Sunday, March 9, 2008

Fever Pitch

Last week I said I’d tell you everything I know about pitching. Well, here it is in a nutshell: If you can write, you can pitch.

The first thing I learned about pitching was to get off my own back. During the days when my pitches sucked (we’ll get to that in a moment) I always focused on things that tripped me up. I tended to look at pitches as some sort of public evaluation of my talent delivered in front of a firing squad that was anxious to get to lunch. The first thing that helped me was to establish what a pitch actually is.

A pitch is not a book report or a presentation to the U.N. on world hunger. It’s an entertaining story, told well. In English.

Definition of terms:

“Entertaining story”: It’s been worked on. A lot. It’s clever, has good characters and a solid structure. You know it backwards and forwards. It has surprises and suspense built into the actual events of the story. This is important. Nobody wants to hear your assurances that the jokes are going to be funny. Tell them the events in the story that make it funny. Don’t expect laughs, by the way. If they smile, you’re doing great. Every story (no matter what the genre) should contain surprises and suspense and you should be conveying those two elements to your listeners as often as possible.

“Told well”: Tell the story the same way you would tell it to a good friend – while keeping in mind that your good friend doesn’t have all day to sit there and listen. Yes, shorter is better, but there are no rules for how long a pitch can or should take. If you engage your listeners they probably won’t be thinking about how long you’ve been talking. That said, don’t fart around. Use your head. Stick to the good stuff. If they want to know what color the lead character’s bedroom is painted, they will ask you. Every story has an engine. Find it. Use it.

“In English”: Many writers mindfuck themselves by thinking that in order to pitch successfully, they need to magically morph into stand-up comedians able to “work the room.” Nobody expects that. What the executives are expecting (and have every right to expect) is that you will clearly communicate your story to them. Their jobs depend on hiring the right person. Believe it or not, these people sit around and bullshit about movies the same way that you and your friends do. Talk to them like one movie fan talking to another. Tell them about this great movie you have in your head.

As I mentioned earlier, I used to self-sabotage my pitches by allowing my insecurities to cloud the actual objective of my pitch. Here are a few things I no longer worry about:

· My clothes, my cheap watch or how old I am.

· The executives, what they are wearing or how young they look.

· How long this pitch is taking.

· How much money is on the line.

· How I’ll probably never work again.

Here are some simple truths that I try to keep solidly in my mind:

· I’m not here asking for a job. If I wanted a job, I’d go work for the post office. I’m a writer. Writers have careers.

· I am a storyteller. I already have a natural instinct for this process. I’m better at this than I think I am.

· Even if I fuck up some part of it, chances are they will never know.

· I’m here to talk to (not at) the people in the room. Pitching is a roller coaster ride. Take everybody along. And try to enjoy it.

· My primary task, above all else, is to focus on MY STORY and how fucking great it is. If this sounds egotistical (or delusional), so be it. If ever there was a moment to own your talent, this is it. A good pitch requires focus, which is why I choose to keep my reality simple: If I don’t love my story and believe in it, then nobody else will. And that kind of love cannot be faked. It must be real.

Final tips: The pitch is never about you. It’s about your story. Separate the two things in your head and it will do wonders for your nerves. The question of “tone” will come up. You will need to have a few snappy adjectives ready, but the best answer is usually “x meets y” (“Alien vs. Predator” meets “Pride and Prejudice”). Do not reference films made prior to “Star Wars.” Don’t reference obscure films or movies that lost tons of money.

Of course, like everything else in show business, a successful pitch is dependent on luck; on being in the right room with the right people at the right moment in history. The majority of the time (even if they like it) they will tell you that your project is “not for them” and thank you for coming in. Just assume it’s the truth. It’s not for them. Fine. It’s for someone else. Take pride in your work and in having done your best. Be polite and move on.

Interestingly enough (or at least I find it interesting) over the years, pitching has caused me to develop an odd sense of camaraderie with these people who might (or might not) be my future employers. The whole experience is often filled with irony. In a business that tends to attract the overly optimistic, the intensely imaginative and downright psychotic, I’m frequently comforted by the fact that everyone in the room sort of wants the same thing: to stumble on a little magic. We would all have probably made terrific lawyers, dentists or stock brokers, but instead we chose to attempt the riskiest of all endeavors: to “entertain” for a living. What balls! And at the same time, there’s something sort of sweet about offering up such a huge slice of your life to something so unlikely to work out. On our best days, I like to think we’re all a bit like the movie characters that probably attracted us to this business in the first place; the proverbial teenagers in space (see last blog entry); wildly enthusiastic, filled with naïve bravado, confident that despite the odds, we will be the ones who will dodge the alien marauders and pilot our flaming spacecraft to a victorious landing on a cheering and grateful planet. And why not? Happens every day of the week.

Copyright 2008 David Dean Bottrell /

1 comment:

Marc said...

“Alien vs. Predator” meets “Pride and Prejudice”.
The possibilities boggle the mind.