I WROTE A 120 PAGE SCRIPT BUT CAN’T TELL YOU
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: THE CONSTRUCTION OF A PITCH *
by Christopher Lockhart
*Originally published in Screenwriter’s Monthly
(June/July ’03) as “The Art of Pitching”
It seems a cruel irony, after months and months of carefully plotting story, creating vivid characters and structuring a hundred and twenty pages in such a way for maximum dramatic impact, that screenwriters must become orators if they are to convince anyone to read their screenplay. But with hundreds of thousands of scripts, books, and ideas floating around Hollywood, dreaming of making it to the screen, there is little time for executives to consider every project. So, the agent or producer must be influenced into reading the screenplay. The purest way to achieve this is with a “pitch,” a carefully planned seduction that will convince the executive to clear two hours of calendar time and commit to a read.
“Pitching” is the art of presenting the story in a truncated and intriguing manner that piques the listener’s curiosity, resulting in the solicitation of the screenplay. This can be done via a query letter but is most effective when done as a verbal presentation. However, this often terrifies screenwriters because the notion of telling their story is intimidating. Odd, since screenwriters are storytellers. But comfort should be found in the fact that pitching does not require the skills of a raconteur.
With the popularity of film festivals, screenwriting expos, conferences, and “pitch marts,” aspiring writers are finding unprecedented access to Hollywood executives, wherein they are able to pitch their wares. But there are no minor leagues in Hollywood screenwriting, and struggling scribes go toe-to-toe with Oscar winners as pitches are thrown. Whether feared or despised, pitching is part of the journey of turning a screenplay into a movie, and the screenwriter must be able to effectively pitch or risk losing the vital opportunity of a Hollywood read.
To set the record straight, professional scribes are not in the habit of writing for free and would prefer to pitch their concept to a studio or producer and be paid to develop the script. Aspiring screenwriters, on the other hand, are rarely given this opportunity and must build a professional résumé before landing a development deal. During the struggle to WGA status, an aspirant will write a “spec” script for free (on the speculation that it will sell) and, afterward, pitch the screenplay (to executives, producers and agents) to attract potential readers. There are many methods in which to pitch, and writers should explore and invent various techniques that prove to be comfortable and successful. In the end, a successful pitch is defined as one that results in a solicitation of the screenplay.
A pitch begins with the performance. Although it doesn’t have to be delivered with the dramatics of Sir Lawrence Olivier, it does need to demonstrate passion for the project. Many pitches are delivered monotone or with a professorial slant or – worst of all – with diffidence or apathy. If the pitch is not delivered with passion, it will not be received with enthusiasm. Zeal and confidence are essential elements of the pitch. The scribe must also exhibit control, which prevents the pitch from getting unwieldy and demands strict intuition with the listener. If the pitch is drowning, the writer must know how to salvage it or must effortlessly move onto another pitch altogether.
The bigger picture must also be considered. Perhaps, an executive has already read the script and wants to meet with the writer, who arrives prepared with a new story. There is a possibility that the executive will not like the pitch; however, he may conclude that the writer fits a project currently in development. The executive is not simply listening to a pitch; he is summing up the screenwriter. Is this a writer the executive would like to work with? Are the personalities a good match? A pitch session is also a job interview, and the basic skills of interviewing apply here.
The most important element in effectively pitching a screenplay is organization. Think of the entire story as a big box. Within that big box is a smaller box that represents a less complicated version of the story. And inside of that box is an even smaller box, representing an even more uncomplicated version of the story and so on. Common sense dictates that we open the biggest box first in order to get to the smaller boxes. So, a pitch often dives right in and struggles to present the story as a whole – much like one would tell a joke to a friend or read a book to a child. A “once upon a time” pitch is unwise. A pitch hits upon the most crucial aspects of the story. Long and intricate details bring about a quick and painful death to a pitch. A pitch must avoid opening the biggest box and, instead, begin with the smallest. As the pitch progresses, bigger boxes are opened as it becomes necessary. It should slowly blossom from rudimentary to more complex. The listener must understand the arithmetic of the story before the calculus.
