Craig over at Artful Writer just wrote a pretty nifty article on pitching. I particularly admire how he used the notoriously difficult Raiders of the Lost Ark as his model -- one of my favorite (firsthand, from the room) stories is how, after ages of trying to lay out the pipe on the Ark, Lucas finally said "FUCK IT, just have two OSS guys show up and we'll explain it all in one scene!" You'll note this is almost the exact same tact they took with Jurassic Park. But "pipe" is another article.
I want to be clear here. As a matter of fact, let's super-size this:
This is not an article on plotting, or even writing. Nothing here about the private little art you make in your head. This is about what to do in the room when you need to convince the Moneyguys to buy your idea. Period. This is all assuminmg you know how to write a damn fine movie.
Okay, off we go.
Craig lays out narrative pitching. Big detail on the opening scene, with a hook. Bullet point the character and exposition, leading into the first big plot point. "Anticipate and answer their questions." He scripts his pitches meticuolously, rehearses them to find the most naturalized delivery. He has a full treatment done (as do I, I just never show it to anyone.) This, I cannot emphasize enough, is crucial for a young writer. You can't be too prepped.
What little I can add is a different slant. This isn't for everyone, but I'll tell you what I do, and you can muck about with it to see what works for you. Craig covers how to pitch. I think I can offer some insight on what to pitch:
Not too much.
It's a little unfair -- my stand-up years mean my process is a little more relaxed. But there are meta-considerations here. You are not just telling a story: you are selling a story. To be blunt, people, you are asking some strangers to pay you. A lot. You must both exhibit competence and inspire confidence. And that word is pretty important, as you figure out how to pitch your story: "inspire."
To me this is important, because it is very, very easy to get lost in overly detailed plot point pitches. I have seen young writers in a pitch flat-spin into Andthen Syndrome: "They get the money, and then the criminals are right behind them. (andthen) A chase occurs, leading them into the swamp. (andthen) Once they're in the swamp, a cat-and-mouse game begins ..." Pretty soon the exec has heard the whole story, he can't remember half of the plot points --
-- what? He can't remember what he just heard?
Well, yeah. An average movie has anywhere, depending on your personal writing method, 35-40 sequences or around 60 scenes. It's fairly well established the top limit on sequence memory is somewhere around 7 or so discrete "items". Odds are, too much detail and what's wonderful about the story may well get lost in the muddle of trying to follow too many plot points. Your Moneyguy has to like this idea, then think about it later, then re-pitch it to co-workers, then agonize over the weekend -- it'd be nice if he could remember the damn story.
(And unless you're a hell of a raconteur, keeping that pitch interesting/entertaining all the way through will be difficult to say the least. Most of you have no idea what it's like to talk for even five minutes straight. Take it from someone who used to talk for an hour and a half -- even five's a tricky bit of business.)
There's also, not to be a weasel, the chance that as you plod through this scene-by-scene pitch, you will hit the No Button. The one detail, sometimes even the one scene that will work just great when written, but sounds like a load of pants when you pitch it. The Moneyguy was tooling along just fine -- when he hits the No Button, just that one hink, he may disengage. It could be something you can clear up with a simple question, but you're not giving him time for questions, are you, no, you're plowing along ... and now you're annoying. Some Moneyguys will interrupt. Not all will.
With this in mind, the single most important thing for me to determine before I pitch is:
1.) What is the question the movie is going to answer?
Think on that. You need this question. Not just for meta-writing reasons. Because there is a hell of a difference between walking into someone's office and beginning to unload a story on them, hoping they'll follow along ...
... and hooking them with a question they want answered. A question, to be blunt, is a bit of a mental cheat. An unanswered question is like when somebody hums half of "Shave and a Haircut". Ignoring it, that's outside human nature.
