Surviving the Pitch: My Five Essential Survival Tips
A guest blog post by Greta Heinemann
Greta is a Supervising Producer on NBC’s “Good Girls”, has a show in development with HBOMax and a movie in development with Amblin Partners and 87North. More on her bio at the bottom of this post.
In these very, very odd Covid-19 times where writers are locked up in their homes and Zoom generals have taken the (more environmentally friendly, and safe) place of “the water bottle tour,” where an entire pilot season has come to a grinding halt, there’s one big question burning somewhere in the back of every writer’s mind… How are we going to develop? How are we going to PITCH?
I’ll be upfront about the fact that I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that development is very much alive. And that a lot of pitch meetings have – at least for the time being, like everything else – migrated to Zoom, Google Hangout, Webex, and, and, and.
And… after having had my share of those online meetings now, I have also learned that keeping one’s attention, conveying emotions and wrapping the listener up in the story you are telling, is even harder now than it has ever been before. I’m guessing that’s exactly why Lee asked me to write a guest-post about pitching. That, and the fact that I have been on over 50 pitch meetings in the past year, ultimately selling both my first TV pitch, and my first studio feature pitch. Along the way, I’ve certainly learned a lot and that the hard way, so I’ve compiled a list of five pitching tips, in hopes they can save you some time and pain. But before I get into them, let me set the stage–
- WHAT TO EXPECT
The process was always somewhat the same. First I pitched to producers hoping to bring them onto my project (TV), or (feature) I pitched myself to producers hoping to get attached to their project. Then I developed the pitch further with the producers’ help and took it out to studios. Then, in the TV world, I theoretically was supposed to go to networks, but with streamers becoming studio and outlet alike, and the ATA campaign exploding at exactly the same time, things went a little crazy and I suddenly found myself everywhere at the same time and often without any attached producers at all. Still, most pitch meetings were all the same. I showed up early, or at least on time and after handshakes all around (no more of that…), if I had producers with me, they gave a brief intro of the project and me and then… I took it away. My pitches were both on the long side at 30min for TV and 40+ min for the feature. They should probably both have been shorter, but considering my TV pitch was for the whole first season and beyond… (I had already written the pilot on spec) and the movie was a biopic spanning almost a lifetime, I guess it was alright.
- PITCH STRUCTURE
I spent a lot of time researching this, talking to fellow writers and putting a lot of blood, sweat, tears into figuring it out. Here’s the rough structure that I found to work best in the end.
- Personal introduction & connection
- Logline (that includes some type of comps)
- Themes, world & tone (again comps if applicable)
- Cold Open
- Act One to Inciting incident
- Act Two to mid-point
- Act Two to All is Lost
- Act Three to final twist and emotional/plot resolution.
In terms of TV Pilot, you’d want to include more in-depth character introductions with clear emotional arcs, as well as plot set-ups and mysteries for future stories. In terms of pitching a full TV Season, I structured my season pitch in three acts like the feature example above. Now, with that out of the way, here are:
MY 5 PITCHING SURVIVAL TIPS
- NOTHING BEATS A PERSONAL CONNECTION. And that is especially true, if you are, like me, a less-established writer who has to “justify” why they have the right, authentic voice and point of view to tell a certain story. Both projects I set up were deeply personal to me. One was loosely inspired by my own upbringing, the other was about a woman who grew up not far from me and whose story literally changed my life. It’s probably exactly why I was so hugely passionate about both projects and opening my pitches by speaking to this deep connection to the story and passion for it seemed to convey two things: That I was the right writer for the story and that I was so damn passionate about it that the executives should be, too.
