Pitch Festivus: Pitching Tips from Jake & the Faculty
This episode features a transcript from our recent Pitch Festivus event, in which faculty members from JKS shared their insights into how to pitch screenplays, TV shows, plays, novels and other writing projects.
Jake: Hello everybody! I am so happy and delighted to be surrounded by so many wonderful writers from our community. We have almost all of our faculty here, and it is just great that in these crazy times we can all still be together connecting and creating.
Let’s talk about pitching. In a moment, I am going to introduce you to my whole team, and we are going to learn how to pitch from all these talented writers.
The first person that I want to introduce– we are going to go in alphabetical order, but this works out perfectly–the first person that I want to introduce is my mom, Audrey Sussman. Audrey is not a screenwriter, Audrey is a hypnotherapist.
Audrey does hypnosis for artists, she does hypnosis for anxiety, and the way that she works in our school is helping our students through the emotional side of screenwriting and through those roadblocks that get in the way. She is also a master of NLP, which is an incredibly valuable sales technique in addition to being an incredibly powerful therapeutic technique.
And so, Audrey, mom, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how hypnosis works and how people can break through those blocks that they have about pitching when they feel anxious about it?
Audrey: When you are pitching or when you are writing and you feel like “agh!” anxiety gets in the way of you being at your best. Your creativity gets kind of stifled because you are anxious. Those are called triggers that are set into the unconscious. And you may not realize where they are coming from. Many times, they come from childhood.
So, what we can do hypnotically is release some of that trauma (almost like from the cellular level) or whatever caused those triggers to get set in, and you create a new pathway so that when you go to pitch you step into calm and confidence, and you are at your best.
I work with some of the students privately, and one of the guys had a big movie that had already come out and when he came to me he was anxious because he was thinking, “How am I going to recreate this? How am I going to do this again? They are paying me all this money!” He was creating some negative self-talk and self-doubt. We found out it was coming from earlier in his life, got rid of it, and then he flowed with his writing.
So, any time you are feeling that you are getting stuck, there is usually a little younger you inside that is triggering you. So, you can use hypnosis and neurolinguistics in pitching. If you know how to use words and matching body language, many times it helps the person you are pitching to feel like you are like them. And so, there is a whole slew of information about how to use body language, words, to make your pitch even that much more powerful.
Jake: Will you teach us all a quick NLP matching thing that we can all do right now that we can use next time we are in a pitch meeting?
Audrey: Absolutely. I was working with this guy and he was trying to get a grant, and he did not get it the first time and he begged the person, “Can I just pitch you one more time?” And I did not have time to teach him words and neurolinguistics and hypnosis, I said, “Okay all I want you to do is match the body language, whatever that person does I want you to match it.”
So when the guy shouted, “You are…” (SLAMS HAND ON TABLE), “….not going to get this,” the guy mirrored him, (also slamming his hand on the table) “I absolutely understand what you are saying and one of the reasons why I feel this is so important…”
And then when he felt the guy kind of moving forward, he also leaned forward a little bit. And he stopped talking, then all of a sudden, he saw the guy move back. When he saw that, he realized he was losing him, so he changed his tactic until the guy leaned forward again.
So, sometimes just mirroring or matching the body language is a really easy thing to do. If you have noticed I speak with my hands, so if you wanted to create rapport with me, you are not going to wave your hands all over the place, but you might want to use your hands a little bit to create rapport.
So, if you are pitching someone and they are a hand mover, you might want to notice what they are doing with their hands, and you might want to change your body position so that you are facing them, mirroring, mirror image. So, is that a good tip?
Jake: I think it is a great tip and there was a question from one of our writers– “does this work on zoom?”
Audrey: Oh yeah, I work with people all over the United States and now all my clients are on zoom. But even before, for seven years we have been on zoom, and I have been working with them on zoom teaching them how to do this and it works.
Jake: Thank you so much. So next, I have Christian Lybrook. We used to do retreats, back when people could be together, and we did a retreat in Costa Rica and Philip Gilpin (the guy who runs ITV Fest which is now Catalyst) called me up and he said, “There is this incredible writer, and he cannot afford to come to your retreat, but you have got to bring him.”
And it took me like two minutes knowing Christian to understand why Philip believed in him to that degree. And it has been so beautiful to watch Christian blossom as a screenwriter into an extraordinary teacher. Christian teaches ProTrack for us.
And so, Christian, I would love for you to talk a little bit about how you work with students at the studio and how you think about pitching.
Christian: Well, first of all thanks for the great intro and welcome everybody. I am excited to see some familiar faces here as well as lots of new ones. As Jake mentioned, my name is Christian Lybrook, I am one of the ProTrack mentors at the studio and I work with writers one-on-one. What we do together in that program is an effort to dig into your story to figure out what is the best way to render your story on the page.
A lot of times in workshop environments people are given feedback that is not so helpful. Another writer might say, “I think your movie should be this,” and you are like, “That is great, but that is not the movie I want to write.” So, my job is to figure out, “Oh! That is the movie you want to write,” and I work really intensely with writers one-on-one to help them achieve this.
So, I work with writers that are working on features and TV projects and really, I run the gamut from comedy, drama, thriller, horror, sci-fi. And I love, love, love working with writers.
And that really brings me to the segue of pitching, because that same emotion that I am able to bring to sessions with writers is the same emotion I need to bring to my projects when I come into the room to pitch.
The truth is, most writers hate pitching. It’s not in us, that’s why we write! Otherwise we would be actors! And we get nervous and blah, blah, blah…. but you cannot fake emotion. And so, if you can bring that into the room, you are off already to a running start. So that is the first thing that I would stress, when working on a pitch.
Jake: You have heard from both Audrey and Christian now, and so much of whether your pitch is successful or not is actually not dependent on the words, right? It is dependent on the rapport, it is dependent upon the emotion that you bring, bringing yourself in, coming in open.
And this is such a valuable lesson because we are writers, so we get hung up on the words, right? And then we get anxious because we start to feel like, “Oh, no!, Pitching! That is like what salespeople do, that is not me.”
But remember, as Christian is pointing out, that you love this project, right? You are doing this because you are the only person in the world crazy enough to write this, because you need it that badly. And if you bring that kind of energy, what happens is people end up picking up the phone for you like Phillip did for Christian.
People end up picking up the phone because they want to help you, because they want to fight for you, because they feel that passion. Everybody wants to feel that passion. So, thank you so much for sharing that with us, Christian.
Next up, I have Jerry Perzigian. Jerry is an Emmy Award Winner. He was a showrunner on “Married…with Children,” “The Jeffersons,” “The Golden Girls.” He was a writer on “Frasier” and “The Nanny,” if it was a hit show in the 80’s or 90’s, Jerry was running it or writing on it.
He is also not only the funniest guy I know, but he is also one of the kindest people I know, and a man who truly has no ego, even though he has accomplished so much. I so admire his love for his students; it is such a beautiful thing to watch.
So, thank you, Jerry. I would love for you to talk about what you do at the studio and how you think about pitching.
Jerry: What we do in my classes that I think is most useful to the students is that we run our sessions, our group sessions, exactly the way that a Writers’ Room is run.
So, it is a democracy… if it’s a three-hour class, it’s a democracy for two hours and fifty minutes and then it is a dictatorship for the last ten minutes because somebody has to decide which way the story is going to go, or which joke to use, or which line to feed the main character.
So, by doing what you will be doing when you are actually working on a TV series, it demythologizes the process.
I was so scared when I got to Hollywood, thinking “everybody is smarter than me and knows more than me” and then I discovered that it is a grind, and it is hard, and it is difficult, and it is challenging for everybody. So, demythologizing and working the way they work in Hollywood is what happens in my rooms.
Jake: And how do you think about pitching?
Jerry: Well, I agree with Christian that if writers liked pitching, they would either be salesmen or actors. So, we hate pitching, but it has to be done. And I do not know if I entirely agree with the statement that you cannot fake passion because I have faked passion many times. I mean in my pitches, I would put in adlibs in the margin to pretend like I just thought of it on the spot, but it was rehearsed for days.
So, I do not know if that is good advice or bad advice, but you should absolutely be passionate. Whether it is fake passion or real passion, you should absolutely be passionate — and be clear and be brief.
Jake: Yeah, brief is such a good note. You know we talk all the time about this idea of elevator pitches. But the elevator pitch does not actually exist! You are never going to get locked in an elevator with Martin Scorsese and have to get the whole pitch out before you hit floor eight. Life does not actually work that way.
