Monday, September 3, 2012

The Art of Pitching

You have finally conquered the terrifying "Blank Screen Monster" and have come up with a really tight story.  Whether it’s a book, a feature, or a TV series, you still have yet to climb that one last uphill mile of Mt. Doom – pitching your story to a potential buyer.  After sitting through more pitch meetings than I care to count, here’s a few brief tips on pitfalls to avoid and power steps to take to make the most of the meetings you get.

Have a specific idea:

Everyone wants to hear a story so if you’re lucky enough to get in the room with an executive or agent, have a story to tell them.  Nothing is more of a turn off than a vague idea. 

For instance, “I think I want my series to star a guy who solves crimes with the help of his two buddies.  There’s probably an antagonist in there, some one who isn’t really a criminal but somehow stands in his way.  I think I’d like to set it some place that’s warm, with beaches.  Maybe a car.”   Not really all that engaging, is it?  You’re asking the audience (and that’s what the exec or agent is, an audience) to fill in all the blanks for themselves.  Sorry, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to do some of that work for us. 

A better (though far from perfect) way of pitching that idea would be, “The series is about a p.i. named Thomas Magnum.  Ex-military, Thomas’s easy-going nature covers up some issues that will continue to haunt him throughout the series.  Just barely getting by as a private investigator, he manages to luck into the greatest gig on earth – head of security for wealthy, mysterious recluse Robin Masters.  In fact, Thomas and the audience may never even meet Robin, even though Thomas gets to live in the guest house of his swanky Hawaiian estate and drive his spare car, a red Ferrari.  The only glitch in the deal is Higgins, Robin’s very British Major Domo who takes care of the estate who distrusts Thomas, from his Hawaiian shirts down to his ragged flip flops.  Despite Higgins (and sometimes with his help), Thomas and his two war buddies, hustler Rick and straight arrow, helicopter pilot TC, solve cases from the highest of Hawaii’s wealthy to the lowest of the beach shack dwellers.  While primarily a “case of the week” procedural, there will be some over-arcing, serialized elements concerning Thomas’s past.  (In case you didn’t recognize it, I just pitched “Magnum P.I.”)

See how different the two versions are?  I didn’t go into details that don’t matter – like the famous mustache, brown hair, the guard dogs, etc.  That there will be sexy folks on the beach is implied and can be emphasized as you go through more of the potential storylines.   Which leads me too…

Know your characters

When you’re pitching a series, you don’t want to pitch the pilot.  If you notice in the example above, I didn’t tell a specific story, but I set up a very specific world.  The story points in the pilot will come out as you describe each character.  For instance, after you set up the world using the example above, you will launch into something like, “Our main character is Thomas Magnum, a man with a strong sense of honor, a boyish sense of humor and ridiculously good looking.  After getting out of the Navy, he decided to stay in Hawaii.  No more life and death decisions, just a mai tai, beautiful sunsets and even more gorgeous women.  Smart, tough, although sometimes too trusting, it was easy enough for Magnum to parlay his military experience into a p.i. license and in the pilot he’ll show up at Robin Master’s estate, claiming that the wealthy recluse hired him on as his security expert in exchange for living at the house.  Higgins, Robin’s right hand man, is apoplectic at the idea but gets a call from Robin himself proving Magnum’s claims.  Throughout the series, Magnum and Higgins will have an adversarial relationship with an undercurrent of mutual respect and eventually friendship.

Thomas’s best friends in the world are TC and Rick.  Back in the war, TC was the chopper pilot who…” 

And so on, for each major character.  It’s good to say what, if any, character arc your main characters are going to have.  In the case of Magnum, like most procedurals, the arc wasn’t initially very important so it didn’t need to be part of the pitch.
Have potential episodes in mind

After describing the characters, you want to talk about the potential episodes in general terms, not so much “at the end of act one x happens, act two opens with y”.  BUT you DO want to have specific storylines in mind that you can tell if the person you’re pitching is interested. 

