I am riding shotgun in a car as I write this. My laptop is brighter than the headlights, leading the way through the night. Hollywood bound. The annual, long trek from Canada to Los Angeles has begun…
by Signe Olynyk
Like many writers, pitching is something that hasn’t always come easy to me. As someone who has had to overcome tremendous shyness and learn how to pitch in order to get my movies made, there are a few things I have learned that might help others to do the same.
Pitching is a necessary evil. You must pitch if you want your project to be produced. The only sure-fire way to make sure your script never gets made is to never tell anyone about it. But there is hope – you are probably much better at pitching than you think. Never pitched before? Think again. When you go to a job interview, you are pitching. When you convince your friends to see the latest Bollywood film when everyone wants to see Avengers, you are pitching. When your kids plead for another hour past bedtime to play X-Box… Well, okay. They are pitching you.
You get my point – most of us pitch every single day without realizing it.
There is hope – you are probably much better at pitching than you think.
A successful pitch must be much more than simply convincing or selling someone on something. The best pitches are conversational – as if you are telling your friends about a great movie you just saw. Conversational means there is an exchange by both parties – sometimes the person you are pitching has questions, or they are engrossed with your pitch and respond with their body language.
The best pitches are conversational
If you are doing it right, they are engaged and listening to every exciting word you are sharing, and the communication between you and the person you are pitching is filled with give and take. You give by telling about your character’s overall goal, they take by leaning in. You tell them how your character overcomes their obstacles. They gasp. They ask a question. You give an answer.
A great pitch is like a dance – but you are the one leading and reacting as your partner responds to you. Give and take, back and forth. Actually, that sounds like something else. But you get my point. You are hosting the meeting, and as such, you control the information that is shared. As the conversation continues, you lead it back to what needs to be conveyed.
A great pitch is like a dance – but you are the one leading and reacting as your partner responds to you.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make when they are pitching for the first time is that they tell too much information. Shot by shot, scene by scene – this is what causes grey hair to grow, and executive eyelids to droop. But how do you know what is too much? Too little?
As my producing partner, the fabulous Mr. Bob Schultz sometimes laments, ‘If I could tell it to you in 90 seconds, why would I have told it to you in 90 pages’? Bob is referring to a logline, which is often described as the one sentence, ‘tv guide’ version of a story.
A pitch does not need to be short, but it does need to be succinct. You need to be extremely selective about the finding the true heart of your story, and it is much more difficult to do than one might think. It means stripping away all the hard work you’ve put into your script, and reduce it down to the bare bones in order to pitch it effectively. We don’t need to know your character’s backstory. We don’t need to know who you imagine casting as the lead.
All we need are the bones.
We don’t need to know your character’s backstory. We don’t need to know who you imagine casting as the lead. All we need are the bones.
And what are the bones? Let’s plot out the skeleton of your pitch.
First, tell me the title of your script. Easy enough, right? Well, not so fast. Here’s what I’m thinking about as a producer when you tell me your title and begin the bones of your pitch… I am wondering if your title starts with an A, B, C, or maybe a number. Or is there another title for your concept that would? People often rent their films through VOD, Netflix or Red Box these days, and they generally start at the first letter of the alphabet and make their way through the movie selections, starting with the ‘A’ titles and working their way down (or starting at ‘Z’ and working up. Rebels, I know).
Distributors also prefer titles with one or two words as they tend to lend themselves more easily to foreign sales and generally translate more easily into other languages. Is it a title that captures the theme of your film (ie ‘Alive’, ‘Misery’, ‘United 93’)? Is it a title that is high concept, meaning you immediately understand what the movie is going to be about, just by hearing the name (ie ‘Bad Teacher’, ‘Buried’, ‘Contagion’)?
Although it isn’t always easy to create unique titles that fulfill theme, distribution preferences, and still capture a strong sense of your story, you increase the chance of success for your screenplay if you do.
Identify the genre of your film. Is it a comedy? Horror? Rom-Com or Historical Drama? An Executive wants to know what genre you are pitching because it establishes the mood for the rest of the pitch, and sets up what they can expect of your story. If you launch right into your pitch about a woman giving birth to a zombie baby, we need to know whether that script is a comedy or a horror so we know how to react as you pitch it. If it is a true life story about your zombie baby, I’m so sorry to hear it. Are the rights available?
