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11 February 2009 @ 10:40 pm
Screenwriting 101: The Pitch  

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What would you say are the top three pitfalls of pitching? Like, what are some rookie mistakes; what should come out of a successful pitch meeting; what are some things that you should never, never do? --pirateman

So in that situation [where some stranger walks in and ruins your pitch] do you just run with it and incorporate it or argue for your original point? --johnnycrulez

If you've been reading this journal for very long, you know that I'm the last guy you should ask for advice about pitching.

I hate pitching with a passionate, burning intensity. Partly because it's a degrading, humiliating experience antithetical to good writing, and partly because I suck at it.

Take yesterday's example: I fly 3000 miles to pitch to a specific person, that person doesn't show up and my sponsor walks out of the room, and so instead I pitch to a couple of complete strangers, and one of the strangers dismantles my entire pitch with one tiny, and, to my mind, ridiculous, irrelevant question.

Mr. Crulez correctly intuits that the proper response in that situation is to turn, 180 degrees if necessary, and instantly present a completely different version of the movie, on the spot, live in the room. This is a good skill to have, and I don't seem to possess it. My problem is that I always want my work to have meaning, and to me, a writer who can go into the room, argue passionately for his vision, then instantly discard that vision for something completely different at the whim of someone he's never met is a writer looking for something other than meaning.

Imagine Quentin Tarantino going in to a studio meeting to pitch Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is, if nothing else, a wildly passionate arguer for his vision, but let's say he were not. Let's say Tarantino goes into the room and pitches Pulp Fiction. And Junior Studio Executive, who has never made a movie in his life, says, as he must, "Well, you're obviously a talented young man, but this sounds like three different movies -- why not let's pick one of those stories, and straighten out the chronology, and then maybe we've got something." The professional response is "That sounds great, let me go away now and develop this property as a three-movie cycle without any pretentious narrative tricks." And then the young Tarantino goes away and ruins his idea, comes back and pitches it again, and by that time Junior Studio Executive is working at some other studio and isn't in the room, and it's a whole new bunch of Junior Studio Executives, and Tarantino pitches the new three-movie version of Pulp Fiction and the new executives say "Gosh, those stories sound awfully thin for being three separate movies, not to mention absurdly expensive, why not make them shorter and combine them somehow into a single narrative?" At which point Tarantino goes home and shoots himself and we never get to see Pulp Fiction.

Now, yesterday's pitch, Sexy Space Fantasy, was not a "spec" script -- that is, it was not a vision I had on my own. It was an assignment, based on some underlying source material. I was bidden to come 3000 miles to pitch a very specific take on that material, and Complete Stranger's question was, at it's root, utterly antithetical to my take. My mistake in arguing for my take was that I under the impression that anyone in the room gives a damn about what the writer thinks.

Because no, nobody in the room gives a damn what the writer thinks. Including the producer who has brought you to the meeting and has posed as the writer's partner and shepherd up to that point. The producer wants to get the movie made, that's his sole goal, but when he goes in with a writer to pitch, he does his best to distance himself from the writer, just in case the Guy Who Can Say Yes doesn't like the writer's take (which is 95% of the time). If the Guy Who Can Say Yes doesn't like the take, the producer wants to be able to say "Yeah, that take sucks, in fact this writer sucks, I don't know how he got into this room and he shall never darken your doorstep again." And then the producer will go out and find another writer and repeat the process, until the Guy Who Can Say Yes says yes. Because there's always a long line of screenwriters willing to step forward and come in and pitch.

(I think that non-writer folk in Hollywood tend to think of "writing" as something that comes out of a spigot -- you bring a writer into your office, you turn him on and writing comes out. Oh, they understand that writing is difficult, arduous work -- that's why they don't do it -- but somehow they think that it comes as naturally as talking to a writer. A producer thinks, well, I would write the damn thing myself if I had the time, and the fact that the writer, in fact, has the time is proof that he has no power -- if he had power, he'd be too busy to do something as difficult and time-consuming as writing.)

As for structuring a pitch, my problem is that I'm always compelled to tell a story, to take my audience through the experience of the movie, but a little faster. This, let me tell you, experience has taught me, is the wrong approach. If you tell the entire story, the audience will think your pitch is "too long" and "episodic." What you want to tell them is the setup, and then just enough of the second act to give the general impression of the narrative thrust, and then how it all turns out.

The way I like to put it is: imagine you have just seen the greatest movie you've ever seen in your life, a life-changing movie that has electrified you and sent you out into the world a new person. Now, you've just run into some friends on the street and they notice that you're all bug-eyed and electric and they say "Jeez, what happened to you?"

That's where your pitch starts. You've just seen this incredible movie and you've got to tell someone about it or else you'll explode. Do it exactly like that. "There's a war happening out in space. This big-ass bad guy is kicking ass and taking names, crushing the rebellion. Meanwhile, there's this kid who lives on this crappy desert planet with his aunt and uncle, and he wants like anything to get off the farm and do something exciting with his life, and these two robots show up. And one of the robots has a secret message from the rebel princess!"

