Pitching Perfect

Words by Pascal Wyse

William Goldman is the screenwriter who brought us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride – but he is possibly even more famous for one simple line that he dropped like a hierarchy-flattening bomb on the producing classes of Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

With hindsight you can see his point. Cinematic pillars such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars were passed on by big studio players in Hollywood (meh, light sabers, WTF?), while films such as Heaven’s Gate and The 13th Warrior (I know, who?) created a huge sink hole at the box office and flopped down it. Goldman finishes up: “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

Pitching is the first pin on the movie map. It’s Steven Segal meets Jane Austen in Proud and Prejudiced. It’s Jaws on rollerblades. It’s Lord of the Rings versus Full Monty. Music pitching, on the other hand, comes at the end of the day. The glory of that original idea has been realised, so now they need some music to either:

1. Give a new dimension to the drama, a rich layer of insight and emotion to compliment and collaborate with the picture in a wonderfully choreographed dance of sight and sound. 

or

2. Rescue a total crapstorm.

Pitching a movie idea means boiling it down to stage where anyone can grasp it, hopefully in no longer than the time it takes for an exec to get a cigar out of the box and snip the end off it. That’s what they call the “lift pitch”. If even then nobody knows anything, as Goldman suspects, what chance with the abstract world of music?

John Williams, who could probably get away with humming it in to biscuit tin and sending it in on a wax cylinder.


It’s accepted that part of the skillset of a composer writing for film and TV should be to act as a kind of translator, delivering the strange terminology of musicians as plain English. Don’t say “whole-tone scale”, say it will sound all floaty and dreamy. You won’t get a gig by proudly announcing that the piece you’ve written is a “systems based composition utilising an octatonic scale”. It is easy to forget just how Martian those terms are to most people – even the basic ones such as “pitch”. 

Just as perilous is working out what someone who doesn’t speak muso means when they suddenly drop in a technical term. A little knowledge is a bad thing. A recent one for me was being asked to produce something “more tonal”. Could have meant less dissonant. Could have meant in a more clearly defined key. It turned out to mean music made more of naturally occurring sounds or atmospheres, such as the hum of an engine or the whistle of the wind.

Not that you win a musical pitch by describing your tune, of course. Technology allows us to demo something close to the real thing, and that’s what is expected. There isn’t much scope these days for bashing it out on a piano and saying, “Trust me, this will sound great when we get 50 ocarinas and a reverby saw on this”.

Well, unless you are John Williams, who could probably get away with humming it in to biscuit tin and sending it in on a wax cylinder.

Is your music right for the picture? Or does it show the potential to be? It is much more of a moving target than that. Are you known? Have you already proved you can do this? What’s the word on you? The ear can be seduced. If, in a fantasy experiment, a total unknown sent in exactly the same demo track as a famous composer, would those recordings create the same feelings in those judging? What seems bold and cool from a famous composer might be heard as anxiously wacky and unproven from another.

The emperor doesn’t just have new clothes – he has an international chain of fashion outlets.

It’s probably a good idea to disclose that I have only done one proper pitch for a telly show, and I didn’t get the gig. So I asked a few people who actually know what they are talking about; answers below. Most are talking about music for TV and film, but there are some that write for commercials and other kinds of applied music. Even in a small sample like this, there’s a big range – from quite intricate tactical thinking to an outright “DON’T PITCH”.

Running through them all is the advice to remember yourself in the process. Pleasing others is part of the bargain – but it should never come at the expense of pleasing yourself. If you write a piece of music that you enjoy, when it gets rejected in favour of a theme tune for 50 ocarinas and a reverby saw, it will sugar the pill. Nobody knows anything, right? So anything goes. 

Michael Price (Sherlock, Unforgotten)

I try to make pitching for projects fun, as you can never fully second guess what a producer or director might want to hear. What you can aim for is to make your process as true and joyful as you can. That way, if you don’t get the gig, you’ve had a good time, and if you do, you’re writing in a style that you know you can do with a smile on your face.

Dominik Scherer (Ripper Street, The Missing)

I haven’t pitched in more than a decade. I avoid it, as often the beginning of a project, the formative phase, is really crucial but delicate. I like to collaborate with the directors and producers. This may take a bit of time, but if we get it right at the beginning we may be able come up with something bold. 

Still, I don’t have bad memories of pitching. If a pitch is successful, then you’re already past the first creative hurdle, and you know the producers are into the ideas you’re coming up with. There were two rounds of pitching for my first big drama series, ITV’s Marple. I remember watching a rough cut of the first episode for the first time while I was tinkling away on the piano and played this little tango-like tune. I thought “I’d better write this down!”. And I pitched with that. They thought it was “insane” (it wasn’t), but was invited into the second round of pitching. I then did more traditional scoring of the climax of the episode, in order to show that I have the chops. I got the job. With hindsight, the strategy was to shock them, get their attention, then appease them. In any case, that little “insane” tango tune became the theme tune to the series, which then ran for almost 10 years.

