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Low & Outside: Lessons for Indie Filmmakers Pitching to the Studios

Filmmaker is sponsoring this week’s pitch panels at IFP’s Filmmaker Conference. Tomorrow morning at 11:00 AM will be The Art of the Narrative Pitch, Monday the 16th at 11:00AM will be Wild Card New Media pitches, Thursday the 19th at 11:00 AM will be the Art of the Documentary Pitch,. In each session, filmmakers will present short, two-minute pitches, and a panel of experts will dissect them, giving you, the audience, a master class in how to present your material to funders and producers. I’ll be introducing tomorrow’s session, and Nick Dawson will do Monday’s.

Thinking about the art of the pitch reminded me of this article by Doug Tirola, from our Spring, 1997 issue. Yes, over 15 years ago, so things have changed somewhat. But you’ll be surprised how much hasn’t. In fact, the below is chockfull of good tips for independent screenwriters and directors journeying to Hollywood to find support for their work. — SM

A month before the release of our first film, the independent feature A Reason to Believe, producer Christopher Trela and I scheduled a trip to Los Angeles. The Sunday New York Times had just published a half-page article about us and our film, ads were appearing, and pieces were slated for Rolling Stone and MTV. We had been running on financial fumes since finishing Reason and believed the timing could not have been better to finally go to L.A., pitch the studios, and wind up with some easy cash to develop our next project — a romantic comedy based on a short story I wrote about two guys who travel back to their hometown to find wives.

We set up a screening of Reason at the DGA on Sunset, faxed out invites to various producers and studio execs, and followed up with calls to schedule a week of meetings.

We then put together a three-part pitching strategy. First, to get ourselves psyched, we rented The Player and The Big Picture. Second, we developed a geographically sound plan of attack that grouped meetings according to city locale. All the Culver City meetings on one day, downtown Hollywood the next, etc. And finally, because we were broke — and didn’t want people to know it — we avoided lunch meetings entirely. (Unfortunately, we later learned that the executive almost always pays for the meal as it can be written off as a business expense.)

Our first meeting was at Warner Bros. and the first five to ten minutes were great. We sat back and listened to the studio executive tell us how awesome Reason was. We answered softball questions like “Did you do a lot of research on date rape?”

Soon the conversation came to a weird pause and the executive asked, “What are you working on now?”

I humbly explained that I wasn’t a good pitcher and had a hard time with the concept of turning a 120-page-long idea into a sales pitch. I would simply tell her the story. A half hour later — about midway through the second act — the executive cut us short and said she would love to look at the script when it was done.

After about 20 identical meetings, we headed home as broke as when we started. On the plane ride back to New York we realized we needed a new pitching strategy.

What Went Wrong

Our problem, we realized, was that we didn’t really want to pitch. We associated pitching with some sort of conspiracy involving commercialism and the decline of cinema. We had an anti-selling complex. We made the mistake of thinking selling is for people who deal with cars and copiers.

But as we soon realized, filmmaking is all about selling. As independent filmmakers we pitch when raising production money from private investors. We sell department heads on how we want them to bring our visions to the screen and actors on how we want them to play our characters. And when a film is done we try and sell a distributor on picking it up.

A good pitch is simply a clear vision of a film, entertainingly stated, that can be repeated all the way from development through production to the film’s release. Only when a film’s original story has been watered down or changed in the production process or when the distributor loses faith in the original concept is the finished film pitched to the public differently.

Why Pitch?

Most people would rather pitch than write on spec because it takes less time. While this is true for the most part, to create a really effective pitch you must spend a considerable amount of time preparing. Because you never know what you might be asked in a pitch meeting, you must intimately know and be able to relate your whole script, its various plot points, and its characters to your listeners.

The real reason to pitch is that some ideas are actually better presented as pitches than finished screenplays. The buyer is given enough to see that the film could be something great but not enough to say, “There are some good elements here but it doesn’t quite work.”

When my partner and I first discussed selling a pitch to our agent we were told that because none of my work had been produced by a studio, selling a pitch would be an uphill battle. William Goldman or Shane Black could probably just waltz into a studio and say, “Dreaming of Me — it’s Taxi Driver meets Basic Instinct” and walk out with a sack of money and a bungalow. But, being an independent filmmaker, I was told, “Even Ed Burns’ follow-up project was sold off a script, and he’s friends with Robert Redford. Do you know Robert Redford?”

If I was really passionate about my idea, I was lectured, I would just sit down and pound out the script. For independents, selling spec scripts seems to be the rule and pitches the exception.

