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WHERE'S THE DRAMA?

The stuff that dreams are made of

23 EXT      THE BIZZNESS      DAY            

THE VERY DRAMATIC BUSINESS OF 

P I T C H I N G

 

    There must be blood, but it needn't be a blood sport

Pitching can be a rather dreaded and unnerving activity for most of us. The idea of fronting up to someone and telling them how great one's story is can seem at times almost unAustralian. The diffidence with which one navigates the cool hipness of the so-called film scene frequently conspires against the expression of genuine emotion or personal commitment.

A script or story idea may have much to recommend it, but if the screenwriter, director or producer is unable for whatever reason to imaginatively and succinctly conduct the listener/investor/production company into the core emotional experience that the film offers, the script or project may never have its time in the sun.

The first and most important thing you need to understand is that you are NOT selling a script - or rather a collection of words ABOUT a script; you are selling a character - and that CHARACTER is YOURSELF.

When Kurt Vonnegut was voted into the Academy of American Authors he was asked to give a speech. On the night of his induction, he sat up on the dais nervously riffling through the pages of the acceptance speech he intended to present, and hurriedly making some last-minute alterations. A colleague that worked for the Academy, who was sitting next to him, detected the activity and inquired as to what he was doing. "Just making some last minute corrections in what I'm going to say," Vonnegut replied. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," the colleague responded; "they're not interested in what you have to say, so much as what kind of person you are."

One could equally apply this wisdom to the art of the pitch.

Central to every compelling and successful pitch is the understanding that "it's the characters, stupid!" - and YOU are the CHARACTER that they see first and last.

As a character, you are addressing an audience. The words you employ to communicate the story may certainly be relevant and useful, but mere words won't be enough.  enough. What is wanted is not something that you or anyone else can easily put into words. Something more is required - that secret ingredient that is some times referred to as "the magic" - which is the expression of a charismatic spontaneity.

It is not so much about you  - that bundle of false notions and unexamined wounds that parades as an ego - as it is about you getting out of the way. "Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still."

The greatest "pitcher" is like a jazz musician through which a great riff drives the action - improvisational, fluid, unafraid and living dangerously - and above all - fresh. Alive. Inspiring!

So here are some questions/tips that may be helpful in organising your thoughts and helping you develop a strategy for creating a fresh and successful pitch.

You might also want to bring your pitch along to the next PITCH SPORTZ workshop and test it out in the arena... But for a start, you might ask yourself:


What is it? (your project - genre, style, medium, etc)

Who is it for? (at whom is your project aimed?)

What sort of experience do you want your audience to have… and why is it important?

What other shows is it like?

What makes it UNIQUE?

What is the HOOK? Does it have a hook?

Why do you LOVE it? Show us the love!


Remember : When you pitch you are both CASTING AGENT and CHARACTER.

 

Cast the character that is appropriate to the pitch. The well-cast “character” is that part of you that can most effectively present (make present) the energies inherent in the project.

Memorise the pitch – don’t read it.

If you use AV aids make sure they are appropriate. Don’t bring in polaroids to hold
up if they can’t be seen.

Don’t race through what you have to say – pace and timing speak volumes as to your
feelings concerning what you are pitching. The truth is always in the SUBTEXT.

Don’t give us the impression that you want to get to the end as quickly as possible. We will begin to doubt your commitment and love for the project.

Make sure the combination of YOUR CHARACTER and YOUR PROJECT are Credible – if you're pitching a show about a funny, quick-paced and original comedy series, don’t do it in an unfunny, plodding and stale manner. We won’t believe you!

Never apologize! No one cares what you MEANT to say or do, only what you actually SAID and DID!

     16 WAYS TO KILL A PITCH MEETING

Stephanie Palmer, author of  “Good In A Room” gives some pointers on separating the professionals from the amateurs in a pitching environment.

1) HIGH CONCEPT 

If your idea is high concept, it’s obvious. If it’s not, saying it it won’t help.

2) WE’VE HAD A LOT OF INTEREST 

To a decision-maker, this is code for, “Lots of people have read this but none of them have liked it enough to get involved.”  This is counter productive..

