One of the toughest parts of being a screenwriter is… well… much of it doesn’t involve actual writing. Unlike being a poet or a novelist, much of writing for film and TV involves walking into a room and being social, whether it’s pitching a movie to a producer of throwing around jokes in a sitcom writers room. And for many writers, this is one of the toughest parts of the job… after all, we’re writers, not salesmen… our job is to write, not schmooze and sell. But sell we must, and pitching is an integral part of the gig.
Fortunately, today’s special guest is someone who can help… my friend Stephanie Palmer, one of the industry’s foremost experts and coaches on the art and craft of pitching. Stephanie spent several years working in feature development, where she was on the frontlines reading and acquiring books, articles, submissions, and pitches… first at Jerry Bruckheimer Films, where she worked on Con Air, Armageddon, and Enemy of the State… and then as Director of Creative Affairs at MGM Pictures, where she was instrumental in the development of movies like Mad Money, 21, Be Cool, Legally Blonde, Sleepover, A Guy Thing, Good
Boy, Agent Cody Banks and Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London. (She got her start interning on James Cameron‘s Titanic, which I mention because– I’m not afraid to admit it– I love that movie.)
Now Stephanie has her own company, Good In A Room, which coaches professional writers and directors on selling spec scripts, setting up TV shows, landing directing jobs, and securing financing for indie films. Her first book, Good in a Room: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas and Win Over Any Audience, comes out next week, and she also serves as an advisor for the American Screenwriting Association, Carnegie Mellon University’s Masters of Entertainment Industry Management Program, and the Producing Program at UCLA.
So I sat down with Stephanie to pick her brain on the ins and outs of pitching. Here’s what she had to say…
As a writer, why is it important to be “good in a room?” I mean, writers write. They sit in a room, usually by themselves, and put words on paper. What do they have to do that’s social? When, where, and why do they need to be “good in a room?”
In the past, great writers had the luxury of getting exclusive offers for projects. If they wanted to do it, they were hired. But that is rarely the case today. I have been lucky enough to consult for many Oscar and Emmy award-winning and nominated writers, and these days, even creative professionals in this top tier must meet with producers, network and studio executives to pitch themselves and their ideas.
As you know, meetings happen in a wide variety of places. Writers need to have solid meeting skills for a formal pitch in the executive’s office, the casual meeting over a meal, and the chance encounters at events like a mutual friend’s birthday party. Being good in a room means that you have an overall strategy for how you’re going to be successful and specific tactics for many different situations.
What are the 3 biggest personal hindrances or bumps that keep writers from being good in a room? In other words, having worked with writers from both sides of the table, what are the 3 most common recurring habits do you see that keep them from good in a room? Then, how can writers get around these 3 bumps or hindrances? What are some practical, tangible things writers can do to get around these common habits and bumps?
That’s tough. There are a lot of different kinds of mistakes, and some of them are very subtle. However, if I had to choose the top three mistakes writers make, they would be:
-Thinking that they can “wing it”
-Not practicing their pitch out loud
-Including too much detail
To get around these three issues, I recommend preparing for meetings by researching the people with whom you are meeting. Know what they’ve worked on in the past, what they are currently working on, and how any of these projects relate to your idea.
Then, use a digital audio recorder to practice your pitch out loud. Pay careful attention to your pacing, inflection, and the amount of time it takes you to pitch. You’ll probably notice that sometimes, what looks good on the page doesn’t sound so good when spoken out loud. As a rule, a spoken sentence should contain a maximum of three ideas to ensure that the listener can follow the narrative thread.
Finally, break out the red pen and edit your pitch rigorously. Executives hear a lot of pitches, so focus on the hottest and most compelling aspects of your idea and keep it short. The more you say, the less they hear.
One of the obvious times when it’s important to be good in a room is during a pitch, when a writer is on stage, presenting his TV or movie idea. Forget the quality of the idea itself… what are the most important factors of a successful pitch? What should a writer focus on, and how should he prepare, so he can be as good as possible in the room during that meeting?
This is a tough question because so much of what a writer does to be good in the room happens before he or she walks through the door. Prior to actually delivering the pitch, a writer (ideally) should follow these steps:
1. Identify what you have (research and get feedback on your work)
2. Craft the pitch (write, rewrite and practice your verbal pitch)
3. Position yourself (design your first impression so you “represent” your idea)
4. Pick your targets (create a list of people who have bought similar material)
5. Choose a vector (determine the best route to get into the right rooms)
6. Have the meeting (deliver the pitch at the right time and in the right way)
I know that’s a lot to digest, but my point is that when you say, “ignoring the quality of the idea…,” I don’t think this can be done. In the same way that the script is the DNA of the produced movie, the quality of the idea is the core element of the pitch. That’s why Step #1: Identify what you have, is so important. It is impossible to write a good pitch unless you have done the research on comparative projects and gotten useful feedback on your work. Step #2: Craft the pitch builds on the information you discover in Step #1, Step #3 builds on Step #2 and so forth down the line.
By the time a writer is at Step #6: Have the meeting, a lot of the heavy lifting has been accomplished. This is why even nervous, introverted writers can pitch well. You don’t have to be naturally sociable with a charismatic personality (though it helps) if you know what you have, who wants it, and how to explain to them why they should buy it.
