In a recent “Scriptnotes” podcast, screenwriters John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Titan A.E., Charlie and Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, Superhero Movie, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie 4) talk about pitching in a detailed way, and I wanted to highlight some of their excellent advice.
John August Works At Pitching
1. Even For John August Pitching Can Be Difficult
John: I really want to talk about pitching, because I have a new project that I’m taking out and pitching this week, and it’s actually been really kind of fun. And when I first started out doing this crazy thing of screenwriting, pitching was by far my least favorite part. I would get completely nervous. I’d freak out the night before and I was like sort of rewriting it and trying to figure out how much I wrote down beforehand and how much I was sort of delivering a canned performance versus sort of making it feel extemporaneous and free.
It takes time and practice to learn to pitch well and feel comfortable doing it. However, one technique you can use right away is to have a meeting strategy. Specifically, it’s important to know when to deliver your prepared performance and when you are expected to improvise.
2. The Pitch Is A Sales Tool
John: I always describe a pitch as imagining you just saw a great movie and you wanted to tell your best friend they had to see the movie…. A pitch isn’t going to lay out every beat that happens, exactly how it happens. You’re sort of going to give them the highlight reel. It’s sort of almost like a trailer for what your project is…. It’s just giving them the sense of, like, “This is what the movie feels like.” If they were sitting there watching the trailer, this is the experience they’d get.
Your pitch is not an abbreviated version of your story. Your pitch is based on your story; it represents your story; but it is not the same thing. Your pitch should focus on the key selling points of your project from the listener’s perspective. This means considering what motivates the person listening to your pitch and customizing accordingly.
3. Communicate Your Passion And Expertise
Craig: I like to introduce things by saying, “This is why I’ve always wanted to write a movie like this.” Or, “This is what I’m interested in.” I want to put the story I’m telling in the context of a personal passion, because I just think that immediately dispels [the] stink in the room. And the stink is cynicism, because when somebody’s coming into pitch, they’re there to sell you something. They’re knocking on your door with a vacuum cleaner set and they want to sell you something. And everybody knows it and it’s a little bit cynical. And I like to kind of broom that stink out by saying, “Yes, sure, I’m here to sell you vacuum, but actually this is emotional for me, and here’s why.” Even for a comedy. There’s something at the core of it that matters to me.
Often, the explanation of the genesis of your story comes up later in the meeting, when you might be asked, “How did you come up with this idea?” Craig likes to open his pitch this way, and this works well when the person pitching embodies the target market in some way, or, as Craig says, when there is a “cynical stink” in the room.
4. Anticipate Likely Questions
John: You have to really look at it from their perspective…. Like, what is the next question they’re going to ask. You have to sort of anticipate, “Well, they’re going to ask me a question about this now,” and so you need to be able to answer that question.
Craig: Yeah. And this requires some practice. It’s a good thing to pitch to somebody and just have them stop you every time they get confused, lost, or bored.
Yes! Getting interrupted by questions is a great sign–if they weren’t interested, they wouldn’t bother.
Your ability to answer questions is important because “Q&A” is how the decision-maker tests the strength of your ideas and your professional abilities.
5. Customize To The Context And The Listener(s)
Craig: Every room is different…. And the secret to talking to people, and that’s what pitching is, is listening. And the first thing I do, just automatically when I go in to pitch something is I just listen for a moment to what the room sounds like. Is it a quiet room? Is it an amped up room? Is it a feminine room, a masculine room? Is it bored? Is it ready? Is it receptive? Is it scared? Just read the room and adjust.
Listening and reading the room is the mark of the confident professional. It’s an approach to pitching that’s more “pull” than “push.” To make it work, however, have different versions of your pitch at the ready so you can shape your pitch on the fly.
6. Build Rapport Before You Pitch
John: That’s why those first three or four minutes of just nonsense chit chat are actually really important for just establishing a baseline for what the room feel like. If you have to come in and like, “Okay, go. Start pitching,” you’re not going to likely have a good outcome. But if you have those little like, you know, “So what did you see?” “What are you working on?” “Oh, where did you get this trinket on your coffee table?” Those kind of things can be a huge help in getting you set or going.
The small-talk “chit chat” phase is the first stage of just about every pitch meeting. It’s important because decision-makers want to work with people they like and trust. You want to build rapport so that when the time comes to pitch, you have the decision-maker’s attention.
Even Top Pros Prepare For A Pitch
Notice how August and Mazin, even though they are experienced professionals with successful credits, don’t “wing it” in the meeting. They prepare what they’ll say in advance—and where they’ll improvise. They read the room, customize their pitch to the listeners, and plan for questions.
It’s not just that they are great writers—they’re also good in a room.
Congrats to John August for selling “Chosen” to ABC!