One of the early sessions at the 2021 World Congress of Science and Factual Producers, which kicked off as a digital event on November 30, was “How Not to Pitch,” a talk hosted by Marcie Hume, senior executive producer at A+E Networks.
The discussion featured Molly Ebinger, manager of nonfiction series at Netflix; Hélène Ganichaud, deputy director of the specialist and factual unit for Arte France; and Yuri Sudo, senior producer for Japanese broadcaster NHK.
The session provided insight from networks, broadcasters and streamers on the pitching process. It opened by discussing the need for balance between an overly-rehearsed pitch, and an approach that’s too relaxed and unfocused.
“I always like when people start with what’s the headline, in your own words, not reading off a page,” said Ebinger.
“Just give me that loud, exciting line about what this project is. And then I do think it’s helpful to have a well-prepared deck… The last thing you want is for someone to just sit and be on the receiving end in silence for the whole entirety of the pitch. So I like a prepared deck, but a fluid conversation around it.”
Sudo agreed, adding that a good pitch is the start of an ongoing dialogue between both sides of a project.
“It is great to have a well-prepared deck, but it’s always a conversation, and through that conversation we should be looking for a solution that would work for both of us, what you want to do and what will fit with our audience,” he said.
The panel also talked about the importance of researching who you’re pitching to, with Ganichaud explaining that for companies that don’t have the name recognition of a Netflix, showing some initiative can help.
“It means they actually believe it’s for us and they’re not wasting your time,” she said. “I think a little bit of research is just basic politeness, but don’t go too far in telling me why I should actually get it.”
She elaborated that a producer trying too hard to be accommodating to a network or streamer can also be a problem.
“What I hate though is the opposite, when people come with what looks like a multiple choice pitch, they give me a range of things I can choose from and that’s just for me to decide because I know what works on my channel,” she said, drawing emphatic nods from the other panelists.
Ebinger also noted that one should be careful when throwing around data, particularly with a data-focused company like Netflix.
“We don’t worry too much about that, we’re just looking to connect with a great story and it’s more of an emotional connection,” she explained. “You don’t have to tell me facts and stats about why it’s a great fit, just make me excited about it and make me connect to it as an individual and I will worry about finding if and where I think it folds into my platform.”
Another topic was who at an organization is the best person to pitch to. The panel agreed that going to the highest person in the food chain isn’t always the best idea.
“When you’re going to the senior most person, you might get a succinct answer, you might get a quick ‘no,’ whereas if you start with someone and you form your own connections and you bring this person in, get them invested in the idea, that person then becomes someone who’s going to now pitch upwards internally and advocate for your idea,” said Ebinger.
“You should really find an ally within that network or broadcaster, so you can understand their needs and you can discuss how to improve your pitch,” added Sudo. “When you are the person who makes the decisions and when someone on your team is very passionate about that project and he or she really wants to do that, that kind of adds on another layer of decision making.”
Also among the pitching “don’ts” discussed was simply refusing to admit defeat when the pitch is rejected, with Ganichaud saying producers not taking no for an answer was one of her pet peeves.
“You try to be polite and respectful because [pitching] is brave, it’s hard work, it’s not just a five-minute pitch, it’s maybe months of research,” she said. “But when they don’t take no for an answer and it nearly becomes as if I’m the one who’s missing the point, and I’m maybe the one a bit dumb, that’s a massive turn-off.”
As a representative of a Japanese broadcaster, Sudo provided some insight on pitching to companies around the world and advised people to keep in mind not just who they’re pitching to, but where they’re pitching.
“Talent well known in Western countries, like David Attenborough, he’s not so famous in Japan and we will have to dub it in Japanese anyway so it doesn’t make sense [to focus on that aspect],” he said. “Appreciating the difference when you’re talking to a person from a different culture or background and understanding that your project may have to be reversioned to fit that culture… If you want to pitch to Hélène in France and to me in Japan, you have to assume that you’ll have to have a French version and an international version or a Japanese version.”
The panelists also advised producers to keep in mind that the people they’re pitching to typically want to be impressed, rather than looking for excuses to reject a project.
“I go into every single pitch thinking, ‘I hope this is great,’” Ebinger said. “We’re going into it very hopeful.”