Selling a screenplay or a novel is simple. It’s not easy, but it’s simple.
First: write a great story.
Then: get lots and lots of people to read it.
You can have the greatest, most commercial, most brilliantly written screenplay or manuscript since The Godfather, but if you don’t get dozens of agents, managers, producers, editors and executives in the film or publishing industries to look at it, it’ll never get produced, and you’ll never reach the wide audience you long for.
So how do you do that? How do you persuade all those powerful people that your work is worth their time, and is more likely to make them money, or fulfill their passion for storytelling, than the scores of other scripts and book proposals they already have to read? And how do you accomplish this seemingly impossible task when you have at best only a minute or two on the phone (or at a pitch fest), or maybe a half hour at a pitch meeting, before they hang up, turn away, or see you to the door?
The 60-Second Pitch
My new book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, covers all types of pitching, but primarily deals with what I term the 60-second pitch – sometimes known as the telephone pitch, or the elevator pitch, or the pitch fest pitch. Because it’s a pitch you have less than two minutes to deliver.
A 60-second pitch should not to be confused with a pitch meeting. In a pitch meeting, a writer (usually a screenwriter – pitch meetings are rare in the publishing world) has been invited to come to an agent or executive’s office and outline a story in detail. The meeting can last from fifteen to forty-five minutes or more, and often includes a whole conference table full of people. The writers’ goal is usually to secure a development deal, and to get paid for turning a story into a complete screenplay.
Pitch meetings and development deals usually occur after a writer’s career is established, or at least after the person receiving the pitch has read other samples of the writer’s work, or is familiar with what the writer has had produced or published. For that to have happened, the writer must have persuaded lots of people to read her earlier work. And she did that by using some form of the 60-second pitch.
So if you’re a writer still trying to launch your career – still looking for representation or a first option or sale – the opportunities for pitch meetings are rare. The opportunities that demand that you master the 60-second pitch, however, will form the backbone of your entire marketing campaign.
Even though the principles that follow in this article apply to both pitch meetings and telephone pitches, the 60-second version is the one you’ll be using most frequently, for the rest of your career.
And if you’re not a novelist or screenwriter, but are a reader, assistant or intern hoping to move up the ladder to become an agent, development executive, editor or producer, the ability to pitch a story quickly, concisely and powerfully will do more to advance your career than almost any other skill you can master.
The #1 Rule of the Telephone Pitch
Without question, the single biggest mistake writers make in presenting a 60-second pitch is this: they try to tell their whole story.
Let’s say you’ve signed up for a pitch fest or for a one-on-one session with an agent at a writers’ conference or book fair. You’ve got maybe five minutes sitting across from this buyer to get him to look at your book or screenplay. So talking as fast as you can, you launch into the opening scene, then go on to detail, step by step, the plot of your story.
Here’s what’s going to happen. You’ll barely be into Act 2 (or Chapter 2) when the friendly hall monitor will come over to announce that you have 30 seconds left. So you’ll quickly try to penetrate the glazed expression on the buyer’s face, summarize the ending, and get him to say yes.
If you’ve got a story that can be told in five minutes, you’ve got a story for a five-minute movie. There’s simply no way you can do justice to the plot of a novel or feature film in that amount of time. And even if you could, you’ve left no time for the buyer to react to your story by asking questions or giving suggestions or expressing his interest.
Or let’s say you’ve managed to get a potential agent on the phone, and she’s willing to hear your pitch. Literary agents have phone lists that average at least a hundred calls a day. They simply don’t have time to listen to you detail all the elements of your story. They want to know in an instant if this story will be worth their time (or more accurately, worth the time of the reader they’ll pay to do coverage on it).
So what can you do if you don’t tell them your story?
Simply put, you get them to read your screenplay or manuscript by getting them to feel something positive about it.
The Power of Emotion
The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.
We go to the movies and we read books so we can feel something positive or fulfilling, something we can’t feel as frequently or as intensely in our everyday lives. The storyteller’s job is to create that feeling for the mass audience.
When you’re pitching your story, you must provide the buyer with a positive emotional experience. And you must convince them that when your movie is made, or your novel is published or your play is produced, your story will create an even stronger emotional experience for the people who buy tickets and books and DVDs.
In other words, your goal is to get your buyer to think, “This is a novel (or movie) I’d like to see,” or more important, “This is a story that will make a lot of money.”
Like it or not, it’s called a pitch because it’s a sales pitch. Even though the immediate goal is just to get your story read, you’re ultimately asking every potential buyer to invest her time and money representing or producing or publishing your story. The only way you’ll get her to do that is if she believes the end result will be a big profit.
Even if you’re pitching to agents or executives or assistants whose own money isn’t on the line, these people know that they (or their bosses) will have to convince dozens of other powerful people that this story will make a bundle. If they don’t consistently do that with the projects they take on, they’re out of business.
A telephone pitch is very much like a TV ad for a movie that’s about to open, or for an upcoming TV episode. A 30-second TV spot doesn’t try to show every scene or character or plot element – that would be impossible. But it will reveal something funny or sexy or suspenseful from the film, in order to convince viewers watching the commercial that the movie or TV show itself will be a wonderful emotional experience.
The 8 Steps to a Powerful Pitch
Selling your work requires both preparation and courage. But as you will learn, the better your preparation, the less courage you’ll be required to muster.
If you’re a writer or filmmaker who wants to connect with an audience, who wants to touch as many people as you can with your work, you must devote time and energy to the marketing process, just as you do to your craft. You can’t remain the shy, withdrawn, introverted artist you’d probably like to be (which is why you become a writer in the first place). You’ve got to get your work read, which means you’ve got to put yourself out there in a positive, committed way and make people aware of your talent.
