The Perfect Pitch

A pitch alone is not enough to secure a film's commission. Scheduling, budgets, inventory and ongoing brand initiatives are among broadcasters' concerns when deciding whether to get involved in a project. Nonetheless, the pitch plays a key role in the filmmaking...
May 1, 2001

A pitch alone is not enough to secure a film’s commission. Scheduling, budgets, inventory and ongoing brand initiatives are among broadcasters’ concerns when deciding whether to get involved in a project. Nonetheless, the pitch plays a key role in the filmmaking process. Pitching poorly can be detrimental to your career. Says Julie Anderson, director of documentary programming at HBO, ‘If your pitch doesn’t make sense to the broadcaster you’re pitching, you probably won’t get back in the door.’ Conversely, pitching well can help establish good relationships with commissioning editors. Says Pat Ferns, president and CEO of the Banff Television Foundation, ‘A good pitch can stand your career in very good stead. It may take time to get your project off the ground, but an effective pitch causes a rumble around the industry.’ While making your pitch memorable for all the right reasons depends on the type of pitch and the cultural perspective of the editor, some elements of effective pitching are universal.

Covering the basics

At the top of every commissioning editor’s wish list is the good idea. Whether you’re pitching your project via email, in a hallway, on stage at a forum, or across the table in an office, the clear expression of a unique idea is the most important element of your pitch. Says the BBC’s Nick Fraser, ‘I think there are too many ideas circulating that are worth nothing because people haven’t worked them out. Normally, people don’t spend enough time thinking about things; they come to you at too early a stage.’ Thierry Garrel, head of documentaries at ARTE France, agrees. ‘Generally, what people call an ‘idea’ is actually just an issue or theme.’ He adds, ‘What interests me most [is] not the subject matter, but the innovation of the director’s approach. I don’t want to repeat yesterday’s paper.’

Although there is no definitive resource to check if your idea has already been done, a good place to start is your television set. Chris Haws, senior VP & executive producer at Discovery Networks International, says the most common mistake producers make with him is pitching projects that could not air on Discovery. ‘A lot of pitches are mis-aimed, and that often betrays the fact that the pitcher hasn’t actually watched your channel.’ Adds Haws, ‘There’s no substitute for watching to see not only what sorts of programs you’re scheduling, but also the tenor of the channel brand.’

Maile Roundtree of Kirkland, U.S.-based Frangipani Films, suggests a reason why so many producers don’t do their homework: ‘Producers who pitch to the wrong editors do so because they hope that if they pitch to as many people as possible, one of them is bound to say ‘yes.’ They think that by working that much harder, they will get ahead that much faster, but it actually doesn’t work that way.’ And, the junk-mail approach can damage your reputation. Says HBO’s Anderson, ‘The biggest mistake people make is trying to pitch something that is completely wrong for us. Not only is it easy to reject, but it’s also easy to think that the filmmaker doesn’t have a clue. The ones who are successful are the filmmakers who have seen a lot of our films and can respond to questions about what we’re looking for.’

Finally, commissioning editors want to feel your passion for a project. Says Haws, ‘I think most of my colleagues would say that enthusiasm and passion come high on the list of things they’re looking for.’ Commissioning editors want to have faith in your ability to follow through on a project, especially if you’re a first-time producer without a track-record. Says Anderson, ‘Someone who’s committed is always going to be a little bit closer to getting a ‘yes’ than someone who’s ready to give up too easily, because you know that when they get out into the field they will have that same level of tenacity.’

All the world’s a stage

Pitch forums have become the vogue recently, a trend that divides European and North American commissioning editors. While North Americans tend to believe a pitch in front of an audience is a good way of getting noticed and of getting your idea across to as many people as possible, European editors think the formalized pitch gets producers thinking about the wrong things. Says Fraser, ‘Pitching has nothing to do with making decent programs. [Pitching sessions] just pander to the lack of attention span of TV executives. Pitches never tell you who’s talented; they tell you who’s good at pitching, which has nothing to do with making good films or TV shows.’ Haws, who has seen the process on both sides of the ocean, disagrees. ‘Somebody who can put on a good show and engage the enthusiasm and interest of a bunch of tired, old commissioning editors is going to be able to put together a story that will also engage the interest of the audience.’

No matter the perspective of the commissioning editor on the value of the forum pitch, the pressure of that setting encourages producers to prepare. Roundtree rehearsed in front of friends and family, using small audiences to gain feedback on her forum pitch. She also practiced alone in front of a mirror. But if practice doesn’t make perfect, Jan Rofekamp (CEO of Films Transit International in Montreal) suggests avoiding the public pitch altogether. ‘It is very important to ask yourself if you are good at pitching in public… when people aren’t good at it – if they cannot convey enthusiasm, or they ramble and make a mess of it – it can be very hard to pitch again. Sometimes you may draw the conclusion that it’s better for you to pitch in private than to pitch in public.’

