Pitching is a finely nuanced art form. Part performance. Part sales. The final goal… to get them to say yes! Manager/ Producer Alexander Robb from Insignia Entertainment deep dives into the fine art of pitching.
So much of the screenwriting process is dictated by the first step of the verbal presentation. And every pitch starts with a simple question… What’s the concept and the hook? And from there, how do we expand that into a vision per the genre and medium. From logline to artwork to what’s literally said in the room to the actual script. My hope is to get beyond the surface. So let’s take a dive into the ins and outs of what many know, yet plenty of others are unsure about…
Below I’ll cover an arc of sorts. One to help shed a little insight on not just how to create an effective pitch, but why each layer has a texture that needs to be articulated in a very specific and detailed manner. And ultimately, hopefully, I’ll shed light on the “how to deliver the sale of the narrative and characters”, and other talking points such as market and comps, in the room.
To that end, my perspective here is two-fold. I want to break this down as a manager and I want to break this down as a producer. And how those disciplines coalesce and benefit one another as they relate to the overall idea, strategy, execution, and sale of a pitch.
For me and my business, with how I work with my clients, I look at the following:
As a manager? When building out a pitch, there are a few pillars I look at for how I work together with my clients. I help them focus on their voice via the pitch. To be able to articulate a cinematic rhythm in the room is a big piece of helping my clients convey their characters and story to those across the table…
But it goes without saying that I gain when my clients gain. And a ton of questions arises when trying to plot the path of creating a pitch together.
Everything within a pitch boils down to what’s literally said in the room. So as a rep, as I aim at the target of pushing my clients forward, I ask…
Can I help them focus on the various details of the character arcs? The plotting and subplotting? The tone? The cinematic details of each specific word and punctuation of the pitch?
Quick side note… Sometimes I will co-create a property as a storyteller as a rep with my clients. My goal in doing so is to tap into their voice per the hook, tone, and characters, and in turn, build a shared vision with the ultimate goal of utilizing our respective strengths, from what we create…
I mention that because while I don’t know how every other literary manager and producer works, for me, each pitch I develop is literally a miniature business unto itself. And that often inspires my input to help my clients hone their vision, which I ultimately look to sell. And with that literal creative and personal emotional investment, I calculate how the opportunity benefits my clients…
For example. How does the idea/property/opportunity tap into my client’s talent and ambitions? How do their agents see the potential of what we’re developing? How does that ripple into narrative and character? What do they gain out of the opportunity, both creatively and strategically? What are the ancillary benefits to them as they adapt to the changing tides of the business as they sell their ideas and talent? And how does the property influence future creative and career developments?
That’s the tip of the iceberg…
There’s always a dialogue though because what we do as content creators is as collaborative as any creative industry. And there’s strength in numbers. Each party brings something to the table.
As a producer? The questions and the ultimate objectives tend to overlap with management, but there are very personal reasons why I produce.
Anything I pursue, I try to pursue to the fullest. And while not everything pans out quickly, or at all, I find myself asking…
How does the opportunity benefit all parties? Can I sell the idea/pitch? Can I dedicate myself to this idea for years to come (because most sales often take years to achieve)? Granted our focus here is the pitch, but there’s a lengthy road to hoe that, as a producer, dovetails into the entire business plan for the property and every off-shoot. From logline to a fleshed-out pitch to eventual first draft to final draft (which is often a dozen or more passes), to the painstaking sales to fellow producers, studios, talent and networks (which can be emotionally draining bc you want to prove your instincts to your constituents while helping your client succeed), to the rewarding negotiations when you’ve struck oil.
All of that is a cumulative calculation for me as a producer. And all of that influences my approach to developing a pitch bc each layer, each step of the process has a bar to reach.
So. Every pitch I develop as a producer has a very real, personal and emotional investment. The very REASON why I do this. Now. It’s called show-“business” for a reason, so as a producer and rep, I’m here to SELL. But EVERYTHING is based on a vision I share with my clients and partners.
Ultimately, my motivation has always been to create iconic content that stands the test of time.
I think that’s how every writer should approach their idea and vision. Everyone who sits down and clacks away at the keyboard has a wealth of knowledge. So my advice is to do what I do when carving out a pitch…
I use all of my knowledge and experience, which we all possess in our own unique ways, to calculate the myriad of factors of the business we’re pursuing when setting up the presentation of our ideas and why they possess a “why now” factor that makes execs, producers and buyer feel like they can be invested in the room…
Let’s bring this back around and get into specifics of how to create a great pitch. I’ll break it down into the following:
- Comps and Tone
Structure. I’m a big fan of a polished structure that hits the highs and lows of what makes the story and characters pop. That means there’s a style and rhythm that showcases the energy and vision, that ultimately coalesces into a rhythmic presentation in the room.
