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03/21/2008: No, I said, "Pitching"
I've had a request to talk about pitching. Not the kind of story or joke pitching one does in the room, but the kind of prepared pitching that's used to sell a pilot, or sometimes a freelance episode of a show.
I should tell you that my own ability with regard to this varies widely. If I stay calm, I can do very well indeed, but if I get too nervous -- oof -- I can crumble entirely. So the most important thing for me is to stay calm. You already know if this is going to be a problem for you, so plan accordingly.
Now, everyone likes to pitch differently. Some people read their pitch, others have no notes at all, most are somewhere in between, with notes that they consult, but don't read directly from. I'm an in-betweener myself. I like to have practiced the pitch, but not to the point where it's lost all meaning… if I'm doing it right, I'm actually thinking about the story as I'm telling it, and will sometimes change something as I go along. Sometimes, for example, they'll tell you something about what they're looking for that affects how you want to position your show, so you have to adjust on the fly. If they tell you all about how they really want family shows, you may want to emphasize the family scenes, for example, and downplay the role of the hooker.
To a certain extent, you get to choose how the pitch goes. If you want it to feel more like a conversation, then give a very short pitch and spend your time answering their questions. If you want more control, maybe you'll give a more detailed pitch, which requires you to talk longer to preempt some of those questions. Even the longest pitch, however, shouldn't be terribly long. I'm sure there are writers who talk for twenty minutes or more, but I think you'd be far better off concluding your main comments after five or ten.
Some writers start by naming and describing their characters, but I don't like that approach. Listeners just aren't good enough at remembering the names and attributes and fitting them into the story. Instead, I describe each character very briefly when they first appear in the story.
I start by talking about the genre and feel and point of the show. I might say,
"My pitch is for a show called 'Giants' and it's a gritty adventure show that feels a bit like Schindler's List meets Alien. It's the story of how a rural farm wife becomes the leader of a resistance movement when disaster comes to the United States." Or whatever the show is.
There is never a reaction, by the way, to this first introduction. I've recently realized that that's because agents pre-pitch the idea for you. So the execs will already know that much. Anyway, I then either talk a little more about the series in general, or, often, I jump right into the events of the pilot episode:
"Okay. We start out on a farm in Nebraska where Tom, a 35-year-old farmer, is giving a tour to a bunch of Ag students from the local college when suddenly… "
I tell the story briefly, pointing out each act break and exciting revelation. I try to be animated and smiling and funny where I can be. I get excited and sit on the edge of the couch and wave my hands around a bit. I try not to let the story get bogged down in details, but to emphasize the emotional turns: "This is the moment when she realizes that no other leader is going to step forward. She reaches out and shakes the hand of the lead Alien and offers the use of her farm, gambling that she just made the Resistance stronger, not weaker…" -- that kind of thing.
At the end of the initial bout of talking, I complete the story of the pilot, and maybe give a little glance forward: "We end the episode with that first thread of hope -- communication with another small community that's also been converted to an Alien arms factory. Ruth has grown into a true leader, although one faced with an overwhelming enemy."
Then I say, loudly, "AND THAT'S OUR SHOW."
It's only after that that I mention that I have ideas for many sample episodes. They will ask to hear one-sentence versions of those.
Soon, it's a genuine conversation and they'll start giving real feedback mixed in with more questions. Sometimes it's a quick "no," sometimes it isn't, but I've never been treated rudely or unkindly.
Believe in your idea. Be proud of it, excited by it, and put effort into showing it off. You might want to practice your pitch for friends, or practice out loud to yourself. But the most important thing I do, I think, is just to keep asking myself, as I prepare the pitch -- what's frakkin' great about this story? Then sell that point. See? Easy!
Lunch: leftover Persian food: stew over crispy rice. Mm.