Ah, pitching, the bane of every writer’s life! Going into a room and talking face-to-face with people about our work isn’t something we do naturally, on the whole. There’s a reason we’re called writers, not talkers. But it’s part of a screenwriter’s skill set, and we all have to learn to do it.
If you find it particularly hard to be the centre of attention in the room, though, why not try a trick to take some of that attention off yourself – while still keeping everyone involved in the story?
In America, there’s a growing trend towards giving the producers something physical to look at during longer pitches. Ted Elliott and Terry Rosso, writers of Pirates Of The Caribbean, have pioneered the use of a large cork-board with each scene or sequence, reduced to a line or two, written on cards and pinned onto it.
The advantage of this, as they describe it, is that the producer’s never going to get lost. They can look back to remind themselves of what happened, or who a particular character is. They’re able to look ahead, and anticipate where the story’s going, which may help them to understand why certain things are happening in the set-up scenes that you’re just describing to them… And if nothing else, it stops them looking out of the window and getting distracted!
Personally, I think setting out your whole narrative on a board, all at once, could tend to distract everyone from what you’re saying. After all, they’re only getting basic descriptions on that board, and you want to ensure they’re paying attention to what you say – to the descriptive, emotional version – if you want them to fully engage with the story.
What I have used occasionally is a sketch book full of pictures – location photos, interesting-looking people, etc. Each page illustrates a particular location or section of the story, which means you’re turning the page now and then and giving them something new to look at.
For a two or three minute pitch, I wouldn’t recommend using anything along these lines. It’s going to take longer to flick through it than to do the actual pitch – and it’s also likely to contain more detail than your verbal pitches, which will need to confusion.
However, for a longer pitch, it can be fantastically useful, particularly when you’re talking about a very visual world that’s unfamiliar to most people. (And let’s face it, all the best stories are set in strongly visual worlds that we don’t know well and want to explore – so if yours isn’t, maybe it needs some work anyway!)
The one thing that might be worth trying in a shorter pitch, though I haven’t yet used it myself, is bringing along a single physical object which illustrates your story. If your film is about a meteorite bringing alien life forms to earth, producing a chunk of interesting-looking rock and inviting the producer to imagine it had just landed in their front garden will certainly get their attention.
Or you could try starting your story this way: “Imagine you’d grown up in a children’s home and had no idea you really were. Finally, the home hands over the one clue to your identity – and it’s this.” And you place a Nazi war medal on the table. Or an unusual piece of jewellery, or… whatever.
But you do need to make sure your object is relevant to your whole story. If it only features in the first few minutes of the film, it’s going to look a bit daft sat there on the desk as you go through the rest of the totally unrelated story.
Visual aids or no visual aids, just remember that pitching is doing what you do best: telling stories. Hook the producer into that story, exactly as you would if you were writing the script, exactly as you would if you were telling your best friend about this great movie you just saw, and you can’t go wrong.