How to pitch a film project on the international market? »

Master class led byRoshanak Behesht Nedjad, producer (Flying Moon, Germany)

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Thursday, May 15 at the Pavillon des Cinémas du Sud, Cannes Film Festival 2008. Techniques for presenting an audiovisual project: How to pitch a storyline? / How to highlight the strong points of your project? / How to position a film in development? A user’s manual.

Roshanak Behesht Nedjad: The normal way you pitch, especially as a producer, is in a one-to-one meeting or in front of two or three people. Usually, you pitch to financers, to sales agents, to distributors, to article producers in order to present the project and make them understand how good your project is and how they can be interested in your project. That’s a very important issue.
OK. How do you pitch now? Basically, you’re trying to tell your film, or what makes your film eligible for that person who wants to put money in your film. The general mistake is that everyone thinks pitching means telling the plot of a film. No, no, no, no, no! Don’t ever start telling the entire plot! It must take one minute or two at the start, and if you get into details, you forget the plotline and end into something that is of no interest to anyone. Plot is not important. What is really important is the emotional journey of your main character.
So, basically, the person who is listening to you is feeling that he’s in the movie, that he’s watching the film. You make them feel what you want them to feel; your audience is watching the film. As an example, if you want to pitch a comedy, don’t say it’s a comedy. You pitch it so that they understand it’s a comedy. Because if you say it, you just claim it to be a comedy. Is it believable? Do they see it, do they hear it? You have this one chance. You see, if you pitch here for a sales head, they have a meeting every twenty minutes. They are presented hundreds of projects, so you only have these ten minutes to get their interest. If you lose the first three minutes, if you lose the interest, they’re gone. They might be listening to you, they might be polite, but their interest and focus is gone, and then you have lost. It’s just like a big film. If you go to the movies and you watch a film at the cinema, and the first ten- fifteen minutes are boring, you are lost. It’s very difficult to get you back in the story, back into the film. Then you watch it with a different sort of feeling inside you. You say « it’s a comedy, I feel like it’s a comedy » but you expect something else. The beginning is not right. If it doesn’t help you, your interest goes and your focus changes. The perception of you (as an audience) changes. That’s the same that happens in the pitch.
So, basically, the person you have in front of you is your audience. And you want them to put money in your film, so you have to make them understand what they’re going to feel when they’ll watch your film. Now, if you pitch a film and it’s a comedy, you state the setting, you start with that. That’s the easiest way to do it. You set the film, somehow the atmosphere, and then you introduce your main characters. Even if it’s a documentary, you also have a main character, usually.
So, you introduce your main characters, you make them understand and connect to your main character. And then, you start to take the grab, practically. You take the person who is in front of you in this emotional journey that your character is going to take, or goes through. That’s the important thing. And then, you go to the point of attack within your script, which basically means the conflict; where it starts and why it is so important for the main character. Because that’s the audience’s work, they have to identify with the film. They have to somehow relate to the story, to the characters or whatever.
So, basically it usually is a character. So what do they do? What you do is, you have the setting, you have the atmosphere, you have described it well (hopefully), then you describe and introduce your character, and then you take your listener to the same journey that your character is going through. Then, you talk about the conflict that your character encounters. And from that point, you basically don’t even need to go through the plot anymore, because then you can basically wrap it up. Maybe there is a bit of ups and downs in your story, you can tell them but you don’t have to. You just wrap it up at the end and that’s it.
So, the entire pitch, if it’s well done and thought through, is not more than two or three minutes for the film. So, in order to be able to do it, the same goes for drama or documentaries. In a documentary for instance, if you’re doing the portrait of someone, you have to set the place, time, what the character is doing to introduce him, and you tell what you want to tell us about him or her. You take us with the character, you tell us about your motivation only from the point of view of your character, and then you talk about the conflict, and then you wrap up relatively soon.
Drama is the same. You’ve got setting, place, time, atmosphere, introduction of the main character. If you have an antagonist, talk about him. If in a documentary, the antagonist is the political situation, talk about it. Then comes the conflict, because from an antagonist comes the conflict. And then a bit, just a bit (one sentence usually is enough – maximum two) of the plot, and then you wrap it up.
