How to Pitch Your Story
Think of something you’ve written: a screenplay, pilot, manuscript.
Next, imagine that you board a plane and find yourself seated next to someone you’ve been hoping to meet with: a prospective manager, a publisher, a studio executive.
(For the sake of the exercise, we’ll turn the clock back and assume that the world is still Covid-free, so that you can easily converse without face masks or shields.)
Now, tell them what your story is about. Do it out loud and record yourself.
After a few minutes (no more than five), stop and listen to what you’ve recorded, then answer the following question:
Is your mythical seatmate interested in hearing more? Or are they desperately searching for the flight attendant to see if there’s another seat available?
If you are now sitting alone, you probably need to learn how to pitch your story.
Story pitching is part of a writer’s job description, and pitch meetings fill the schedules of media and entertainment industry executives.
To prepare their MFA students for careers as working professionals, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts offers a course called “The Business of the Business.” Screenwriter Joe Wood, an NYU/Tisch Dramatic Writing alum, recalls that story pitching was a central focus of the course, with both faculty and visiting industry professionals stressing its importance. “It was probably 50% of the class… either information and lectures and stories about pitching or listening to each other pitch.”
Because pitch meetings are so critically important, it’s essential that you’re adequately prepared. The airplane hypothetical was designed to show that even though you are intimately familiar with every detail of your story, you may not be ready to present it in a vivid, compelling way.
Veteran showrunner Eric Gilliland has successfully pitched his ideas to top entertainment industry executives. “I’m never not prepared. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if you’re not overprepared.”
He sees pitching as putting on a show. “I rehearse it over and over, out loud.” When possible, he’ll try the pitch out on friends and colleagues.
Readers of Save the Cat!® know that Blake Snyder took that one step further and pitched his ideas to total strangers. He found the real time feedback invaluable. “I look in their eyes as I’m talking. When they start to drift, when they look away, I’ve lost them. And I know my pitch has problems. So I make sure that when I pitch to my next victim, I’ve corrected whatever slow spot or confusing element I overlooked the first time out.”
While there is no single established paradigm for pitching, writers who lay out their story using a beat sheet have a valuable resource for organizing their presentation. That’s been the experience of Matt Allen, who has sold his share of screenplays, including Four Christmases and Mighty Oak.
“I try to make sure that I know what my ’15 beats’ are before I walk (or Zoom) into a pitch meeting. The 15 beats are like a checklist that lets the producer know that all the story bases are covered. It instills confidence.”
In Save the Cat! Strikes Back, Blake suggests building a pitch using a modified version of the beat sheet shared with him by writer Betty Ryan:
1. Opening Image – A brief “who” of the hero
2. Catalyst – The thing that sets the story in motion
3. Break into Two – The essence of the story and poster
4. Midpoint – The complication that challenges the hero
5. All Is Lost – How the hero loses everything
6. Break into Three – The solution to the hero’s dilemma
7. Final Image – How he is transformed by this story
No matter how you design your pitch, it should include one critical ingredient: your passion for the story. As Blake notes in Save the Cat! Strikes Back, “I need to believe that what you’re pitching me means something to you.”
Joe Wood got that same advice at NYU: “Something that was expressed over and over again to us was the importance of starting your pitch with a personal connection to the story… the ‘why me?’” Before others commit to your story, they must see why it resonates with you.”
Joe learned that “if you don’t show confidence in your project when you’re pitching, you can’t expect anyone else to have confidence in you or get excited by your project.”
Some day you will meet with that manager/publisher/studio executive. And when you do, it’s likely you’ll be nervous—that’s just human nature. But if you’re well-prepared, you’ll be able to walk into the meeting with greater confidence. And with that you’ll be able to take this final piece of advice from Eric Gilliland:
“Have fun with it. Be loose and personable. Remember, they WANT to like the pitch. It makes their job easier if they do.”