And you will not answer that question right away. You will tease them. You will unfold the answer to that question over the course of the pitch. Just as you arrive at a plot point that's a resolution, you will ask another mini-question to drive you through to the next major plot point. Waiting for the answer to that primary question (and the complicating others) is what gets your listener hooked, and keeps him hooked for your pitch. Info-dump bores. Questions engage.
Sometimes, it is a full-blown scene. When I pitched Global Frequency ... wait, here it is from my notes. It's still the rough version, but what I started with wasn't much different:
"San Francisco, beauty shot, night lights. Suddenly, a FLASH from an alley. For less than a second all the lights dim. Like a wave travelling across the city grid. Vuh-phooom.
Sean Ronin hears screams in the alley. You and I, we'd keep walking, but he's different. he checks it out. He sees a man sitting on his ass in the alley, back to a wall. Sean leans in: 'You okay?", and we SHOCK REVEAL that the guy is CUT. IN. HALF. LENGTHWISE. His whole left side is gone, right on the edge of a smoking crater of melted steel and asphalt. Even as Sean backs away in shock ... a ringing. A ringing cel phone in the dead man's remaining hand. And this cell phone -- like no other cell phone you've ever seen. Ten years ahead of our tech.
You and I, we'd run. But Sean answers the phone. A voice, a woman's voice on the other end asks: 'Who is this?'
'Sean Ronin. Who the hell is this?'
'Sean Ronin, my name is Miranda Zero. You are on the Global Frequency. (beat) And you have forty-five minutes to save the world.' "
Done, kids. Who the hell is Miranda Zero? Why didn't Sean Ronin do what every sane human being would do and run away? What happens in forty-five minutes? Wait, the dude frikkin' melted? What the hell is the Global Frequency?
I then followed up with the speech -- if you've seen it, the speech Jenny Baird breaks your heart with in the car, explaining what the Global Frequency is. But that doesn't answer all the questions. And each act break is designed to initiate more questions to replace the ones we solve as we proceed.
Sometimes it's literally a high-concept question. DJ McCarthey and I once sold a movie on two sentences (... they were two very good sentences.) Sometimes it's the exact same motivating question that intrigued you enough to explore the idea in a script. I recently sold a project with, "We all have this fantasy about what we'd do if the world ended." and used that (and the execs' discussion of their various escape plans and self-judgements) to launch into why telling this story was inherently interesting. Sometimes it's no more than a very interesting fact, and the question no more than "What the hell kind of story can you tell about that?"
That last one's a bit of a knuckleball; don't start with it, you'll blow your elbow out.
Frankly, I don't care what form the question is in. But you need to instill in that very busy human a sense of curiousity about the next thing you're going to say. Assuming you lack the ten years or so of raw performance experience, creating questions that need to be answered is the easiest way to do so.
This also serves as your northstar for the pitch. Every step of the pitch, you can echo that question -- if you get lost, fall back to it, and why its answer is intriguing enough to spend, oh, several tens of thousands of dollars paying you to tell them and possibly tens of millions of dollars for them to go answer that question for an audience. And, nicely enough, if you stumble across the No Button the power of the overriding question, the value of the story, will often carry your pitch past it.
Okay, moving on.
2.) It's about your characters.
Breaking plot is a bitch. As a result, it's easy to dwell to much on the spiffy plot you've managed to craft and forget the fact that the characters' actions are what we're there to see. Pick your three, maybe four humans we're going to be focusing on, know them backward and forward. Know their conflicts external, internal and vs. the other characters. Know their conflicts vis a vis the bigger themes of the movie. Yes, I know you'll have to do that to write the script. Not only do you need to do it now, you need to be able to vocalize those ideas on the fly.
Put a pin in that, because ...
3.) Beat out your entire plot. Now pick the tentpoles.
