Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pitching Part 3 – Plot is the Enemy

I’ve talked about the kinds of pitches writers are called upon to do, and how I set up the type of movie I’m pitching. After the setup, it comes time to tell the story of the movie. Here’s where most writers get in trouble. At this stage of our personal development process, we are most likely focused on getting the plot to work. We’re figuring out the cause and effect that ties the major plot points together. So when we pitch we start going through the plot, beat by beat. But plot doesn’t sell your movie.

In fact, to some extent, plot is the enemy of a good pitch.

The first thing to remember is that a pitch is not the movie. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter. And you’re delivering the information verbally, so you don’t have all the tools of a visual medium. If you try to describe the entire plot, point by point, you will be doing nothing but stringing together events. You will have no time to convey the emotional impact of the character arc or the excitement of the set pieces. And those are things that WILL sell your movie.

So you’re going to have to let go of some of the plot details and focus on the major arcs of the story. My approach is to spend considerable time on Act I, summarize the key storylines of Act II, and then wrap up with a dramatic telling of the resolution.

Act I takes more time because you have to establish the character, their world, their want and need and the catalyst that launches the story. You can’t skip through this stuff too fast or you risk the listener becoming confused. Probably the most important thing – and most commonly overlooked – is setting up the main character (and possibly some of the supporting characters). If you don’t interest the listener in the main character, there is no reason for them to care about the outcome of the story – just like in the movie. So it’s worth spending some time here.

After you describe the Act I Turning Point, you can talk more generally about the tensions and arcs that drive the story through Act II. For example, you might say the main character has to fight against his rival for the hand of the love interest, while also dealing with an overbearing boss and a crazy landlady who has a crush on him. You will want to mention any major twists in the plot, but you want to be careful not to fall into the monotony of: this happens, then this happens, then this happens…

You also want to make sure that you are not just focusing on the action. Often times I’ll hear pitches where the writer sets up the character very well, but then fails to continue developing the character as the story progresses. You need to track the character arc and the changing relationships between the characters with as much attention as you track the external plot.

Generally you will build these Act II external and character arcs until the Act II Turning Point – the moment of greatest failure for the character. If your story is properly structured, this will spin it off in a new direction and Act III. I go into a little more detail at the resolution, trying to make it as dramatic as possible. But again, don’t forget the character. You want to be clear about how the character has been changed by the story and what impact their arc has on their life.

Finally, you want to end on a conclusive note. Sometimes I’ll see writers get to the end of the pitch and just kind of trail off before saying, “yeah…that’s it.” You want the pitch to have an ending equally dramatic and profound as the movie will.

Now let me back up for just a moment. I said that you go through Act II quickly, only tracing the major arcs. But that’s not entirely true. You do want to describe some of the big set pieces in the movie. Those will likely include the opening, the Act II Turning Point and the conclusion. But you also may want to highlight two or three set pieces in Act II.

In the earlier pitches to producers, you want to avoid pitching scenes. Instead, describe in general what makes the set piece interesting. Perhaps the hero has to break into a maximum security prison so he dresses up as a guard. But along the way someone spots him and he has to flee through a yard filled with prisoners – who think he’s a guard. The chase causes a fight to break out and our hero has to navigate the brawl, the pursuing guards, and still get to his goal. Those three sentences imply an interesting exciting scene that the listener can visualize – and a big goal of pitching is getting the listener to see the movie in their mind.

So as I plan my pitches, I identify the big arcs and storylines. I make sure to establish the character at the beginning, track their emotional changes, and describe how this impacts their life in the end. And I pick a few big set pieces to describe in detail along the way.

That covers the outline of a prototypical pitch. As I said in the beginning of this series, every movie has its own demands. Sci-fi and fantasy stories will require more emphasis on developing the world. Stories that use magic will require careful explanation of the “rules” of the magic. Ensemble pieces will likely require more time spent on character description. And of course the genre influences emphasis. An action movie will emphasize set pieces more while a romantic comedy will focus on the character’s emotional growth.

In my next pitching post I’ll cover some of my rules for building a good pitch. But before I get to that I’ll probably do my annual “10 Best Written Movies of the Year.” So stay tuned!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pitching Part 2: How Much Story?

Last time I discussed how I set up my pitches by defining what the movie is and what my connection to it is. After that, I launch into the story. But here I need to take a minute to discuss the different kind of pitches you might be called upon to do. There’s a progression to the pitching process that affects how much story detail you will be including. (For the moment, I’m going to assume we’re talking about an original story idea rather than an assignment or adaptation. I’ll cover those in a bit.)