3) WITH THE RIGHT CAST THIS COULD BE A HIT 

Yes, of course. Thanks for stating the obvious. Every project needs the right cast. If you need stars to make your script work, the decision-maker will guess the story isn’t that good or that it’s too niche and can only work with a limited range of actors.

4) THIS IS A VERY UNIQUE PROJECT 

This sentence sends up a red flag. If it’s “unique” it usually means that you haven’t done enough research to understand the genre, or that your project is so particular that it could be impossible to sell.  Neither is good. One of the first questions producers ask is where can I set this project up. Limiting the number of buyers diminishes your chances of a sale.

5) TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS. THRILL A MINUTE

If you speak in clichés in the meeting, the decision-maker will assume that your writing is full of clichés. Your passion should convey these concepts.

6) IT’S FUNTASTIC 

Avoid puns. They rarely produced the desired effect. Save them for the TV commercials.

7) A PSEUDO/ QUASI/ SUPER SECRET SOCIETY

Strong ideas don’t need qualifiers. Or at least not that many.

8) A STORY WITH A MESSAGE 

When you highlight the message, this means that you’re focused primarily on teaching the audience a lesson instead of telling a great story. Audiences like to feel they work out the message for themselves rather than they’re in school.

9) A STORY WITH HEART

I’d smack someone for this. Every story should have heart, feeling, emotion behind it. That’s what audiences respond to. Some heart is sappier than others.

10) DESTINED TO BE A HIT

I’ve cancelled meetings because of this one. It shows a pomposity and arrogance of the writer. Every producer wants the next hit. You don’t need to tell them. Given the vagaries of the industry how can you be so confident about making such a sweeping statement. Take a class in expectation management.

11) I’VE BEEN WORKING ON THIS SCRIPT FOR A DECADE 

You’re committed, okay, but possibly inept, unfocussed, not serious enough. No-one will give you a decade for a rewrite.

12) WE HAD A STAR/ NAME DIRECTOR ATTACHED 

This is the equivalent of saying, “Here is a list of the people who have already passed on this project.”  Don’t talk about who has read, or been interested, or previously was interested. Unless, of course there was an exceptional reason for their withdrawal such as gaining traction on a more prestigious job.

13) I’M NOT VERY GOOD AT PITCHING

Oh yes you are. If you apologize for yourself before pitching, you’re not making a good first impression.  Buyers want to work with professionals.

14) AND YOU CAN FILL IN THE BLANK 

Pitching to a decision-maker isn’t a game of Mad Libs. They don’t appreciate gimmicks to try and “intrigue” them.  Filling in the blank is your job.

15) YOU’LL HAVE TO READ THE SCRIPT TO FIND OUT HOW IT ENDS 

Oh really? I‘ve never heard of a script being purchased when this line has been uttered in the room.  It’s your job to create a great ending to your story and be able to pitch it effectively. This is on par with “destined to be a hit” possibly worse because I’ve heard it more often.

16) THIS COULD BE MADE FOR A PRICE

This is industry speak for produced for under $10 million. Your gargantuan image of your opus might be an ultra-budget festival movie to the decision maker, or vice versa. Stay away from money questions unless they bring it up. Also  don’t ask how much will I be paid in the first meeting. Poor form since many producers are working for free initially just to set up a project.

 

HOW NOT TO PITCH A MOVIE : PRODUCTION EXES TELL ALL 

              WRITING FOR TELEVISION

Thanks to Jen Grisanti

The basic rule is this: establish the series dilemma in your pilot opening. In the opening, establish the following: the world; the central character; the wound of the central character; the trigger incident; and the dilemma.

 

WHAT'S THE DILEMMA?

Having strong dilemmas is the key to a successful TV pilot. A dilemma is when your lead character is forced into a choice where neither choice is a good one; in other words, there is not a clear choice. They are caught “between a rock and a hard place.” By starting your show with a powerful dilemma or a series of strong dilemmas, you elevate the chances of the series succeeding.

