you connect?
Instead of trying to sell something to somebody, what would happen if you tried to figure out what they needed and tried to help them find it? And if that need happened to be your script, then great! And if that need happened to be something else, then you’ve still tried to help them.
What if instead of trying to build a sale, you tried to build a friendship? How would that change the way you feel about pitching?
Some of us have social anxiety. I had social anxiety early in my career and it’s probably part of the reason I ended up a writer. But don’t worry. You can overcome social anxiety. I don’t have social anxiety today.
How do you overcome it? You overcome it by doing the things that you already do.
Are you good at being a decent human being? Well, start there.
One thing a decent human being doesn’t do, that so many writers do, is try to sell somebody something that’s crap.
A decent human being doesn’t say, Look I have this good idea with this barely completed screenplay that I kind of blew out in a weekend. I don’t have any training and I haven’t had a single bit of professional feedback about it and I haven’t really taken it to the next level. Would you buy it from me for a lot of money?
A decent human being doesn’t do that.
Imagine going to a used car lot and saying, Hey, I’m looking for a really great car. Something in perfect condition. Something awesome. A diamond in the rough. Something special. I want something that has a little spark to it, but something that’s going to be reliable. Something I can depend on.
And the salesperson says, Well, over here I have exactly what you need. You look and it’s a Ford Taurus from 1987. It has a fresh coat of paint on it and a weird spoiler or something.
A decent human being doesn’t do that. A crappy used car salesperson does that. Somebody who’s not thinking about the other person at all. Somebody who is only thinking about, What’s in it for me? What do I get?
You can feel it on that person. You can feel the smarminess of the person who’s trying to sell you something.
Now, there are a few people who are just genuinely good at manipulation and are a little bit sociopathic who are great at selling in this way. If that’s you, great. You can ignore everything that I’m saying and continue to sell in whatever way builds your career. But I like to look at myself in the mirror and feel good about myself. And it makes it a lot more comfortable for me to pitch something to somebody if I fully believe in it.
So before you start pitching your heart out, ask yourself if you fully believe in this script. Have you really done the work? Have you really developed the script as far as you can take it? Have you gotten some feedback from a professional that you respect, (not your mom, who loves everything). Somebody who knows more than you do..
To return to our metaphor, when you’re pitching your script, you want to be a Lamborghini dealer, not a used car salesperson.
Here’s the difference: Not everyone can afford a Lamborghini. Not everybody even wants one. I don’t even want a Lamborghini. Honestly, I’d rather have some crappy fun car that I can bang around in than a car that’s worth more than my mortgage.
But the people who want a Lamborghini… you don’t have to convince them.
You don’t have to say, Look what this model has! You don’t have to say, You should do this!
The person who wants a Lamborghini, and can afford a Lamborghini, simply needs to go to the dealer and pick the Lamborghini they like. The Lamborghini sells itself. And the truth is, there’s nothing you can do to talk that person in or out of a Lamborghini. It’s either the color and the look that they want or it’s not.
The same is true with your screenplay.
Unless you’re one of those few who should have been an agent or a manager and have that ability to talk somebody into anything, for most of us, there’s nothing you can say that’s going to actually change whether a producer wants your script or not, except the script itself.
In fact, everything you’re saying in your pitch is really just going to open the door and allow them to consider whether they should read your script.
So rather than trying so hard to sell or to convince, put your focus first on really doing the work on your script. Don’t make it a good script with a great idea. Don’t even make it a great script with a great idea. Make it an exceptional script.
One of the tricks I use to figure this out for myself is to ask, What’s the budget of what I’m writing?
Let’s say I’m writing a low-budget film. Not a micro-budget, but a well-financed indie film. Let’s say I’m writing a million dollar movie and I have a 100-page script. What that means is that every page of my script is worth $10,000. That means that every line of action I write, every line of dialogue I write, is worth about $1,000.
Which means that I’m literally asking the person that I’m talking to to give me $1,000 for this line of dialogue and for that line of action.
That’s what a million dollar budget is. If you’ve got a bigger budget, add a zero. Bigger budget? Add another zero.