If it’s a drama, make them feel the drama. If it’s a comedy, make them feel it’s funny. But don’t state anything. You just say if it’s a documentary or a feature, fiction film and at the end, when you have done the pitch, you can say it’s a comedy. But not before the end, because before the end, you just claim it. You have to prove it. Everyone is basically waiting for you to fail because then, they won’t have to deal with the project! You see, if I get a hundred projects in six months, I’ll have a nervous breakdown! Because if I’m polite and I’m interested, if I’m really serious person and I try at least to read the synopses, a hundred of synopses in the day of a producer (who already works sixty hours a week) is another ten hours a week! I just don’t have the time, so I just wait for them. « Ok this is not interesting for me. Out! » and so on. You have to hook the person, really. This is not a very easy matter, especially if you’re not European, if you’re not English, German, French, if you’re not an American producer with a very broad audience, then you really have to hook them. They have to relate to your story, to your character. In order to be able to do that, and this is really important, you have to have your story wrapped. You see, if you write out this pitch as I said, you will see that if you have a problem with your characters, if they don’t work, you will have a problem to pitch it. And the person in front of who you’re pitching smells it. It’s just like dogs, you know. If you’re afraid, it smells it and then it’s done. So you have to be really sure of your characters, this is very important.
You smile! (Laughter) The same goes for the plot, the same goes for the antagonists and for the entire thing. Usually, I always recommend producers not to let the writers or directors write the synopses. Do it yourself, because the writer and the director have a different approach to a film. You, as a producer, have to sell the film. Usually, it’s the producer pitching, because it’s not financing, it’s not about selling a story to a producer, that’s another issue. In the normal world of financing, it’s the producer pitching the story. It’s all about money, it’s a business! Even if it’s hard, it’s a business.
That means you have to have your story right. If it is not properly developed, if you don’t like your characters (which is another thing), you’ll have a problem. You have to like your characters, and then you can transport this emotion over to the listener, to the buyer. So you have to have that right. And to write a good synopsis, if it’s in English it is usually written with 12-point letters, one-and-a-half line in between, not more than one page max. It depends on how easy the script is, but it usually takes me a week to write it. Sometimes I let the director or the writer write me a synopsis, and I tell them to write at least three pages. Then I work over it, work over it, and work over it, until it becomes three quarters of a page. That’s what a synopsis is. Again, a good synopsis is not about the plot, but about selling the film to other potential financers or decision-makers. That’s the most important issue. And if you’re not a producer, writer or director, do the synopsis as the producer yourself. You’ll see the unique setting point of your story, of your project. That’s something you can then enhance. Don’t lose them into details. Details are boring, because they can’t remember them! If you’re a person who has to listen to twenty stories a day, and if someone comes and talks for four minutes about details and plot, you’re bored. You’re asleep and it doesn’t help you. If I talk too much about details, you’re gone!
So, write the synopsis yourself. And this synopsis is basically the base on which you do your pitch. This is what you need, so take your time. We’re talking about at least one week of work on doing synopses. You see, some of these are not bad. They just miss the essential thing: they introduce the character, but then the conflict which makes the story move over the ninety minutes (or sixty minutes, whatever you want to say) is missing. If I have for instance boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again, that’s a plot but it’s not interesting for me because I have seen a thousand films like this. So what is the most interesting thing about this boy, who is your main character with whom you start? What is in fact the real conflict? How is it set? I can’t stress this too much because it is really the most important thing. If you do your work, it will take around two-and-a-half minute and not more. Then, when you’ve done this, you come up to facts, because with the producer we’re talking about financing, places, houses, shooting places… We’re talking about a thousand things. If it is for instance a documentary about the portrait of a really famous person, everyone will ask themselves « do you have access to this so-called unique person? » because you are the person who supposedly has access to this one guy or woman you are going to portray.
