Stephanie Palmer shares the structure of a Hollywood pitch meeting to empower the screenwriter for success.
If you’re like me, when you first started watching movies, it was for fun. You didn’t really know how they “worked.” You may have thought that big-budget action blockbusters, classic romantic comedies, and gritty independent films had little in common.
But then, when you wanted to become a professional writer, you started learning about screenplay structure. You realized that all movies, all stories, have similar structural features.
There is a similar structure to pitch meetings, and it’s used by top writers, directors, and producers.
Just as screenplays are structured in three acts, meetings are structured in five stages.
A Long Time Ago….
One of my favorite jobs was when I was an assistant at MGM Pictures.
Most people hate assistant jobs because you work extremely long hours for little pay, you are yelled at, have things thrown at you, are asked to to do "menial" tasks. As a famous Hollywood producer’s wife told me, "Oh, Stephanie. Assistants are like Kleenex. You just pluck one out and throw it away. There is a fresh one waiting in the box."
Despite the low status of my job, I loved it. Here's why: My desk sat right outside the main conference shared by United Artists (indie films) and MGM (big budget films), and I could hear all of the pitch meetings.
Of course, I didn't tell anyone that I could hear. They would say in the meeting, "We need to research these three actors" and when they’d exit the room, I'd have all the information ready like it was an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom:
My boss: “I need to know—“
Me: “Here it is.”
My boss: “I also need—“
My boss: “And would you—“
Me: “Already done.”
Successful Pitches Are Structurally Similar
Of course, the real benefit was that I got to listen in on hundreds of pitch meetings before I was an executive. I got to hear how a huge variety of people pitched and also how executives and producers handled themselves in meetings.
Prepare for name-dropping….
I heard actors pitch, such as Mike Myers, Michael Douglas, and Diane Keaton. Directors such as Guillermo Del Toro, Jay Roach, Kathryn Bigelow, Spike Lee and Mike Nichols. Producers such as Debra Martin Chase, Paula Wagner, and David Heyman. And of course, writers such as Steve Zaillian, Tony Gilroy, Eric Roth, and Callie Khouri… you get the idea.
Here’s what was so interesting: the successful pitch meetings all proceeded in the same way (more or less). Regardless of whether the project was an indie documentary or a big-budget comedy, pitched by an actor or a writer, a man or a woman, the pitch meetings all had the same structure:
They all had five stages.
The Five Stages of The Meeting
- In Stage 1, you build rapport and warm up the room.
- In Stage 2, you ask questions and listen to show respect.
- In Stage 3, you deliver the prepared component of your pitch.
- In Stage 4, you deliver the “improvised” component of your pitch.
- In Stage 5, you ask for one thing if necessary and leave on a good note.
If you ignore the five stages and just try to “wing it” in the room, you’re like a writer trying to write a screenplay without understanding basic three-act structure.
When you understand the structure of the five stages, you can decide when you want to follow the expectations and when you want to break the rules.
Stage 1: Rapport
The goal: to connect in a personal way
Stage 1 is the small-talk phase that is the beginning of just about every meeting you will ever have. It’s important because decision-makers want to work with people they like and trust. If you’re prepared, the small-talk will hopefully turn into a deeper conversation about your common perspectives and interests.
The trap: pitching too soon
If you “get down to business” and start pitching too early, the decision-maker won’t feel connected to you as a person and won’t be listening to your pitch. You want to build rapport so that when the time comes to pitch, you have the decision-maker’s attention.
Key tactic: prepare questions to find common ground
Before the meeting, design a couple “rapport-building” questions to encourage the decision-maker to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences about things they feel positively about.
- Perhaps you know someone in common, and can design a question around that, e.g.: “How did you first meet (friend in common)?”
- Perhaps you have a hobby or avocation in common. If so, you could design a question around that, e.g.: “I noticed from (print interview) that you like (hobby). What’s your favorite (aspect of hobby)?”
- If you can’t find anything out at all, you can use some of the tried and true conversation starters, e.g.: “How was your weekend?”
The point is to get to know the decision-maker as a person.
Stage 2: Listening
The goal: to show respect for the decision-maker
In Stage 2, your job is to ask good questions and listen. This shows respect for the decision-maker, and earns you more of their attention when the time comes to pitch.
The trap: showing off how smart you are
Superior intelligence can be your worst enemy at this stage of the meeting.
