The American Film Market was founded in 1981 as a way to circumvent the strangle hold big studios had on marketing and distribution, especially in foreign markets. The answer has been to sell distribution rights directly to independent sales agents, brokers and distributors. The market also facilitates financing by bringing together filmmakers, product, and financial sources.
Held in early November, nearly a billion dollars of production and distribution deals are sealed every year on films in every stage of development, pre-production and production. The Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel is converted into a busy market place. Some 700 screenings are held at various theatres on the Santa Monica Promenade and at nearby hotel screening rooms. With 8,000 attendees and the industry’s largest conferences, AFM is the must destination for independent filmmakers and industry people.
Last year’s AFM Conference Series included discussions on financing, pitching, production, and marketing and distribution. They also focused on crowd-funding, crowd-sourcing audiences, film festivals, and video on demand. In this article, I am going to focus on the pitch conference and pitch sessions. Pitching your project is the initial step in getting a project rolling, to obtaining finance, gathering a production team, and marketing and selling the film to sales agents, brokers, and distributors. All these steps require some sort of pitching activity. Thus, knowing and perfecting solid techniques is vital to the success of any project.
Getting your script read in Hollywood is difficult. Most agents, producers, and studios will not accept unsolicited work. One must stir up enough buzz to wake up the industry and by doing pitches to anyone and everyone you create awareness. In this way, you create a water-cooler talk-ability that gets you referrals, opens doors and obtains those face-to-face meetings. Screenwriting is a very competitive profession and being able to pitch your script effectively places you above the rank and file. It’s estimated that the Writers Guild of America registered over 100,000 entities and the MPPA rated 708 movies in 2014. Thus being able to rise above the competition and mingle with the 1,670 AFM buyers from 70 counties greatly ups your odds.
A pitch conference is a good place to learn about this process. They say a good pitch can get a bad film made and a bad pitch can leave a terrific project languishing on the shelf. At this conference, attendees learn the essential rules and tools of pitching from experts. These experts included Stephanie Palmer, former head of creative affairs at MGM, Tobin Armbrust, producer of “Begin Again” and Cassian Elwes, producer of “Dallas Buyers Club.”
I’ve included suggestions and tips provided by these experts, along with those referenced in articles they wrote. The goal of your pitch is to generate enough interest to entice further development or to have them read your script. Thus, your pitch is much like a movie trailer, providing the essence of the movie to create further involvement.
Open your presentation with some small talk that establishes a common ground and builds rapport. By doing so, this can be a major factor in selling your script. It cleanses the palate and you began on a clean slate with no carry over from previous presentations. Before you begin your pitch, provide context by defining the genre of your script or give a brief background of your story before you begin your detailed pitch. For instance, this is a comedy that takes place at an all girl boarding school outside of Boston.
Make the experience as if they were watching a trailer of your completed movie. Pitches in the comedy mode should be funny and those in the thriller genre should have moments of surprise and suspense. Use precise words to create a vivid visualization and avoid abstract themes and generalizations. Likewise, provide markers where you are in the script such as, “Moving into act two,” or “In the final scene.” This helps the listener know where they are in the story and where the plot points and twists are located.
Use suspense to up interest. Instead of telling the listener how the story evolves, plant the seeds for the twists and surprising revelations to come. By using these set-ups and pay-offs to your advantage, it illustrates your storytelling skills; a point often overlooked when promoting your abilities as a screenwriter.
Expect to be interrupted. Most meetings are conversational and interactive. So be ready to expand on your pitch and provide more details. Being too detailed and describing every scene, character, or location bogs down the process. The more you say, the less they hear. Find descriptive and active words that quickly bring life to the story. Being animated and emotional likewise enlivens your pitch as it lets your enthusiasm shine. It shows you believe in your project.
Using too many names also confuses the presentation. While it’s okay for main characters, it’s best to identify supporting characters by their function or descriptive handle. In addition, don’t be afraid of clarifying your pitch. Interact and ask if they have any questions at this point. Respond to their questions and suggestions in a positive way. Disagreeing with them shows a lack of respect for their input. Consider their suggestions and then get back to them.
Besides the conference with experts, the market also sponsors a pitch session. Here ten participants selected based on their submitted video and get two minutes to pitch their idea. Another ten are selected from the audience and from these two groups judges select a winner. A modest cash prize goes to the winner along with industry awareness.
These pitching sessions are not for the weak. Critiques tend to be on the caustic side of constructive. If it’s boring, you’ll likely hear that assessment. Likewise, you will hear questions about casting, budget, and marketability. Be ready with answers and comparisons to other pictures with similar budgets that have done well.
Beside the pitch sessions, there are many opportunities to pitch your script or project to people attending the market, people such as producers, production companies, distributors, and sales agents. These people and their contact information are listed in the market’s catalog. You can also mingle with these people in the large hotel lobby or at screenings, events and parties held during the market.
What you learn at this market will help improve your pitching abilities. The networking possibilities are endless and provide ample opportunities to connect. In addition, thank you notes, query letters, and follow-up meetings will help strengthen these relationships. One should likewise consider pitching at other venues, such as film festivals, writer conferences, and pitch fests. Links to these events are available online. Each time you do a pitch session, you learn what grabs people’s attention. You become better at describing and promoting your film.
Moreover, if you keep practicing your craft, it won’t be a strikeout, but a home run deal.
by Erik Sean McGiven