If you have a powerful enough dilemma at the opening of your TV pilot, the series should be the answer to the dilemma. This idea is perfectly executed in the series premier of The Good Wife. The STARTING DILEMMA is one that the central character, Alicia, faces after her husband is involved in a sex scandal and is sentenced to prison. What does she do to bring security back to her family? The answer to this dilemma is what the series is about. Alicia goes back to a law career that she abandoned thirteen years earlier.

 

In the new Showtime series, Ray Donovan, there are countless problems that lead into dilemmas. The show illustrates how having strong professional and personal dilemmas, increases a series’ chances of capturing an audience and making them want to come back. The series premier kicks off with a range of dilemmas including Ray’s father getting out of jail, Ray’s celebrity client waking up with a dead woman in his bed, Ray’s brother Bunchy being molested by a priest, his father killing the wrong priest, his wife struggling with the neighbor’s loud music, his daughter working on a family tree, his brother Terry having Parkinson’s, and his employer Lee Drexler’s dilemma with his client Tommy Jenkins. These dilemmas will spark the principal characters to take action. This group of dilemmas and problems are revealed in the first nine pages of the script. Some of these dilemmas are series/season 1 dilemmas and some of them are episode dilemmas. The gift of each one is that they start each story/character arc in a way that makes you want to see more.

The 'world' establishes the tone of your pilot and the engine for your story. By establishing the central character and the wound that is driving him/her, you set up the motivation driving the central character toward the external goal. The trigger incident is the event that forces your character into a dilemma. Your character must make a choice. The series dilemma will link to your pilot dilemma; in other words, your pilot dilemma can only occur because the series dilemma exists. By linking the series dilemma to the pilot dilemma and your pilot goal, you establish the personal wound that connects to the professional goal.

Your pilot dilemma should result directly from the overarching series dilemma. The pilot dilemma is one that would not happen but for the existence of the series dilemma. The choice your central character makes as a result of the pilot dilemma is the external goal for the A story. All of your obstacles, escalating obstacles and “all is lost” moments should connect back to your pilot goal or your series dilemma. The external goal that stems from your pilot goal should be achieved in your last Act.


SOME EXAMPLES

In The Good Wife, the series arc is that Peter betrays Alicia by committing a crime and going to jail. Alicia must decide what to do to bring financial and emotional security to her family; this is her dilemma. The series dilemma bleeds into the pilot dilemma in that Alicia, after many years as a stay-at-home mom and political wife, needs to secure an attorney position in a law firm, and, thereby, achieve financial security for her family, by winning her first case. Her personal dilemma that links directly to the series arc drives her professional goal. If she doesn’t win the case, she could lose the position. If she loses the position, she won’t bring security to her family. Alicia’s major obstacle is Cary, a fellow attorney vying for the same position. The stakes are high as Alicia starts her first case. The pilot dilemma only occurs due to the series dilemma.

 

In Luther, the series arc sets up Luther’s wound, his anger and the trigger incident, which occurs when the criminal Luther is chasing is hanging from a building, several stories up, and we learn that the criminal is a pedophile who abducted and killed many children. Should Luther let the pedophile fall and then report that he did not arrive on the scene in time to save the criminal as justice for the children or should he pull the criminal to safety? After making his choice, Luther suffers a mental breakdown and takes months off before returning to work; thus, his choice leads to the pilot dilemma. When Luther returns to work after several months spent in an anger management program, he knows that he is in a probationary period. We learn that Luther’s boss fought to get Luther back on the force and put her reputation on the line for him so Luther needs to solve his first case back while wrestling his demons. The pilot dilemma would not exist if the series dilemma was not in place. The series dilemma links to the pilot dilemma. The choice Luther made in the series dilemma is the personal dilemma that drives him toward the professional goal.

 

 

10 BIG THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

WHEN WRITING A TV DRAMA SERIES

According to the crew at Raindance:

1) CHARACTER CAST SIZE

Consider how many characters you will feature. Typically 4 or 5 with a stronger ‘lead’ character seems to work. Pick a handful of shows and check for yourself.

