Pitch Your Heart Out: Insights from 2019’s AFM Pitch Presentation

On Saturday, November 9th, I had the good fortune (understatement, anyone?) of moderating the pitch panel at the American Film Market, thanks to my good friend Pilar Alessandra who passed the torch down, which put me on the same stage with some AMAZING industry producers.

They were…  (in no particular order because… seriously??? these people are all amazing):

  • Cassian Elwes, producer/exec producer of nearly 300 films, including Dee Rees’ MUDBOUND, Jean-Marc Vallée’s DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER
  • Effie Brown, perhaps best known for taking on inclusion on the final season of Project Greenlight, but who, just as importantly, was the producer of such trailblazing projects as REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES, IN THE CUT and DEAR WHITE PEOPLE.
  • Tobin Armbrust, whose producing credits include Ron Howard’s RUSH, BEGIN AGAIN, WEDDING CRASHERS and END OF WATCH, just to name a few.

The day was set to go like this: 16 pitchers had been pre-selected from video submissions made to the AFM in advance. Each pitcher was to come up on stage and deliver a 2-minute pitch to myself and the panel, and an audience of, oh, about 500 AFM goers. Did we mention that we also picked 5 names, 2 of pre-submitters and 3 impromptu submissions, from a bucket? And yes, we had a ticking clock too so… No biggie. Once a pitch was completed… on with the critiques! Cassian, Effie, Tobin and I shared our thoughts with our pitchers.

As I sat there listening to the panelists speak, I was struck by the brilliant insights each one of them shared. There were differing points of view, and we weren’t always in agreement, but the insights on that stage were something from which anyone should learn a thing or two about pitching and presentation. In an email later in the day, once all was said and done, Effie rightly commented that we all upped out pitch game to a new level, getting to listen to each other that day.

With that in mind, I wanted to share with you some of the pitching insights shared on the stage that day:

