Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Reviews: The Perfect Pitch and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

Today I’m going to review a couple of books I’ve read recently on the business of screenwriting. Screenwriting is a business, after all, and if you’re serious about doing it you have to learn that aspect of it.

The Perfect Pitch – by Ken Rotcop

The first book is The Perfect Pitch by Ken Rotcop. Rotcop had some success as an executive and producer of B-movies and TV movies, mostly back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. He also created PitchMart, one of the earliest pitch fests. These things would seem to make him qualified to write a book on pitching, however they also are the source of the biggest flaws I found in the book.

The first flaw is that most of the information seems dated. It is not unexpected that some of the anecdotes would reference companies that no longer exist (The UPN network figures in one story). The business is constantly changing, but that doesn’t mean old anecdotes aren’t relevant.

What is more problematic is that the methods of doing business are not up to date. For example, the book refers to messengering scripts when now most are sent via email as pdf attachments. This may not seem like a very important error, but it could lead a writer to behave in ways that appear amateurish.

This gets even worse when The Perfect Pitch discusses the marketplace and what people are looking for. For example, at one point Rotcop says studios don’t buy many books, but that networks buy books for movies-of-the-week. Um, eight of the top twenty-five movies last year were based on books (not even counting comic books) and when was the last time you saw a movie-of-the-week on network TV? And the focus of The Perfect Pitch often seems to be on the kind of B action films and thrillers that Rotcop used to make but are no longer really part of the marketplace.

The second problem is that Rotcop’s approach to pitching is all about crafting a pitch to get someone to read an existing screenplay. These types of pitches are perfect if you’re doing Rotcop’s Pitchmart, but they don’t reflect the kind of pitching most professional writers are called upon to do. The kind of pitches Rotcop describes tend to be shorter and leave out the ending. That works if you have a spec screenplay to hand over, but if you’re pitching an unwritten, original idea or pitching to get an assignment, this is absolutely the wrong way to do it.

Rotcop argues against pitching unwritten ideas for reasons of copyright protection, but that premise is false. If you’re worried about theft you can always write up a treatment and register that. And the reality is that few writers can make a living only writing on spec. Maybe that was possible back in the ‘80’s, but as I’ve said, times are different now.

So is the book worthless? No. There is plenty of very good general information about communicating and selling ideas. The problem is how to distinguish that from the misleading and out-of-date information. A beginner will have a lot of difficulty separating the good advice from the bad. Most experienced writers probably already know the good stuff.

Unfortunately there are not a lot of books out there on pitching, so it may be worthwhile to pick this one up. Just take any specific advice with a huge grain of salt.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit – by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon

When I started reading this book, I became very sad. Not because it wasn’t good (it’s great) and not because it reveals the depressing parts of the industry (I’m already well versed in those) but because if I had this when I was starting out my career would probably have gone a lot more smoothly.

Garant and Lennon are working screenwriters (and actors – they created and starred in Reno 911). They have worked on many produced movies and know what they’re talking about. And since they’re comedians, the book is often hilarious.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is about selling your movie and is excellent. It contains tons of accurate and up-to-date info on how the business really works and how screenwriters can succeed in it, or at least survive. Garant and Lennon are absolutely clear from the title through the glossary that this book is for people wishing to work on studio movies. They don’t waffle on acknowledging that development frequently kills good scripts and writers have little power over the final film.

I think this is good – you won’t have any illusions about the life of a Hollywood screenwriter after reading this. The book is very clear about the emotional slings and arrows you will face. More importantly, it gives you lots of practical strategies for success in the studio world. There are chapters like, “The Art of Nodding or How to Take Notes.” And by delivering the truth with humor, Garant and Lennon make it a lot easier to accept.

The second section is supposed to be on how to write a screenplay, but it doesn’t really succeed at that. There is some writing advice, but it’s pretty superficial and Garant and Lennon quickly veer back into business stuff, like acquiring book rights and how credit is determined. Also, like most of these books, it’s better at addressing the types of movies its authors have done – in this case broad comedy. Sometimes Garant and Lennon almost seem to forget there are other types of movies. So don’t buy this book expecting to learn anything about how to actually create a screenplay.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit is a quick read. In fact, the authors use “funny” type setting to make it seem longer than it is (such as putting a single sentence on a page for emphasis). But there is still more useful information packed into this book than all other book I’ve read on the business of screenwriting combined.

If you want to be a working, professional screenwriter in Hollywood, I would put this book on your must-read list.


Life, Written and Lived said...

I agree whole-heartedly with you on "the Perfect Pitch" although there are some things you pull from it. But just don't pay for it :)

Short Film Guy

Unknown said...

Hey Doug, thanks for the review of "Writing Movies". Saw it at the bookstore here in Singapore and but decided against buying it. Your review's changed my mind for me. Looking forward to reading it.