Friday, October 09, 2009

LONDON 9B: Day 6 - Pitch Panel Notes

The previous post was all about the Pitching Panel, and here are some notes on pitching...

CLEAR TITLES

One of the things I mentioned right off - if you are pitching a script, make sure you speak slowly and clearly when giving us the important things - like the title and your name.

Don’t mumble it. And don’t speak so fast that we can not hear it. If you were writing your script on paper, you wouldn’t scribble it in crayon - you would want it to be easy to read. The same is true when you are *speaking* your story - you want it to be easy to hear. You want to enunciate your words, don’t slur them together. Don’t speak so softly we can’t hear you. Yes, you are a writer not a public speaker - but when you are ordering coffee in a coffee shop or talking to a friend about those pricks on the pitch panel who didn’t pick your pitch as the winner, you are speaking to be understood. Why should the barista or your pals get the benefit of clear and easy to understand speech and those of us trying to hear your pitch do not?

Even when you are pitching against the clock, talking faster does not help at all - it just makes it more difficult for us to understand what you are saying. People also tend to speak faster when nervous - I know I do - so try to keep that under control. We need to be able to understand what you are saying. Speak clearly.

And make sure you have a title that isn’t going to take me a half hour to write down or will be impossible for me to remember. In a way, your title is the very first pitch for your script - so make sure you have a good one. When we get into that room to decide which pitch wins, we will need to remember the title - so pick a memorable title. Nothing generic or complicated or something that doesn’t match the story or something that requires some special knowledge on our parts to make sense. Your title is part of the pitch - it had better be great!

GENRE?

One of the problems was that we had no idea what these stories were going to be, and often thought the story might be a comedy from the beginning of the pitch, then the story veered off into violence and we realized it was some other genre. Tell us what the genre of your story right up front, title and genre, and then it will be easier for us to see that story. And strange tonal shifts and genre shifts? Don’t work in a pitch and usually don’t work in a script as well.

Tell us the genre right up front so that they have a context for the rest of your pitch. I think I say this in my Thriller Class CD - there is often a fine line between the thriller and comedy genres, and dealing with a dead body can be a frightening experience in BLOOD SIMPLE or a laugh outloud comedy in WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S. Tell us which your script is so that we can properly imagine it as you pitch it.

SKIP THE DETAILS

A pitch is not about your complete story - that’s why you have the script. A pitch is about your concept, the idea of your story. The main problem many people had was that they wanted to tell their entire 110 page script moment-by-moment in 2 minutes. How is that even possible? Many people began with all of these details that proved to be meaningless to the story. They began with the protagonist waking up and brushing his teeth and taking a shower and dressing for work and... then the bell would ring because they had used up their time!

I understand setting up the protagonist in their ordinary world... in the screenplay. But in a pitch if you tell us that this is an accountant, I will *imagine* what his ordinary life is like. If you tell us it’s an astronaut I will imagine their ordinary life. The key to pitching is to find the essence of *everything* including character, and then trust us to figure it out. Better to have us not sure of some detail than bore us to death... and never get to your story because you have run out of time.

THE SCRIPT TELLS THE STORY

The same goes for scenes and bits of dialogue and story details. The script tells the story, the pitch is all about the basic concept... and interesting us enough so that we ask to read that script. Don’t worry about telling us the story, and don’t give us a scene-by-scene telling of the script - that’s not a pitch. You want to condense the story down to the absolute essentials, and don’t tell us what happens in any scene unless it is critical to the story... and even then, save that stuff for late in the pitch. You want to begin with the concept, and *never* tell us the story scene-by-scene. Let the script do its job and let the pitch do its job.

SEED OF THE STORY

Give us the seed of the story - protagonist has a problem. Not the details. And give us that seed of the story right up front. Begin with title and genre and (maybe) some similar film to give us an idea of tone and then give us your 3-5 sentence logline. Tell us the whole story in a couple of sentences right up front. That way if the bell rings, we still know your whole story. And if the bell doesn’t ring, you can fill in a couple of spicy details, which we’ll talk about in a moment.

The biggest problem with many of the pitches is that they had no seed of the story - and no story. Often they were a bunch of scenes that seemed to be unrelated (except they happened to the same characters). If you can not distill your story down to a few brief sentences, you do not have a story... or you do not know what your story is.

CONCEPT RULES

The difference between a pitch that caught our attention and one that did not all came down to concept. You know I harp on high concept or having some sort of story hook, but here I was surrounded by British film industry people who are probably the anti-Hollywood, and the pitches that caught *their* attention were the ones with high concepts. When you distill your screenplay down to its essence - that story seed - what becomes important is how interesting that concept is. If your story *idea* is interesting, we will want to read the screenplay. If your story idea is boring or we have heard it before, why would we want to read it?

