Eric Heisserer Tweets About How To Pitch

Over the weekend, writer/director Eric Heisserer (The Thing, Final Destination 5, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hours) tweeted his best pitching advice.

I didn’t want you to miss this terrific first-person account from the writer’s side of the pitching process.

Here’s the transcript. All of this was done in tweets, and all of the words are Eric’s. You can read the whole conversation of 90+ tweets including some advice from other writers on his Twitter feed. To make it easier to read, I’ve compiled the tweets into a blog post format, and I’ve added bold formatting to certain areas, and highlighted certain tweets.

Take it away, Eric!

Let’s make some delineations. There are pitches of original material you invented, and pitches on properties/assignments, two diff beasts. If it’s your own idea and you’re pitching it, that is a crazy steep climb. Because the buyers will wonder why you don’t just write it.

What you need to get in the room with anyone at that point is a super strong script of something else they’ve already loved. Even then, pitching your own ideas first and hoping to get paid to write them is leaving money on the table. Specs = always bigger $$. So with that out of the way, let’s focus on what 90+% of pitching will be for you: Writing assignments.

So there is a writing gig up for grabs out there and you want it. Your agent or manager or friend at the front desk can get you in the room. Or maybe you have a general meeting with the producer and you use that opportunity to say you’re crazy about X and want to pitch them. Sounds silly to mention, but you have to really care about it. You have to know why you want to write this thing vs your own stuff. Even if one of the big reasons is, “I’m terrified someone else will screw it up. I’d rather be the one, if it comes to that.” But what will be your guide from the start is your motivation for this story.

What do you want to say through this particular voice/world? That’s what you lead with. Why is this personal to you, and how does it connect to the character(s) of this property? What is its soul?  This means being able to talk about yourself, sometimes sharing traumatic experiences, with a room full of strangers. Tough. But binding yourself and your passions or fears to a thing increases both your purpose and its value. Producers want that connection. If you’re swinging for something even halfway cool in this town, expect it to be a “bake-off” (lots of writers pitching).

You are not really in the game with the other writers. That is the tragic mistake I used to make. Your big opponent is yourself. Not them. Focus on what you love about the property, be it an adaptation, remake, or sequel. Share what it means to you; what it does so well.

Now here are some really crazy specifics, based on tragic blunders by yours truly. All the preamble talk can be about how you identify with the story, and how that translates, but when you get into the actual pitch… Hit the milestone at around five minutes in and declare it. For me, that’s the “end of act one” moment, but it can be the big sequence, etc. The thing that launches the rest of the movie, whatever that is, gets announced. “That’s our engine for act two.” And here’s why you say it:

Producers/execs have sat through pitches for 20 minutes only to hear the writer say at the end, “That’s the backstory. Now, we open on…” This is one of their horrible fears: That you don’t know where to start pitching. Seed some “mile markers” in your pitch to help everyone know where in the story they are. It’s a great relief to them, trust me.

Next: visual aids. Cards. Posterboard. Maps. Diagrams. All workable. Keep something in mind when using material like this in a pitch… If you put too much on them for your buyers to read, they’ll be reading and not listening to your story. So be visual, not wordy.

Characters in a pitch. Often tricky describing them. Some people love it when you offer casting ideas, so they see the actor in the movie. I can tell you I had a pitch completely crumble on me only because the studio exec HATED an actor I used as my template for the lead. Pow.

Try to avoid: Physical description, unless it’s germane to the story. Don’t bother with that crap, it’s superficial 99% of the time. Instead, think of one behavioral trait that paints a bigger picture of a person. A bad habit. A cute sentimentality. What real people do.  “He’s the kind of guy who rants about the president but never voted.” “Birthdays and holidays are a big deal to her.” That sort of thing.

More hard lessons I’ve the scars to prove: Make it a discussion. Don’t feel it’s a stand-up routine. Let them ask questions. Ask them ones.

