Crafting a Killer Pitch for Your Screenplay or Pilot

Back around 2006 or 2007, in my long-gone ScriptShark days when I ran that coverage service, I had written a short blogpost about pitching. Pitching, as a tool for presenting story, was only just gaining steam outside of the pro-writer community then. Yes, pitch fests have gained some popularity in years before, but for the most part, non-working writers didn’t have a full view of pitching as a tool they would one day have to rely on and use in order to sell their projects and move their career forward. To my great surprise, within 24-hours of publishing said blogpost, I received a tersely worded comment: “Pitching is for baseball b**ch.” According to the commentator, I was blogging about pure nonsense, which would never have any sort of substantive place in the industry, nor have any benefit for any writer out there trying to build a screenwriting career. 

Well, fourteen years later, the art of pitching has only gained steam. Writers are deploying a variety of pitches, at various stages of their career: 

Earlier in the writers’ journey it might be all about the elevator pitch that may be shared at a screenwriting festival such as the Austin Film Festival or at the American Film Market where I recently moderated the festival’s annual pitch presentation, Pitch Conference: The Two Minute Pitches, or otherwise at a pay-to-pitch opportunity like those provided by Stage 32 and Roadmap Writers. 

Once the writer gets signed by a manager or an agent, she may be asked to be ready to casually pitch new ideas as part of her general meetings, or otherwise be invited to pitch a more extensive take on a project that one of the executives she’s met with in a general is now developing. In a TV writer’s room, the writer will be expected to pitch storylines for particular characters or for full episodes. And finally, as a working writer in the industry at large, she will have opportunities to pitch new TV shows and movies, rather than having to write the complete screenplay or pilot on spec.

The art of the pitch is all about knowing how to best verbally present your project; how to speak about your work, be it fully scripted and ready to share or still in development stages, in an effective and compelling manner that whips up enthusiasm from the listener. Earlier in a writers’ career it’s all about getting the listener to ask to read your screenplay or TV pilot; later on, it may become about getting the buyer to buy your pitch so that they can go on to develop the full screenplay or pilot with you in a collaborative development relationship, or award you a coveted open writing assignment. 

When screenwriter Eileen Jones, who recently sold MARKS, a female-lead spy movie, to New Line, was a special guest at Screenwriters Support Group, she discussed the importance of scripting your pitch and developing it to hit all the right beats in order to compel your audience. Eileen perfected her art of pitching as a writer in the writers’ room, pitching regularly when developing episodes for shows including LETHAL WEAPON and PRODIGAL SON. She first got her feet wet on the movie side when participating in Margot Robbie and Christina Hodson’s Lucky Exports Pitch Program through which she sold the pitch for her propulsive western action film, HIGHWAYMAN, to New Line. 

So what goes into such a pitch? Let’s break it down: 

An elevator pitch is short and abbreviated. It doesn’t allow time for too much detail and flowery language, but should illustrate for the listener with a broad overview of the project. As a rule, features are often significantly easier to pitch than a TV show or pilot, as they have a clearer beginning/middle/end which more easily lends itself to a straight forward pitch. When listening to an elevator pitch, which should last no more than a couple of minutes, we are looking to hear the broad strokes of story, including whose story this is, what do they want, what’s getting in their way. It’s important to give us a strong sense of the world we are in, as well as the narrative progression that gives us the overall scope of story. Even with a short pitch, the listener is seeking to ascertain not only story, but also genre, tone and audience. 

While specifics in pitches will be interchangeable depending on projects, here is what I am looking to find in an elevator pitch: 

Feature elevator pitch:

  • Project title
  • Genre
  • Logline
  • Short pitch that gives me a clear idea of who the protagonist is, their active pursuit or motivation, and the conflict/antagonist they encounter. 
  • Clear cinematic arc that lends itself to 3-act structure
  • Unique world elements
  • Comparable projects, tonal comparisons, or anything else that would help illustrate the nature of the project

TV elevator pitch: 

  • Project title
  • Genre
  • Format (½-hour or 1-hour)
  • TV comps
  • Series logline
  • Character breakdown
  • World detail (could be general or specific)
  • Expanded pilot logline

One thing that not all writers opt to include but I find incredibly helpful to include is the writer’s personal connection to the story, creating a direct link between story and storyteller. At this year’s Pitch Conference at the AFM, both of our grand prize winners began the pitch by sharing a deep personal connection to the material they were pitching, one being a comedy, another a drama. 

And another thing: It is important that you deliver your pitch in accordance with the spirit of your project. If you are pitching a comedy, make sure you get some jokes in there. If you are pitching an emotionally resonant character drama, be sure to get in those powerful, moving beats. The listener wants to not only hear an interesting concept, but also be convinced that you are the writer for it. 

Once a writer turns pro, secures representation and develops relationships within the industry, the conditions of getting new material out there may change. While still largely unknown, the writer will likely be expected to generate new content on spec, often developing screenplays and pilots with input from her representatives. But once she’s gotten some industry traction, she may begin to get pitches out there, for either feature or TV shows, in the hopes of selling said pitch and getting producers involved (and invested) in the development of the material. 

Industry pitches do tend to vary in length; some like to keep their pitches under 20 minutes if possible, while others will require 30 minutes or more to deliver a fully developed presentation. Some writers will have a word count in mind to hit, while others might keep it a bit looser. 

Before taking a pitch out to the industry, most writers develop their “pitch pages.” For some, this will be a fully scripted pitch, orchestrated down to water breaks; for others, this may be a more free-form presentation, guided by instructive bullet points. But make no mistakes about it: For the majority of working writers, a pitch is usually heavily scripted and meticulously rehearsed. 

A lot of work goes into those pitch pages, whether the writer is pitching an original concept, or their unique take for an Open Writing Assignment. Many writers go as far as to break story on the complete screenplay or pilot episode in order to really bring the pitch home. 

Structure varies in these longer pitches, whether the writer is pitching a feature or a TV show. One writer will start with the personal connection every time, while another may jump directly into the pilot teaser or opening scene in order to properly set the mood. The writer will then weave in story, world and character in the most effective way to communicate their vision. With a feature pitch, this will once again be a more straight-forward, book ended story, in which the writer will provide us with road signs (“We start our 2nd act with… “  or “by our midpoint…”) in order to give a clear indication of where we are in our progression. Once again, a pitch for a TV show will be more complex, as the writer will have to use the pitch to not only illustrate the powerful elements (world, characters, themes, mythology, etc.) that populate her show, but also illuminate a strong engine that would sustain the show over episodes and seasons. 

Want to learn more about constructing a winning pitch? Check the guest blogpost, Surviving the Pitch: My Five Essential Survival Tips from Greta Heinemann who sold a feature pitch to Amblin, and a TV pitch to Netflix. 

In today’s industry, pitching has become an often-used tool for many writers. In my experience, there is no one formula according to which a pitch should be developed; whether you’re developing an elevator pitch or an elaborate project pitch to be taken out to production companies, networks or suitors, it’s important to consider what would work best for each unique project. Pitching has become a craft all its own, and every writer must find within it their own sweet spot. For those writers who take the time to thoughtfully script and develop it, a strong, compelling pitch, whether elevator or lasting 20 minutes, can become a strong tool for moving your screenwriting career forward.