Can anyone really sell a screenplay in Hollywood without having a family member in the industry? Could there be a secret weapon to sell your screenplay? Is the screenplay pitch the dealmaker? Is pitching at an organized pitch event the way to go?
Pitching — the process where a screenwriter has about three to seven minutes of an initial decision maker’s attention to sell a script or idea — is an art, a skill, a part of the craft. Pitching, if you are to believe the purveyors of training courses, can be both taught and learned. Pitching is, in essence, sales, and sales is part natural inclination and part training. But is pitching a script the same thing as pitching a new Prius? In my experience no, not really; scripts aren’t environmentally popular and a Prius is a thing produced in exactly the same way, time and time again. Scripts are special creatures, a one-time occurrence. The buyer tends to either not care about it, or hate it, or much less often love it.
Let me describe the three pitch events I have attended. By the way, they don’t call them events — that is poor salesmanship — they call them fests. My main experience in pitching is Screenwriting Expo’s Golden Pitch Festival produced by Creative Screenwriting Magazine. The Expo isn’t just a pitchfest, it is a gathering of real screenwriters by the ton (those who have one or more screenplays in hand and hope to interest others), wannabe writers of whom there are probably even more tons (I consider a wannabe someone who has started but hasn’t finished a script and can’t be fairly considered to pitch, because pitching an unfinished first script is an idea only slightly better than, oh, say, paying your taxes with Monopoly money), and then there are those who are just thinking about screenplays, or like having beers and lattes with people who love the movies, or at least writing them.
The first step is to register for a pitchfest. This process is covered fairly completely at the Expo web site and I won’t go into detail here (but if you're interested, you can find them at the Expo's website). The next step to pitching was done on my home computer. I was faced with the confusing process of selecting the companies I wanted to pitch to and buying the tickets to do my pitches. I didn’t have much information to go on when picking the companies for the first Expo. I surfed the Internet as much as possible, but at the time there wasn’t much to go on. So, I hit the sites I could, took the information provided by the Expo, and selected 15 to pitch to. Today there is a significantly greater amount of accessible information about what production companies are seeking which types of screenplays. When the time came to use the system to buy the tickets (every time I attended the Expo) there were serious issues that got in the way of me getting my first choice. Many of those issues have been managed but the process was very trying.
Finally, I arrived at the Expo with great expectations. You just can’t pitch if you aren’t positive and I was as positive as possible. The actual process of pitching was almost designed to remove that hope. Pitch people herd into the staging area to hear the calls of the next group scheduled to pitch. They peer at boards that list where the company they are pitching to is located in the dozens upon dozens of tables. As the pitch people get closer to the launching space, you can feel the stress, fear, and nerves gathering the necessary energy to produce a really top drawer flop sweat. It is a veritable bouillabaisse of genetic hope and despair to watch. The second year I pitched, I thought it would all make a very compelling movie.
I stood in the launch area and watched a hundred rituals of luck and nerve as everyone filed closer to the mound and a chance to throw the perfect pitch. I call it the launching zone because everyone crowds around and you have a scant few minutes, I mean five minutes, to find your table seat, introduce yourself, pitch your first script, find out they don’t want that, do half a pitch on your second script, and try to get that poor soul trapped in his or her own form of pitch hell to want to give his or her contact information to you, the last person in the world they want at their desk. Add another negative; they know you are a beginner, so the predisposition in their mind is something like "AAARRRGGGGHHH…" The odds are so stacked against you.
The thing is, the folks on the other side of the table desperately want the next great screenplay like they want oxygen; however, they have to listen to hundreds of terrible ideas and bad pitches to find that one nugget of Oscar gold. It is a nightmare for all involved.
Pitching sucks on both sides of the table, but on the production side, at least they have the keys to the castle – or at least the vestibule – of the kingdom. Their greatest need is to find the next great script; their fear is the success of a script they passed. Lucky for them, the chances of passing on the next great script is very small, especially at a pitchfest full of newbies. For the writer who has spent somewhere between months and years on a quest to birth a fabulous script, those on the other side of the table are the first “No” hurdle. Afterwards, the just-finished new pitch pros scoot from the big room and make quick notes to themselves trying to remember the name of the guy they just pitched to (was it Gary or Larry, damn, I can look that up on the Internet — I hope).
So why even do a pitchfest? For the magical phrase, “Let me give you my personal email, send me your stuff right away and remind me who you were, I get too many pitches to remember. Can’t wait to hear from you.” Seconds after that statement you will see the production company person’s eyes glaze over with the knowledge that more pain is walking over as the bell dings for change of pitchers.
My first year I had nine out of ten requests for information; I later learned that was unheard of success. My second time pitching I had twelve out of fifteen. I pitch well. Each evening, I and my new pitch and expo buddies hit the parties and drank ourselves funny. At least we thought we were. We shared experiences, bonded, and shared the essence of being a writer; more specifically, a screenwriter. We all gloried in those moments, shared plot ideas, helped those who were struggling and generally loving what we do as a hobby and craft.
After more than too much alcohol we all head home do follow-ups, send scripts, or some type of synopsis, and eagerly wait for the next step in selling our script. The thing is, by my measure, it just doesn’t really work. No, that can’t be — doesn’t work? Well, what are your odds? Most people do well with between 10% and 40% of their pitches. Even those requests for synopsis or scripts practically never end up in a script being sold. A review of the press releases for every Expo don’t, as best I can find, tell the story of even one pitched script being produced and put on a screen. Now clearly I could be wrong, I don’t know everything pitched or made, but I also don’t know anyone who has a check from a pitchfest.
What I do know writers get from the pitchfest are new friends, people who share an interest, and a great group of parties where they get to share their success and loss. This is where the writer who is pitching gets to take a risk, jump out of the plane, live to tell about it, and have an amazing experience in an environment where they are not likely to win, but they still try. That in itself is worth the price of admission and that is where the real story is and the great short movie could be written.
Next year I will be at the Expo pitchfest yet again, but this time with no pressure, because I am there to make friends, to have fun, and if the planets align, maybe sell a script. I might even try to double up and do the Screenwriting Expo pitchfest as well as the Great American Pitchfest. Regardless, I know that no matter what doesn’t sell, it is more than worth the price of admission.