Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Tips for Surviving the Pitch Session

"Nobody knows anything," is screenwriting legend William Goldman's famous observation on the vagaries of Hollywood.

After attending the recent InkTip Pitch Summit in Burbank, CA, I'd like to modify that to: "Nobody knows everything." Oh, people know some things. They know what they want. They know what they don't want. But what one person knows (and wants) is very very different from what another knows (and wants). For instance:

1. Listen to the Pros
The day before the Pitch Summit was filled with classes for those of us who weren't 100% sure
about our pitching abilities. Agent Barbara Bitela, with three books in print, gave a spirited presentation on what makes a good pitch. Her advice:
  • Tell your story. 
  • Show a little leg (with regards to your screenplay, darling!).
  • Be friendly.
  • Have fun.
She also gave a ripping read of some attendees' first pages, troubleshot major problems, and did her darndest to demystify the whole pitching process.

2. Don't Take Anything At Face Value
Don't go slavering all over the agents and representatives you meet. If they're the same place you are, chances are, they're as hungry for success as you. Ms. Bitela's three books are all self-published, and she's publicly touting her printed press releases in her professional bio -- two facts that would make me go "Hmmmmm" for a LONG while before signing with any agent.

Neither POD nor press releases mean she didn't know what she was talking about. But they're enough to put the brakes on any sort of runaway dream that a single person is going to be THE ONE who kickstarts my career.

3. Tell Them a Little About Yourself
One piece of advice I heard was "before launching into the pitch, tell the people listening about your inspiration for the story." This flew in the face of everything I'd ever heard, but -- surprise, surprise! -- it's (mostly) true. (See #4)

Our pitches were only allotted 5 minutes, from doors open to "Thank you, bye." Not a lot of time for revealing one's muse. However, several times when I led with what sparked my idea for a story, I had the producers on the other end of the table nod and say they preferred it when writers did that.

4. Don't Tell Them About Yourself
Ah, but not everyone wants to hear about your creative process.

The genesis for one of my scripts came to me after WunderGuy had a horrific allergic reaction to some new medication. That got me thinking "What if...?" and led to the creation of Shutters. which I consider a genuinely creepy screenplay. Most producers responded to my real-life-inspiration lead-in. But one told me, "If you pitch this script to anyone else, just start with the story." 


5. Memorize Your Pitch
You need to have your story down. You need to know it backward and forward. That way, when you're in a room of 400 producers and 100 writers, all elbow-to-elbow, with 5 minutes to get their pitch out, you can just access your lines and deliver them with confidence.

I practiced what I was going to say, including, "Hi, I'm Ami Hendrickson," for a month before I went. No lie. I practiced my pitches while walking my dogs, driving my car, getting groceries, and sitting in the ER. I wanted to do everything in my power to deliver when the time came.

I was glad that I memorized my pitch because, after 5 straight hours of pitching multiple screenplays in 5 minute increments, I could access the This-Word-Comes-Next file without groping & "er"-ing. However, I also ran up against the reality of #6:

6. Don't Memorize Your Pitch
No one wants to hear words delivered by rote. A pitch is supposed to inspire people to engage you. You want them to ask questions ("How does it end?" "Do you have a one-sheet?") and get excited about your story ("Here's my e-mail. Send me the .pdf."). None of that's going to happen from memorized lines.

When you pitch, you are talking to a person. Or people. You aren't standing up on stage and delivering your lines. Talk to them. Smile. Laugh. Say something human. They don't want to do business with robotic automatons. Be someone they can see themselves working with.

7. Be Nice.

To everyone. All day. For a cautionary tale on how not being nice can kill your chances, check out my favorite Tale from the Script Pitch. Yes, it's true.

8.  Have FUN!
I worried and stressed about going to the Pitch Summit. Regular readers may remember my pitching-is-like-exotic-dancing analogy. I stand corrected. Pitching is far more fun than I thought it would be. Because, you see, it's a chance to tell people my stories! Had I but known, I'd have gone to far more pitch fests.

All we writers want is for people to hear / see / read / know our stories. Well, pitching makes that happen. The Pitch Summit was like an all-day cocktail party in which people willingly gave me 5 minutes of their time to talk about any one of my screenplays I desired! How cool is that?

Unfortunately, too many writers there weren't having fun. They weren't enjoying their 5 minutes in the spotlight. They were stressed, whiny, and desperate. Honestly -- how often do you want to spend more time with people like that? Is it any wonder that they didn't have producers taking an avid interest in their stuff?

Lighten up! Enjoy yourself! Let your stories out of their hard-drive dungeons and give them a chance to breathe a little. Introduce them to people and see what happens!

I had 33 requests for one-sheets and 10 complete script requests from the Pitch Summit. Some writers there may have had more; some less. The numbers aren't the point. I met so many interesting writers, producers, directors, and development executives.  I reconnected with friends I met at film festivals years ago. To me, that's what it's all about: putting yourself out there. Talking to people about your work.

You never know: all it takes is for one person to forget to say "no."

Here's wishing you a career full of "Yesses!"

What's your favorite Pitching Tip? I'd love it if you'd share your wisdom below.

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