Still, I persisted in my idea that a New York independent filmmaker could successfully pitch in Hollywood. Here’s what we learned from our second, successful trip to Hollywood.

What to Pitch

When we pitched Warner Bros. with a romantic comedy, we were making a huge mistake right off the bat. Romantic comedies are hard to sell as pitches. In fact, anything character driven is hard to sell. Period pieces and epics are tough too. It’s easier to take a character study — say, the story of an amnesiac mother struggling to reconnect to her kid — add genre elements, and sell it as a three-act actioner like The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s easier to sell high-concept material because the studio is essentially buying an idea. If your draft of the screenplay is a failure, the studio can boot you off and hire Judd Apatow, Amy Heckerling or Steve Zaillian to fix it.

Before pitching, stop and make sure your idea is pitchable. What would a pitch of Kids or Sling Blade sound like? Look at three current films — Liar Liar, Donnie Brasco, and Scream. Which makes the best pitch? Scream, a smart homage to teen horror films, is a good idea but execution dependent. It was, in fact, bought as a script. Donnie Brasco is a character-based film based on a book. The studio bought the book and then hired an Academy Award-nominated writer to adapt it. Liar, Liar? The kid of a compulsive liar makes a wish that his father has to tell the truth for a whole day. Wacky stuff ensues. Very pitchable.

For this trip, we decided to pitch a teen comedy. Four girls, the night before graduation, travel into Chicago in an attempt to lose their virginity. Although this piece has some of the character-based traits of our earlier, failed pitch, we presented it as a broad teen comedy in the vein of Clueless.

Preparing the Pitch

My agent at the time told me to watch Richard E. Grant’s pitch to Tim Robbins in the hotel scene of The Player. “It didn’t suck,” he said.

In his pitch, Grant spends a lot of time setting up the first scene, the first act and the main characters. All good advice. When pitching, you’ll basically be answering a list of unasked questions.

What’s the film about? What’s the logline — the short description you would read in TV Guide?

What stars could be in it? Are there any great characters that would entice talent?

Will any directors that the studio has a deal with like the material? Studios all have deals with filmmakers. You have some great mob movie — maybe Coppola would want to do it.

Don’t laugh, you never know.

What is the three-act structure? You give them the hook, set up the characters. Now what happens? Without going through every scene, let them know what happens in the second and third act.

What would the poster look like? What would the trailer look like? The full page ad? The commercial? Honest. These are all questions we have been asked.

Who’s the audience? The least asked question in independent film is all important at the studio level. Think of all the movies you don’t see. Why don’t you go? The studio executive’s job is to listen to your pitch and figure out if they can sell it to their bosses as a movie that has a chance of grossing $10 million the first weekend. If your film is the sort that is going to build on word of mouth, it’s not going to be an easy pitch.

Once you know the answers to these questions, you’re ready to work on the pitch itself.

Make sure your writing sample works. Without a studio-produced movie under your belt, you’ll be asked to present a screenplay you have written. If you’re pitching an action thriller and your sample is about four college kids smoking pot and talking about Jenny McCarthy, the studio won’t feel secure about paying you money to deliver the script. Unless you’re just trying to sell a killer idea and not the ensuing screenplay, make sure you are pitching something that you can convince them you can write.

Write an outline. Before pitching, write out an outline. My producing partner and I pitch as a team, and he always says that he knows exactly what page and paragraph I’m on as I am giving the pitch. If I get dry mouth or start to ramble, he is able to pick up the ball, give me a second to catch my breath and get me back on my feet. Also, if you have an outline you can have someone read it to you so you can hear what works and what doesn’t. Like sitting through a rough cut, you know immediately what has to go.

Edit your story for oral presentation. Some things might be important on the page but boring in the pitch. Discard non-essential points that only work on the page.

Practice to an audience. Before going to L.A. we rehearsed our pitch. A lot. We pitched to friends, people in bars, the family we stayed with in L.A., our moms, the stewardess on the plane. Like a read-through of a script before going into production, hearing it aloud let’s you know what’s working and what doesn’t.

Anticipate questions and have answers. Let’s say your movie is about two kids who meet over the internet. An exec might reasonably ask you if kids really spend that much time online. Cite that article you read in USA Today about kids and the internet. In fact. bring it with you to the meeting. It will make them feel more confident about your story.

Bring a fan. Try and make sure someone in the room is a fan of both yours and the material. Like a T.V. laugh track, it will help your performance. (This is usually the job of the producer.)

Who To Pitch

Unless you’ve got the cachet to waltz right into a studio head’s office, pitching is usually a two-part process. First, you’ll have to pitch a producer — a Hollywood “creative” producer — on your project and then, with his or her support, the studio execs who will ultimately provide the cash to buy the pitch.

