Pitching Your Work: How to Avoid the Mistakes that Leave a Writer’s Work Unread
The pitch is your foot in the door, getting someone to be interested in your script/book.
I’m that door. My job is to find projects and submit them to the decision-maker.
I work for Muse Productions, Inc. You’ve seen our films: American Psycho, The Virgin Suicides, Spring Breakers. We are pre-production; we find a script, marry it with a director and actors, and find the money. Everything we do is finding the project and selling it to everyone. Pitching is the most important aspect of our job.
It starts with my pitch of your pitch. I read your proposal and then if I’m interested I read your script. If I like your script, I turn it into two or three paragraphs to sell to my boss.
The unfortunate thing I’ve learned is that a bad pitch can hide a good script.
Your goal with a pitch is not to simply get me to read your work, you want to have already sold your script/book to me (publishers/producers) with the pitch. By reading the script I am simply getting the details and checking that it is as you have described.
With this article I can help you avoid common mistakes.
Mistake number one: Betraying the audience
Who is the audience? I am your audience, I’m the one that’s going to fall in love with your script and do what I need to do, kill who I need to kill, to get it made. I’m your most psychotic fan. The simple twist to this is that I am also you.
I’m as in love with your writing as you are. So your real goal is to pitch yourself.
You can’t make everyone like your writing, you’re looking for the people that do. We are interviewing each other to see if it’s a fit. You are not writing to a company, begging them to take your project, nor are we begging to take yours. We are on a date and seeing if we fit.
What that means is stop trying to sell it to the company and start trying to sell to yourself.
Here’s an example of a very poor opening to a pitch:
A mysterious and haunting thrill ride with a plot twist you’ll never see coming.
Never let this be your opening sentence! It tells me nothing. It’s selling a genre, not the work. These are blanket statements that define nothing.
This is how I would open the exact same script:
A novelist gets involved with a beautiful woman who claims she has foreseen her own murder, yet whether she is clairvoyant or a manipulative femme fatale remains to be seen.
Or, I could describe the exact same script like this:
A beautiful woman starts a relationship with three different men, believing that one of them will be her murderer.
The opening sentence is what YOU love the most, what YOU want to focus on. Both sentences are accurate, short and descriptive enough to be enticing. You betray your audience and yourself by attempting to cater to the broad description.
Instead, find that one main plot point that excites YOU. It is your selling point AND your interview of me (Publisher/Producer). You’re putting what you love front and center, letting us make an immediate decision. Either I want to keep reading or this is not a project I’m interested in. You’re also weeding out companies for yourself as well: you want the people that are in love with your work. They are the ones that will fight for you.
Mistake Number Two: Rambling
Rambling is the most common mistake.
The pitch should omit all the details, even glaring points to the plot. It’s all about putting the focus on what you want to highlight.
For example, let’s say your character falls in the love. Do you need to include that in the pitch? Or would you rather highlight that your main character hates his father. You choose what you want to highlight with the pitch and what you can omit.
The best thing a pitcher can do is condense their work into as few words as possible. Not just for your audience – for yourself as well.
Finding that one sentence that can describe your entire script/book can make you find the one solid core of what your script/book is really about. It can even flip that switch that makes you see your own work from an outsider’s eyes.
Once you understand your own work to the point of being able to describe it accurately in a single sentence, so does your audience.
I received a beautiful script about a girl that gets adopted into a family of professional pick pockets. This particular writer was already well established, so I was required to read his script regardless of the pitch. Yet his rambling pitch still hurt his script.
I had to read the script to piece together the overall picture for myself and decide myself what I wanted to highlight.
The opening sentence I used to pitch the film to my boss was: An orphaned girl gets adopted into a family of professional thieves.
For the writer maybe my description is not what he wanted to highlight. But when I have to rework his pitch to sell it, his vision gets lost in my vision, because he was not able to communicate clearly that one solid core.
Perhaps the writer could have said something like: the journey of a young pickpocket as she goes from amateur to professional. Same script, just as interesting, yet changes the focus. Especially in scripts, establishing a focus is very important. It will influence me, I will influence the owner of the company and he will influence the director. Finding that focus and communicating it in your own words is essential for a script writer.
Mistake Number three: Structure
The structure of how you pitch is very important and very basic, yet it is easy to choose a bad structure.
I’ll use another script I’ve read as an example.
First one clear, brief, overall description:
After his family is murdered before his eyes, a young boy seeks out the training to take his vengeance. He finds a teacher in the murderer’s own brother, and the dark secrets of their past unfold.
Next you can dive into more details on the plot.
Three men grow up to be thieves and partners in crime, until their biggest heist is the one that separates them, leaving bad blood between them. The eldest returns one day to murder his brother, killing him and his wife as his nephew watches from a hidden corner. With nothing left, the young boy finds the last of his family, the brother of both his father and his father’s murderer. As he trains to take revenge, he learns his father was once more than the simple Christian man he thought him to be, a man with a dark and bloody past.
From here you have a clear plotline. If I were to go on, I’d describe the beginning, middle and end. I’d do it in one paragraph. Then as the pitcher pitching the pitch, I’d give a small paragraph on how it is written.
Being set in the time of the old west brings up some fantastic issues, like the lack of rights for women (several powerful scenes on this subject). It’s bloody and dark, and focuses on the drama but surprises us with some humor. A script actors particularly will love, as it establishes its characters very clearly and gives plenty of dialog that is clever and brash, yet very natural.
Everything I’ve done in the entire pitch, is picked out the things I loved and made them as short and clear as possible.
Your simple goal is to communicate the plot and the vision clearly. You’re describing it with passion. Just like your favorite movie, you’re arguing for it. Not as the writer protecting their baby, but as the audience member protecting their favorite film. That is the goal when you pitch, be your own audience. Find those short clear sentences and pitch yourself. That is how you will find your psycho fan Producer/Publisher to take on your baby as if it’s their own.
Jessica Pennington worked in film production for eight years in Los Angeles, CA and Paris, France. She’s worked for Muse Productions on Spring Breakers, London Fields, and other yet to be released projects, as well as Pathe Films on Mektoub My Love.