Art to successful pitching

Planning, presentation and passion are key

Interior. Hollywood studio exec’s office. Pitch meeting. “It’s ‘Rugrats in Paris’ meets ‘Rashomon,'” says the hopeful writer. “With a Julia Roberts type as the lead,” adds his partner.

This kind of pitch meeting is an industry cliche, but does it always have to work the same way? There is an art to a successful pitch, whether it’s for a documentary seeking TV funding, a low-budget indie film or a high-concept studio comedy.

While the type of project will dictate the style and amount of detail, there are a few musts for any in-person pitch.

Brevity, it seems, is the soul of all pitches, according to acquisitions execs.

“If the person pitching doesn’t hook the person they’re pitching to within the first 45 seconds or one minute, they’re lost,” says Fine Line veep of acquisitions Arianna Bocco.

Producer’s rep Jonathan Dana, currently working on “Scorched” with Woody Harrelson, cites Peter Guber’s advice about meetings: “Call up and ask for five minutes. If the meeting’s going well, you’ll get more time.” If the material’s not presented concisely and in an interesting way, “The pitch might be over before you know it’s over,” warns Dana.

“Boil the story down to its essence. Be able to explain it in five sentences or less,” advises David Diamond, co-writer of “Evolution” and “Family Man,” who confesses that once a studio executive actually fell asleep while he was talking.

The most important thing is to show the listener “why you are passionate about the story,” Diamond says, “and if it’s a comedy, it helps if you’re funny.”

“Rather than telling jokes, try and create the impression of a funny situation,” advises Dana.

So, the pitch is concise and passionate. What else will help convey that a page of text is worthy of a multimillion-dollar investment? After a brief description of the setting and story, if the exec is not yet asleep, it’s time to run down who the major characters are. Opinions are divided on whether it’s a good idea to mention a well-known actor’s name.

“It’s actually fine to name actors, because it enables someone to have an idea of what you’re getting at — you understand if they say it’s a Philip Seymour Hoffman type, or a Ben Affleck type,” says Bocco.

“Some people give the names of actors, and some people don’t,” says Dana. “What you can also do is describe the characters, such as ‘One of the characters works in a bank, but is too old for his job.'”

Dana says even the now-cliche film reference can be helpful — as long as its to a successful film. “I don’t mind when people say ‘It has a “Fish Called Wanda” kind of feeling.'”

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming’s “The Anniversary Party” was actually sold to Fine Line in a pitch meeting, says Bocco. Of course, it helped that the pitchers were gifted actors with a cast of famous friends they planned to cast in the pic.

Nonetheless, “it was a pretty straightforward pitch,” she says. “It was the subject matter that hooked me, that it was about relationships between people in their 30s.”

While some of these suggestions may seem obvious, fledgling pitchers make the same mistakes over and over. Here are some boiled-down suggestions from experienced writers and acquisitions execs:

  • Don’t read from notes; have the pitch memorized.

  • Don’t go over every little plot point, saying, “And then this happens, then that happens.”

  • Do concisely lay out the first, second and third act early in the pitch.

  • Know the companies. Fit the pitch to the budget range and style of projects that the company is likely to produce.

  • Never leave a pitch on voicemail. Making a personal appearance is key to bonding with execs.

  • Save the elaborate props and storyboards for sci fi or very visually intensive projects. A live, serenading violinist will not help convey the impression that the project is romantic, although a script featuring a new type of alien might need a model of the creature.

Most important, says Bocco: “If you can make the person laugh or keep them engaged, that’s really key.”

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