The best starting block is a statement with a personal connection to the idea and characters. The value here is two-fold. One. You get to sell yourself. What makes you especially connected to the story/world/characters. And two. What you see in the complete vision for the sale of the property. That is, what makes you definable as a visionary author and creator.
From there? Presenting comps and the tone is essential to how others FEEL your pitch. Keep it sharp. Hit the high notes of a great filmmaker. Hitchcock, Sorkin, Spielberg, Wilder, Nolan, Tarantino, Spike Lee, Wes Craven, Judd Apatow, John Hughes, Kurosawa, the Wachowskis, Michael Bay, Chaplin, Coppola, Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson, Scorsese, Ridley, Kubrick, Cameron, Lynch, the Coens, Capra, Lucas, Tim Burton and literally dozens and dozens of others…
That then dovetails into character. The most important part of any pitch. In the last decade of running my own shop, I’ve unfortunately found that not many have a handle on their characters as required by the market. We’ll get into plot, which is equal to character in the pitch, but I can argue that the biggest part of the pitch is character. That’s how executives, producers, and talent connect to a writer’s vision. And per the tone and genre. Make your presentation unique so others see the iconography, and ultimately, the sale.
Now we transition into plot. How do we frame it and how far do we have to go for the sale of the pitch?
In reverse order, in today’s market, pitching any series requires five seasons minimum. And the more specific and detailed, the better. Outfits like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu want to hear the ENTIRE series. So unless you’re pitching a broadcast show that can fit the old school format of a test pilot, I’d suggest every writer knows the arc of their series, from start to finish.
So the plot plays a major role in the pitch. But I also break it down per the genre. For example…
If I’m developing a quirky, idiosyncratic, character-driven comedy? I need the hook, the characters, the pilot breakdown, and a broad journey of the characters as they evolve through the years ala THE OFFICE. But some comedic series pitches can benefit from a more specific seasonal arc presentation. Think of SILICON VALLEY that has specific plot development. In a pitch like this? I would need everything above but with a more specific plotting from season to season that highlights the highs and lows of the plot against the character arcs.
If I’m developing a conspiratorial thriller with a flawed anti-hero? I DEFINITELY look to carve out the rhythms of future seasons after a detailed walk-through of the plot. For as character-driven as the thriller series OZARK on Netflix is? It’s a very calculated narrative.
And pitching something in that vein requires a writer to cover all of the bases. From character to plot specifics for at least five seasons.
Of course, EVERY great narrative has a “lore.” And I’d suggest every writer has a complete vision for the lore or “mythology” of their pitch. Whether that’s a complex tentpole à la HARRY POTTER or a contemporary situational comedy like MODERN FAMILY, the background, subtext, and history of the narrative all play a role in creating the pitch.
Executives must also get a sense of the story world. This is an umbrella term for everything you see on screen. This includes the locale, time period, genre, mood and style, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned. A combined sum of the parts.
The point? The highest odds to sell is if we create and present a vivid articulation of our vision, and only if we do so at literally the most polished, rhythmic, stylized way possible. Without a doubt, that’s a high bar. But that’s the evaluation as both a manager who takes on clients with the intention of helping them achieve their visions, and as a producer, who can dedicate myself to hundreds upon hundreds of hours of creative and strategic risk vs reward.
I love to ramble but I want to wrap this up with a couple of ideas to help film and TV writers see the potential in essentially valuing the previous because it will help in beating the competition…
The development of a polished pitch probably takes 3-6 months to fully flesh out. Lightning can strike and cut that time in half, but the development of a great pitch usually takes months to fully realize. But as a writer understands how to frame their pitch with the right details and character/plot rhythms?
A truly great pitch will explore and expand upon every detail, with a smooth rhythm that sucks us into the overall style and energy of the series. The key is to articulate all of that through the emotional arcs of the characters…
I love what I do. And I do what I do to make an impact. I’m not always right, but I’ve been at this for nearly two decades, and my ultimate objectives here were to share my knowledge and experience. If I’m lucky, a few of you storytellers out there who read this gain something from a little “inside baseball.”