Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday: Pitch conference part 1

American Film Market 2011 conference: unofficial notes
Nov 5, 2011 9 AM: Pitch Conference notes part 1
Notes by B. Hahne

The original blog location of these notes is:
This is day 2 of a 5-day series, check back at the blog for more as the days go by.

Clarifications or pithy comments by the note-taker will generally appear in [square brackets like this].

These notes are copyright (c) 2011 by Bruce Hahne. Noncommercial, nonprofit redistribution and/or pointing people to the blog is permitted and encouraged.

Disclaimers: "Free notes, you get what you pay for!" There notes are a summary, not a transcript, and represent my best effort to capture the panel discussion plus Q&A. They also probably contain errors. I'm not in the film industry, nor am I affiliated with AFM / American Film Market or with any of the firms associated with the panelists.


Moderator: Stephanie Palmer of "Good in a Room", previously with MGM. Listened to >3000 pitches at MGM, 7+ years. Got tired of hearing badly-pitched ideas.


Tobin Armbrust, SVP, Exclusive Media Group. Was with Warner Bros. Produced Let Me In and Firewall.

Cassian Elwes [not to be confused with Cary Elwes], independent producer and agent. Works on a variety of known films at any given time. William Morris for 15 years. "I'll be the not-so-nice guy today, Tobin will be the nice guy."


There's been a pitch event at previous AFMs.

[This event is going to be just like those startup tech company cattle calls done in the San Francisco Bay Area to a panel of venture capitalists. Audience members will do a 3-minute pitch to the panel, then 3 minutes for comment.]

But first, some training material from the moderator:

1. "Redefining what a pitch is"
- You need to think about the Q&A that happens with the person after you give your 30-second mini-speech.
- At this particular event, and in most pitch settings, your goal is to get a 2nd meeting.

Pitch, her definition: "a set of possibilities for what you could say about your project, which depends on context and the listener."

2. What do the film buyers want? Think about situations where you've been a buyer of something.
- High risk. Current estimates are $106M average for a studio film today.
- They want you to succeed. No buyer says "I hope none of my meetings succeed this week."

"Short pitch": a 1 to 3 sentence project synopsis which is clear, concise, compelling. Then let the buyer decide if they want to hear more. The mistake that most people make is trying to cram 20 minutes of content into this 3-minute pitch interval, which results in information overload to the buyer, you talking extremely fast, and no productive results.

3. Improving your short pitch.

- "Embrace pitching as part of the creative process". Work on your pitch as you work on the script / screenplay. Most screenplay writers will say that they do this.

- Pitching is verbal and doesn't always come easily to writer-types.

- Pitching is sharing your idea with somebody else and you might get negative feedback, which is painful.

- Many of you have a lot of ideas, more story ideas than you'll be able to tell. Pitching can be a filtering / selection process.

4. Specific advice

- Start your short pitch with the genre. Lead with the genre. This provides context.
- Example: if you say "my project is about the CIA", that's not genre, and you've probably misled your buyer if your project is a comedy.
- Name as few characters as possible. This is to avoid information overload for the buyer. If you need to refer to supporting characters, refer to them by role and how they interact with your main character. "Lisa's father, who is a scientist".
- Be brief. No buyer has ever said "I wish that person had talked longer".
- Identify patterns of feedback from the buyer. Body language and etc. from the buyer. Watch for nods, smiles, being confused, interest in details, what questions they ask.
- What question did the buyer ask FIRST?

Don't do these things:

- Don't give a positive opinion of your own work. "This is a really funny script!" "This project is going to win X, be #1" etc.

- Don't refuse to categorize your project. "My project is unique and incredibly difficult to define". Translation: "my project isn't ready to sell to anybody yet." No bookstore has a section called "books that defy categorization".

- Don't mention people involved unless they have... wait for it... "skin in the game". "Famous person X loves my script!" Really? If person X loves your script then why isn't person X funding it or committed to starring in it?

- Don't be argumentative in the room, in the meeting. The producer might say "please change your female lead into a male chimpanzee" - this is true, it happened once - and you just nod and say "I hadn't thought about that idea, let me consider it and get back to you."

Q for panelists: what's the best pitch you've heard recently.

Tobin: _Patrick 1.5_, gay couple trying to adopt a baby who turns out to be 15 years old not 1.5 years old.

Q: What's the difference in how you pitch for different audiences?