2) CHARACTERS IN CONFLICT

Create characters that will constantly create their own conflict, even if just locked in a room together. Take a look at Family Guy for example: a slob dad, an uptight mum, a scheming baby, and an intellectual dog. Put any two of those in a room together and they would be arguing in 5 minutes, just because their personalities are so different. Conflict is key, both for drama and comedy – and having characters that generate it automatically, rather than relying on outside ‘plot’ will be extremely helpful.

3) CHARACTERS DON’T CHANGE

In general, if you’re writing a returning series, especially a sitcom, your characters shouldn’t change, grow or arc – they need to be reset to their default position at the end of every episode. They may learn, but they don’t grow (think Scrubs). There are obvious exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

4) MAKE CHARACTERS WANT THINGS

Give characters goals and motivations – make them want to achieve things. This should keep them moving, and bring them into conflict with other characters (when they want different things, or both want the same thing but only one of them can have it.

5) USE ABC PLOTTING

Your A plot is the main storyline, your B plot the secondary storyline, and your C plot (if used), the tertiary. Use a roughly 60/30/10 split. Giving characters goals (i.e. the previous point) is a great way of generating these plots.

6) AD BREAKS ARE ACT BREAKS

If you’re writing for a broadcaster who advertises, your act breaks will come at the ad breaks. These all need to be cliffhangers (N.B. there are different types of cliffhanger). If you’re going to show without adverts, then you need to figure out your own act breaks. Typically there are 4 acts in television.

7) DIALOGUE COMES LAST

Snappy dialogue is the hallmark of much good telly, but it shouldn’t be your focus, even in sitcoms. Good structure, good plotting and good characters should make the dialogue easy to write – so focus on those first.

8) CREATE A SERIES BIBLE

Even if you’re only writing one or two episodes on spec, create a series bible that contains the bigger picture. Character bios, episode outlines for the whole series, maybe some background, notes on the setting etc. Keep it snappy and interesting though – the word ‘bible’ can be misleading – think of it more as a pitch document.

9) RESEARCH THE FORMATTING

Do as much research into formatting as possible. It can vary quite widely and you need to match it to the preferred style of whomever you are submitting to.

10) KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

You need to have a specific audience in mind – a good way to research this is paying attention to the target market of adverts played during similar shows. You also need to have an idea when you see your show airing and what content is suitable for that time. Research the watershed rules. Finally, you need to know who broadcasts shows like this. Do your research.

 

READ SAMPLES OF SUCCESSFUL TELEVISION DRAMA SERIES' TREATMENTS HERE 

 THE ART OF THE PITCH

 

With seven simple tips, Harvard psychology professor Stephen M. Kosslyn utilizes his latest research on cognition, memory and perception, to offer some pointers for filmmakers conquering the final frontier-marketing the product.

  • Use Words AND Pictures. The brain processes both in two different places; using both is twice as effective!
  • ALWAYS tell a story.  Whether it’s the story of the film, the story of the making of the film, or the story of you, our minds connect to narratives!
  • SPECIFY and TAILOR:  NEVER the Lowest Common Denominator.  Soccer moms in Encino might have a different agenda than hipsters in Silverlake.
  • Speak TO people, not AT them.  If you can establish that connection with your audience, they are going to like you and your film that much better.
  • YOU are the key element to selling your film.  The greater the range of communication tools in your arsenal (ie personal anecdotes, jokes, etc) the better. Think Barack, people
  • Take a Breather.  A photo, blank slide, joke, cartoon.  They give your audience a much needed break to absorb what they’ve already learned…pace the gems!
  • Going Guerilla.  Be prepared for questions, interaction, getting down and dirty with your audience!  Interaction with your audience and your market is key to your success in doing this.  So don’t be afraid to talk about it and sell it!! 

 

Template for a one-minute pitch

Courtesy of  Pilar Alessandra

LOG LINE
What if _______________? (premise)

 

PLOT SUMMARY
(Title of script) is a (specific genre) ,  in the vein of (similar film).
It follows (main character) and (supporting character)  as they _______________________________________. (second act activity)
Problems occur when ____________________________. (complication)
Now they must ______________________! (third act strategy)

 

TALKING POINTS
This movie is unlike any in its genre because of _______. (unique approach)
Audiences will respond to __________. (theme)
And they’ll love scenes such as ________________. (memorable set pieces).

