By Roadmap Top Tier Writer Jana Zinser
Several years ago, I heard about a Hollywood writer living in the mountains outside of Denver. His name was Robert (Bob) Gosnell. The tale was told that sometimes he takes a few students.
I made several calls until I found someone who gave me his number. I called him. It went to voice mail. I left a message telling him I wanted to learn to write screenplays.
I knew, being from Hollywood, he would never return my call. He had better things to do. That afternoon he called me back. He had a small group starting soon. He called it his screenplay sweatshop. He gave me a list of books to read.
I read the books. Several weeks later, I drove an hour to his sweatshop, held in a conference room of a Denver hotel. When I got there I realized I had joined his advanced class. He asked me what I knew about screenwriting. I reached into my bag and pulled out a screenplay and set it on the table. He looked at it and said, “That’ll do.”
I would come to appreciate that it wasn’t a very good screenplay. But Bob told me, “Every screenplay you write teaches you something new. Keep writing.” I’ve been writing ever since, and Bob has become the kind of mentor that writers dream of. He’s a real screenwriter who knows the craft and the business. He expects my best work, but reassures me, when I doubt myself, that I am a good writer. If I am, it is because of him.
I remember Bob’s advice on pitching, but living in Denver did not provide the opportunity to run into Hollywood producers, even on the infamous elevator that we have prepared our 30-second pitch for.
So, when Joey Tuccio created Roadmap Writers, my opportunity for pitching Hollywood producers became real. And again, I wasn’t very good. “Face-to-face,” Joey said. I’m in this program to be successful and so I listened. I marched into Skype, no more written pitches.
I went back to Bob’s Chapter 21 on pitching, in his book, The Blue Collar Screenwriter and the Elements of Screenplay. You will notice how easy Roadmap Writers has made it for us, for example, we do not have to sneak into studio lots to pitch, and how Joey’s advice often mirrors Bob’s experience. Here is Bob’s advice for pitching.
"Pitching" By Robert Gosnell
I’ve pitched a lot—movies, sitcoms, series concepts ... a lot; and it strikes me that certain similarities keep popping up at each pitch—road signs, trends, tendencies, call them what you will. Learning to identify these similarities may help writers read the situation and avoid the many pitfalls. Because the fact is, there are rules to a pitch, and woe to the writer who breaks them. These rules aren’t written down anywhere, mind you, but there’s a certain pitch etiquette that you must observe. If you violate that etiquette, the meeting is over, and no one will even bother to tell you why. I’m here to tell you why. Here are some rules based upon pitch situations that I or my brothers (and sisters)-in-arms have encountered.
RULE NUMBER ONE
Their Time Is Valuable. We all know about putting on our game face, prepping the dog-and-pony show and treating the pitch like performance art; but don’t overdo it.
Most producers and story executives who read scripts won’t go much past 20 pages unless you’ve given them a reason to. In other words, if you haven’t hooked them by then, it’s too late.
A pitch session is no different. When you step through the door, the clock starts ticking.
With that fact in mind, understand that one to two minutes of small talk up front is about the most you can hope for, and that should be orchestrated by the executive. A comment or a small compliment from you about a project the company has produced or is now producing may get you off on the right foot by letting the executive know you’re familiar with what his company does.
If you have friends or business associates in common, dropping a familiar name may help establish a certain comfort level. Beyond that, “Looks like rain” or “How about those Lakers?” will only eat up valuable time.
My first pitch was at Mork & Mindy. I was writing with a partner at the time, and we had done our homework. We had sneaked onto the Paramount lot, then onto the set and watched rehearsals and run-throughs from the shadows.
We had managed to lift a script or 10 from the show and sweet-talked an agent into a “casual” relationship—one where we made the calls and set the meetings, simply using his name to clear the way. Once we actually got ourselves a job, the agent would sign us. The point is, we were ready. We set up a meeting with a story editor, went in and pitched... 16 stories!
Yes, you read it right—16. We were there for nearly two hours. It was only our good fortune that the gentleman to whom we were pitching, George Zateslo, was a supremely nice guy. (Bless you, George, wherever you are!)
He listened patiently. He took notes. He gave us feedback. He didn’t nod off once. (Falling asleep qualifies as a “warning sign,” of course, but if you can’t figure that one out, you’re already doomed.) Only later did we discover our blatant violation of pitch etiquette. We had taken far too much of George’s valuable time.
My best advice is to go in with three brief, well-prepared story ideas and pitch the hell out of them. Keep a couple more loosely sketched out ideas in your back pocket, just for insurance. Consider that you’ve probably been allotted 20 to 30 minutes, tops, to do your job.
Don’t leave it to the executive to devise a creative lie of some kind just to get you out of there. Be finished within that time frame. If you’ve just bowled him over, he’ll grant you more time and attention. If you haven’t, the last thing he wants is to be trapped in a room with you listening to 16 pitch ideas for two solid hours.
RULE NUMBER TWO
Know Thy Producer. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking TV series or film. The point is, you don’t treat every producer the same way.
If you’re pitching to a film producer, study up on him to find out what he’s produced. It’ll give you an idea of what attracts him. Then, gear your pitch to those tastes. If it’s a series, then for heaven’s sake get a bible beforehand.
The last thing you want to do is pitch something he has already done, or worse, something the show has already rejected for reasons you’re unaware of “because you didn’t get a bible.”
If you come to the meeting uninformed, you’ll never meet in this town, or at least with this producer or executive, again.
RULE NUMBER THREE
Be Brave. Not brazen. Not cocky. Just brave. After all, it is a stressful situation. But, it’s only stressful for you, not the executive.
Whatever he throws at you, you somehow have to smile without twitching, breathe without gasping and sweat without, well, sweating. Some executives like to test our mettle.
Some executives or producers like to see what we’re made of, because pitching isn’t only about stories. It’s about people and relationships. It’s collaborative; and once you’ve sold this script and been given many thousands of their precious dollars for you to go off and do your thing, that’s when the stress really begins.
If you can’t handle it in a pitch session, well ... So, be appropriately condescending at the appropriate times and respectful all of the time, but never grovel. Just remember, they need you as much as you need them, even if they are currently being paid for their time and you are not.
Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring rules 4-6 - coming soon!