An Interview with Signe Olynyk: The Great American PitchFest

This year we celebrate the 9th installation of the Great American PitchFest. Started by Signe Olynyk and Bob Schultz as a way to bring writers and industry execs together, GAPF hosts 120 industry companies and roughly 2,000 writers. Boasting a series of master classes, private consultations and free panel discussions, GAPF is a great opportunity for writers, beginning and seasoned, to hone their craft, strengthen their pitching skills and engage in that all important Hollywood skill: networking. Click here for schedules and more information.

Mark Travis: I have a sort of love-hate relationship with pitching. As a storyteller, I love engaging people in the nuances of the story, so I have trouble with the formulaic feel of a pitch. Everyone seems to stress the concise structure of the pitch. Why must pitches be so short?

Signe Olynyk: It’s not so much that they need to be short as they need to be succinct. They need to be very focused. When you’re pitching, you need to take that 110 pages of script and get down to the bare bones of what your story is. You need to convey who your protagonist is, what their goal is, what the obstacles are in the way of that goal and the overall lesson learned by the end. And you can do that, believe it or not, in a sentence. Some people are really good at it and some people aren’t. Unfortunately, pitching is a necessary evil. The trick is knowing your story so well that your pitch doesn’t sound rehearsed. But you also have to be able to deviate from it, to be able to answer questions, because the minute the executive you’re pitching starts asking questions, it means they’re engaged. It’s a really good sign. The best pitches are a conversation. It’s like telling your best friend about a movie you’ve seen or a book you’ve just read and you’re describing what happened in that story. That’s really what a pitch is. And including the ending is really important – what do we take away from the story? Because that’s what the audience is going to take away from the movie – that lesson that enriches our lives. It’s the reason we go to the movies in the first place.

MT: So it’s the matter of the writer really knowing what they’re writing about.

SO: Absolutely. Just like a story has to have a beginning, middle and end, so does a pitch. Your beginning is where you describe who your protagonist is and what they want. The middle part is the obstacles that are in the way and the ending really is what happens and what lesson they’ve learned as a result.

MT: You’ve said that two or three times – what do they learn? I think that’s really important. I’ve heard so many pitches where the writer will say this is what happens and this is what happens and then it ends. As I listen to that story, my reaction as a director is that I understand what happens, but I don’t know why the story even exists. I don’t know what the protagonist learned from his experiences. I think that’s what’s meant by the question: what is my story really all about? Being able to tell me what lesson the protagonist has learned. When I teach directing, I always tell directors to ask themselves this question: when the film is over and the audience is going home, what do you want them to be feeling, thinking about, talking about as a result of your movie? That’s where the power of the movie lies – in how the story continues to resonate with you long after you’ve left the theater.

SO: That’s exactly right. That’s why we go to movies: to feel something. To get carried away, taken out of this moment in our lives and inserted into another world. We want to feel what these characters are going through, to experience the changes they go through as they progress on their journeys because in some small way, we experience change as well. Movies help us in our own evolutions.

MT: In terms of pitching, is there a difference between pitching directors, producers, etc?

SO: There is somewhat of a difference. What I mean by that is, you have you to know the bones of your pitch no matter whom you’re pitching. You also need to know whom you’re pitching. For example, if you’re pitching a producer, you’ll pitch them the bones, but then you’ll also pitch the expanded version of your pitch. You may talk about co-producing. If you’re pitching a funding organization or an investor, you’ll include how you’re looking for development money. You may be looking for an agent or a manager, so you’ll have to tailor your pitch to that. Let them know you’re looking for representation. You’re not just pitching your script. You’re pitching yourself. If you’re pitching a studio exec or a director, you might also be pitching the schedule or key crew members, budget, financial plan, etc. in addition to the bones of the story. That’s why it’s so important to know whom you’re pitching, what their needs are and then tailor your pitch so you are fulfilling their needs. I can’t emphasize this enough: when you’re pitching, you’re not just pitching your story, you’re pitching yourself and at the same time, fulfilling the needs of whomever you’re pitching. That’s all part of the relationship building.

MT: You have a lot of teachers at the Pitch Fest. They’re all talking about pitching and my experience is that they all have different takes on it. What’s your advice on how to take all this wonderful information and bring it together in ways that are useful?

SO:Well, all the teachers are hand-picked for their expertise. They may have different advice on how to ‘make it’

in the film business, but as far as pitching goes, they all teach the correct structure. There is value in their varying opinions about how to break into the business even though I don’t always agree with them. For example, there was one teacher who said that if you’re going to make it in this business you have to live in Los Angeles. I don’t think that’s really true anymore, except maybe when it comes to television. I live in Calgary and I’m still able to make my movies. Another speaker tells his students to give their pitch, to give those bones and then when the producer or whoever asks what’s next, the correct answer is “you have to read the script”. That’s something I strongly disagree with. If you have someone asking about your script, it means they’re interested. If you are not prepared to answer their questions, telling them instead that they have to read the script, then you’re basically shutting the door. It’s also quite disrespectful of that professional, in my opinion. So, you will learn different things from different people, but you have to weigh that against your own experiences and intuition. It’s just like in any community – there will be a variety of opinions and you have to sift through those and figure out which ones resonate with you.