Let’s say a writer is preparing for a pitch meeting. He knows he has a great idea—he’s not worried about that. He’s also very sociable with a great personality. In other words, he’s naturally good in a room—so he’s not worried about that. But… what are the top 3 things that could happen in a pitch meeting that most writers don’t expect? If a writer—even one who’s good in a room—is going to be ambushed by something during a pitch, what are the 3 things it will most likely be (certain questions, interruptions, exec personalities, etc.)
And the follow-up question… how should writers handle those situations? How can they prepare in case one of those things does crop up? And what do they do in the moment?
Great question. Three things that writers tend not to expect are:
Executives will sometimes play devil’s advocate and grill a writer past the point of what seems necessary. This is partly because the executive may be expecting to receive a similarly rigorous interrogation if they take your idea to their colleagues and superiors. Also, sometimes executives want to know if a writer can handle themselves. Making a movie is a difficult process, and if you can’t handle some tough, even annoying questions, you’re not someon
e the executive can count on.
The way to handle this is to always keep your cool. Don’t get provoked, and don’t let the executive’s tone throw you off. Just answer the content of the questions and stay calm.
As an example, executives will often ask, “What are your ideas about casting?” They do this for two reasons. First, whether they care about your casting ideas or not, it doesn’t hurt them to be polite in this way. Second, it’s a subtle trap. If you insist that there’s only one person who can play the lead role, and especially if that one person is a washed-up TV actor or actress who no one has seen in a decade, you’re out of the running.
Here’s how to handle this situation: prepare to mention a couple of well-known stars and well-regarded independent film stars and then turn the question back to the executive, e.g., “I think George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Javier Bardem or Gerard Butler would be great, but I’m open. Who do you think would be right for the part?”
The idea is to stick with what you know: the story. Questions you get about casting, budget, production schedules or anything else that isn’t the story are traps. Your job is to provide an answer that doesn’t look like a dodge, then turn the question back to the executive. All issues related to producing the script are their bailiwick. You can avoid the traps by sticking to your home turf.
Some writers expect to have the executive’s full attention during the meeting, and feel that any interruption is disrespectful. However, when the buyer’s phone rings, their assistant enters the room, or another type of interruption occurs, this is not a personal slight. This reflects the simple reality that anything that is a speculative project is a lower priority than a project that is actually in progress.
When you’re interrupted, this is the technique I recommend:
1. Give the buyer some space. Stay in the room and remove your attention from the buyer if that’s appropriate. You can busy yourself with your waiting room materials.
2. If appropriate, give the buyer some more space. Offer to step outside the room or even to come back another time.
3. Provide a summary. When the interruption is over, recap what’s happened so far. An effective summary reinforces your message and demonstrates your competence.
Tell me about Good In A Room. How did it start… and what is it?
Okay, Chad—you want the genesis story? Here it is:
During my time as a studio executive at MGM, I had over three thousand
pitch meetings where writers, directors, stars and producers would try
to persuade me to buy their ideas. Most of the time, ideas are pitched
poorly. However, there are some people who succeed all the time.
Over a period of years, I paid attention to what worked and what
didn’t. I identified the techniques that were being used in all of the
successful meetings—regardless of who was pitching. I also found a
considerable number of ways that the person pitching could break the
deal, often without knowing it.
A turning point for me was when I met a writer named Mike. He had a
high school comedy with a unique angle, but his pitch was a disaster.
Ordinarily I would just pass on his project, but I was frustrated with
the quality of the movies we were making and I didn’t want to send his
great script back to the slush-pile. So I coached Mike on how to
perform in each stage of the meeting and told him exactly what to say
when my boss asked, “So, what’s your project about?”
Mike pitched his idea beautifully and it sold right there in the room.
Afterward, he told me that he’d been staying on his brother’s couch for
the last three months and was preparing to move back in with his
parents. With this one sale, his career was on an entirely new
trajectory. And for me, in a job where so much of my time was spent
surviving cutthroat politics and producing mediocre ideas, helping Mike
succeed was really gratifying for me. I realized then that I wanted to
focus on pitching, not production.
A year later, I left my executive job and started my company, called
Good In A Room, to help writers and directors with quality ideas get
the attention and financing they deserve.
You have a book coming out—Good In A Room—which not only helps writers become good in a room… it uses Hollywood examples and techniques to help people in other careers, even in corporate America, learn to be good in a room. I think this is incredibly valuable… and (with a wife who works in corporate America) I completely understand many of the things corporate America could learn from the more laid-back, creativity-focused culture of Hollywood. So here’s the question… what can Hollywood, especially writers, learn from corporate America about being good in a room?
The key lesson creative people can take from corporate America is to treat their work like a business. Take notes about who you met and what was talked about, and maintain an ongoing database of your business relationships. Create a development slate for your work and update it frequently with all of your new ideas. Guard your time and manage it well to maximize your productivity.
Finally, follow up. There were so many times that I’d be interested in working with a writer (just not in their current project), and I would ask them to follow up with me in a month and let me know what was going on. Less than one in ten ever did—and they were much more likely to sell their projects or be hired for rewrite work.
This has been great, Stephanie– thanks so much for taking the time to chat.
Chad, thanks so much for having me on your blog. Best of luck to you and your readers!