There are eight critical steps to creating and presenting a pitch guaranteed to get your work read, or your story (in a full pitch meeting) considered. The first four steps are your Preparation, the remaining four your Presentation.
So here they are – The 8 R’s of Pitching:
1. Review. You must examine your story to determine its most powerful elements – the qualities you’ll reveal in your pitch. These are the components of your story that will convey both its emotional power and its commercial potential.
Any list of key story elements would have to include: the protagonist or hero; the hero’s compelling desire (what I term the Outer Motivation – the visible finish line the hero wants to cross by the end of the novel or film); the conflict – the seemingly insurmountable obstacles the hero must face in accomplishing that goal; and antecedents – previously successful films or novels similar enough in genre, plot elements and/or audience demographic that they will convince the buyer that there’s a market for your story.
Your list of key elements isn’t limited to these four; you might also add things like character arc, theme, topicality or your own personal connection to the story. But this isn’t a race to squeeze in every element of your story. You want to pick those that best convey the emotion your story elicits. So if it’s a big action film, the conflict will probably be paramount; if it’s a love story, the character arc will be much more important.
2. Write. (OK, I know it doesn’t begin with an R, but it sounds like it does.) After selecting the key elements to include in your pitch, you must prepare a script of exactly what you’re going to say. You won’t follow it word for word – this would remove the spontaneity and flexibility you’ll need – but you’ll use it as a blueprint for your presentation.
3. Rehearse. You must practice and practice your pitch, then rewrite it and practice it some more. You have to know your script so well that it becomes natural and conversational. And rehearse with others – friends, family or writers’ group members, encouraging them to comment and criticize, and telling them to ask the kinds of questions a buyer might ask about the story. This will prepare you for questions that will arise in actual pitches, and train you to keep your answers succinct.
4. Research. While you’re completing your screenplay or novel and preparing your pitch, you’ll also be targeting your market. Using directories, reviews, interviews, websites, pitch fest lists and your own contacts, you will compile a list of the specific buyers – agents, editors, producers or publishers – that you’re going to pursue. Your primary goal is to find the people in all these categories who have previously been involved in projects similar to yours. Working from this list, you will also determine the best way to reach these individuals: referrals; query letters; pitch fests; writers’ conferences; or personal appearances (such as speaking engagements).
In my new book I list more than two dozen resources for targeting and locating potential buyers, plus ways of approaching them. Sorry for dangling that plug, but there just isn’t room to include them all in this article.
Those are the four Preparation steps. Once you are face to face, or on the telephone, with your buyer, you’re ready for your Presentation.
5. Rapport. Buyers like to do business with people they feel some kinship with – some emotional connection. So as soon as you phone or meet a buyer, you must establish rapport with that individual. This could be by revealing a common experience you both share (such as the mutual acquaintance who referred you), or by acknowledging them for something they’ve done for which you are grateful (a movie they, or their company, was involved with that meant a lot to you, or simply the fact that they’re giving up their time to hear your pitch). No one is immune to the power of genuine compliments and expressions of appreciation.
6. Revelation. When you finally launch your pitch, you must reveal the strongest, most emotionally involving information about yourself and your project you can, in order to convince the buyer that it’s worth reading. This is where your well rehearsed pitch, revealing those key elements mentioned in item #1 on this list, is finally presented, in a way that conveys your own passion for your project. And remember, Don’t try to tell your whole story! Give them a taste of its emotional power, so they’ll beg for the opportunity to read it.
Even if you’re in a full pitch meeting, you don’t want to ramble on and on and on. Start with a brief 60-second pitch, then move to a 10-15 minute presentation that provides more detail. But keep it succinct.
7. Request. Once you’ve outlined your story, you have to ask the buyer to read it. This is an awkward and difficult part of the pitch for most writers. I’ve heard terrific pitches which were ruined because the writer didn’t know how to end it. So the pitch would trail off, there’d be a few moments of silence, and then the writer would mumble something like, “And, uh, I guess that’s all there is,” as if the writer were apologizing for what a crappy story she just told.
My suggestion is that when you’ve completed the Revelation stage of your pitch, pause only a couple seconds, then say, “So, do you have any questions about the story, or would you like me to send you a copy?” Giving the buyer this choice clearly conveys that the pitch is over. And whichever way the buyer responds benefits you: either they agree to read it; or you get to keep talking about it by answering their questions.
8. Response. An effective pitch means listening, not just talking. You must respond to the buyer’s comments, questions and requests, both to increase his interest and to strengthen your relationship with him. Most important, answer only the specific questions the buyer asks, and do it in less than 10 seconds. You don’t want to dazzle him with your concise pitch, and then destroy that impression by rambling on as you try to answer his questions.
When you’ve answered all the questions, pause, and then repeat your request: “Do you have any other questions, or does this seem like a project that would interest your company?” Eventually they’ll either say yes, or they’ll pass.
If they agree to read it, thank them for their time, tell them you’ll have a copy to them right away, and then get off the phone (or away from their table at the pitch fest). Don’t keep chatting, taking up their time and undoing the success you’ve just had. You got what you wanted, so get out.
If they pass on the project, don’t be discouraged. It probably had nothing to do with your pitch; it just meant your project wasn’t right for them or their company. Perhaps they had another project like it in development, or have another client with a story in the same genre, and they don’t want to compete with themselves.
Simply thank them for their time and go pursue the next buyers on your hit list. And if you’ve stuck to these steps, established rapport, and kept your pitch to sixty seconds, this buyer will be happy to hear about your next project whenever it’s ready.
Michael Hauge is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives on their screenplays, film projects and development skills. His book Writing Screenplays That Sell, now in its thirtieth printing for HarperCollins, is a definitive reference book for the film and television industries. Michael has presented seminars and lectures to more than 35,000 participants throughout the US, Canada and Europe.