Pitchfests - To Pay or Not to Pay for Access?

To pay or not to pay? Are pitchfests useful?  Yes.  And they should be part of your screenplay marketing strategy.  There are several respected pitchfests coming up in the next few months (check out our events list on our home page for links to them).

Even the newest of “baby” (unproduced) writers assume that the road to become a working writer is to get an agent or manager to represent your work and VOILA! - instant deal, fame and fortune!

However, getting an agent or manager is not that easy.  There are also plenty of fringe industry-types who prey on new writers.  Writers that deal with these sharks quickly find that the road to fame and fortune is paved with fool’s gold.

You’ve done your research, you’ve identified the respected agents and managers, and sent out endless query letters and made hundreds of unsolicited cold calls only to be hung up on and/or you received a handful of “thanks, but no thanks” rejection letters…if you were lucky even to get those.

So how do you get and agent or manager if the query/cold call method fails?  Well, one of the easiest and surest ways is to have them come to you.  How do you do this?  One way is to win or place well in a respected screenplay contest, but the easiest way is to get interest from a production company that either wants to buy your script or at least thinks highly of it and will provide a referral. 

Next, you can query and cold call every production company in the Hollywood Creative Directory or the Fade-In Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Producers Directory and try to get producer's interest. However, many of these companies have a policy of not accepting unsolicited material and even a simple query letter may fall into this category with them.  So if you have a perfect action script for Mace Neufeld Productions or a horror script for Wes Craven but their policy is to not accept unsolicited material, how do you get to them? 

Pitchfests.

A Pitchfest is usually a one or two day event that usually takes place in Los Angeles (since the majority of producers are based here) where writers pay the organizers of the event to have an opportunity to pitch their ideas, screenplays and novels to agents, managers, producers, executives and/or junior executives at production companies, studios, networks, and literary agencies.  These invited executives spend the day in a large hotel ballroom or convention center room where they sit at a table with a sign identifying their names and their company.  The writers wait either in line or with a set appointment time to sit down in front of the execs for usually a seven minute pitch session.  To be honest the actual time is only five minutes as two minutes are set aside for getting to the table and for leaving the room.  The execs listen intently hoping to find the perfect idea from a writer with a fresh new voice.

For some writers this is sheer agony.  An exercise in flop sweat, stuttering and complete mental shutdown.  Not a pretty picture.  Even the most seasoned “pitcher” will experience this for the first one or two pitches of the day.  But quickly you will find your rhythm and be able to spit out your pitch with ease and confidence.  Not only do these events give you an opportunity to market your material but also to hone your pitching skills.

Pitchfests have started to pop up all over the place.  A few years ago there was only one: the Fade-in Pitchfest which started in 1996.  Today there are at least eight.  We don’t endorse any one in particular but have found that though they vary in prices and formats, they all have merit and are worthwhile.  Fade-in offers two pitching events a year.  Then, there is the Great American Pitchfest (held at the Los Angeles Convention Center) and the Great Canadian Pitchfest (held in Canada).  The American Screenwriter’s Association holds a pitchfest at the San Diego Film Festival.  Creative Screenwriting Magazine holds a pitchfest at its annual Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles every fall.  There is also a “Take-A-Meeting” pitch event at the Austin Film Festival and at the Final Draft sponsored Screenwriter’s Showcase event which just took place in Los Angeles last month.

Some of these events charge a flat fee for the two day event while others charge a per pitch fee of about $25 or five for $100.  The Fade-In events are a flat fee and usually entitle you to sign up for 12 set meetings over the two days plus unlimited opportunities to take additional meetings by waiting in a standby line.  The Great American/Canadian Pitchfests use a different format where you stand in line for each company and you can get as many meetings as you can fit in.  Expect to wait plenty of time though to meet the “big name” companies and execs.  This format we have found to be less stressful and more democratic in policy. These two events offer the standard five minute meeting format.  The events that are listed as “Take-A-Meeting” are fifteen minute long meetings and offer a much more relaxed pitch and networking opportunity.  You will be amazed at how short a five minute pitch session is the first time you do one.  You have barely enough time to introduce yourself, describe your script(s), and pitch the hell out of it. 

The pitch organizers will provide you before the event with a list of the companies and execs that are attending, their contact information, a list of their credits, and the genres and budgets that they do and do not want.  This allows you to decide in advance who is best suited to your scripts and ideas.  Don’t set a meeting to pitch your big budget action script to a low budget indie producer or your slasher horror project to Disney.  You are wasting your time and money.  Use common sense and pay close attention to the “what we are looking for” section in the company listing.  For instance, Wes Craven wants to produce non-horror projects now.  You may think he wants horror, but the pitch materials will likely say “no horror!”

In every pitch session the key is to be brief and to the point.  If you have multiple scripts you want to pitch you may find it easiest to say “I have four scripts and I’d like to give you their loglines. Then you can tell me which one you’d like to hear more about” rather than just rattling off one idea after another.  In five minutes you just don’t have the time to give four or more pitches.  Not quality pitches anyway.  A typical response from the exec will be “Just tell me the one you think is the best.”  Give them what they ask for and not what you want to pitch them.  Do not go into detail.  You need to give them broad strokes.  You may find it best to pitch your script as a short three act plot.  Describe the main character then his/his dilemma (the first act break), describe the complications that develop in the hero reaching his goal (act two), then give them the climax (act three).  Yes, tell them the ending.  Don’t bother giving them just a setup and saying “if you want to know what happens, let me send you the script.”  This will not go over well.  You must be passionate, confident, and have a great idea.  Lets face it -  high-concept is king in pitching.  Intimate family dramas have a harder time succeeding at pitchfests (and in the marketplace) than a comedy with a great hook.  That is just how it is. 

Some other basic pitchfest tips: introduce yourself; mention if you or one of the projects you are pitching has won a contest; dress casually (these events are not formal and you will not gain points for being in a suit); mention any connection you may have to the executive or company; flattering them doesn’t hurt if you were particularly fond of one of their projects; only pitch completed or nearly completed scripts; at the end ask if they have any questions (most likely they will ask even in mid-pitch) and be prepared to answer any question about your story with confidence.

If the exec isn't interested, or tells you the script just isn't right for them, just thank him or her and move on.  You aren’t going to be able to convince them that they are wrong.  Leave them with a one page synopsis or “one sheet” that lists your loglines and your contact information.  Even if they don’t respond to you initially, they or someone else at the company may read this “one sheet” later and request one of your scripts.  You will be given their contact information and you should follow up with them a week later and thank them for their time and perhaps remind them of the idea you pitched them.

If an exec requests your script they may want it emailed or snail mailed in along with their release form.  Include a cover page and remind them that they requested this script and at which event.  Also make sure to write “requested material” in bold letters on the outside of the package being delivered to ensure it isn’t thrown away unopened. 

Many writers think it is wrong or a waste of money to go to pitchfests.  This opinion is typically held only by writers who go to one event and have little success or object purely on principle.  Don’t fall into this trap.  Sometimes this is the only way to gain access to these execs and companies.  Even companies that list that they have a “referral only” or “no unsolicited submissions” policy attend these events.  Yes, you are paying money for access.  But you pay money to print and mail query letters and in phone charges for cold calls don’t you?  The risk to reward ratio is worth the money. 

Becoming a successful, working writer in most cases is about access, networking, and talent. These events typically provide the first two.  You are responsible for the last one.

To learn more about pitchfests, CLICK HERE, to read an interview with Bob Schultz, the Executive Director of the Great American and Great Canadian Pitchfests.


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