13 Frequently-Used Phrases That Make You Sound Like a Hollywood Rookie

13 Frequently Used High Concept

Rookie mistakes can add up—make enough of them in a pitch meeting, and your project may not move forward.

Unfortunately, even experienced pros can sound like amateurs sometimes because it’s rare that you get feedback after a pitch meeting about the small mistakes you made.

Let’s talk about 13 phrases which make you seem like a rookie–even if you’re not.

Don’t Be Fooled By What You See on TV

If you have looked for information about how to handle yourself in a pitch meeting, you know that there isn’t that much available. Episodes of Entourage. The opening scene from The Player. Pitch meeting parody videos on YouTube such as this, this and this.

You see the pitchers acting slick and sales-y. Pumping up the people who are listening.  Using insider lingo like “This is really high concept. We’ve had lots of interest. Tom Cruise was attached….”

Having participated in thousands of pitch meetings as a studio executive at MGM Pictures, many pitch meetings are like this—and they are not successful.

The issue is that what you’re seeing on TV and film is good for storytelling, and is a version of what often happens.  However, it is not an accurate representation of what happens when a pitch is successful.

13 Phrases to Avoid

  1. “High concept.”  If your idea is high concept, it’s obvious. If it’s not, saying it is won’t help.
  2. “We’ve had a lot of interest.”  To a decision-maker, this is code for, “Lots of people have read this but none of them have liked it enough to get involved.”  This is related to how people try to amp up the decision-maker in advance of the pitch by saying positive things—the most common pitch meeting mistake.
  3. “With the right cast….”  Yes, of course.  Every project needs the right cast. If you need stars to make your script work, the decision-maker will guess the story isn’t that good.
  4. “This is a very unique project.”  This sentence sends up a red flag. If it’s “unique” it usually means that you haven’t done enough research to understand the genre, or that your project is so particular that it could be impossible to sell.  Neither is good.
  5. “Trials and tribulations,” “Thrill-a-minute.”  If you speak in clichés in the meeting, the decision-maker will assume that your writing is full of clichés.
  6. “It’s funtastic.”  Avoid puns. They rarely produced the desired effect.
  7. “A pseudo/quasi/very very secret society.”  Strong ideas don’t need qualifiers.
  8. “With a message.”  When you highlight the message, this means that you’re focused primarily on teaching the audience a lesson instead of telling a great story.
  9. “I’ve been working on this film for 11 years.”  You’re committed, okay, but possibly inept.
  10. “Attached was (some star) and (some director).”  This is the equivalent of saying, “Here is a list of the people who have already passed on this project.”  Don’t talk about who has read, or been interested, or previously was interested.
  11. “I’m not very good at pitching.”  If you apologize for yourself before pitching, you’re not making a good first impression.  Buyers want to work with professionals.
  12. “And… you can fill in the blank….”  Pitching to a decision-maker isn’t a game of Mad Libs. They don’t appreciate gimmicks to try and “intrigue” them.  Filling in the blank is your job.
  13. “You’ll have to read the script to find out what happens.”  I’ve never heard of a script being purchased when this line has been uttered in the room.  It’s your job to create a great ending to your story and be able to pitch it effectively.

If you avoid these thirteen phrases, you’ll soon discover that you’re not embellishing your pitch, or qualifying it, or obscuring it.  You’ll just be pitching your story in a clean, simple, and clear way.

And that’s how you sound like a pro.

Can you add any rookie phrases to this list? Would love to hear your thoughts.

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16 Comments

  1. You forgot, “have your people call my people, and we’ll take a meeting and do lunch.”

    I’m not triskaidekaphobic, however, there are probably more than simply 13 phrases that can get you unceremoniously thrown out on your ear from a pitch meeting.

    Not having something else to pitch comes to mind. The producer may say something like, “That’s great, what else you got?” And you’ve got about 3 seconds to start into your second pitch.

  2. This is a nice list, albeit obvious. I read a lot of ‘What not to do,’ lists. It would be nice, for a change, if someone could write an article on what TO do in a pitch meeting. No one seems to do that, from what I see.

  3. Hi Stephanie

    I am running with a script and making a short out of it.
    Am I burning my bridges in being able to sell it after the short is made?

    the movie I’m writing is very Guy Ritchie style how much do I ask for $$$$?

  4. Phrases that make me cringe:

    Tied into number 9: “I based this on my novel I published/play I wrote…” Which always leads me to ask how those did. Too often the answer is it didn’t sell well or at all, or the play was never produced. What’s the point of bringing those up if you can’t leverage that to demonstrate the viability, marketability or proof of your concept?

    A variation of no. 10: “I sent it to X…”

    “I haven’t figured that part out yet…” or “I’m not married to that and I can change it if you need me to…” Commit to your choices.

    “I originally wrote this for Y…” This always sounds arrogant unless you actually know the actor. Plus, in my experience, it’s amazing how often a writer will demonstrate an obliviousness to the roles an actor has played or the very public comments they’ve made about particular roles. Doesn’t seem you’re actually as into Y or a student of their career as you think.

    “It’s exactly like [insert successful film]” or “It’s like [insert obscure film] so I know it can…” The more successful the film, the more obscure the film, the more intense the internal sigh. Nothing wrong with being inspired by great films, just don’t imply from jump you’ve replicated what came before. And regardless of the stereotypes, most folks are not trying to copy what other folks are doing.

    “First I have to give you a little setup or backstory…” So information that won’t be in the film that will help me understand the story? Awesome, the audience will enjoy this film even more without the benefit of footnotes or commentary. What’s worse is when a writer never needed to tell you that setup to begin with. It’s a sign you lack confidence in either your writing or that particular story.

    And my favorite: “Except here’s the twist…” “Or what they don’t know…” So one, you’ve strung me along on a story I might have liked up to that point to basically tell me you’re going to rely on a gimmick instead of actual storytelling? Two, why didn’t you set that up and have that event happening parallel? Instead of having my excitement level raised as you tell the story because I’m invested to see how these two events or characters are going clash and affect the story, I get to basically reboot and hope the pay off is worth it.

    • My favorite thing you wrote (and there are so many gems in here) is “The more successful the film, the more obscure the film, the more intense the internal sigh.” So true, Charles! Thanks for these fantastic additions to the list.

  5. Whether people decide to feed into an idea is an open ended question in itself. There is no telling what gets the attention of the average everyday audience since so people are into different things. Some might like fashion, some like talk t.v., others like recipies and exchanging ideas. There is no science to like or dislike, except to click the channel.

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