WHAT IS A PITCH?
A pitch is a verbal presentation of your idea. There are two kinds: informal and formal.
The INFORMAL pitch is sometimes also called “the elevator pitch, “ because it’s supposed to be short enough for you to say while you’re riding in the elevator with an agent or producer. That means it’s probably only a couple of minutes long and obviously that doesn’t give you time to get into any details. You only have enough time to tell the basic idea, such as:
“It’s a love story set on the Titanic. The lovers are a rich young woman engaged to a rich jerk, and a poor boy who travels in steerage with the rest of the riff-raff. Basically it’s Romeo and Juliet set on the doomed ship—a great love story in the context of a dramatic true event..”
Notice that the first sentence establishes the genre: a love story. It’s useful to indicate the genre right away because a lot of stories could be told in just about any genre—the Blair Witch Project could have been done as a comedy (with cast members from Saturday Night Live, for instance), or a thriller, or a drama that’s more about the relationships of the lost group. You need to orient your listener so he or she is imagining the right kind of tone for what follows.
The FORMAL pitch usually lasts about 15 or 20 minutes and gives you the chance to tell the story in much greater detail. Again you’d start with the genre, and then you might tell the story more or less chronologically. You’d be able to describe the characters in much greater detail and even tell a bit about the subplot.
For a new writer, the goal of both kinds of pitches is the same: to get the other person to read your outline or screenplay. When you have a track record, a pitch may be enough to get them to commission you to write the script.
Your pitch has to be concise—even the 20-minute one doesn’t have room for padding. It has to be easy to follow. If you get lost telling the story, so will the listener. If you go into too much detail, they’ll get bored. Imagine you’re telling a story to a young child and need to keep their attention.
The other key element has to be enthusiasm. If you don’t sound enthusiastic about your idea, they won’t get excited about it, either. This doesn’t mean you have to jump up and down or act out various bits. How you show enthusiasm depends on your personality. Don’t try to be somebody else, but do let your natural passion for the idea show through. If you don’t have passion for the idea, don’t pitch it.
ADMIT YOUR WEAKNESS
Here’s something that might help you prepare your screenplay pitch:
An expert on what helps books sell on Amazon revealed recently that it’s more effective to have some lower ratings, not just all five stars. He says if people see only top ratings they assume you just had all your friends write reviews. If you got mostly five or four stars but also a few threes it feels more authentic, since in real life there are very few things everybody loves.
A similar effect may take place when you pitch an idea as though it’s perfect. It may actually help your pitch if you admit to a potential weakness or pitfall—as long as you also offer a solution.
For example, let’s say you are pitching a science fiction story in which a small town is invaded by aliens—but the pitch is to a producer or company that makes low-budget films. One potential problem is that they will not have a budget for high-end special effects or outstanding make-up. Rather than avoiding that topic, it’s a good idea to acknowledge it pretty early in the pitch, perhaps the first time the aliens appear.
Sometimes it’s even possible to turn the potential negative into a positive. In this case, you might say something like, “These aliens, though, are not weird green beings with tentacles—they look almost identical to humans, which makes the atmosphere even more sinister—who is human, who isn’t becomes a paranoia that drives people to do violent things they never thought they were capable of.” (And if you recognize that this is one of the traits of one of my favorite films, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” well spotted!)
Here’s a step by step process that you can use:
• Identify the weaknesses in your project
• Brainstorm ways to fix them
• If you can’t fix them, brainstorm ways to position them as a potential strength
• When you prepare to pitch, decide on the best point at which to mention, defuse, or even take advantage of the weakness
Applying these steps gives you greater credibility and that’s a giant step toward a sale!
You should be ready to do an informal pitch anytime, anywhere. You never know when you’re going to run into somebody who either is in the film business or has connections to people who are. This could be at a party, a conference, a workshop, or even on an airplane.
For the formal pitch, normally an agent has to pave the way, or sometimes you can pave the way yourself by writing a good query letter. In Hollywood, most producers, network executives and studio executives will deal only with people who have agents. In Europe often the producers are more open to being approached directly. In Europe, the formal pitch is not as prevalent as in the United States. Instead, people tend to ask to read your outline or treatment. That means that document has to have the same qualities as your verbal pitch: conciseness, clarity, and passion.
I’m working on a fuller PITCHING REPORT and will let you know when that’s available. In the meantime, I hope these tips have been helpful. If you haven’t already signed up for my Screenwriting Success newsletter, go ahead and do so now from the home page because that will also include pitching guidance for you.