My good friends at the Great American Pitchfest invited my to write an article for their holiday newsletter, and I thought it would be great to share it here with all my favorite TRUE LIFERS who are honing their mad skills in preparation for a great 2010.  Enjoy!

Tips From the Trenches: Three Things I Learned That Will Improve Your Pitch

by Bill True

Pitchfest7 (re-printed from the Dec. 2009 edition of The Great American Screenwriter, published by the Great American Pitchfest)

One of the highlights of October's Austin Film Festival was getting to teach a class on pitching scripts alongside The Great American Pitchfest's very own Bob Schultz. But that wasn't the only thing that made the experience great. I remember sitting there in the class and marveling at the creativity and ingenuity represented in the ideas that the students were bouncing off us.

Yet, as good and rewarding as the experience was, I had to admit that there was another underlying emotion. It was concern that, though we were having fun in the safe environs of the class, not many producers or executives would have the patience to suss out the proverbial diamond in the rough as we were doing. What I mean is, it was one thing to have a couple of pitch veterans in front of you and guiding you to the right words to convey the movie embedded your great idea. The folks working with us in the room, however, were gonna need a little more–a little "something"–if they were gonna stand on their own in the wild and wooly environs of Hollywood.

After the class, I asked myself how I would distill the advice Bob and I had given into some simple and easy-to-follow process that anyone could follow and improve his/her pitch. Maybe even elevate it to production company executive-worthy status. Based on our reaction to listening to a bunch of real pitches by real and serious screenwriters (not to mention the hundreds of pitches both Bob and I have heard and judged in the past), here are three tips to help you take your pitching game to the next level.

1. Remember that stories and ideas are two different things — This is a pretty sticky thing to talk about because movies are based on concepts, right? It's the really cool idea ("It's about vampires…but they're teenagers.") that spurs everything else forward. Aha! There's the rub, and it's in the words "everything else forward". Movies are based on ideas, but they're experienced in action, as something that moves forward. That's the long way around saying they're experienced as stories.

It's one thing for some production company exec to say, "I got this great idea!" She can do that because she'll hand that idea off to some writer to flesh it out–to put a story around it. When you approach a producer or executive, they assume you've already done that work and put some flesh around the bare bones idea.

That said, it's important to understand the difference between an idea and a story. Ideas, I tell people, are static. They're like little points of light floating around in some conceptual cloud of thought. They could represent a particular character or setting or time or event or theme…or whatever. But if you say something like, "It's about vampires," okay…you got a bunch of vampires standing there. And they ain't doing nothing. Now what? You could even say something like, "It's about vampires, but they're in high school," but what are they doing in the school? It's still static.

Stories are taking all the ideas in the concept cloud to their nexus, which means putting them into some sort of action. You do this by describing a change. That's what stories do…describe a change. Some person is in some situation at the beginning of your story. At the end of the story, they're in a different situation. In the middle, some sort of action is the catalyst for that change. It's as simple as that.

Remembering that you need to express your ideas in terms of that change–that story–is important because producers and executives don't want to go through the work (and they shouldn't have to) to figure out how to put your ideas in action. After all, they don't buy ideas. They buy stories expressed in script form, and the whole idea of the pitch is to get them to read your script in the first place.

2. Focus on the most important thread in your story — If pitching your script was a category on the game show Jeopardy!, this would be the answer to the question, "How do I avoid that look of confusion on peoples' faces when I talk about my script?" The pit that people fall into is that they think they need to convey all of the "texture" within their script for listeners to get it. Or even more troublesome, they say with all confidence, "There's more than one main character in my story." If you ever find yourself doing either of these, you're gonna get the look. People are going to be confused, and that's bad news for you.

As I continue to write, and continue to talk about my writing, I am constantly reminded of the first piece of advice I got from my first screenwriting mentor. This advice has been repeated time and time again to me by other great writers and agents and executives. Here it is: "Movies are about one thing." They're not about texture, and they're not about a bunch of people. They are about following one person on a journey that changes him. They're about that one person's one story. That's the thread.

The trick is how to convey that thread. This is what I tell folks. Movie stories operate by establishing the rules of the universe in which your main character inhabits. In screenwriting terms, we call this the set up. The rules speak to the limits imposed on the character within the context of their universe and what that character is lacking to feel fulfilled in that universe. From there, you put the character in a situation (which is kicked off by the inciting incident) that is at odds with them achieving that sense of fulfillment. Then you talk about how the character overcomes the obstacles presented as a result of that situation. Presto! You have a movie story.

In the most basic sense, that's all you're required to convey in a pitch. It's simple, it's clear, and it speaks to the thread. You don't need to provide any more than that up front because pitches aren't designed to answer all of the listener's questions. They are, in fact, designed to elicit questions, specifically, the single question, "Can I hear more?" A smart and experienced listener will understand that there there is texture inherent to the movie your pitch represents. If they want to get a better feeling for how you envision that texture playing out, they'll ask you. And if you get to that point, my friends, you're officially having a good meeting. A very good meeting.

3. Practice pitching to anyone and everyone — A frequent comment I hear from new screenwriters is something like, "Yeah…I get all those concepts, but they're difficult to execute in the make-or-break moment of the meeting." I nod at them, and I tell them they're right. From there I have compassion and empathy, but no sympathy.

I know those people need to learn the same difficult lesson that I had to learn and that every screenwriter that ever amounted to anything had to learn. The only way you get better at this pitching thing is to, you know, pitch. You go
tta practice pitching your movie to anyone and everyone around you. Over and over again until people are sick of hearing it. And then you pitch it some more.

