Pitch Meeting Structure Used By Hollywood Pros

Pitch Meeting Structure Used By Hollywood Pros Infographic

Let’s go back in time… before you had your first pitch meeting… before you even started writing… to when you first realized how much you loved movies.

If you’re like me, when you realized you loved movies, movies were fun. You didn’t really know how they “worked.” You may have thought that big-budget action blockbusters, classic romantic comedies, and gritty independent films had little in common.

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But then, when you wanted to become a professional writer, you started learning about screenplay structure. You realized that all movies, all stories, have similar structural features.

There is a similar structure to pitch meetings–and it’s used by top writers, directors, and producers.

Just as screenplays are structured in three acts, pitch meetings have five stages.

If you ignore the five stages and just try to “wing it” in the room, you’re like a writer trying to write a screenplay without understanding basic three-act structure.

When you understand the structure of the five stages, you can decide when you want to follow the expectations and when you want to break the rules.

Pitch Meetings Happen In Five Stages

  • In Stage 1, you build rapport and warm up the room.
  • In Stage 2, you ask questions and listen to show respect.
  • In Stage 3, you deliver the prepared component of your pitch.
  • In Stage 4, you deliver the “improvised” component of your pitch.
  • In Stage 5, you ask for one thing if necessary and leave on a good note.

Pitch Meeting Stage 1: Rapport

The goal: to connect in a personal way

Stage 1 is the small-talk phase that is the beginning of just about every meeting you will ever have.  It’s important because decision-makers want to work with people they like and trust.  If you’re prepared, the small-talk will hopefully turn into a deeper conversation about your common perspectives and interests.

The trap: pitching too soon

If you “get down to business” and start pitching too early, the decision-maker won’t feel connected to you as a person and won’t be listening to your pitch.  You want to build rapport so that when the time comes to pitch, you have the decision-maker’s attention.

Key tactic: prepare questions to find common ground

Before the meeting, design a couple “rapport-building” questions to encourage the decision-maker to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about things they feel positively about.

  • Perhaps you know someone in common, and can design a question around that, e.g.: “How did you first meet (friend in common)?”
  • Perhaps you have a hobby or avocation in common. If so, you could design a question around that, e.g.: “I noticed from (print interview) that you like (hobby). What’s your favorite (aspect of hobby)?”
  • If you can’t find anything out at all, you can use some of the tried and true conversation starters, e.g.: “How was your weekend?”

The point is to get to know the decision-maker as a person.

Pitch Meeting Stage 2: Listening

The goal: to show respect for the decision-maker

In Stage 2, your job is to ask good questions and listen. This shows respect for the decision-maker, and earns you more of their attention when the time comes to pitch.

The trap: showing off how smart you are

Superior intelligence can be your worst enemy at this stage of the meeting.

In the next stage, when the time comes to pitch, that’s when you get to share your brilliant ideas. At this stage, your job is to ask questions, listen, and show respect.

If you show off how smart you are in this stage, it may seem like you are in need of attention and approval (the opposite of confidence). As well, if the decision-maker can’t understand what you’re saying, you may make them feel awkward or threatened.

This isn’t about being fake and hiding yourself. It’s about understanding that before you pitch, you want to build rapport (Stage 1) and show respect by listening (Stage 2).

Key tactic: prepare questions to gather information

Get the decision-maker talking, e.g.:

  • “Is there a particular kind of project you’d love to find?”
  • “How is (current project) going?”

Pitch Meeting Stage 3: The Pitch

The goal: to keep the decision-maker’s attention

Stage 3 is where you deliver your prepared pitch.  Even if the decision-maker doesn’t want to buy your project, if you can hold their attention with your pitch, they may want to work with you in some other way.

The trap: “winging it”

Making it up as you go along and hoping things work out is the mark of an amateur.  By the time you get a meeting with a decision-maker who can make something happen, you should have a prepared pitch that you can deliver without referring to notes.

You should have a short pitch as well as a complete pitch ready to go. Your complete pitch is essentially your beat sheet – here are examples of beat sheets for movies.

Key tactic: test your pitch in advance

To succeed in this stage of the meeting, use these three steps to test your pitch before you meet with the decision-maker:

  1. Choose a feedback group. This can be friends, family, other writers, but no gatekeepers or decision-makers. You should have at least six people, ideally none of whom have heard your pitch before.
  2. Rehearse your pitch on audio and ideally on video prior to presenting it to anyone in your feedback group. In my experience, few people like to see themselves on camera, but this is crucial preparation.
  3. Call or meet with people one at a time, pitch them, and try to get answers to the following questions:
  • Did they understand the idea?
  • What elements did they like?
  • What elements did they not like?

Pitch Meeting Stage 4: Q&A

The goal: to deliver great answers to questions

The way to do well in this stage is to anticipate likely questions and prepare answers in advance.

The trap: getting defensive

If the buyer is genuinely interested, you are likely to be asked a number of difficult questions (even trick questions).

