This past weekend, I joined a nervous but excited group of nearly 300 writers and artists who descended on the Burbank Marriott to hob-nob with another group of nearly 100 not-so-nervous producers and agents, in an annual event that’s been dubbed the Great American Pitchfest. Gatherings like this are held around the country, but this is the Momma of Pitchfests, and it showed in the finely-tuned organization and broad talent-representation on display over the weekend.
While it’s far from cheap (I shelled out nearly $400 for registration and several ala carte options), it was a worthwhile investment regardless of what happens in my follow-up. To sit across the table from a living person you can lock eyes with is certainly an improvement over a cold call or lonely query letter. And the opportunity to practice a valuable life skill – being able to sell yourself and your project in a short period of time – is invaluable.
Here’s are a few quick takeaways from the weekend.
You gotta be able to pitch.
Let’s face it – as much as an artist might prefer to hang out in their office or studio and make art, unless you can connect your art to an audience (good), who might then invest in your art (better), so that you might make a living at art (best), the reach of your art will be limited. For many, that’s more than fine, for they do it for the pleasure of doing it. The joy is in the journey. But if you hope for more, then pitching must become a way of life.
Christian media guru Phil Cooke calls pitching “making your dream someone else’s dream”. I found that description helpful each time I charged into the Marriott ballroom, like a Marine taking Guam, for my next 5-minute sitdown with an unknown gatekeeper. These agents and executives weren’t there for their health. But neither were they there for the purpose of making sure emerging talent never breaks through. The entertainment world is looking for content – we are the content-providers, and they are the content-solicitors. It’s the search for a needle-in-a-haystack, but that’s how the circulatory system of Hollywood – and in fact every business works.
My wife Janis wants to help set up therapeutic horse-riding centers in the San Gabriel valley. She must learn to pitch – and make her dream become other’s people’s dream. If you can’t get the word out about your product or your plan, then you’ll be stopped before you begin. If a tree falls in the forest…
You gotta be able to pitch quickly.
Five minutes were all we were given for each pitch, and an over-sized countdown clock in the corner kept it’s watchful eye on us. “Feels like speed-dating,” I heard someone say. No sense protesting how unfair that is. This is life. Commercials or radio ads have 30 seconds to buy your interest. Scriptwriters have it drilled into them ad nauseum, “Make your first ten pages crackle!” The best sermons catch your attention quickly and don’t let go. When you shop, you’re making split-second decisions based on a few short looks. If the first few seconds hook you, then you pick up the book and turn it over in your hand to see how the backcopy reads. If that piques your interest, then you crack open the book and skim a page or two. The longer interaction is birthed from the pitch. Most every decision we make in life works that way, from choosing a spouse to what TV shows you watch.
You gotta be able to master your pitch, then be willing to adjust it.
I wrote out pitches for each of my projects, with multiple versions for each: the 15-second hook (ye-‘ole ‘elevator’ pitch), the 1-minute pitch, then a 3-5 minute pitches. Then I worked my darndest to memorize them. Not so that I could woodenly regurgitate them to a bored executive. But so that I could engage that executive should he or she start asking questions. The reason a musician drills the scales into his brain and fingers, is so that when it’s time to jam, his free-flowing fingers have a safe place to return to if need be. My worst pitches were like recital pieces where I played the notes straight out. The best pitches were like a jazz riff where I could let go of the sheet music because it was in my heart.
To be successful, you must see yourself as part of a pitching team.
The work doesn’t stop with an agent or producer saying to you, “Send me your script.” Sure, go celebrate, but make sure it’s just a small cone. Save the sundae for later. Because now that person, should they like your work, must pitch it to their connections, and they in turn must pitch it up to their circle. This is especially true in Hollywood where a dizzying labyrinth of producers, and financiers and executives must be navigated for you to enter Valhalla. All this to say, get over your grousing about this part of being an artist.
Or you’ll end up just like the great painter Reginald Makalowski. Haven’t heard of him? That’s ‘cuz he never learned to pitch.