If you have financing in place, say it. That’s really important because it always gives confidence to the people listening to you. For example, let’s say your project is half a million, you already have 100,000 euros in place: stress that. Basically, after you pitch the story, just say you need 400,000, that you already have 100,000 euros in place. That’s important again because that gives them confidence, that means you’re able to raise money, that you’re reliable, eligible. And if they want to place money in your project, it won’t be lost because you can possibly guarantee that you can close the financing, and then indeed do the film.
If it’s a first-time director, it’s good if you have other experience to talk about. If it’s a first-time director, tell them and say in the next sentence that you also have very experienced people who have done maybe thousands of films or whatever, and who can sort of balance this inexperience.
You have the pitch, you have the financing thing; if you have an important cost, talk about it of course. This is again a very important issue: never lie about anything. If you don’t have it confirmed, don’t talk about it. It’s easy to find out that it’s not confirmed. People are well connected. If I meet someone who says « I have this wonderful script which takes place in South Africa and I have Brad Pitt doing it », then I say « OK, I want to see a confirmed signature ». Because would you believe it if someone comes and tells you « I’m shooting a movie and we have, let’s say, Penelope Cruz playing the main cast »? No? OK!
And the project is half a million. Again, the other thing is: be realistic. If you meet someone and get his interest and who’s then interested enough to read the script, ask him if he wants the script in a print version or want it e-mailed. There are people who hate to carry stuff. Everyone wants to give me a script and then I end up carrying thirty kilos back to Berlin! I don’t want that. I’m happy to get everything by e-mail, I read it on my computer and that’s not heavy. I can carry it with me.
Other people want a print version. Send it to them; don’t give it in the hand. Get the address and send them. If you promise it on Monday, it has to be there on Monday morning. If you promise to deliver something at 4 o’clock on a Tuesday, it has to be there at the latest at 3:30. Don’t miss your schedules: that’s another reason to kick you out. Everyone is basically looking for a reason to kick you out. You’re all not European, you all will have difficulties financing your films, and that’s reality. So, don’t ever give them a reason. The reason can be lying about the financing, about cast, about some other aspects, and not keeping the time schedules. This is most important.
And that’s basically it. That’s the usual line in pitching. If you pitch in front of me, as well as in front of a producer, co-producer, sales agent and so on. If you’re invited in front of a big audience, it’s a bit more stressful. Now, how does it affect your pitching, your behaviour? In a one-to-one meeting or with a small audience, you have contact to those people. So basically, I pitch you a story, I can see if you’re falling asleep, if you’re smiling if it’s a funny story, if you’re moved or not. I can somehow try to adjust my behaviour to your reaction. That is important. If you see that you’re losing them, try to somehow get them back. It’s all about personal contact, how you behave towards people and so on. If you’re nervous in a small group, don’t try to hide it: hiding it makes it worse. It doesn’t help. If you’re nervous, that’s fine. Everyone is nervous, everyone can understand this nervousness. It’s not a problem at all. You have to understand that they know that if they were in your situation, they would have the same problems. They’re all human beings.
Don’t hide it. If you’re like me, talking with the hands, you can’t stand up. If I stand up, I would look like a clown. That’s not for me. If you can somehow make it that you feel more comfortable sitting, try to find a seat before you talk to the people. If you’re more comfortable standing, do it even if it looks a bit strange. Stand up and talk! Tell them: « Sorry, when I talk about my project I have to walk or stand up. » That’s in your nature, do it! If you explain it, it’s not a problem. As common as it sounds, try to wear something that you find comfortable and attractive, because it’s also about attractiveness and mutual attractiveness. If I talk to someone and I wear jeans that are too tight, or if I feel I’m underdressed or overdressed, I feel uncomfortable and immediately, my pitch will go astray.
