Hollywood on the Couch

The inside scoop on Tinseltown, USA.

The Art of the Pitch

How to Survive Pitching Your Ideas

Pitching your ideas to producers, TV networks and film studios is one of the realities of the creative life. Whether you’re a director hawking a supernatural thriller franchise to Paramount, an actor hoping to produce and star in a prestige historical film for HBO, or a comedy writer trying to sell a sitcom idea to NBC, you’re part of a time-honored tradition of artists offering the promise of their talent to someone with the money to pay for it.

I know this aspect of the creative life quite well. Prior to becoming a psychotherapist, I was a screenwriter. Before that, a staff writer on sitcoms. I’ve free-lanced episodes, too, and done my share of pilots.

In other words, I took meetings. Lots of them. Something like a thousand, over eighteen years. Most were pitch meetings, selling my ideas, my craft, myself to others.

But before I talk about the issues involved in pitching one’s work, from my own experience and that of my creative patients, let me get my favorite “Pitch from Hell” story out of the way:

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A producer and I were pitching a film at a big studio. We met with two executives, a male and a female, late on a Friday afternoon (already we were in trouble). About half-way through the meeting, the man left to take an urgent call. Moments later, the woman excused herself to go to the rest room.

They never came back.

After waiting about twenty minutes, the producer and I sort of wandered the halls, peeking into empty cubicles. We figured each exec thought the other would cover the rest of the meeting. In any case, the place was deserted.

As we drove off the lot, I said to the producer, “Gee, they missed the best part of my pitch.” Only I said it somewhat more colorfully.

Pitching is something that comes up constantly in my therapy practice. At the very least, for most artists, it’s a difficult and often dispiriting experience. For some, it’s literally terrifying.

To deal with this, most creative types I know develop little tricks or techniques to get them through the process. Some memorize the entire pitch (and pray nobody interrupts them). Some have arcane theories as to how long to talk about each character, plot point or act break. Others believe in researching the professional (and sometimes personal) successes of the people they’re pitching to, hoping to flatter their egos. Toward the further end of the spectrum we find hypnosis, relaxation tapes, and “lucky socks.”

My problem with these strategies, even the ones that appear to work, is that they’re all an attempt to hide the artist. He or she “hides” behind the pitching technique, using it as a shield against what might emerge in the meeting. By that, I don’t mean its professional outcome; I’m referring to the feelings that might be set off within the artist.

Samuel Johnson said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” Likewise, I think pitch meetings introduce a creative person to him or herself. That’s what makes them so frightening for so many people.

Years ago, I had a screenwriter patient who suffered terrible anxiety before every pitch. No matter how strongly he felt about the idea he was proposing, how solidly constructed the story, the pitch rarely went well. Then, during a session about some difficult aspects of his personal life, he blurted out, “It’s as though every event defines who I am.”

A potent realization for him, and one that we saw applied as well to his fears about pitching. He experienced a pitch meeting as an event that ultimately defined how okay he was, how acceptable. Perhaps even how entitled he was to be there.

As a result, his defense against the powerful feelings of shame that might emerge if he failed to sell his idea was to work harder on the story, prepare more diligently, practice the pitch with friends, etc.

What he needed to do instead---which became the focus of our work together---was to challenge the underlying assumption; namely, that if the pitch didn’t result in a sale, this defined him as unacceptable or inadequate.

Every pitch meeting, like every human encounter, is a relational event. We bring all our “stuff” into that room---our performance anxiety, the meanings we give to failure and success, the requirement we may have felt in our families to be the “best and the brightest.”

(Or the reverse. I recall a sitcom director patient who often “sabotaged” her performance in meetings, re-playing her parents’ injunction when she was a child not to “show off,” or draw undue attention to herself, because it might make others “feel badly about themselves.”)

I think it’s important for creative people of all stripes to explore what’s underlying their fears and expectations about pitching, so that they can develop better tools for alleviating the more painful aspects of the experience.

But it’s also important to remember that pitching is a difficult task for just about everyone. To convey to others what’s in your mind and heart is hard enough, let alone convincing them to pay for it. Let’s face it, that’s practically a recipe for anxiety.

However, as the late Rollo May reminded us, anxiety is a necessary component of any creative act. Which even pitching can be, in the right circumstances, when our fears are accepted with humor and compassion, and our convictions and enthusiasms can be engaged.

And the other guy hangs around long enough to see it.

But I’m not bitter. 

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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