You might get locked in an elevator with Martin Scorsese, in fact I gave this lecture and one of my students did. But if you are pitching well, you do not have to get the whole pitch out before he reaches floor eight, because he is going to want to hear the rest. But, remembering that the first part of your pitch is just designed to open the door, remembering to breathe, remembering to keep it clear and concise, and not to allow yourself to prattle on and on, makes it a lot more likely that the person is going to say, “Hey, tell me more about that.” “Oh, what happens next?” “Oh, how does that work?” So, think about your pitch as a way of opening that door.
I would also love to share, I put my teachers through hell before I hire them and during Jerry’s interview, he was the only teacher who did not have to go through hell, because he said one thing and I knew that I was going to work with him. I asked him, “What piece of advice would you give a comedy writer?” And he said, “First write it true, then make it funny.”
And I will never forget that piece of advice, I thought it was such a brilliant piece of wisdom realizing that you can find the humor in anything, you can add the humor to anything… and maybe Karin will tell the story, but I remember when I pushed Karin to take Jerry’s class and she said, “But Jake I am not funny.”
And of course, Karin turns out to be hilarious, but realizing that comedy like anything else, is a skill, it is a layer that you add, it is a tool that you can develop, I was really moved by that piece of advice that Jerry gave.
Jake: So next up, I have Karin Partin Wells.
Karin: Hi, yeah, I was not funny. I am funny, but I am only funny when I am awkward. I make it awkward, I am not meaning to be funny. So, Jerry definitely did teach me how to do structure and then a button up joke and then how to put jokes in there throughout, for sure. I did not know how to be funny until I took Jerry’s class, so I highly recommend his class.
Jake: Karin was always a brilliant writer. Karin came up through our program and what was so amazing that came out of that is there was a change in the tone of Karin’s writing.
Karin started writing these incredibly funny scripts about the saddest topics. She has this piece called “Overdue” that is one of the most devastating TV dramas I have read, which is about a mom trying to have a baby and failing. And she works at a Planned Parenthood so everybody in the world can have a baby but her. And it is so funny, and it is so, so sad.
And one of the really interesting things about Karin is every time she figures out who she is, she reinvents herself in a brilliant way. I remember Karin saying, “you know what Jake, I want to write procedurals” and for like a year crunching away just churning out procedural, after procedural. “And you know what Jake; I am writing a goofy action comedy like ‘Romancing the Stone.’”
And I so admire that, especially when we think about pitching ourselves, right? It is easy to kind of put yourself in a pigeonhole and think, “Well, I just do this.” But Karin is like the Picasso of screenwriting. Every time she figures something out, she is trying to figure something new out.
Karin: With the students it is mostly about listening, and seeing what they are trying to say, really helping them try to find the story that they are trying to tell.
I work a lot with structure, so I personally focus a lot on that A-to-Z journey and tracking the wants, because that is how your audience connects. It can be the coolest premise, but if we are not following a character’s wants, if we do not understand their wants or why they want it or how they are going about getting it, it’s hard to connect to. If you have ever watched a movie and felt, “I really liked it, but I just could not connect to it,” well that is why, there were not active wants. So there might be a really cool premise but there was not an active structure.
So, personally I push my students really hard to have structure, which is why I studied procedurals. It was not necessarily because I loved “Bones,” although do I love “Bones,” that could be the only show I could watch for the rest of my life. But I think it was about really trying to learn structure from procedurals because they are very clear both with an active structure and character development. They have a very obvious structure, for example, “Bones” follows the scientific method and her partner follows his gut. So, it is very easy to understand where things are coming from in those shows.
So, I push a lot on structure, but ProTrack is different for everybody and every single meeting is different, really. For example, you can bring your web series, people sometimes bring their short films, and I can help them with editing because I went to NYU Film School, so I can kind of get into all the different aspects whether it is the story of your play or your web series or your feature or your TV series. I have even worked with novelists before, so it is kind of whatever you want your hour to be. That basically is ProTrack.
As far as pitching goes, I think people focus too much on the logline. So, you write this really academic thing down and it sounds great and in writing it is great, but when saying it aloud it is just very intellectual. I remember teaching at Catalyst Fest with Steve Molton, we were both teaching pitching, and he is a Columbia professor as well as a Jacob Krueger Studio faculty member, so people would come from his training with these incredibly worded pitches and I would be like, “Great now pitch to the cast of “Broad City” or “Workaholics” because that is me.”
So, you have to kind of also figure out who you are and how you speak. Do you speak more like a Steve Molton or do you speak like me? And it is not necessarily that there is a right or wrong, but it is important to know “how do you want to present your story?”
Back to the logline thing; there is premise and there is logline and there is synopsis and people use them interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Premise is just the answer to the question “what is the show about?” And that is really what a pitch is unless you have gotten past the elevator and you are in the room and you are telling them the story of your episode or even of your series or movie.
But if you look at something like “The Boys” on Amazon, the premise is just that it is about evil superheroes. It is regular humans that were given superhero powers who did not have any control over themselves, so they just became horrible people, they just hurt nice people, that is the premise.
And that is kind of what the start of what your pitch can be, and then if they are into it, you can go more in depth and be like, alright, so the logline is two men who have lost the loves of their lives to these evil superheroes, team up to take them down. And everyone in the world is against them because the superheroes are seen as the heroes. But really, the superheroes they are the villains. It is just great, if you have not seen it, it is great.
The premise is just about evil superheroes, but the logline is these two guys try to go up against the most beloved people in the world and their lives fall apart. They are arrested, and go into hiding, and they lose more people and is it worth it? How much can they lose to achieve their goal to kill all these superheroes?
And then if you get into the synopsis, you can get further into the specifics of these two men. One of them lost his girlfriend to the fastest man on earth. The fastest man on earth was running and she was leaning off a sidewalk and he ran through her and she exploded.
And so, he is this fumbling kind of college boy who has no idea what to do and he teams up with this really hardened man whose only goal is to kill all the superheroes. And so that college boy gets more and more hard and evil, and what is he willing to do? And then the other man has to eventually give up his goal when he outgrows it. It might seem like sharing that might ruin a pitch, you cannot ruin it for your producers.
Jake: Yes, always ruin it. This is a guilty secret, but I love the show “Project Runway,” because the show is about process. And in the final episode, four designers get to make their whole wardrobe and one idiot designer always hides his or her best pieces because they want to wow the judges at fashion week. And that is always the one that does not get to go to fashion week.
And if you just think about fashion week and you remember if your pitch does not land, they are definitely not reading the script, so there will be nothing to disappoint them with. But if your script is really ready to be pitched, if your script is actually that good, then there is going to be even more in there than the wonderful trick ending that you gave in your pitch. There is going to be levels of depth and complexity or humor that they never even saw coming. So, I always say save your best for first, get your very best stuff out there.
There was something else that you said. You guys actually watched Karin grow her pitch. Did you see how she started simple, and then if you are still interested, how she goes to the next level? And if you are still interested, she goes to the next level after that?
And that is a real talent and a real skill, knowing how to effortlessly move through different levels of detail. But the truth is, if Karin started with the synopsis, she might have lost you all. It is actually that process of kind of gentling people in, that allows us to connect and get invested and want more.
The third thing Karin said that I really loved is, be yourself. Not everybody is your producer. Do not try to be who you think they want you to be. Be yourself and find your people because your people are going to be the champions of your work.
If you are shy, go pitch shy. If you are loud, go pitch loud. If you are the crazy person who does something crazy, (don’t do something too crazy), but go pitch crazy. You want to be yourself, and then, you want to find people who are like you.
That said, one of the differences that I think about between a verbal pitch and a logline is I have seen so many talented writers deliver their pitch from behind a piece of paper, and what ends up happening is, when you hear a rehearsed pitch, it sends you a subconscious message that this is not for you. It sends you a subconscious message that this person is hawking the same crap everywhere around town, just trying to sell it. It depersonalizes your pitch.
Jerry was talking about writing little adlibs in the margins, right? To create that feeling: – this is special, this is for you. And one of my tricks with this is, I try to pitch my script hundreds of times to hundreds of people. I like to pitch my script a lot and I always try to pitch it differently to everyone I talk to.