Cassian: buyer pitch vs. talent pitch very different. To buyers you're trying to communicate the commercial idea + how the buyer will later market the idea. If your idea is good enough then it will end up as one line of text on the poster. The best ideas are the ideas for which you can already imagine the poster. But for talent, the talent is thinking about the character (s)he will play. And to directors, they're thinking visually, can they do something they haven't done before, can they stretch themselves artistically, can the movie be different but also be marketplace competitive? So the way you talk to creatives is very different from how you talk to finance people.

Tobin: Context matters. I'm always thinking "is this something I can finance? What's the appeal, is it both foreign and domestic, which in my case I need?" If you're going after somebody as an actor or director, you need to know about the person's life and try to not pigeonhole them.

Q: What types of research do you do prior to pitching?

Cassian: I get a lot of pitches for movies that are already being made, very similar ideas. And then I say "a very similar movie is already being made" and they're crushed. Read the trade magazines and learn what other people are doing, it's a waste of your time if you try to create a movie that's already happening.

Tobin: Read scripts! It's rare for scriptwriters to pitch directly to studios. Read what your peers are writing. If you want to see a fantastic script, read _Social Network_. You need to learn the trade craft.

Q: People sometimes suggest using an "X meets Y" pitch - "it's Jaws meets The Wire!" Yes, I had somebody pitch that to me. Is that a good idea?

Cassian: I get that a lot and it's annoying. And usually the movie doesn't turn out to be that anyway, it's just a hook. You still need to get to the actual story.

Tobin: It was originally intended as a shortcut but now it's annoying.

Stephanie: I agree too - it distracts and people start asking "how is it like X, how is it like Y?"

Q: When do you pitch to others?

Tobin: every day I pitch internally to my coworkers - we do finance and foreign sales. Sometimes I need to convince chairman we want to buy something, sometimes I have to convince our foreign sales wing to sell something. I fight as many battles inside my company as outside. Outisde, you're pitching to agents about why they should bring their packages to us instead of to somebody else, sometimes you're pitching to talent. We hear "no" all the time, even us in the finance busines.

Cassian: I'm a producer, sort of an executive producer. People bring me movies and I help find the talent or the financing - presales, foreign sales agent, equity investors, soft money (tax credits), the entire pattern of making an indy film is going through my mind, and you have to talk to a huge number of people to make this happen. So many different people, and you're talking about the movie all the time in this process. I find myself refining how I talk about the movie through this process - I watch where people laugh, when they looked at their watch, how they respond to what I'm saying. Hardest thing in this business isn't getting "yes, I'll do that", it's getting somebody to actually write the investment check.

Q: How did you hear about a good project for the first time?

Tobin: We get scripts more than we get pitches.

Cassian: At AFM last year I was driving up and had a project called Medallion, an action film. Then I got a call saying it fell apart. I said hang on, I thought Nick Cage wanted to do that movie and they said yes but X and Y and Z... so I put him on hold, made one phone call and said "I have a movie with Nick Cage and X directing" - they said "how much do you need", I said "$28M" and the guy said "done", so that was nice to be able to close a project with just two phone calls.


Stephanie: I remember the guy who did a pitch just wearing a diaper and the guy who used a samurai sword.

Cassian: Did either of those movies get made?

Stephanie: Of course not.

Cassian: You should have introduced them to each other and made a movie about a guy in a diaper with a samurai sword, I would have gone to see that.


PITCH: [The guy has a prop, something on a trophy. Reading notes from his mobile phone.]

Cassian: Stop reading from your mobile, you have to talk to me not to your phone.

Guy (puts mobile away): We have 7K Facebook Fans and 500K Youtube views. The film is done, we shot it for $500K

Cassian: What's the movie?

Guy: Ballroom dance comedy, kid overcomes his life obstacles to become a champion ballroom dancer.

C: You should have started with that, I want to know about the movie not the number of fans.

Guy: And it stars me.

Cassian: You should have said that up front, that's crucial information. Do you dance?

Guy: After 4 months of ballroom training, yes.

[Mini exhibition on stage in which guy gets asked to demo his dance moves.]

Tobin: What you're struggling with here is how to sell what your movie is about, it's cute that you could get this audience on your side, but you don't have that opportunity when you're pitching 1-to-1. I don't know if it's a comedy, is it Nacho Libre, is it heartwarming, what is it? I give you kudos for just going and making the film, that's fantastic. But if you're going to pitch me to get me to watch your film, I don't care about Youtube views, you need to lead with "this is what it's about, this is why it's personal"

Cassian: Is it a comedy, thriller, romcom, what is it?

