Beware The L-Shaped Sofa – and other tips for pitching

I had a pitch meeting last week, and that got me thinking about pitching, and how much some writers worry about it.

I suppose it’s natural.  Someone whose favourite activity is sitting alone in a room making stuff up is not necessarily going to enjoy walking into a room full of strangers and selling their ideas.  And despite what they tell you in those self-confidence seminars, no, the other guy is not as scared as you are, and imagining everyone in the room in just their underwear is risky at best…

So – trying to avoid the ones you’ve read a hundred times on every other site – what are my top tips for pitching?

There Is Such A Thing As A Free Lunch – but you won’t get to eat it.  Lunch meetings are a tricky business.  Mostly no one’s going to buy you lunch until they’ve actually optioned your work, but if you do find yourself out to lunch during a pitch…

Hopefully you’ll get time to do the actual pitch while you’re waiting for the food to arrive – but then if it all goes badly, you still have the entire meal to get through. Otherwise, pick the course that the producer is liking the most.  Might as well have him in a good mood!

Pick your meal carefully – stay off the stodge, it slows your thinking process – and remember, keep away from that feta cheese!

Beware The L-Shaped Sofa.  Yes, I really did walk into a room and sit in the bend of an L-shaped sofa, leaving the two producers to sit at the other corners, leaving me turning from one to the other during the pitch like I was commentating on a tennis match.  What can I say?  I was young and dumb.

Pick the seat that places everyone else in a single sector of the room, where you can keep them all in your eyeline at once.  And don’t forget the assistant who’s only there to take notes, because…

One Day The Assistant Will Be Running The Company.  So be nice to her!  Thank her for bringing you a drink, don’t be too fussy about how much milk you take in your tea, make conversation with her if she seems open to it and let her work if she clearly needs to.  Because one day you’ll be begging her to buy your script –  and anyway, people who are unpleasant to assistants, waiters and janitors are a***holes, and you’re not an a***hole, are you?

While We’re Talking About Drinks –  if you’re given a drink in reception, is it polite to take it into the meeting with you?  Depends.  If the person you’re meeting is making himself a drink, yes.  If it’s going to be a fairly long meeting, probably.  If you’re meeting the head of the company/ studio boss,  then no.  You won’t be in there long enough (see below).

This raises the delicate question of where to put the cup if you’re not taking it with you.  And I’m not getting into that minefield…

Bosses Aren’t Like Normal People.  When you have a meeting with a script editor, development producer, even the producer who’s planning to make your script, he’ll be interested in you.  He’ll ask where you live, how you got into the business, what else you’re doing.  He’ll tell you about the company, and about what he’s done there.  And only then do you start talking about the project you want him to develop or option.

But eventually (you hope), you’ll reach the point where you and your producer go to formally meet the head of the company to pitch or talk about the project, and hopefully get the go-ahead for it.

This meeting will not be like any other meeting, because the boss is not like your producer.

She is not interested in small talk.  She will ask the ugly questions everyone else has avoided, like  “Only Brad Pitt could play this role.  What if he says no?”  or  “Are there really enough episode ideas here to sustain a long-running series?”  (Believe me, she will understand story like no one else in that room.  There’s a reason she’s risen to this position.) And she wants you in and out as fast as possible.

It’s easy to feel hurt by this shift in the atmosphere.  But look at it from her POV.  Firstly, she has a multi-million pound company to run, and you’re just one part of it.  But, far more importantly, she trusts her staff.  If the producer says you can do the work, you’re relatively sane, and you take notes without hysteria and death threats, the boss will trust their judgment.  She doesn’t need to make nice with you, because all that’s been done for her.

Don’t Leave A Meet-and-Greet Without Pitching Something.  Your initial meeting will be a meet-and-greet, which is agent-speak for  “let’s get my client in a room with you, so you can see they’re articulate, funny, and don’t rant about the coming Global Apocalypse like some crazy person.”

You’re there to establish an initial contact with someone at the company, who will then hopefully remember your name when your agent submits projects to them.

But how are you going to get them to remember your name?  You’re not.  You’re going to pitch them a project they’ll remember.  Twelve months from now, they won’t remember John Smith who lives in Doncaster and likes cats.  But I guarantee they’ll remember John Smith who pitched that amazing show about robot dinosaurs solving crimes.  Great idea, pity we couldn’t afford to make it – I wonder what he’s working on now, I should call his agent…

Mostly the producer will actually ask you for ideas, or at least hint in that direction.  But if he doesn’t, find a way to work something eye-catching but reasonable practical into the conversation – and don’t leave until you do.

Okay, don’t take this too literally.  If they really want you to leave, leave.  But if you can find a way to get a brief pitch into the conversation, you’ve got far more chance of being remembered…

And finally –  Know Your Story, Not Just Your Pitch.  They will ask you about that minor character you’ve hardly thought about, or what happens in episode twelve.  They will ask what you think of making the central character a woman, the love interest a dog, the contemporary Nebraska setting a suburb of Paris in 1763.

(And remember, the correct answer to a really stupid suggestion is not “no”.  It’s  “That’s interesting.  I’ll think about that.”)

If you really know your story – the world, the people, the themes, the emotions and the feeling you want the audience to walk away with at the end  –  you’ll be much better equipped to rise to these challenges.

Any more suggestions about pitching?  Leave them in the comments box…

Happy pitching!

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