Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pitching Part 2: How Much Story?

Last time I discussed how I set up my pitches by defining what the movie is and what my connection to it is. After that, I launch into the story. But here I need to take a minute to discuss the different kind of pitches you might be called upon to do. There’s a progression to the pitching process that affects how much story detail you will be including. (For the moment, I’m going to assume we’re talking about an original story idea rather than an assignment or adaptation. I’ll cover those in a bit.)

Your first pitch might come during a general meeting – a meeting where you’re talking with a producer or development exec who liked a sample of your writing. At some point, they will ask what you’re working on. These pitches can be pretty low on detail. You might just describe the concept, some of the major arcs – plot and character – and probably the events at the Act Two Turning Point and the Resolution. The length is probably three to six minutes, ten at the outside.

If the producer likes the idea enough to develop it with you, you’ll talk it over, bouncing ideas back and forth. Once you have some sense of the direction the producer is interested in going, you’ll go back and flesh out the pitch, providing more detail. You may bring the pitch back to the producer several times until you’re both happy with it.

Then you and the producer will most likely take the pitch to a studio. With a few exceptions, the producer will want the studio to sign on and actually put up the money for you to write the script, under the producer’s creative supervision. At this point, the pitch is likely fairly detailed with all the major beats spelled out – lasting anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes depending on the producer’s style.

Another pitching scenario is when your agent has specifically arranged for you to come in and pitch something to a producer you already know with the idea that they might want to buy the pitch. If you’re pitching a single idea, it ought to be fairly well fleshed out so you don’t seem like you’re wasting their time with something half baked. But it will still be more of a summary that’s open to input from the producer. These pitches might be five to fifteen minutes in length – though I tend to lean toward the shorter end. If the producer likes it, you will probably still have to go through the development and studio pitch stages before getting your contract.

Pitching for adaptations and assignments throws another wrinkle into the mix. If you’ve acquired rights to the material and are bringing it in yourself, you’ll pitch just like it was an original idea, except for referencing the source material at the beginning of the pitch. Assume the people you’re pitching to do not know anything about the material.

More often, though, you’ve been given either a script that needs a rewrite or some source material the producer’s interested in having adapted. In this case, the person you’re pitching to will have at least a passing familiarity with the material. Except when they don’t – by the time you pitch to the studio, you may be pitching to someone who hasn’t read the underlying material. Hopefully the producer is preparing you properly in these cases.

When I’m pitching to someone who knows the source material, I still generally go through the story chronologically, but my emphasis changes. I focus more on what I’m going to change and why. I assume I don’t have to recap every plot point.

With a book I may be describing which elements I’m keeping and which I’m discarding (books tend to be too long to adapt in their entirety). With a play it may be how I’m going to open it up and make it more filmic. With a newspaper or magazine article it may be that I have to impose a plot on something that’s really more of an arena than a story. If I’m angling for a rewrite gig on an existing screenplay, I’ll be talking about the problems I see and how I’ll solve them. The more I’m actually developing an original plot from the material, the more I just pitch the idea as if it were my own.

Note that all of these assume I’m trying to get hired to write a script. You also occasionally will get a chance to pitch someone a script you’ve already written to try to convince them to read it - say you're in a meeting and they mention they're looking for a low budget sci-fi movie and you happen to have written one. In those cases, the pitch should be short and focus on the hook of the story and what’s cool about the idea. Very likely you won’t want to give the ending so the script maintains some surprise.

So hopefully that gives you some perspective on the various types and lengths of pitches you will do. In almost all of these cases the set-up portion I talked about last post remains the same. What changes is how much detail I include in telling the story. One important thing to keep in mind: the pitch is not the script, nor is it the movie.

All of these pitches will be shorter than the final script. Therefore, you will not be able to put every cool idea you have into the pitch. Don’t worry about it… if you’re successful you’ll get to write the script and show them all that stuff. When developing your pitch, it’s important to focus on making the best pitch version of the story.

Next post I’ll talk about how I focus and condense the story into a manageable pitch length.

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