The first order of business is to present the genre. This is often forgotten. The genre is crucial if the listener is to correctly interpret the story. Many ideas can be developed in different directions. For instance, the notion of planet Earth meeting its demise by a comet/meteor was explored as melodrama in DEEP IMPACT and sci-fi action-adventure in ARMAGEDDON. If genre is not specified, a World War II POW drama like THE GREAT ESCAPE could be misconstrued as a comedy like HOGAN’S HEROES. This type of error could bring about an early death for the pitch.
Pitches often begin with a question to create an initial desire in the listener. As an example, a question for a romantic comedy about unrequited love might go, “Have you ever yearned for someone who clearly wasn’t interested?” This is a possible way to personalize the pitch and engage the listener. Of course, like an attorney, a question should never be asked without knowing the answer in advance. Since the executive could answer with a response other than anticipated, the pitch must be prepared with a retort for the unexpected. Regardless of the executive’s answer, the pitch must use it as a seamless segue. Avoid questions that get too personal, could embarrass the listener, make him uncomfortable or cause indifference. To avoid the possible pitfalls of question/answer, a pitch can simply ask a rhetorical question or make a statement that will produce similar effects. Using LIAR, LIAR as an example, a pitch could state, “Imagine a conniving lawyer who is compelled to tell the truth for twenty-four hours….” This could be considered the smallest of the boxes.
After creating a desire in the listener, the pitch mustpresent the screenplay’s rudimentary storyline. This “box” would be slightly bigger than the previous one, because it contains more information than a rhetorical question. The easiest way to achieve this is with the “log line.” The log line conveys the dramatic throughline of the screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible – one sentence. Starting with the log line orients the listener in the most basic elements of the narrative. A log line example for THE WIZARD OF OZ could go:
After a cyclone transports a lonely Kansas farm girl to a magical land, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard with the power to send her home.
This presents the dramatic throughline in the most simplistic form possible leaving out many details.
Using a more complicated story, like MINORITY REPORT, a pitch with an opening rhetorical question and a log line could go like this:
What would the future hold if crime could be stopped by catching the perpetrator before he commits the offense? This is a sci-fi actioner about a cop who arrests criminals before the crime occurs. However, when he is framed for a murder he has not yet committed, he goes on the lam to prove his innocence.
This brief question and log line present a rather complicated story in its most simplistic form. The pitch can now move on to opening a bigger box.
Once the listener is oriented in the dramatic principles of the story, the protagonist can be introduced. In the intro for the MINORITY REPORT pitch, the only reference to the protagonist was “cop.” It would have been too confusing to refer to the cop by name and give a brief character description. However, now that the stage is set, the pitch can present the details of the protagonist. A succinct protagonist intro might go:
The story revolves around John Anderton, a cop who remains despondent over the fact that his young son was kidnapped and never seen again. This leads to drug addiction and the deterioration of his marriage. Because of his pain, Anderton fully supports the notion of nabbing perps before they commit the crime. He wants others to avoid the hell that his life has become.
This portion of the pitch can also present the fundamentals of the protagonist’s arc.
At this point, a savvy executive is bound to be curious and ask questions like, “How do the police have the ability to predict crime in advance?” “How does the cop get framed?” These kinds of questions are a good sign; they mean the executive is curious. (It is not a good sign if the executive asks, “Could you explain that part to me again?”) However, the pitch must stay on track. If the presentation includes the answers to these questions, the pitch will satisfy his curiosity. It is no different from a good movie. An audience anxiously inquires about the hero’s strange behavior, “Why did he just do that?” If the audience patiently waits, that question will be answered during the film. A good pitch raises questions; and questions create suspense, which is an essential tool of the dramatist. If a quick diversion is taken to answer the question, the pitch must get back on track.
