Pitch Meeting Structure Used By Hollywood Professionals

A pitch meeting is where a screenwriter presents a story for a film or TV project to a decision-maker such as an agent, producer, director, star, or executive.

The Pitch Meeting – Overview

If you want to know how to handle a pitch meeting, you’re probably a more advanced writer.

Typically, you don’t have a pitch meeting until you’ve:

That said, learning how to handle a pitch meeting is a good skill for anyone to have.

That’s because pitch meetings in Hollywood are a lot like sales meetings in other industries.

We’re going to focus on Hollywood, but if you sell in any industry, the pitch meeting structure pertains and can help you sell more effectively.

The Pitch Meeting Has A (Hidden) Structure

In the beginning….

Stories were fun. You didn’t know how they “worked.” You may have thought that action blockbusters, classic romantic comedies, and gritty independent films had little in common.

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

Pitch meetings also have structure.

Just as a screenplay is structured in three acts, a pitch meeting has five stages.

The Pitch Meeting Happens 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 Structure Used By Hollywood Pros InfographicPitch 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. 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.

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.

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.

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

pitch meeting structure example Johnny Depp in Ed WoodThe 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 short pitch as well as a complete pitch that you can deliver without referring to notes.

Key tactic: test your pitch in advance

To succeed in this stage of the meeting, test your pitch before you meet with the decision-maker.

Test your pitch on friends, family, other writers, but no gatekeepers or decision-makers. You should have at least six people in your feedback group, ideally all of whom are in your target market, but none of whom have heard your pitch before.

Pitch Meeting Stage 4: Q&A

The goal: to deliver great answers to questions

The way to do well in Stage 4 is to anticipate likely questions and prepare answers in advance.

The trap: getting defensive

If the decision-maker is genuinely interested, you are likely to be asked a number of difficult questions. 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 Sugarfish. 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?”

Pitch Meeting 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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Discussion About Pitch Meeting Structure Used By Hollywood Professionals

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    […] 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 […]

  2. Douglas Westfall

    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.

  3. Chanel

    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?

    • Stephanie Palmer

      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.

  4. Dan Moriarty

    What do you have against donkey balls; sounds politically correct?

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  7. Angel

    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

    • Stephanie Palmer

      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.

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  9. Drew

    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

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