While each public forum has its own unique pitching guidelines in terms of time frame and presentation format, most editors expect formal pitches to offer a mix of practical production details (format, origination, rough budget, timeline, access, etcetera…) and passion for the idea. The use of footage can be controversial. According to Ferns, the worst pitch he ever witnessed involved a situation wherein the producer felt that he had to deliver something visual, but didn’t have anything good. ‘Often people will show rushes and then say ‘none of this has been fixed up. The sound isn’t going to be like that.’ What they are doing is apologizing for what they are putting up on screen. If you are going to have to apologize for it, or say ‘the film isn’t going to look anything like that,’ you should really ask yourself whether it’s going to help your case, or not.’ Says Haws, ‘A lot of people in formal pitches, where there is a specific amount of time, mop up too much of their time with lovingly cropped visuals and miss the opportunity to get some practical details across.’

The use of creative elements in the pitch can also be controversial. Some editors appreciate the inclusion of artistic elements that make pitches stand out. Says Haws, ‘A pitch can be fun. People do all kinds of amusing things. They don’t always get commissioned, but keeping things lively makes the pitch memorable.’ He explains, ‘A pitch, in many respects, is like a performance. It’s also like a little program. Pitches have beginnings, middles and ends, and a pitch needs to have memorable points that will make it stand out from the background noise of all the other pitches that are happening.’ Fraser rebuts, ‘I don’t think people need to stand out. I think they need to make good films. How would they stand out? By putting a red nose on, or by appearing with no clothes?’ Garrel agrees with Fraser, ‘The formal pitch is a perversion of playing circus to get attention. This is a standard of forums, not a good first step in establishing the kind of relationship required to make good films.’

Most European editors don’t see a correlation between selling a project and making a good film. Says Peter Dale, head of documentaries at Channel 4 in the U.K., ‘Forums are fantastic theater. If something good comes out of it, in terms of people being able to interest a number of editors at one time for small amounts of money, that’s great. But I would never majorly fund something on the back of a pitch like that.’ In the European editors’ view, the value of the forum is not the pitching, but the producers’ exposure to commissioning editors. Says Garrel, ‘Collective pitches at forums are helpful because of the side effect of getting to know the commissioning editors and their editorial politic.’

Herein lies the common ground between European and North American editors when it comes to public pitches. Says Haws, ‘Pitches in the more formal environments are at least as much an educative experience for the audience as they are for the pitcher, because the idea is to expose to the widest possible group of people the kind of thinking that goes on in a commissioning editor’s head.’

The meeting of minds

At the point in the pitch process where you find yourself in a commissioning editor’s office, listening to the particular wants of your audience is crucial. Being prepared to answer questions and keeping your pitch flexible to accommodate interruptions are universal requirements. But North American editors still expect a degree of formality. Says Anderson, ‘In a forum, people tend to really rehearse their pitches and make them entertaining. In a small room, where you don’t have the same level of performance, because you’re not standing up at a podium, you should still prepare well so that your ideas are conveyed articulately. You should figure out what your end goal is – do you want to make the person you’re pitching laugh, feel sad, or fall in love with your character? The difference between a big room and a small room is really a physical one.’

European editors, however, are generally not interested in forum pitches, let alone the use of big room pitch tactics in the small room; they prefer to conduct a casual conversation. Says Fraser, ‘I never like people coming and pitching to me. They come and talk about what they want to do and we have a discussion about it.’ Dale agrees, ‘There is nothing worse than sitting in a pitch which might go on for five to ten minutes when you know after the first two sentences that you’re not interested. Once you’re in a pitch, you can’t get out of it.’ He adds, ‘I prefer to get them in and talk to them. All the stuff that I’ve commissioned has come out of a conversation.’ Says Garrel, ‘The most common mistake pitchers make is to oversell; to believe that our relationship is one strictly between a buyer and seller. If I decide to participate in a project, I am making a symbolic pact with the producer and director. That pact means that we are sharing the same ambition… our pact entails both my financial and artistic input.’

Making contact

Whether your initial pitch approach entails sending off a pitch package, writing a short email, or having a brief conversation, there are often important differences in the expectations of North American and European commissioning editors.

