Script Anatomy founder Tawnya Bhattacharya talks about how to stand out when pitching your own TV show in today's oversaturated market.
You’ve probably heard professors, agents, managers, mentors, etc. say this many times, and it’s true: pitching is its own beast. At Script Anatomy, we even have our own class for it. There are tons of excellent screenwriters who hate pitching. The mere thought makes them break out in cold sweats. It’s not everyone’s strong suit. But, as a staff writer, you’ll need to learn how (and when) to pitch ideas in a room. And in today’s development market, where execs are fatigued from reading tons and tons of spec pilots and wanting to hear more and more ideas as a pitch first, pitching is a necessary skill to cultivate.
Pitching is part writing, part public speaking and performance, and part spectacle. The writing part is, obviously, the crafting of the pitch. The public speaking part is when you deliver the pitch. And the performance skills come in handy when you have to deliver the pitch as though you’re NOT about to vomit from nerves. No matter what anyone tells you, it’s normal to be a little nervous when you are first starting out pitching. Execs usually know you’re nervous too, and if you’re lucky, they’ll be on your side and friendly and attentive in the room. Regardless, nervousness is normal, and it’s natural to want to figure out ways to counteract that so it’s not painfully obvious. And when we say “spectacle,” we don’t necessarily mean that in a splashy, high-octane Cirque du Soleil way—unless, of course, that’s the world of your show. We mean “spectacle” in a purely Aristotlean sense: all aspects at play, including what your audience sees, that contribute to the experience of your pitch.
"Pitching with energy is very important, but pitching with passion and getting them to believe that you're the only one that can write it... is the key to success." ~ Kevin Townsley, currently in development with SyFy, Crackle, Sony, CBS Studios, Warner Brothers, Fox21, and Fremantle
When you’re writing your pitch, one thing you’ll really want to drill down is your personal connection to your material. There are over 400 scripted TV shows on the air. Those are just a fraction of what gets bought for development every year. So the odds that you are the only person pitching a show in your genre/arena/cultural zeitgeist are very slim. Your idea isn’t what’s going to get the execs you’re pitching to to lean in: your personal connection to the material is. The more emotional, resonant, or timely your personal connection is, the better, but to start off: just be honest. Once you’ve drilled down your personal connection to what you’re pitching, you have a mountainous task at hand. You want to give your audience the right amount of material to make them want to buy the show in order to learn the rest of the story. This means you have to set up the world, characters, stakes, and pilot story using just the right ratio of narrative and mystique. It’s easy to get too detailed.
Make sure you have people you trust, like a writers’ group, consultant, manager, or your classmates read over your pitch before you start working on the performance part of it. The length of your pitch depends on the genre, size of the cast, and density of material you’re getting through in the pitch. An hour-long show set in a rather obscure period in history will likely require more contextual information on the front end of the pitch, for example, than a six-act soap set in a day spa. Don’t worry about the length just yet. That will come next. Once you start to have a draft of your pitch that you feel like is getting close, start on the next step of the process:
2. PUBLIC SPEAKING
Practice, practice, practice your pitch. Practice makes progress. If you are in the position to pitch, congrats. That’s a huge opportunity. So you owe it to yourself to be prepared enough that, even if you’re really nervous, you take full advantage of being in this position. Practice your pitch out loud. When you start reading it out loud, you’ll rewrite it automatically. Syntax will fall into place, and you’ll realize some of your language is easier to read than to say.
As you’re going through this cycle of the pitch process, perform your pitch for anyone who will let you. Do it at your writers’ group, if that’s allowed, do it for your writer friends, ask your consultant if they offer those kinds of packages. If your reps don’t schedule a dry run before you start going out with the pitch, ask for one. The more people you practice your pitch for, the more you’ll start to see what sections you can maybe trim, or what parts need more info or clarification. You’ll also know if your pitch is too long, and notice what points at which people start to check out as possible places to make cuts. As you’re locking down what you’re going to say in the room when you go on your pitch meetings, it’s time to shift your energy to the next crucial component of a good pitch.
3. PERFORMANCE MAINTENANCE
"I like to prepare everything I need the night before: notecards, a backup copy of the pitch in case I drop the notecards while I'm pitching and they scatter everywhere, plus any visual aids I'm working with, a full water bottle, and lozenges for the drive over. I'm less rushed and anxious when I'm getting ready to leave for the pitch the next day, and have more time to collect my thoughts and get in the zone." ~ Lorelei Ignas, currently in development with A+E Studios and YouTube Red
We know what you’re probably thinking: “Aren’t public speaking and performance the same thing?” No. They dovetail a lot, but ultimately no. How you deliver the pitch is only one aspect of how you craft the performance of your pitch. What you wear, how you handle any visual aids the studio or production company might ask you to prepare, how you handle the Q&A after the pitch, etc.—is all part of that performance too.
