Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Page 1 of Your Break-In Screenplay

My last several posts have been about pitching – important stuff, but I’m anxious to get back to talking about craft. And I imagine most of you prefer that as well. The art and craft are why we do this. But before I get back to the fun stuff, I want to talk a little bit about one of the challenges facing aspiring screenwriters looking to break into Hollywood filmmaking.

This post stems from my experience doing critiques at the Southwest Writers Screen and Script Conference in Albuquerque last weekend. I critiqued the first five pages of four writers’ screenplays. I was pleasantly surprised with how competent the writing was. However, none of the samples really grabbed me and got me excited.

Now maybe that’s unfair – it was only five pages. As one of the attendees pointed out, many movies open with “status quo” scenes showing the character and environment, setting us up for the story to come. Absolutely true. I even advocate this status quo section in my structural breakdown.

However, just the other day I had someone in development tell me that if they read the first page of a screenplay and aren’t hooked, they won’t read the second page. That’s right, you get one page to grab this person.

There’s a difference between movies and spec scripts. The audience for a movie already knows what it’s about. They’ve seen a trailer, a poster, maybe read a review and heard stars discuss the film on talk shows. Maybe friends have told them about it.

But when a development exec or producer picks up a spec screenplay, they don’t have any idea what it's going to be. Perhaps the writer’s agent has given them the logline of the project, but there’s no guarantee they’ll remember it by the time they get to the script in their pile of evening reading. Now if the writer is a big name or simply someone the exec knows has talent, they might give them a little time to develop the story. But if you’re just breaking in, you don’t necessarily have that luxury.

And yeah, it’s not really fair. But Hollywood doesn’t promise to be fair.

The openings I read in Albuquerque may have been fine for a script that was already in development where people are committed to making it. But as a sample to break into the business, many executives wouldn’t make it past these first few pages. (Not everyone in Hollywood is as quick to throw stuff on the reject pile, but no buyer is obligated to continue reading a script they aren’t excited about.)

The writers in question have several things working against them. Number one, they are, at this time, Hollywood outsiders. I don’t think any of them have agents. And they don’t live in Los Angeles, so finding buyers to even read their scripts is probably a challenge. Plus, three of the four scripts were period pieces. Period pieces are a tough sell because they’re expensive.

Of course outsiders break into the business all the time. Every working screenwriter was once an aspiring screenwriter. And you can write a movie that’s a tough sell. Period pieces do get made. But these obstacles mean you have to work that much harder to grab people and engage their interest.

So what is the poor aspiring writer to do? One of the writers told me her script was an action movie, but I pointed out there was no action in the first five pages. I suggested that perhaps she add a prologue, maybe something with the villains, that would establish the tone of the film right up front.

It’s also important to remember that just because a scene doesn’t contain a crucial plot point doesn’t mean it can be a boring scene. Put conflict into those early scenes. Make them about something. Create obstacles for your character to overcome. If you’re writing a comedy, make sure the early scenes are funny. And whatever you do, don’t open with exposition!

This is true even for produced movies. Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) has a very late Catalyst. We don’t find out what the story is really about until twenty-five minutes into the film. But look how it opens: We start with a chase and shootout between cops and bootleggers. Then we meet our heroes – musicians working in a speakeasy. And the speakeasy is immediately raided. We get action, humor, conflict, drama. We’re entertained enough that we’ll wait a little bit to find out where this story is going.

You should look carefully at the first few pages of your screenplay. If you are an aspiring screenwriter trying to break in (or even a professional trying to sell a spec), those first pages have a job to do that has nothing to do with telling a great movie story. They have to grab a reader who knows nothing about your premise and convince them to keep reading long enough to uncover that premise.

When you get to production, maybe you’ll change the opening. But you can’t get to production until you convince someone to buy your script. And with the intense competition in Hollywood, you need to grab them fast and hard from the first page.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pitching Part 8 – What You Bring with You

The vast majority of the time I rely purely on my storytelling ability to sell my pitch. If it’s based on underlying material – a comic book or a novel – I will bring that with me. It helps the project feel more substantial.

It used to be that, for writers, bringing anything else was considered goofy and amateurish. But these days that’s changed somewhat. Some writers now bring concept art, props, maybe even a short video (emphasize short – two minutes at most if you’re going to show it in the meeting).

