The road to getting a film off the ground is never straight and narrow, especially if you’re starting at the bottom. What if you could pitch your film in exactly the right way to exactly the right people?
At the SXSW 2017, a group of producers, financiers, and distributors sat down on the Pitch, Package, Produce panel to explain the process of successfully pitching your film with those goals in mind. (For more, here are some pointers on the psychology of pitching.)
"Don’t say you have the next Jurassic Park, a mega hit, or the next Insidious, which came out of nowhere, and can’t be replicated. You want to be realistic."
From industry veterans Tiffany Boyle (Ramo Law PC), Jessica Freeborn (Pretty____Ideas), Stefan Nowicki (Sundial Pictures), and Tyler MacIntyre (Tragedy Girls), here's a breakdown of the most important steps in the pitch process.
Step 1: Research
Whether you are looking to pitch to a producer, distributor, or financier, the first step is always finding out who is the best fit. That means researching who is in the business of aligning themselves with films that are similar to your own.
"What do I look for from a pitch? Honestly, it’s not about what I like personally," said Freeborn. "It’s whether or not it fits with our mandate. For example, don’t pitch a horror film to Focus Features—they do awards-worthy films. The first part is knowing who you are pitching and what they are looking for."
According to the panelists, you should certainly tweak your presentation to fit who you are pitching to—but do so within reason. "Don’t think about forcing yourself to do a project just because [a company] might be interested in it," said MacIntyre. "Think about it as having passion projects ready to get made, and who might make it. I do horror movies between $2-5 million, for example. There was a while where I was pitching, and people would ask, 'Do you have any haunted house movies?' It was because The Conjuring just came out. I didn’t mind. I find ways to explain projects I’m passionate about in terms of recent successes."
'28 Hotel Rooms,' from Sundial Pictures, Stefan Nowicki's production company.Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Step 2: Pitch meeting
Networking, cold emailing, pitch fests, and events...whatever you have to do, start doing it. If you have an agent, manager, or lawyer, financiers and distributors should talk to these reps. If you don’t, get creative.
"Networking is the best place to start," said Boyle. "Producer networking events, in particular. There are platforms like Stage 32 that have pitch events where you can be heard by industry, or IFP Film Week, or Women in Film. There are lots of places you can look into."
"Definitely don’t include your script in the cold email."
What about cold emails and unsolicited requests? "I respond to emails all the time, because we’re a growing company," said Freeborn. "But many others don’t. If you’re going to do a cold email, be sure to include a short bio, a sense of the project or content you’re focused on, as well as if anyone is attached. Definitely don’t include your script in the cold email, but do mention that you can send it over if they’re interested in reading more."
Step 3: Comp films
Comp films are films that are comparable to yours in terms of marketing and success. But don't make the common mistake of comparing your film to another film creatively—unless you are pitching to a producer, you want to pull comps from a business standpoint.
"Someone you pitch to may like your project, but they still need to sell it up the ladder [in the company]," said Freeborn. "Start by making 10 comparable films. Don’t say you have the next Jurassic Park, a mega hit, or the next Insidious, which came out of nowhere, and can’t be replicated. You want to be realistic, if not conservative, because you don’t want to sound cocky or delusional. We use comps to find how much money to give you, so pick relatively recent films that you think your film could emulate in terms of success."
A still from 'Insidious,' a runaway hit you should not be comparing your film to in a pitch.Credit: FilmDistrict
Step 4: Find a champion
If you had a champion and some buzz, you’d be that much more likely to get a pitch meeting. But what if you have nothing?
According to the panelists, you can try to get an actor or director on board who can bring some credibility to the project. Otherwise, film festival programmers who champion your work are your best bet.
"Nobody want to be the first in the project," said Boyle. "Everyone wants to get on a train that’s moving. Most actors will get in with money. If you haven’t done anything before, you may have to put in significant money. Or maybe try getting an actor on as a producer, if she or he can get excited about the project. Otherwise, look for [programmers at] Sundance and SXSW."
Step 5: Proof of concept
"A proof of concept can be amazing, like Whiplash," said McIntyre. "But if it didn’t come out exactly the right way, it can backfire. Alternately, sometimes you can use a short to post online, and if have a lot of hits, you show that there is interest in the idea."
Step 6: Over-prepare your pitch materials
According to the panelists, these are the materials you should prepare for your pitch, whether you incorporate them into the presentation or not:
- Copy of the Script/IP content
- Show Bible or Deck (For TV, this includes character, episode, and season breakdown.)
- Lookbook (Creates the tone and feel. If it’s a drama for example, the lookbook can help explain if it’s a gritty drama or an eerie drama. Here’s where you can include creative comps.)
- Bios of Producer & Other Key Crew
- Financing already in place
- Cast, if attached
- Director, if attached
- Contact Info
Step 6: Be personable during the pitch
Whether you’re giving your pitch in person, on the phone, or even over email, you can ruin your own by not being personable. You may be nervous, but try to be friendly!
"You want to be fun, friendly, charming," said Freeborn. "You want people to want to work with you. Life is short—if we don’t want to work with you, we won’t."
Nowicki added, "When in doubt, just show your enthusiasm and you passion."
Step 7: Follow up politely
According to panelists, a small company may take three to four weeks to read your script and materials (assuming they’ve asked to see them). A bigger company may take up to six months. Regardless, always stay polite, as a pass on this project may not mean you won’t get a greenlight on something else in the future.
"After that initial period, [following up on] a bi-weekly basis is okay," said Boyle. "If you don’t want to pester the person, ask them to let you know when to check in next. By all means, keep me filled in on your career or next project. If you need an answer, just politely say, 'We’d love an answer by such and such a date, as we have a few offers.'"
Finally, remember that very few pitches are picked up by distributors and financiers. Know that rejection is part of the process. Keep at it! When one door closes, another opens.
Have you had luck pitching your film or series?
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.
Featured image: Gillian Robespierre's 'Obvious Child,' from Sundial Pictures, panelist Stefan Nowicki's production company.