MT: My first reaction when people tell me, ‘well, you have to read the script’ is that I get annoyed. That response also throws up a bunch of red flags for me. I don’t trust that the story has a good ending.

SO: My producing partner calls those scripts BOSH scripts: Bunch of Stuff Happening. Unfortunately, there are a lot of BOSH scripts out there. You can tell them by the pitch because when you’re hearing what those obstacles are and how the protagonist overcomes them, hopefully you’re also hearing how those obstacles are escalating in terms of becoming more and more threatening or dangerous to the protagonist. If you’re not hearing that, then you’ve probably got a BOSH script.

MT: I know one of my pet peeves when listening to a pitch is when the person tells me how brilliant the writing is and then the pitch descends into five minutes of self-adulation. I don’t want to be told how to feel about the script. That’s for me to decide. It’s one of my ‘don’t dos’ when it comes to pitching. In your opinion, what are the 5 indisputable rules of pitching?

SO: Well, in addition to the bones, you need to identify the title and the genre. Five rules … hmmm … there are so many, it’s hard to distill it down. Okay, five rules:

(1) Don’t confess that you’re a beginner, that this is your first script. No one cares and right away they’ll label you. Deal with your insecurity about that on your own. Sit down, be a professional. You’re hosting the meeting and that means getting your story across, selling yourself, showing you are a professional.

(2) Try not to be terrified. You have to have confidence in your ability. You’ve written this brilliant script and now you’re ready to bring it into the world. Be confident in what you’ve created and go into the meeting feeling that way. If you’re too nervous, it will come across.

(3) Don’t be desperate. Everyone wants to be the next big thing. Remember, if you remember nothing else, that this is about relationships. Selling yourself as someone industry execs want to work with is the primary goal. Selling your script is secondary.

(4) Control the meeting. You’re the one who is hosting the meeting and driving it forward even if the meeting is being held in someone else’s office. Be prepared to answer questions even in the middle of your pitch and then be able to return to your pitch. Know your pitch that well.

(5) Once they’ve requested the script, end the meeting. You’ve achieved your goal. Stand up and thank them then end the meeting before they change their minds.

One last thing: always be respectful. Especially at Pitch Fest. When you’re standing in line waiting to pitch your project with Lionsgate for example, behave professionally. You don’t know who’s standing in line with you. Also, if the person you’re pitching isn’t interested in your project, don’t get angry. Use the time to find out what that particular company is looking for in terms of genre, budget, etc. You’re also scouting out the company you’re pitching. It’s not just about them wanting to work with you. You want to make sure this is an organization you are comfortable working with as well.

18 responses to “An Interview with Signe Olynyk: The Great American PitchFest”

  1. Carol Paur

    Great information. This will help me with my least favorite part of screenwriting—trying to pitch the movie. I tell friends and family that it’s easy to write the story, not so easy to pitch. This is information I can use. It also is reassuring. Thanks!

  2. David Worth

    Mark,
    I always enjoy your newsletters. They are precise and always contain information that is necessary for filmmakers… I’ve been a professional DP/Director for over 30 years, still I’m always able to glean helpful do’s and don’t’s from your newsletter…

    Wish me luck, I’m off to Vietnam to do a Directing Seminar in June, then back to UCLA to teach at two Film Camps for youngsters before beginning the Fall Semester at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco…

    I’ll soon be starting my sixth year in my 2nd profession… Teaching Filmmaking… I started at Chapman in 2007 with your friend, the Tenured Professor Gil Bettman…

    Warmest Regards,

    DW

  3. Naomi E. Bigelow

    What a meaningful, loaded article. I *hate* pitching and admit it even as I tell myself how important it is. I’d rather write, get to know my characters and learn to love or hate them, and see where they take me. However, I have a great cowriter and we trade the occasional slap to the side of the head, so yeah, while I write, I also pitch. Thanks for the excellent information and insights.

  4. John Connell

    Excellent article. I’ve followed a few pitch experts, Hauge et al, and I must say, this is a great distillation of sensible, useful rules for pitching. I’ll be checking this before my next pitch. Thanks, Mark.

  5. Suzanne Lyons

    I love getting your Newsletter. I’m not a writer as you know by I can still map on to my producing everything you say. Thank you so much.

  6. Maria Lennon

    Thank you so much for taking the time to show us to be better ‘pitchers.’ I’ll be reading this article a few more times to get it all.

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