The winner of the night had a great high concept, and so did the two runners up. These *ideas* caught our attention and intrigued us. I know that a couple of the judges actually wanted to read some of the scripts from these pitches. If your concept is unclear or your concept is something we have heard before - throw that script away and write one with a great idea. The goal here is a great story well told - and so many pitches did not start with a great story... or, if it was in there, they didn’t focus on it or get to it before the bell rang. You are pitching the *concept* so get to that right away - it’s part of that story seed, that protagonist with a problem. Find the most interesting concept that expresses your story - if you have a woman who wishes she knew in high school what she now knows, you can have her coach a kid similar to her... or return to high school in disguise as a student... or ZAP back to high school and be that student again (as in PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED). Your concept is critical - so pick the very best concept for your story. I would not want to read the first version of this story at all, would be mildly interested in the second version (which is NEVER BEEN KISSED) and be really interested in reading that third version. PEGGY SUE has that magic and fantasy that we go to the cinema to experience... and connects to our wish fulfillment to actually have the chance to change our lives (instead of just relive it). Make sure you start with the great concept instead of the okay one - it’s not “A Just Okay Story, Well Told”.

WHAT MAKES IT DIFFERENT?

If you are doing something in a genre, you need to tell us right up front what makes this cop-chases-serial-killer story completely different than any other. One guy pitched his story and it was *exactly* the same story as a popular film, just with one character from the film removed and replaced by another. Um, that’s a Search & Replace job, not writing an original screenplay. But even if your story doesn’t *obviously* resemble some other film, because you only have a limited time to pitch your story, you will be giving us kind of a short hand version without details, and some elements may sound a little generic, so you need to tell us what makes your story unique and unusual right up front so that we use that as a frame of reference for those parts that may sound a bit generic.

And whatever makes it different needs to actually make it different. If you have a buddy cop story and one is tall and the other is short, that has zero impact on the story.

CONCEPT MATTERS

One problem with some of the pitches was that they had *excuses* for the story and contrived plots that just rang false. When you have 110 pages to tell your story you might be able to do some fancy footwork and disguise these things, but anything false and contrived becomes obvious when you compress and condense your story down to a pitch. The strange part is that many people who pitched didn’t think these things were important because they only became apparent in the pitch. Problem is, once the film is made the *trailer* is a pitch, and will expose these defects... and when stars go on talk shows and pitch the film, it will sound awful (or incomplete). The concept actually matters - and if you have contrived something it will sink the film, so no one will even want to read the script. You need a story where the concept makes sense without footnotes.

If your story is a romantic comedy about an old fashioned newspaper reporter chasing the same story as a slick television news guy... and they begin hating each other and eventually fall in love, you may not think the story they are both chasing is important. It’s a rom-com, not a news film... but that story is what brings them together and what drives the story, so it is *critical*. The story they are chasing is the story the audience is watching as they fall in love, and you can’t leave it out of your pitch. It can’t be boring. It can’t be unrelated to the theme of your script. It can’t be unrelated to each character’s emotional conflict. That story they are chasing is what the film is about, while your couple is falling in love. So it had better be great and unusual and original and amazing.

WHY IS THIS A MOVIE?

Often the stories pitched sounded like they would be better on the small screen or the pages of a book or a stage play. If what you are pitching is a *movie* it needs to be something that requires the big screen to work - a larger than life story that fills that huge screen. If the story you are pitching is internal - something that would be better suited to a novel - you need to write it as a novel. Your story needs to match the medium.

When you pitch the story, focus on the elements that make it a movie. The things that will fill the screen and the things that are visual. If your story is two people talking in a house for 90 minutes, that is a stage play. What do we *see*? How is the story told through the actions of the characters? Don’t pitch a TV movie to a cinema panel. And if someone on the panel asks you why this is a movie - you had better know the answer. You had better know why this is *not* a novel or a play or a TV movie - why it *must* be a movie in order to work.

And part of this is probably why 600 million people worldwide would pay to see it. Why your story is going to be something worth spending the $106.7 million the average film costs to get to the screen. Every producer wants to know how they are going to make their money back... and make a huge profit as well. If your story isn’t going to get people all over the world lining up to see the movie, don’t pitch it. If you *must* tell that story on film, find the money and make it yourself. Put your money where your mouth is. If you want to use someone else’s money, you must have a story that will be a great financial investment for them. Why is your story a movie? Why will people all over the world want to pay to see it? Why can it *only* work on that big screen?

WHO IS YOUR AUDIENCE?

So, here I am the Hollywood guy on the panel, and the British guys are asking “Who is your audience?” A film shows in a cinema. A cinema has a line of people buying tickets. Who is buying tickets to see this story? Who does this story appeal to enough that people will leave their homes and stand in line and buy a ticket? What age group? What sex? What other popular films is your story like? One thing I always say is to go to BoxOfficeMojo.com and look at the top 20 films for the past 5 years... that is 100 films popular films. Odds are your story is like one in that 100. If not, that’s a problem. But usually the potential audience is obvious - because they are the people around you when you go to the cinema. You should be writing the kinds of movies you regularly pay to see in the cinema (not wait for DVD or cable). And that gives you a clue to who the audience is. But when someone on the panel asks, *know* your demographic and *know* how well similar movies do with the audience. When you pitch a script you are trying to sell it to the producer, and that means you need to be able to explain why it’s a good investment.