Here’s my producer brain again, mulling over what I am listening for and thinking about as you pitch. The most successful domestic films are not always the most successful internationally. For the terms of this article, ‘domestic’ refers to North America, and ‘foreign’ refers to everywhere else.
Comedies generally need to have A-list talent to perform well at the box office, and it is difficult for a company to take a chance with a new writer on a multi-million dollar movie. Comedy (including Romantic Comedies & what I call ‘Jerk Comedies’) is also very subjective, and what is funny in North America may be offensive, or simply not translate well into other cultures or languages internationally.
Action films are still the most successful genres at the box office, domestically and abroad. However, this genre also tends to be more expensive to produce, because there are so many setups required (number of shots) to successfully achieve many of the sequences audiences expect, and also, because recognizable or A-list cast must generally be attached (translate: bigger budget).
As I listen to your pitch, I am thinking about whether this is a genre I can raise enough money for, is it something I can attract cast to, is it unique enough from every other horror movie out there, and will it sell internationally? Having a sense of what is important to an exec is important because it can help the person pitching to identify the reasons why their script may not be an exact fit for a particular company.
You might think an indie producer is kookoo-bananas for not optioning your big budget studio extravaganza that is a brilliant script (it really is!), but factors such as ‘can I raise enough money at this point in my career’ are massive factors that are often beyond your control. My hope is that by sharing some of this information, you will better understand why an exec can’t always come on board your project – even if the script is outstanding. It is often a matter of just finding the right match, and sometimes, well, that just requires luck and perseverance. Happenstance.
But, I digress.
I can write more about some of these issues another time. Let’s get back to the bones of pitching.
Now that we know the title and genre, we want to know ‘who is the main character’? Through whose eyes are we experiencing this story? It needs to be someone who we can relate to, and we need to care enough about them and their goal to want to go on this 90-ish minute journey with them. As an audience, we want to experience their growth, and see them evolve. Our favorite movies start with a character who has a certain behavior or world point of view, and through the challenges they face in pursuit of their goal, they evolve to become a different person.
By the end of the story, your protagonist’s behavior and world point of view has changed. For better or worse. Experiencing that character growth allows audiences to escape and live vicariously through the characters. That ability to escape and be enlightened to a new character perspective is largely how movies enrich all our lives, and why we go to movies in the first place.
Once I know the title of your screenplay, the genre, and who the protagonist is, I will want to know what that character wants. What physical, tangible goal are they pursuing? Save the planet from the speeding meteorite? Get the characters off the bus before it explodes? Find the groom before the wedding? Come up with one more cliché goal before I finish this article?
Although an emotional goal can be a consequence of this pursuit, the goal must be an actual, physical one. The goal for your main character is not to ‘fall in love’, but it might be to ‘save the swamp’. Falling in love is often the emotional consequence. Sigh. We should all save more swamps. Plus, lizards are awesome.
Okay, now that we know the character’s goal, we need to know what the increasingly difficult obstacles are that stand in the way of him, her, or it reaching that goal. The best screenplays always involve a strong opponent, whether that nemesis is another character or monster, a force of nature, or an establishment. The shark in ‘Jaws’. Jigsaw in the ‘Saw’ movies. Number Six in the ‘Battlestar Galactica’ tv series. The demon in the ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies.
Darth Vader is all of these things – a character, a monster, a force of nature, and he represents an establishment. Villains with their own goals and obstacles that conflict with the goals and obstacles of your protagonist are often more relatable and interesting than characters of extreme degrees. The mustache twirling villains and wicked witches of the past are made more human by putting their needs in direct conflict with your hero character.
One of my favorite writing exercises is to reverse the roles of my main character and their antagonist, and tell the story from the other character’s point of view. If you’ve seen the broadway version of ‘Wicked’, you will know how successful that exercise can be. To me, ‘shades of grey’ are always more interesting than characters who are pure evil, or pure goodness. Although I enjoy hearing Snow White sing.
