Pitching is a Numbers Game

I have a client who shall remain nameless.  (Hi, Bob!)  (Kidding.  I’ve also changed some details.)

Bob e-mailed me to say that he was discouraged because he had not sold his screenplay.  I asked him how many times he had pitched it, and the answer was five.  Five times, no nibbles.

Only here’s the rub.  Of the five pitches,

– One was to a friend and fellow writer.

– Three were to agents or managers.

– One was to a production company that could have bought the screenplay.

At which point I took several deep breaths and calmly told Bob the facts of life. 

Pitching is a numbers game.  Pitching your script to five production companies should be enough to get at least one of them to request a copy of the script, assuming you’ve done some homework and you’re pitching to companies that produce scripts like yours.  However, you may need to get five or ten reads before you get an option or a sale.  That works out to around 50 pitches.  To producers.

Now, I love agents, they’re an important piece of a career puzzle, but take this to heart: Agents aren’t buyers.  Exactly zero percent of the time will an agent pay you for your script or your novel.

The same is true if you are pitching your services to clients, or your business to venture capitalists. It can feel as if you’re pitching all the time, because you’re always thinking about it, always talking about it. But if you are not talking to someone who is in a position to pony up good money to make your business roll, then you are not pitching.

You would not go out on one date with one person and expect to get married; think of pitching as serial dating.  Enjoy it!  Learn to love the dates — I mean, pitches.  Track them.  Keep a database of everyone to whom you have pitched the project, both the company name and the name of the person to whom you spoke.  Get those numbers up. 

Tracking lets you regroup when necessary.  If no one bites after twenty pitches, there may be something wrong with your pitch.  If the pitch is getting you in the door but no one buys the script, or hires you, or invests, maybe something’s missing from your product.  Get feedback.

Whether you are trying to land your first job or sell your first widget, it’s a numbers game, and you have to be in it — in a big way — to win it.

How to Tell if a Writing Job is Real

Today, I clicked on a screenwriting jobs list and made myself dizzy from the eye-rolling it caused.  Here is my favorite ad: Seeking stealth writer… no pay upfront.

To translate: I’m not going to pay you for the work you do now, and I won’t give you any credit for it later.

Oh, pleeeeze let me be exploited by you.  Please, please, please!  No, really, I’m sure it would be an honor.

But we all need writing gigs.  So how can you tell if a writing job is real?  It has taken me a sadly long time to figure it out, but I share it with you in the hopes of saving you my learning curve: It’s a real writing job if they pay you. That’s it, folks.  If they are real, they will pay the writer for the writing.  If they don’t, they’re not.  Feel free to argue with me about this, but you will be wrong.  Every.  Damn.  Time.

Now, I do make exceptions: when you write on spec, that’s your nickel.  There’s a lot of free work involved in pitching, with no guarantee of winning the job.  But if they are asking you to write their idea, particularly if you will not have ownership of the finished project, and they are not willing to pay you for it, they are probably not real players in the game anyway.  And I will tell you why:

If they won’t put any money into the script or the pitch packet or the sales copy, they don’t care enough to go through the long, hard slog of making the damn thing real.  This is true whether it’s a big-budget film or an bootstrapping start-up.

Money is an indicator of commitment.  Once they put money into a project – for example, by paying you for your work – they have a stake.  Makes it harder to walk away.  No money… no problem leaving it behind when a shinier opportunity appears.

If you’re going to write for free, write your passion project.  Write a new spec.  Write poetry or your novel or something that feeds your soul.  Don’t fall for someone eager to trade your time and talent for his or her own aggrandizement.  

Say What?

Pitching can be nerve-wracking. I don’t know about you, but when I’m nervous, I tend to just launch into the good bits as soon as possible. I rush, trying to get it over with.

Bad idea.

Because the words we forget to say are, oh, I don’t know, how about the title. The genre. The stuff that lets people grab on to our ideas and actually hear what we’re saying.

The first thing you should say is the title.
The second is the genre.
The third is the logline, which should give the key information needed to understand the piece.

After that, you should have a couple of additional sentences in case they’re intrigued and want to know more on the spot. Sometimes, however, the above three pieces of information are enough to ask them to read the script or the book.

Think of it as Mad Libs. All you have to do is fill in the blanks:

“Title of Piece” is a “Genre” about “Single Most Important Thing About Your Piece.”

Speed is Die Hard on a bus.” Die Hard wasn’t just a similar movie, it was its own specific genre – a thriller in a small space, one guy and one friend against an overwhelming foe. And what’s the most important thing about Speed? Yup, bus. And they can hear that, and understand it, because you took care of their top questions – title and genre – first.

Argo is the true story of how six Americans were smuggled out of Iran in the middle of the hostage crisis. You could say “thriller,” but the fact that it’s a true story is, I think, the more important genre.

Try it. Have fun! It’s not about distilling your entire epic trilogy into one sentence, it’s about having a few words prepared to start the conversation rolling.

The Stages of a Pitch

TV pitching season is swirling around me.  In all the chaos, I find that even I have to remind myself the basics of how to pitch.  Here are the stages of a pitch meeting:

1) Warm up the room.  Watch for their signal to begin.

2) Prepare their listening.

3) Tell them the single most important element of your project.

4) Listen to their response.

5) If invited, give them the highlights of your story, chronologically and briefly.

6) Create an opening for their input and allow a real conversation.

7) Clarify follow-up.

Every meeting you take will have these elements in it.  You need to be comfortable and confident with each stage.

You are not out there to sell.  This is not about you against them.  Sure, you’re putting on a bit of a dog-and-pony show, but at heart you are honestly sharing a project you love in the expectation that they will love it, too, and want to play with you.  There’s a great energy that comes with that – and it is a completely different energy than the one that comes with desperation or salesmanship.

There is joy here.  Have fun!