 

 

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 must present 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 through-line 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 through-line 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 offence?   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.

 

 Creating a Pitch Bible

 

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 through-line, 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 colouring 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 back-story.  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.

__________________________________________________

Chris is the Story Editor at WME, where he looks for potential film projects for a small roster of "A" list clients including Denzel Washington and Steve Martin. He previously spent nine years at ICM, where duties included running the Story Department. Chris has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He has taught writing at UCLA, Los Angeles Valley College and lectures around the country.

  THE ELEVEN MOST EXPENSIVE MISTAKES

by Elliot Grove

founder Raindance Film Festival

 

I've had the good fortune to meet and work with a great number of wonderfully talented and exciting filmmakers since Raindance started in 1992.

On top of that, each year I have the opportunity of seeing hundreds of shorts, features and documentaries pouring through the Raindance Film Festival office from just about every country around the world.

The Raindance team and I have the great privilege of choosing our personal favorites for the festival. We then track the films through their lives at other festivals and watch as they fall into the hands of distributors, both here in the UK and abroad.

Based on my observations, a couple of year’s ago, I wrote an article called:"10 Stupid Mistakes Filmmakers Make", which might wrongly imply that I think filmmakers are stupid. They aren't. I was just trying to help! 

You want the truth? You want reality?

Here is a list of the really expensive mistakes I have seen filmmakers make:

 

 1. Wrong Script

The Bible has a gem for independent filmmakers that has lain hidden for centuries: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.’

All movies have to start with a screenplay. And until your script is excellent, there is no point in making it into a film. The number of times I have cringed at best friends’ premieres – at screenings where the films were well-shot, well-acted, and well edited but movies where the script, frankly, sucked – are too numerous to mention here.

I don’t want to go off on a pompous rampage here, but the reason Raindance spends so much time and energy on our scriptwriting classes, and the reason we hone our script reading service to a level we think is world class, is because we believe that the first step in any film is the screenplay. 

2. Your Friends Can’t Act

I know you think your script is pretty damn good (lets face – none of your mates have the balls or the know-how to tell you it sucks) and now you really want to squander whatever nest egg your producer has whipped together for your budget?

Here’s how to really screw up – put your mates in the movie, and not professional actors. Let me wag my finger and make sure you as a director, know how to direct performance. 

3. Wrong Budget For The Story

Remember Phone Booth? It had a pretty hefty budget because of the talent in the film – which is cool. But it could have been shot for next to nothing as an indie film.

At Raindance we see ‘phone booth’ type movies hyped up with hundreds of thousands of budget in an exercise that might even have looked better shot on the proverbial frayed shoe-string. Learn to make a film at the right budget level.

Save your big bucks for a screenplay that really needs them.

4. Music Rights

Do you really think no one is going to notice that you remixed Maria Callas doing the big Puccini overture to sound unlike her? Or were you just unable how to figure out how to clear the music rights for your film? Either or, it’s a mistake that’s going to cost you dearly.

The Musicians Union is the strongest union, and they have set up the whole music industry around protecting their members, and collecting royalties. Who else knows this? Distributors and broadcasters. They won’t touch your film with a ten foot pole unless you have the music rights.

If you don’t have music rights, you won’t be able to sell your film. Full Stop.

5. No Social Media Plan

Sales agents and distributors I meet in Cannes and Berlin are increasingly impressed by a filmmaker that can come to them with a social media following. The reason is really simple: If you have people interested in your work, it makes it easier for the distributor to sell them your film.

What I really hate are filmmakers who say they are too visual or some such to get involved with Twitter or Facebook.

Malarkey I say: Filmmakers are communicators. And in today’s brave new digital age, you need to embrace every communication device you can. Have you checked out the Raindance Twitter profile yet? Follow us, or another favorite social media profile and see how to handle the medium. Then do it better.

6. Uncleared Story Rights

It should go without saying that you can’t make a film from an existing novel or short story (unless it is your own). Ditto for film you want to make about a person’s life story who is still living.

Make sure you have the correct copyright clearances.