I spent way too long making my pitch simply “here are the beats of the story.” That’s not what they want to hear. Crazy, I know.

It can be really… dry. Sadly. Even if the events are really cool. You gotta keep thinking to yourself, “How does this moment make me FEEL?” And share THAT with your buyers in the room. So in a weird way, it’s almost like telling someone about a crazy thing you just lived through. Yourself.

To get all chart-y, it helps to go between very specific details and broad strokes. Give me two mental photographs then talk subtext.  Show me the plumbing of the pitch. Don’t go into detail the HOW of that epic shootout, but the WHY of it.  The more I understand what’s in the walls of the house you’re describing, the less I worry about the decorations.  Just dip into some really great bit of description now and then so I get eye candy, and feel the movie you see. A little goes a long way. And the more you talk about the main characters, the better.

If it’s a sequel, the question in their minds is “Will [star] love this?” This is a multi-tier process. You don’t start by pitching to the top decision-maker. You will be pitching the same thing again and again to people at increasingly higher levels, all who want to hear what you told the others.  You’re like Bruce Lee in GAME OF DEATH pitching to get to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And because you’ll be pitching it a lot, practice it a lot. Get it down to fifteen minutes or less. Leave a ton of room for Q&A.

Make it shorter than you think it should be, they can always ask you follow-ups. Sometimes you’ll get the sense that the people you pitch to will simply re-pitch your story to their boss. Try to avoid that. How? End the meetings by saying you’d love to get back in the room and pitch to anyone else who needs to hear it. Be direct with them. Won’t always work but if you ask that to their faces you can come back and help keep the pitch’s integrity vs a bad translation by execs.

Next up: References and inside language. You know what can save your hide? A little homework on what movies/TV/lit the exec loves.  Find out (thru your reps or your own questions in a call/mtg) what posters they hang on their walls. What they couldn’t put down at home.  That helps you to know what shorthand to build into your pitch. Not to pander to them, but to give them emotional anchors to your story.

It’s tough. It’s also the job. Don’t be hard on yourself afterward. Practice pushing through social awkwardness in non-pitch scenarios. At parties. With friends.

As scary as it may be to put your heart on your sleeve and say, “This is me, this is my heart in this story,” talent does this all the time.  We are the first to do it, but then we’re telling people to follow our footsteps. The director does the same dance, to slightly diff music. Actors REALLY do it, in an all-in kind of way that still boggles my mind. And they’re relying on your commitment from way back. Okay, with those trial-by-fire lessons learned, I’ll end with this, my worst pitching horror stories:

Yeah, that was a moment of humiliation right there.

I once pitched on a comic book adaptation using other successful CB movies as touchstones. Their reply at end: “That won’t win us Oscars.”

I once pitched to someone at Smokehouse Pics and mid-pitch was interrupted by GEORGE EFFING CLOONEY, totally wiped my brain.

Once, my only way to crack a tough property and make it personal was by putting it in a very different setting. So I start my windup…

ME: “We open in [setting].”
EXEC: “I hate that setting. Next?”
ME: *crushed silence*

And let me reiterate: There are as many ways to work in this business as there are writers. But these are my lessons based on my path.

And in my experience, feature pitching is all about writing assignments. (TV writing is a different ballgame.)

I pitched and sold an original idea to a studio that then got warped and twisted into something else. That can happen. It has happened. It will happen. You have to keep swinging and act as if it won’t happen again to you. Okay, I just gave myself PTSD from those horror stories and have to go lie down for a spell. Have a great day, you gorgeous monsters.

Follow @HIGHzurrer and thank him for sharing his expertise.  You can also purchase his Kindle book 150 Screenwriting Challenges.  Thanks, Eric!

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Discussion About Eric Heisserer Tweets About How To Pitch

  1. david

    that was awesome – thank you….

  2. Wanda Kight

    Thanks, very helpful. Bottom line is make it emotional and personal. Reach for their emotional core and explain why others will care about the protagonist and story.