The last people on Earth who want to hear another word about the projects I am working on is my family, Yet, last night at dinner, my 14 year-old son accidentally inquired about my latest spec, LIGHTSEEKERS. What do you think I did? You bet! I gave him the full-blown pitch. He knew Dad was working on a "kinda horror script", but he didn't know much more than that. Taking the opportunity to talk through it with him gave me one more pass it to see if I could explain it in a way that people "got it." Even more important, pitching my 14 year-old gave me a view into how someone of his age (an important segment of the horror target market, those teen guys are) would react to the story.

I remember reading in the late, great Blake Snyder's book, Save the Cat, about how he pitched ideas to strangers in coffee shops. Heck, yeah! I do that all the time. For one thing, not only is it good practice, but strangers in coffee shops (or wherever) have no vested interest in being anything but completely objective in their response. If it's good, you'll know. If it doesn't connect, you'll know that, too.

The bottom line is that practice truly does make perfect. The more you do the work in practice, the more "natural" and the more "in the zone" you can be in the meeting. Plain and simple. And, for the record (tough love alert here), being shy or being an introvert isn't an excuse. We're all shy. We're all introverts. If you can't bring yourself to talk about your work with a total stranger, you're probably in the wrong business. Dem's da breaks.

Remember these three tips. Practice them. If you do, I am confident (even more important, you can be confident) that when you get your shot to pitch your movie to the big guys, you'll be ready. And you'll have significantly improved your chances to knock 'em dead.

Big things, small packages

Is it age or experience?  I don't know if I am willing to go so far as to claim "wisdom".  But what is the catalyst for the realization that the biggest things in life–the most important ones, at least–happen in the smallest and quietest ways?

In spite of knowing for the last 24 years that "Success is not a destination' it's a journey," I've continued to pursue the moment.  That thing out there, presumably that tells me that I've arrived.  Personal, professional.  What have you.  And when this arrival happened, there must be some sort of ticker tape parade or something.  Right?  And the feeling–man, oh man!–the feeling of the moment would linger.  I could hold onto it for the rest of my life, knowing.  Content in that knowing.  Complete.

Uh huh.  Sure.

Because that's not the way it works, is it?  Moments don't linger.  They come and go.  When they're gone, that's it.  Onto the next thing.  Makes chasing that moment a little silly, huh?  Because what is it?  It's a myth, that's what it is.

Success can't be a destination because destinations are kinda nothings.

I went to the Grand Canyon this past October.  I hiked out to the rim and stood there for, like, 10 minutes.  That was my arrival.  And then I hiked back to camp. was a great 10 minutes–one that I'd looked forward to since I was a kid.  But the moment, itself, was small. Just Lori and me standing there.  A couple of "Wows" and a picture or two on my iPhone.  No big deal.  And then it was done.

Yet, it was somehow greatly satisfying.

That's because getting to the Grand Canyon, I think, was the big deal.  Everything around it.  And the small moment at the canyon's edge was really special in terms of how it related to all the other stuff.  The getting there, which was far more than half the fun.  I mean, on one hand, it was a moment 25 years in the making.  That's a journey of the "holy crap!" magnitude.

Standing there at the edge of the canyon together, we looked at each other.  We knew we'd arrived, figuratively as well as literally.  Finally.  That was…huge.

I guess my point is that I am realizing every time I have pushed for the big moment, the big deal, and held that moment on a pedestal, I've been disappointed.  The moment never seemed as important as I'd made it out to be.  And I'd have it, go to bed, and wake up the next morning and I'd still have to pee and put my clothes on and brush my damned teeth and let the dog out and get the kids up and off to school and do my day just like I always have to.  There is no moment in life that transcends all that.

At this point in my life, I am finally waking up to that.  I'm seeing why it's the journey that's so important, and why the most important moments in life are so small.  It's because the moment is nothing without the rest of life–real life–alongside it.  If I work toward a moment to escape life or distract myself from my life, I'm on the wrong track.  The moment isn't self-referential.  It doesn't celebrate itself in a vacuum.  It's sole purpose and reason for existence is to acknowledge a point along the journey.

It's the moment's relationship to peeing and putting on my clothes and brushing my damned teeth and letting the dog out and getting the kids up and off to school and doing my day like I always do that makes it special.  That makes it outstanding.

Fitting is the word, therefore, I would use for this, my favorite picture of last week, courtesy of my beloved and her wonderful "to do" board.  On Tuesday the 8th, RUNAWAY was finally released on DVD.  It seems to be doing quite nicely in terms of sales and rentals, and I am grateful for that.  After the long and–god, what do I say?  Arduous?  Difficult?  Overwhelming?  I dunno.  What I can say it that after 10 years (I wrote the original short story in 1999), it all came down to this.

Rboard RUNAWAY released.  And we still needed a pooper scooper.  And jeans for
Indi.  And gloves for Jonah to go on his school trip.  It happened in
the midst of life.  The fact that she put it on the board was a loving
recognition of something in life that day, not above it or beyond it. 
Part of it.

I don't know if I am making any sense.  This is all kind of stream
of consciousness here.  My first attempt at trying to put this into
words.  Having it on the board, and not doing much (although Lori and I did steal away for a quick celebratory toast later that night) other than the stuff I needed to get accomplished that day seemed to honor the RUNAWAY journey more than any ticker tape parade ever could.  The quietness of the moment gave deeper meaning to everything that went into arriving at this particular destination.

Not to get all Christmassy on y'all (though it does seem appropriate), but the whole conversation brings to mind this passage in the second chapter of Luke:

"So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."

That Mary…she had the right idea, I think.

Big journeys.  Small moments.  Pondering.  Life.


Here's to you and all your small moments this season, TRUE LIFERS.