If you think about it that way, you can literally just read your script and ask yourself, If somebody gave me this line of action, and said, ‘Would you rather have this line in the movie? Or would you rather have a thousand dollars in your pocket?’ Well, what would I take?
If you look at any line and say, That one’s not that important, I’ll take the $1000 instead, then your script isn’t actually ready to pitch. Because then you’re asking somebody to do something that you wouldn’t do. You’re asking somebody else to put their money where you wouldn’t put it.
This means taking your work through each of the four phases of writing (for more about this, check out my Write Your Screenplay class), and then getting real professional feedback so you know it’s really done. I’m not talking about crappy coverage readers (and coverage readers, I love you. I’m not saying that you’re crappy people. Some of you are wonderful people). I was a coverage reader at the beginning of my career. But when I was a coverage reader, just like most coverage readers, I didn’t know what I was doing. And even if I had known what I was doing, I wouldn’t have had time to really do it. Because at that time I was an intern reading five scripts every evening. Even paid coverage readers generally only get paid $35-$50 per script. Think about how fast they have to read to make that worth it. Even if they did know what they were doing, they still couldn’t give you real feedback on your script. They have to skim your script and rush the notes just to survive and eat.
You also want to be careful about producer feedback. Producers hate reading (unless they’re actually invested in the project). Sometimes a producer, instead of saying, You know, this isn’t great for me, might say something like, You should change this, this, and this.
And then you’ll say, Well, if I change all those things, would you want it?
And they’ll say, No, probably not.
And you realize, Oh, it’s just not their taste. It’s just not their genre.
They’re not looking for a Lamborghini, they’re looking for a minivan. It doesn’t matter what I change in my Lamborghini. I can add one of those weird sliding doors, and maybe I can stick a back seat in there, but they’re still not going to buy it. And all I’m gonna end up with is a really messed up Lamborghini.
That’s why you’ve got to know what your piece is and why you really want feedback from a professional writer.
When I say professional, I don’t mean an aspiring professional writer who’s never sold a script. I mean a professional writer who does this for a living, who’s been there before. If you need help with that, let us know because that’s what we do. We match up upcoming screenwriters with professional writers who mentor them.
When you’ve actually done that work, you’re going to experience a really rare feeling when you pitch your screenplay: Confidence.
You’re gonna know you have a Lamborghini and you’re going to feel that confidence. You’re going to know that you worked harder than most writers are willing to work. You worked longer than most writers are willing to work. You invested more than most writers were willing to invest.
Most writers just throw stuff up against the wall to see if it sticks, even professional writers. They’re doing this used car salesperson shtick. You wanna buy it? You wanna buy it? You wanna buy it? As opposed to, What is it? What do I love about it? Have I made the most out of it?
You’re still not gonna have a script that’s for everybody. A lot of people are going to hate it, and they should hate it just like you hate movies that other people love.
People recommend movies to me all the time. Oh my god! It was amazing! And I see it and I’m like… meh. There are movies that I love that other people may react to with… meh.
We all have strong genre preferences, so some people are going to hate it. That’s great! Others are gonna love it. Not everybody wants a Lamborghini. But in the screenwriting world, it’s really rare that you see a Lamborghini.
Most of the screenplays people are pitching should probably be in a scrapyard somewhere. The door is hanging off, there’s no engine, it’s got one really beautiful tire.
And the reason that these scripts kick around is because the biggest producers and the biggest agencies already have all the good scripts.
Most of the really great scripts, written by really great experienced writers, get snatched up before anybody else even knows they exist.
There are a lot of hungry people who don’t get that first phone call from CAA, a lot of hungry producers who don’t get that first look at that script. So they’re out looking around for the diamond in the rough. And mostly what they’re finding is scrap parts.
They’re saying, Well, I can take this engine and make it stick in this chassis. And that beautiful tire, well, that will look nice. I can find three more of those, right?
They’re trying to piece together a car through this weird development process, which is hard because, honestly, they’re not auto mechanics or auto engineers. They don’t really know how to build it. They just know that this is not working yet, but it’s got some beautiful elements.
