HUMANITAS Board Members Ali LeRoi, Howard Gordon, and Marshall Herskovitz Speak on Producers Pannel
Pitching a project to a studio or production house has got to be one of the most anxious and difficult aspects of getting a movie or TV show made. Until you’ve done it, you don’t know how to do it, but the barriers to entry for aspiring filmmakers are high, and screwing up a pitch might end up locking you out from ever pitching something again. Thus it’s helpful that for the final day of Produced By, the PGA organized two back-to-back panels — The Art Of Pitching — for both television and movies, designed to offer a mini boot camp for producers and writers hoping to shepherd their dream to the screen.
In attendance for the television panel were producers Howard Gordon (24, Homeland), Ali LeRoi (Everybody Hates Chris), and Sarah Timberman (Masters of Sex, Justified). For film, panelists were producers Stephanie Allain (Dear White People, Hustle & Flow), Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai), and Graham King (Argo, The Departed). Both panels were moderated by Mark Gordon.
Organized like a small version of The Voice or American Idol, each discussion had people inexperienced with pitching line up and present a four-minute version of the pitch they’d give. Afterward, the panelists would critique the pitch and attempt to offer pointers on improving it. Those pointers were sorely needed, because the pitchers were uniformly bad at pitching. To be fair, the television pitches were all interesting ideas that simply needed to be sold better, but the film pitches, to the last person, were so terrible I almost wondered whether they were part of an elaborate Gong Show style joke.
Standing out in particular, the time travel comedy clearly intended to be some kind of vaguely autobiographical vanity project, and the pitcher who literally sang a deeply cringe-inducing song about the establishment of Athenian democracy. But all the pitches were vague affairs in which it often wasn’t clear until the final seconds, as the pitcher ran out of time, what the proposed film or TV show was supposed to be about.
That’s fine, of course, because the whole point of the exercise was to improve one’s pitch game. Appropriately, the audience was consistently as supportive as possible to the pitchers — all first timers. But by the time the film panel reached the two I mention here, support was joined by uncomfortably, if completely justifiably, audible groans and jeers.
But again, the point was to get better, and panelists did what they could. And at the end of the film panel, Herskovitz offered some specific, and broadly applicable advice for participants to take home with them.
“When you’re being pitched to, and this happened today, although when you’re in an office you don’t have four minutes, you can take an hour, someone will sit down and after a minute, they’ll start to wonder, ‘Wait a minute, was that the daughter or was that the sister? He’s talking about Washington but a minute ago he said New York,’ and you feel this sense like you’re getting lost. And then the person is talking five, six, seven, eight minutes and you’re going, ‘Are we still on act one?’ And what you realize is that the person listening to your pitch is as anxious as you are. Because they’re lost … and getting lost is a scary thing when you’re trying to decide what you should do.”
“The thing to do is go in, and tell your idea in one sentence. And then, tell your idea in three sentences. This turns out to be very, very difficult. Then, tell your story in 10 sentences. This is the challenging part, but 10 sentences allows you to tell what happens in act one, act two, act three, and all the characters and themes. You’ve got to really understand your story in order to do that. And what I’ve found is that I’ve never made it through the 10 sentences,” meaning that fewer than 10 were plenty. “When I’m sold on a project, I’ve never made it through the 10 sentences. You understand your story and can break it down in that way, and you will then have a road map you can give to the executives.”