It goes like this; once you paint the world you want the series to be and describe the characters, you either just launch into some episode ideas or ask, “would you like to hear some potential storylines?”  Usually you can tell from their body language if the person you’re pitching is interested, in which case just plow ahead.  If you’re not sure, ask.  Most people won’t be rude enough to interrupt and say, “thanks, don’t call us, we’ll call you” but you also don’t want to put people in that position of wishing they could. 

Be ready to give some brief examples of what a typical episode of your show would be about.  If you’re pitching a comedy – MAKE SURE THE STORIES YOU TELL ARE FUNNY.  If it’s a drama or a mystery, make sure the stories seem like they have enough fuel to last an hour.   

*Can’t stress this enough: KNOW THE STRUCTURE OF YOUR SHOW!  Comedies, both single & multi cam, typically have an A & B story, and often (though not always) there’s a small runner or C story.  Be ready to talk about your episodes in those terms! For instance, be able to say, “A typical A story is the daughter trying to find a date to the prom” and then say the funny things that keep her from doing so.  “The B story might be the son going on a field trip and getting lost” with the funny details of that.  “A possible runner might be the mom constantly losing her car keys”.  Ok, none of that is really hysterical but you get the picture.  Don’t just come in and say, “A typical episode is the daughter can’t get a date to the prom.”  No matter how much funny stuff happens, it’s not enough to sustain 20 minutes of show.  The same goes for a one hour as well; there’s typically an A and B story. Usually the A is the case of the week in an episodic show (medical, legal or cop procedural case) and the B story is some personal event that one of the main characters is dealing with. 

Practice Makes Perfect… but so does paper or iPad

The key to a really professional pitch is that you delivery is smoothly, as effortlessly as talking to your friends about a movie you saw last weekend. 

Granted, a pitch for either a comedy or a drama should take about 30 minutes.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, expects you to memorize that much material.  For some folks, like stand-up comics turned writers, it’s just another performance and, with a lot of practice, is easy to do.  For most writers, however, relating a detailed concept and flushed out stories is no mean feat.  Use cards, paper, iPad – whatever you need to do to feel comfortable delivering your pitch.  I just recently went to some network pitches and everyone from the studio executive to the agent to the network exec all agreed that they don’t mind at all if a writer uses notes.  Now, that said, I wouldn’t recommend just reading it straight off the page – eye contact is important for you to pull them in as well as being able to judge if you need to speed things up, slow things down, ask questions, etc. 
Even with notes, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can do this off the cuff, no problem.  Just like the way to Carnegie Hall, a great pitch requires practice, practice, practice.  Honestly, I’ll never turn down a pitch because I didn’t like the last idea the writer pitched, but I will think twice if the writer came in unprepared and lifeless.  You’re only going to get one shot at this so take the time to practice with every friend and family member who can’t out run you. 

The Toughest Part of All…

Have fun.  I know, easier said than done, but nothing makes an audience want to hear more about a story than the passion of the person telling it.  I’ve fallen in the same trap – you want to be uber cool and professional, ice water is running through your veins THAT’S how good you are.  But you know what?  Unless you are one of the remaining Bourne co-workers, that’s probably not who you really are.  Let your love for your story and your characters shine through.  You don’t have to be comfortable with people or the life of the party, just let how excited you are to be talking about this project and the possibility of seeing it come to life drive you. 

I was recently at a Women In Film breakfast where actress/producer Felicia Day was speaking and she said something that will always stick with me.  She was terrified of auditions to the point of going catatonic.  Then, the tables were turned and she was the producer auditioning other actresses and the view from the other side of the table was startling.  She realized that producers want you to be good, they want this to be the best pitch (or audition) ever because that means they have a winner on their hands they can sell.  No one but the most insecure or mean spirited (and I’ll grant you, there are plenty of those out there but screw them) wants you to fail.

Since everyone in the room is with you, what can go wrong?