And what that does is keep me fresh. It keeps me alive, but it also helps me try things when the stakes are low. To try and fail and realize, “Oh wow, never, ever, pitch it like that.” Or “Pitch it like that to Karin, but do not pitch it like that to Christian.”
I learn the different ways that work and the different combinations and then when I am in the room, instead of trying to remember my pitch, I can make eye contact, I can talk to them. If they seem interested, I can go deeper. If they seem bored, I can change it up.
So, remember that your verbal pitch is different than your written pitch. It is this fluid thing that happens in a dialogue, just like when you are talking to your friends. If you came to your friend with a written logline in response to them asking about your weekend, your friend would be looking at you like you were an alien.
But a lot of us make this mistake when we get into pitch meetings, and then we end up breaking rapport when we could be actually building it. So, thank you Karin for all the wonderful information.
Karin: The last thing I meant to say was do not memorize your pitch. I did that for an HBO pitch… and I wasn’t sleeping. At night, I was falling asleep saying it to myself, I was so, so, so stressed out that I was going to forget a part of it.
And then, they pushed the pitch, they pushed the meeting. And then, guess what? They pushed it again. So, by the time they were like, “Hey can you do it tomorrow?” I was just like, “Hey, what is up guys?” There was no memorization and it was great, it was just this really low-key conversation about me and about my writing and it was so much easier. And I have never memorized anything ever since. So, do not memorize it because it is not natural, and it does not feel good and it makes you nervous.
Jake: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much, Karin. Next up we have Keatyn Lee, Keatyn also came up through our program. A writer named Nadia Tabbara, who is a wonderfully gifted writer in my original masterclass 15 years ago or something like that, came up to me and said, “I just met young me, and you are letting her into your masterclass.” And I was like, “No Nadia. No, I am not.”
And then I met Keatyn, who, I think, was 18 years old at the time, who turned out to be such an incredible dynamo of a writer. Keatyn writes scripts that are so funny that just makes you laugh your ass off about truly disturbing ideas.
She is also able to take these scripts that are so wrong and make them so funny and accessible and commercial, but she also writes these really beautiful dramas, true life stories… and if you happen to be into witches, she is also your girl.
And Keatyn is also like a whisperer of structure. Karin is the person who is going to break down 52 scripts tonight while watching television, and Keatyn is the person who is going to kind of gently whisper into your ear that one thing that you need to hear. So it makes sense that they also write together sometimes.
Keatyn has a movie that is stuck in that production limbo due to COVID, but it will come out eventually. It is starring Margot Robbie, it is called “Fools Day” and is maybe the funniest script I have ever read, and she is a wonderful mentor.
So, I would love Keatyn if you could talk a little bit about what you do here at the studio and some advice about pitching.
Keatyn: Okay, well, thank you for that intro Jake that was very, very kind and generous. So here at the studio I teach ProTrack, I also have a Tuesday night workshop because I try to take the most collaborative approaches to writing possible. I tend to say that I work with writers, as opposed to I am a teacher and I have students, because I like for everything to be a conversation. Ultimately, this is your script, it is your story, we are going to make the final choice.
So, I really want everyone to know the rules of screenwriting and these kind of stodgy boxes we feel we have to stay inside of. I want everyone to know the rules so that they know when they are breaking them. And I think anytime you are breaking a rule, it should be a conscious choice. So, those are things that are kind of important to me that we go over when we work together, but I am very much a character writer.
So, the reason I write a lot of sort of wild stories is because I met and experienced a lot of really wild, interesting, nuanced people in my life and that is where I like to start. And then from there, I like to think what is the most ironic possible thing that could happen to that person. And that is the same approach I take to pitching.
I think when you walk into a room and you are pitching, you have to make that connection with the person first, right? You are going to hear that a few times throughout the night, it is important to start with: why did I want to write this? What is it in me? What is the thing that I commonly like to write about?
Someone commented in the chat that they describe themselves as “genre agnostic” when they pitch. And I think that is great, you do not actually have to lock yourself into one genre. What you do need to do is find a common theme or a common topic of exploration, so you know how to pitch yourself as a writer. I always say I write about women who are afraid to die. I write comedies about women who are afraid to die, and I am very afraid to die and that is a dark thing, so I have to laugh at it, right?
And I can usually take that little piece of myself and I can transition into – “this is my main character, and she shares this fear.” So, I trapped her wherever, in a school, in a grocery store and I made her the worst person in the world and trapped her in a grocery store with an active shooter.
You can do anything if you know your character. You can put them in any situation and that is how you get them into these wild predicaments. So, I tend to start with my connection, why I wrote it, what I like to write about and then use that to talk about the character.
I know this sounds wild, but plot is kind of the enemy of selling the story. Everyone is going to get lost in the weeds of your plot. We have to care about who all of this is happening to, so my recommendation is do that personal connection.
Audrey had really great suggestions, kind of figuring out what the person’s personality is, really listening and mirroring some of what they do. My tactic might sound a little cheesy, but I think we all have either a soft spot for where we grew up or a very big aversion to it sometimes, right? It is going to elicit some kind of strong reaction one way or another, and I find that finding out where someone is from and what their home was like and what their childhood was like, puts you in a little bit of a nostalgic place and it is a good way to connect to them.
I have also watched my writing partner– and this is going to sound silly as well–you know I am painting with a broad strokes here but f***ing football, man! You are pitching a lot of times to men, and I have watched my writing partner who is a man go into so many meetings where I have been really nervous and immediately trying to start with the logline like, “Here is what is going on,” but he is like, “Oh, you jet ski?” And they are immediately getting on like a house on fire.
So, I think it is about easing into how we connect, you connect to my character, here is all the stuff that happens to my character. And then like Jake said, like Jerry said, you want to be clear, you want to be brief, and then you want to get out of there.
I have to say I disagree with Karin a little bit about the memorizing of pitches. And we are going to all have different tactics here, right? Jerry can fake passion, for Christian it has to be organic, Karin hates to memorize a pitch.
It is important to know yourself, is where I am going with this. Because I get really flustered, I have to have something to hang my hat on, so I do memorize. I memorize my pitch; I say it a few different ways and then I pretend like I didn’t. That is an important thing—pretend like you did not memorize that pitch, that is an important piece of the puzzle though.
And lastly, comparisons. So, for comparisons you want this meets that, you want to say “Die Hard” meets “Mean Girls,” right? And ideally, I mean those are two classics, they are pretty iconic, so I just pulled them out, but you actually want your comparisons to be really recent.
I grew up in a goofy house where we did not have cable, so a lot of my references are weird 90s movies, I am like “’Sister Act 2’ meets ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’” and everyone is like, “No one wants that.” You have to keep it in the last ten years, and it has to be something that made the studio money. It cannot be something that lost money no matter how great the movie was, you want to pitch something that made money and point to that.
And I think those are all of the things I really wanted to hit. You do want to get to your logline, but you do not want to come out of the gate with it, that is something I have realized. A lot of it is trial and error I have done a lot of, “Here is my hook” right away and then the response was “But that is your logline,” and I was caught by surprise, like “Oh, do you not want that?”
The thing is, they just want to be eased into it, and I think you have heard a lot of us reiterate that: connect with the person, get them to connect with the character.
I am typically coming from a place of character, you might come from a place of theme, you might come from a really intricate world, and that is okay too. You just have to think, where is your in? What is the thing you want to lead with? And then connect to the person in a way that tangentially is connected to that thing so that you can use it as a segue into your pitch.
And then I would say, lastly, you want to make the pitch feel like the genre. So, if you are pitching a comedy, and I am a dark comedy writer, I want them laughing. If they are not laughing, I am probably in trouble. And if it is a drama, you probably want that quiet moment of sincerity between the two of you. And then, when you get to yes, or when you get to a good place, stop. Stop! Get out of there. Run.
Jake: A couple of things you have said that I thought were really great, and the first thing is: all pitching is personal. So many writers go into the room like a used car salesperson. “I have something to sell.” Or like, “You are a producer! You are a producer! Can you listen to my pitch?” And we feel crappy, like we feel the inauthenticity in ourselves, we feel the desperation. So you can only imagine what they are feeling.
Whereas, if you come into the room and do something different than everybody else is doing, and don’t just try to instantly sell somebody and don’t try to cram something down somebody’s throat, but instead actually just try to connect with somebody, actually share something true about yourself. And I love what you said: that it could be world, it could be a true-life story, it could be anything, but that is so different than leading with the pitch.
