A few weeks ago I was involved with helping to organize a pitchfest. It was a unique experience for me – I got to sit in a room and watch writers pitch to panels of producers, executives, agents and directors. Without the pressure of pitching myself, I could really observe what worked and what didn’t and give objective consideration to the panelists’ comments. I also had the opportunity to talk to some of the panelists afterwards and hear their thoughts on the sessions overall. For the next two or three posts I’ll share some of what I learned from the experience.
I’ve long thought plot mechanics are the enemy of the writer when it comes to pitching. When we pitch we’re usually at that stage of our own development of the story that we’re concerned with making sure every beat of the plot progresses logically. And we use plot as our map when we write the script. So we instinctively pitch plot to show the buyer that we’ve got it all worked out.
But plot isn’t really what sells your story. Simply pitching, “X happens then Y happens then Z happens” isn’t very compelling. This was reinforced at the pitchfest.
The most common comments – applied to roughly 90% of the pitches – were related to lack of character development or weak character arc. The second most common comment was that the writer still hadn’t found the “hook” of the story. Comments about plot were rare - except to question why a character did something, which if you think about it is really a character comment.
So hook and character. Let’s deal with the “hook” question first. The term encompasses several things. First, it means a high concept idea that can be easily conveyed in a sentence or two. Also, that the high concept is compelling. And, perhaps most important, that the concept is fresh.
It’s impossible to come up with a completely original story idea for a movie. No matter what your idea is, there are undoubtedly several movies with similar concepts out there. That’s okay – if you actually had an idea that no movie is similar to, it’s probably because the idea isn’t compelling. What you have to do, though, is be clear about what’s different in your take on the idea – what your fresh angle is.
My fellow Art Center teacher Ron Osborn is fond of stopping students mid-pitch with the words, “I’m not hearing the news.” In other words, he wants to know what’s new and exciting about their story.
The reason the hook is so critical is because the buyers are looking for why they should pick your idea instead of one of the other hundred or so pitches, scripts, novels, comic books and video games that come through their office any given week. And they're also wondering why the audience would want to see your movie instead of any number of other entertainment options. You can’t just tell a coherent story, you have to get their attention and get them excited about your movie.
The character question is more interesting. Somehow during a pitch screenwriters often seem to lose their characters in all the plot machinations. I don’t mean that the character isn’t involved in the plot, but rather that they become a mechanical piece, a person taking action without any notice of the emotional impact.
One of the questions I heard several times at the pitchfest was one I’ve heard for years: why this character for this story? I’ve dealt with the question in this blog before. Most stories should teach the character something they need to know, or change them in a way that they need to be changed. If the story doesn’t teach the character or change them in a positive way, then it should be because you are intentionally making some kind of thematic point about the character or the nature of life.
Beware of the story that happens to someone just because they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Random things happen to people in real life, but in fiction there should be thematic purpose to why this character is in this story. Even if the character does encounter a random event, on a deeper level it should have personal relevance.
One producer at the pitchfest used a phrase I jotted down because I liked it so much. He said the writer did not do a good job, "tracking the changing relationships of the characters.” Just like the main character himself should change, his relationships with the other characters should also change. And you need to make those changes clear in your pitch.
The panelists’ emphasis on character showed that clearly they were looking for stories with great characters. But I think it reflects something more profound. Character is our way into story. We care about the outcome of the plot because we care what happens to this character. Thus to pitch successfully you have to make the buyer care about your character and show how the plot twists are affecting them. Just like character is our way into the movie, character is our way into the pitch.
A coherent plot is of course important, but the truth is nobody is going to buy your pitch without reading sample scripts that prove you know how to work out plot. What buyers are looking for in a pitch are a great hook, a complex, relatable character, and a clear character journey.