How Virtual Pitch Meetings Are Playing Out During Coronavirus

"While you’re talking, you’re also looking inside strangers’ homes. There’s a very weird intimacy to this.”
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In an era of unprecedented industry disruption, including the near-total cessation of production, one aspect of Hollywood’s day-to-day has somehow managed to stay on track — the pitch meeting.

Despite studio and network brass, producers, reps and writers all being holed up in their respective homes amid the coronavirus "Safer at Home" order, many previously scheduled pitches and general meetings are staying on the calendar. But in lieu of conference room spiels, all parties are convening over Zoom sessions or, in other instances, larger entertainment companies’ proprietary platforms. For writers, these digital assemblies (simultaneously collegial and awkward) can alleviate some of the nerves that can come from staring down a table of executives.

On March 19, one comedy writer positioned her laptop just so on her kitchen island. She taped her notes to perfectly align with its camera, and, after the requisite small talk, delivered the same half-hour monologue she’d practiced earlier that morning over a FaceTime call with her father.

“I had arranged the notes perfectly with my eyeline, so I left the experience feeling that I came off having perfectly memorized it,” she says. “Having my notes and not looking like I need them? I could do that forever. But while you’re talking, you’re also looking inside strangers’ homes. There’s a very weird intimacy to this.”

Not everybody is game for such intimacy. One agent opted to telephone into a recent video conference for a client’s general meeting, claiming to be suffering from camera issues. (She later confided to a colleague that her computer was fine; she just did not want to show anyone her gray roots, a victim of California's state-wide moratorium on salon appointments.)

“My week has been a series of video conferences with people who are clearly wearing pajama bottoms but made the effort to put on earrings,” says a development executive at a streamer, who had fired up her camera for three pitches and four general meetings by Tuesday evening. “Once you get past all of the coronavirus talk, it hasn’t really felt that different from the typical meetings — except the writers seem more comfortable. I think it makes them feel better to not have to be performative in the room.”

Often lost in this new process, however, can be a clear idea of who’s actually paying attention. Not that this isn’t a concern during in-person meetings, but adding such variables as phantom attendees phoning in, in lieu of video, connection issues and people’s propensity to speak over one another during a Zoom call can muddy lines of communication.  

What also remains to be seen is how fruitful these pitches will be. One comedy writer was cautioned to postpone a pitch by their manager, who insisted the first round of virtual pitches seemed more like trial runs. But how long these meetings will go on is also up for debate. “All of my pitches thus far were already on the books,” adds the development exec. “We say we’re still buying, but I’m wondering whether we’re going to be ordering as much as usual.”

Others suggest that committing to a project, based solely off of a video meeting, is not the ideal bedrock for new business. Showrunner Adam F. Goldberg, creator of ABC’s The Goldbergs and Schooled, is among them. "A phone call or video conference is great for a general meeting or to give notes,” he recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “But when it comes to pitching a pilot, trying to get someone to step up and buy your idea, you have to be up close and really engage them. There is no point in rushing into a pitch now and ruining your one opportunity to sell something."

Of course, with no timetable for normalcy and people in every corner of the industry out of work or suffering salary cuts, holding off can feel like an act of self-sabotage on both sides. The number of meetings is already decidedly down. Both writers and executives who spoke with THR, none of whom have sold or bought a project from a virtual pitch, describe their meeting load as roughly half of what it would be otherwise. And of what’s been on the docket, cancellations and postponements have been nearly nonexistent.  

“Almost everyone has been put in this position where they feel compelled to justify their job during all of this,” says one producer, who confessed that some of the meetings now are just for the sake of doing something. “And if that means taking pitches for shows, without knowing when we’ll be able to make them, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Additional reporting by Lesley Goldberg.