Pitching is harder on the body than writing a pilot. You’re usually talking anywhere from 15-30 minutes nonstop. My writing partner Ali and I feel especially grateful to be a team during the pitching process. We can split up who says what section so it’s less wear and tear on the voice. Don’t be afraid to take extra care of yourself and your health during this time. Drink lots of tea, hydrate an extra amount. If you typically have a scratchy throat, have cough drops or lozenges on hand that you know work for you. Get extra sleep, try to exercise regularly, and consider cutting out alcohol and dairy (which can coat your throat and make you mucousy). If you’ve ever been an actor or dancer or any other kind of performer, treat pitching season like you’re in a show with a long run. If you don’t have a performance background, think of it like this: your body is the vehicle that’s delivering your pitch. You want to give it every chance you can to perform at its most optimal. For cars, that means premium fuel, covered garages, and car covers in inclement weather. For your body, it’s not so different.
A lot of the time, you’ll be meeting the execs you’re pitching to for the first time at your pitch meeting. Think about the first impression you’re sending, head to toe. This doesn’t mean dress to the nines, it means set yourself up to perform your pitch optimally. For us, that means wearing something we feel comfortable in and something that looks on-brand and “makes sense” for the pitch. We try to avoid intricate logos or shirts with a lot of text on them. The only words you want the execs to focus on when looking at you are the ones you’re saying! Dressing for a pitch is more elevated than an outfit for a general meeting, but still not over-the-top. When in doubt, air on the side of less corporate. You are the cool artsy type who they’re looking to invest in—don’t be afraid to lean into that role.
Also, be conscious of your body language. If you’re someone with nervous hands, take that into account. That’s distracting for a lot of people, especially when you’ll most likely be sitting at a conference room table across from these people, so your hands will be front and center. If you need to hold notecards, hold notecards. Anxiety can be difficult to deal with in situations like pitching, and everyone understands it’s normal to be nervous in these kinds of meetings, but the more you can direct the focus to the story you’re telling in your pitch, the better.
A huge part of a successful pitch delivery is personal connection and passion. This is why we started off, first and foremost, suggesting that you drill down a personal connection to the material. If you find a genuine reason why you specifically are the person to tell the story you’re telling, that passion alone will go miles in helping you keep your audience engaged. When you pitch, an attentive audience the whole time is a luxury. Especially for those first starting out. So if an exec checks their phone while you’re in the middle of rolling out your characters, don’t take it personally. It happens to lots of people. If you are lucky enough to have attentive audiences, hold eye contact with them as much as possible. Try to smile even if you feel like you’re about to vomit. If they interject—which is highly likely—see if you can take a deep breath and banter back and forth with them and really listen during the exchange, rather than just moving it along so you can get back to where you were in the pitch.
"Open and close with the theme of the story, and if part of your opening can include why you relate to that theme, why you're the one to tell this story, even better. It lets you start the pitch with your enthusiasm for the big picture. Also, make it as conversational and colloquial as possible. I recommend memorizing, and when my partner and I work on a verbal pitch, we literally write in "um" and "so" and "like" to remember to keep it casual and give it room to breathe." ~ Sarah Carbiener, YOU'RE THE WORST, RICK & MORTY, HOMECOMING (Amazon), developed with Starburns Industries and YouTube Red
You don’t need to memorize every single word of your pitch and deliver it word for word in order to sell a show. But if that’s the way you do prefer to work, that’s also fine—just allow for some elasticity in your delivery so you don’t look like a robot. Make sure you’re comfortable enough with the material that you can carry the pitch to completion regardless of whether or not your execs are on the edge of their seats or up out of their seats with their backs turned to you accepting a Postmates delivery.
The biggest reason to follow these pitching guidelines and do your best to set yourself up for success, to be honest, is because pitching season is brutal. It’s highly likely that you will hear more passes than offers. It’s very possible to go a whole season pitching multiple projects without selling a single one. It’s very possible to do this several years in a row. This is no reflection on you, the quality of your idea, or your talent. Selling a TV show has always been difficult as hell. But these days it seems the bar is set dizzyingly high. The Obamas have an overall at Netflix now. It’s an insane time to be an emerging or unestablished writer trying to sell your own show in the age of peak TV. So when you’re pitching, do whatever you need to do to give yourself the peace of mind that you have really done your best and “left it all on the mat,” as we like to say. It might help any passes roll off your back a little easier. And when you do sell a show, you know how hard you have to work to sell the next one.