After revealing the basic elements of the story (including the protagonist) the pitch can move on and present a more detailed account of the story throughline, using the log line as a road map. This is a bigger box. The pitch must boil the narrative down to the most important beats and present the story in a crisp and fluid manner by hitting upon the major bullet points of the story. The pitch could sound like:
Our farm girl, Dorothy, dreams of going over the rainbow. And through a freak cyclone, she and her farmhouse are transported to Munchkinland. There, she learns the only way back to Kansas is to meet the Wizard of Oz, who has the power to get her home. So she sets off on a dangerous journey. Along the way she meets a Scarecrow, a Tin Woodsman, and a Lion. And they travel with her. However, Dorothy has made an enemy of a Wicked Witch, and she and her three friends….
The pitch must proceed along a simplistic route, covering the major narrative conflicts and taking the story to its conclusion. If the screenplay has a “twist” ending, it may be best to reveal it. If it is truly an inspired climax, it will only whet the executive’s appetite even more. Trying to playfully bait the executive with, “You’ll have to read the rest,” is not an effective way to deal with a person who already has a stack of screenplays on his desk.
With a clear understanding of the story’s beginning, middle and end, a larger box can be opened by coloring the pitch with a few details. For instance, particulars can be given involving the Scarecrow’s desire for a brain, the Tin Man’s desire for a heart, and the Lion’s need for courage. But the foundation must be built first before the decorating begins. The pitch must be sparing when providing information on secondary characters and sub-plots. It should avoid delving into those details unless absolutely necessary. For instance, it may be compulsory to share the romantic sub-plot (since the romance is an important factor in Hollywood films). It may not be important to include the villain’s backstory. Overall, it is vital that the pitch only present the exact information necessary for concise comprehension. Since the full story is not being told, lots of information can be withheld. The pitch must avoid the desire to tell too much. Most pitches go awry because too many details are crammed into the presentation. If the listener is overloaded with information, it will not bode well for the pitch.
One important element to remember is that verbal storytelling is different from a screenplay. And a pitch cannot necessarily be presented in the same manner in which the story unfolds on the page. For instance, it could be suicide to pitch the non-linear THE USUAL SUSPECTS in a non-linear manner. For the sake of comprehension, it may be wiser to tell the listener that the screenplay is non-linear but pitch it in a linear format. After all, it is easier to digest a serpentine story like THE USUAL SUSPECTS over the course of an entire screenplay than it is in a five-minute pitch.
Throughout the pitch, it is imperative that the presentation not go off on tangents – which are quite common. Once the pitch strays from the heart of its story, it flatlines and could be impossible to revive. For instance, a recent pitch presented a martial arts action-adventure loosely based on the children’s story “Peter Rabbit.” However, the pitch digressed as it chose to present the details of the classic bunny saga instead of simply pitching the screenplay – which had absolutely nothing to do with Flopsy, Mopsy, or Cotton-tail. Science-fiction pitches are infamous for taking the listener on esoteric, intergalactic diversions that would put Stephen Hawking in a coma. If the pitch wants to offer background information, it should be done in an introduction, before presenting the log line, and handled with the utmost clarity and brevity.
Certain stories are easier to pitch. For instance, a high concept screenplay like BRUCE ALMIGHTY lends itself to a more effortless presentation than something like GOSFORD PARK or ABOUT SCHMIDT. (A “high concept” is a concept that immediately conveys a movie – and can offer a great deal of conflict using very few words.) Certain screenplays warrant different pitch strategies. In the case of GOSFORD PARK (along with a log line), the pitch could present the “world” in which the story takes place instead of presenting a particular character (since it is an ensemble piece). The dichotomous world of servants and aristocrats is at the heart of GOSFORD PARK, and it should certainly be included. Although the “world” of Oz is important in the WIZARD OF OZ, it is not the linchpin of the narrative; the world is not as important to the comprehension of the basic storyline as compared to GOSFORD PARK. Some science-fiction stories will require a brief and simplistic presentation of the world in order for the listener to understand the context of the storyline. In a character study like ABOUT SCHMIDT, the pitch has to offer a more detailed character description, since a true appreciation of the piece relies heavily on understanding the titular role and not the limited story concept.