It’s rare that they’ll even see a car that’s gonna run, much less an actual Lamborghini (by which I meana movie that you can actually shoot the way it was written, a movie that could actually attract a star based on the way it was written, a movie where all those thoughts and all those decisions have been handled with that kind of specificity and love and care from the beginning). It’s rare. Everybody wants that. And everybody wants to help the writer who wrote it.
When I was a producer, there were often scripts I fell in love with that I knew I couldn’t make. I knew I couldn’t convince my boss to make this movie. But I would fall in love with the writer. Often the writer would find a little note from me asking, What else have you got? or a meeting with me where I asked, What else have you got?
Sometimes I would put the writer up for another project. They might not even know me, but I was a fan because I was seeing something special from them that stood out from all that garbage that I was used to seeing.
The next thing to understand, it’s never just about “the script.” It’s always about the writer.
The truth is you want to build the library before you really get serious about pitching.
You want to make sure you’re ready to go through that door. If you’ve only written one good script, what’s gonna happen if you sell it? Well, I hope you sell it, but just think about it. Now you’re going to have an agent and your agent’s going to say, What else have you got?
And you’re gonna say, Nothing
And your agent’s gonna say, Okay, dude, call me in a few months when you’ve got a script.
Meanwhile, your agent has no ability to get you a job. Because you need at least two great scripts as a writing sample. And they can’t send your first script to anyone because it’s already sold.
And by the time you finally get that next script done, your agent will have forgotten about you. Because they’ve just signed another exciting new writer, and that person is now the one who has their attention.
This is what happens to so many writers who get lucky a little too quickly. Granted, that’s a high class problem. And if that happens to you, great! We’ll deal with it. We’ll figure out how to get you up and running quickly.
So please hear me correctly! I’m not saying that if Martin Scorsese actually does show up in the elevator, you shouldn’t pitch him your script. Please pitch him your script no matter where you are in the process!
But before you make pitching a full time job, before you put your focus on that, get your muscles ready.
Get your muscles ready, so if you get hired and put into a writers’ room, you can turn around three scripts in two weeks. Get your muscles ready so that when somebody says I need you to revise all of this. I need a page one rewrite, you can say, No problem. I know how to do that. I’ve done that. I’ve been here before.
You want to be confident. You get confident by doing the work. You get confident by having done the work on a lot of scripts and by really being ready.
You want to bite off little pieces so you can start to build your confidence and you can start to flush that monster out from the closet where it’s less scary. You want to get comfortable with rejection, because you’re not trying to sell anything. What you’re actually trying to do is figure out who deserves your script.
See, if you’ve done all the things that I’ve suggested, then the script you are pitching is actually a Lamborghini. And that means you are no longer a beggar. You are now a chooser.
Now look, a lot of people don’t know you have a Lamborghini. They’ve got to read it first. That means developing certain skills that allow you to talk about it.
But it actually begins by saying, You know what? I am not a beggar. I’m a chooser. I’m not a used car salesperson. I’m a Lamborghini dealer. I actually have the thing that certain people are looking for. Not everybody. But there are certain people who would kill for this, because it’s actually ready to go.
Now what I have to do is get out there and start talking to people, not like a jerk who’s trying to shove something down their throat, but like somebody who has something really valuable. And my job is to feel them out and see if they are worthy for it, if they’re the right kind of partners to share my baby with. Are they the kind of people I would like to collaborate with? Are they cool? Are they interesting? Do we vibe together and have a good conversation? Do I want to spend the next two years of my life with them?
All pitching is personal. What you really want to develop is the ability to ask awesome questions.
Ask people about themselves and talk about what projects they are interested in. And if they’re not looking for your project, don’t pitch them your project!
If you’ve got the Lamborghini of zombie movies, and they make character-driven romantic comedies, don’t say, Oh boy, do I have a zombie movie for you! No! Instead say, Oh, wow! Talk to me. What are some of the romantic comedies you’ve seen that you love? What’s the movie you saw recently that you wish you had made? Ask yourself, Do I know anybody who’s got a good romantic comedy that this person might like? Do I have a romantic comedy idea this person might like? If you don’t, you say, Boy, do I not have the right script for you! I write zombie movies. Can I pick your brain for a second?