Your first pitch might come during a general meeting – a meeting where you’re talking with a producer or development exec who liked a sample of your writing. At some point, they will ask what you’re working on. These pitches can be pretty low on detail. You might just describe the concept, some of the major arcs – plot and character – and probably the events at the Act Two Turning Point and the Resolution. The length is probably three to six minutes, ten at the outside.

If the producer likes the idea enough to develop it with you, you’ll talk it over, bouncing ideas back and forth. Once you have some sense of the direction the producer is interested in going, you’ll go back and flesh out the pitch, providing more detail. You may bring the pitch back to the producer several times until you’re both happy with it.

Then you and the producer will most likely take the pitch to a studio. With a few exceptions, the producer will want the studio to sign on and actually put up the money for you to write the script, under the producer’s creative supervision. At this point, the pitch is likely fairly detailed with all the major beats spelled out – lasting anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes depending on the producer’s style.

Another pitching scenario is when your agent has specifically arranged for you to come in and pitch something to a producer you already know with the idea that they might want to buy the pitch. If you’re pitching a single idea, it ought to be fairly well fleshed out so you don’t seem like you’re wasting their time with something half baked. But it will still be more of a summary that’s open to input from the producer. These pitches might be five to fifteen minutes in length – though I tend to lean toward the shorter end. If the producer likes it, you will probably still have to go through the development and studio pitch stages before getting your contract.

Pitching for adaptations and assignments throws another wrinkle into the mix. If you’ve acquired rights to the material and are bringing it in yourself, you’ll pitch just like it was an original idea, except for referencing the source material at the beginning of the pitch. Assume the people you’re pitching to do not know anything about the material.

More often, though, you’ve been given either a script that needs a rewrite or some source material the producer’s interested in having adapted. In this case, the person you’re pitching to will have at least a passing familiarity with the material. Except when they don’t – by the time you pitch to the studio, you may be pitching to someone who hasn’t read the underlying material. Hopefully the producer is preparing you properly in these cases.

When I’m pitching to someone who knows the source material, I still generally go through the story chronologically, but my emphasis changes. I focus more on what I’m going to change and why. I assume I don’t have to recap every plot point.

With a book I may be describing which elements I’m keeping and which I’m discarding (books tend to be too long to adapt in their entirety). With a play it may be how I’m going to open it up and make it more filmic. With a newspaper or magazine article it may be that I have to impose a plot on something that’s really more of an arena than a story. If I’m angling for a rewrite gig on an existing screenplay, I’ll be talking about the problems I see and how I’ll solve them. The more I’m actually developing an original plot from the material, the more I just pitch the idea as if it were my own.

Note that all of these assume I’m trying to get hired to write a script. You also occasionally will get a chance to pitch someone a script you’ve already written to try to convince them to read it - say you're in a meeting and they mention they're looking for a low budget sci-fi movie and you happen to have written one. In those cases, the pitch should be short and focus on the hook of the story and what’s cool about the idea. Very likely you won’t want to give the ending so the script maintains some surprise.

So hopefully that gives you some perspective on the various types and lengths of pitches you will do. In almost all of these cases the set-up portion I talked about last post remains the same. What changes is how much detail I include in telling the story. One important thing to keep in mind: the pitch is not the script, nor is it the movie.

All of these pitches will be shorter than the final script. Therefore, you will not be able to put every cool idea you have into the pitch. Don’t worry about it… if you’re successful you’ll get to write the script and show them all that stuff. When developing your pitch, it’s important to focus on making the best pitch version of the story.

Next post I’ll talk about how I focus and condense the story into a manageable pitch length.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pitching Part 1 - The Set-Up

Like it or not, pitching is essential to making a living as a screenwriter (and most screenwriters don't like it one bit.) If you plan to be a professional, you are going to have to pitch all the time – to get assignments, to sell ideas, to convince actors to be in your film, and probably most commonly in “general” meetings.

After you send out a spec script you’ll end up getting meetings with people who didn’t want to buy it but think you might have some potential as a writer. They want to get to know you, see what kind of person you are, see if you’re someone they might want to hire one day. These are called general meetings. And in those meetings you will be asked what you’re working on. And then you’ll pitch.

I’m going to devote my next several posts to the topic of pitching. I’ll start with how I go about building a pitch. Every story requires a slightly different approach, but I have a basic outline I start with. And the first part of that outline is setting up the movie.

