Producer’s POV: StorySelling – The Art of Pitching

Posted by Heather in Producing, Screenwriting // June 17th, 2014

Example_ScapularLoading_Bad_BillyWagner_2006_023Pitching can be creative and (dare I say it?) even fun. And if you get good at it, it can empower and liberate you to do more of what you love to do:  write.

Writers are storytellers. But when they have to sell their stories, they often freeze up. That’s an unfortunate and unnecessary career handicap.

Pitching is (of course) a completely different skill set than writing – but it’s just as learnable a craft and instinctive an art. And you’d do well to get good at it. Just as the secret to good writing is great rewriting, pitching takes practice.  But where do you even start?

At the beginning.

When an athlete is asked the first time to break down what they do instinctively into step-by-step instructions, often, the combination of moves they try to articulate seem disjointed. It’s only as the separate pieces come together into one graceful, natural movement that everything falls into place. You, too, can achieve that with your pitch: invisible (but flawless) structure, expressing authentic passion, resulting in genuine emotional engagement that inspires desired action.

Pitch Perfect

Have you ever raved about a movie or TV show that you absolutely loved (or even an exciting sports game) to someone who hadn’t yet seen it? Spoilers aside, your enthusiasm was probably contagious enough to make your listener want to see it, too (i.e., to take action).

You want to make whomever you’re pitching to, be genuinely excited to read your script (or at least think it sounds marketable enough to warrant their paying a threshold Reader to vet it for them). Sure, you want to sell or option a script or secure an agent or manager – but those are all downstream goals. What are the real goals that can actually be accomplished during a pitch?

     Primary Goal: Elicit a script request.

     Secondary Goal: Network (Build Your Relationships and Reputation)

Share Your Passion

For each and every pitch, your challenge is to translate whatever it was about your idea that got so under your skin that you were inspired – nay – compelled – to dedicate weeks to years of your life to create a whole world of characters to express the concept.

No one can give you that passion. As a writer, you should’ve come preloaded with that. That should be why you’re here: crazy enough to pursue this line of work. No matter what you’re pitching, to whom, where or how – your pitch should always start with a fantastic logline.

Loglines in a Nutshell

Loglines are without a doubt the hardest things you’ll ever have to write. And the most important. Books, blogs, videos, workshops and panels galore cover loglines ad infinitum, so let’s just cut to the chase and assume that ya’ll know that you need (give or take) something like this:

[Title] is a [Genre] about [an interesting, proactive Protagonist] who wants to/must [P’s Goal] but [Conflict = obstacles that get in the way/stakes if Protagonist fails].


When [the inciting event happens][our Hero]must [pursue the goal/drive the plot].

If your Protagonist is not pro-actively pursuing a plot-driven goal, then maybe you have more a character-driven or situational story, and you need to adjust your logline accordingly. If you have written a transformational character arc, make sure you point out your Hero’s flaw in your logline as it is key to your theme. An ironic twist at the end of a logline is always good for extra credit – especially for comedies and thrillers.

As always, look for the source of conflict in the story. In an action-driven piece, it will be in the goal versus the stakes against the ticking clock. In a character-driven piece, it will be in the situation. If you have created circumstances that accentuate a clearly defined central problem, perpetuating it from every angle (but never really actually solving it), then you may have yourself a TV show.


Pitching Scenarios

There are as many different kinds of pitches as there are opportunities. Let’s limit the spectrum of this blog to four environments:

  • Brief Surprise Encounters
  • Targeted Queries
  • Pitch Fests
  • Pitch Meetings

Each of these situations are wildly different. Inevitably, the approach, pace and architecture of each pitch will vary. If you have a chance meeting with someone on your Hit List in line at Starbucks, you may only have a couple of minutes to seamlessly work your brilliant logline organically into the conversation. This is the ambient white noise of LA.

If you’re targeting a handful of personalized query letters, cold calls or third party luke warm referrals, you might introduce your logline with a “What If…?” character or plot premise statement or close with the unique subject matter expertise you bring to the material.

Pitch Fests

The beauty to a pitch fest is that you can get right down to business. They know why you’re there. This professional speed-dating ritual is probably equally as painful on both sides. Of course, you want to greet them and build (quick) rapport, but with only 3 – 8 minutes all in, you’ve gotta race to get to and through your well-practiced spiel while ignoring the ballroom of competing hawkers all around you.

Most pitch tests are loud, noisy hot beds of chaotic, rushed desperation but a few organizations offer a higher quality experience by vetting both ways. RB and Joey Tuccio’s Stage 32′s Happy Writers’ Online Pitch Fests schedule professional, quality, cyber-face-to-cyber-face Skype pitches and NATPE’s PitchCon, a smaller and more intimate live event provides decision-makers specifically looking for TV projects a convenient forum to find them. Both deliver the actual decision-making executives they promise.