Some pitches use visual aids to provide greater comprehension to the listener. For instance, pitches can use photos to represent the various characters that may be introduced in the course of the presentation. In order to pitch something like THE MATRIX, the presentation may include sketches to enable clear visualization of the very unique world. If pitching POLLACK, the presentation could provide copies of the artist’s paintings. In the late eighties, THE TICKING MAN (an unproduced spec) was introduced across town when the agent sent out alarm clocks to executives with a banner saying, “The Ticking Man is coming.” In an offbeat pitch about a writer’s true-life struggle of dealing with her husband’s untimely death, the presentation included laptop video of the man’s corpse. Any aid or device can be used if it enables the pitch to go as smoothly and memorably as possible.
A pitch should concentrate on presenting the dramatic and cinematic elements of the narrative and avoid the desire to express the theme of the piece. “This is a story of triumph over tragedy.” “This story explores different shades of evil.” These generic statements do not allow the executive to “see the movie.” A lucid pitch of the dramatic storyline enables the listener to extrapolate the theme of the piece without being told. A pitch often includes a “hybrid” to allow the listener to understand the tone of the story. In Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER, we heard such hybrids as, “It’s GHOST meets THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE” and “OUT OF AFRICA meets PRETTY WOMAN.” Although some seem to take offense to this practice, it is widely used throughout the industry and remains an effective way to communicate the “feel” and tone of the story – both of which can be difficult to understand without actually reading the script itself. Careful thought must go into creating a hybrid. Common sense dictates that obscure and unsuccessful movie titles be avoided, along with unintentionally goofy hybrids – like MARY POPPINS meets CALIGULA.
It is imperative to remember, “Less is more.” Simply put, the more the writer says, the more the listener can find objectionable. Although it is an odd contradiction, the actual craft and writing of a screenplay can be appreciated even if the story itself is not. If the pitch goes awry and the executive rejects an opportunity to read the script, the writer is denied the chance to show off his craft. Without the producer discovering the writer’s talents, the scribe cannot be offered a development deal, for instance.
Skilled story executives can easily diagnose a pitch. Based on a short presentation, strengths and weaknesses of the entire screenplay can be easily determined. A pitch is a byproduct of the screenplay. If the screenplay has congenital defects, they will appear in the pitch. Writers often blame a poor pitch on their inability to effectively present the story verbally. However, a difficult pitch is often the result of a poorly constructed screenplay. The fact that an executive does not respond favorably may not be proof that he is clueless but could be evidence that he knows more than the writer. Conversely, a pitch can go splendidly but still fail in its objective to entice the listener, because the story may not be what the producer is shopping for.
When the pitch is over, perhaps two minutes have passed, perhaps twenty minutes, but, within that time, the writer has spun his story and opened just enough “boxes” that the executive’s corner office resembles Christmas morning on a budget. In the best possible scenario, the pitch is never completed, because the executive interrupts the presentation, snatching up the script or (for more experienced writers) buying the idea itself. More realistically, the writer may have to move on to another story idea and begin the process all over again. In Hollywood, every executive, agent, producer and manager searches for the next great script. The power is in the project, and executives enter meetings hoping the writer and his story will provide that empowerment. Before a screenplay can be appreciated in the form it was intended, it must be successfully translated into a pitch. With an organized and controlled presentation – prepared and practiced in advance – a writer can succeed at convincing a busy agent or producer to invest the time into reading yet another screenplay. Writers must accept and master this process and transform, what could be, a pitch-black experience into the perfect pitch.