• Kieran Moreira

How to pitch: A chat with creatives Dave Baeumler and Casey Stegman

Picture this: Three video professionals sit down (virtually) to talk about the art of pitching, the differences between mediums, how the pandemic has changed the process, and maybe share a war story or two.


That’s exactly what we did for this month’s blog post.


I’ve always enjoyed pitching creative concepts. There’s a certain rush you get when you have to translate an idea for a live audience. I recently built a pitch deck for my latest short film project, and it got me thinking about the subject. Since my experiences are limited, I was happy that my Red Hat colleagues, Dave Baeumler and Casey Stegman, could share their wealth of knowledge, as well as talk about their new podcast, Movie Pitch Challenge.


Kieran:


“Casey and Dave B, thanks for joining me. Let’s start with some introductions.”


Casey:


“I am an associate creative director of copywriting at Red Hat, and I work a lot on videos, short films, documentaries, and our podcast, Command Line Heroes. However, my background is in film.”


Dave B:


“I'm a creative director at Red Hat, for film and animation. I've been around ad agency, movie, and TV pitching, for 20 some odd years at this point. So, I've kind of done a lot of pitching.”



AGENCY VS. FILM VS. TV


Kieran:


“Before we get into general advice, let’s talk about the differences in pitching for advertising, film, and TV. ”


Casey:


“For a film pitch, you're pitching executives the experience and the story. You're pitching them an idea that makes them want to know more. They can picture the story in their heads and you want them to ask you more questions. Essentially, they become a collaborator in the moment with you. And then sometimes, they'll throw things at you like, ‘What if it's based on the moon?’ And you're like, ‘Okay, well, let's try that a little bit.’ There's some improv there.

With agency pitches, you're pitching something that will live beyond just one creative expression. For campaigns, you're pitching a message with multiple assets.”


Dave B:


“In TV pitching, one of the main things that executive vice presidents are looking for is repeatability. They want to know that you're going to be able to sustain your hook over multiple episodes and multiple seasons.


Earlier in my career, I was pitching for Discovery and History Channel. This was before reality TV, when we were pitching real history based shows, like Band of Brothers in the Civil War, and Battles B.C., and The Art of War. I was there at this really interesting inflection point. At one point a producer took me aside and they said, ‘Look, things are changing. I want you to stop pitching me ideas for shows.’ And I was like, ‘That's interesting...What do you mean?’ They said, ‘Put your casting hat on. What I want is a train wreck. Find me a person that people can not look away from, and then we'll build a show around that person. Whether it's about history or whatever, it doesn't really matter.’


That really blew my mind. It actually made me not want to pitch a whole lot more TV. I’m not interested in that. I was pitching history because I love history.”



PERFORMANCE


Kieran:


“Although the pitch content varies between the mediums. It sounds like you’re essentially doing the same thing, right?”


Casey:


“Yes, definitely. Early in my career, I'd gotten advice from another writer friend. He said, ‘What you're doing is you're giving a performance.’ You're telling this person the movie, as if they were an audience. But don't give them everything, give them the trailer of the movie. That's your opening salvo, and then you engage in conversation, whether or not they like the story."


Dave B:


“I totally agree with Casey, that it's all about the performance. We all know a lot of three act stories. We all know some of the basic story structure. But if you can excite them about the germ of the idea, what's unique about your pitch, that's what people will respond to. I'm trying to get the emotion across, rather than the nuts and bolts of the idea.”


Casey:


“I interned at a feature film development company for a while. Then, executives were always meeting writers for pitches or their take on stories. Some meetings were clearly a favor and the writers knew it. But they would still give it their all. I think that was a good lesson, which is even if you have a disinterested audience, still go for it. You want to be the best representation of your idea. It's kind of like theater actors when they're in front of an audience. Hell, maybe there's just one person at an off-Broadway theater. They're still going to give their best performance.”


Kieran:


“You have to really love all your ideas too. If you present three concepts for them to choose and one idea is something you really don’t like, chances are they’ll probably pick that!"

Dave B:


“What they'll really do is they'll tell you, ‘Can we combine all three ideas?’ Because they'll always Frankenstein all three, no matter what you do. So, that's the real pain of pitching the three ideas.


