Tips on Pitching at Austin

I recently attended the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriter’s Conference which is also a mouthful to fit on a badge. Part of the fun of the AFF is the Pitch Competition. You get 90 seconds to pitch your 2-hour movie idea to Hollywood pros.

Because it’s a competition, it’s set up as an initial round where you give your pitch up against  15 others, then the top two move on to the finals. There are 10 heats in this first round, so the finals are the top 20 of those 160 contestants. The finals are held at a huge party at a local bar and you’re onstage with some heavy hitters from the industry as a 3 judge panel – pro screenwriters, big name producers – the list of alumni judges is big – Lindsey Doran, Craig Mazin, Zac Penn, Damon Lindelof – folks you know from their credits.

I’ve competed each of the five years I’ve been there and made the finals twice, once finishing 3rd overall with my pitch for my spec animation script Skweaky, The Email Bunny.  Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Comedy pitches better than anything. Some of the folks you’re pitching against are comedy club level comedians. They have great timing, delivery and often a really funny concept. That’s hard to beat.
  2. First person stories are a close second. Been in a cult? Dad a serial killer? Mom used to be your uncle? These kind of things fascinate the judges.
  3. There are five things to get in your pitch:
    1. Define your world. Sometimes this is easy. Say, “Berlin – 1936” and that does it. But if you’re pitching a space opera and have to detail the galactic wars that brought down the Remitarian colonists on Nebulon VI, plan on making it as quick as you can.
    2. Who’s the hero?
    3. What does the hero want?
    4. What’s in the hero’s way?
    5. What does the hero learn or change?
  4. Show some passion. This is performance art and some of these people are really, really good.
  5. Aim for 80 seconds on a 90 second pitch. You’ll need it. I added a last minute joke and made time for the joke, but not the pause for the laugh it got. I went over time and it cost me the last line payoff – didn’t make the finals.
  6. Relax and have fun. Yes, it’s public speaking. Yes, there are 400 drunk screenwriters in the finals audience. But they are all rooting for you and all of them want to hear you tell a great story – entertain them!