But if I usually pitch with more casual wear (jeans, t-shirt and that’s it) and no jewellery, if I go to a formal meeting and I know they all wear suits, I have to abide by. I also wear formal dress. A woman wears a dress, as a man you wear a suit. This is a very important issue. The other thing: be informed about the people you’re pitching to. If you pitch to a sales agent, it’s very easy. You go to their webpage; you check what kind of films they’ve done. Check about the person, ask people you know. Everyone could help. How old they are, what they like or don’t like, if they smoke and so on. Get as much information as possible about the person you’re pitching to. Then you don’t run into problems like smoking if they’re definitely non-smokers, talking about how you hate smokers while they’re chain smokers, or whatever. There are a thousand things to think of. You have to be informed about the people, you have to know what situation you’re pitching in and you have to feel comfortable.
But on top of everything, you have to know your story, you have to know your characters, you have to like your characters. If they smell any insecurity, you’re out. It’s a really tough business, because we’re talking about money. Even if they’re fund subscribers of the government, there are so many applicants that it’s very difficult to get in. You’ve done the financing bid, the cost (if you’re talking about a feature-film), and then when you go back to the story again, they have somehow to understand the emotional journey of a character. If they can’t relate to that, they won’t fund it. There has to be some connection. It doesn’t mean the story has to take place in Germany or that it has to be a German movie, but they have to understand the conflict or the character in your film. So find the relation between your film project and whoever is going to finance it. That’s the most important thing. Because if they like the story and if they like you, that’s the first obstacle you’ve overcome. The next one is that it doesn’t make sense for them to co-produce a film. Sometimes I love stories but I can’t co-produce them because I know that in Germany, I won’t find any money for this project.
That is a problem. So if you help me or the other financers to find a way to basically say OK, there’s a possibility, for example: « this story relates to Germany because it’s about Turks and there are many Turks in Germany », they might be interested in financing it.
If you pitch in front of an audience of 200 people, you can’t control everything. If you’re pitching a funny story, you can’t see if they’re really reacting to it by laughing. You can’t really control 200 people. So what you will face then, especially for documentaries, is muteness. Nothing is coming back to you. That’s a very strange and uncomfortable situation. You have to go through it. Bear in mind that if you’re too long (more than four or five minutes, even though some say you have between ten and fifteen minutes), they’re gone. You really have to be precise, you have to give the essence of your story and present it in not more than five minutes. Then, there is some other time left to have a Q&A, questions and answers.
I personally find it very difficult to pitch in front of 200 people. With three people in front of me, I can see if they react or not, I can somehow shift at any time. But I can’t really pitch a project if it’s not very well developed. That’s a big issue, because then you don’t really know what to pitch, what the core of your character is and how. Basically, you catch people’s interest through their emotions.
As far as training is concerned, you write the synopsis, and take your time doing it. I had one project which took me four weeks to write the synopsis! It was really difficult. I remained on the level of two pages for about three and a half weeks. Then it came to me and I could write it down, it was three quarters of a page and I sent it out. I didn’t send it out before that.
How do you train? Before friends: talk to them about the project. If they have questions, ask them to be cruel to you. Ask them to be really nasty and mean. They don’t understand everything? They should ask you. If they didn’t like it, they should tell you. You have to improve your performance again and again, so many times that everyone can be basically satisfied. That means also training in front of a mirror, as stupid as it may sound, but it’s a good possibility to see how you appear in front of other people. If you have a video camera, pitch in front of it and you’ll see. Just be very strict to yourself. It is not helpful if someone tells you « that was a great pitch! » It doesn’t help you: people have to really be honest to you. And then, you just pitch to anyone you can! Practice, practice, practice.
Some people write it down and learn it by heart, but if you just present it this way it doesn’t work. It’s very artificial. You have to work on that many times, it has to come out naturally. For example, if you shoot a fiction film, some actors are very good on the first and second takes. Some actors are good, statistically, after take number 13. The same goes for the pitch: some people are natural talkers, they can do it within the first instant, or first or second time. Fine. Some other people need to practice again and again, so if you feel uncomfortable talking in front of people, practice. One other thing: go to a person you don’t know personally and who you know will definitely not take your project. Test it with him. Test it with the least important person first and the most important later. Then you’ll have practice and you’ll know how this feels, how they react. If you have for instance a list of ten sales agents you’re going through, see if they’re really appropriate for your project. Make a priority list and start with the least priority. Then, you do the most important ones the last.