If you are actually in a real producer’s meeting, there is also the benefit of being able to say, “Hey, what are you into? I saw you made this and this and this, I really loved what you did with this, are you looking for something similar or are you looking to branch out into something new?” And sometimes you can find out exactly what they want you to pitch and just pitch them that. So, I love the idea of first connecting with them, then connecting them to your story and getting to a yes and getting out, what a great piece of advice.
I would love to also jump in on the comps idea, because one of the tricks that I use is, I try to get the producer to tell me the comps. That is how I know that my pitch is really working, when the producer goes, “Oh-wow! It’s ‘Sister Act 2’ meets ‘Die Hard.’” that is when I know, okay, I nailed it. When they say the comp. I do not say the comp unless I see that they are not getting it.
And if I have one of those pitches where they don’t say the comp, I am going to look at that pitch later on to analyze, “Okay what did I miss? How is it not coming through?” Because if your comp is really good, they are going to get it and you are going to see that lightbulb go off.
And what I like about that, even though a lot of people disagree with me on this, and everybody has their own style, but what I like about that is I think producers are trained to say no. I remember when I was a producer my boss was so good at saying no that people left thinking he said yes. I would see people leave his office so happy, but I heard what he said, and I was like, “Oh, that is a no.”
And so, one of the things that I learned is that if I just go into a room and do exactly what everybody else is doing, I am putting my producer in their comfort zone of, “Okay, I am going to say no, I am going to listen, I am going to say no.” Whereas if I go in and build a personal connection, even if they say no to my project, they are still going to be interested in me, right? They are still going to be curious, they are still going to be open. Maybe they will help me get in touch with somebody else, maybe they will help me connect with the right person, maybe they will give me some feedback, maybe they will become a mentor.
So, I really loved all the things you said. Notice that we have a ton of successful writers that you are meeting right now and you notice that they all have their own style. So your job is not to find a formula of exactly how you are going to do it. Your job is to take the best of what you hear and say, “Okay how does this bounce off with me and how does this fit with who I want to be?”
Lacy Daigle – Specialty: Writers Block, Producing, Documentary, Content Marketing, Creative & Executive Coaching, Tarot for Creatives
Next up, we have my fiancée, Lacy Daigle. Lacy is the creative director of the studio; if you like our background image, Lacy made that. If you like our website, Lacy made that. If you like anything visual about the studio, Lacy made that. If you like our workshop program, Lacy invented that. Lacy is the creative force behind what we do, and I am so lucky to have her not only as my creative director but also as my fiancée.
And Lacy also has a wonderful coaching practice. Lacy works with artists as a coach. She helps artists get past their internal blocks, she helps artists make plans and keep them. She helps artists grow into their professional careers.
And she has a long history of doing this at the very top of her industry as an executive at CBS, working directly with the CEO on many projects, doing incredible work for CBS. She has heard hundreds of pitches; she has given hundreds of pitches to people at the very top of their industry. And so, Lacy I would love for you to talk about what you do, what is coming up in the New Year with you at the studio and how you think about pitching.
Lacy: Well, I think I always come into it with two hats. The coaching side makes me think of pitching as one of the world’s greatest life skills. And a lot of what I do through the coaching process is help you get a clear understanding of your authentic self.
That can be through values work, getting in touch with your artistic side, freeing your mind of the clutter, knowing what to do when negative self-talk comes up and how to handle that. You are pitching people all the time. You know that rapport that everyone is talking about, that Audrey is talking about, that is a really important thing in life.
There are times at the network where I had to pitch to someone who is stone faced like, “You’ve got nothing. You are getting nothing.” And it literally seems like they are saying, “Get out of my office as fast as you can.” And you still have to give an idea, right? So, you can have that. You can have someone who is laid back in their chair, or they are a comedy guy and you just say one word, “Moustache,” and that is it and you are off to the races.
So, reading that room is so important. You know how to read the room, in a way, when you can kind of read yourself. I think the closer you can get to really clarifying who you are– what that is for you– and not like what that was for you ten years ago, five years ago,what that is for you right now–where are you in your artistic journey? Where are you with this particular project that you want to get out there.
Don’t think of the process as something so precious, because there are going to be so many times where you are not going to do it well. You are going to fall on your face or you are just going to get somebody on a bad day; they are cranky. They do not want to hear it. They just heard fifty pitches, you are the last one of the day.
But you can take comfort in the fact that life is a process. It is not something that you solve in any one instant, it is not something that you can even get ahead of or outthink.
So, I think like what Keatyn and Karin and everyone was saying, you can set it and forget it. You want to do the prep work. You want to be ready. You can’t not be ready in these rooms, you really cannot not be ready.
But that is what you are doing, that is what you are doing now. How ready? That just depends how far along you are, and wherever you are is okay. And I think that is the important thing when you are thinking of yourself, not only as a writer, but as an artist out in the world. It is important to just consider that where I am now is great and I have stuff I can learn, and to be receptive to that.
And if you are given the opportunity to listen in those meetings, you might get one nugget, you might get a piece of rapport, you might see the awesome picture from the Jets sidelines over there where you can talk about it, you might be able to talk about the picture someone has on their desk.
Just be a human being. These are human beings. When I’m hearing pitches, I come into the room thinking, “Is this going to work for what I need?” I have to have a value principle in mind, I have to think, “What is the value of the project and is this picture the value of what we need?”
But beyond that, I am turning to my partner, whoever it is in the room, about the person who just pitched us, and I am going, “ I love Mike, dammit, …I want to work with him,” because you are going to be in the trenches with these people and I need to feel a sense of confidence because I have to turn to the guy who is stone faced, who is going to be emotionless or whatever it is, and I have to sell Mike.
So the idea is just being yourself. If you can disarm a person, that might be your knack, it might not be your knack. How do you connect with people in life? I just think authenticity, your authentic self, means an authentic connection almost every single time.
And then start to learn some techniques and some skills. And get someone to help you if you need it. What are some skills that you need so you can go into that room to set and forget it. Keatyn talked about getting flustered, there are times I am in a room and I am flustered. So, what happens? How do you draw awareness to that? How do you bring your awareness back to the moment, realizing, okay I am actually not present; I am actually not in the present moment. I am not with Bobby the producer right now. I am in my head. So let’s create a little mini toolkit for you for when you’re in your head so you know what to do. And then, if you stay in your head and you mess it up, well what do you do? You are going to have many, many opportunities to do this.
And I guess I think the last thing I will say is, before I am going to go into a room with another person that I really need to sell the idea to, I kind of pitch my ideas to what I like to call floaters. Find your floaters. I was at CBS, so I was in the hallway or I was at Colbert… I was over here, I was over here. Find your floaters at the watercooler or, right now, find your floaters online, find your floaters in — I wouldn’t say Facebook, but if you are comfortable talking to your mom, talk to your mom, she does not know s**t about this.
But practice getting it into your bones and out of your body and then float it to them and then up the ante and float to the next person. Then all of a sudden, you know what? Maybe float it to the person that reports to the person, if you have that opportunity. Float to the person who might report to that other person who might know that person, or who already had a meeting with them. Float it to them and take that feedback with a grain of salt. Some of it is more about the exercise and the process of actually getting it into your body and out. The way I become comfortable is by doing the work and doing the homework.
So, I write really extensive treatments. If I am going to pitch something, I know the project front and back, and I also kind of know what they are looking for. So I want to find out all that I can about them and I want to find out all that I can about me and I think that combination can really allow you to be the most successful that you can be.
Jake: I want to hear about coaching, but next year, you are also going to be teaching next year a Tarot for Writers class. Can you talk about what that is and how that works?
Lacy: Yes, we are finally doing it! Every year I have had to postpone it because I’ve run out of time. This year, we have such a rockstar team that I am actually going to be able to do it this year for the school. I have done it at festivals and stuff before, however.
But basically, we will be using the Tarot cards as a gateway to your subconscious. So, we can use the cards for your character, we can use the cards to build structure for your project, we will create different layouts and what Tarot kind of does is it helps you bypass what is going on up here in your head and get into what is going on down here on the page — it is like looking at a painting at a museum.
And it is incredible how fast that goes, and you just generate page after page. So we will do a lot of exploratory writing, crystalizing that. And then also look at seeing how that might be a parallel to things that are happening in your own life as an artist.