It’s likely that they will hone in on the areas where your pitch is weakest. If you get defensive, you lose.  If you can’t handle some difficult questions at this stage, the decision-maker isn’t going to want to send your script to stars, directors, and producers–because they’ll have questions, too.

Key tactic: keep track of what you’re asked

When you’re testing your pitch in advance, listen to what your feedback group asks you.  Every time you’re asked a question about your story, that’s an opportunity for you to prepare a great answer to that question for the next meeting.

Pitch Meeting Stage 5: The Close

The goal: to leave on a positive note

It’s likely that the decision-maker will end the meeting, so you want to be ready for when that happens.  Typically, there is a non-verbal cue that the meeting is over, and your job is to “echo” the cue.

Watch for when the decision-maker:

  • Gets ready to get out of his or her chair
  • Places hands flat on their lap or the table
  • Closes a notebook or a folder

When you see one or more of these non-verbal cues, echo it back by gathering your materials and preparing to leave.

Then, you can engage in a little more rapport building—like a bookend to Stage 1.  The purpose of this isn’t to reignite the conversation, it’s just to end on a personal, positive note. It can be something simple, e.g.:

  • “Tell (common friend) I said hi.”
  • “Thanks again for the tip about Orochan. I’ll check it out!”
The trap: continuing the conversation

When the decision-maker ends the meeting, don’t try to pitch “one more thing.” Don’t ask any more questions. Don’t tell a story.  Just make sure you’ve got everything packed up, prepare to shake hands, and exit the room smoothly.

Key tactic: prepare a specific request (aka, the “Ask”)

You may not need to make a request of the decision-maker. Often, they may say something like, “I’m sending this to my boss today. Keep your phone on.”

However, it’s a good idea to have a request prepared just in case you need it, e.g.:

  • “How should I follow up with you?”
  • “Whom do you recommend I get in touch with?”

Understanding Structure = Confidence

When you understand meeting structure and have prepared tactics for each of the five stages, it looks like you’re poised and confident. And as you accumulate success over time, it doesn’t just look that way—it feels that way, too.

Keep in mind, there is a wide variety in how the five stages can be handled. You may spend more time in one stage than you expect.  But when you know the goal of each stage, the trap to avoid, and the key tactic to use, you’ll be able to confidently handle whatever comes your way.

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63 Comments

  1. Dear Ms. Stephanie Palmer love your tips, but wish you were an agent in the industry so I can pitch or talk to you about all my ideas/outlines/treatments/ etc, because as we’ve heard in the media. I’m not apart of The Hollywood Establishment, but an outsider, but I wish my idea could get me a deal.

    Thanks again, and continue to keep up the good work.

  2. Perhaps not the best profession for introverts home. I had a question though. How many people should be brought into a meeting? Say okay as a screenwriter, say you had some sort of producer partner, manager or agent, or even a marketing Guru? Is it really going to be a thing where it’s one person facing a firing squad of executives? Seems scary

    • If you have a producing partner, typically they would be in the room. But other than that, usually the writer is alone. Your manager, agent and marketing guru can help you prep for the meeting, but typically do not attend.

  3. Once again, great article Stephanie. Two questions for you. 1) My writing partner and I have actually landed a pitch at a studio after lunch with President of Production. We however, are not represented by an agent or manager. Is this okay? 2) If they ask what else we are working on, is it beneficial to talk about other projects of the same genre you have just pitched? Maybe we hear they’re dream is too find a Sci-Fi/Rom-com about teens and we happen to have that, even though we have just pitched them a comedy. I guess, I’m just not sure if people look at Comedy writers for dramas or horror, etc.

    Thanks Stephanie!
    Drew

  4. Hi Stephanie,

    I want to know how can I get a pitch meeting with the executives?

    Thank you.

    P.S: Good article. Your content is very interesting

    • Hi Angel,

      In most cases, pitch meetings happen through referral after you have an established reputation. An agent, manager, producer or executive would recommend you to meet with a potential buyer and set up a meeting. There are also events such as the American Film Market Pitch Conference, Stage 32/Happy Writers Online Pitchfest, Austin Film Festival, and others where you can pay either for an opportunity to pitch or a guaranteed spot to pitch your project.

  5. Hi Stephanie,
    What are at least 3 questions that are asked at a pitch meeting? Can pitching be done at film festival parties? What do you mean by elements that a group may or may not like?

    • Hi Chanel,

      Here are 23 Meeting Questions You Can Expect (I know that is 20 more than you asked for…) While pitching can be done at film festival parties, I do not recommend it. The best thing to do is to meet people, build rapport and then if it feels right, you can ask for a card and followup. You only want to pitch ideas when people have the opportunity to move forward on them and social settings and parties are not appropriate. If you are asked, you can tease with one line about your project, but do not pitch the whole thing.

      Often in a pitch meeting, there will be a dialogue and question and answer. You may get feedback like, “I really don’t understand why the story jumps from a spaceship to a beauty parlor” or “It seems to take a long time to get started.” That is valuable feedback so you can adjust your pitch and project if you start seeing a pattern emerge from the feedback.

