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
(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.