If you’re smart, you’ve already done your due diligence on who you’re pitching to and can replicate the Cliff Note version of what you’d do in a legit, scheduled pitch meeting (below).

Official Pitch Meetings

The Holy Grail. Actual real buyers. Hopefully with development money and access to distribution. One or more Execs have actually set aside time specifically for you, wanting to hear your specific pitch (that they might actually be interested in) or perhaps they are looking – now or in the near future – to hire a writer like you.

Before you go in: practice, practice, practice. You cannot over practice a pitch. Think of an actor who is so far off book they have the freedom and confidence to improvise, to be present and aware.

Trust your material. You know it (you wrote it). Relax. If you have practiced your pitch on your family, friends, writers group and anyone who would listen, you should have earned your confidence. Sure, you’ll still be nervous – you’re a writer not an actor or comedian. But if you record your pitch on video tape – and, like an athlete – study the playback, painful as the feedback may be -it’s also priceless. Fix the pitch and polish, polish, polish.

Pitch Architecture

Just as screenplays are highly structured, so too are pitch meetings. Now you’ve got a Hollywood eternity of 15 to 45 minutes to just squeeze in all of the following (in about this order): greetings, relevant and interesting intro, break the ice, build rapport, honestly acknowledge them for some of their work that you admire, don’t rush but segue on to the genesis or emotional inspiration for your project, slip in the title and genre to make sure they’re oriented, knock that logline that you rewrote more than your script out of the park, and move gently into your well-rehearsed pitch making it seem like more of a conversation than a presentation. Phew! (That’s “all” you’ve got to do!)

Hit a key milestone five minutes in and give them some mile markers: “That’s when we break to Act Two…” Don’t steam roll over them. Engage their imagination. Check in with them periodically. Ask questions. Show respect. Is the type of project they do or might be interested in?

Don’t just list the events of your beat outline. They want you to entertain them with a story – not just outline the structure. As you weave through your key turning points, make them FEEL the twists and turns. Hopefully they’re laughing if you’re pitching a comedy or on the edge of their seats if its a thriller. Emulate what the viewing experience could be through your verbal storyselling.

You already know: Show, Don’t Tell

Don’t Tell: Sell!

(sell, Sell, SELL!)

Don’t be so myopically focused on the artistic elements that you lose sight of (let’s be honest, here) – what the money guys (or gals) are in the room for: to discern how marketable what you’re pitching is. Can they make money off of it? It is Show BUSINESS.

And speaking of which, using comps can be Risky Business.  If you’re going to reference comparable precursor films or television programs, please use restraint with the “It’s ABC meets XYZ” mashups. Know your audience. Don’t mention their flops. It’s probably not even wise to use the labor of loves of their predecessors. Models you referenced for structure, theme or even casting inspiration while you were writing will only be of interest to your fellow writers. For the suits, offer up genre, rating or tone touchstones that were box office or ratings hits that appeal to your same demographic.

question_makrs_cutie_mark_by_rildraw-d4byewlQuestions are great. The more there are, the closer you are getting to a deal – so welcome them. PREPARE FOR THEM. This is the benefit of all that practice. What confused your friends when you pitched originally? Where were the slumps that bored practice listeners? Hopefully, you’ve pruned all that out. Know what the tough questions will inevitably be in advance – and be prepared with a kick-ass answer. Maybe even hold back a surprise twist knowing that this will be an obvious question to ensure they participate – and you are armed and ready.

If appropriate, this is your one chance, inside the ivory tower, to hear from the Horse’s mouth what they’ve got up their development sleeve – and what they’re really looking for. Mixed metaphors aside, dig about (gently) to ascertain future opportunities.


how-to-play-catcher-in-baseball.WidePlayerAsk for the Order. Would they like to read the script? Can you send a pitch package?  If they say yes…? Hallelujah! – and get the hell out of the room! (Do the jig when you’re out of their line of sight!) A good salesman knows when to shut up. You cannot do any better than a “Yes” and anything that comes out of your mouth after this will only offer them fodder to second-guess their decision. Say, “Thank you,” and leave.

If they have to pitch it further up the food chain (which inevitably they will), delicately offer that you’d be willing to come back and pitch it to anyone else who needs to hear it. If they’ll allow this, it takes the onus off them for a repeat, diluted performance and ensures you nothing will be lost in translation. Not to mention: you get to meet their boss (and begin to build that relationship, too).

Pitch your heart out. You already poured it onto the page, right? This is the second course. GOOD LUCK! I hope you knock it out of the park!




