Friday, August 14, 2009

Pitching 2.0

Two of the best pitches I ever made were rejected. It might sound odd to be proud of a failed pitch but when you know you've done a creditable presentation of yourself and your intended story, there's not a whole lot you can do if the story isn't exactly what they're after (or if they have something similar in development, yada yada yada). That's the way it goes. You can be the best pitcher on the planet but if they don't dig your story, then it's not going to sell.

One of the pitches was a week-long pitching workshop with the producers of a well-known franchise. Myself and co-writer Sam Morrison were invited along with about ten other writers to develop our original ideas which we would then pitch to the producers plus invited guests from the UK film industry. This was a big deal, and Sam and I were naturally very excited. We had high hopes of doing well, thinking that our idea and story were terrific.

On the first day, everyone was nervous and awkward, naturally, but we all stumbled through our pitches. Then, the ideas were deconstructed, bashed around, rebuilt and deconstructed again so all we were left with was a broken story idea that was clearly never going to work in the first place, you moron. So, a lot of development and improvement had to be made.

Two days later, everyone did a revised pitch which bore little resemblance to the ideas we had come in with, apart from maybe the title and the overall premise. Morale was quite low at this point but it was clear that everyone's pitches had improved, and the style in which people were pitching was much better, too. Dammit, these development peeps knew what they were talking about, even though we all hated them at this point.

The week got emotional and intense (imagine something like The Apprentice meets Dragons' Den: The Dragons' Apprentice), and everyone was worn out. Confidence and energy were shattered. No-one was looking forward to The Big Pitch. And then, a strange thing happened. The pitches were really good. Everyone raised their game. Even though we were stressed and exhausted, a lot had been learned throughout the week, and the adrenalin clicked-in for that final Friday pitch.

Sam and I stood up in front of a room full of industry people, and gave it our best shot. We didn't slip or fumble. We were smooth and confident. It was a great pitch. They had a few questions, and that was it. Sam and I felt optimistic about a commission (they were going to pick up two or three pitches for development) but whatever the case, it made our co-writing partnership stronger because normally, we work by phone or email. We weren't used to spending so much time together, and we were staying in the same flat for the week, too.

On the Monday, we got the news. It was a 'no'. I was gutted but learned a valuable lesson in pitching: you can never be over-prepared. Know the story inside-out. Don't leave any cracks or fuzzy details in the story. Be flexible if they have ideas but be sure about the premise, conflict, stakes and resolution when you pitch.

The second experience, about a year later, involved a Hollywood production company who had optioned a UK children's book and they were looking over this direction for a writer. They liked my scripts and asked me if I'd like to pitch my take on the story. I read the book, wrote down what I liked, then revised the story to what I felt would make a good film. My previous experience had taught me to focus on the key elements of a pitch: premise, conflict, stakes and resolution. However, it had also taught me to over-prepare.

So, to get to that perfect five-ten minute pitch, I was going to figure out the full story first. And that meant bashing out all the essential story beats. The core structure. The defining act breaks. I ended up with a six page outline that I then reduced to a two-page pitch. It was a telephone pitch - to their LA and their NY offices! - but I was confident I knew the story, and what I wanted to do.

Luckily, with a telephone pitch, you can have your notes in front of you. But when it came to it, the adrenalin kicked in and I didn't need my notes. I knew the story. I was confident about my take. LA and NY execs listened, laughed and eventually complimented me on my pitch, and they'd get back to me. A few days later, I got a 'no' but the LA exec phoned separately to say how much he enjoyed working with me (helping with some prep beforehand) and that he thought I did a really good pitch: they just decided to go with a different take.

Now, I'm nowhere near the world's best pitcher. I still struggle with what to say and how to say it but when push comes to shove, I know you have to try to get across your story in the best way you can. This doesn't mean turning yourself into a stand-up comedian or coming across as Wow Mr Confident. Being nervous is OK. In fact, I would say it's a good thing. However, being so nervous that you lose your way and stumble through the pitch, that's when you're going to fail.

So, don't be intimidated by pitching. It's nerve-wracking and (mostly) not very enjoyable but that doesn't mean every pitch has to be a disaster. The key is to know your story and be confident that it's the pitch you want to make. Over-prepare, over-prepare, over-prepare. Once you know everything inside-out, it won't even matter when you get interrupted mid-flow or momentarily lose your train of thought. Without even realising it, you'll improvise to get back on track and finish the pitch, confident that you've done a good job. Then, they'll reject you. Hey, nothing's perfect.

Other pitching posts:

Pitch Perfect
Pitch Follow-Up
It's Breakfast Club meets Psycho
Professional (Pitching) Documents


Lucy V said...

"The Dragon's Apprentice..." LOL Right there with you mate, thank God it was only one day for me on a similar thing

Great post Danny, think it'll be going in THE LIST OF WONDER... But then you're becoming a regular!!

Vote Saxon said...

More splendid advice :) Many thanks.

Eleanor said...

Useful post! Thanks Danny. :)

Dim said...

It's strangely reassuring to read "There was nothing wrong with it, but it didn't get picked up" kind of words. I guess you have to not take the rejection personally, but use it as another chance to rethink. Thanks for this, Danny!

Fiona said...

Thanks for this. I was particularly encouraged to read how even your 'failure' turned into a learning opportunity. We writers need to be prepared to be knocked off our high horses now and then, don't we?

sam morrison said...

What I learned most from the EON workshop was that as writers we need to be 'true to our vision' - apologies for the hoary cliché, but when several disparate voices are pointing you in several disparate directions it helps, having taking on board all that is said and appropriated what feels right, to also know when to dig your heels in and say "No, this is what I think works best" and be able to pitch with genuine enthusiasm rather than merely gauging what the recipient wants to hear.

In the long term, though you may lose out on the pitch (and we did!) it feels a healthier approach than trying to second-guess your way to a job, and as Danny says you can talk about your idea with complete clarity.