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January 2, 2016

Sometimes I find myself on panels where my job is to help filmmakers hone their documentary pitches for forum settings or meetings. I always leave wondering if I might have helped more if I could have defused some of the anxiety attached to the whole thing. My suggestions might not belong at a “Crafting your Pitch” session, but until there’s a “Keeping your pitch in perspective” panel, I offer them here:

1) Forget the word “pitch.”

“Pitch” has become a loaded word. I’ve heard so many filmmakers say they suck at pitching their projects or themselves and just want to make their work. They resent having to “sell it” to anyone. My theory is this stems from a misconception that you have to pitch your film as someone other than yourself – a salesy, fast-talking person you don’t like or respect.

In order to start fresh, this is the last time I’m going to use the word “pitch” in this post. Maybe ever. You can stop, too, and bleep it out in your mind when someone says it to you.

We don’t need that word for what’s really at stake: seizing opportunities to discuss the project close to your heart in order to discover your true champions. Whether the opportunity before you takes place in a 200-seat theater, a meeting during Independent Film Week, or the coat-check line at a reception, you are the best person to talk about your film in a compelling way and get others excited. It doesn’t matter if you’re an introvert with sweaty hands who drops things when you’re nervous. There’s a public speaking rule that goes: if you’re okay with it, so is the audience. They pick up your energy and they will root for you if you let them.

The same goes for almost any interpersonal situation where there’s pressure to perform. Being the same person you were when you woke up won’t charm everyone, but you will do better than your smarmy doppelgänger, and you’ll have an authentic encounter in which mutual interest can develop.

While your passion for your project may seem personal and specific, somewhere out there are others who will get it and go to bat with you. The fastest route to them is by offering something real to connect to. Your project (and your career) will thrive on building relationships of substance over time.

2) The words don’t matter.

It is essential to develop key stories and points for speaking about your film. Winging it in front of a crowd or heavy-hitter is never advised. That said, I think it causes undue stress to memorize text to recite. It can take you out of the moment if you’re trying to say the right words in the right order, when the emotional content is far more important. You may not realize your eyes are going up and to the right to recall what you wrote, instead of making eye contact with your listeners.

We don’t speak the way we write, or listen the way we read. Even if you recall every word with ease, you can still seem insincere. Your listeners may not be able to pinpoint exactly what’s off, but something will be. You might miss out on adjusting to the energy of the room, or panic when someone uses a phrase you had planned as your opener.

When you have an opportunity to talk about your film in an informal setting, being conversational is even more critical. Delivering a monologue at a party is transparent and awkward, when a spontaneous exchange of ideas would be more appropriate and more engaging.

3) Be where you’re at.

You may feel pressure to portray your project as a sure bet by glossing over challenges or uncertainties you’re facing, or claiming access to people, footage or funds you haven’t locked. It’s unnerving to hear yourself say things you know aren’t true, even if you believe they will materialize. It’s also a false pretense for a fruitful long-term relationship with any potential stakeholder. I’m not saying you should share your projects’ dirty laundry — there’s plenty of other stuff to talk about.

It’s more interesting to share the real nature of the journey you’re on — your excitement about the challenges that are shaping your creative journey. You might even discuss a current thread you’re following or question you’re obsessed with. I would have a hard time tuning out someone who said, “I filmed something yesterday that completely floored me…” And I’ve also received the essential information: This train has left the station. Get on board for an exciting ride!

I also want to relieve you of the misconception that there’s one snappy way to talk about your project early on that you can use forever. What you say in the early days (and who you talk to about it) should be different than what you say after three months or a year. You’ll get better at telling the story of your story the more the project itself takes shape. You’ll know which detail makes people’s eyes light up, or gets them sharing something they experienced.

I think it’s also important to assert your project’s real needs, when the moment is appropriate. Be prepared to tell your listeners that without “x” amount of funding before “y” date, you may miss “z” crucial moment.

4) Know the stakes.

This is a “marathon-not-a-sprint” thing. Even people who make it look easy are hustling their butts off. You will hear no a lot. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. There’s no one conference or market where you walk out fully funded, with a broadcast deal. If that’s what you’re expecting, you will put A LOT of unhelpful pressure on yourself.

Your own doggedness is your biggest real asset, your will to keep going until you find your people. If this is your first time out, it’s essential to assemble a team (including an experienced producer). They can’t really “sell” your film for you, but they can help you identify opportunities, and pursue them when and how it makes sense. This is your first and most important audience.

Over the course of making, funding and releasing your film, you will describe it and/or show footage to many different people in all kinds of contexts. You can come prepared, but you can’t predict the outcome. It will take time, but keeping in touch with your true passion as you engage with others will bond you to those who will share it.