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Pitching

I’m in Los Angeles getting ready to pitch a movie tomorrow.  For those of you who don’t know pitching is how things get sold in Hollywood.  It’s odd, but initially you are rewarded for how well you talk rather than how well you write.

Pitching is one reason why I tell people who are shy and retiring that Hollywood is not for them.  You’ve got to be able to go into a room full of strangers and be completely at ease and tell them a story without rambling, or hemming and hawing, or boring them senseless.

I just ran through my pitch and set the stopwatch running on my IPhone.  The thing came in at 14 minutes 38 seconds which is just about perfect.  I never want a movie pitch to go over 15 minutes.  I will probably try to shave this down to 13 minutes so that I have room to deal with any questions that come during the pitch.

Let me tell you about pitching or at least how I go about preparing for a pitch.  Once I’ve got the plot for the movie I write out a fairly detailed prose version of the story.  I read that over a number of times.

Then I figure out what is the emotional heart of the movie for the protagonist.  What is the most important thing they will learn during the course of the movie?  For me this isn’t the same thing as the “high concept”, it’s the opposite of high, it’s down deep gut emotion that is driving the hero.  Here’s Michael Cassutt’s humorous send up of the high concept.  “He the Pope.  She’s a chimp.  They’re cops!”

So, with my emotional through line firmly in mind, I then reduce the prose story version of the movie to a series of bullet points.  Using this broad strokes outline I run through the pitch as I will deliver it.  I time it.  If it’s too short or too long I make adjustments.  I practice it again and again. 

One caveat — this must never sound rehearsed.  It must sound like you are just having a conversation, with your listener.   But you have to rehearse because you’ve got to know this thing so well that when you get asked inevitable questions during the pitch you won’t be thrown  off balance.  You answer the question and go smoothly back into the pitch where you left off.

You have to remember you are a performer in this room.  You have to keep eye contact.  If you see you’re losing them figure out how to jump ahead.  If they are sparking to certain elements play up those elements.  This is another reason you want to know the pitch really, really well.

Peter S. Beagle pitched to Star Trek once.  He is my outstanding example of how to do this brilliantly.  I used to always take the notes during the pitches.  (A holdover from all those role playing games with Walter, George and Vic.  I always took the notes)  Peter came in and began his pitch, and I just set down my pen because I was in the presence of a troubadour and he transported me out of that dingy office on the Paramount lot.  I had to listen to the story, I couldn’t just write down the high points.   It also worked because it wasn’t just about plot points.  He told me how the plot points affected the characters emotionally.  Clever is easy.  Heart is hard.

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