Then, when the Junior Executive says "I don't like space movies" the professional screenwriter says "I don't like space movies either. So here, let's set it in medieval Japan." And that, I'm sure, is exactly how the pitch meeting went for Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.

Now then: it does happen that an excellent producer or an excellent executive has a good idea. When this happens, the excellent writer recognizes it for what it is and does, indeed, grab it and run with it, dropping whatever he came into the room with and making the new idea his own. How can the writer tell a good idea from a bad idea? Well, if the executive says something to the writer and suddenly the writer's job feels easier to him, it's a good idea. If the writer has been struggling with a narrative, if the parts aren't quite fitting together, a good idea will suddenly make everything dovetail into a harmonious, elegant whole and the writer would indeed do well to leap upon that idea and cleave unto it.

What does one pitch? Generally speaking, what the money people want to see is the poster, and then they want to see the trailer, and then they want to hear enough about the characters to get the general dramatic shape of the narrative, and then they want to hear how it all turns out. They want to hear some killer set pieces and a handful of the jokes. If you tell them the whole story they'll get confused and distracted by minutiae. Now then, that doesn't mean that the writer can prepare only the broad overview -- no, the writer must prepare the entire narrative, so that when Junior Executive says "wait, how does Luke get from Tatooine to the Death Star?" the writer can say "Ah! That's the great part! There's this smuggler guy with a broken-down ship who takes him to see the princess, but the princess's planet has exploded!" and so forth.

The problem is, there are always politics in the room that the writer doesn't know about. The canny writer tries to find out about the politics in the room before the meeting starts, and the excellent representative will inform the writer about the politics in the room before the meeting starts, but lots of times this isn't possible and the writer walks into an ambush, a situation where an executive is mad at a producer, or vice versa, or an executive is trying to gain leverage over another executive, and the pitch is a pawn in some power game that the writer has no control over. And, well, that sucks, but doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the writer.

My favorite story about the politics in the room:

I am angling to get a job writing Hugely Expensive Comic Book Movie for Enormously Powerful Producer. I am told by my manager, my agent and one of Enormously Powerful Producer's underlings the following: "Enormously Powerful Producer hates it when people talk. If you want to get this job, the important thing for you to remember is to not say anything. Don't worry, Enormously Powerful Producer will not notice that you don't say anything, Enormously Powerful Producer will be too busy talking to notice anything. The way to lose this job will be to speak your mind in the presence of Enormously Powerful Producer. Even if Enormously Powerful Producer asks you a direct question, do not say anything."

This sounds ludicrous to me, but, as I say, three different people tell me this advice, independent of each other, so I take it to heart. And the day comes, and I am ushered into Enormously Powerful Producer's office, past the rows upon rows of posters for the gigantic hit movies Enormously Powerful Producer has made, and I am introduced and I sit down and Enormously Powerful Producer begins talking. And I sit, attentive and upright, and I listen to the things he says, and I don't say a word. Gaps open in Enormously Powerful Producer's monologue, but I don't rush to fill in the silence, I keep my mouth shut and, sure enough, Enormously Powerful Producer begins talking again in a moment. Enormously Powerful Producer asks me one direct question: "Where you from?" and I hesitate just long enough to realize that it will sound weird if I don't answer, so I answer, and Enormously Powerful Producer goes on from there and talks some more. I take notes on what Enormously Powerful Producer says, but I do not utter another word.

As I'm leaving Enormously Powerful Producer's office, I hear him say to his underling "Well, that seems like a bright young man, let's go ahead and do this," and I get the job.

taskboy3000taskboy3000 on February 12th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
I feel your pain
I am a programmer. I started college thinking I would like to be a writer, but I got pulled in a different direction.

Programmers have a huge influence over the direction of projects, just as writers do. However, professional programmers are never burdened with the illusion that that just because the project could not happen without them that they alone set the direction.

It's a maturity thing. It's hard to dance to someone else's tune, especially when you think it sucks.

This is the problem of the Golden Rule (he who has the money makes the rules). It's not a meritocracy. Movies are a business. When you front the cash for a project, you get to make all kinds of bad decisions.

I'm pretty sure that the Suits see you as a necessary technical resource. They need you, but frankly they don't understand the details of your craft. And perhaps that's OK. They have to worry about making a product that produces a profit, which is not an enviable job.

Josh Whedon and JMS both mentioned how liberating comics were compared to TV and movies as there were far fewer cooks in the kitchen (and not as much cash).

Still Todd, you get to be abused by people the rest of us can only see on TV. That's got to count for something? ;-D
Todd Alcotttoddalcott on February 12th, 2009 02:17 pm (UTC)
Re: I feel your pain
For the record, I've never been abused by anyone I've seen on TV. All my abuse has come from behind-the-scenes folk.