Debbie Wiseman MBE (Wolf Hall, Father Brown)

I haven’t pitched for a commission for many years, as the more experienced you are as a composer the less likely it is that producers will ask you to pitch. However, I did pitch when I was starting out and, although it’s not an ideal scenario, I won a few pitches that set me on the road. I would always try and get as much information as possible about the production, and ask to read scripts rather than just rely on a brief. A script means you can get closer to the story and characters and hopefully come up with something that has a chance of being liked and accepted. The old adage “you have to be in it to win it” has definitely rung true for me in quite a few instances at the start of my career, and I was always thrilled to win a pitch. The lovely thing is that I’m still working with one or two of the producers who I pitched for all those years ago, except now they just ring me up to ask if I’m available – I don’t have to pitch any more!

Jeff Rona (Sharkwater, Traffic)

1. Know your audience. You hopefully got some sort of brief for a given project and have a sense of what they are looking for. Not just in genre (action, comedy) but style as well (electronic, orchestral, minimalist, guitar-driven, traditional, etc.). Be sure track one is as close to that as possible. It’s your best shot.

2. Be yourself. Generic music rarely gets far. A demo shows people who you are as an artist. And unless instructed otherwise, don’t do any blatant ripoffs of famous composers or scores.

3. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there are NO excuses in production quality of tracks presented for a demo. Producers have NO imagination when it comes to music demos or sketches. Everything that leaves your hands and has your name on it must sound as close to perfect as possible.

If you aren’t proud of it, delete it.

4. Find a balance between stylistic focus and musical diversity. In other words, show who you are and what you bring to the project, but don’t send ten variations of one idea. Show some range without stepping entirely outside the brief you were given. Perhaps alternate between different energy levels, and toss in a surprise or two.

5. Don’t make them wait. Be sure your demo tracks get to the theme or main idea as quickly as possible. Avoid long intros, and skip the lengthy drones and soundscapes (unless you are pitching for a show called “Drones and Soundscapes”).

6. Typically demos are either a link to a private online playlist, or a folder of mp3s. Be sure to ask what they want you to send. If a folder, be sure to number tracks in the order you choose, otherwise they will be heard alphabetically. If you are sending mp3s, take a moment and add ID3 tags with your name and contact info. That way, if they drag the tracks into their iTunes or other music player, they will see who’s music it is. Most computer music players have this capability.

7. You don’t need to go for an epic boxed set of your works. More is better, but a busy producer or director, music supervisor, editor, executive doesn’t have a ton of time. Put your best work at the top, and you don’t need to go past 10-20 tracks total.

Daniel Pemberton (Steve JobsU.N.C.L.E)

DON’T PITCH

If they want you they should hire you. If they don’t know what they want they wont find it out in a pitch that takes you less than a day – they’ll hire whoever takes the least risks.

Tim Phillips (Shameless, Jericho)

I’m not sure if there is a recipe, apart from what most actors know when they go into auditions: confidence, through line, clarity, be yourself, don’t wear a Hawaiian shirt etc.

I always prepare extensively and make sure I know the plot, all of the character names, what type of show it is, what my first musical response was, what other shows that might be similar have used as score, and also who the production team are. I make creative notes as I read the script. I try to advocate and, if necessary, defend my most honest musical response to the material.  Sometimes you don’t get hired and that’s OK, it happens often – and to every composer.

You should know the work of the people you are meeting because they will know yours. Also, be aware that through the process the musical recipe will change. The music evolves through the collaboration and in my experience it’s rare to end up with exactly what you pitched to get the job. That’s one of the great joys of writing for picture.

Tom Haines (Brains and Hunch)

You must learn to give your clients the feeling that they came up with the idea. We were once asked to write “a piece of classic Christmas music for solo drumset, that has no Christmassy instruments in it at all”. It has to be the client’s responsibility to decide this wasn’t a great idea. If we made that call, It may cause offence and the brief would just end up being given to someone else. As a composer, you have to “workshop” the brief with the client in this type of situation, to make them feel like they came up with the solution. If they feel like they had a big hand in writing the music that solved the problem, the job is more likely to remain yours.. 

Always include a “surprise track” if you are throwing sketches at a pitch. In a baffling sea of rather similar tracks, a surprise can often provide some perspective for the client. Even if they don’t like it, It may help them triangulate their position and know a bit better where they want to take the music brief. 

Grow a very thick skin. Not everyone likes the same music as you. 

Michael Panting, Music Supervisor at Felt

My advice is to always pitch what the client requests. I know this sounds obvious, but it can be too easy to disagree with the clients choice and pitch over what you deem a more suitable creative route. I have found that deters the client.

My biggest successes have come from being completely honest. If I don’t have anything along the right lines, or the right composer to pitch, I will explain this to them and send nothing. It is a waste of everyone’s time to listen and work on something which isn’t wanted. This honesty and building of a trustworthy relationship is great for return business and creating a positive name in the industry.

If you are given an open brief, or are asked your advice, then this is a different matter: get creative and always explain why you feel your choice of genre or musical route works for the brief. It is key to remember not everyone is musically trained and using your best descriptive words will help those to understand your decisions.