  • Let’s start with the most basic: You should always ALWAYS know your pitch. For the most part, the writers and directors that came up on the stage did. For the most part, as Tobin put it, as the writer of your project, you know your story, so you don’t have a good excuse for having to read it off a piece of paper. This is true not only for a 2-minute/elevator pitch; when my pro writers go into a room to do the whole 20- to 30-minute dog-and-pony show, they are expected to be off book as well. And as our bucket pulls proved, you never know when an opportunity might arise when you are put on the spot and asked to talk about your screenplay, so better to always be prepared!
  • Know your audience. Of course, when pitching to a panel rather than in a traditional pitch setting, you get what you get. But it’s still – and always – important to know who you’re pitching to, what their sensibilities are, and how to best position your pitch for your audience, so that he, she or they are able to connect with it.
  • Know the industry. If you’re going to mention other screenwriters, notable directors, recognizable actors, producers, or production companies, make sure that you are able to pronounce their names. Your audience will likely be keenly aware of it if you don’t.
  • Connect. Make eye contact. Look at whoever you are pitching to. One of our pitchers mounted the stage, moved the mic so that he faced away from the panel, and proceeded to perform his pitch for the audience, rather than the panel. Let’s just say it didn’t work out so well.
  • Energy matters. While manic energy can easily cross over and become way too much, having energy in your pitch and excitement for your project makes the listener lean in, eager to get in on this thing you’ve got going on. The flip side? If you’re not excited about your project, it’s going to be hard for anyone listening to get really interested. I don’t think it’s by accident that our grand prize winner, the writer of MARC JACOBS IS MY FATHER, who perhaps packed the most energy into his well-thought-out and carefully rehearsed pitch, walked away having won the whole thing.
  • Consider how you bring us into your pitch. No two pitches should ever be exactly the same. If you’re pitching a comedy, make us laugh. If you are offering an origin story, perhaps set the stage by bringing us in through a scene, letting us know what kind of movie this is going to be. Remember: The way you construct your pitch should be creative, and serve the story you are presenting. Never aim for a paint-by-numbers pitch, and instead consider what is required in order to give your screenplay or pilot the pitch that it deserves.
  • Don’t sacrifice character for plot. More often than not, it’s hard to follow, and even harder to remember, the intricacies of plot. If we don’t care about the characters at the heart of your story, if we are not invested in their journey, plot becomes easily forgettable. You may come to see a movie for the world or the story, but you stay for the characters.
  • Understand how pitching TV is different from pitching features. Even in a 2-minute pitch, TV and features should be pitched VERY differently, and not knowing how the two differ can be to the writer’s detriment. A movie is a book-ended story, while a pilot represents an entryway into a big world, interesting characters, and the stories that unfold, season after season, within. While character is integral for both, when pitching a pilot it’s of critical importance to first pitch the overall show, and speak to the pilot as the beginning of it all.
  • Own it. There is something to be said for fully, 100% owning the thing that you are pitching. If it’s a superhero origin story you’re pitching? Don’t shy away from it or try to mask it as something else. Same can be said for a RomCom, a family drama, a heist movie. You wrote it for a reason. Own it all the way.
  • Simplify wherever you can. Distill your pitch, so that you are able to speak about your project in a manner that will allow the listener not only to remember the gist of it, but also to tell others about it. If you pitch successfully to a producer who then becomes interested in your project, he will have to pitch it onto other producers, to agents, to financiers. Therefore, the essence of the pitch needs to be distilled or simplified in such a way that makes it easily repeatable.
  • Bring a new twist to a familiar thing. While we had all sorts of projects pitched on stage, from small character pieces to big, world-building, triple-storyline futuristic works, the projects that got the panel to perk up were those that provided a new take on a familiar genre, like a heist film utilizing a whole new and different heist crew, or a coming-of-age, coming-out comedy that still managed to feel new, exciting and fresh.
  • Understand what your project adds to an existing landscape. One of the pitches we heard was about the search for the guilty party in a corrupt police force precinct. The only problem? In a world in which LAW & ORDER and all of its offshoots are still producing 24 episodes per season, not to mention new episodes of CSI and CHICAGO P.D.’s that are available on our small screens regularly, such stories can feel all too derivative. Therefore, if this is what you are pitching, be sure to speak to how your project is different, in significant ways, then all the others currently out there, as well as those that came before it. 
  • It’s all about emotional resonance. Throughout the pitches, the panelists continued to ask the pitchers: What is the emotional core of this movie?  Who do we care about here? What do you want your audience to feel? Which translates to this: If we are not emotionally invested, no matter how dynamic your story is, we won’t care. It’s as simple as that.
  • Pitching a set-up for a movie is not enough. One comment that came up often when critiquing a pitch was one that I often offer up myself: “I get your set-up, but what’s the movie?” though in this scenario the panelists put it a bit more bluntly: “I don’t understand what your movie is.” In order for a pitch to be effective, and without overwhelming us with endless plot points and story mechanisms, it’s the pitcher’s job to communicate the full arc of the movie, beginning to end (or at least most of it) so that we, the listeners, can understand the full breadth and scope of the movie at hand.
  • The more complicated your story, the more execution dependent it is. If you are eager to write screenplays that take place in futuristic settings, with multiple timelines, that employ a lot of world building without any IP on which they are based? You should do just that, but know that, in general, such stories do not always pitch well, and may sound to the listener quite convoluted and complicated. Now, I am in no way urging you away from your story of choice here; instead I simply want you to be aware that the more complicated the story, the more setting up and explaining you need to do, the more you will have to show it to be compelling and manageable on the page itself.

For me, this event presented yet another reminder that pitching is an essential marketing tool, one that you will find yourself using often as you construct and maintain your writing career. Therefore, it’s in your best interest to hone your pitch for every project, as well as your own personal narrative, and make it the best that it can be. Therefore, be sure to oractice on everyone who will listen. Based on feedback (verbal and non verbal), make adjustments, then test it again to continually make it better, stronger, clearer and more compelling. Know your pitch inside and out, own it, be passionate about your story, show us why we should care, and, just as importantly, make sure that your enthusiasm comes through, that the entertainment value is never lost, and that you are having fun with it.