Personal Connection

When you pitch, you are not just selling an idea, you are selling yourself as a writer. It is very beneficial to connect your personal experiences to the story. You want the buyer to see you as the only writer who could possibly execute this idea. This is even more important when you are pitching an adaptation or assignment. You have to show the unique insight you bring to the underlying material.

If it’s a story based on something that happened in your own life, great. Briefly describe the story that inspired you. If you have specialized expertise in the arena – you were a fireman and you’re pitching a story about firemen, for example – then use that.

Most of the time, though, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to show your connection. If it’s an original story, you might say what inspired you to write it. If not, describe why it appeals to you. This will often be thematic – tell them something about yourself that makes the story’s theme personally relevant. (It helps, by the way, if what you're saying is true.)

So let’s say you were pitching to get the job to write Captain America. You’re not a superhero and you probably didn’t fight in World War II. But you might start talking about how you were always small for your age and were always picked last for sports, even though you loved sports. You could talk about how you really relate to that aspect of Steve Rogers’ character – how his desire to serve his country is confounded by his physical limitations.

I usually start with the personal connection as a lead in to pitching the story. It contextualizes the pitch. If I was doing the Captain America pitch above, I would make certain to reference back to that outsider theme regularly.

What Kind of Movie Is It?

At the most basic level, the pitch is a verbal summary of your story. But it is actually more than that – you are trying to convey the movie you want to write. So before launching into the plot, I describe what kind of movie I’m planning. This usually includes:

The Title. If you’re pitching an assignment or adaptation you’ll already have a title, but if you’re pitching an original idea, have a title for it. It helps make the movie seem real.

The Logline. Give a one or two sentence description of the story. It is hard to follow things delivered verbally. If you give a solid logline that encapsulates the idea, then it is easier for the listener to place the plot points in context. (See last post for my thoughts on crafting a good logline.)

Tone, Genre, Rating. Don’t make us guess if it’s a comedy or not, or if it will be R or PG. It’s okay to say, “This is a light romantic comedy,” or “This is a hard-R horror movie.” Again, it helps us contextualize the plot as you describe it.

Other Movies. The “X meets Y” pitch is a Hollywood cliché. But comparing your project to similar movies can help establish the tone quickly and easily. If you do the “meets” approach, be sure it makes sense. “Alien meets Hunt for Red October” helps me imagine a movie. “Saw meets Sophie’s Choice” does not. Personally, I prefer saying the film is, “in the vein of…” and then listing three similar movies. It establishes tone without risking confusion.

A few rules here: Use mostly contemporary movies – if all your references are to 1940’s movies your idea will sound old fashioned. Use successful movies – comparing your movie to monumental flops is not a good way to sell something. Use well-known movies – if they haven’t seen the obscure Hungarian film you reference it does you no good at all. And refer to more than one movie – otherwise it may look like you’re just ripping off that movie.

Once you’ve established what kind of movie your pitching, it is time to launch into the story. And that will be the topic of my next post!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The All Powerful Logline

Since pitching is such an important part of being a working screenwriting, I’m going to devote the next several posts to the art of the pitch. I’ll cover crafting the actual pitch, pointers on style and technique, and information on pitching in the business. (If you want to read what I’ve written about pitching previously, you can see all the posts here.) Before I start, though, I want to do a post about loglines because a good logline is an important part of a good pitch (more on that next post).

Simply defined, a logline is a one or two sentence description of a movie concept. But actually crafting one is never simple.

First, let me discuss why a good logline is so important to the professional writer. There’s a creative reason – if you can’t craft a logline you probably haven’t yet fully grasped your concept in your own mind. I always put my logline at the top of my outlines. It helps me stay focused on what the movie’s really about.

But loglines are even more important from a business perspective. When my agent is about to send out a spec script, he’ll asked me to send him half a dozen loglines. From those we’ll whittle it down to one really good one. Then when my agent calls producers and development execs to alert them the script is coming, he’ll give them that logline.

What happens next is that the producer or exec’s assistant will enter the logline on a tracking board. Tracking boards are private Internet forums shared by development people. They are informal and there are several, loosely grouped by genre and budget interest. The goal is for buyers to track everything coming onto the market.

If the logline my agent and I crafted is good, he’ll start getting calls from other development people saying, “We heard Doug has a new spec coming out… can we get on the list?” If the logline isn’t good we won’t get those calls. Already the script’s in trouble and nobody’s even read it!

