Pitching Ideas in Tinseltown
In the world of Hollywood movies, the most important 20 minutes of a film may take place during the pitch meeting. The film "Alien" originally was pitched as "Jaws on a Spaceship" and that image sold. What makes a studio executive or producer bite on an idea? And what makes a successful pitch?
Those are two of the questions examined in a research paper, "Assessing Creativity in Hollywood Pitch Meetings," by Rod Kramer, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Professor Kimberly Elsbach of the University of Californa, Davis. For Kramer, a former script reader, one-time screenwriter and psychologist, it was interesting returning to Hollywood as a researcher rather than just another writer peddling another script.
Kramer and Elsbach say that in casting about for an idea (they had collaborated previously on a study of how Business Week magazine rates business schools) they realized that little research existed on how organizational decision makers actually assess the creative potential of others. "Of course, to study this we could go into an industrial sector and evaluate how engineers assess the creativity of other engineers, but we thought pitching in Hollywood might be more interesting and attract a little more attention," Kramer says.
What the authors found is that contrary to conventional wisdom, the studio executives ("suits") who make the decisions to greenlight a picture in Tinseltown often have a real passion for films and are very smart when it comes to knowing what's marketable. They're experts at evaluating creativity and their reputation rides on how well they do it. Yet the decision to buy an idea is made quickly — sometimes in a 20-minute meeting. "So I was interested in how complex their judgments are and what kinds of things they weigh," Kramer says. "And then the question is what kind of writers are they impressed by and what kind of ideas attract their attention."
For instance, what is it about the movie industry that produces so many great films but also so many disasters? "All of us when sitting in the audience think, 'Who could have thought this was a good idea?'" Kramer says. But the pitcher of that idea was probably very good at his work — and at persuading the catcher on the other end to buy it.
The researchers found that the more passionate the person pitching the idea, the more effective he or she was. And the better the pitcher was at drawing in the person on the other side of the table, the more likely he or she would succeed. "Our analysis of creativity assessment in Hollywood pitch meetings suggests that judgments of creative potential involve two processes," say Kramer and Elsbach. "In one process, catchers categorize pitchers — using behavior and physical clues displayed by the pitcher — into a small set of relatively well-established pitcher prototypes based on creativity or uncreativity." In the other, catchers use clues about their engagement with the pitcher to evaluate whether the idea is creative and has merit.
"A lot of naïve pitchers we talked to assumed what was important was for them to be passionate and to get their concept across clearly," Kramer says. "That's important, to be on fire about an idea. But the other thing was to what extent the catcher was engaged and also felt creative." Kramer says the second part of the process is a seduction. The catcher "has to feel like [he] is drawn in and contributing." The more you can make the catcher think he came up with or helped improve a good idea — that he, the suit, is creative — the better.
Kramer and Elsbach identified seven different types of pitchers, including the storyteller, the showrunner, the dealmaker, the neophyte, and the journeyman. "Experts have well-developed perceptions about the prototypes of writers they believe are likely to produce creative ideas," the researchers say. "Being savvy to such judgmental processes, therefore, may be the difference between a pitch and a hit."
Kramer suggests that while much of the study was industry-specific to Hollywood, managers looking for creative people would be wise to listen to employees who are passionate about their work and persuasive in communicating ideas. "Although we focused in our research on how executives in Hollywood evaluate new ideas, there are many other areas —such as venture capital and product innovation — in which success may depend on the effectiveness of the initial pitch. In many instances you have just one shot at getting your idea across and it has to be right," he says. The project fit in with his ongoing research into how organizations make decisions about allocating their time, attention, and money, he says.
Kramer, who co-teaches a popular course on the entertainment industry and who grew up in Hollywood, says he may do another project on the film industry. But he's not going to pitch anything other than a request to observe the players in action. "There's no screenplay in my desk drawer," he says.