Saturday, 24 September 2011

Pitching & Bitching

Last Wednesday a group of Red Planet Prize finalists met up at Kudos HQ, together with Tony Jordan, Alison Jackson, Simon Winstone, Vicki Delow and Camilla Davies from those two companies. We were taking part in a pitching workshop, a chance to hone our pitching skills, something screenwriters absolutely need to do, but don't often get the chance. I've often said that practicing pitching, for example with friends or even at college, is a lot like taking penalties in training. No pressure - no problem. But in front of a packed stadium - well, did you see Rooney hilariously fall on his butt last week? However this was somewhat different - as the practice session was taking place in front quite a panel of industry experts.

We weren't there to pitch our own projects, it wasn't about that on this occasion. So the brief we got was to pitch Hustle, as if it was our own idea and a completely brand new show, and yes... to the man who actually created it. And then that same man would give us feedback. No wonder pretty much everyone asked for a drink before we got started. But we all did a really good job and it was both great fun and really educational. After we were done, Tony gave us a few tips based on his years of experience. And I'm sure he won't mind me sharing some of them with you guys. (NB: These are my interpretations of his words and the notes we were given - and should not be directly attributed to Tony Jordan or anyone at Red Planet or Kudos.)

Think about who you are sitting in front of. Some like the more conversational, relaxed approach, whereas others will still want a back and forth conversation, but might be a little more focused and business like (for want of a better word.) A lot of this comes from experience, but try and do as much research on the person you are about to meet beforehand and obviously pay attention to their body language during the meeting.

Be a Writer. Be the creative guy. Just because you’re going into a corporate office to meet a business person it doesn’t mean you have to turn up in a suit with a briefcase. They want to meet you because you are a writer. Keep it informal, relaxed and be yourself. My own rather more limited experience suggests that this is truer of TV than it is for film, (especially in LA, as you may have seen in my write up of the Alan Denman lecture.) In film they still expect you to dress like Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, but possibly expect a more business like approach.

One of the questions I hate the most is Why Now? How is the idea relevant to the times we are living in now? This can be really tricky, but it's important and sometimes easier than others. Ironically enough, just as it's coming to an end, Hustle is more timely than ever. But whatever the idea is, work very hard to have an answer to this question prepared before you go into the meeting.

Don’t overkill the idea. A pitch should be able to convey the heart and soul of a series within the first 30 seconds. You want to make the listener ask questions to find out more. Keep it clear and brief. There’s no need to go into details about episodes, the twists and turns of the series - or even the characters - unless you have a concise, clever, universal way of doing it. (For example a couple of people at the workshop likened the characters of Hustle to modern day Robin Hoods - Mickey is Robin, Danny is Will Scarlet, Stacey is Marion etc, which is archetypal and everyone will 'get it' immediately.)

Own the idea - it’s yours. Don’t read anything out. Keep it fresh and spontaneous. Exude confidence and passion for your idea. Frames of reference provide instant clarity. It’s often better to give singles references to convey the tone (for example Tony mentioned a few times that Hustle was basically Ocean's Eleven on TV,) instead of merging two or three together, eg. ‘Sex in the City’ meets ‘Spooks.’ That can look like quite calculated and unimaginative. (Again this is quite a British thing - I'm led to believe that they love all that this is this meets this thing in the States.)

Bear in mind Broadcasters are looking for ideas that will meet the specific channel requirements at that specific time. You love the idea, and you’ll try to get them excited about it too, but if it’s not for them it's neither the end of the world, nor is it necessarily any reflection of the project itself. It's more important to just enjoy the experience and keep the door open for the future. So whatever you do, do not try to persuade them this project IS for them when they have said it isn't. That's like saying they haven't been smart enough to get it, or they are being an idiot. That's not very clever - and in any event, no way are they going to change their mind (even if it's just on principle!) Just accept they are not interested. Be gracious because it's a small industry where everyone knows everyone and talks. So it’s worth building and maintaining a good reputation.

If it looks like the broadcaster is bored and is thinking oh my goodness this is rubbish, don’t be afraid to stop halfway through and acknowledge this. In fact, maybe the idea has only been in your head until now and saying it loud has made you realise oh my goodness this is rubbish. Fess up. Be open and light hearted. They will thank you for it and want to see you again. As opposed to if you keep going on and on. Next time your name comes up in their diary don't be surprised if you end up seeing an assistant. (The caveat to this is to be absolutely sure about what they are thinking. That can be tough but what you don't want is to end the pitch or say oh that's rubbish isn't it - and actually they were quite into it.) But if they have lost interest and don’t want to know any more, use the few spare minutes to have a chat and build a relationship. This particular idea may not be for them but you want to leave the door open, so use the small talk wisely.

And during that small talk try to glean useful information. What are they are looking for? At what stage do they like to get involved in an idea? Do they like loglines? Fully formed treatments? How do they like to receive pitches, post or email? (So down the line you can send an email or a letter and reference ‘you know you said you liked X, well here’s my new idea... etc.)

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