Thursday, 15 December 2011

LSF 4: Hollywood Pitching

Festival Sunday. I was tired. Already. Even with not being there on the Saturday and with getting an extra hour in bed because of the clocks moving. So I missed the first session of the day. It was a shame, but I actually felt the physical benefits as the day wore on compared to last year. So the first session I attended, and wasn't going to miss, was this one. Moderated by Jonathan Newman and attended by David Reynolds and Stuart Hazeldine, it was a great session and insight into the life of a jobbing writer who has to pitch a lot, especially relevant to working in LA, but still applicable here too. (As ever, these are my paraphrased notes and apologies to those involved if there are any mistakes.)

How did you first get into the industry?

DR – Got a staff job on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Wrote some sketches and got hired. Went back to LA, tried to get on a sitcom, and his agent said do you wanna go over to Disney for a couple of weeks and do some punching up on scripts. And he fell into a career and six years and fifteen movies later with Disney and Pixar, here he is.

SH – Sold his first spec script, basically Die Hard on the London Underground, around the mid nineties. Got an agent, did some BBC work but realised he’d always be writing TV if he didn’t get a Hollywood agent and that’s not what he wanted to do. So went over there and got an agent in late nineties and has been pitching and doing assignment jobs since.

What makes a good pitch?

DR – Have a good idea. These days the pitch is 20 mins or less. And people will leave the room or pick up the phone after 20 mins. You need enthusiasm, get your point across. A lot of execs want to know the end first. They'll say just tell me how it ends. It’s counter intuitive to writers because we like to tell stories, and build up to the end which will hopefully be surprising and satisfying etc – and they just want to cut to it. It’s then hard to do an enthusiastic pitch to go back to the beginning of the story and pitch it knowing they know the end. But be flexible.

SH – Try to hold as much back though as you can. So maybe don’t say the guy dies, just say it’s a tragedy, or it ends badly, something a bit more vague. And just to show you nobody knows anything the pitches he’s sold have all run longer than 20 mins and he tends to pitch in more detail than most. Stores up a lot of energy and gives it his all so he’s exhausted by the end of it. And it works for him. If that’s your personality then go with it. But still have a strong antennae for when their attention is waning. Be prepared for anything and any level of rudeness. The exec might leave and you’re just left pitching to their assistant.

What should and shouldn’t be included in the pitch?

DR – A lot of the time they know what you’re going to come in and pitch because it’s an assignment or you know they are looking for something specific. Sense the pitch moment to moment to get a feel for how they are responding. But pace it out. Don’t be 20 mins in and you’re still on Act One. Practice it. With friends etc. Good tip, if you’re doing action, set up one sequence in some detail, and then when you get to the next key one just say it will be like that but better and bigger! You don’t have to get it all out there.

JN – Rehearsing the pitch is brilliant and crucial. Went to LA with a project he’s working on with a producer and beforehand they were in London and the producer said okay pitch it to me. And they did this like ten times. So all the mistakes were made in a little café in London and not in the room in LA.

SH – Don’t mention the location of the script unless it’s vital to the story. And don’t pitch with dialogue, unless it’s something like ‘I see dead people.’ Make sure whatever you’re pitching is really germane to the understanding of the story. He always practices, writing it out, then doing it without having that in front of him, and so on. You go in, have a few moments of pleasantries, and then you’re off. Need to frame it in some way, be it with genre or hook them in with something, be it an intriguing character or action set piece, whatever. Try to pace it out around 5 mins for each act. And state it “and then in Act Two…” and, “and then around the middle” so they know where you are in the movie. At the end they’ll have questions – and of course answer every single one no matter how long it takes. Then frame things at the end more directed towards marketing. Now they know what the story is you can say this is why the movie should be made now and there’s a really strong audience for this, etc. You’re telling them how to sell it to their boss.

How do you know if the person in the room doesn’t like your pitch and what do you do if that’s the case?

DR – Sunglasses on, taking calls, scrolling a blackberry. You know if they’re not into this. It’s like trying to pick up someone in a bar and you know if they are into it or not. If it’s going badly you start to bail. You don’t go just forget it and walk out. Finish it, but get it done as quickly as possible. Wrap it up.

SH – Just to play devil’s advocate, sometimes the guy who seems the most bored ends up buying it. Conversely sometimes the guy who seems the most enthusiastic is just going through the motions. So read the signs but don’t be too effected by it. And when they buy something don’t delude yourself that you know what they are buying. You pitched it so you assume they are buying what they heard and they love what you love about the story, and it might not be true. When they offer to buy something call them up again and ask what they like about the story. Not to be combative. But let’s say you were pitching a whole story because of one character and they buy it and you get to the 2nd draft and they say we like it but do we need this character. And you think if they take that character out you won’t be able to continue writing it. That character was the main thing that interested you but they see it as superfluous. So try and establish that early rather than going through 12-24 months of hell.

Speed/elevator pitching – have you done it, what do you do?

DR – It’s tricky because every now and then you’re be working on a spec, let’s say with Will Ferrell in mind, and you might meet him and he’s like hey what’s going on and you’re like working on a story, you know, about a guy and you’re resisting the temptation to say you, you, you. It’s really tough. Some people can do it and say I’m working on this thing right in your ballpark and we should get together some time to talk about it. Or you do it like this. I’m working on something and it would be great for Steve Carell, and all of sudden Ferrell will be like, really, what it is, send it up this way. You have to know who you are talking to but you can do it. But you’ve got to be careful.

Who are you most likely to be pitching to?

DR – It’s case by case. If you are pitching to a studio and you are new, you’re going to be pitching to the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. Who’s usually 12. And that’s just the way it is. And hopefully when you get more successful you’ll move up the ranks. If you’re pitching to a producer, you might pitch to his number one guy. And you’ve got to sell it to him. And these people will sit in the room and just write. You might only see the top of their heads. Because what they have to do is go back to their boss and tell them the pitch. It’s really unnerving and tough.

What do you think about using other material alongside the pitch, like visual aids?

DR – Has been on pitches that have visual aids. If you’re pitching a specific location you can have pictures, especially on ipads or whatever. Or maybe some small story board type things. But be sensible with it of course. Leave the easel and fog machines at home. If you can have something you can readily unfold and bring out of a briefcase it might help. If it’s something that helps sell the story it can be very strong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Late to this Jez but cheers for another excellent write-up.

Have a great 2012!