Fear the Pitch... and Do It Anyway
August 19, 2020
Most screenwriters will tell you that pitching is their least favorite part of the job. Sure, there may be one or two who claim to find the experience fun, but they are most definitely in the minority. What all screenwriters will agree on is that pitching is a part of the job you need to be able to do. It’s unavoidable. Once you reach a certain level of success, you have to do it.
Yet pitching also seems to be the very antithesis of what a writer wants to do, which is hide away and write; express themselves through words on the page, not words in the air. Granted, being asked to pitch something is a good ‘problem’ to have; it means people are interested in you and your work. But this doesn’t make the process any easier, or something you will look forward to. There are ways to quell the anxiety so it’s a less painful experience, though.
I would argue that most producers and executives are very aware that pitching makes writers nervous. They know that telling a story verbally may not be ‘natural’ for a writer. So if you’re a little nervous, they will understand. This also means you don’t have to tell them you’re nervous; verbalizing this is a surefire way to make everyone in the room nervous. There is also an expectation of professionalism. If you had to give a presentation in a corporate environment, you probably wouldn’t start off by saying you were nervous. The same stands here; movies are creative, but they are also a business, and announcing to the room that you are a ‘creative type’ who would rather be at home writing will set the wrong tone. So feel your nervousness, know that they may feel it too, and then get to what you’re there for: The pitch.
In my experience, producers and executives know pretty fast whether they want to buy or develop something. They feel it in their gut. Even if they don’t like some of the story beats; if the overall concept is appealing to them, you’ll probably get a yes because they can always smooth out the particulars of the narrative later on. So in many ways, whether you are going to sell what you are pitching is a fait accompli. The studio is either looking for what you’re selling or they’re not. You could deliver the most perfect, heartfelt, moving pitch in the history of Hollywood; but if the studio doesn’t want another Western, or they already have a Western that’s similar in development, you’re going to get a pass.
On the other side of things, you could deliver a sweaty, nervous, incomplete pitch where you forget some of the plot points or tell some things out of order, but if it’s a hot concept and just what they’re looking for, you’ll get a yes. So in some ways, knowing this takes some of the nervousness out of going into the pitch. They either want what you’re selling or they don’t; and even if you mess it up, if it’s as hot a concept as you think it is, they’re probably gonna take it (I say probably because as screenwriter William Goldman famously stated, in Hollywood nobody knows anything).
If you know your basic concept, the major beats and what makes the story a hot property, and that’s all you get across, then you’ll have achieved what you were there to do. If you forget some of the details, that’s okay, as long as the broad strokes are there.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t prepare extensively for a pitch; of course you should. But you also shouldn’t be hard on yourself if in the heat of the room you forget something or start to feel panicked. It’s a high-stakes place. It’s natural to be nervous. For me, the best pitches feel more like conversations. There’s a casualness to it that doesn’t feel like a hard sell.
There’s more of a discussion and a back and forth, rather than the writer just running down every plot point beat for beat, breathlessly. The pitch feels organic, like you’re talking to a friend about a project you’re really excited about. But sometimes you won’t get the perfect pitch environment, and that’s okay. The same lesson still stands; if they really want it, they will buy it — even if you mess it up a little bit.
It may be that you never get to the point where you enjoy pitching, and that’s okay. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to like doing something that you really don’t. Sure, it would be easier if you liked doing it, but life isn’t easy and screenwriting is anything but. Susan Jeffers wrote a great book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, which teaches you that it’s okay to be scared of something, as long as it doesn’t stop you from doing that thing.
You can be scared to pitch every single time; as long as you still go ahead with it, you are making strides toward lessening that fear, and you are getting it done. You are being a screenwriter, and at the end of the day, nothing beats that post-pitch high where you can say, “Thank God that’s over with … until the next time.”
Written by: Kathy CharlesKathy Charles is a Los Angeles based screenwriter. Her screenplay THE KINGS OF MAINE appeared on the 2016 Hit List and Black List.