It's a hard idea to accept, but it's true: In an economy driven by ideas, the best idea doesn't always win. Often, it's the idea with the best pitch that wins. So, before you go to bat for your next great idea, you should master the art of the pitch. And where better to learn that art than in Hollywood?
Robert Kosberg has invented a thriving career out of pitching ideas. Or, as he puts it, "I make a living by telling bedtime stories to adults." Based in Beverly Hills, Kosberg is affiliated with Merv Griffin Entertainment. He was also the executive producer of "12 Monkeys," the 1996 hit starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. But he is perhaps best known as Hollywood's "king of the pitch." Each year, he entertains roughly 5,000 movie ideas. He pitches between 20 and 50 of those ideas to the major studios, and he sells about 8 ideas a year. He's always searching for the next great story line: Two years ago, Kosberg partnered with writer Jim Bass to create Movie Pitch (www.moviepitch.com), a Web-based clearinghouse for film ideas.
Kosberg specializes in the "high-concept pitch" — Hollywood jargon for a pitch that is so blatantly in-your-face that its premise can be boiled down to a few sentences, or even a few words. He once sold New Line Cinema an idea for a horror film ("Man's Best Friend") about a rampaging dog. He needed just three words: "'Jaws' on paws." One recent pitch was for a film based on an unexplored scenario from "The Wizard of Oz": Sure, the Wicked Witch of the West melted at the end. But what if she didn't die, and what if she now wants those slippers back? The idea — working title: "Surrender Dorothy: The Witch's Revenge" — was bought by Warner Bros.
Kosberg is adamant that the skills required to sell ideas like "Surrender Dorothy" match the skills needed to sell any idea. "When an idea is really good, it is deceptively simple," he argues. "When you have that type of an idea, you've got a gold mine."
How can you tell if one of your ideas is solid gold? First, Kosberg suggests, ask yourself whether it can pass the "TV Guide" test. Can you boil your idea down to two power-packed sentences that generate excitement and compel your audience to "tune in"?
Next, ask yourself if the idea has "traveling power." "If you've got a truly compelling idea," he says, "then it almost doesn't matter how good you are at pitching it. When you leave the room, your idea should travel down the halls of power. Other people will start pitching the idea for you."
Here's another test for your idea: How well does it address the fear factor? "If an idea is too far ahead of the curve," Kosberg warns, "it will leave your audience without a compass. And without a compass, the people you're pitching to will develop fear." Kosberg is quick to add that these days fear cuts both ways. In an era of relentless change and hard-to-predict success (Did anyone expect "The Blair Witch Project" to be a box-office smash, or Yahoo! to create billions of dollars of stock-market value?), smart executives are just as afraid of rejecting a good idea as they are of green-lighting a bad one. "No one really knows where the next great idea is going to come from," says Kosberg, "and the best executives know that they don't know. That 25-year-old kid with the weird hair might have an idea that's worth millions."
There's one last factor that contributes to a winning pitch — your own sense of confidence. "When I'm pitching an idea, I walk into the room with incredible confidence," says Kosberg. "But I'm not cocky. I operate in two realities: In the back of my mind, I want these people to like me. I want them to love my story. And I want them to give me money. But I project the attitude that these people have no idea how lucky they are to be meeting with me.
"If things go well, these people won't let me leave their office until we've closed the deal — because I have the greatest idea that they've ever heard, and I've presented it in one simple sentence."
For more information on Robert Kosberg, visit the Web (www.moviepitch.com).
Sidebar: What's Your Pitch?
Where do great ideas come from? According to Robert Kosberg, they come from anywhere and everywhere. The trick is to know how to spot them — and how to pitch them to people who can turn them into major products.
The first idea that Kosberg ever pitched and sold was a true story that he stumbled upon while reading the New York Times: An unhappy college graduate had decided that instead of getting a job, he would go back to high school and do things right the second time around. "It was an unusual story with a perfect twist," Kosberg says. So he bought the rights to the story, and, with several photocopies of the article in hand, he hit the streets of Hollywood. "Anybody who read that story could have turned it into a movie idea," he says. "I didn't even have to pitch it."
These days, Kosberg casts his net far and wide to find great ideas. Folks from Alaska to New Zealand have pitched their movie ideas on his Web site, hoping that he might pitch those ideas to Hollywood's power brokers.
One successful pitcher was Emily Lloyd, a grandmother from Ozark, Arizona. She sent Kosberg a 3x5 card. On it, she wrote, "Are you interested in a story about a man who lives in the Statue of Liberty?" He was interested enough in her idea to flesh out the story, which he later sold to Polygram. Since then, "Keeper of the Flame" — a story about a man who tends the Statue of Liberty's torch — has evolved into a love story. (Michelle Pfeiffer is considering a lead role.) Meanwhile, for her one-sentence idea, Mrs. Lloyd is about $100,000 richer.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.