Once again this year I attended Comic-Con in San Diego. Even if you’ve never been and don’t care about comic books, you probably know about this event. It’s widely covered for its movie and television studio presentations where stars and directors reveal new footage of upcoming genre movies, as well as for all the people who like to dress up in costume.
In reality Comic-Con is much more than that. What many people don’t know is that there are a ton of panels on creative topics related to writing for movies, television, internet video and comic books. This year, a lot of the panels seemed to be pretty similar to last year – same topics, many of the same panelists. But I did hear some interesting and thought provoking things relevant to screenwriting. Here are some of my take-aways:
“They come for the concept, they stay for the characters.” This quote was from Jeff Krelitz of Heavy Metal at a panel on the convergence of television and the Internet. It was in response to a question about what they look for in material. His point was that you need a big catchy concept to stand out in the vast sea of content on the Internet, but to get people to come back you need strong, compelling characters.
I think the same theory applies to any kind of storytelling medium. In fact, this is a pretty good summary of my approach to pitching (as elaborated on in The Hollywood Pitching Bible, of course – second edition coming very soon!) What you sell in a pitch is a concept and a character or characters. Writers tend to focus on plot detail in pitches, but this is not what will get people to buy your idea.
I also went to another panel on pitching movies and television where one of the speakers (can’t remember who) commented on how you have to explain why your project is different than the next one, and why you are different than the next writer. I think this is an important thing to remember when picking material, whether it's to pitch or spec – you are not working in a vacuum. The people who might buy your pitch are hearing several pitches a day. The people who might buy your spec are reading dozens a week. It’s not enough to just competently execute a story. Your story has to be original and interesting enough to stand out.
Notice that the speaker also mentioned the need to distinguish yourself from the next writer. This is less important with a spec since the writing will speak for itself. But with a pitch you are selling yourself as a writer as much as you are selling the story. Give them a reason to think you will do a good job.
One of my favorite panels every year is the TV Writers Room panel. I wrote down a quote, but again forgot to note who said it (sorry to that person). It was in reference to the television writer’s job when coming up with an episode story idea. The writer needs to ask, “Ten years from now when someone is looking at the DVD box set or Netflix, what in this episode is going to make them say, ‘I have to watch this one because it’s the one where that happened’?”
I thought that was a great way of phrasing the importance of having a cool idea at the heart of the episode story. And actually that was kind of the theme of convention for me: the need to have not just a workable idea, but an idea that is fresh and original enough to stand out from the crowd.
Of course I also saw lots of cool video, movie stars, and people in amazing costumes. It was Comic Con after all.
In other news, I will be moderating a panel on pitching at the Screenwriters World Conference on August 16th. Also on the panel are Rob Edwards, a writer on Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, In Living Color, The Fresh Prince, and Studio 60; Daniel Manus, CEO of No BullScript Consulting; and screenwriter Patty Meyer who has sold eight pitches to studios. Come check it out!