My take on visual aids is that if it is organic to the concept it can help, but if not there’s a risk it will smack of “trying too hard.” So if you were pitching a story about, say, an actual specialized, elite, military unit and you had some photos of that unit in action, it would be helpful to make them part of the presentation.

But if you’re pitching something like a more standard romantic comedy, bringing in props will seem gimmicky. You probably wouldn’t want to bring in wedding cake to pitch a wedding comedy, for example.

If you do decide to bring something, it should look professional. Remember, these people make media for a living. They’re used to looking at the most high quality stuff. Unless you’re a trained entertainment designer, don’t bring in drawings you made yourself. And if you shoot a video, it shouldn’t be something you made with your mini-DV camera in your back yard.

(Note: Directors are far more likely to bring in visual aids for a pitch. But the standard of professionalism still applies.)

Leave Behinds

Far more common for writers is the “leave behind.” This is a printed, one-page summary of your pitch that you leave with the executive or producer you’ve pitched to. The reason you might want to do this is that the person you pitched to may have to pitch your idea to other people at the company before deciding whether to move forward. Giving them a leave behind helps them do this better.

Of course it also gives those mysterious other people something to reject. Many writers refuse to do leave behinds because they would rather get called in to redo the pitch themselves for the other execs. There’s no guarantee that will happen, of course, but it’s more likely if you haven’t given a convenient summary for them to read instead. Or that’s the theory, anyway.

Personally I don’t do leave behinds. But sometimes I’m asked if I can provide a summary. In those cases I’ll do a one pager and send it along after the meeting. But only one page – I don’t want to get into a situation where I’m developing a treatment for free.

Sometimes people do outrageous things to try to make an impression. And sometimes it works. But usually it doesn’t. Microsoft famously had the Halo script delivered to studios by a man dressed in costume as the main character. People in Hollywood still snicker about that.

My advice is to just be professional. Ultimately you will succeed or fail based on your ability to tell a compelling story. Focus on crafting and rehearsing the verbal part of your pitch rather than trying to devise intricate gimmicks.


One week left until the SouthWest Wrtiers Screen & Script Conference where I will be delivering a keynote. More info:

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pitching Part 7 – Distractions

I’ve been talking mostly about how to craft and deliver your pitch, but of course the pitch will just be one part of a meeting with an executive or producer. Back in September of 2010 I wrote a description of a general meeting you might want to look at if you’ve never been to one. And you will pitch at a general meeting. Pitch meetings - meetings for a producer or executive to hear a specific pitch, most likely from a writer they already know - work much the same.

Ask any professional writer about pitching and before long you will undoubtedly be hearing horror stories. I once pitched to a guy whose wife was in surgery. Every time the phone rang, he jumped. I don’t think he heard a word I said.

Another time the producer fell asleep (not a good indicator of my pitching skill). Once a producer swiveled his chair around so I was pitching to the back of his head – try it sometime; it’s not easy. A friend was asked to pitch to a guy through a bathroom door while he was relieving himself – the guy actually asked him to do it! And these stories are mild.

I can’t possibly begin to cover all of the possible interruptions and distractions you may face. But I can give you some general guidelines that should apply in most situations.

The number one rule is never lose your cool. Whatever happens, smile and be gracious – even if they aren’t. When I pitch, of course I’m trying to sell that idea. But more important is that I start/build/maintain my relationship with the buyer. If they don’t buy this pitch, I want the opportunity to come back with the next one. So don’t get angry or frustrated… or if you do, don’t let it show.

The most common type of disruption you’ll encounter is someone taking a phone call. My advice is simply to stop pitching, wait quietly, and when they’re done just pick up where you left off as if nothing had happened. This works for most types of interruptions.

On a few occasions, someone has joined the pitch late – another exec or producer I didn’t know was going to be there. I try to quickly catch them up on the story by giving the logline, character information and critical plot beats, but avoid going into great detail so I don’t bore the person or people who were there from the start.

Some buyers will sit quietly and listen to your pitch straight through. Others will interrupt and ask questions. Some will make suggestions. You don’t want to let this throw you. Answer their questions, of course, and try to address their suggestions with a grateful attitude. Whatever you do, don’t criticize their ideas! They don’t like it any more than you do, and they’re not selling anything.