In agency pitching you know they have a budget, but you don't know what it is. You’ll often present three ideas: your stretch idea, your middle of the road idea, and your low budget idea. You want to do the stretch idea, because it’s the big dollar item, and you also want to sell something really cool that will get noticed. But they may not have the money and they're not going to tell you that upfront. Then they will say, ‘Oh, we really like the big, crazy idea. Is there any way we can scale it back, between options two or three?’”



PITCH MATERIALS



Kieran:


“Something I’ve learned is to never go into a pitch without some visuals to show your audience. Let’s talk about some of those materials.”


Dave B:


“With an agency pitch, I always bring a PowerPoint presentation deck. But for TV pitching, you bring a show bible, and hopefully a sizzle reel. (No Film School has this great article on crafting show bibles.) Kieran, you've worked in TV so I know that you know about the sizzle reel.


Kieran:


“I remember creating a sizzle reel for a show about an eccentric astrologist living in New York City. Basically, we cut together the best version of the show. We showed this woman interacting with her clients and giving them life changing advice. It was a lot of fun to imagine what the show could aspire to be. Unfortunately, it didn’t get picked up, but I had such a fun experience cutting the sizzle.”


Casey:


“I don't think it's done as much anymore, but in the mid to late 2000s, a lot of folks were making fake trailers for their movie using existing footage. We actually did that for a horror film I co-wrote, using existing movies, to try and just give a sense of what this movie could be. I know Rian Johnson did it for Looper, and that helped him get the film made.”


PREPARING THE PITCH


Kieran:


“I find I have to rehearse my pitch a few times before I get it straight in my head. I often come up with new ideas on how to say something when I read it aloud. Or I learn how to truncate sections of content. Because of my involvement in Toastmasters, and I’ve been trained to practice speeches. Do you rehearse at all or do you just wing it?”


Casey:


“I don't practice, but I don't recommend that. I know the material, so I've written out the material, or I've written out a version of the pitch. I get the hook down in my head. And so, I guess there is kind of a practice, but really it's getting it fresh enough, so it doesn't feel as stilted. Because if I practice something, I tend to be very stilted.”


Dave B:


“I think my process is very similar to Casey's. I'll have my presentation deck and I will write in the speaker notes. Someone else could give my pitch if they just looked at my speaker notes. But I will never refer to the notes when I'm actually pitching. Actually, the worst presentations I've ever given are ones where I over rehearse. You forget if you’ve said something that you need to pay off later. You find yourself backtracking.”


Kieran:


“It's almost like the wild card factor. There's enough room to maneuver.”


Dave B:


“When you improvise, you're listening to yourself in the moment, rather than relying on what you've prepared.”



BAD FEEDBACK


Kieran:


“The pitch is not a static, one person monologue. It's a very interactive experience. You're going to get off-the-wall comments from clients who are going to suggest crazy things. How do you navigate those situations when they’re suggesting taking the creative in a direction you don’t agree with?”


Casey:


“You obviously know the material best, but you also have to exhibit the confidence to speak to it. That’s part of the performance. You have to be resolute. When they come back with an off-the-wall suggestion, you never say, ‘Oh no, that's not the vision.’ Someone called it pitching judo. I'm coming in with Star Wars, and they're saying, ‘I want to set this underwater on earth, in the year 1782.’ You need to quickly diagnose where this idea is coming from and you also want to appear like a creative collaborator. Usually that works, because you're not dismissing them. You're taking them to heart. ‘Okay, what I think you're getting at is you want a historical element to this. Well, what we are doing in Star Wars is we're giving this historical aspect to the story. It's set in the future, but we're giving this rich history to it too.’”


Dave B:


“Getting back to this idea of improv, you're doing the, ‘Yes, and,’ all the time, with the thought that you're selling the idea right now. In the pitch room, everything's good. And sometimes the other way to ‘judo’ it is to almost treat what they said as something comedic that you are topping. And then everybody in the room just starts laughing, and then it kind of takes a little bit of the seriousness out of how much that person meant that comment. I think you just absorb it, and you keep going, and keep it fun.”



