I just got back from the LA Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles. I was there to teach two classes and help some of my private students pitch, but I also did a lot of pitch coaching to the regular attendees. The Expo is one of the few major opportunities screenwriters have in the United States to pitch their material to Hollywood producers, managers, and agents. They also offer highly specialized classes on some of the most esoteric and commercial subjects about the craft.
The classes that I taught were about the writing aspects of the process, not the pitching part, but after I taught a new class, Writing Concept First, there was a surprising result; one of the students who had been unsuccessfully pitching a romantic comedy found his concept, went to pitch and was immediately asked for the script! Then, another screenwriter who had also been unsuccessful pitching, took this class, and later, pitched that same script using the new concept he had developed in my class and was asked to submit the script to the production company of a well-known actress.
Finally, another student approached me in the hall and said she had restructured the concept of her script, spoken to her manager who was very excited, and told her she was now ready to pitch.
No one was more surprised than I – this writing class helped pitching!
As a result, I thought I would share the techniques I taught in this class that helped these writers make the connection.
Writing Concept First is a class about finding the larger, humanistic notions behind a story. For example, the film, The Godfather, explores the concept of family: What happens when a man’s loyalty to his family involves becoming a criminal? I believe that if you walked into a pitch meeting and opened with that line, any producer who makes crime stories is going to want to know what that script is about.
Here’s another example of concept in a different genre, the romantic comedy. If your screenplay was When Harry Met Sally, the concept could be expressed as “Can men and women be friends?” If you led your pitch with that sentence, what producer wouldn’t want to hear more?
This advice to be more indirect is counter to what you usually hear, which is usually: Just say your pitch straightaway. Instead this is a new and different approach – creating a universal playing field before you pitch so that you and your potential producers, agents, etc. are together on a larger common ground.
Here’s the Exercise:
There are three steps to developing material concept first. I always work with a timer set to 15 minutes and write by hand. In each of the exercises below, allow yourself to go outside and beyond your story.
Step 1. Trace the source of your original inspiration for the idea. How did you come up with the idea?
For example, if your story was Midnight In Paris, you might write, “As a child I wished I had been born in another time, where life wasn’t so tough. I was really angry when my friends made fun of me. One day, when I was finally in Paris, I thought, what if I really could go back into the past and live that life? I was torn between entering a traditional marriage or opting out to finish my novel: What would have happened to me if I had known the great writers of the 20s and 30s, or been mentored by someone like Gertrude Stein?”
Step 2. Complete the “What Happened Was…” exercise
Take a character from your screenplay. Now imagine that you are they, it’s 20 years later, the story in the film is over, and all of the events are resolved. As your character tell the story, starting with “What happened was…”
For example, if your script were Midnight In Paris, the hero, Gil, might write: “What happened was that I was in Paris about to get married, and I wanted to revisit the world of Paris in the 20s that I had wanted to live in as a child, and I had to choose between my future marriage and a magical chance to do so.” I ended up not getting married, I discovered that I had talent as a novelist and met a lovely woman who may or not become my wife.
Step 3. Identify the concept
The concept is the larger, human idea behind your screenplay story. This is what inspires us to write stories but we rarely focus on articulating it. For example, the concept behind the film, Midnight In Paris could be: Can going back to the past make you happy? Which may remind you of another, well-loved movie Back To The Future.
Completing each exercise for your script will lead you to understand the concept behind your script and deepen your story. Ironically, by articulating this seemingly elusive element you should find an original, yet commercial “hook” that will help you successfully pitch the screenplay.
Good luck and Happy writing.