Making sure the stakes your character faces are serious enough is often where many screenplays (and pitches) fail. A brilliant script consultant I like to work with on all my projects is Mr. Robert Southhill. He often calls these types of scripts a BOSH. Bunch Of ‘Stuff’ Happens. It’s when one thing after another simply happens to your protagonist, instead of the character striving towards a specific goal, struggling, and overcoming the obstacles that are in the way. Your goal has to be a real, physical, tangible goal that has such dire consequences for your character that we must root for them, and care enough to go on this journey with them. By making the stakes high enough for the character, you raise the dramatic impact of each obstacle.
Making sure that the obstacles in your character’s way are increasingly serious is a way to deepen our commitment to the character and root for their success. If your character’s goal is to drive from Canada to Los Angeles, who cares? But if 2,500 angry writers will tie her to a stake and roast her at a bbq if she doesn’t get there and make sure she puts on a great conference for them, then the stakes are significantly higher. What are the obstacles in the way? 2,700 miles? Construction? Hordes of cattle all over the highway in Montana? Not good enough. The stakes need to be serious enough that it becomes a ‘do or die’ effort. Trust me, it is.
One of my favorite writing exercises is to reverse the roles of my main character and their antagonist, and tell the story from the other character’s point of view.
Pitching In general
Like a great movie trailer, the pitch should have a beginning, middle, and an end –without giving everything away. In the beginning, you tell who it is about and what they want. The middle of your pitch is where you tell what gets in the way of your protagonist reaching that goal, and what they did to overcome it. The ending is where you tell the lesson learned, not just the lesson for the character – but the lesson that your audience walks away with, enriched for the experience of having seen your film.
Every pitch is a little bit different. All pitches need to have to have the bones that I already described, but they also need to be tailored to whoever you are pitching. If you are pitching an actor, you want to spend more time focusing on the character. What their character arc is. How they change through the course of your story. You will want to spend extra time focusing on the juicy bits that make the role a character an actor would want to play.
If you are pitching an agent, you may also want to pitch yourself and your ability to take on writing assignments, to write fast, and the connections you already have. If you have optioned a property and are pitching an investor or studio exec, you are going to expand your pitch to address casting and foreign sales, and budget details. You’d want to get into who your key crew are, what’s your schedule, your budget, and financial plan. You have to know who you are pitching so that you can adjust your pitch to reflect what they are looking for, and target those needs in your pitch.
All pitches should have the bones of your story, and be expanded upon to be able to address the other needs of whoever you are pitching.
The core. The bones. The skeleton. It all means the same thing. You need to know who your protagonist is. What they want. What obstacles are in the way of that goal, and what is the lesson learned.
If you are still nervous about pitching and need more advice, the two best pitch coaches I know are Bob Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org – Bob runs the Great American PitchFest with me, and is also my producing partner) and the awesome Pilar Alessandra from On the Page. Pilar is a pitch and script consultant, and an exceptional teacher who leads a ‘Pitch In A Minute’ class each year at pitchfest (it’s free – just RSVP to email@example.com). She has one of those ‘fill in the blank’ type of templates that essentially does the work for you. Writers simply fill in the blanks and immediately start pitching. It’s that easy. Both Bob and Pilar will be at this year’s Great American PitchFest, and they are very approachable. I’ll be there too and would love to meet you so be sure to say hi.
Pitching can be terrifying, especially if it is your first time. But before I sign off, I want you to take a hard look at yourself. You wrote this brilliant script. You’ve worked hard to master your craft. And now you’re ready to bring it into the world. Be proud of that. And confident. You have accomplished something amazing, so remember that with every pitch meeting you go into. Now, you just need practice. And I need to see the potatoe museum of Idaho. See you in a couple weeks.
Signe Olynyk is a Writer / Producer, who also is founder of the Great American PitchFest Screenwriting Conference, held annually in Los Angeles, CA.
Signe is also behind the Great British PitchFest, held in partnership with the London Screenwriters’ Festival in the UK.
You can check out her movie, Below Zero; or email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credits: seeveeaar, and Signe Olynik