7. No Sales Strategy

Making a film is not only about hanging about on a set with the likes of Kiera Knightley. It’s about knowing to whom you are going to sell your film.

The considered advice is that you need to know who the marketing manager is for the distribution company you think will buy your film. The marketing manager is the one who has to come up with the marketing campaign for your film. That includes the posters, the DVD jacket artwork, the trailers and of course the social media campaign. Get inside their head and figure out what you need to give them to make them look good to their bosses. 

8. No Festival Strategy

Certain festivals can help your film’s eventual release strategy. Other festivals can hurt your film. It’s important that the festivals you allow to screen your film can offer you publicity and profile – two things that can assist you to get a distribution deal and/or a film sales agent (should you want one).

9. No PR Strategy

Once a filmmaker understands that the fun part of the film-making process is the actual shoot, the tough slog of marketing and selling of the film kicks in. Learn what the 7 essential elements of a press kit are, and decide early on how you want the world to perceive you.

10. Not Putting Investors First

Don’t forget the people that gave you the money to make your film.

They say in Hollywood that you treat your stars like bankers, and treat your bankers like stars.

If you spend time courting them during the making of the film, it is very likely they will come back and re-invest in your film. Things like set visits, a weekly newsletter, sales and festival update and any other perks are the sorts of things that will keep your investors hotter than hot.

11. Not Understanding The Market

If you have targeted your film at a specific market, for example, television, you will need to understand what the issues that TV stations around the world face. Each territory has different censorship and topical requirements. Understanding these is a sure fire way to make you a hit.

Fade Out

Here’s the beauty of film-making. Nobody knows anything.

Make it up as you go along, and just make sure you cover off these ten basics, and you will be much further ahead of most of the competition.

Now, why are you reading this when you should be out writing, directing or producing?

 
 
Neil Gaiman gives a cautionary talk on the problems of success and the values of mistakes
 
 
 
12 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO INCREASE YOUR PRODUCTIVITY
 
It’s not all in your mind. Writing takes place in the material world and there are things you can do that materially affect your output. FIND OUT MORE
 
 _______________________________________________________________
 
 
Six Film-making Tips
from Indie Pioneer Jon Jost

 

Learn Everything

Learn by doing it yourself – how to shoot a camera, record sound, and everything else. Otherwise you will be at the mercy of others who may or may not know, and if you don’t know, by experience, you won’t know if they know anything or not.

The film biz if full of hustlers who will tell you what you want to hear.

 

Make Every Damn Day Count

If you really want to do this, and you have a digital camera of any kind, go out and shoot everyday so you learn what your camera can do and what you can do with it.

You don’t need “an idea” – you need to practice your craft – like a painter or musician, you have to do it every damn day. Otherwise you are just jerking yourself off pretending.

 

Avoid Advice That’s To Good To Be True

Don’t read any manuals, how-to books, or go to lectures that promise the 3 step magic to writing a script, getting a sale, etc. If you go to those, it means 99% you will never make anything or anything worth making. There are a lot of workshop/how-to-book junkies, and there is a flip side of those happy to peddle you useless advice for money.

 

Get Outside the Movie Theater

Live life. If you make movies because you see a lot of movies, you’ll make pale copies of the fraudulent “life” you learned in the theater. That’s not life. And if you don’t have real life under your belt you will never be able to say anything of interest outside an ossified academic world which mistakes the virtual for the real. Life is not movies, video or video games.

 

Don’t Bullshit

If you bullshit others you are only bullshitting yourself. The movie world is 98% bullshit. It’s all about money pretending it is about “art” or “how much you care about…”.

Be honest. A very rare thing in the film world (or the world in general).

 

You Don’t “Learn” to be an Artist

You are one or you are not. It’s like a musician – 100 years of teaching will not make a musician out of someone with no innate talent for it; if the talent is there, it can be encouraged and developed, and the talented person can learn through themselves, but it can’t be “taught” like mechanics. If you don’t already know it’s in you, it probably isn’t and you are kidding yourself thinking that if only you learn XY or Z, it’ll pop out. It won’t.