In the next stage, when the time comes to pitch, that’s when you get to share your brilliant ideas. At this stage, your job is to ask questions, listen, and show respect.
If you show off how smart you are in this stage, it may seem like you are in need of attention and approval (the opposite of confidence). As well, if the decision-maker can’t understand what you’re saying, you may make them feel awkward or threatened.
This isn’t about being fake and hiding yourself. It’s about understanding that before you pitch, you want to build rapport (Stage 1) and show respect by listening (Stage 2).
Key tactic: prepare questions to gather information
Get the decision-maker talking about what they want from a business perspective, e.g.:
- “Is there a particular kind of project you’d love to find?”
- “How is (current project) going?”
Stage 3: The Pitch
The goal: to keep the decision-maker’s attention
Stage 3 is where you deliver your prepared pitch. Even if the decision-maker doesn’t want to buy your project, if you can hold their attention with your pitch, they may want to work with you in some other way.
The trap: “winging it”
Making it up as you go along and hoping things work out is the mark of an amateur. By the time you get a meeting with a decision-maker who can make something happen, you should have a prepared pitch that you can deliver without referring to notes.
Key tactic: test your pitch in advance
To succeed in this stage of the meeting, use these three steps to test your pitch before you meet with the decision-maker:
- Choose a feedback group. This can be friends, family, other writers, but no gatekeepers or decision-makers. You should have at least six people, ideally none of whom have heard your pitch before.
- Rehearse your pitch on audio and ideally on video prior to presenting it to anyone in your feedback group. In my experience, few people like to see themselves on camera, but this is crucial preparation.
- Call or meet with people one at a time, pitch them, and try to get answers to the following questions:
- Did they understand the idea?
- What elements did they like?
- What elements did they not like?
Stage 4: Q&A
The goal: to deliver great answers to questions
The way to do well in this stage is to anticipate likely questions and prepare answers in advance.
The trap: getting defensive
If the buyer is genuinely interested, you are likely to be asked a number of difficult questions (even trick questions).
It’s likely that they will hone in on the areas where your pitch is weakest. If you get defensive, you lose. If you can’t handle some difficult questions at this stage, the decision-maker isn’t going to want to send your script to stars, directors, and producers–because they’ll have questions, too.
Key tactic: keep track of what you’re asked
When you’re testing your pitch in advance, listen to what your feedback group asks you. Every time you’re asked a question about your story, that’s an opportunity for you to prepare a great answer to that question for the next meeting.
Stage 5: The Close
The goal: to leave on a positive note
It’s likely that the decision-maker will end the meeting. Typically, there is a non-verbal cue that the meeting is over, and your job is to “echo” the cue.
Watch for when the decision-maker:
- Gets ready to get out of his or her chair
- Places hands flat on their lap or the table
- Closes a notebook or a folder
When you see one or more of these non-verbal cues, echo it back by gathering your materials and preparing to leave.
Then, you can engage in a little more rapport building—like a bookend to Stage 1. The purpose of this isn’t to reignite the conversation, it’s just to end on a personal, positive note. It can be something simple, e.g.:
- “Tell (common friend) I said hi.”
- “Thanks again for the tip about Orochan. I’ll check it out!”
The trap: continuing the conversation
When the decision-maker ends the meeting, don’t try to pitch “one more thing.” Don’t ask any more questions. Don’t tell a story. Just make sure you’ve got everything packed up, prepare to shake hands, and exit the room smoothly.
Key tactic: prepare a specific request
You may not need to make a request of the decision-maker. Often, they may say something like, “I’m sending this to my boss today. Keep your phone on.”
However, just in case, it’s a good idea to have a request prepared in case you need it, e.g.:
- “How should I follow up with you?”
- “Whom do you recommend I get in touch with?”
Knowing Structure = Confidence
When you understand meeting structure and have prepared tactics for each of the five stages, it looks like you’re poised and confident. And as you accumulate success over time, it doesn’t just look that way—it feels that way, too.
Keep in mind, there is a wide variety in how the five stages can be handled. You may spend more time in one stage than you expect. But when you know the goal of each stage, the trap to avoid, and the key tactic to use, you’ll be able to confidently handle whatever comes your way.
- TV Writer Podcast: Stephanie Palmer
- Balls of Steel: Checklist for Pitchfests and Conferences
- Ask the Expert: How Do I Get My Material Seen?