Jake: I also loved what you said, Lacy, about pitching floaters. When I lived in Los Angeles there was a wonderful dive sports bar called Sports Harbor. I was working with this project called “The Seduction of Hillary Rodham” and I was really struggling with it. It was written by a super right-wing author. He had started it as a slam piece on Hillary Clinton, but in the writing of it he had kind of fallen in love with Hillary. But he hated Bill, and he had kind of cast her in this very, very traditional “woman whose husband does not love her” role.
And I was really struggling with the project, because I did not choose to pitch this project, it was assigned to me, and I was like “how do I write this project without betraying everything I believe in the world and in a way that can still be authentic, but also true to the book?”
And I was really struggling so I did what every writer does, which was I tried to procrastinate. So I went to Sports Harbor. Sports Harbor was a wonderful place where you could get drunk in the afternoon among a lot of people who were all watching football.
And I ended up pitching “The Seduction of Hillary Rodham” to probably fifty drunk football fans, and what I learned was, first off, just my basic desire to entertain people ended up helping me figure out the pitch.
But I also learned that I could tell when I had them or not. I was kind of like pitching a real executive, who is nervous because they have their next meeting coming up and they are worried about how long this is going to take. When you are pitching to someone who is already a little distracted and find that you can actually rope them in– when they are actually paying attention to you instead of the game– that is when you know the pitch is really working.
And so, I started working all my pitches at Sports Harbor. A lot of people worry about their work getting stolen. I never worry about that. I always think if there is somebody in the world who can do my script better than me then, God bless them, let them steal it. But I also saw a bunch of questions come up in the chat asking, how do you break in? How do you actually even get the pitch?
And you know how you get the pitch? You get the pitch by pitching a hundred floaters. Because what ends up happening is at the end of the pitch, they go “that is awesome” and you go, “Yeah I am trying to get to this person.” And eventually, one of those hundred floaters is going to know them. I actually ended up writing a musical with Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and how did it happen, I pitched a floater at a party, I didn’t even know he was their agent. And it was a year later, I got a call from him.
And so, the idea that there is this big wall that you can’t get through is just not true. It is just not true. It’s just a question of how many doors are you willing to knock on to actually get through, and how much risk, how much personal vulnerability are you willing to show?
Somebody just chatted in that you can direct message people, you can follow them on Twitter, you can shake the tree of your own social network. But don’t shake your own social network and say “Hey, I am trying to find a producer” because no one is going to help you. Shake your social network and say “Hey, I’ve got a script that is perfect for this person because they made this, this, this and this, and I just need to find someone who knows their dry cleaner, who knows their assistant, who knows anybody who could make an introduction because I need two minutes of their time.” And you will be shocked at how people start to help you.
There are also festivals, there are contests. When we can see each other in person again, you want to go to small film festivals. Small ones. Bot Sundance, they have a VIP section at Sundance. Small film festivals where there is no VIP section, in beautiful places where executives want to go. And often, you will meet everyone you want to meet at the bar. Because there is no VIP section. You can actually research where the people you are trying to get to are speaking, and you can go find them.
The barrier to getting your movie made, that is a challenge. The barrier to entry though, is not as hard as it sounds, and it starts with finding personal confidence like Lacy is talking about, and then learning how to make yourself vulnerable and put your stuff out there with lots and lots and lots of people.
Linda Roberts – Specialty: Screenwriting, TV Writing, Novel/Memoir, Playwriting, Web Series, Nonfiction Prose, Poetry, Musical
The next person I want to introduce you to is Linda Roberts. Linda comes to screenwriting from such an interesting background. She was a senior production editor at Simon & Schuster for fifteen years. She has edited everyone, famous authors, famous novelists, famous memoirists, famous nonfiction writers, famous playwrights, and famous screenwriters.
And now that she has transitioned into screenwriting, she brings an eye unlike anybody else in the world because there is nobody else in the world who has that completely unique background.
Linda is our resident formatting guru. When I have a question about how do I format something, I ask Linda. What I love about the way Linda approaches formatting is she is not approaching it like a bunch of grammar, she is approaching it like an editor. She is approaching it like a hypnotist, she is approaching it asking: how do we hypnotize the reader with the way that we put these words on the page? How are the words on the page in your script like a poem? How are they controlling the rhythm, the tone, contouring the images in the person’s mind?
She has this extraordinary attention to detail that I so admire, this incredible intellect and this incredible focus on craft. And what you might not expect is that she also teaches meditative writing at our school, which is the exact opposite side of writing, when you shut your conscious mind off and you get underneath the surface in connection with your subconscious mind.
So, Linda, I would love for you to talk a little bit about the programs that you teach and some of your advice about pitching.
Linda: I do a lot of ProTrack mentorship and I really love doing that. I just love working one-on-one with writers. I work with playwrights, novelists, screenwriters, TV writers, musical writers, poets, pretty much any writing project that you want to work on one-on-one.
If you are committed to completing your writing goal for that particular project, mentorship is the best way to do it because it is just you. It is all about you. And you work at your own pace, you deal with your own writing problems. Sometimes it seems that life problems become writing problems, so we can work with that and sort that out and find out what you are really struggling with.
It is always about moving you forward to meet your writing goal, to complete the project and obviously get it out into the market and get it published or produced, whatever it is you are working on.
I also teach a workshop on Monday nights, and I love doing that too. It is really, really amazing to have such a diverse group of people, different writers with all different projects and goals and different styles, different training.
We all have the same overall goal: we want to grow as writers. And we inspire each other, we help each other and just sometimes the smallest little thing somebody can say in their notes to you about your script will just light you up and inspire you to keep going.
So, it’s really about inspiration and encouragement and growing as a writer.
Also the community, having a group of writers in a community that you feel connected to, because it is very isolating, even more so now at this time that we are living through ,but it’s very isolating to feel like you are doing it alone and wondering, does anybody care? Does anyone understand what you are going through? Yes, we do. Your community is there for you, so that is important.
So about pitching, I would love to share a story with you, something I experienced. My first script, that I was working on with Jake– I hated pitching of course. I pitched it to everybody I knew; my gynecologist, my dentist, my neighbors, my roommates, my ex-boyfriends, everybody.
And the story was so sad that I cried when I was pitching it. So I knew that was not right. I wasn’t getting the right response, so I kept pitching it to another fifty people and I pitched it until I got to the point where I could pitch it without crying. And then I noticed that I was getting responses that they were moved to tears. I did not need them to think, “Oh she is going to be crazy to work with, you know, I do not want a crying writer.”
But I pitched until I was able to give them my story, to share it and be myself and feel relaxed about it because I knew my character really well, I knew her story really, really well. So, that was really helpful. It’s true, you need to pitch it to everybody. You can’t just pitch it once or twice and say, “Okay, good I will be fine, I will just go in and pitch it again and I will be fine.” You will not be fine; you have got to do it over, and over.
Jake: So many writers set themselves up. I remember I did this earlier in my career. I was like, “I either get this or I give up.” You know, so often, we put all the stakes on this one meeting. But this is a volume business and not only that, this is a relationship business.
One of my very good friends, who is a brilliant director, had been trying to get into HBO for years. She tried everything, every connection, could not get in, could not get in. Finally, she won this fellowship with HBO and she was finally in. And she says, “I have been trying to get in here for years” and they said, “Yeah we know, we know who you are.”
They were actually watching. They were following her career, they were tracking her longevity. They wanted to see if she was going to stay with it and if she was going to grow and if she was going to keep making stuff.
So, it is important to realize most people are going to say “no” to your script, just like when you are flicking through Netflix you are like, “No. No. No. No.” That isn’t because you hate the idea, you just don’t feel like it today, you are not in the mood. It is not a personal thing.
But one of the things that you can learn is you can build a connection with someone who is saying “no,” and that that person might actually be the person who introduces you to the person who ends up saying “yes.”
And if you do that with a hundred people, you are going to have a hundred people who could potentially help you. And oftentimes those are not the big people. Everyone wants to pitch Steven Spielberg, but the chances of Steven Spielberg saying yes to you are very slim.
But if you go to Sundance and you talk to the person who just had their first movie shown at Sundance, that person is just a couple levels above you. And maybe this is their producer’s first movie or their second movie or their third movie; you want the young agent or the manager who is hungry and looking for new talent.
