Monday, January 09, 2012

PITCHING

'Pitching' is when a writer has to try and sell a project (which at that point might exist solely in their mind) to a producer or commissioner by using out-loud words from their voice box.

Most writers have a weird love/hate relationship with pitching, I suspect because pitching seems like the purest possible form of storytelling. With none of that high-tech 'things written down on paper' nonsense, writers are stripped down to their most primal form: a lone bard in a smoky hall, weaving stories out of thin air in the hope their thane won't immediately pull out a sword and behead him because he's realised the story is clearly Beowulf with the serial numbers filed off (which most stories are).

The truth is, most writers are crap at pitching, because if they were easily able to hold a room of execs spellbound with their words, they wouldn't be making a living writing things down for other people to read out loud. And, weirdly enough, telling a gripping story isn't what you need to do in order for a successful pitch - what you're doing is showing the people with the chequebook that you have all the ingredients to make a whole succession of gripping stories if they'd just let you go away and get on with it.

You might think that going in with enormous confidence and giving the execs plenty of detail and colour would guarantee you that they'll at least give you a bit of cash to go away and write a ten page treatment or summat, but you would be this: WRONGO. And here's why.

I reckon, and this is in no way backed up by 'facts' or 'science', that two thirds of the execs you have pitching meetings with have already decided before you came in the room whether they were going to commission something or not. The other third might have a bit of cash floating about, which they're prepared to throw at you in a whim if something you say tickles their fancy. So your job is to not to mess it up, and one way you can do this is to go steamrolling in like Russell Crowe doing a radio interview for a project he REALLY believes in (if you heard him banging on about the Magna Carta for hours on end for that Robin Hood film, over the bludgeoned corpses of various BBC presenters, you'll know what I mean).

There are two kinds of writers who take the 'bludgeoning on for hours on end' approach: starting writers who need to conceal their terror of rejection, and more experienced writers who have a few series under their belts, and thus have become convinced they are storytelling GODS, from whose lips words drip like honey &c &c.

The worst pitch meeting I had was a few years ago with a very nice lady film producer I realised too late had spared me half an hour out of basic politeness. I decided to go in all guns blazing with a Thirties-set semi-historical monster movie that was loosely tied in with my own family history (no monsters in that, sadly). Sadly, this required describing a bit of background first, and I realised too late that there is nothing more boring than listening to someone else's family history, and I hadn't even got to the film idea yet. Also, it turned out the nice lady producer hadn't actually read any of my previous scripts, which meant she wouldn't get the tone I was going for. So I started skipping bits, grimly determined to get the end of my pitch, which, as I recall, ended with me sweating all over my fat face as I recited the deathless phrase 'and then they realise it wasn't the Owlman all along, and the Nazis leave, and, arm, it all works out fine'. READER, I DID NOT GET A FEATURE SCRIPT COMMISSION THERE AND THEN.

The same producer left the company a week or so later, which suggests she didn't have any money to spend anyway, which was of some small comfort.

The best pitch session I ever had was with another lady producer, for television this time, who had read plenty of my previous scripts, hurrah, and who I'd already had a couple of meetings with and knew to be totally nerd-friendly. I only found out later that she'd just sat through a pitch from a VERY distinguished television writer, which had already gone like this for half an hour:

DISTINGUISHED WRITER: … at which point Jake, of course you remember Jake, he's the one with the gammy leg, Jake makes the SHOCKING and APPALLING discovery that Helen, you remember Helen, she's the one with the twitchy eye, Helen is not his mother, BUT HIS SISTER!

Distinguished Writers sits back with a satisfied smirk. Lady Producer manages to drag herself back up from where she has slumped onto the sofa.

LADY PRODUCER: Right, well, that was very-

DISTINGUISHED PRODUCER: (triumphantly) ACT TWO!

LADY PRODUCER: (mumbles) Oh my fucksie.

Another half hour later, the Distinguished Writer departs, his PA scattering rose petals before him &c and I bumble in.

ME: Look, I'm completely fucked with a hangover, so can I just give you the gist of the thing in about three minutes? I can ABSOLUTELY give you more details if you need them, but I will need a very nice young lady or young man to bring me quite a strong cup of coffee first.

I give them the gist. THREE MINUTES LATER:

LADY PRODUCER: We'd like a script please.

ME: (puzzled) Are you sure? Don't you want a treatment or anything?

LADY PRODUCER: Nope, go and write a script, we'll talk to your agent.

ME: WOO HOO! Ow.

This is not to say I recommend going in to pitch meetings with a hangover, I totally do not. Unless it works for you, in which case, go for it.

8 comments:

Tim Footman said...

Maybe it should have been the Owlman all along.

james henry said...

It turned out her whole family had been killed by an Owlman, so I was on a losing tack the whole time, to be honest.

Salvadore Vincent said...

My best pitch: To a room full of European children's TV execs. Though I say it myself, I delivered a very funny, well-rehearsed pitch, complete with sample bits of animation. I had worked out in advance where the execs I was particularly interested in were sitting, so that I could deliver the punchlines straight to them. Great response all round. No commission.

My worst pitch: My first time. I had written an outline on a couple of sheets of A4. After the usual "Did you have a long journey to get here?" stuff they asked about the project. I tried to hand over the pieces of paper, but they said, "No, no, talk us through it". So, I put my head down and, in my best mumble, just read the whole thing out. Commission.

Jayne said...

I have always imagined pitch meetings to be exactly like they are in The Player.

james henry said...

SV: Excellent stuff.

Jayne: Man, that scene hovers invisibly in the background of every pitch meeting I've ever been in.

Jayne said...

Hah! That makes me happy.

Boz said...

Ah. The dreaded P word.

Speaking from another industry entirely (coo-ee! *waves*), we have to pitch all the time. I'm not saying I'm an expert in this, and especially not for writingy stuff, but when we go and meet a buncha new people we have to show;

1. We're rilly rilly nice people to do bizzyness with

2. We know what we're talking about AND THIS IS WHY (*points to facts / past examples / work we've done*)

3. THIS is what we think is currently a v good idea for you (*fires glitter cannon*)

4. These are the reasons why this idea is good (because so and so has done something like this, it fits with what you are trying to do, there's nothing else like it around.)

5. But Oh Yeah Hi if you don't happen to LIKE that stupendously amazing idea, then here's like, just a few others we happen to have up our sleeves to drop casually across the table.

It's also worth saying that the team of us pitching go into a room and practice what we're going to say. Several times over. At least. And sometimes we practice on other people to make sure what we're trying to say is clear.

It's all horrible, but the worst that can happen really is that the people on the receiving end are having a really monumentally bad day.

Boz said...

ALSO I totes agree with you about people already making up their mind.