 
______________________________________________________________________________
 
 
How to Option Works for a Screenplay  

We all know that Hollywood is increasingly risk averse these days. Of course, you probably wouldn’t drop fifty million dollars making a movie and another fifty promoting it without some assurances of its success.

Naturally, one way for producers and studio executives to relieve this anxiety is to chose projects that have already proven marketable in another medium. These have what screenwriter Terry Rossio calls "mental real estate" - they’ve already staked a claim to some good will in the minds of the public (and the executives). As such, they are more palatable and more likely to get made into movies.

This, in a nutshell, is what accounts for the multitude of films coming out based on true stories, novels, other movies, video games, board games, comic books, nightmares, day dreams, etc. So the question you - aspiring screen writer - should be asking yourself is: how do I get in on this? It’s just a fact of life that unless your spec script (a script written without commission) is abnormally outstanding, it will - worst case - not get read, or - best case - maybe get optioned but never made.

So now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about how you can go about claiming some of this mental real estate and, in the process, get your screenplay sold.

Short of writing a novel, waiting for it to become a best seller, and then adapting it into a script, it’ll usually be easier to simply option someone else's work. Granted you likely won’t be able to afford the rights to Stephen King’s latest, but what about the mystery novel that has spent the last two weeks on the top of Amazon’s self-published list? What about the thriller published by that writer who teaches at your university?

Getting the rights to a play or novel isn’t a mystical process guarded by the gatekeepers of the industry - it only takes some research, a phone call, and a lot of passion. The first thing to do is identify the owner of the right you want to get. Most writers will retain the right to make a derivative work from their book, and the best person to contact about this is the writer’s agent (supposing they have one). It’s easy enough to find out who that person is - read the acknowledgements in their book, go to Query Tracker or just Google it. 

But before you do that, you might want to come up with a reason why that person would assign to you the right to make a script out of the book in question. Why are you passionate about it? What makes you qualified to write it? Do you have samples to show? The fact is that you have to bring something to the table. Heaping amounts of money will usually do the trick but, short of that, passion and talent go a long way.

 If you’re lucky enough to pique the writer’s interest, it may be a good idea to get an entertainment attorney to draft up an agreement specifying your rights. The agreement will formalize the amount of money paid (hopefully $1), the duration of the option, the author’s reversionary rights, and the result of an eventual movie deal, among other things.

The cold reality remains that the film business is a difficult industry to break into. But by going out and obtaining the rights to some other intellectual property, you establish yourself as a serious person. While you may be pitching it as a spec script, the fact that you have obtained the rights to some property with valuable mental real estate puts you, at the very least, on the top of the slush pile. Then, assuming your script also reflects your talent and professionalism, you will make the writer very wealthy and, next time, you’ll be the one getting the phone call.

      DEVELOPMENT MONEY

   or  How To Stop Stabbing Yourself In The Back While Climbing The Industry Ladder

"Right now it's only a notion, but I think I can get the money to make it into a concept, and later turn it into an idea."  - Woody Allen

                                                                 
I think it was Frank Pierson that first told me about the writer whose first feature won an Academy Award for "Best Screenplay" and how he worked for 20 years afterwards, writing screenplay after screenplay (and making quite a good living at it), before getting the next one up, which, by the way, also won an Academy Award. On first hearing this I thought: "...hmmm, long time between drinks."

Pierson's point was that the writer had made a career for himself on the strength of a lot of talent, one Oscar, and an endless supply of development money. The writer, Horton Foote, certainly had talent, but let's try to contain our enthusiasm when it comes to development grants. Sure, they temporarily validate your existence - "look, they gave me money! - I exist!" - but that doesn't necessarily mean the screenplay upon which the lolly has been bestowed is worth the paper it's written on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that worthy screenplays are never funded; it's just that in nearly ten years of reading everything that's been thrown at me, there are only a handful that generated enough excitement to make me forget I was turning the pages, and only a few of those were ever actually made.