And so, remember that this is a relationship business and that a “no” to your pitch is not a bad thing. Linda is talking about reading the person and figuring out what is working and what is not. One of the things I used to do, if I was pitching somebody and I saw the look of disinterest on their face I would go, “Wow, is this project not for you!” I would just name it. And there would always be like a sigh of relief and they would be like, “No, you know I make zombie movies, dude.” And then I am like, “Oh, okay cool, let’s talk about what you are looking for.” Or sometimes they would be like, “You know, well, no I am sorry my dog died this morning.” And you would actually form a human connection with the person.
At first, if someone said “no”, I had the instinct to kind of jam it down their throat — “No this is the right project.” But what I learned is, when someone said “no” I would just kind of say, “Okay, I get it, it is totally not for you. Hey, can I pick your brain for two minutes?”
“Just two minutes. I get this is not for you, but I also know that the script is really good, I have done the work, I have gotten feedback, I know the script works, I know people are going to make money on it because it is like this movie, this movie, this movie– see those comps coming back–, that made this much, this much, this much, I know someone is going to make money and I get that it is not for you but if you were in my shoes, who would you bring it to?”
Then you shut up, because whoever talks next loses.
And eventually, they will fill that silence…, “You know, hmm, maybe I would bring it to Netflix.” And then you ask, “Oh, do you know anyone over there? Who is good over there? Who do you think will respond to it?” “Well maybe Stacy.” And then you ask one last question which is, “Can I mention your name when I call?” Just, “can I mention your name when I call?” And oftentimes they will say yes.
And now the next person you are calling is not a cold call. The next person you are calling is a warm call. And that all starts with what Linda is talking about, right? Which is, building that personal connection. Because if all you do is try to pitch, pitch, pitch, sell, sell, sell, then you do not build the mentorship relationship.
Ever been to the GAP, and all you want to do is buy jeans, and then the helpful salesperson comes over and you are like, “You know what? Actually, I don’t even want jeans.” Because no one likes that feeling of being sold.
So can calm yourself, practice enough that your emotions are out of it, treat it like a business, like a volume game. I have one student who decided she was going to collect a hundred rejection letters. She hung them on her wall, and her goal was “I am going to get a hundred rejection letters.”
Well, guess what? She never got to a hundred because she ended up getting optioned. But if you get yourself into the volume business, you just make everything so much easier. Thank you so much, Linda.
Next up, we have Lisa D’Amour. Lisa a Pulitzer finalist for her play “Detroit” which was on Broadway. She also wrote probably my favorite play of the last twenty years which is a play called “The Cataract,” that showed at the Women’s Project many years ago. And when I wanted to learn more about playwriting, she was the teacher that I sought out.
She has been the director of the MFA program at Brown, she has taught at incredible universities throughout the world. If you are a playwright and you don’t study with her, you are crazy. And we are so incredibly lucky to have her here at the school. So, Lisa, I would love if you would talk a little bit about your playwriting class and how you think about pitching in the theatre world?
Lisa: Thank you so much for having me tonight. I love teaching at the studio. I teach ProTrack and most recently I developed a four-week class for the studio that we’ll be holding again, starting in February.
When I teach playwriting we definitely talk about character and story, but I really try to teach playwriting from the perspective of world building and also from using all of the tools that you have in the theatre. Even things like lighting, setting… and talking a lot about the chemistry and the relationship that a play has with the audience and thinking about how that can help you create a structure organically that can tell your story.
There is a little more leeway when it comes to structure and storytelling in a play than there is in screenwriting. This has to do with that magic relationship between what is happening on stage with this live audience in front of the play (when we can return to live audiences.)
So, we read two different plays over the course of the class and study the way these plays build their structure and what I like to call chemistry, we do in class writing exercises, and there is a chance for students to give each other feedback, and to get some feedback from me. So, it is a really wonderful journey, t so all are welcome to come to the next one in February.
I’ve loved hearing all of these thoughts on pitches and it is true that mostly I have pitched plays to producers and also shows that want to tour to different places throughout the United States. What I find is, I love this debate around memorize/not memorize, rehearse/not rehearse.
I really love the idea of rehearsing in many different ways before you give your pitch, trying it out in many different styles, many different forms, because I find it is about finding the image or the turn of phrase that you know lands any time. And that image or turn of phrase may be the perfect snapshot for your project, it may be the moment that touches the hearts, but when you have that kind of grab bag of turns of phrases and images, then it’s true you can bring them out at any time during the pitch.
And I think it is okay to be nervous. If you seem a little nervous that means you are passionate about what you are talking about. And I also think that it is important to remember to pause when you need to pause. That pause may seem like an hour to you, but it actually is only going to seem like a second or two to the person you are talking to and it allows you to kind of take that breath, recenter yourself in your body, and then continue to talk to the person that you are talking to.
So, aside from seconding so many of the other things that were said tonight, I just wanted to offer those few thoughts to you about pitching.
Jake: I absolutely love that idea of the pause, because three things will happen. The first one is, the breath calms you, right? So, if you are feeling anxious, the breath calms you and it gives you a moment to remember what you want, get your wits together, make your next move.
The second is, the breath shows confidence to the producer. Even if you are feeling so anxious, when you just inhale and exhale, it actually sends the signal that you have got this and that is reassuring to the producer.
And then the third thing is, people hate silence! And often when you just shut up for a breath, the producer will ask you a question or they will say something. And now, you are out of this weird world where you are this weird pitching machine. Now you are in a situation that you are really used to, which is talking to somebody, which you have done every day since you were born– and about screenwriting or playwriting– about something that you are the most passionate person in the world about. And not only that, about your piece that you know better than anyone in the world.
I just was a judge on a pitchfest, and prior to the pitching I met with a student, a brilliant writer who rushed through his pitch. And I gave him one note which was take a breath and control the room, and he ended up winning. He ended up winning, and it was a total change in that pitch. So, using that breath, I love that advice.
I would love for you to talk a little bit, because you are such a world builder, how do you pitch worlds?
Lisa: I am from the south and we like to talk, so I have to say I tend to pitch worlds pretty visually. I like to try and actually give the person I am talking to a feeling for both the world and the style right upfront when I am talking, and kind of paint the picture. I think that would be the best way that I would like to say it.
Jake: If you were to pitch me the world of “Detroit” or the world of “the Cataract,” how would you talk about it?
Lisa: They are two really different plays, so that is great. I would say the world of “Detroit” is the world of an isolated midwestern suburb, as though the suburb was an island hovering in the middle of a void and the characters are afraid that if they leave their suburb they are just going to fall off into the void.
So, I hope when I describe the world that way that you start to picture things like what your idea of a suburb is but also a bit of the existential dread that the four characters in this play are all feeling in different ways.
“The Cataract” is a play that is set in 1883 during the building of a very important bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. However, it is not your typical history play. It feels a little bit like four characters who are stuck in a colorful diorama and maybe they are actually all robots that are being controlled by little clocks and gears inside of them that are parts, and they are trying to escape the mechanism that is inside of their body.
So again, trying to paint history play but not quite history play. So, two very different worlds.
Jake: That was so incredible, and I am sure everybody felt that, right? All she gave you was the world, and you instantly knew what the play was, you instantly knew what the play felt like, you instantly knew what you were going to experience. Thank you so much for that, Lisa.
Lisa: I just want to note Jacob, that that is a great way to put it. That you instantly knew how you pitch what the play or the series or the movie is going to feel like. And you really know that. You do not even have to try. You are the creator. You just innately know that.
Jake: Thank you so much. Alright, next up we have Ron Marz, if you know anything about comics, you know who Ron Marz is. He is a legendary comics writer; he has written every famous comic book character that you can imagine.
In addition to being an extraordinary writer, he is also an extraordinary teacher. We just recently brought Ron onto the team and one of the things that I loved was Ron’s desire to help students instantly start creating, start making their comics.
And out of his class we have started to see students come back with these beautiful six-page comics that they wrote in four weeks, and hired illustrators and had made. And in fact, we are so excited about it we are going to be building on it in the New Year and actually starting to build an illustration side where we can pair new illustrators with new comic book writers and help them produce their work.
What is so fun about comics is, not only are comics a wonderful entrée into the screenwriting world, but they are also a way of learning the craft of screenwriting, learning how to use your images in such a powerful way. So, Ron, I would love for you to talk a little bit about what you teach and how you think about pitching.
