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This podcast is a replay of our Dec 8, 2022 Pitch Festivus event, where I was joined by Jacob Krueger Studio faculty members Steven Bagatourian, Keatyn Lee, Ron McCants, Karin Partin Wells and Jonathan Redding for a 3 hour pitching extravaganza!
The transcript includes my introductory lecture about how to pitch your screenplay or TV show from the event as well as pitching advice from each faculty members. To listen to the fabulous pitches of our competing students from the event, and learn even more about pitching from the faculty responses, please listen to the podcast.
Pitching is one my favorite parts about being a screenwriter. I love to talk about pitching because there was a time when pitching my screenplays was not my favorite thing to do.
There was a time when I had terrible social anxiety. And I was afraid to even talk to someone, much less pitch something that mattered to me.
I’m excited to talk to you about this, because now, I would pitch all day, every day if I could.
So even if you’re terrified of pitching, even if you’re an introvert, even if you don’t like selling, even if you don’t like talking about yourself, there are skills that you can develop that will allow you to succeed in pitching and to even enjoy it.
I want to start today by talking about some of those skills.
The most important thing to remember about pitching your screenplay: Pitching is Personal.
All pitching is personal. Pitching is relational. Pitching is about building relationships with people. That means the biggest mistake you can make when you’re pitching your script is to read your pitch! And the second biggest mistake you can make is to memorize it.
If you read your pitch, if you memorize your pitch, you are actually sending a couple of unconscious signals to the person that you are pitching, that you don’t want to send.
The first message you’re unconsciously sending when you read or memorize your pitch: “you’re not that special.”
When you read or memorize you pitch, you’re visually showing the person that you’re pitching, “I’m doing the same thing for you that I’m doing for everybody else. You’re not special. I’m just here trying to sell you something. And when I leave here, I’m going to read this same pitch to somebody else and somebody else and somebody else.”
The person you’re pitching is not consciously thinking that. But that’s the subconscious message that you’re sending the person.
Don’t read your pitch.
If you came to this event planning to read your pitch, don’t worry. You know your pitch better than anybody in the world. And that means you can pitch it without reading or memorizing it.
The second subconscious message that you’re inadvertently sending when you read or memorize a pitch for your movie or tv show: “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
If you wrote a screenplay, the truth is, you know that screenplay inside out.
If you wrote a screenplay, you’ve already done the hardest thing in the world.
And if you’ve written a good screenplay, you’ve done the hardest version of the hardest thing in the world.
That means you are the world’s authority on your pitch. There is literally nobody who knows your pitch better than you, because there is nobody who knows your project better than you.
So if you have something memorized, or if you read from something you’ve written down, you’re sending the message that you don’t actually know your script well enough to pitch it off-book, to just talk about it.
No matter how nervous you may be about pitching, you know on some level that’s not true, but that’s nevertheless the message you’re sending.
The truth is, you talk about things you’re expert in or that you’re a geek about all the time in your everyday life, and this is no different from pitching your script.
For example, I’m spending my winter skiing.
If somebody asks me, “Oh, how’s Breckenridge?” I don’t have to pull up a cheat sheet! “Well, let me tell you the great thing about snow.”
I know about skiing because I’m skiing. Because I’m actually doing it. I can talk from the heart, and I can talk about what’s cool about it for me.
If you translate that same ease and confidence to a pitch, it helps the person you’re pitching feel more comfortable. I’m not doing this weird sales pitch thing. I’m just having a conversation.
The third reason you don’t want to read or memorize your pitch is because you want your pitch to feel like a conversation, you want your pitch to feel like a connection, you want your pitch to feel like a real interchange of ideas.
Unless you happen to be a salesperson in your everyday life, in which case, you can throw away all of the notes I’m giving you, you’re probably not that experienced in pitching. But you are used to having conversations.
I want to suggest that you make your pitch a conversation.
One of the ways that you can do that is by watching the eyes of the person you’re pitching, which is really hard to do if you’re staring at your iPad.
If you’re pitching in a big group, like here at Pitch Festivus!, pick a set of eyes that you like. Pick a set of warm eyes, pick a set of eyes that feels supportive.