I think that’s it. If you have any questions, please ask.
Question: Can we hear a pitch?
Ah ah ! (laughs) OK, yeah, you can. I’ve done that one for ages so I’m not sure it is really good. I have this story which is set in South Africa, in Durban more precisely. It’s about an eleven-year-old little girl who comes from the Indian Islamic community. She is the only little girl of her father who is a widower; her mother died years before. At one point, this little girl watches a film (I don’t remember the exact story). She watches the film Babe, with this little pig. And she loves this pig. She loves this character. So she tells her dad: « Daddy! Daddy! I want to have a pig as a pet! » He is very respectful towards the Islamic culture which rejects pigs. He thinks: « It’s OK, she’s a little girl. What does she know? » So he says « if you get me a script where it’s written that there’s a pig that is halal, and if you have enough pocket money to afford a pig, you’re more than welcome! » This is what he says to the little girl. But she’s a smart girl and in times of the Internet, it’s very easy for her to get information, and she somehow finds an obscure script on the net that says that there is a small Indonesian pig that is halal. Ah! She starts earning her own money, she goes out, she sells marshmallows and ice-cream and stuff. And then one day, before the big feast, she’s standing in front of her father with this pig, and hell breaks out: the entire community is after this pig. The little girl is upset. They want to kill the pig; they want to hurt the little girl. She, of course, tries to escape, and basically, we see through the eyes of this little naïve and very true girl how absurd religious activism is. Of course, at the end, she can keep the pig.
Question: I didn’t understand the word « halal ».
Halal. It’s like kosher. OK, pigs are unholy creatures because they’re not kosher. They are’dirty’, as they say.
Question: Do you think such pigs really exist?
No, they don’t exist! They have a German name. They’re small, they don’t get that big and they have sort of hanging bellies. They’re not halal of course!
Can such a pitch be read?
Well, if you have to pitch before a 200-people audience, you can write it down and have it in your hand. Try to write just some bullet points. And you can always look at it and talk. But usually, in front of a 200-people audience, you stand up, so you can keep it in your hand like this and it’s not a problem. But in front of three people, it’s not good. Learn it by heart and continue practising again and again until you really know it and you can perform it naturally. In front of 200 people, there’s no problem, but it’s a different matter in front of three people.
And the plot is in one or two sentences: the entire community wants to kill this pig and hurt the little girl, which is in one sentence. Before that, I spoke about five or six sentences. Then I went into interpretation, into what I want the other people to see, so that the audience sees through the eyes of this girl how absurd religious fundamentalism is. This is basically the subject matter of the film. If you want to give an interpretation, do it that way. Introduce the subject matter, the theme of your film. The plot is in the 110-page script. I only describe the first act with the point of attack. I basically run through the second act in one sentence and I give an interpretation of the end and aftermath. I could have said « the girl is standing in front of the Islamic community and everyone has to accept that she has a pig. » That would have been basically different.
Question: Is it possible to use visuals ?
In front of four people, yes, you can do that if the visuals are very important, like for an animation film. It’s very important to have some images, that we see the visuals and what the characters look like. You can do it as a power point; I prefer not more than eight power points. They remind me of engineering conferences somewhere. You deal with the emotions, that’s the only thing you’re dealing with. Sometimes, you can convey information through emotions. Photos, visuals and images are fine. If you have them with you, show them but don’t force people to look at them. If you see that they don’t want to, don’t. If you’re presenting in front of a big audience, if they give you the opportunity, use them but be brief.
If you’re talking about your main character, show when he shifts, point to it in your presentation. But basically, as long as you talk, keep them focused and interested. Instead, they’re gone. Enhancing the conflict is important. It’s a matter of interest. That’s what you do when you want to attract a man or a woman. In front of 1, 2, 3 or 200 people you sell yourself and your characters, your vision, your project and emotions. That’s it. Whatever is technical stuff distracts people, so be aware how to do it so that you don’t lose too much time.
