Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pitching For Film

Here's some tips from the WGA. These are the official ones. My un-official tip is always ask for tea that way if you get nervous you can blow on it to catch your breath. If it's too hot, make sure when they offer you water, you take it, that's also a good distraction when you're working out your nerves...

But now for the real...

Pitching for Film: Tips on What Works in the Room

“Non pros” know it as the interview. Actors call it an audition. Few, however, know the challenges writers face in preparing “The Pitch”—those ten to fifteen anxious, adrenalin-filled minutes when they lay their creative hearts and storylines out in the room for producers and executives to embrace enthusiastically, or, in most cases, reject.

THE PLAYING FIELD

* Your storytelling must invoke enough excitement for companies to give you money; anything less than that will not sell. Big comedies and family movies ("four quadrant" films) are the easiest pitches to sell. In today’s industry climate, pitches for dramas, independent films, or execution-driven stories are difficult to sell. In those cases, it’s better to write the spec.
* Currently, there are fewer opportunities to pitch original material vs. doing a “take”/concept for the producer on existing material with a branded franchise and/or built-in audience awareness.
* "The hire is always political," said Bendinger. Hiring an A-list writer is an insurance policy against the investment and a safer bet for the studio exec/producer.

THE WIND-UP

* Pitching is hard, regardless of genre, gender, and access. Prepare and hone your technique, but know that sometimes even the “wrong” way works.
* Be conscious of the company’s ever-changing financial position at the time of your pitch. Your agent or manager should have a “finger on the pulse” to gauge receptivity. Novick noted that studios are more transparent now about sharing whether they have monies to spend.
* Producers have an unspoken “code of conduct” where they don’t act interested. They may interrupt or ask seemingly illogical questions about your material. Consider it a test about how well you know your material rather than a challenge to your creativity. Sometimes they just want to see how you respond to notes.
*Do research when pitching existing material:
o Utilize online resources, agents, representatives, etc. to discern the players and credits of the attached creatives, past producers, money already spent on a project, personal connections, etc. There is a make-or-break point at which monies invested in a project necessitate further action towards development or production.
o “Don’t throw spaghetti on a wall of spaghetti.” For open writing assignments, ask “What paths have already been taken?” to avoid repetition or wasting anyone’s time. Ask to see pre-existing scripts if available.
o The important “social matrix” of the business: getting hired or selling a pitch involves more than your writing. The sale doesn’t necessarily go to the best writer, but those who are “good on their feet,” and easy to work with. Use psychology, body language, even improv, to establish a human connection with someone who may eventually become your ally.
* A pitch is successful if the execs in the room can “see the poster.” Additionally, he uses an actor’s name instead of the character’s for a more memorable prototype and marketing hook.
* Executives on the panel generally agreed that there is no need to attach talent. The company may not see value in your particular attachments and decline moving forward.
* Attaching more producers to the project is not necessarily a plus. Again, it all depends on what individuals can bring to the table.
* Build self-confidence in whatever unique way you wear it. A bad pitch makes executives nervous and uncertain the writer will deliver.
* No one wants surprises in the room. Especially for existing material, gain clarity about the direction and focus desired. Keep your pitch tight, without going longer than necessary. Producers want you to succeed and fix the script’s problems, so your presentation has to be in the “range” of what they’re looking for. As Novick shared, “If you’re not in the ballpark, you don’t belong in that room.”
* Don’t over-rehearse. Keep it fresh, perhaps changing a few supplementary aspects with every pitch. Montroy and Novick agreed that you should rehearse enough so that you know your material cold, freeing yourself up to be spontaneous in the room. Anticipate questions that might be asked, i.e., if producers were to poke holes in your story. And if being “charming, lively, and entertaining” weren't enough, also try to "be relaxed.”
* Know how to answer questions regarding tone. Always reference hits.

GOIN’ IN FOR THE PITCH & BRINGING IT HOME

* Be authentic.
* Be able to explain your logline in one sentence. Have detailed knowledge of your script, characters, character arcs, three acts, act breaks, plot points, etc.
* Milberg shared that ultimately you’re talking about character(s) and story, despite “set pieces.”
* There is a distinction between "general" meetings in which you "meet and greet" the exec, perhaps sharing two or three original ideas (in brief) versus a targeted pitch meeting regarding the company's acquired material. With original pitches, you are expected to have “worked out the kinks” so that the company can fine tune aspects according to their needs. For existing material, be "laser-focused" on the things that the producer says need work.
* Unless you are pitching to the person who can write the check, the exec will need to re-pitch up the ladder, so highlight important points or act breaks in your presentation (put in the "road map," as Novick called it) which they can remember to convey to others.
* DON'T: Be needy or desperate; Sacrifice characters for plot; Read directly from the page; Get defensive when asked questions; Take five minutes to set up something that only appears onscreen for one minute.
* DO: View the meeting as an opportunity to refine your pitch whether it sells or not; Recognize the human element of nurturing a professional relationship; Be brief and open to feedback.
* If given the chance to pitch on an open writing assignment, the expected turnaround is one or two weeks.
* Pitching aids can be helpful but should never overshadow the presentation. On one hand, if a producer re-pitches your material, visual materials may help decision makers envision your concept. For Bring It On, Bendinger showed ESPN cheerleading competitions which captured the energy of the film she had in mind. She also included data on the economics of high school cheerleading, providing facts for "uniquely positioned material." On the other hand, no one wants a distraction or an oddity that causes concern regarding your sense of judgment. Don't use props to cover up a weak story. As Novick concluded: if you're pitching a comedy and it's not funny in the room, nothing you leave behind will change that opinion. Also, trailers are usually a bad idea.
* The pitch is not a creative contract. Your draft retains the "spirit" of your pitch, so you can discover more during your writing process. If things change drastically, it is your responsibility to contact the executive to discuss concept changes. While producers prefer that you not work in a vacuum, they can also appreciate writing surprises that show off your creativity.
* Truth be told, not all great writers are terrific performers, so if you're just not good in the room, write a spec. If it’s good, it'll get passed around.

BACK AT THE BENCH

* Every job situation is unique. Many companies first approach higher profile, established writers who are generally not available. Then they go to other options. Understandably, a writer’s rate can affect the hire/sale as well as having the writing skill.
* Unproduced writers can sell a pitch, even though it is extremely difficult. Still, Novick said he’s conscious of not sending clients "out to slaughter" if buyers are not receptive. As a reality check: one panelist’s company had not yet bought a pitch this year (2010); another company last bought a pitch in June 2009. Know that producers hear many pitches, and can indeed get frustrated at not being able to move forward with your good ideas due to the economic climate.
* Have faith that the "cream will rise to the top." Milberg acknowledged that there are unknown writers that "blow him away" with their voice. "Good material at its core will stand out."
* Focusing on the industry’s current buzzword “transmedia,” Lieb described this rising trend as the ability to tell “cohesive narrative across a variety of platforms (film, video games, TV shows, comic books).” Each piece can stand alone, as well as work as part of larger whole. While panelists discussed a strategy to acquire comic book properties simply because they were comic books, Lieb cautioned that often properties don’t carry a strong following or public awareness. As a result, he and others did not recommend writers shell out the expense to option materials.
* Bendinger recounted a recent deal where the producers who bought the rights to her book also invested in a "concept positioning study" with a marketing firm, to assess in advance what audiences liked in the material. Let the company absorb the development costs.

Ultimately, panelists likened the pitching experience somewhat to the playing field of serial dating. Odds are you won't click with a prospective partner each time, but put your best foot forward to see where the connections go.

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