  6. Thank you Stephanie — you always have the best information.

    What I’ve found is there are more speckwriters than screenwriters. Too many know how to sell, but not necessarily write. I have a list — one guy gives a class on it.

  7. Stephanie, just found your content through your recent interview with Forbes. I actually had aspirations of being a filmmaker and interned years ago with John Avnet and Jordan Kerner. I’ve since found my calling in the ministry as a pastor. Go figure! :) Just wanted to let you know that your Pitch Meeting Stages translate well into how to build a good sermon to “sell” to a congregation! Just thought you may like to know of yet another (likely unsuspecting) use of your material!

  8. Hi Stephanie, you are truly great at what you do! Thanks for all your incredible advice.
    I was just wondering what you think the ideal time for a whole pitch meeting with a decision maker is? Around 15 minutes perhaps? That would help me figure out how much time I should be spending on each one of these steps, particularly the pitching itself. Thanks a lot!

    • 15 minutes is a good benchmark. I’ve never heard an executive say, “I wish they talked longer.” Typically, a meeting with a producer is 30 minutes to an hour. A meeting with a studio executive is 15 minutes to 45 minutes, but these are rough estimates as it can vary quite widely.

  9. Hi Stephanie,

    I’m wondering what would be the best thing to do if you want to pitch an idea to investors about a reality show? Sell the idea or ask for them as investors?

    • Depends on the situation, but if you can get investors to pay for an initial “proof of concept” reel to be produced, that can increase the odds that someone would purchase the show.

      • Be care about that, though. I have found that a proof-of-concept reel has to be of the highest quality–just the like your final program or final movie will be. Otherwise, investors and distributors are generally *not* able to “see the potential” in something that’s less than perfect (no matter how experienced they may claim to be).

        If you don’t have the money to make a top-notch reel, it’s sometimes better to just have an artist prepare some storyboard art.

  10. Hello Stevie,

    I’m shortly to create a reality series about the vocation I chose in life. I’m sure that reading and using your Five-Step method of pitching will be a large help to me as I proceed with the task of sales of my product. I’m new at this (mistake I’m sure) and I’d like to thank you for your professional insight, I will study and practice it well before approaching decision-makers with my pitch. Thank you again, DeBushwhacker ………

  11. As always, Stephanie, you articles are so helpful. I have had to cancel going to AFM this year as the floods in Colorado have put a damper on preparations. I am still a “displaced person”. I will use this time to hone my pitching skills for the next opportunity.

    • That is completely understandable. The floods have been devastating and I hope things get back to normal for you soon. As for pitching, there will always be future opportunities.

  12. Stephanie, is there a standard time-line that network executives will get back to you with a thumbs up to pilot or no go? In a situation where a network has paid for a trailer it is my understanding they have 1st right to a pilot. If they decide not to pilot, the trailer then goes back to the production company that made it and they can to pitch to other networks if they choose? In a case like this is it customary for a network just to shelf the trailer or do they get back in a standard time line ie 1-2wks 1-2months etc?

    • Typically, you should hear back within a couple of weeks. As my former boss said, “Deals that go slow, don’t go.” It’s rare that a deal goes forward if you haven’t gotten interest pretty quickly after they watched the trailer. Then, after they have passed, either they will shelve it or the rights will revert to the production company.

      • Really, I’m impressed by reading the five pitch stages and the guidence by Hon’ble dignitary Stephnie Palmer. Thanks and hoping for further cooperations,(CineWriter/Director) Liaqat Hussain Khan (New Delhi, India).

    • Follow ups notes can be short and simple. If you have something specific to call back from the meeting like, “I hope you had a great trip to New York” include it in the opening. Then something like, “I really enjoyed meeting with you on [Date]. I’m following up on [Project Name]. Let me know if you have any questions. Thanks, [Your Name]” Include your email and phone number to make it easy on them to reply.

  13. Stephanie: This sounds really helpful. You break down the pitch into understandable components. I want to absorb them so they’ll be part of me… knowing about pitching makes it less scary.

    Joan Kufrin

  14. Thank you so much! A friend told me about this article, it is very helpfull for me at these moments. I will work on every stage. Hugs from Madrid.

  15. Thanks so much Stephanie for the advice on pitching. It’s extremely helpful and something I can refer to when I get the chance to pitch here in South Australia. (Producers here are always too busy, because there’s not enough of them and the ones we have all want to write and produce their own work it seems, hence I’m learning how to produce, when I’d really rather write) Your advice is something I’ll memorise, especially the part about setting up the rapport first as I get nervous and tend to jump in and pitch first. Great advice.

  16. Thanks for this very helpful article! I’m heading out to a pitch and will keep this structure in mind. In sad news, Nozawa closed…

  17. Ralph Winter (Producer of X-Men & Fantastic Four) just recommended this post on FB. Just read this post and found it helpful. If it came from him, it’s gotta be good! Thought you’d like to know ;)

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