Look at that person, and read their eyes. You’re getting so many signals from just the eye contact of the person that you’re pitching!. And when you’re able to take in those signals, it’s going to allow you to act more like a real human being, who’s likable, rather than someone trying to jam a pitch down somebody’s throat and make them buy it.
What we’re about to do right now at Pitch Festivus! is as close as we can get to a real pitch in a group of 200 people. But it’s important to understand that on some level, this format is different from a real pitch in the industry.
In the real film and TV industry, there is no such thing as a timed “elevator pitch.”
Of course, you should have a short version on your pitch. Of couse you should be respectful of people’s time. But please remember that in the real world, no one is timing you!
Even if you’re stuck in the elevator with Martin Scorsese, he’s not sitting there with a stopwatch counting down your last 15 seconds. If he likes what you’re saying, he’s not going to cut you in the time it takes an elevator to get to his floor.
Early in my career, I got to write a script with the composers of Les Miserables. I was in my 20s. That’s insane!
You know how that happened? I was at a party. I was having a conversation with somebody; I wasn’t trying to sell anything. I was just talking to him. And he was sharing with me that his brother had recently died, and he was in real grief about it.
I happened to be working on true a story about loss that I thought was going to make him feel better. I told him about that screenplay because I thought it might help him see his brother’s death in a different way. I was trying to help him. I didn’t know that he was Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s agent! And that opened up this amazing door.
You want to be pitching all the time. You want to be talking about your script all the time.
If you’re afraid that somebody’s going to steal your script after hearing your pitch, I just want you to think again about how hard it was to write your script.
I want you to think again about the millions of choices you had to make in order to write your script. And then I want you to practice a little bit of Zen, and remind yourself, “Hey, if somebody can take a three-minute pitch, and do a better job on my screenplay than I can, then they probably deserve to have it.”
The truth is, nobody can steal your script. Because even if they took your idea, by the time it’s passed through them, it’s going to be a completely different movie or a completely different TV show.
You want to be talking about your script all the time. And there are two reasons you want to be doing that.
The first and most important reason you want to be talking about your script all the time is you never know who is going to turn out to be Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s agent. You never know who actually is going to help you. And sometimes it’s not the person that you think.
The second reason you want to be pitching your script all the time is that most connections, early in your career, are not made by famous industry people. It’s your dry cleaner. It’s your dentist. It’s somebody you met at a party, who happens to know somebody, who happens to know somebody else, who actually makes the introduction to the person you need to get to.
And the third reason is, the more you pitch your script, the more comfortable you’re going to get pitching your script. The less scary and high stakes it’s going to be.
If you’re pitching your script all the time, to lots of different people, and you’re reading their eyes, you learn to respond to the information they are silently communicating, and adapt your pitch to make it more compelling..
You learn to notice when they’re bored and shift your pitch to get them excited again. And you learn to notice when they’re interested and take that as a cue to go a little bit deeper.
Learn how to pitch your script in 50 different ways.
Then, when you finally end up in a room with the executive you’ve been dying to get to, you’re not so nervous. You’re having a conversation you’ve had 100 times before. You’re flexible. You can adapt.
You’ll start to recognize,
“Oh, when I pitch an “Adam” type person, I always pitch it like this… but when I pitch a “Mary,” I always pitch like that instead.
You can read the room and realize what version of the pitch you want to do, just based on the energy.
You want to be adaptable, you want your pitch to be able to shift and shape.
If they’re bored, you want to bring it to a close.
If they’re fascinated, you want to drill deeper.
Here’s a radical idea that will completely change your relationship with pitching your screenplay or TV show: When you’re pitching, you are not selling.
Unless you’re an experienced salesperson, if you try to sell, you are going to act weird, and the other person that you’re pitching is naturally going to put up a defensive wall.
Nobody likes the feeling of being sold.
You don’t even like the feeling of being sold. Not even when it’s something you want to buy! Nobody likes pressure.
Rather than thinking about your pitch as a way to sell, I want you to think about your pitch as a way to find your people.