Read the Hollywood Creative Directory. This book lists most every producer in the film business, their numbers, addresses and some of the films they have done. It has a cross reference section in the back that shows which companies have studio deals. This is important because the studios represent people who can buy a project. (The Hollywood Creative Directory costs $50; call l-800-815-0503 for a copy.)

Find a producer. The strategy that most agencies seem lo use when setting up a pitch is to find a producer to go with you into each territory — i.e., a studio or company. Ideally you want a producer who has a deal with that particular studio. The rationale is that the studio is more enthusiastic about doing business with someone who they are already investing in.

And make sure you target producers appropriate for your project. For example, for our teen comedy, Neufeld/Rehme — the makers of Beverly Hills Cop, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger — were obviously not great people to pester. Robert Lawrence, who made Clueless would be a better bet.

(Producers’ studio deals are usually “first look deals”; for the cost of the producer’s overhead, office assistants, expense accounts etc., the studio has bought the right to be the first person to see any ideas they have for a film.) Schedule a meeting with at least one producer on each lot. Technically, you’re not supposed to go to more than one producer on a lot. We also met with producers who had no studio deals. No matter what producer you go with to a studio, make sure you feel comfortable that the producer has a good relationship with that studio.

Of course you can go into a studio without a producer, but it is generally thought better to go in with a producer who will receive a small development fee against a negotiated fee to make the film if it ever gets that far.

Work with your producer before pitching to the studios. Make sure your producer is as passionate about the project as you are. Ask your producer about each person you’ll be pitching to. Does he or she know anything about the person you are going to try and sell to so that you can try and alter the pitch to their tastes?

Schedule the least important meetings first. If you are new to pitching, begin by stacking your least likely prospects first. You’ll be giving yourself a chance to practice on a live audience.

Giving the Pitch

Giving a pitch is like giving an audition. The more entertaining it is, the better it will come off. And although a successful pitch requires good performance skills, there are some things you can do to improve your presentation.

Lead off by telling them about yourself. If you don’t already know the people you are pitching, start off by telling them about yourself and what made you come up with this idea.

Set up and pay off. Just as you would in the screenplay itself, set things up at the beginning of your pitch and make them pay off at the end. If in your character description you say that the thief carries a puffer because he has allergies, later say the cop suspects him when he sneezes a lot. This makes it feel like you have it all worked out.

Use other movies. Citing a film or two in the beginning of your pitch can help explain the tone of your story. If you can tell your story better by quickly recalling a scene from Jerry Maguire, then go for it. Of course if you say your film’s a cross between Joseph Mankiewicz’s A Letter To Three Wives and Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, a studio exec might rightfully say, “What?” And beware of using so many film comparisons that your idea starts sounding unoriginal, like a cut-and-paste of other films.

Details. Instead of saying your heroine wears hip clothes, listens to alternative music, likes cartoons, went to a good college and drives a foreign car, say she wears Stüssy, listens to Beck, has a Bart Simpson mouse pad, went to Northwestern and drives a BMW. Anything you can say that describes something in more detail without pontificating for an extra minute makes the pitch more interesting.

Keep it short. How do you turn 120 pages of script into a ten-minute pitch. You don’t. Give the log line, the setup, the characters, and speed through the final two acts. An Academy-Award-winning writer/director once told me that it’s hard for anyone to listen to a story told verbally in 20 minutes — especially a studio executive worried about what calls they re missing, if they’re going to get caught cheating on their expense account for the dinner with their friend, or if the way their boss said “hello” to them today means they are losing their job.

Use Set Pieces. Describing some big scenes like the CIA break in Mission Impossible or the scene in Roxanne where Steve Martin insults the guy who has insulted his big nose is both fun and interesting.

Listen to feedback and respond. Don’t get bummed out if your audience starts asking questions in the middle of your pitch. The first question on a studio executive’s mind during a pitch is “How do I sell this to my boss?” If the exec can’t picture a star big enough to support the film, tell them you read an article in Elle about Julia Roberts saying she’s looking to do a character just like this.

Finally…

Remember, the above is only from our experience. Each pitch is as different as the film it’s trying to convey. I’ve heard stories of people standing to recite lines, taking off their clothes in the sex scenes, and using props during their pitches. Though I’m too nervous to imagine myself doing any of those things, you should do whatever works for you if it helps tell your story effectively.

Tirola and Trela sold their pitch to Paramount and, several months later, a second to another studio. — Ed. 

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