Question: can you show emotion ?
Yes! That’s another thing. That’s OK. Don’t try to hide it too much because they feel compassion. If they see that you’re shaking nervously in front of 200 people, that’s OK, that makes you sympathetic. None of you will ever pitch a 15-million or 80-million dollar project, so they don’t expect you to bear all the pressure. That’s the reason why if you learn something by heart, if you present it and it’s too perfect, that’s not perfect! Perfection is not what they want. They want a bit of failure! It’s not bad, it makes you more human and they like it. So if you read something or have something learnt by heart, if you present it like this, if it’s too perfect they won’t like it. Add some hesitations in between, not too many, but do it as if it comes from your heart and naturally.
And then, as a producer, I would say by the way that this story is family entertainment, it is shot in English, and it’s interesting, politically speaking.
Question: Beyond the general presentation of the project, what do you think of the use of multimedia tools in the pitching of animation films, as far as the quality of the content is concerned?
Yes. You can basically use modern tools, but as long as you’re talking about the story, don’t use them because you may lose the concentration of the audience. It depends on what kind of pitch you’re doing. If it’s a small-group pitch, use the multimedia after you finish the story, and then you can say: « by the way, this is like this etc. » The most important thing comes next. Do it step by step. In front of a big audience, that’s different but you should be aware that it has to somehow flow. It doesn’t work if you start talking and then you turn to your computer and then you do things like this and then you go back again. You lose their concentration!
If you use multimedia, it can be helpful if you have visuals. If I shoot a film in Turkey, even though the coasts in Turkey are very well known, no one in Germany knows them. So I never talk about the coasts. I show them photos afterwards, if necessary. But I concentrate and rely on my story. That’s the most important thing. For animation films, it’s very important of course. If you start talking about your characters, you have to show them. That’s totally different, animation is the big exception.
Question: But even for animation films, the story and its content come first, and then the images…
Basically, in your case, you start with two characters for example. We should see the image of each character as early as you first mention it. Then, the so-called point of attack (the conflict), and whatever you have to say. Then, you can continue with your visuals. But we’ll discuss this later.
Question: If you have several projects ?
Do you mean you have more than one story to present to the sales agent? This is somehow difficult. It’s always better if you go with one project. They don’t like to hear too many stories; you can do that if you know the sales agent. It depends. Some are OK, but usually they prefer to hear one project. I have the experience of this. If they’re somehow related, you can. But they usually want you to concentrate on one project. If you come up with three projects, they’ll ask you what the most important one is.
Question: If you have an animation ?
Yes. If you are the director of an animation movie, it’s already your work so use it! It’s perfect and it’s fine. I’m totally sorry to say that, but the world is stupid to a certain extent. I’m not a German. Well, I’m German but I am also Iranian, so they don’t expect me to be like this. I talk like this, this is the way I am. And they like it because it has a certain exotic potential. Don’t hesitate to use your hands and body and so on, as I said even the shaking is not a problem but don’t overdo it! Don’t be a clown. But for me, it’s particularly funny. If I get someone to listen to my project, I try to basically send my emotions over to that person. We’re not talking about New Age stuff, it’s pure psychology. They have to focus. Here is an example: I was at the « Berlinale » festival, after the competition. It was the screening of a Will Smith film, Hitch, The Date Doctor. A stupid, just fully entertaining film. After the screening, Will Smith came on to the stage and that was the best performance I’ve ever seen, because he was fully concentrated onto the audience. There was really nothing else, he was thinking of nothing else. His mind was 150% onto everyone who was sitting there. As I was sitting quite in the front, I could see that he was picking up some people in the audience. He basically directed it to them. Of course, he did a good performance, and everyone including the most artsy-fartsy director sitting beside me was laughing. It was happy entertainment. He was totally pleased with Will Smith, who is an American blockbuster commercial actor.
So it works, but you have to know how much. Don’t overdo it. Any other questions?… OK, thank you!

Transcription : Thibaud Faguer-Redig///Article N° : 7686

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