A pitch meeting is where a screenwriter presents a story for a film or TV project to a decision-maker such as an agent, producer, director, star, or executive.
The Pitch Meeting – Overview
If you want to know how to handle a pitch meeting, you’re probably a more advanced writer.
Typically, you don’t have a pitch meeting until you’ve:
- Written a screenplay you can sell
- Constructed a pitch for your movie
- Learned how to get a Hollywood literary agent
That said, learning how to handle a pitch meeting is a good skill for anyone to have.
That’s because pitch meetings in Hollywood are a lot like sales meetings in other industries.
We’re going to focus on Hollywood, but if you sell in any industry, the pitch meeting structure pertains and can help you sell more effectively.
The Pitch Meeting Has A (Hidden) Structure
In the beginning….
Stories were fun. You didn’t know how they “worked.” You may have thought that action blockbusters, classic romantic comedies, and gritty independent films had little in common.
But when you wanted to become a professional screenwriter or TV writer, you started learning about structure. You realized that all movies, all TV, and all stories have similar structural features.
Pitch meetings also have structure.
Just as a screenplay is structured in three acts, a pitch meeting has five stages.
The Pitch Meeting Happens In Five Stages
- 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.
Pitch Meeting 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. The point is to get to know the decision-maker as a person.
Pitch Meeting 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.
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.
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.
Key tactic: prepare questions to gather information
Get the decision-maker talking, e.g.:
- “Is there a particular kind of project you’d love to find?”
- “How is (current project) going?”
Pitch Meeting 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 short pitch as well as a complete pitch that you can deliver without referring to notes.
Key tactic: test your pitch in advance
To succeed in this stage of the meeting, test your pitch before you meet with the decision-maker.
Test your pitch on friends, family, other writers, but no gatekeepers or decision-makers. You should have at least six people in your feedback group, ideally all of whom are in your target market, but none of whom have heard your pitch before.
Pitch Meeting Stage 4: Q&A
The goal: to deliver great answers to questions
The way to do well in Stage 4 is to anticipate likely questions and prepare answers in advance.
The trap: getting defensive
If the decision-maker is genuinely interested, you are likely to be asked a number of difficult questions. 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.
Pitch Meeting Stage 5: The Close
The goal: to leave on a positive note
It’s likely that the decision-maker will end the meeting, so you want to be ready for when that happens. 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 Sugarfish. 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 (aka, the “Ask”)
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, it’s a good idea to have a request prepared just in case you need it, e.g.:
- “How should I follow up with you?”
- “Whom do you recommend I get in touch with?”
Pitch Meeting 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.