Friday, February 6, 2015

Always Be Pitching

In the pitching class I teach with producer Ken Aguado at Art Center College, and in the book we wrote, The Hollywood Pitching Bible, we encourage screenwriters to think of pitching in the broadest sense. When one talks about pitching, most people think of the classic Hollywood meeting where a writer presents an original idea (or their take on underlying material) to a producer or executive. But really, you will be pitching your ideas all the time in all kinds of situations in Hollywood. Pitching in the broadest sense is the process of getting a story idea that’s in your head into the head of someone else. Here are a few examples of pitching situations:
  • You meet a producer, agent, or filmmaker at a party or industry event and they ask what your screenplay is about.
  • You are presenting ideas for possible spec scripts to your agent.
  • You are proposing a project to your co-writer.
  • You are trying to convince a director or star or financier to sign on to your independent film.
  • You are sending out a query letter or creating a “leave-behind.” These are pitches on paper and should be crafted with many of the same principles as a verbal pitch.
  • You are presenting a treatment to your producer or executive. It’s a mistake to simply do a dry plot recitation in a treatment. The reader will worry you have lost the spark of interest of the idea. Craft a treatment much like you craft a pitch.
  • You are summarizing a screenplay for a contest application. Another pitch on paper.
  • You are at a pitch fest event trying to convince a buyer to read your script.
  • You are in a general meeting and the producer or executive asks what you are working on.
  • You are in a general meeting and the producer or executive says they are in the market for a certain type of movie. You have such a script and want to tell them about it.
  • And of course, you are in an actual pitch meeting attempting to sell your original idea or get a job on an assignment.
The different kinds of pitches can generally be categorized by length. The goal of the pitch tends to dictate how long the pitch is. And each length/goal has different requirements.

I’m fond of saying that you should craft the best version of your story for the form you are presenting. A pitch is different than a script and a log line is another thing entirely. They won’t contain the same items and won’t present them in the same way. You won’t be able to include your cool subplot in the log line and it is a mistake to try to cram it in. If you have an elaborate science fiction or fantasy world, you will have to find a way to condense it to only the most salient elements in anything less than a full-length pitch.

So let’s look at the different lengths of pitches and the unique requirements of each:

The stand-alone log line. A log line is a one or two sentence description of your concept, ideally less than 50 words long. It will be a component of any pitch. When you present the log line by itself, you should also mention things like the title, genre, tone and anticipated MPAA rating (in a longer pitch these things might be separated from the log line.) This form requires a tight focus on the concept. It must include the character, their goal, what’s at stake, and what the primary obstacle is. There usually isn’t room for much else. Your one and only goal is to convey what kind of movie you’re talking about, what the concept is, and what’s compelling about that concept.

Stand-alone log lines are by far the most common type of pitch. They would be used in any casual or social situation where someone asks what your script is about. In these situations the listener DOES NOT want you to launch into a thirty-minute description of your idea! Stand-alone log lines are also used when you are presenting ideas to your representatives and a stand-alone log line is how you describe your script in a query letter. There are many other situations that call for stand-alone log lines and it’s wise to have them memorized and ready to go at a moment’s notice. (For more on log lines, see this post.)

Two-minute pitch. A two-minute pitch is most commonly used when you are trying to get someone to read an existing script or hear a longer pitch at a later time. This is what you use in pitch fests. You might use them in a general meeting to discuss an older script that you think the buyer might like. They can also serve as a “door knob” pitch (A pitch you do “on your way out” of the office after you’ve failed with a bigger pitch, though usually you aren’t literally standing at the door. You phrase it as, “there’s one other idea I’ve been kicking around…”)

The big thing about a two-minute pitch is you won’t be able to cover much plot. After you do your “personal connection” and give the log line, you’ll just have time to describe the character(s), give the set-up, and then tee off the story in a way that suggests there’s plenty of material for a feature. You don’t give the ending – remember, the goal is to get them to read the script or hear a longer pitch. They just need to know what the story’s about and why it’s interesting; they don’t need all the plot details.

Five-minute pitch. This is the kind of pitch you do in a general meeting when they ask what you’re working on. Essentially, this is a two-minute pitch with three more minutes of story added on, including an ending.

The danger here is trying to cram too much plot into those three minutes. Plot doesn’t sell your idea. I’ll repeat that because it’s so important: Plot doesn’t sell your idea. In a five-minute pitch you have to tell a compelling condensed version of your story, and it needs to emphasize character (i.e. how the characters evolve through the story). That means you have to identify the crucial beats of the plot, and may even have to alter some of them to make the story work in this time frame (remember, best version for the medium). You’ll want to give the set up, then focus only on the major arcs and obstacles of act two, then wrap up in a compelling climax. You do not want to go scene-by-scene through the story.

Full-length pitch. You pretty much only do this when you have set up a meeting specifically to pitch an original idea that you want to be paid to write, or to get a job on an assignment. Typically these pitches are 12-15 minutes long, though up to 20 minutes is acceptable. I usually find the shorter end of the range is best, depending on the listener. Hopefully you will have some advance notice as to whether the person you’re pitching to has a short attention span or likes to obsess over details. I’ve heard of pitches running as long as 45 minutes, but I can’t imagine that’s ever really necessary.

A good full-length pitch will cover the entire story in detail. The plot will be completely laid out. However, you must be sure to present the plot in a compelling fashion, focusing on the character and emotion and capturing the tone of the film (e.g. if it's a comedy your pitch should be funny!) Reciting boring plot points in a "this-happens-then-that-happens" fashion is a sure path to a pass. This is really about understanding the difference between plot and story.

The ability to tailor your story to different lengths and situations is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. You must understand what’s appropriate for the situation you are going into and prepare your pitch accordingly.


Rachel Upshaw said...

Great post, but read the book too! Easily digestible info and good specific suggestions/tips. Glad to have such a great resource, I appreciate it!

Doug Eboch said...

I'm thrilled you found the book useful!