Everyone knows the old adage, "It's not WHAT you know but WHO you know". I wish I had a dollar for everyone who had ever complained about how someone else got the grant or the prize because they had a friend in high places. I don't begrudge friends in high places; I only wish they knew more about Drama... A LOT more about Drama, which is the life-blood of that most peculiar and seemingly uncontrollable form of artistic expression known to humanity as film-making. Unfortunately, the ignorance of friends - not to mention our own ignorance - leaves an after-taste in the mouths of audiences who, apart from the filmmaker's family and close mates, invariably wind up becoming vocal advocates for why you shouldn't see the movie.

Dramatic screen storytelling isn't quantum physics, though it some times looks like it. When it doesn't, it more closely resembles a backroom in some over-stuffed Thrift Shop of the Soul, where the deaf and blind paw over a morass of secondhand ideas in search of the next resurrection. If only it were that good!

The industry seems to require judges - watch-people on the gates of the City of Light, guarding the public taste, making decisions about what is worth seeing. So be it. But, ah! how much more exciting and worthy of conversation it would be if the gaggle of readers, assessors, project officers and producers were more intimately acquainted with the BEAST. And what a beast it is! That "heart of darkness" that requires nothing short of a subconscious in which to shelter itself. Drama is NOT pretty, nor is it safe or respectable. It presents us with everything we would ran away from if we encountered it in our lounge room or on the street. Too bad, those who sit in judgement also run away whenever they all too infrequently encounter it on the page.

But do not despair. YOUR fate and that of your story/screenplay/film is not really in their hands. It resides in a much more dangerous place that - in YOUR hands! One might lament, even unto death, how one missed out, how someone else got the money, how a lesser talent was recognised and plucked from oblivion... but be careful. The hands pluck you from oblivion, are also capable of returning you there. Where the the writing we have lost in development? Teach us to type and not to type; teach us to sit still! Never ask for the money out of fear; never seek the gold out of a need to prove you exist. If you only ever went to "them" when you didn't need them, they would never refuse you. If you NEED them, they will disrespect you! This is the truth:

YOUR script is in your own hands, and you the master/mistress of your own destiny, so long as you work obsessively (mediumistically) with the relationships that are your story's life - namely, with your characters, with your audience and with your tribe/s. Of course, like Chaplin, you may start out with no idea at all as to who these characters are, but, as Charlie himself realised: "...the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up... I began to know (the tramp), and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born."

In the midst of working obsessively, one enters the Drama that IS the screenplay, and by this movement - into the heart of ALL of the characters. It is an act that enables the transformation of every boundary, expectation and prejudice. In the act of becoming a MEDIUM for character, one crosses the border from script development to self-development, escaping the mediocrity and quiet desperation that comes from the misguided impression that one doesn't already have what one needs. 

 

  Nancy Miller on what a writer needs to be successful

          PROTECTING YOUR PROPERTY

If you have an idea for a movie, NEVER share that idea with ANYONE until you have signed a NONDISCLOSURE AGREEMENT (NDA) with them concerning the idea. You may mean well and almost every filmmaker out there wants to get their idea into the hands of someone who they think could possibly help them become the next Spielberg or Scott (R.I.P.)... but it is a bad idea. My own producers don't see anything from me until I know my idea is protected first.

You can't copyright an idea, but you can sure as hell be sure no one steals it until the script is finished by not talking about. If you're not a writer but want your script written, find and get to know a screenwriter. Let them know you have an idea and ask them for a few samples of their work to be sure their writing style fits your concept (romance writers write crappy horror, Twilight for example.. LOL). Study up on NDAs and find one to tailor it for your concept. Send it to the writer, have them print it, sign it and send it back to you. Now, an NDA may or may not hold up in court, but at least you've taken the 1st step to protecting yourself and your idea and it will count for something if the idea is stolen.

And remember - there are millions of people in the world so the chances of another person having a similar concept to yours is very likely, in fact it happens quite often.But do not despair, just do not share your ideas with ANYONE... especially on a website!

Research and get familiar with NDAs, in this business you will be signing lots of them. Exercise some wisdom and patience, and  Good luck!

       The Industry asks: Where's the Drama?

THE DRAMA IS ALL AROUND - JUST LOOK AND LISTEN

 

THE BUSINESS IS ALL ABOUT STORIES

 

READ MORE BIZZNEZZ

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