Pitch People

The story behind Pitch People is almost as fascinating as the people the documentary focuses on. Director Stanley Jacobs’ film had a successful festival run in 2000, garnering positive reviews in the process. Despite that, it never landed a distributor, meaning it was never available to be seen by the general public. Thanks to the rise of streaming services and VOD, Jacobs is finally getting the opportunity to put his work out there. Fully restored in 4K, this “lost” doc now has the chance to be fully discovered.

The subject is professional pitchmen – those folks seen on boardwalks and at state fairs hawking super-sharp knives, magical kitchen gadgets, and miracle cleaners, among other things. They put on shows for whomever is assembled in front of them, hoping their high-energy demonstrations will inspire sales. Early scenes in the movie provide the history of pitching in England, along with how it became a natural fit for American beach towns, where throngs of tourists marched up and down the boards.

Interviewees include noted knife salesman Arnold Morris, as well as Ed McMahon, who got his start pitching and never really stopped, even after finding fame as co-host of The Tonight Show. They and others provide enlightening and often amusing insight into the psychology of pitching. We learn the strategies for attracting attention, holding an audience’s interest, and recognizing the exact moment to open the floor for sales. It’s a combination of showmanship and originality, as pitchmen (or women) have to find ways to differentiate themselves from others selling similar wares. The key to success is leaving the spectators enthralled for the entirety of the presentation – no easy feat.

Sections of Pitch People show the interview subjects plying their trade. Once you understand the hidden mechanics of what they’re doing, the effect is spellbinding. It’s a real artform. Jacobs is smart to let some of these scenes run uninterrupted, as they allow us to fully examine the process at work. I don’t think I’ll ever look at these folks the same way again.

The final half-hour goes to an especially fun place, recounting how television changed the nature of pitching. Thanks to Ronald Reagan deregulating how long commercials could be, a format known as the “infomercial” was born, and pitchers could suddenly get themselves in front of millions via television. That changed the nature of the game, while also leading to the creation of unlikely celebrities. Fun footage of infomercials being made is included.

Pitch People doesn’t offer anything special in the way of filmmaking. It’s pretty pedestrian in that sense. But the material is well organized, and the interviewees are well chosen. Running 88 minutes, this is a fast-paced, enjoyable look at one of the most unusual professions around.

out of four

Pitch People is unrated but contains some adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 28 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan