For the practising writer, there is no uglier word in the English language than “pitch”. (Except for the word “Rejection”.) As writers we want to be judged by our work, not by our ability to spin, bullshit, present or market our ideas.
However, sigh, the world is an imperfect place. Writers DO have to pitch. Especially in the movie and television industries. To be a screenwriter, you need three things: a calling card script, a thick skin, and a talent for pitching.
These thoughts have been in my mind recently because I’ve been taking place in an impressive venture run by my friend Hugo Heppell, Head of Production at Screen Yorkshire. Hugo has been doing an amazing amount to encourage and develop new and not-so-new writers up in Yorkshire, and this year he has created three different schemes which came together last weekend in a weekend at Bradford University with literally dozens of participants.
The three schemes are First Sparks – an opportunity for writers to work with a professional script editor on developing a feature project to the point where it can work as a calling card script – or even as a producable script. I’ve been attached as script editor to 3 projects on this scheme – and all have proved to be a delight and a joy.
The second scheme is Triangle, which has been simmering away up there for some months and involves putting together writer/producer/director teams who develop a project with the advice of seasoned producers and then, ideally, MAKE THE MOVIE.
And the third scheme, in which I’ve been involved as “team coach”, is Pitch Factor. Yes, it’s a course in how to pitch!
Pitch Factor reached its culmination last weekend, in that 2 day workshop in the University of Bradford. I chaired a morning panel about the dark arts of pitching, which featured producers Alex Usborne (of Picture Palace North), Caroline Cooper Charles (formerly of Warp Films, and now freelance), screenwriting guru and director Alby James, and Hugo himself. And we talked a little about best and worst pitches. (I restrained the urge to describe my own worst pitches – it would have taken days to recount them all!)
Caroline spoke about the brilliant pitch she heard from the writer/director of Hush (Mark Tonderai) in which his vision and passion were so great that it was obvious this film WOULD get made. And so it was, with Warp producing and Hugo as executive producer. Hugo then screened some amazing one minutes pitches from the Tribeca Film Festival. Take a look at this – worst pitch ever? Surely it is! Though I wonder if this guy is like the contestants who deliberately give bad performances on X Factor to win a bet at the pub. And Alex – magnificently – delivered a real live pitch, for a documentary set in Sheffield which was funded and produced on the basis of the pitch.
I was somewhat awed at Alex’s pitch and the Usborne Guide to Pitching. Of course, he was mainly talking about how producers pitch – for writers it’s different, but you do have to do it. I’ve pitched to the BBC, to ITV, at the AFM, at Cannes, to my wife (that one got me a co-habitation deal) and to any number of development executives over the years. Does that make me an expert on pitching? Far from it. I always come away from meetings thinking, ‘I wish I’d said X’, or done Y. But the art of pitching – for writers – is to say enough to create interest in the project. After that – it’s the project itself (whether in script or treatment form) that has to do the work. But the pitch prepares the way.
Or, embarrassingly, not.
But what IS a pitch? Is it a formal presentation with slides and photos? Or a casual conversation in which the project is described, but not in any detail? The answer is both, according to the context. American companies tend to prefer more polished pitches; British companies (except for Working Title) often prefer the Pitch Informal. But if you’re pitching with a director, then it does all get more intense.
To be honest, I’ve only once in my life had to pitch a project with a director and a producer in the room. That was for my BBC Film The Many Lives of Albert Walker, in which I told the story to head honcho Jane Tranter and got us the gig. “We’ll have that,’” she said; and that was the film greenlit…
Usually, for most of my career, it’s been just me, schmoozing a development person. Since I’ve become a producer however , I’ve had to learn how to pitch more assertively and theatrically, sometimes with a coproducer in tow. Once, I had to give an “elevator pitch” – that’s a very brief pitch made “as if” you’re pitching to a studio exec in the elevator between floors. That was about 3 weeks ago; I elevator pitched my movie in exactly sixty seconds to a room of 70 or more people; and I still bear the scar tissue. Another time, I had to pitch a movie in ten seconds to an American exec who was an hour late for our meeting. Um, that pitch was crap. And all too often, I’ve given very passionate pitches – complete with arm waving and spittle spraying – only to find that the development exec is staring at me with glazed eyes, having lost the plot round about scene 421. Oh, er….
But the value of Pitch Factor for me is that it’s about encouraging writers to learn how to THINK ABOUT their project. Because to pitch a story, you have to know a story. You have to be able to describe the sort of story it is – thriller, romantic comedy, shoot ‘em up, whatever – and what the idea of the story is, in just a very words. That’s “front-loading” the pitch, letting the listener in on the overall concept and tone. ‘It’s a stylised action thriller in which characters karate kick while flying, set in a beautiful world that only exists in the characters’ imagination.’ (The Matrix’) ‘It’s about a teenage girl who wants to take revenge for the death of her father, who hires an ornery, drunken, foul-mouthed lawman to help her get her man.’ (True Grit). That’s the concept or premise of the movie – sometimes called the log line – and if you know the story well enough to summarise it that briefly, YOU KNOW THE STORY.
Pitching, in other words, is a form of oral storytelling. The director of my noir thriller Inferno is always pitching it to his pals and colleagues, because he knows that telling the story out loud is a way of identifying the faults and cracks in the story. (‘Phil – this story has no darn ending!’) And so for me, the four mentoring sessions I did before the Pitch Factor Weekend were all about the processs of script editing via pitching. Because if I hear a story and it doesn’t work – that means the writer needs to do more work on the story. It’s an almost infallible rule of thumb. (In fact, when I’m script editing or teaching, I very often ask writers to pitch the story verbally – even if I’ve already read their script.)
Anyway, back to the Bradford weekend. The afternoon session on the Saturday was devoted to mentoring and coaching. I heard my Pitch Factor participants re-pitch their projects, sharing the mentoring duties with the delightful Jeremy Dyson, a member of the League of Gentlemen and also the author of the hit West End show Ghost Stories, who studied screenwriting at the Northern Film School (where Hugo Heppell and I both worked as tutors.) Jeremy relished his mentoring role, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy hearing the varied pitches – from thrillers to comedies to horrors and also including one movie idea about a one-eyed racing cat called Midge.
On the following day the Pitch Factor participants were treated to an exploration of the development and pitching process by Alby James, followed by the main event – a real live pitch to a panel of people with actual power, AND A CASH PRIZE. The winner was the extremely nice Jessica Sinyard, who pitched a drama set in Australia with a powerful ecological theme. The script is already written and has won a screenwriting award at an American festival; I wish Jessica well in her continuing career.
My One Palmer Rule for Pitching would be: DON’T be yourself, but be a better, calmer version of yourself. Because at the end of the day, when a producer hears a writer’s pitch – he’s learning something about the writer as well as the project. Do you have passion? Energy? Sincerity? Do you really want to write this project?
And the Second Palmer Rule of Pitching is: Have a good story.
And the Third Palmer Rule of Pitching is: Don’t spit. And if you do, aim the spittle over the producer’s head.
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