Questions and suggestions are actually good – it means they are engaged in your story. Most often, you’ll simply return to your rehearsed pitch as soon as you’ve addressed their comment. But if it seems like they’ve moved into a mode of brainstorming ideas for your story, it may be best just to abandon the prepared pitch and engage in the discussion with them.

Regardless of whether they interrupt or sit quietly and listen, it’s important to “read the room.” This means paying attention to how your audience is reacting to the pitch. If something’s exciting them, maybe elaborate on it a little. If they look confused, perhaps slow down and explain a little more. If they are starting to get bored, hurry to the next exciting twist.

This is why it can be an advantage to be working from an outline instead of a memorized pitch. It allows you to improvise more easily. Of course, many development execs are experts at masking their emotion, but if you pay attention you can often get a sense of what they’re feeling.

When the pitch is over, the buyer will likely not immediately tell you how they feel. They probably have to discuss it with others in the office before they can buy it. Or, they may know it’s not for them and just tell you that right up front. If they have criticisms, you have to be careful how you respond.

If there is some confusion or small issues that you can address, then do so. But you don’t want to end up arguing with them, particularly if they’ve already decided they’re not interested. Remember, you want to maintain the relationship! So listen politely and if you sense it’s a pass, just thank them and move on.

When you’re just starting out, every pitch can feel like it’s a make-or-break situation for your career. Trust me, it’s not. You’ll get other opportunities. So if things don’t go perfectly, don’t overreact.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pitching Part 6 - Performance Style

Like it or not, a pitch is a performance. And of course most writers don’t like it. The kind of people who can lock themselves in a room all day and create stories from their imagination tend not to be natural performers. You don’t have to master the art of song and dance to pitch, but there are a few techniques I recommend you consider.

First, you ought to pitch with energy. I know a writer who gets up and strides around the room during the pitch acting out parts. He’s even on occasion jumped up on a desk. I would never do that. It’s just not me and I would feel silly. But I do sit forward and describe my story animatedly, expressing enthusiasm for it the way I would if I were describing my favorite movie to someone who’s never seen it.

Because think about it – if you don’t like your story, why should they? If you slump back, mumbling in a monotone while you pick at a loose thread on your jeans, they are going to think that even you are bored by your pitch. But enthusiasm is contagious, so get enthusiastic.

Also, be sure you are telling your story in straightforward, declarative sentences. Look at this pitch opening written out as it might be delivered verbally:

So, it’s about this archeologist, right? And he’s kind of adventurous. He runs around with, you know, a bullwhip? And he’s sort of, like, this expert with it. So the FBI comes to him because they’re a little suspicious of this other archeologist who they kind of think could be, like, friendly to the Nazis or something.

There are two problems with this. First, when you pose your sentences in a questioning way, you seem like you are unsure of your story. Is he an archeologist or not? If you don’t know, who does?

Second, you want to watch for weak phrases: sort of, kind of, a little, like, a bit. It’s natural to use these in speech, but it weakens the drama of your story. As you rehearse your pitch, try to eliminate these kinds of words. Since we often don’t even realize we’re saying them, it might help to videotape yourself once.

Look at the same paragraph above re-formed with direct, declarative sentences:

It’s about an adventurous archeologist who is an expert with a bullwhip. The FBI comes to him because they’re suspicious that another archeologist might be in league with the Nazis.

Much better, right?

Of course part of presentation is how you look. A pitch is a business meeting – in a sense it’s a job interview – so you should dress appropriately and pay attention to basic hygiene. Of course what’s appropriate attire in the film business is often different than what’s appropriate in other industries.

You don’t have to wear a business suit. In fact, it might hurt you. You are supposed to be the creative talent – they don’t want you to look like a lawyer! But they also don’t want you to look like the guy who washes the cars in the valet parking.

I recommend you dress like you would for a first date. Something casual but nice, something you’re comfortable in, and something that makes you feel good about yourself.

The truth is, the single best thing you can do to pitch better is relax. But that’s probably an impossible goal. You will be nervous. So manage it by being prepared. Learning to deliver a good pitch is an ongoing process. So just keep rehearsing and you will get better at it.

Next post I’ll discuss how to handle the kinds of distractions and interruptions that might arise in a pitch.


Remember, if you’re going to be near Albuquerque on February 25th, you might want to check out the SouthWest Wrtiers Screen & Script Conference 2012 where I will be delivering a keynote. More info: