As unpredictable as an armored car heist, and sometimes as profitable, pitching is a caper that requires the combined skills of a professor, prostitute, stand-up comedian, negotiator, vacuum cleaner salesman, magician, psychologist and Wal-Mart greeter. In my years of honing those skills I have developed some key components to the optimal pitch that I call the Four Os of Pitching--Optimism, Observation, Options and Opportunity. Of all these, I tell my students, learning to recognize and grab an opportunity is the most important.
This may seem like a simple task, but when you find yourself sinking into a poorly stuffed couch, facing several young, cynical, underpaid, concept-weary, reading-bleary, Red Bull-swilling executives--all better dressed than you--many things can go awry. Nonetheless, if you can recognize opportunities, a sale is always possible.
Typically what happens in a pitch session (say for a feature) is that you come in with a solid, provocative story idea with some unique twists and colorful characters. But, as you are doling out the beats, one of the executives will fixate on a single detail.
Say you are pitching the story of a beautiful, Jewish, female soccer player trying to escape Nazi oppression during World War II. Before crossing the Alps, she picks up a stray dog at an abandoned farmhouse. Suddenly the lead executive's eyes pop open. "A dog? I like that! Can it be about a dog?" Then the development exec joins the chant, "Yes, a dog! How about a talking dog?" A third suit adds, "Those talking dog movies are box-office gold."
I frequently give my students this exact scenario and ask them if they'd grab the opportunity. That is, would they be prepared to change course instantly and start redeveloping the plot to star a chatty schnauzer instead of Rachel Weisz. Some students are confused, others are outraged, and the idealists never get it. It's then that I tell them an allegorical story from my past.
One afternoon in college I was drinking at a popular beer hall with three cohorts. We'd downed a pitcher or two when my buddies said, "Fred, it's your turn to buy." I stumbled to the crowded bar, set down the pitcher and signaled to the bartender. He was busy, so I waited. Standing across from me was one of the most beautiful coeds I had ever seen. Long blond hair, low-slung bell-bottoms, clingy tie-dyed T-shirt and a peace symbol choker that highlighted her graceful neck. She looked back at me with eyes that glowed with recognition.
"David?" she said.
"Yes," I replied, fully aware that I was not David.
The vixen instantly ran to me, threw her ivory arms around my neck and gave me one of the most soulful kisses of my entire kissing history. I can remember it vividly to this day, 35 years later. Unfortunately, when she broke from the kiss, she stepped back and got a good look at me, realized her error, screamed "You're not David!" and then slapped my face so hard it sent me tumbling back into the bar. But it was worth it! I saw an opportunity, I grabbed it, and I got the kiss of a lifetime.
"Sometimes," I tell my students, "the executives will ask you if you're David. And if you want to make a sale, you might have to just nod and say, 'Yep, I'm David.'"