Your pitch is a way to find your people. As you’re pitching, stop asking yourself, “do they like it?” or “do they like me?” or “are they going to buy it?” These questions will only make you feel more insecure. And they won’t help you sell your script.
Instead, try asking yourself, “do I like them?” Are these my people?
Let’s say you’re pitching Barry. As you’re pitching, ask yourself, “Do I dig Barry? Is there a good vibe here? Would we want to hang out? Would I want to spend a couple of years working with Barry?”
Because if I don’t, then I’m pretty foolish to sell my script to Barry. Because he’s the person I’m going to have to be working with for years! And he’s going to be the person who determines if my script actually gets made, or gets completely destroyed in development.
I like to think that my pitch is a way of helping somebody.
If I’ve done the work to make my screenplay beautiful, to make it something that could actually be made, that people would enjoy, and that takes them on a journey– if I have actually done that, then I have something that everybody in the industry desperately needs!
There are so few scripts that actually do that successfully. There are so few scripts that are actually ready to be pitched, including scripts by professional writers.
So ask yourself, is my script really ready? Have you gotten professional feedback? Have you done that last revision you’re so resistant to? Have you transformed it into something that would be a gift for any producer who read it?
Once you’ve answered those questions, there’s only one other question you have to answer during your pitch to know if you’re helping or not: does the person you’re pitching need your script, or do they need something different.
Let’s say I’m pitching Barry. I’m going to be trying to figure out from the moment I sit down to pitch, “does Barry need my script or does Barry need a different script?”
Because if I can’t help Barry, then maybe instead of pitching my script, I should introduce him to my student, Tammy. Maybe she has a script that he’d love.
I want to put myself in a role of helping, helping, helping… giving, giving, giving… because people like people who help them, and they want to help back.
So, how do you find out if the person you’re pitching needs your script?
The first thing you should do when you walk into a pitch meeting is not start pitching.
If you’re pitching a real executive, agent, manager, director, star… or even if you’re at a party just talking to somebody, don’t just launch into pitching your script.
Instead, talk to them like a real human being! Ask them questions! “What are you into? What are you looking for? What are you working on? What came out recently that you wish you made?”
You want to ask those questions, and you want to give them room to talk. Because if you do that, you might realize, “Hmm, I should actually pitch a different project than the one I planned.” Or you might realize, “Wow, I do not have the script for you!” Or you might realize, “I don’t even like this person’s taste. And they probably won’t like mine. This is not my person.” In which case maybe you can help get them in touch with somebody that you know who writes the kind of stuff they would like.
Unlike in a pitch contest, where you have no choice but to start by talking, in a real pitch meeting, the more you’re talking, the worse job you’re doing.
In a real pitch, you want to know where they are! What they’re looking for! You want them talking, and you don’t start opening your mouth until you know you have exactly the right thing for them.
And if you don’t have exactly the right thing for them, there are two things you can do.
OPTION 1: If you’ve been practicing pitching a lot, you can make up a pitch on the fly that you know they’ll love.
This was one of my favorite things to do at the end of my career. I would just go into an executives office and ask. “What are you looking for?”
And once they’d told me and I’d asked follow up questions and really understood it, I’d say, “I have something similar in development. It’s in the very, very early stages. But how about I pitch it to you and see if if you connect?”
And I would just make up a pitch! I’d basically just say back to them whatever they had said to me in a form that sounded like a story. And invariably, they would love it! “Yeah, I’d want to read that.”
And I’d say, “okay, great. Let me put together a one pager for you.”
Now I’m sending them a page. And now maybe I have some investment in that script. And I have a connection.
OPTION 2: If you’re not one of that kind of people who can make up a pitch on the fly, then I want you to say something like this.
“Wow, I do not have the right project for you! But I could really use some mentorship. Could I bend your ear for five minutes, tell you a little bit more about my project. And maybe you can give me some advice about how to get to the right person.”
By asking for mentorship instead of trying to force a sale on a producer who’s never going to buy your project, you take all the pressure off the producer (and yourself) and open the door for a real relationship to develop.