North American editors tend to appreciate pitch packages with only the bare essentials. Says Anderson, ‘I always tell people not to send elaborate pitch packages. They don’t help the story because at the end of the day, it’s all about the idea, not how the idea was packaged when it was sent to me.’ She adds, ‘In addition, there’s often too much detail in the pitch package. The briefer the package, the easier it is to get through. Basically, all they want to do is get us excited about their idea. The details can come later.’ Anderson recommends sending a sample tape along with the pitch package. She says, ‘With someone we’ve neither heard of before, nor seen their work, chances are they won’t get a ‘yes’ from us based on a paper proposal.’ Anderson recently picked up two films based on 15-minute trailers.

Garrel, who receives about 1,500 proposals a year and just as many tapes, prefers that producers don’t send trailers. ‘Sometimes a previous film can be useful, but trailers don’t give an idea of the way in which the filmmaker shoots – trailers depict a superficial approach to the image. They don’t give an accurate idea of time, and time in documentaries is very important. They also don’t give an idea of how the story is going to be audio-visually articulated.’ European editors in general, tend to reject the pitch package altogether. Says Fraser, ‘I hate pitch packages. They’re a waste of paper… My whole life is full of horrible bundles of over-written, over-produced stuff.’ Dale is also averse to the formal pitch package: ‘I don’t like huge pitch packages… if someone sends a one-paragraph email, I can deal with it in a matter of minutes.’

While the European editor is generally open to receiving an informal, quick idea over the phone or via email, their American counterpart tends to favor a slightly more formal approach. Says Anderson, ‘Just the other day somebody pitched me in two words. He hadn’t done any further research, he was just mining me to see whether or not that would attract me. Since he hadn’t done any research or any background work, I had to ask how committed he was to the idea. He was just throwing out an idea like spaghetti on the wall to see if it stuck. We don’t do things that way.’

Most commissioning editors see the live, on-the-spot pitch as a necessary evil. Says Haws, ‘It happens all the time. I get pitched in lifts, on escalators, in the men’s room…’ If you are planning to approach an editor, it is important to choose the appropriate time and place. Anderson says, ‘You can pitch anywhere, but I think it’s important to feel people out. For instance, someone wanted to pitch me at a cocktail party and I thought it was a bit inappropriate because it was more of a social occasion. If you’re not at a pitch session or forum, you should feel the commissioning editor out to determine whether they feel like discussing business in a social environment.’

Even when the opportunity for an impromptu meeting presents itself, keep in mind that most commissioning editors suffer from pitch-overload. Film Transit’s Rofekamp recommends making effective use of the short time you have. ‘The purpose of the first pitch is not to make a deal immediately; it’s to get a second meeting at a different time. A lot of people who pitch everything in the first five minutes, are completely overshooting themselves. The first pitch is about creating interest in the idea. The details you can discuss later.’ In many cases, the most effective use of your short time with a commissioning editor entails no pitching at all. Says Ferns, ‘What’s more important than ‘the pitch’ is building a relationship with the commissioning editor.’ Dale agrees, ‘All of the commissioning that works for me comes out of a relationship with the producer or director… The perfect pitch involves no pitch at all.’

Take my advice…

When the experts were asked to offer one piece of advice to prospective pitchers, here’s what they said:

‘Communicate enthusiasm and passion for your idea. You have a limited amount of time to turn an idea that somebody may not have heard anything about into something that is totally irresistible. Aim for irresistible.’ Chris Haws, Discovery Networks International

‘Do your homework. Explore what this network is putting on the air. Know what we’ve done. When you only have 15 films a year, you certainly don’t want to do two on the same topic. Try to see our shows as much as possible.’ Julie Anderson, HBO

‘Number one – passion and knowledge about your subject. Number two – it always helps if you have some strong production experience. If you don’t, attract experienced people to your team. So passion and knowledge, track record, and the third one is access.’ Jan Rofekamp, Films Transit

‘Never give up. If you really believe in a project, there is no such thing as a ‘no’. You’ve just got to find a way. You’ve got to keep pushing.’ Simon Nasht, Gabriel Films

‘Know your audience. Both a pitch and a program have a specific audience that you want to reach. Remember you’re in the communications business and know your audience.’ Pat Ferns, Banff Television Foundation

‘Give me something in advance on paper, however short, however undeveloped. And make it clear why you want to do it. The key thing it comes down to is that people are really excited.’ Peter Dale, Channel 4

‘First, of course, have a good project. Second, try to explain it plainly without making any artificial additions to it. Take into account the fact that at the end of the pitch, when we come to an agreement, it is about creating a solid pact, not just getting money.’ Thierry Garrel, ARTE France

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.