Sunday, July 8, 2012

Trick Questions

Recently I learned of the fantastic “Good in a Room” blog about pitching. One particular post caught my eye: “5 Trick Questions Hollywood Executives Ask – And How to Answer Them.” I agree with Stephanie Palmer’s take on most of the questions, but wanted to comment on one of them and add an additional trick question I’ve gotten.

The trick question I answer differently is her #2: “How much would this cost?” Stephanie suggests you should not give a specific number, but instead say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” I agree that you should not give a specific number – you are not a line producer so you aren’t possibly qualified to do that. (Unless you’re pitching a financier for an independent film, in which case you better have a detailed budget created by an experienced line producer and be able to give an exact budget number and back it up!)

But I don’t like to just say, “I’m not sure.” In order to better answer the question, I try to figure out what’s really motivating it. I once wrote a biopic set in the middle ages – a hard sell, to be sure. But my agent loved it and worked really hard to get producers interested. Most at some point said something like, “Period pieces are really expensive.”

To which my agent would reply, “Yes, but it’s not like this script has huge armies on horseback riding into battle. The conflicts are character based. It’s about people in rooms.” Sometimes this assuaged the doubts, sometimes not. But the point is, if the question has to do with nervousness over the size of the budget you might use it as an opportunity to describe how you’re going to approach the story in a way that keeps costs down. (Note that some genres are supposed to be expensive – big summer sci-fi pics, for example, ought to have spectacle. I’ve been told one of my scripts is not expensive enough!)

Also, some stories lend them selves to two possible approaches: the big budget approach and the small budget approach. Consider Independence Day (written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich) and Signs (written by M. Night Shyamalan). Both movies are about alien invasions, but one is big and expensive and the other is smaller and relatively inexpensive. So it’s possible the question is meant to determine which approach you’re taking. If this is the case, your answer ought to match the kind of movies this producer makes!

The other trick question I often encountered early in my career was, “If we don’t buy this pitch, will you spec it?” This of course is when I was pitching an idea I hadn’t written yet. That’s by far the most common scenario where I pitch, by the way. Except in the case of a pitch-fest, I find it easier to get someone to read a script than to hear a pitch – because of course they probably aren’t going to read it themselves, they’ll give it to the intern to do coverage.

So what’s the answer to, “If we don’t buy this pitch, will you spec it?” The worst answer is “no.” You’ve just told them you don’t really believe in your project. And if you don’t, why should they?

But if you say “yes,” they’ll probably smile and say, “Great, send it to us when it’s done.” This isn’t all bad – you’ve got someone who will read the script. But you’ve also just agreed to work for free and probably killed any chance of selling it at a pitch level.

My response was usually something like, “I love this idea and I’m definitely going to write it, but my agent is setting up a bunch of meetings so I hope someone will see the potential in it that I do.” This is a not-so-subtle threat that if they don’t step up, they might miss out. Of course it often didn’t work!

Right now, the spec market seems to be heating up. But the pitch market still appears to be pretty dead (unless you have some kind of popular underlying property). So some of this is academic right now – you probably won’t sell the pitch anyway.

And partly because of that, the new trend has been to develop specs in conjunction with a producer. So you pitch, but rather than hiring you, the producer agrees to “coach” you as you work on your spec and take it out when you’re finished. Personally, I find that a distressing development. You’re at the mercy of someone with no real skin in the game. But sometimes we just have to be realistic about the business.

And the market changes constantly. A year ago specs were impossible to sell. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if in a year pitches start to sell – with payment up front for the writer to do the work. Wouldn’t that be nice!

Don't forget to check out my Kickstarter campaign for Microbe! Lots of cool rewards available.

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