One of the weirdest memories from my time at CBS was a meeting I refer to as the guitar-guy pitch. I was a creative executive in the television movie department (remember when networks made TV movies?), and, in that capacity, I took pitch meetings in which producers, writers and so on tried to sell their ideas.
This pitch began normally enough, with the producers telling me about their project. Then one of them opened a case he had brought, pulled out an enormous Martin guitar and proceeded to sing the rest of his story. I have no recollection of what they were pitching. Or singing. I do remember that I passed on the project.
The moral of the story is . . . well, there is no moral; this is Hollywood, after all. Rather, the observation I made was that gimmicks rarely work when pitching. I've had people come in with flowcharts, collages, recorded soundtracks, actors to read parts not yet written and mimes. Yes, mimes. None of it is necessary--or even helpful--because only one thing gets a project set up in this town if everyone is doing his or her job correctly: walking into the room with a pitch that makes sense for that buyer.
That sounds straightforward, yet the sheer number of pitching courses offered seems to belie that simple truth. If you've come with material appropriate to the network or studio you're pitching, and you have the talent to execute it (or have the right talent attached), you're ahead of the crowd. No performance art, special effects or b.s. should persuade an experienced buyer to choose something that is not, at its core, right for his or her audience.
That said, the first rule of successful pitching is to understand the buyer. We live in the era of the brand, when every network and studio has (or believes it has) a specific personality that is understood by its audience. You wouldn't pitch the same project to TNT (my own beloved drama network) that you'd pitch to my other beloved network, TBS (our "very funny" network). Yet I've had comedies pitched for TNT and epic dramas for TBS (granted, some of the epic dramas were unintentionally hilarious).
Similarly, you wouldn't want to take your dark, dystopian, toxic family tragedy to Disney any more than you'd pitch a zany comedy about nuns who enter a baking contest to the folks who produced "Saw." Successfully selling your project starts with knowing which studios and networks do what and why and targeting the appropriate home. Let them know you've done your research. It flatters the hell out of the buyer because they think you actually know their work. Or care enough to pretend. Either way, it's all good.
The second rule of pitching is to be brief and clear. Believe me, if you pitch longer than half an hour without being asked to elaborate, it's a pass. At some point, you should hear a form of "Tell me more" from the buyer. If you don't, and you're continuing on anyway, you are risking death by schedule (by going on so long, you've screwed up the exec's schedule and now he hates you).
The third rule of pitching (and, for the record, there is no rule book--this is Hollywood) is you must be able to back it up. You might walk in with the most center-of-the-target project of all time. But if you can't write, produce or otherwise execute the brilliant project you're pitching, you'd better hope that, right before your meeting, the buyer met with a brilliant writer or director who was looking for a project just like yours.
The truth is that ideas are a dime a dozen, and the real currency in Hollywood is the ability to write, direct, produce and/or create the great idea that 800 other guys already thought of. When your uncle is watching TV and gets mad and shouts, "I had that idea!," remind him, "Yeah, but you can't write." This is why the talent--and, with all due respect to myself and other creative executives, we are not the talent--is the heartbeat of our business. Talent is crucial to your pitch. If you are the talent, refer to rules No. 1 and 2 and proceed. If you are not the talent, find it, attach it to your project and have at it.
There's certainly more to it than this, but if you follow these basic rules, you'll be OK. Start your meeting by making it clear that you understand the buyer. Then set up the basic world of the pitch: the concept, the central character or characters and so on. From there, pitch--briefly--the basic story outline. Then move on to the "Here's why we can pull this off" part of your pitch: "Brad Pitt has decided he wants to star in a TV series, and this is the one!" Or, "Can you believe it? Quentin Tarantino has a series he wants to write and direct, so here you go!" If options like those are not available to you, a simple explanation of how and why the talent involved will be able to execute it will suffice.
One last thing. I once took a pitch that included attending a concert and having the show pitched to me from the stage as part of the performance. Seriously. I was invited to the concert by the performer, who was certain her current hit --a lovely ballad about lost love and misbehaving men--would make a wonderful television movie. I sat in my fantastic seat, enjoying the concert, when she turned to me during the instrumental break in the song and, in front of the whole audience, smiled broadly and said, "See, Michael? Wouldn't this be a terrific movie?" I bought the show.
So, OK, I fell for the gimmick. I broke my own rule.
But guess what: Rules are meant to be broken. In fact, we love people who break the rules. This, after all, is Hollywood.