DON’T READ IT

Yes, you are nervous... but if you read your pitch off a piece of paper in a monotone and never make eye contact with us, we are going to pay just as much attention to you as you are playing to us... and *not* want to read your screenplay. You can use the page for reference, or hold on to it in case you forget, but it is *better* to just tell us the story as if you are telling a friend about the movie you saw Friday night. Just talk to us.

I know this may seem completely unfair, but performance matters to some extent. If you sound bored when you read your story, we will think your story is boring. If you sound passionate and excited by your story, that will rub off on us. You don’t need to be an actor, you just need to be *human*.

By the way, one person who pitched was *too slick* - it was a complete turn off for me because they were *not* human, but some sort of TV Sham-Wow Pitchman type. Plastic. This person also used a bunch of completely obvious tricks in an effort to make us listen (they named their protagonist after panel members) and this completely backfired. I don’t want to hear some fake person pitch their false pitch, I want to hear a real person who is passionate about their story.

After I was told to announce *not* to read your pitch, the very next person who pitched read their in a boring monotone. If you can not learn from those who pitch before you, and can not change things at the last minute, you are doomed. This is all about knowing your story and caring about your story. As the night went on, the time allotted for a pitch went from 2 minutes to 90 seconds to 1 minute... yet almost no one altered their pitch to fit the shorter time period! Most continued to tell us moment-by-moment what happened inj the story instead of cutting to the chase!

FLASHY & TWISTS RULE

You may not like this, but in a pitch a great idea or interesting character is what matters. One of the pitches had a funny idea for a protagonist that had the whole panel laughing... and that was one of the two runners up. Guess what? That person was racing the clock and I’m not sure we got all of their story, or that the story even made much sense in the long run. But that character was so fascinating and such an amusing idea for a character that we all wanted to read the script. Now, we may read that script and the story doesn’t hold up - but the purpose of the pitch is to get us to read your script. Then it’s up to the script. If you have some flashy element or location or character or situation or some plot twist that completely rocks our world, we want to read that script. When you are pitching, make sure to include the good parts!

Oh, and your story better *have* a story - not just a set up. There were a couple of pitches that were all Act 1 with no visible Act 2... and when someone on the panel asked what happens next, the answers were vague and evasive. Just some stuff happens. Nothing exciting or interesting. Your *entire screenplay* needs to be exciting and interesting! Every single moment!

FRESH MEETS?

I was surprised that the others on the panel were *encouraging* those who pitched to reference some other popular film as a way to give us an idea of general tone. But it really is much easier to imagine what the film will be like if you start out by telling us it’s like RAISING ARIZONA or like TAKEN or like RANSOM or like SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON - four very different movies about a kidnaping. By telling us which movie your story resembles right up front, we can imagine it in that context. Pitching is short hand, and whatever you can do to get that idea to us quickly is great.

But anything that confuses us is a problem. There were people who did the “meets” thing - it’s STRAW DOGS meets DRIVING MISS DAISY meets ABSOLUTE POWER meets AMERICAN GRAFFITI... and I have no idea what the hell that story can be! If you are going to have films meet, make sure there are *ONLY* two films meeting and that those two films meeting makes us instantly see what your story is. More than two films is confusing. Two films that have zero in common is confusing. If you have two films meet, make sure they are compatible!

BEST SCENES

If you get all the way through your pitch and the bell hasn’t rang, tell us one or two of the greatest scenes in your script. The scenes that will end up in the trailer and attract that paying audience. Again - cut to the chase and don’t give us all of the details of the scene, but the *concept* of the scene. And make sure that scene is something that captures our imaginations and makes us *need* to read that script.

ENDINGS

Here’s the thing about a pitch - if you have a story where we can see a possible ending, you don’t need to tell us what that ending is. We can imagine it. If we imagine a different ending, not a problem. But if you have the kind of story where we can not easily imagine a potential ending, you need to show us that you *can* resolve this conflict... and that means telling us the ending. We need to know that you didn’t paint yourself into a corner before we waste our time reading a screenplay without an ending (or where the ending clearly doesn’t make sense or doesn’t work). Don’t worry about ruining the story by telling us the end - this is all about getting us to read your script. If your story has a twist end, it had also better have an exciting beginning and exciting middle and exciting 109 pages before the big twist on page 110. We may know how it ends, but the rest of the ride needs to be exciting - and those are the details you are not telling us in your pitch. A great film can be seen more than once - even after we know how it all ends.

So, those are some pointers on pitching your script - next time I hope to hear a bunch of great pitches!

- Bill
SCRIPT SECRETS: LONDON - October 10 & 11, 2009 - BIG IDEA class, using GHOST as our primary example and it includes the new Thematic element!

5 comments:

attatt said...

are the winning/runner up pitches going to be posted online anywhere? I would love to get closer look at what went down

truegrit said...

This was a fantastic post.

martinb said...

What truegrit said -- this was a fantastic post. A certainty for inclusion in "Bill Martell's Greatest Hits."

MattDW said...

Damn good advice. Thanks as always.

Jared said...

Glass raised and hat tipped, Bill.

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