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Outwit, Outplay, Outlast: How To Be a Pitchfest Survivor

By Kathie Fong Yoneda

As the weather warms up and everyone’s mailed off their taxes, writers start looking at their calendar in anticipation of -- PITCHFEST SEASON! Whether you’ve written a screenplay or novel, writers are all too aware that most of these events are held between May – November.

And while you’ve spent all winter polishing up your projects in anticipation of attending one or more of these events, are you prepared to survive the challenge of pitching to the movers and shakers of Hollywood and/or the editors and agents of the publishing world?

Here are suggestions for making the most of your valuable time while at a pitchfest or conference.

OUTWIT: Be organized

  • A week before the confab, go to the event’s website. There will be a list of the agents, editors, producers and execs who will be taking pitches. Also, most events have a list of past companies who may be regular participants. Some websites include credits associated with each participant. Let Google, Hollywood Creative Directory or IMDB.com help you obtain additional information -- types of genres produced/published, high or low budget films, acting/directing talent they’ve used more than once, any “first-look” deal with a particular studio/distributor, etc.
  • Prioritize a list of companies/persons you feel are best suited for each of your projects (yes, that’s projects with an “s”…we’ll discuss that later in the article). Although everyone dreams that a big-name production company with a first-look deal at a major studio will buy their project, it’s best to rethink your strategy if your project is a low-budget indie film which might be a best for a boutique production company with a track record of doing smaller films and finding distribution for them.
  • Be sure you have a selling logline for anyone who asks, “What’s your project about?” Don’t be shy – try out your logline on other attendees. First off, it’s good practice, and secondly, if you strike up a friendship with your fellow writers, they just might pass along helpful information – perhaps a company they pitched to is looking for more comedies or just closed a deal with a director who might be ideal for your project.
  • Be sure you have a Pitch on Paper – a one-page document with a logline and brief synopsis of your project. A one-pager of your novel manuscript is also a recommended document to have at a conference. Whether your meeting is with a Hollywood film/TV contact or an editor/agent from the publishing world, at the end of a long day of listening to pitches, it’s helpful for them to have a document with the basic information on your project. Use your best judgment: if the person you’re pitching to seems genuinely interested, then leave your Pitch on Paper as you thank them for taking the time to listen to your pitch. If they seem merely polite, you can save the one-pager for your next pitch.
  • Once the pitching segments begin, consider pitching to the smaller companies or publishing houses for the first hour. Most people will form long lines for the Big Dogs. After the first hour, you’ll have had the opportunity to pitch to at least 4 or 5 companies before waiting in the longer line.
  • While having a dozen plus copies of your one-pagers doesn’t take up much room in your suitcase, veteran pitchfest/conference attendees have discovered that bringing a flash drive containing files of their screenplays or manuscript is a great option. If an agent, editor, exec or producer asks for your material, ask for their business card (or how you can reach them) and let them know you’ll send the material in the next few days. For most people listening to pitches, ending the day, lugging home a dozen or more scripts means an aching back and extra luggage fees if they’ve flown in for the event. Another option: Most events held at larger hotel or conference facilities have business offices where you can quickly print and mail off your material or, if requested, you could email them your screenplay or manuscript before you return home.

OUTPLAY: Be Prepared

When you think about the time and money invested to attend an event, and the fact you will be with hundreds of other writers with their projects, it’s only common sense to be well prepared!

Remember several paragraphs ago when I told you we’d be discussing why it’s important to prioritize your projects? Each writer attending a pitchfest/conference should have more than one project and that includes novelists as well as screenwriters. In talking to a number of producers and agents, many of them are stymied when they’ve asked writers, “What else do you have?” only to be met by a blank stare.

Some agents are hesitant to represent someone who is banking all their hope on only one script or novel. They want to know they will be taking on a client who will continue to have work they can sell. With execs and producers, they may be concerned the project you just pitched might be too similar to something already in development or maybe they have too many projects in the same genre and are looking for more diversity on their development slate. Even if the story you pitched wasn’t quite what my studio was looking for, if the initial pitch was well-told, I would often ask “What else do you have?” because I wanted to know if there were other projects you were working on that I could consider in the near future.

Although it’s advisable to have at least one completed screenplay or novel to pitch, if you don’t have an additional completed project, you should at least have 1 or 2 other projects “in the works” – projects on which you have at least a logline and a one-pager.

That way when someone asks “What else do you have?” you can answer, “I’m working on a thriller about…(insert your logline). I completed the treatment and just started the script and should have a first draft in a couple of months. Is a thriller on your company’s wish list?”

And if you’re a novelist, you should be able to say something like, “I’m in the midst of outlining my next novel, which focuses on…(insert your logline). I’ve done an outline of the manuscript and should have the first few chapters done next month. Would you like to look at those chapters or do you want to look at a completed manuscript?”

You’ll notice in each of the instances above, you are asking questions which will give you more information about that production company, studio or publishing house.

If you’re reading this article and you don’t have another project, you should have enough time to come up with at least one new project logline and one-pager in the ensuing few weeks. It would be a shame to waste a possible opportunity if you don’t have a positive answer when you are asked, “What else do you have?”

  • Practice your pitches in advance. In the beginning, practice in private, using a timer or stop watch to help you limit your pitch to 3 – 4 minutes. Then graduate to practicing in front of your writer’s group or to someone in sales or marketing who can give you the benefit of their experience in “selling” a product (in this case, your novel or script).
  • Another option available at some events is a private consultation with a specialist in the industry. These consultations (15 – 30 minutes) are the perfect opportunity to practice your pitch and get professional feedback from an industry veteran before entering the pitching arena.

OUTLAST: Be Yourself

Although it’s understandable to be nervous, take time to relax and gather your thoughts. As my boss would say, “It’s not life and death…it’s just a movie.”

  • Network with other writers. It shouldn’t be hard to find writers who’ve attended the pitchfest/conference before. Ask for their suggestions or strategies. What have they learned from past events?
  • Avoid “reading” your one-pager or synopsis when you pitch. Most writers end up looking down at the document on their lap instead of making eye contact with the agent or exec. As a result, their voice loses the enthusiasm necessary to sell their project to the producer or editor.
  • Likewise, don’t memorize your pitch. Unless you are a really good actor, chances are your pitch is going to sound “too rehearsed” and “insincere”.
  • The best suggestion -- compose an outline of your pitch. Use short phrases and key words of the project’s highlights to take away the temptation of “reading” your pitch. If it’s a film project, divide up those highlights to coincide with your 3-act structure (beginning, middle and end), so if you lose your place, you can quickly look at which act you’re in, find your key word and continue on.

Wishing everyone a positive and productive time at your next pitchfest or conference, and as Luke S. would say: “May the Force be with you!”

Meet the Author: Kathie Fong Yoneda

KATHIE FONG YONEDA has worked in film and television for more than 30 years. She has held executive positions at Disney, Touchstone, Disney TV Animation, Paramount Pictures Television, and Island Pictures, specializing in development and story analysis of both live-action and animation projects. 

Kathie is an internationally known seminar leader on screenwriting and development and has conducted workshops in France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Ireland, Great Britain, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, and throughout the U.S. and Canada.