Screenwriting Pitfall #6: Pitching Pitfalls

Last Saturday marked the denouement of the Great American Pitchfest/Scriptfest, unless a miracle happens. I attended to take pitches—making it my first time sitting on the other side of an actual table as VP of Development. Sure, I was sad about what the end of GAPF meant to screenwriters, but I went into the event with high hopes!

I’m a pitch junkie and consider myself “good in a room.” Since that’s an important skill for a screenwriter, I thoroughly expected to meet a few soulmates. I have to admit, I saw a lot of passion! That makes up for a lot, and it fired up my desire to find something awesome!

After four hours, which is really a mini-version of most pitchfests, I ended up meeting a bunch of interesting screenwriters with a wide variety of projects. I’m not sure if I found anything that’s a fit for my company, but what really got my attention was the level of pitching. In a word—it stunk.

What happened???

The good news: I didn’t care how the screenwriters pitched. I didn’t care how nervous they were. I asked questions and was able to tell if the projects were right for my company. Unfortunately, not everyone will help you with your pitch. Some producers are a little more jaded. They look for a reason to say no. A bad pitch is a reason.

Don’t let bad pitching stand in the way of screenwriting success.

What went so wrong for so many? I saw some nerves, but those that had the worst pressed on anyway. Some brought the wrong kinds of pitching materials—or none at all—but they spoke well of their projects. My biggest surprise was how ONE THING continued to be a pitching problem pitch-after-pitch with a majority of screenwriters.

The problem:

They pitched the whole script, point-by-point.

Imagine someone telling you about a movie they just saw. They fumble through the plot, backtrack to add a good part. It takes a bit too long. It doesn’t make you want to go see the movie. It’s confusing.

Uh… that’s not how you pitch. Even if you are the best storyteller EVER, that’s not how you pitch.

You are not trying to “tell a story” or “paint a picture.” (Those are in quotes for a reason. They’re old.) You are there to sell. And in the tradition of all great car salesmen everywhere, you do it with a little pizzazz, the least amount of words and end with something that the buyer can’t ignore. Of course, car salesmen end with a reduced price or a limited-time offer for a free undercarriage coating to protect your car from road salt. (Those of you that suffer through real winters, please explain it to the people in California.)

When done right, pitching is a sales tool. You highlight the most interesting parts and make them want to read your script. You make them want to ask you questions—not need to ask questions for clarification.

I had to wonder how many of the screenwriters practiced their pitches—and how they actually practiced. I’ve seen and tried many ways to prep, and I’ll share my habits in the extended blog post.

Just as a refresher, let’s discuss the kind of pitches you’ll encounter. I want us on the same page, before we cover how pitching your whole script is a bad idea—for EVERY kind of pitch.

You’ll encounter three kinds of pitches:

  1. The Written Pitch,
  2. The Skype Pitch, and
  3. The In-Person Pitch—that can be broken down into the following: 
    • Pitchfest Pitch—where you get 5 minutes to pitch to one producer at a time, with anywhere from 50-100 producers at the event, in a speed dating kind of way.
    • Elevator Pitch—when you get only a few seconds to pitch during an unexpected encounter.
    • Meet & Greet Pitch—when you are invited to pitch to a producer, meeting up at their office or an agreed upon location.

I’ll try to cover all of them in future pitfalls, but today we’ll just get into the in-person pitching. But I want to stress again, that when it comes to the pitching issue above, all versions of the in-person pitch will benefit from practicing—and avoiding the compulsion to lay out your concept in a plot-by-plot kind of style, which doesn’t work for friends or producers.

Time to think like a studio. Whichever kind of face-to-face pitch you find yourself facing, approach it like a Hollywood studio. (They make the big bucks, after all. They must be doing something right.) Hollywood spends small fortunes on ‘pitching’ their movies to potential audience members in the form of movie trailers. So, ask yourself, how can you sell your script the same way a studio would sell a film?

I’m not asking you to film your own movie trailer or even create a sizzle reel. Instead, take all the elements that make a good movie trailer and turn that into a good pitch.

Hollywood Movie Trail Tips:

  • Catchy title
  • Star power
  • Cool concept
  • Car crashes

Okay, so maybe all of those aren’t at your disposal, but the thought behind them is ready and willing to do your bidding. It’s all about a good sales pitch.

3 Elements to a Good Sales Pitch & How that Translates to Screenplay Pitching

These come from Dale Carnegie and form the core of what makes a good sales pitch—which for screenwriters is a pitch that gets either a script request or an invitation to pitch your future projects.

  1. Let customers sell to themselves. Concepts, not your plot, offer a vision that allows a producer to sell themselves. Pitch the vision, let ‘your customer’ do the rest. That means opening a pitch with your script’s concept. Think about it… your concept is a nugget of information. It should be easy to remember. It should be easy to state and not ramble. It should be easy to end it on a WOW moment that makes a producer see your movie and want to read your script. And it shouldn’t take long to pitch, which is important when you get to #3 below.
  2. Arouse a desire. The idea is to make them desire what you are pitching. Carnegie’s example centered on a bait store selling to a fisherman. Does the fisherman desire bait? No. He desires catching a fish. You’re a script store. Does a producer desire a script? No. He desires funding partnerships, actors and directors eager to work with him. If your pitch shows a way to get those partnerships, that’s a good pitch. Does your script have a good role for a female lead? Hello, Reese Witherspoon who has her own production company. Does it have an opening scene that would make a director salivate? Hello, Antoine Fuqua, who is on everyone’s director dream list. Does it have a concept and storyline that is interesting to both domestic and foreign audiences? Hello, any distributor in the world. This list goes on and on. The point is to think about what producers need to get a movie made.
  3. Listen. Once you’ve said your pitch, shut up. Give the producer time to say yes or ask questions. However, it is wise to practice a short followup answer for more information about your plot. You don’t want to fall back on rambling over storyline details.

What IS NOT a Good Pitch:

Reciting your logline is not a pitch—good, bad or otherwise. Sure, you’ll probably be saying most of your logline’s points in your pitch, but loglines are not written like people talk. And more importantly, they are hard to understand if you aren’t reading them. Our ears do not comprehend like our eyes. So, go over your logline and translate it into actual speech, only then is it ready to be memorized and used as a pitch.

Bottomline: Good selling techniques lead to good pitching. You are the first rung in a ladder that leads to a produced movie. How easy and amazing you make your pitch is how easy and amazing it will continue to be pitched as it moves up the ladder—and into a Hollywood movie trailer.

If you’d like to know more about the ins and outs of pitching, read the extended version of this post in the Screenwriters Pitfalls List or join our newsletter to get the extended pitfall sent to you every time we put out a new one. 

Even more on pitching: watch Screenwriters Beat Episode #35 – Pitching.