When I’m teaching pitching, I encourage my students to provide several pieces of information early in the pitch:
Logline – You need to give us the basic concept of the story before launching into the plot. It’s hard to track plot details delivered orally, so give us the clothesline on which we can hang the various events.
Genre – If it’s comedy, tell us. Don’t make us guess if something’s supposed to be funny. And if we know it’s a horror movie or a sci-fi movie we’ll know what to expect.
Tone – Is it dark or light? Realistic or fantastic? How broad is the humor? Is the emotion melodramatic? Is it quirky? Tell us! All of this will affect how we imagine the scenes as you describe them.
Rating – Is this going to be G, PG, PG-13 or R? Of course ultimately the MPAA will make that call, but let us know how graphic the sex and violence and language will be.
All of this creates an impression in our mind of what kind of movie you’re talking about. It helps us imagine how the scenes you describe will be realized. When you describe a bank robbery I’m going to picture it differently if I’m imagining a broad PG-13 comedy vs. a gritty, realistic R rated thriller.
Imagine you were pitching me something like Austin Powers (written by Mike Myers). If you launched right into the plot, would I know it was a parody? Or would I maybe think you were a really bad writer pitching a really bad spy movie?
Specifically identifying these things is not just useful in a pitch. You need to make these decisions before you start writing your first draft of a spec. If you know you want this to be a PG family film, maybe you ought to reconsider the raunchy sex gag. If you want to do a realistic, character-driven thriller, maybe your hero can’t jump from one skyscraper to another. Knowing what kind of movie you’re writing will help you write it better.
The Jason Bourne movies are in the same genre and have the same rating as the old James Bond movies, but James Bond has a more fantastical tone while Bourne is more gritty and realistic. A villain with steel teeth fits into Bond’s world but not into Bourne’s. (Interesting that the more recent Bond movies have changed the tone to be more like Bourne’s. I don’t imagine we’ll be seeing Bond face another villain like Jaws.)
There are two other things you might want to consider as you determine what kind of movie you have:
Audience – the studios divide the audience into four quadrants: male, female, under 25 and over 25. The biggest summer blockbusters have to appeal to all four of these categories (they’re called “four quadrant movies”). But not all movies have to be four quadrant movies. Romantic comedies are usually geared toward females under and/or over 25. They are one or two quadrant movies. This is fine as long as you also consider…
Budget – If you know your movie appeals to a more limited audience, it will be more likely to get made if it can be done at a reasonable budget. So maybe you don’t include that wacky car chase through the Mall of America in your romantic comedy.
(Note that when you pitch you probably don’t really want to talk about quadrants or budget. The buyers are looking for you to be the creative guy, not the business guy. The business is their job. But it’s worth considering what they’ll be looking for from a business standpoint and ensuring that you’re meeting their needs.)
Discussing budget and rating and audience may sound like I’m trying to push you to make your story more commercial, but that’s not really the point of this exercise. Instead, it’s to determine in your own mind what kind of film you’re making. Because you really ought to know that!
In other news: I’ve finally succumbed to popular pressure and gotten a Twitter account (actually I just want to find out where the grilled cheese food truck is going to be next). If you’d like to follow me, my handle is dougeboch. I promise to use it primarily for shameless self-promotion.