Thursday, February 21, 2013

You Are the Product

A friend once told me a story about a pitch meeting he and his writing partner did. At the end of the pitch, the producer asked if they could send over a one-page summary of the story. It’s not uncommon to be asked for such a thing. There are only a handful of people in Hollywood who can buy a pitch without consulting with someone else. A summary provides a document they can show these other people.

When the writers told their manager about this, the manager advised them not to do it. His reason: “You are the product.”

This struck me as important for a couple of reasons. First, the primary implication of the manager’s statement is that the product being sold in a pitch is not an idea, it’s a writer (or in this case writers). Thus if someone else at the company needs to evaluate the product they should meet with the writers, not read a summary of the idea.

I agree with this (see my post on the value of an idea)… to an extent. Obviously there are many cases where a producer has bought one pitch from a writer after rejecting several other pitches from the same writer. Maybe the better way to look at it is that the primary product is the writer and the secondary product is the idea.

In the bigger career picture this is an important thing to understand. If you want to be a professional screenwriter you must learn your craft and how to function within the industry. This might seem obvious, but too often people spend all their energy trying to come up with the perfect high-concept idea without bothering to learn how to write well. (Which, again, doesn’t let you off the hook for coming up with good ideas.) If the product is you, you need to be a product worth buying.

The other important implication is that this manager does not think providing a written summary is smart business. This is an old debate in the screenwriting community. On the one hand, a summary can help the executive sell the idea to their supervisors and company. It can help them remember details of the pitch. And it protects the writer’s version of the story, hopefully preventing the executive from mangling the idea. Some writers even provide a summary at the end of the pitch without being asked – these are called “leave behinds.”

On the other hand, the executive you pitched to might have a better understanding of how to present your idea in a way that will appeal to their boss or partners. More importantly, a summary gives an executive something to reject. You’d much rather get in the room with the person doing the deciding, and that’s more likely if you haven’t given them a convenient piece of paper to judge. It is more difficult to portray your passion and enthusiasm for a project on the page than it is in person, and enthusiasm is contagious. And even if they don’t like the idea, if they like you it could lead to other work – after all, you are the product.

The decision often hinges on the situation. I once did a pitch for an assignment for foreign producers who did not speak English well. Prior to the pitch, I told them I would provide them with a written version afterward, just in case they had trouble following. The irony was they hired me in the room and I never had to give them the written version, but it was a situation where I felt the benefits of doing a summary outweighed the negatives.

If you do decide to do a summary, remember that it is a sales tool, not a writing tool. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I believe plot is the enemy of pitching. In a pitch you need to focus on hook and character. The same philosophy holds for this piece of paper.

Since your summary will be one page (and it should only be one page!) you will not be able to capture the entire scope of the plot. Moreover, you don’t want to play tricks like reducing font or margins. The page should be inviting to read. It should get the reader excited about the idea and – most importantly – excited to meet the writers in person! This is the time to be as charming, witty and evocative in your writing as you are able.

Remember, the product is you.

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