HONESTY


Kieran:


“Because you've done so many pitches over the years, I'd love to hear if there was a horror story, or just a scary pitch that didn't go as planned. And maybe the best piece of advice you've learned from that experience. I think Dave has a story he wants to tell.”


Dave B:


“I do. There's a really prestigious, two year internship in Amsterdam, called the Rijksakademie Academy. I'm an experimental filmmaker, and there’s an art film track to the program. Rijksakademie really teaches you how to navigate the art world. I really wanted this internship and I made it down to the class of 24 out of 1200 applications. They flew me to Amsterdam, and there were two panels that you had to go in front of. You had to show your film work, you had to sort of explain your take on things, and what you’re about as an artist. I was very nervous.


The first panel is amazing. I've got people laughing, and I’m feeling very confident with my chances. And then the second panel starts, and it's a similar panel of five or six people. One of the panelists, this British gallery owner, looks me straight in the eye and he says, ‘All right, I want you to describe all your work in two words.’ And I freeze for a moment because I'm trying to synthesize that really quickly. And he goes, ‘Wait a minute, I'll do it for you: ‘Ontological vertigo. What do you think of that?’


And I sit there for a second and I go, I don't know what ontological means. In that moment, I thought I can do this one of two ways: I can bullshit my way through this, or I can just admit I don’t understand. I bullshitted and he immediately smells blood. And for the rest of the interview, nobody else gets a word in. He just hammers me over and over about like what I'm talking about, and how facile my answer was. And I'm just devastated, and I don't get the internship. I went back home and I lost out. And in that moment I realized I should have taken the honest road. There's no shame in not knowing something. I, of course, got a dictionary on the flight home, and read what ontological vertigo meant. He wasn't just being a gallery jerk, he had nailed my work exactly. And I could have talked at length about how my work was exactly that.”



VIRTUAL PITCHES


Kieran:


“Are you thumbs up or thumbs down for virtual pitching?”


Casey:


“I’m thumbs up. There’s always a nervous energy in a pitch room and being virtual cuts through all of that. You also don’t have to deal with parking or trying to get across town or deal with traffic. What else is beneficial is having a side instant message chat with your partner. And not in a bad way or behind someone's back. The other person can say, ‘Hey, wrap it up.’ Or, ‘Oh, you missed this part.’ There's a benefit there where you can't really do that in the room.”


Dave B:


“All things being equal, I'd rather be in the room. For agency creative pitching, I like to be there, just because I like to see other people and I like to read the room. And I don't feel like I always can read the room as well on a virtual call. There's just so much body language happening, that I think we all pick up on unconsciously, and I do miss that. But maybe I'm just forgetting how much I hate all the other stuff!”



MOVIE PITCH CHALLENGE PODCAST






















Kieran:


“Tell us about your podcast. It’s not about how to pitch, but it's about the concepts and the challenge that you created for each other, right?”


Casey:


“I saw this idea about doing a creative concept for an advertisement every single day. It seemed like an interesting exercise and Dave said, ‘How about instead, we do a movie pitch a day?’ It was a neat exercise that got progressively harder because we were doing it during a very busy month of work. But I think what it showed us was that you can do this even when you're up against the clock. I was amazed at the ideas that were coming out of me.”


Dave B:


“We were telling people at lunch one day about the movie pitch challenge we were doing. And the whole table was laughing, because we were telling these ideas that were crazier and crazier. And because we saw everybody laughing, I realized we had to turn this into a podcast. Just trying to make people laugh hearing all these crazy ideas, that's enough for me.”


Casey:


“The podcast, itself, is not designed to teach you how to pitch a movie. It's really a celebration about movies. In my experiences, when I've pitched something, when it's a celebration about the thing that you're doing, the conversation that comes about often makes the idea so much better.”


Dave B:


“I think if people learn one thing from the podcast, it's how to take that germ of an idea, and just blow it out a little bit. And have fun with that process. If it's an idea that you discover you’re not that invested in, move on. Find another idea that you will like ever more.”


Kieran:


“I’m looking forward to future episodes. Thanks so much for your time today!”

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