- TELL AN EXCITING, EMOTIONALLY ENGAGING STORY. Look, I’m German. I love clarity and structure and naturally when I wrote my first pitch it ended up becoming more of a how-to manual than an emotionally engaging story. A more experienced writer-friend told me then what stuck with me ever since: A pitch has to be emotionally engaging (DUH! I know). It has to suck us into the story and keep us there. Make us feel the stakes and emotions as we go through the pitch. I’d personally also add, that it has to stenograph some of the emotional intricacies upfront so the listener can better follow. I.e.: I usually state the arc of the protagonist before I deep dive into the story, that way the listener knows what to look out for. I also tell the listener clearly what the big way-markers are (inciting incident, mid-point, all is lost…) so they know where we are in our story. For the lack of a better term, a pitch is a performance with occasional asides. And – as obvious and simple as this may all sound – it is DREADFUL if you are a nervous writer not in the business of performing. There’s a reason why most of us are not actors! To that point… read on…
- SELF-DEPRICATION. Any pitch I went on, I was COMPLETELY OFF THE BOOK. Of course, I’d always have my pages with me to give me comfort, but I only really spot-checked them twice when I lost my train of thought (and by the way, I made a quick joke about it and the pitches went on just fine). Yes, pitching means memorizing a long monologue and then performing it – over and over again – like it is the first time and absolutely not rehearsed. Full of quippy asides and jokes that make your audience think you’re having the time of your life when really, you’re sweating balls. I know this is incredibly hard for many of us, but it is a necessary evil. I personally battle my nerves with stupid amounts of preparation and music on my way to the pitch… Plus, a self-deprecating joke acknowledging the pressure always went a long way. Most of the time, it got a laugh and broke the ice.
- JAZZ HANDS & AIDS. Yes, in line with the point above it’s all about those Jazz-hands, but I personally believe that visual aids can be super, super helpful as well. Not only do they take attention away from you (if you, like me, don’t like being stared at for an hour straight), they also spark the imagination of the execs and more clearly communicate the world and vibe you’re going for. On Zoom, you can screen-share. There are online power points etc.. As an example, for the movie pitch, since its story takes place in an incredibly visual world, I brought a bunch of hard-copy pictures that underlined my narrative as I went along, and I turned them over, one picture at a time, in dramatic reveals. I guess this added an element of discovery, fun but also tension to the pitch, as executives were waiting to see what I would reveal next. It helped keep them engaged. For my TV pitch, I did the same with a character board and found that tremendously helpful to refer to as I spoke, so executives could more easily follow who I was talking about when. I guess it’s true what they say: An image says more than a thousand words. Finally, I found the maybe most underestimated star player during my pitches was… MY WATER BOTTLE. First of all, with all the talking I was to do, I always brought my own water as back-up. But more importantly, when I reached a point where I was freaking out, lost my train of thought, fumbled my lines or simply needed to catch my breath, I simply stopped and said “…and I’ll tell you more about that in just a second. After I had a sip of water.” – It gave me a completely natural stopping point, usually sparked some natural conversation between the execs and producers, while it gave me time to catch my breath, check my script and sort my thoughts before I had to move on.
- KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. There have been a few pitches to producers who I am a huge fan of and naturally, during those, I put even more pressure on myself. You can guess how that went. So, here’s what I force myself to do now: I treat every pitch like an equal opportunity. Whatever plans we make in this business will — no doubt — always be crossed and accepting that seems to – at least for me – lower my stress levels significantly.
All in, pitching is an exhausting, emotional rollercoaster ride that couldn’t be further from writing. Except, just like in our writing, all we can control is the story we bring to the table. One quote that became my mantra throughout was something Ron Meyer said when I got to listen to him many years ago at NBC. He said that every “No” just gets you one step closer to a “Yes” and keeping that in mind can maintain some sense of sanity. Even if your project does not set up, the relationships you form can bring new opportunities in the future. And finally, don’t get discouraged and give up before the project has run its course. In case of selling my first pitch, I was literally drowning my tears in my third, lunch-time Chardonnay complaining to a fellow writer about the countless passes I had gotten and about the fact that my show surely will never set up when I randomly ran into my producer and an exec we had pitched to, having lunch just a few tables away. They informed me that the reason for their lunch was the fact that they would make an offer on my pilot. It was the second to last pitch out of thirty-three.
Greta Heinemann grew up at the Bavarian-Austrian border and raised herself watching an abundance of German-dubbed US TV shows by day, and action movies by night. Greta has since learned how to speak English and fought hard to immigrate to the US to pursue her dreams of becoming a screenwriter. She currently serves as Supervising Producer on NBC’s GOOD GIRLS, has a show in development at HBO-Max and is in development on a feature film with David Leitch’s 87North and Amblin Partners.