Ron: Thanks Jake, I really appreciate the way you flatter me, which is really why I showed up. So we do a four-week class that is designed to teach everybody who shows up the nuts and bolts of writing a comic, because writing a comic is not like screenwriting, it is not like a teleplay, it is not like a play, it has elements of all of those, but it is this sort of weird amalgamation of all of those things plus other skills. It is visual storytelling, so you have to be sort of half of the writer and half of the director of your own comic script.
So, in the four-week class everybody learns how to write a comic. We do a 6 page comic from beginning to end in the four weeks and everybody walks out with a pretty polished comic. And then we do a workshop as well, where some of the students go on to bring their projects into the workshop and then we all work on them and give feedback and polish them. We have a really terrific workshop group right now and I think we are getting some really good material out of it. Then I teach ProTrack as well.
So, pitching in comics is, like I said, comics has a screenwriting aspect, a teleplay aspect, and a playwriting aspect but it is different from all of those. Karin was talking about “The Boys.” Well “The Boys” was a comic, and it was made by two buddies of mine. So, the comic formed the foundation of what that TV series is, and obviously, the comic reached an audience, and it was popular but now it is kind of a worldwide phenomenon that it has moved into television.
So, pitching in comics is a little different than this typical meeting pitch that you do for film. Pitching for comics is generally more of a written skill, and you want to be able to hand a pitch over at any point when an editor says, “Yeah, we are looking for pitches, what have you got?” It’s a one page with a logline and a summation of what your story is and why they should think about publishing it. So, you have to make a good impression in a very short span.
And the other half of that is, this is a very social business, like any other business. So you would meet editors in those haciendas of yore back when we could have comic book inventions and all and have a lot of us crammed into the same building somewhere like the Javits Center on the west side.
Part of that whole process is meeting editors and meeting publishers and talking about what kind of stories you want to do. So you need to be able to talk about your stories and pitch them verbally on the spot, but it is much less of a formalized meeting like you would have for a pitch meeting at a studio.
So, you need to be able to do both of those, and you also need to be able to understand who your audience is, because different publishers do different comics. You don’t go to Marvel and pitch them your historical epic. Your historical epic might be awesome but that is not what Marvel does.
Anybody who is paying attention to what Marvel does– in fact right now they’ve been announcing projects all through the day– Marvel does Marvel books and Marvel does Star Wars books and now Marvel does Aliens books. Marvel does what they own, DC does what they own.
So, your pitch, the first step of it is to go to the right place. If you have a horror pitch you figure out what publishers actually do horror books, because that gives you one leg up already. It also saves you from wasting time going to somebody that does YA fiction and graphic novels and you want to pitch them your very adult horror concept. Well, that is not what they do. You are wasting your time and you are wasting their time.
So, you want to be able to hone your pitches so that you are giving them to the right people and then, unfortunately, you want to be able to recognize, “Okay well that was not good…you know, this one did not land,” like any place else. You send in your pitches or you have a discussion with an editor, send in the pitch and it does not go anywhere — that is part of the process; the old chestnut is that you have to be prepared for rejection.
And it is true, but rejection does not mean they are rejecting you, or even they are rejecting your story right now, they are rejecting the thing that you are pitching them right now at this moment.
Right now, I am doing two serialized stories for Heavy Metal Magazine which is sort of the granddaddy of all the comic anthology magazines. Both of those stories have been rolling around in my head for fifteen years and I have pitched them to any number of publishers, and they found no takers. Heavy Metal came to me a few months ago and said, “What have you got?” So, I gave them those and they went, “Awesome!” I gave them three pictures I think, and they said, “Awesome! We will take these two.”
So, your pitch does not necessarily have to find the audience right out of the gate, it could be years for that same pitch to find purchase somewhere, but they eventually do.
Jake: I love so much of what you said, I think the thing I would love to hop in on is this idea of knowing who you are pitching. I talked about that used car salesperson feeling that some of us get when we are trying to sell. I got a job as a producer, somehow, I do not know how, because I had terrible social anxiety and I was afraid to call people and I was afraid to talk to people at a party, and I was much more comfortable as a writer than I was trying to have to introduce myself to somebody. That was terrifying, the idea of selling was like “Aaaaaaaahh!” and then somehow I was a producer, so I had to do these things.
And I reached a point where I just decided I am not ever going to try to sell anybody ever again. I am just not going to try to convince anybody. I am not going to try to sell anybody. But what I am going to try to do is, I am going to try to find my tribe. And not everybody is my tribe, the people in this room—they are my tribe. But not everybody is my tribe, and that is okay. And I am not everybody’s tribe, and that is okay.
But my idea was, if instead of trying to sell something, I could just focus on looking for my tribe. And instead of trying to sell something, if I could just try to concentrate on helping people, then I could feel like myself when I went up and introduced myself or when I had to pick up the phone, because I am really good at helping people.
And so, the truth is, if your script is really ready– that means you have really done the work, you have gotten professional feedback, you know this thing is ready. When people read it, they say back to you the things that you wish they would say. When you know your script is really ready, you have something very rare. It’s so rare that you read a script that is ready to go. I could say that in my experience as a producer, if I heard a hundred pitches, one of them was a script that was really ready to go, and often, you could tell from the pitch that the script was not ready.
And so if you go, “Okay first, I am going to do the real work as a writer and I am going to actually make sure my script is a Lamborghini. It’s not like a Dodge with a tire falling out of it, it is a Lamborghini.” Well, you don’t have to talk anyone into a Lamborghini. Somebody either wants a Lamborghini or they don’t want a Lamborghini. And then it is just a question of, can they afford a Lamborghini?
And so, if you really just put your focus on “what do they need?” and “how can I help?” and “who is my tribe?” it is going to help you so much.
I really love what you said about that, and I am glad that you reiterate this idea about relationships. Nobody — unless you are Ron Marz and you are at that point in your career, or you are Aaron Sorkin, right? Unless you are at that level in your industry you can’t sell a pitch in the room. Not now– maybe in the 90s– not now.
In the room, you are going to open the door, and somebody is going to say, “Yes, I would like to read that.” “Yes, I would like to consider that.” “Yes, maybe I would like to work with you in the future.” So, thank you, Ron, for sharing that. There is one more teacher I want to introduce you to, and then we are going to do some pitching.
So, Steven Bagatourian. Here is how Steven came to my studio. I was looking to hire some new teachers and I reached out to an independent producer friend and I said, “Can you recommend somebody to me? I need somebody with a huge heart who can hold a student’s soul in their hand but who also has incredible writing chops.” And he said, “You have to meet Steven Bagatourian, Steven Bagatourian wrote the best script I have ever read, and he is the kindest man you will ever meet.”
And that is how I met Steven, and it turned out that he was undersold. He is an extraordinary writer, he has written huge studio movies, he is blowing up in his career, which makes me so happy. He has written independent films, and we are really, really lucky to have him and he will be the last person to speak to you. So, Steven, I would love for you to talk about what you teach at the studio and your advice about pitching.
Steven: Yeah, I would be happy to. First of all, thank you very much Jake for the lovely intro, I wish I could bring you around with me everywhere to introduce me to people.
I teach ProTrack, where I work one-on-one with a bunch of writers, and it is a terrific experience. I love doing it, and I think I bring a fairly unique perspective and approach to screenwriting. And I also teach a workshop on Mondays that I have been teaching for the last year at the school, and we meet every two weeks.
To tell you guys a little bit about my approach, I think I probably would echo a little bit of what I heard Keatyn say earlier. I would describe myself as a very character focused writer. I am not someone who spends a lot of time talking about plot when I am teaching. So I teach classes that are very much all about defining character and how to write indelible, unforgettable, incredible characters that will rip people’s hearts out, and also will rip your own heart out, and hopefully are speaking to something deep inside yourself. The more they do that, the more I find that stories and the characters will connect and resonate with people who read them also on a deep level.
So I think that I am a little bit of a mutant, perhaps, as a screenwriter because I really enjoy pitching and it is one of my favorite parts of the process. I actually get really sad when I don’t get to go pitch on projects for a while because it is a performance, but it is also storytelling in the older sense of the word.
You are getting everybody gathered around the proverbial campfire and you are trying to just hold people’s attention with your words. And so, for me it feels very much like the most pure distillation like crystallization of what we do. It is like pure storytelling, and I think there is something really powerful about that if you can master it.
