This spring, screenwriter and chapter author of Cut to the Chase: Writing Feature Films with the Pros at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, Deborah Dean Davis, will be teaching her 2-day workshop “Selling Yourself and Your Work”. In this course, Deborah not only covers the art of skillful pitching, but the art of selling the person who’s pitching and why that’s more important. Read on to find out why!
Writers’ Program: Why do you think writers should learn how to sell themselves? Shouldn’t their work speak for itself?
Deborah Dean Davis: The one-word answer to this question is “trust.” Writers forget that they are not only selling the words they have put on the page; they are selling themselves; their brains, their sensibilities, their vision. When a buyer trusts a writer, along with seeing potential in what he or she has written, the beginnings of a great team, a brilliant partnership, is formed: Merchant Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jablava; Woody Allen and Charles H. Joffe; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Writers sometimes need to be reminded that the world of screenwriting is a collaborative society. Collaboration requires trust. For example, a producer falls in love with a screenplay set in World War II Poland. She needs to trust that a writer, a 22-year-old, just finishing college, has a personal connection to and deep knowledge of World War II. Did the young writer spend every summer visiting their great-grandfather who served under Patton? Will this young writer graduate from Berkeley with a World History degree? Does the writer have relatives who emigrated from Poland after the war? Build trust. Trust is huge. Once the written word has “spoken for itself,” the writer needs to do the same.
Wp’: In what ways does your course differ from a more traditional pitching workshop?
DD: I’m pretty sure that most pitching workshops work on log lines and the difference between an elevator pitch and a detailed 20-minute presentation for a producer who is already sold on your idea. I don’t. My class examines, in detail, how each student should handle themselves while in the room with almost anyone pitching almost anything. There is so much more to pitching than what the writer has to say. This is storytelling and storytelling is a fine art. This is acting; also a fine art. In some cases, pitching is therapy for the listener. That can get super weird. Above and beyond HOW TO PITCH, the first day of my two-day seminar teaches HOW TO GET A PITCH MEETING. I mean, it’s important as hell to know how to pitch, but when a pitch falls in the forest, does Brian Grazer buy it? There’s an age-old philosophical question for you.
Wp’: As a screenwriter, could you tell our readers about a time when you didn’t know the principles you’re teaching and failed to land an assignment vs. a time you implemented your teachings and succeeded?
DD: Well, I was born in a manger. Seriously, there have been so very many failures and, now that you mention it, I learned something from almost all of them. Failure #1: When you sell a pitch to a TV show at Fox and the producers give you one week to turn in an outline, don’t turn in an OUTLINE. Roman numeral I: The guys play poker. Subheading A: Brad is losing big. Little bitty number 1: He has three Queens, a deuce and the Ace of Diamonds. What? I was in college. They fired me for being completely naïve. THEY DIDN’T TRUST ME! (Refer back to question #1) You cannot instantaneously learn to not be naïve. So, I learned to ask questions. I began to make a friendly impression on everyone I met from the guard at the gate to the team of assistants who kill themselves on a daily basis for a lot less money than WGA minimum. The next time I sold something I was still naïve, but now I knew how to ask questions. Posses of seasoned vets were more than willing to explain things to my naïve college-ass. I asked a lot of questions. I wrote a lot of TV. I have never enjoyed writing outlines.
Wp’: What is your worst pitching experience?
DD: Simple. The producer went from perfect-posture-upright to the fetal position. He was about to suck his thumb when I stopped talking and left with a slightly lame, but polite excuse.
Wp’: What’s one of the best experiences you’ve had pitching?
DD: Hearing “Yes!” in the room doesn’t happen very often. I mean, Scott Rudin gave Chloe Webb and me a standing ovation after our pitch. That was cool. But one of the best experiences I’ve had pitching didn’t result in a sale. The producer’s eyes welled up; then he started to weep. He interrupted me again to talk about his father; my story made him very nostalgic. He revealed that he and his dad hadn’t spoken in 25 years. He dialed his cell phone and called his dad, but was so emotional when his father answered that he had trouble speaking. He gave me the phone and asked me to start the pitch at the beginning. I pitched to both the producer and his father and left the office without a “yes” to give them privacy for their first of many conversations. This is why I write: to touch people, to make them laugh, to make them cry, to help fix things. That was a good pitch. That was a great success.
For more information or to enroll in Deborah’s course, please click here.
To view an on-camera interview with Deborah about launching and sustaining a feature film writing career, please click here.
Jeff Bonnett is the Program Assistant for Screenwriting (Onsite & Online). Contact him at email@example.com or (310) 206-1542.