Monday, December 12, 2011

Pitching Part 1 - The Set-Up

Like it or not, pitching is essential to making a living as a screenwriter (and most screenwriters don't like it one bit.) If you plan to be a professional, you are going to have to pitch all the time – to get assignments, to sell ideas, to convince actors to be in your film, and probably most commonly in “general” meetings.

After you send out a spec script you’ll end up getting meetings with people who didn’t want to buy it but think you might have some potential as a writer. They want to get to know you, see what kind of person you are, see if you’re someone they might want to hire one day. These are called general meetings. And in those meetings you will be asked what you’re working on. And then you’ll pitch.

I’m going to devote my next several posts to the topic of pitching. I’ll start with how I go about building a pitch. Every story requires a slightly different approach, but I have a basic outline I start with. And the first part of that outline is setting up the movie.

Personal Connection

When you pitch, you are not just selling an idea, you are selling yourself as a writer. It is very beneficial to connect your personal experiences to the story. You want the buyer to see you as the only writer who could possibly execute this idea. This is even more important when you are pitching an adaptation or assignment. You have to show the unique insight you bring to the underlying material.

If it’s a story based on something that happened in your own life, great. Briefly describe the story that inspired you. If you have specialized expertise in the arena – you were a fireman and you’re pitching a story about firemen, for example – then use that.

Most of the time, though, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to show your connection. If it’s an original story, you might say what inspired you to write it. If not, describe why it appeals to you. This will often be thematic – tell them something about yourself that makes the story’s theme personally relevant. (It helps, by the way, if what you're saying is true.)

So let’s say you were pitching to get the job to write Captain America. You’re not a superhero and you probably didn’t fight in World War II. But you might start talking about how you were always small for your age and were always picked last for sports, even though you loved sports. You could talk about how you really relate to that aspect of Steve Rogers’ character – how his desire to serve his country is confounded by his physical limitations.

I usually start with the personal connection as a lead in to pitching the story. It contextualizes the pitch. If I was doing the Captain America pitch above, I would make certain to reference back to that outsider theme regularly.

What Kind of Movie Is It?

At the most basic level, the pitch is a verbal summary of your story. But it is actually more than that – you are trying to convey the movie you want to write. So before launching into the plot, I describe what kind of movie I’m planning. This usually includes:

The Title. If you’re pitching an assignment or adaptation you’ll already have a title, but if you’re pitching an original idea, have a title for it. It helps make the movie seem real.

The Logline. Give a one or two sentence description of the story. It is hard to follow things delivered verbally. If you give a solid logline that encapsulates the idea, then it is easier for the listener to place the plot points in context. (See last post for my thoughts on crafting a good logline.)

Tone, Genre, Rating. Don’t make us guess if it’s a comedy or not, or if it will be R or PG. It’s okay to say, “This is a light romantic comedy,” or “This is a hard-R horror movie.” Again, it helps us contextualize the plot as you describe it.

Other Movies. The “X meets Y” pitch is a Hollywood cliché. But comparing your project to similar movies can help establish the tone quickly and easily. If you do the “meets” approach, be sure it makes sense. “Alien meets Hunt for Red October” helps me imagine a movie. “Saw meets Sophie’s Choice” does not. Personally, I prefer saying the film is, “in the vein of…” and then listing three similar movies. It establishes tone without risking confusion.

A few rules here: Use mostly contemporary movies – if all your references are to 1940’s movies your idea will sound old fashioned. Use successful movies – comparing your movie to monumental flops is not a good way to sell something. Use well-known movies – if they haven’t seen the obscure Hungarian film you reference it does you no good at all. And refer to more than one movie – otherwise it may look like you’re just ripping off that movie.

Once you’ve established what kind of movie your pitching, it is time to launch into the story. And that will be the topic of my next post!

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