Producers POV: Charlie Kaufman’s Women

Posted by Heather in Producing, Screenwriting // January 22nd, 2014

A great deal has been written over the past forty years about (Alfred) “Hitchcock’s Women.” Immaculate blondes, sensual ice queens that could be both treacherous yet vulnerable. These strong independent women often drove the action of his famous suspense films – and they suffered for it. They have become icons of his era.

One of our era’s most distinctive cinematic voices is Charlie Kaufman. In studying his scripts and movies (preparing for an OnDemand Webinar), I began to appreciate the spectrum of his female characters across his six films thus far: Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York.


The antithesis of his needy male Protagonists, Charlie Kaufman’s female characters are aware of what they want in life – and are willing to take risks to go get it. They are often sarcastic and emasculating, almost always autonomous, confident, extroverted and manipulative.

MaxinClearerCatherine Keener’s performance in Being John Malkovich was a breakout role for her. Although she originally didn’t think she was right for the part of Maxine, she seems the perfect Kaufman femme fatale – particularly suited to play his deadpan comedy. Brazen, cocky and audacious, he cast her similarly in his most recent directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.



LotteUnlike Hitchcock’s always meticulously groomed bleach blondes, Kaufman seems to have a knack for making exquisite women unattractive. Take Being John Malkovich’s Lotte, so frumpy and frizzy, few even recognized her as the beautiful Cameron Diaz who played a woman so unhappy with her life that her first lesbian experience (albeit a surreal Russian doll daisy chain of an initiation) ignites her desire for gender reassignment surgery.


ArquetteAnd in Human Nature, the otherwise lovely Patricia Arquette, suffers from Idiopathic Hypertrochosis – an incredibly rare hormonal imbalance that covers her body in hair like an ape. She spends part of the movie naked and feral – but always, true to herself.





Meryl Streep is fantastic in everything but it sure looks like she had a ton of fun playing the libelously Hollywood-ized “true” life story of Adaptation’s Susan Orlean.






One of my all-time favorite movies and Kaufman’s most commercially successful films to date, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a heartbreaking yet hopeful remarriage tragicomedy, is driven by Kate Winslet as Clementine, who catalyzed the whole story by choosing to undergo a surgical procedure to erase all her memories of her boyfriend of two years, Joel (played by Jim Carey). No idealized, fairy tale RomComs for Kaufman fans, no Ma’am: he dishes out poignant, realistic, messy portraits of modern love.

ESotSM-KDKaufman updates the “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” model when Mary in the same film, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, realizes not only the source of her puppy-dog-like adulation for Howard (played by Tom Wilkinson) was (ineffectively) washed away by this same procedure. Not only is she one of his most recent “patients” (unethical on so many levels), but her humiliation is heightened by discovering this secret in the middle of the night – in the middle of the street – with Howard’s oft-betrayed wife looking on, empathetic from her superior position. Mary takes it upon herself to re-educate all of Howard’s former customers, setting in motion who knows what kind of unraveling and disruption on so many fronts.

SNYAnd finally, there are so many doppelgängers in Synecdoche, New York it’s hard to tell them apart (much like replacement spouses). Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden Cotard had a revolving door of one woman after another in a series trying to fill the void left by his first wife, Adele (played by Catherine Keener) and the daughter she took with her. After trying to recast this role in his “real” life with Claire, played by Michelle Williams, he casts Tammy (Emily Watson) to play Hazel (played by Samantha Morton) – both of whom he sleeps with – so similar in appearance, audiences had a difficult time telling them apart (kind of the numbing point). The entire cast ages decades in a matter of moments as time – and life’s opportunities – slip through the fingers of this asleep-at-the-wheel Protagonist.

In so many of his films, Kaufman poignantly tracks the erosion of love – and the atrophy of affection – through a cinematic dance of self-awareness, identity – and lies. But he can always be counted on to write complicated, complex, proactive female roles for all ages.

Watch this column for future articles on the Eternal Brilliance of Charlie Kaufman’s Non-Linear Mind.


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Producer’s POV: Do’s and Don’t’s of Reality Show Pitch Proposals

Posted by Heather in Producing, Writing for TV // August 9th, 2013

This summer, I judged The Hollywood Player Pitch Contest at NATPE’s PitchCon. For the past couple of years, I’ve helped TV Pitchers develop their materials and prepare for their pitches.  I thought it might be helpful to share some Do‘s and Don’t‘s of what ought to be in your proposal when pitching a script.

