Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie pitches, Startup Pitches

I have developed pitches to studios, to networks and premium cable, and to "angel investors" for both startups and indie films. In the next eight weeks, I'll be pitching a TV series pilot, a feature film spec, and I will joining a larger team to pitch a startup to VC's. Quite a lot comes to mind when I compare the two worlds, especially as those worlds continue to merge.

So check out my answer on Quora to...

Venture and Investor Pitches: In what ways is a Hollywood film pitch similar to a Venture Capital pitch for a startup?

I have developed pitches to studios, to networks and premium cable, and to “angel investors” for both startups and indie films.  In the next eight weeks, I’ll be pitching a TV series pilot, a feature film spec, and I will be joining a larger team to pitch a startup to VC’s.  Quite a lot comes to mind when I compare the two worlds, especially as those worlds continue to merge.
Honestly, the biggest similarity is just the anxiety and dread I inevitably feel before attempting to sell myself and my idea.  People attracted to screenwriting and technology (or both) tend to be introverts and not natural salespeople.  Pitching to anyone about something you care deeply about can feel like going up on stage to do a tap dance routine… wearing clown make-up and a speedo.
However, my personal neuroses aside, I’ve noticed three fundamental similarities:
  • You Must Tell A Story
You begin the pitch with a hook that grabs attention of your audience and moves them emotionally.  They think, “Wow, this is a story I want to hear.” Then you tell a tale about people with a BIG problem and a hero with a unique solution.  The story is exciting because both the hero and the people want something very, very badly, but there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to getting it.  The story ends with a payoff, punchline, twist, a solution, and the audiences say “Ahhhhh, now I understand!”
The best pitches I have ever heard seem effortless.  They are delivered like a spellbinding anecdote told over martinis at a dinner party.  If the pitch is for a startup, the protagonist is the entrepreneur him/herself, but the structure of the story is the same: a big problem with unique solution executed by heroes who are the only ones for the job.  The “twist” or “punchline” of the story is (in startup lingo) your “secret sauce.”  It’s the unique quality of hero, his or her “superpower,” that will allow him/her to save the day.
These stories are told with passion. They aim for the maximum emotional impact and personal connection with the audience.  Charisma, eloquence, and authenticity are all essential when pitching your story.
  • It’s All About Execution
In both stcreenwriting and startup circles you often encounter the meme:Your Idea Means Nothing. 
Well, this isn’t exactly true.  Said Michael Wolf, “I’ve never met a VC who told an entrepreneur, ‘don’t tell me about your idea since it doesn’t matter!’”  Likewise, I’ve never met a producer or studio executive who told a screenwriter, “Don’t bother pitching me your story. Ideas don’t matter. It’s all about execution!”
However, when you walk into an office to pitch a great idea, what you are really selling is your execution of that great idea.
This often comes down to who is already “attached” to the project.  In movies and television, this means that a major star, a powerful producer, or a hot director has already committed to doing your project should it get set up.  Likewise, in start-ups, it’s good to have a great programmer, a great marketer, proven businessman, or some other “rockstar” on your team.
For example, if you went into a room and pitched a dark tale of madness set among dancers in a production of the ballet “Swan Lake,” you would likely be shown the door.  However if your director is Darren Aronofsky and your star is Natalie Portman, you have a much better shot.
Perhaps the key element in the execution piece is answering the question “How the hell does this make money?“  In movies, this often comes down to having the exclusive rights to a “property,” a popular book or famous movie that can be remade.  Having a built-in audience assures the investor that that there is enough potential interest in the story to turn a profit. In startups, this often comes down to a “proprietary technology,” something that distinguishes you in an established and lucrative marketplace. In both cases, the burden is on you to convince the investor that there are actually people or businesses out there who might pay money if your idea is realized.
  • Who The Hell ARE You, Anyway?
“Who you are” will set the tone, the receptiveness, and level of enthusiasm in the meeting before you even walk in the door.  Often, I can sense how a pitch is going to go, just by gauging the energy of the participants in the first 60 seconds.In both worlds, it’s easiest to pitch to people who either already know you or already know you for something.  Whether you have already had a popular movie, sold a spec script, been a key player in a successful company, or just have “buzz” around you and your project(s), it’s good to have “heat.”
Let’s face it, if you pitch a Question and Answer website, no matter how good your idea may sound, nobody is likely to care unless you just happen to have been players in the development of Facebook.
If you are unknown to the person you are pitching to, the first thing they will do before the meeting is google you.
For example, before a movie pitch, the executive will first look at my IMDB page and my blog, both of which (for better or for worse) show up on the first page of my Google results.  Likewise in startups, your online “brand,” as defined by your Linkedin profile, online articles written about you, or your website itself, will define “who you are.”
If you are a complete unknown and have no established reputation, what matters is who you know.  Someone important -  a powerful agent or producer, a powerful entrepreneur or expert in your business – has to vouch for you to get you in the room.
“Who you know” is particularly important because of the notoriousnepotism and cronyism in the film and television industry.  Truth be told, the best way to sell a pitch (or to become an actor, director, or producer) is to be the related to somebody famous.  While connections matter in every business, the startup world is far more concerned with proven qualifications.  Hollywood is NOT a meritocracy.
For example, if an entrepreneur graduated at the top of his class from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or Caltech, with a host of awards and achievements, it would carry weight with a potential investor.  Conversely, I graduated fromUSC School of Cinematic Arts, arguably the best and most Hollywood-connected film school in the world, I had close to a 4.0 grade average, and I won several awards and scholarships.  Yet, while the time I spent there was invaluable to me in my development as a filmmaker, my USC degree means virtually nothing to anyone listening to a movie pitch.
  • Bonus Similarity – The Rejections
Even if a  pitch is ultimately bought, 99% of the people you talk to are going to say, “no.”  It takes a lot of strength, dignity, and most of all, passion to weather the long storm of rejection and indifference.  The King’s Speech took a decade to get funded, even with Geoffrey Rush attached.
In both worlds, the job of the people you are pitching to is to say NO.  Their task is to listen to dozens of pitches a day and figure out a good reason to pass on almost all of them, because they (and their companies) can only say yes to a very limited number of projects.  You can’t take it personally, and you can’t see the rejection or even many “reasons” given for a pass as indictment of your core idea.  You just have to take a deep breath, make adjustments if necessary, and move on to the next one.
The only thing you have to keep you going through the long slog is the (sometimes delusional) belief in your core idea and the authenticity of your “story.”
So, as it turns out, whether or not you have hot properties, great connections, or rockstar attachments, your “story” may indeed be the most important thing after all.


Unknown said...

Great article Sean. Thoroughly enjoyed. All the best with your upcoming projects.


Unknown said...

Great article Sean. Thoroughly enjoyed the read. All the best with your upcoming projects.