Another use for loglines is in the independent world. If you submit a film to a festival they will ask for a logline. That gets printed in a program – and if the festival is big enough, they’ll be printed in the trades. People, including potentially acquisition execs, will make decisions on what film to see based on the loglines. When I look at a festival program I can always tell which filmmakers understood the importance of that logline spot on the application and which just whipped something off at the last minute.

Similarly, if you enter a major screenplay contest and make the finals, they will likely send out a press release listing the loglines the writers put on the application. People in the industry will peruse those to see if any sound promising. Hopefully your logline is as good as your script!

So loglines are important. But how do you write a good one?

It’s really hard. And every film is a little different. Your goal is to capture the movie’s hook – what’s unique and interesting about it. Also you want to convey the genre and tone. A good logline makes you want to see that movie.

Some of the best loglines are unique and pithy. These are usually high concept movies. “Die Hard on a boat” (Under Siege). “During a bachelor party in Vegas, the groomsmen lose the groom” (The Hangover). “Two guys pick up women by crashing weddings” (Wedding Crashers).

What’s great about those loglines is they are short, simple and memorable. Many loglines need to be a little more detailed and focus more on the main character. However you should still keep “short and sweet” as a goal. Ideally people should be able to repeat the logline verbatim after only hearing it once.

It’s important that the logline be specific and clear, not vague. Vague does not help you. Bad: “A family wrestles with success and failure and comes together at the end.” Good: “A dysfunctional family goes on a road trip so the youngest daughter can compete in a beauty pageant.” (Little Miss Sunshine)

One trick I use is the adjective-noun approach to the main character. Saying the story is about a “guy” or a “girl” simply tells you their gender. Is that really the most interesting thing about them? Think of a noun and an adjective to crystallize the character. James Bond isn’t a guy, he’s a “suave spy.” Indiana Jones is a “swashbuckling archeologist.” Clarice in Silence of the Lambs is “an ambitious FBI trainee.”

For buddy films or ensembles, you will often want to turn the pair or group into a “main character” for the purposes of the logline. So Some Like It Hot is about “two womanizing musicians.”

Next you need to convey the story. It should feel external and active. This is supposed to be a movie after all. You want to avoid a “naval gazing” logline like “A man contemplates the significance of his life.” It sounds like we’re going to watch this guy staring out the window deep in thought. Boring.

However, “An angel shows a suicidal man what the world would have been like if he’d never been born” – that’s a movie I’d want to see. (It’s a Wonderful Life)

Often stating the character’s goal can be the way to convey the story concept. Indiana Jones is “searching for the Ark of the Covenant.” Clarice Starling is trying to “stop a serial killer.” In The King’s Speech, “King George has to deliver a speech to rally Britain.”

But you also need to show what major obstacles stand in the way. What’s so interesting about a king making a speech? Well, it’s interesting if he has a debilitating stutter to overcome. And an archeologist searching for an artifact… are we going to watch him dig in the dirt for two hours? Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good story because of the Nazis.

Similarly, make sure the stakes are clear. We understand why an archeologist would want to find the greatest artifact ever. But what’s at stake if King George fails in his speech? Better mention that in the logline.

So, here are some workable loglines:

Some Like It Hot: During prohibition two womanizing musicians dress in drag and join an all girl band to escape the mob after they witness a hit.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: On the eve of World War II, a swashbuckling archeologist races against the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant.

Silence of the Lambs: An ambitious female FBI trainee matches wits with an imprisoned genius to learn the identity of a serial killer before he can strike again.

The King’s Speech: King George VI undergoes radical therapy for a stutter so he can deliver a speech to rally Britain during World War II.

Some notes – you’ll notice I mentioned the FBI trainee in Silence of the Lambs is a woman. It may seem unfair I have to make that point, but let’s be realistic. If I didn’t, most people would assume the main character is a man. You can’t undo societal prejudice in a logline. Better to be clear.

You’ll also see that the period pieces mention when they take place. If you don’t, people will naturally assume your story is contemporary and may be put off when they discover they’re wrong. You’ll also need to provide some context for sci-fi and fantasy pieces. The best approach is to identify the most telling and important aspect of the world you’re describing. So the logline for Children of Men might be:

"In a future where society is collapsing because all of humanity has become sterile, a depressed loner must get the first pregnant woman in a generation to safety."

With loglines you’ll constantly be fighting between length and clarity. My best advice is to keep in mind that your logline is not your movie. It’s a hook to get someone interested in your movie. Don’t worry if it doesn’t convey everything about your story. Just make sure it sounds cool!