Barry doesn’t have to decide if he likes my script or not. Barry doesn’t have to worry about being sold. Barry just gets to play the role of a mentor, which is a role that everybody in the world likes, because it doesn’t cost you much, it’s a lot of fun, and it makes you feel great about yourself! And I’m going to build a relationship with Barry that might last my whole career. I may say something like this.
“Okay, Barry, look, I know it’s not for you. You make zombie movies. This is a romantic comedy. I know it’s not for you. But it’s like… (these other movies that made a ton of money in the last couple years) It’s got a roll for… (these actors, who, by the way, Barry has happened to work with, because I’ve done my research before I pitched Barry). The script is really good. And here’s what it’s about…”
I’m gonna pitch it to him. And then I’m going to shut up.
Nine times out of 10, Barry’s going to tell me he wants to read the script!
But now Barry feels like he’s making the choice. He may not be reading it because he thinks he’s going to make it. He may want to read it so he can decide if he’s going to really help me or not– whether it’s good enough for him to make an introduction. Or he might want to check it out just to make sure he’s not missing out on an awesome script, even though it’s not what he usually produces.
It’s also possible that Barry is going to tell you he doesn’t like your pitch. That’s great! You didn’t expect him to! So just bring him back to mentorship.
“Okay. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be right for you. But what would you do in my shoes? If it was your script? Where would you start? Who would you bring it to? “
What I’m trying to get Barry to do is to give me a name! Because once I get that name, now I’m not a cold caller anymore. Now I am a referral from Barry. I have a connection with Barry, I have a mentor.
Instead of just having somebody who says “no” to a script that I already know is wrong for him, I now have a mentor. Our friendship might go on for the rest of our careers. We might work on dozens of projects together. Or he might just become the person I call when I need some advice.
You are always in the job of helping when you pitch. You are never in the job of shoving something down somebody’s throat.
Start your pitch with something true about yourself.
Start your pitch with a true story about you, that helps the person you’re pitching understand what made you want to write the script and why this script matters so much to you.
Now, before you do this, I have to warn you not everybody is a nice person. Some people, when you start with a vulnerable true story, are going to respond badly, ”I don’t give a shit about you. Tell me what the story is…”
If you get one of those people, we have a technical name for them in the industry.
We call them assholes.
They are people who are never going to help you anyway.
And not only are they assholes, they probably not even real, experienced producers, because real producers, who’ve actually done this before, know that they’re going to spend a lot of time in the room with you. And they want to know who you are. They want to know if they like you. They want to know if they want to spend several years working with you. They’re asking themselves “Do I trust them? Do I feel like they’re going to be receptive when I need changes when I have notes?”
Real producers want to know who you are.
Most managers, stars, agents, directors, executives etc that you pitch are not assholes. They want to know who they are working with. And they want to know that you actually care about this project.
When you start your pitch with a true story about yourself that relates to why you are writing this movie or TV show, it shows them that this script matters to you.
It shows them that you’re not just another writer, throwing crap up against the wall to see if it sticks. That you are actually here to share something that matters to you. It builds connection.
Even if they don’t like the script, there’s a good chance they’re going to like you.
And that feeling of connection is going to help them want to help you. Even if they don’t like the script, they might ask what else you’ve got. Because you took that few moments to share something personal and true about yourself, it’s opened the door to a real relationship.
One more tip, for those of you who are nervous. Remember to breathe during your pitch.
The more nervous you are, the more you want to breathe.
When you finish an idea, take two breaths.
Notice, when I took those two breaths, that it actually gave me more authority in the room.
The other really beautiful thing about taking two breaths is that it will give you a chance to formulate your ideas, to think, briefly, “this is where I want to go next”
But the best thing about taking a breath is that most people can’t deal with silence.
When you take your breath, what will happen is usually the person you’re pitching will ask you a question.
And now you are no longer in this awkward monologue. You’re now in this wonderful situation where you get to answer a question about the thing you care most about in the world.
And that is so much easier!
Listen to the full Pitch Festivus! podcast to hear more pitching advice from our incredible mentors, plus 10 pitches from students in our community competing for the Pitch Festivus grand prize and receiving advice and feedback from our faculty!
*Edited for length and clarity.