Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon are the screenwriting team who have written nine feature films, including Night at the Museum, Balls of Fury, and The Pacifier. They also created, wrote, and starred in the TV series, Reno 911! I’ve had the pleasure of hearing them pitch and they are some of the best in the business.
Their book, “Writing Movies for
Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!” has advice about how to pitch commercially viable projects that studios like to buy (interspersed with wild stories and their wacky sense of humor).
Here are eight techniques they recommend you use when pitching your next project:
1. Describe Your Story In Terms of Other Successful Films
Lennon and Garant are, as you can see in their book, primarily concerned with writing and pitching ideas that will SELL. However, they still care about originality.
Be original, but don’t reinvent the wheel. Invoking the name of a film that has MADE A TON OF MONEY in your pitch is never a bad thing in Hollywood.
Notice that Lennon and Garant don’t use the plural—they say that you invoke the name of “a” film.
The question is, what successful film should you invoke? The wrong comparison can cause confusion, and the right comparison can be difficult to choose.
Here’s how to choose the right comparison and answer the question, “What project is yours most like?”
2. The Hero Must Be A Character A Star Wants To Play
The key to making your hero appealing to a movie star is for the character to be “flawed-but-amazing.”
A flawed-but-amazing character should be something like: ‘GREG (36) is the only dad in the all-moms CARPOOL. Despite his amazingly good looks, he’s shy around women. He’s too caught up in his work to notice that he’s missing his son DANNY (7), growing up before his eyes.’
Movie stars want to win awards, the chance to play a part that has dimension, and (with rare exception) to look good. If you write a part that a star wants to play, studio execs and other players will get on board.
3. Dress Well
Lennon and Garant, when they go into pitch, recommend that you dress up.
DO NOT show up at a pitch in a Cabo Wabo T-shirt and flip-flops. The way you dress should inspire confidence. It should say to the buyer, ‘I don’t write as a hobby, I write as a profession.’
Do dress nicely—but not too nicely. I don’t recommend a suit and tie because you can seem too green, to be trying too hard, or that you’re applying for a job at the studio.
Men are safe with nice jeans, sneakers, and casual jacket. Women writers have a wider range of acceptable attire at the same level of “casual formality.”
4. Have A One-Sentence “Short Pitch”
Being able to express your idea in one sentence shows that you are a professional who understands your story extremely well, and it makes it easy for other people to remember it.
An example from Lennon and Garant:
It’s an animated version of The Commitments with Santa’s reindeer, showing how the sleigh-pulling team got together for the first time.
5. Keep Your Complete Pitch Short
No one listening to a pitch has ever said, “I wish they talked longer.”
Keep your (complete) pitch, if possible, to around twelve or thirteen minutes. Most humans, especially those in the movie industry, has very short attention spans. Keep it short, and let them ask questions afterward.
Giving the listeners the opportunity to ask questions—and being prepared for those questions—is one of the most important pitching techniques.
6. Act Out As Much As You Can
Lennon and Garant use their improv skills in the pitch and act out their story.
Make your pitch a performance. It’s more fun for you and them—and it’s also the clearest way to tell the story. Don’t be shy. Play every character and moment to the hilt.
Keep in mind that Lennon and Garant are also professional actors. This aspect of their approach is “high-risk, high-reward.” If you’re good at performing, your pitch can be highly entertaining and increases your chances of selling it or being hired to work on something else.
In general, I recommend that all writers take an improv class to improve their abilities when pitching. Improv teaches listening skills and will help you get more comfortable when speaking in public.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
You know it’s true for writers with less experience, but even the top pros practice pitching before going in the room.
Say the pitch out loud over and over again, until you’re so relaxed telling it that you could tell it on a Tilt-A-Whirl. Saying it out loud will also call attention to problems, glitches, and awkward parts. The more you rehearse the pitch, the better it will be.
Something to consider when practicing your pitch is pitching to different groups of people (so they hear it “fresh”). You also want to be pitching to each group in a consistent way so you can look for patterns of feedback.
8. Be Gracious
Do not get defensive, roll your eyes, argue in the room, or be difficult in any way.
(Often), your pitch WILL NOT SELL, and for reasons beyond your control. Even if they don’t buy your pitch, remember: YOU ARE A WRITER. THEY NEED WRITERS. So be gracious, charming, and generally wonderful to be around—and you may still get hired!!! More often than not, they want you to work on an idea THEY came up with anyway.
When Pitching A Comedy, It Helps To Be Funny
When they are pitching a project, Lennon and Garant seem to be having a good time, and helping the listeners to have fun as well. Their book is the same way—there’s a lot of information, presented in a fun, funny way.
You don’t need to be an experienced actor or improvisor. But you do need to learn how to perform when you’re “in the room.”
Here’s more from Robert Ben Garant (teaching an hour-long Master Class at Loyola University):
Here’s an interview with Lennon and Garant on NPR.
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You Might Also Like:
- How To Cure Pitch Meeting Anxiety
- 5 Ways To Pitch Like Ron Howard
- What David Simon’s Pitch for The Wire Can Teach Us About How to Sell An Original Idea