And this is the most important thing: Remember. You’re not trying to sell anything. You’re trying to help.
If they’re looking for what you have when you pitch, then you just share what you have with them. If they’re not, then you turn them into a mentor.
People love being mentors. It’s so much more comfortable than having to say no to somebody. It’s so much more comfortable than having somebody pitch their heart out on something you knew from the first sentence you were not going to buy. It’s so much easier when somebody says, Wow, I’m probably not the right writer for you. Or I would love to do another project for you. But what I came to pitch you is probably not something that you’re going to want. Hey, can I pick your brain for a second?
Almost always, they’ll say, Yes.
Then you say something like this, Look, I know this is not for you, but I’m an emerging writer. I’ve got a strong script and I need some advice. Who would you bring it to? And then you pitch your heart out… quickly.
I always like to start with a little personal story about myself, something that made me want to write it so they can connect to me personally. Then a nice quick pitch, capturing the essence of the story and the heart of what makes it beautiful for you.
I want to have some comps in my back pocket. I’m going to have some movies or shows like it that made a lot of money and were successful in the last few years.
When I pitch them the script in this mentorship context, I’ll say, Look, I know it’s not for you, but I also know someone’s gonna make money on it not only because it’s good, but because it’s got a great role for this guy that you work with. (I won’t say “that you’ve worked with” but I’ll know who they’ve worked with because I’ve prepped for my pitch!) It’s got a great role for this guy. It’s like this movie and this movie and that movie that made this much money at the box office. I know somebody’s gonna make a lot of money on this. And I know the script is really good. I’ve gotten professional feedback. I’ve worked on it for a couple years. I’m really happy with where the script is. So if you were in my shoes, who would you bring it to?
Then you shut up… because whoever speaks next loses. They will feel the need to fill the silence. Maybe they’ll fill it with a I dunno. In that case you say, You certainly know more than I do! So if you were in my shoes, where would you start?
Or they’ll say, Maybe I’d bring it to Netflix.
And you say, Oh, who do you like over there?
You know, I like Sally Jones over there. (I’m making up Sally Jones – she’s not a real person that I know!)
And then you only have one other question, which is, Can I mention your name when I call?
Almost always, they will say, Yes.
If they say no, then don’t mention their name because Sally is gonna slack them or text them and ask, Did you really send this dude?
But usually they’ll say yes. Because you’ve shown yourself to be a cool person, and it costs them nothing.
What’s incredible is now you’re not making a cold call to pitch your script anymore. You’re not some random person knocking on the door. You’re now somebody that the producer, whom you just spoke to, has recommended.
Also, you just built yourself a mentor. You were real with them. And you made this person a part of your team. Which means at that point, as soon as you get your Yes, you get the heck out!
Thank you so much for your time. I’m so grateful. It means a lot to me to have your mentorship. I’m sorry, I didn’t have the right project for you. But when I write a romantic comedy, you’ll be the first door I knock on. And then you get out and keep them posted. Now you’ve got a friend in your corner and you’re starting to build your friendships in the industry.
And if you’re in the same meeting, and the person’s a jerk, don’t worry. You don’t want to deal with jerks. The only horror worse than having someone say no to your screenplay, is having a jerk say yes. Because that jerk will make you miserable for the next couple of years. That jerk will drain the joy and the fun and the creativity out of your writing. That jerk will end up destroying the project that you love.
You’re not trying to sell anything when you pitch your screenplay because selling is scary for most of us. What you’re really looking for is your tribe; people whom you love and connect with and who love and connect with you.
You’re looking for mentors. You’re playing the long game. You’re looking for people that you can help. You’re trying to make everybody’s day a little bit better.
When you start to do that, pitching becomes a lot less scary for you, hopefully just like it did for me. I wasn’t a person who liked to sell, but I’ve always been a person who likes to help. And if you start to realize that when you’re pitching, what you’re really doing is helping, suddenly a whole new door opens and pitching can actually become fun.
I hope you enjoyed the podcast. Please subscribe, review, help spread the word, and come join me for free every Thursday night for Thursday Night Writes.
*Edited for length and clarity