I recently presented my seminar on The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting at The Great American Pitchfest (TGAP) in Los Angeles and, as always, urge my students to put themselves out there and into the marketplace. Seven of my students attended this year. I helped them organize their pitches for the hundred plus producers, agents, managers and studio representatives who were attending. The structure of the Pitchfest is that writers have the opportunity to present their work based on a five-minute “pitch.” The “pitch” is a highly stylized verbal rendition of a writer’s current project or projects.
TGAP really is an amazing resource, and writers do get deals. At last year’s event, one of my students came from Sweden and is in negotiations to decide which agent she wants to represent her!
This year, all seven students received requests for their material. Because one student pitched the concept so well, he was asked for a treatment of his unwritten screenplay by eleven production companies! Another student and I had to do a final revision on a screenplay, because an agent wanted to take it to a producer who was looking for this type of story! These exciting connections are the result of hard work, dedication, and the willingness to put yourself out there. However, as we all know, you have to let people know what you got before they will read to find out how good your stuff is. The sad truth is you only get one shot, and any failure follows you forward: you only get one chance at the brass ring!
Pitching and talented writing do not always go together. The skill of being able to communicate your story succinctly and “hook first”, is a separate and necessary skill. Part of my job as a teacher and coach is to help my students prepare their pitches, so I thought it would be helpful to share the five basic principles I teach my students when they are preparing to pitch.
Be Yourself. A misconception is that you must launch into your story like a crazed used-car salesman talking at 90 miles an hour. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most producers and agents are looking for a calm, likeable person who is in control of his or her material. Along with listening to your pitch they are thinking about what it will be like working with you.
Here’s the exercise:
Write a one-paragraph synopsis of your story, covering the events in the first act, and summarizing the rest of the story. Always begin with a sentence that creates the context and identifies the genre. For example, “This is a drama set in London during World War II.” Then identify the hero or heroine. Following our example, “ Antoine is a young soldier asked to infiltrate behind enemy lines.” The next sentence should reveal the conflict. For example, “ Antoine is half- English, half-German and unsure of his loyalties, and now must choose sides.” The final sentence should summarize what will happen in the rest of your story – your goal is to get the pitchee to ask, “What happens next?”
Ask a friend if you can practice on them. Using a timer set for 5 minutes, tell them your story in a relaxed conversational way. You will know immediately if they are responding. Ask them when they connected with your story, and if they sincerely wanted to know more. Use this feedback to refine your pitch.
Practice on anyone who will listen until you get the response you want. Then commit to pitching it this way when you are in front of a professional.
Have more than one project to pitch. I teach all of my students to develop more than one script, even if it’s only writing a 2 or 3 page synopsis of a new idea. This is not as important with a producer or studio because they work on one project at a time, but managers and agents want to be able to sell a writer not just one story. Remember that writers write and you must be a prolific storyteller if you want a long-term career. ‘One trick ponies’ are a dime a dozen in Hollywood.
Here’s the exercise:
Make a list of all the story ideas you have. Try for five you think you could write with a minimum of research.
Talk to three colleagues or friends and try the ideas out on them.
Write them down using the paragraph formula from Exercise 1. From here, try to write a longer outline or treatment that goes from beginning or end. Movie Outline is a really great screenwriting software program and excellent for this kind of linear development.
When you pitch, tell your story “hook” first. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you are the pleasantest person in the room, or the most prolific if your ideas aren’t any good. This does not mean writing well – this means conceiving stories that others will want to see. When I coach privately, I prefer to have a writer come before he or she is written so that we can shape the idea properly before the writing process begins. I recommend my book, The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting as a development resource.
Here’s the exercise:
Look at your current project and ask yourself: why would anyone want to see this movie or TV show?
Find a couple of movies or TV shows your idea is similar to. Look on the IMDB and other places where the story is summarized. Study the structure of the synopsis, and you will begin to understand how the idea is presented with its most appealing aspect or “hook” first. Writing Treatments That Sell by Ken Atchity is an excellent resource.
To summarize, while there are many ways to pitch, these three secrets have helped many students to get the work the attention it deserves. I hope they can help you as well.
Good luck and happy writing.