Pitch Perfect

How to nail your pilot, documentary, or screenplay pitch the first time.


The ATX Television Festival kicks off in Austin, Texas this weekend and for those who are just itching to unleash their brilliant pilot ideas onto the world, the fest means one thing—the chance to make it big. This year, ATX is adding a pitch competition wherein those looking to break into Hollywood can present their television show ideas to a panel of judges that include Bill Lawrence, executive producer of Scrubs and Cougar Town, and David Hudgins, co-executive producer of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood.

Narrowed down from hundreds of entrants, each of whom had to submit up to a 90-minute filmed sample of their show’s concept, the contest is now down to the final ten who will verbally pitch their ideas on Sunday to win a development meeting with a judge along with a chance to officially pitch their show to a network. ATX isn’t the only festival giving newbies a big break. Whether you’re seeking to get your film, television show, or screenplay the attention it deserves, here’s how to nail a pitch competition.

Know Your World

Before even brainstorming your pitch, it’s crucial to know your own work says ATX fest co-founder Emily Gipson. That means having an in-depth knowledge of your characters and, if you’re pitching a television series, having a firm idea of how your characters and plot will evolve over time.

A lot of people have a great idea for a plot, but it’s a movie plot. It’s really only meant for two hours,” she says. The key to nailing a television pitch, she adds, is “to have that open end on the pitch that says ‘And here are all the places I can go.’”ATX TV Festival founders Caitlin McFarland (left) and Emily Gipson (right)ATX TV Festival founders Caitlin McFarland (left) and Emily Gipson (right)

On top of understanding your characters, you should also research the world where they live. Whether your film, TV series, or script is set in a realistic place or a fantasy world, you’ll need to understand what the day-to-day realities of that world are, how it operates, the common problems that world has, how people there interact with each other, and what the physical and social rules of that place are.

For shows that are on right now like Chicago Fire and Grey’s Anatomy, and any crime/detective show you have, you can tell whenever they really know what they’re talking about, not just creating a plot that sounds cool…” she says.

Know Yourself

Pitching isn’t just about selling your idea, It’s also about selling why you’re the person to execute it, says Ron Simon, head curator of TV and Radio at the Paley Center for Media, a nonprofit organization that sponsors a yearly pitch competition for aspiring documentary filmmakers.

We find that, especially with documentaries, many filmmakers would rather talk about the issue and so many get sidetracked on why the issue is important, but that doesn’t give you sense of how you’re going to cover the issue, what your personal point of view is on the issue, and why you’re the person to do it,” he says. “This personal vision and how you express it has become very, very important and also very difficult for a lot of filmmakers to talk about.”

To win The Paley Center’s $5,000 grant (and respect from its impressive panel of judges who hail from MTV, A&E IndieFilms, and History among others), new filmmakers need to show a short (five minutes or so) reel that showcases their idea and capacity as a filmmaker followed by a quick (again, five minutes or so) verbal pitch that highlights why their film is important and why they’re uniquely positioned to make it. Perspective is important, Simon adds, and showing what you personally can bring to the topic is a crucial component of getting funded.

It always comes back to making it as personal as possible,” he says. “It’s so easy to talk about the issue and not about yourself or talk about the subject of your film, but not what the film is going to look like.”

Know Your Audience

In a larger-form pitch competition where they have an open call, the best thing to do is to look and see who the judges are and what kind of content are they most familiar with,” says Erin Day. She serves as the festival director of the New York Television Festival, an organization that holds several television pitch and script competitions throughout the year, many of which partner with specific networks and digital platforms including A&E, FOX, MSN, Comedy Central, History, and NBC. A full list of NYTVF’s pitch competitions are available at nytvf.com.

Unlike film, television networks and distributors already have an established brand and target demographic they’re looking to please. In order to fit in, your show needs to fit that network’s image and work well with other shows that are already in its lineup.

You want to be cognizant of what’s being developed, what’s in production, what’s really popular, what’s going to make your show not seem like it’s already ran or redundant,” Day says. “A network has to know that every hour of the day is going to be filled, so there’s that sense of how can I fit into what’s already in place?”

If you’re pitching to a broad panel of judges, like in the ATX competition, rather than to a network, skip tailoring your ideas to a specific channel, studio, or person and focus on making your pitch as dynamic and interesting as possible says ATX co-founder Caitlin McFarland.

Know the Future

Film and television are not just art forms; they’re businesses, and it pays to know (and be able to tell judges) where your work is going after the pitch competition is over. If you’re pitching a TV show, that means having a clear idea of where the show is headed beyond the pilot.

With television, by the time you get to the end of a pilot, you should really be in the very, very first chapter of a longer story,” says Erin Day. “It’s that over-arching storytelling that’s important.”

Day is quick to add that you don’t need the next five seasons of your show planned out, but having a general idea of how the characters will evolve can help prove that your show has longevity after season one.

Film projects are a little different. For a film where the entire plot is explored from beginning to end, pitch candidates should think about how they’re going to promote the film enough to recoup the funds producers have invested to make the project happen.

You not only have to do the project, but you have to think of how you’re going to get an audience and how you’re going to use social media and transmedia to get that message out there,” says Ron Simon.

Know the Rules

Once you’ve done your research, get to work on the pitch itself. Regardless of where or what kind of project you’re pitching, judges are looking for a clear picture of what your idea is, proof that it can expand and evolve in the future, and evidence that you’re capable of executing it says Randy Becker, director of NexTV’s Web Series and Independent Film Competition, which will be judged by reps from FOX, Disney XD, Nickelodeon and other networks as well as film producers and agents from The Gersh Agency and ICM Partners. 

The more concise the better,” he says. “We don’t need to necessarily see five episodes of a web series. We would rather see their one or two best episodes.”

The same goes for verbal pitches, says Joel Mendoza, managing partner of Fresh Voices, which sponsors an annual screenplay contest and written pitch competition.

I think that a lot of writers tend not to spend enough time…putting together a coherent pitch. And when they do get in front of somebody, they tend to go off on tangents and not be as focused as one needs to be,” he says.

Mendoza recommends focusing on the three basic points of your story—what does the protagonist want, what stands in his or her way, and how do they overcome it?

If you can think clearly in those blocks then you’ve got a good chance of gaining somebody’s interest,” he adds. “Beyond that, always enthusiasm, positivity, and being able to be a salesman. At the end of the day, that’s what it is.”

Having pre-written notes and visual aides can help pitch candidates stay on point as can studying other successful pitches. The Paley Center posts video archives of its past pitch competitions and YouTube is rife with tips from the professionals. To check out the mother of all television show pitches, head straight to Jim Henson’s original Muppet Show pitch.

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