photo credit


  • Know WHAT your show is. Is it a half-hour or hour show? If it’s a competition program – what kind? Elimination? Talent Search? Game Show? Social Experiment?
  • Know what your format is. This is what you are pitching in reality programming. This is your protectable asset. Have it broken out and down. Know what it is. You can register your treatment or outline with the WGA. Or even work up a hypothetical pilot script and copyright that proposed execution of the idea.
  • Know its milieu. Is it Fashion? Health? Science? Foodie? Travel? Know your world. 
  • Know who your audience is. What are your likely demographics? (This is also your most obvious clue as to who your likely distributors or outlets might be).
  • Give us an initial snapshot of the project: a quick, orienting overview so we can get on the same page with you, frame our expectations appropriately, not be confused – and be prepped to enjoy your passion!
  • Have at least a ballpark idea of the show’s budget (or at least what’s realistic for your genre). Remember: reality is profitable because it is cheap.
  • Have a great sizzle reel. But it is far better to have no sizzle reel than a cheesy one with marginal production values that could do more harm than good. If what I might imagine off your great pitch is better than what you actually got in the can? Cut your losses and leave the clips at home – no matter what it cost to shoot.
  • If you claim to have a celebrity attached: have them attached. (Even better, have DE-tachable “attachments”).
  • If your show is contingent upon specific talent, bring them with you into the pitch.
  • If you are showing merely optional representatives of a “type” (a unique family, profession or lifestyle), then some tape of options is a better way to express the possibilities and keep the discussion open and flexible.
  • Know your precursors. What is on the air right now that is comparable to the show you have in mind in one way or another? How is yours different? How is yours better? What elements does your idea share with successful similar TV shows from the past? all the better if they are from the network or cable channel you’re pitching to – or what they are currently competing against.
  • Have a few great product placement, sponsor, ShowRunner or Co-Pro candidates up your sleeve.


  • Oversell with superlatives. This isn’t your first born. Explain what your show could be (not the over-the-top ad copy of your wildest dreams of what the best in the business could do with a limitless budget and perfect conditions).
  • Tell them how to do their job.
  • Be derisive of the industry. If you think everything on TV right now is crap, then why do you aspire to write for it? And why would the people you’re pitching to want to work with someone who thinks their entire business and its output is beneath them? Think. Be smart. Be respectful and courteous. Sure, be creative and passionate – just don’t be rude and offensive.
  • Over-encumber your project with a daisy chain of “attachments” that are just dead weight.

Reality TV is popular because it is high concept, easy to market – and cheap to produce!

Think: intriguing premises populated by unique characters in fascinating, unfamiliar worlds.

PS: Check out the National Association of Television Program Executives’ Catchers-At-A-Glance Mandate Grid to see who was looking for what.

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New Online Classes and Webinars

Posted by Heather in Screenwriting, Speaking/Teaching, Writing for TV // July 21st, 2013


I love to travel to teach at film festivals and writers workshops all over the globe! But screenwriters and filmmakers often ask me if I ever teach online. Well, I’ve started doing just that as well as teaching live webinars and recording tutorials. Here’s some info on what I’ve been working on recently – and what’s coming up soon!


Upcoming Online Classes:


Recent Testimonials:
(From the current TV Spec Script class)


“I wasn’t sure if I should take Heather Hale’s class because I considered myself a seasoned vet of multiple genres over ten years on the way to success but after taking her class, for the first time, I am sure that as a writer, I am going to finish exactly where I want to. Well worth the time and money. Thanks, Heather!”

~ Corey

“After going through this class, I am feeling in my bones how a script is structured. Like most writers, I love ideas and characters and plot. I took this class because I knew I was throwing all those things together in a way that wasn’t making sense as a script. The process was a revelation and I’m confident that I can create marketable spec scripts. Heather is a very positive instructor, catches where the story is headed off base, and is always ready to help. I think I will repeat the class just to go through the process on a different length, different genre script.”

~ LJ

Also, check out my Producer’s POV column in Script Magazine. And feel free to shoot column questions, topics or ideas!


The world needs to hear your stories!


Have a Successful 2013 Staffing and Development Season

Posted by Heather in Screenwriting, Writing for TV // July 8th, 2013

If you’re an aspiring television writer, trying to get staffed this season or perhaps (like me), you’ve got an original pilot (or two) you’re shopping, understanding the business cycles can be helpful in planning and executing your strategies.

2013 Staffing and Development Calendar

Staffing Timeline

Feb. – May: Executives read scripts and take “staffing meetings” with agents and managers for network shows.

Late May: Upfronts (when networks and cablers show off their new shows to entice advertisers to commit to buy commercial airtime “up front” – months before the shows’ premieres), pilots are picked up to series, staff is put in place.

June: Most writer rooms begin.

July: Shows start shooting.


Development Time Line

June – Oct. Networks hear pitches (Cable hears pitches year around)

Aug. – Sept. Scripts are ordered

Nov. Outlines are delivered

Dec. Scripts are delivered

Jan. – Feb. Pilots are ordered

Feb. – March Pilots are shot

May – Pilots are picked up to series

Read the rest of this entry »

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