Guy: comedy

Stephanie: physical comedy like pratfalls?

Guy: Yes.

Tobin: OK that matters, I didn't know if it was coming-of-age or what.


PITCH: from Ugha of S. Africa

U: I have two pitches [oh please]. One is about X who has an extraterrestrial lover and somebody is a meteorologist and 23 scientists got hand-picked in 1975 and flew somebody to Germany where she got examined. It's an incredible love story that transcends barriers. And it's set in the same place that 2012 was filmed.

The other film is about somebody abducted by 2 men and she was raped and stabbed and disembowled and left for dead, and she survived by a miracle and told her story a year later and she wants you to know what a miracle it is that she survived.

[I couldn't possibly make these up, this is what she's pitching...]

Cassian: Well. I thought you told both stories well. I'm not sure I want to see the 2nd one since it sounds so graphic and horrible and difficult to see on screen. With the first one, was she married to the alien?

Tobin: The first might have more potential, sounds a bit like K-pax. The science part is dry. Makes for a good 3rd act set piece from a story sense, but in terms of build it doesn't work. Get some humor in it. For the 2nd idea I'd never want to see that, I'd rather subject myself to Harold and Kumar in 3D down the street.

Tobin: You didn't pitch a genre, you pitched a true story of a person who got disembowled. I'd focus on the 1st story, personally.

Stephanie: BTW for those of you with accents like Ugha, if you're pitching to Americans you might need to speak more slowly.


Guy: My idea is for a legal drama for the 1st prosac case, the guy killed 20 people and then killed himself. Main character learns from FDA whistleblower that the pharma firm knew that the drug could cause violent side effects but hid it from the FDA.

Cassian: Sounds like a John Grisham story.

Guy: Yes but it's true.

C: I'd like to know a bit more about the outcome of the trial, who the woman was.

Guy: OK but Stephanie said be short today.

C: I'd like to know the ending, is it a great up ending?

Guy: Actually it's one of the most cynical manipulations of the legal system in history.

C: It would help me to know that as a buyer.

Guy: OK, the pharma firm Lily was facing 260 lawsuits at the time and was highly leveraged and needed to win one case, so they thought they could win this case due to the history of the shooter. They went to trial and 3 months in the judge reversed himself and etc. etc. etc.

Stephanie: OK, you need to learn to share these details using fewer words.

Tobin: Needs some kind of sizzle, you need to construct a story within the pitch. The details are fine but you need to shorthand them. Your initial pitch was just 1 minute, that was good.

Cassian: Yes but he didn't tell us the story.

Tobin: I need to know who the lead character is, make people nefarious, add a bit of Hollywood.

Guy: It's all in the script.

Cassian: Yes but you're here to pitch. Your delivery was dry and unexciting. If I were pitching it back I'd go "there's this evil pharma company, and this first-time lawyer!"

Stephanie: right, make the movie version, not the legal details.


Guy: I'm from Argentina and I put my card there because xyz. I'm a close friend of a writer in Argentina who won some award and have a partner in the U.S. and have the rights to some movie and Shirley Maclaine wants to be in the movie, we have $6.5M budget with $3M committed.

Cassian: I have no idea what your movie is about.

Tobin: Yes but he has money.

Stephanie: Tell us what the movie is about.

Guy: Some people are spending their money and going to Rome and somebody is in love with somebody else and a guy's wife has died and somebody starts having an affair and some money from an old man that was supposed to go to his daughter ends up somewhere else.

Tobin: Is this a drama?

Guy: It's more of a romantic comedy.

Tobin: When did the movie get made?

Guy: 2005.

Tobin: Do you have a screenplay?

Guy: We have a translation, rewriting to adapt it for US, and director of X lined up.

Tobin: I'd put that information forward.

Cassian: I wouldn't start off with all the money you have. Say "this movie was a huge hit in Argentina and Spain, it's a romantic comedy with Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine, she wants to go to Rome, it's based on a hit movie, it's already worked, I've got a wonderful director, it's only going to cost $6.5M and I've already got $3M"

Stephanie: See there he just did the pitch. Cassian demonstrated how to take the identical project and END with the punch that says "Oh and by the way, we already have half the money."




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