And I don’t think that any two writers can master pitching the same way. I agree with something you said, Jake, earlier and I am sure several other people said similar things: you have to be yourself and you have to figure out how to pitch in the most honest, profound way that you can pitch.
And if you are like a shy, nerdy, geeky person you should be a shy, nerdy, geeky person in your pitch and make that work for you. You know, there have been plenty of filmmakers and plenty of writers throughout history that have highly eccentric personalities, but they make it work for them. So, you have to figure out how to own your personality, command your space and just really enjoy that process because pitching is actually a lot of fun.
And one of the dirty little secrets I think about screenwriting is when you have a career as a screenwriter, particularly as a feature writer but also on the TV side, you don’t get to just write your own stuff most of the time. The majority of your career, if you are lucky and you have a career, 99% of what you work on frequently, particularly in features is going to be stories that you get hired on assignment to write. And guess how you get an assignment? You have to walk in and pitch, you have to pitch your take.
And so, I think that is something we have not really touched on here tonight but it is not just about pitching your story. It is about pitching yourself as a creative person as a writer, but, frankly, the majority of your career is going to be pitching assignments and ideas that get thrown to you by circumstance and fate in the world of Hollywood, and you have got to figure out how to apply all that passion and your personality to an idea that you might have just got thrown at you 24 hours earlier and figure out how to wrap that up into a pitch.
Jake: How do you do it Steven?
Steven: I would echo very much what Lacy said about not being too precious. I think it is very natural and everybody as a screenwriter tends to psych themselves out and we all tend to have rich inner lives because we are constantly thinking of stories and what not and we are especially neurotic in a lot of ways.
And so, we psych ourselves out. But, like you mentioned, Jake, if you can just connect with people as human beings and build a rapport and learn to build rapport with another person, you’re not f***ing selling something, you’re walking in trying to just build a connection with the person, and then once you have that, just have fun with it.
I got some great advice from one of my writing mentors when I got into business a long time ago, and he said to me when it came to pitching, “Always have a really strong f***ing take, walk in there and believe in what you are saying so deeply that you are not going to be budged or moved off of your pitch.”
And you walk in there, essentially—I heard someone say it once—as if you are offering them a bag full of money. You consider your story as like a hundred million dollars in a bag and you are offering it to people, and offer to them with that same confidence. And if they do not want it, then you can just be like, “Well, fine, you know, that is cool, I will walk out of here with my hundred-million-dollar bag and I will go see if someone else wants it.”
But don’t get sad, don’t get nervous. And if you think that you are losing someone in a pitch, certainly you adjust. But take big, big f***ing swings. Just take huge swings, because taking big swings will not get you every job, but I guarantee you it will get you some jobs. And taking like mediocre wishy-washy swings will get you zero jobs and you will not have a career.
So, for me that is kind of what it comes down to, it is just like have fun with it. And, yeah, you are going to strike out a bunch, but that is okay. Screenwriting is like baseball, if you strike out seven out of ten times you are a legend in screenwriting. So do not worry about it, you are going to strike out most of the time, have fun with it, be yourself and just go for broke.
Jake: One of the most talented actors I ever got to work with as a director is actually Lisa’s brother Todd D’Amour. What I loved about working with Todd was that when you were in a rehearsal with Todd you never knew what he was going to do, but it was always going to be a choice you never could have thought of yourself. If it worked, it was a grand slam every time, and if it didn’t work… what was incredible with Todd was that he could adjust. You could be like, “I like that, but that did not work,” and he would start to build on that thing that worked.
I love what you just said Steven because part of it is just having the courage to ask yourself, “Okay like what matters to me in this? And if I get rid of everything that does not matter, what matters to me? What if I just went as wild as I want to go with this, what would that look like? Or as quiet as I want to…”
There was one scene, I will never forget, Todd did the entire scene and he did not move at all, and somehow it worked. And it was like everything you are not supposed to do as an actor, you are supposed to have action and all that. He just stood there, and it freaking worked.
It all comes back to this authenticity, you know? You can make anything good. Someone pitches you the Hungry, Hungry Hippos movie– that is in my imagination the most awful work for hire project, so I am probably doomed to write it..
But you could start to think, “What is it really about? Is it about nostalgia? Is it about hunger? Is it about there is just not enough marbles for everybody? Is it about I am stuck here in one place and everyone is wailing on me and I feel like I cannot move? What would happen if the hungry, hungry hippos broke free and went on an adventure offsite outside of the gameboard?
So, you are looking for what matters to you, and then like what is the most fun thing you can do with what matters to you?
And since we are kind of transitioning into my turn what I would love to say is like that relates to life too. We spend so much of our lives trying to fit in and be normal and trying to do it the way everybody else does and trying to get the right advice.
You just heard for the last two hours from the most brilliant writers that I know, and you notice everybody is different. Everybody has their own take, everybody has their own style, there is not one way to do it, but everybody came at you with tremendous authenticity. And so, it is about finding your authenticity and your way.
Let me tell you briefly about me. I am Jacob Krueger; this is my school. It’s also my baby. I am blessed in that I get to do the thing that I love most in the world every single day, which is to teach. And the goal of the school (you have heard a lot of people talk about ProTrack and workshops) the goal of the school comes from this: I have always had a big problem with the grad schools. It started when I was a producer, and I would read scripts from grad school students that had just racked up $300,000 indebt learning how to write scripts, and I would read scripts that professors loved but were completely unproducible.
In fact, there was a period where I stopped reading scripts from a top film school, because they were all the same– 5,000 film references and no character– and I felt bad for those students.
I also went through a very rough mentorship relationship. The person who taught me everything that I know about screenwriting was probably the worst person that I have ever met in my life. We had a kind of “Whiplash” relationship. He made me the writer I am, but he also took things away from me that I struggled for the rest of my life to get back.
And when I created this school, my dream was to take that grad school model and that mentorship model that I had had and try to turn it inside out. To give people the same valuable knowledge, without the abuse, in a world that honors the individual’s voice and a supportive environment.
On the education side, I always felt like colleges were doing the exact wrong thing, which was two years, three years, four years of bliss and then you graduate with $300,000 of debt and you cannot afford to be a writer because you have got to get a big job to pay off your debt.
And so, the ProTrack and the Workshop programs that you have heard about, the goal of them is, instead of giving you a few years and then you are out on your own, to give you a lifelong experience where you can actually get mentorship for your whole life without going into debt, without quitting your day job, at a tiny fraction of the cost of grad school.
And it is why we are so serious about our scholarship programs. We are the most affordable place that you can study with people like this. But if we are not affordable for you, then all you have to do is talk to us and we will do everything we can, because that is our mission—our mission is to empower artists.
And that is my dream, and I am so grateful for all these incredible people around me who make this possible and you are my tribe.
In sharing this with you, I am also teaching you how to pitch because this is what a pitch is. A pitch is not a way of selling people, a pitch is a way of sharing who you are and looking for your tribe and if you put yourself out there the people who are your tribe will join you.
So, when you pitch, do not come in pitching, come in sharing. Share something personal about yourself that is true just like I shared that with you. Use that to help people understand why you are doing what you are doing, why you are writing the script that you are writing. Why you are the one person in the world who should do this. And you will not have to say, “I am one person in the world who should do this,” because once you have told that personal story they will understand you.
You know why I created the studio, you know why I can’t stop adding classes and teachers and why I can’t stop building this. You know why this is my mission, right?
So, start with that one personal thing and then give them just a little bit, just enough to understand how it works in your story. And if they are your tribe, they will start to ask you questions, they will start to want to know more, and you will start to build connections and community.
– Transcript edited for length and clarity
If you’ve been struggling to get your writing going again during this crisis, I would like to make you aware of a couple of things we have going on for our students.
The first is, we have a free quarantinis happy hour of writing lessons and exercises and community; it is every Thursday night 7 PM EST, 4 PM Pacific and it is hosted by me. It is a fabulous community and you can come for free. If you can afford to make a donation, we will match your donations and apply them to our scholarship fund.
The second is that for every full priced class that is sold during this period, we are giving away two 50% scholarships that allow people who’ve been affected by the crisis to come at 50% off.
So if you’ve been affected by the crisis you can check on our and we’ll let you know if we have scholarships available, you can self-identify and you’ll get a scholarship instantaneously if you need to take a class.
If you are able to afford a class you can know that your money is going not only to help you pursue your passions but also to help other people pursue theirs. You can find more information about both of these on my website.