My personal structure style changes for every film, but it always begins as a weird blend of good old Syd Field and Lew Hunter's more aggressive first act structure. However, in the spirit of the "Rule of Seven", for films I choose to focus on the turning points of the script, the accelerants as it were.
a.) The opening sequence/hook
b.) the defining moment of the first act.
c.) The first act out.
d.) A pinch on the way to the midpoint,
e.) the big damn midpoint swing,
f.) the moment we know we're entering the third act and then
g.) the general conflict and defining moment of the third act
Remember those characters? Good, because now --
4.) Make sure you've anchored your characters and their conflicts to the tentpoles. If they don't relate -- well, then you fucked up. Restructure. I want to be very specific here -- in the pitch you shouldn't talk about a single big moment in the movie without it being in the context of how that is a big damn conflict scene for the characters involved. And I mean characters in conflict with each other and themselves, not circumstances.
That's not a coincidence, of course. Character conflict is story. Everything else is window dressing. To be crass, you want to create images in the Moneyguy's head of the scenes he's going to see, of the Very Expensive Actors doing Very Actory Stuff. This is tied into --
5.) Make sure your conflicts and plot complications raise more questions, leading you along.
Keep your momentum up. It is brutal, BRUTAL to keep your energy up when pitching from a too-deep sofa. The questions create a natural narrative flow. Don't always phrase them as questions, but you're all smart enough to know what I'm getting at here.
6.) Have your visual moments. Writing movies, not short stories here, and even the most sedate of movies consist of some striking images. Have them to salt as needed through the pitch. The director will eventually toss most of them out, but right now you're the movie.
7.) As Craig says, anticipate their questions ...
... but don't answer all of them. (more on that in a bit) Now yes, yes, pore through the pitch and anticipate the exec's questions. For example, one of the questions you get all the time, that no young writer ever can pull right out of the holster --"What's the tone?"
Well, you know the tone, of course, you're writing the damn thing. But I've seen a fair bit of phumphing as people try to summarize "the tone" on the fly. This is, by the way, just a clever way for the Moneyguy to ask "What good/profitable movie is it like?" without offending you with that declasse question.
But one of the things I do -- and again, you mileage may vary -- is actually get less detailed as the pitch goes on. I pitch the first act beat for beat, to really nail down the meta-question, the characters, how the audience will get hooked in, what the visual feel's going to be ...
... and then move along to the tentpoles, neatly summarizing the connective tissue. Only ever going into detail when it illuminates a conflict beat. The difference is in the third act, when I cycle back in on the ending to really nail down the images and feelings the audience (and your pitchee) will carry from the theater. Question/resolution.
Why the mid-movie pace change? A couple reasons. First, if you've done your job in the first act and with the Question, they're in. You know want them to react in a very visceral, emotionally connective way with the material.
You're trying to keep the big dose o'plot down to the slim little concept a stranger can take away with them -- understanding both how you'll mechanically tell the story and what interesting bits will occur while you're telling it. Those tentpoles I've listed are enough to insure that everyone in the room knows we're all pros, here people, we know how movies work, let's move along.
Also, I prefer when someone finds something a little unclear, or has an idea about how to execute a beat -- because they are then far more likely to stop you and ask for a clarifying question. They are engaged, they are participating -- you are having a damn conversation, and they are slowly, almost involuntarily taking some mental ownership of the idea. Are you going to do it the way they suggest? Often, in a word, fuckno. Or sometimes, hellyeahwhynot.
There's a weird little quirk, another human nature hiccup ... I almost hesitate to even type this, because it's one of my special little holdout guns: When you give someone information, they often zip right over it. But when they ask for it and you immediately produce an answer, that somehow seems as if you've done more work than anticipated. Here they are probing you ... and you're handling it on the fly! You are one creative and hard-working writer! I can feel confident giving you many monies to write your imaginary stories!
All this really boils down to changing the dynamic of the pitch. In my little opinion, using whatever techniques you glean from myself or others: the more you can shift the pitch from recitation to conversation the more effective and enjoyable the process will be. If all that winds up working for your personal style is the idea of the Question, good enough.
All that, it should also be noted, is for the New Idea Pitch. The Rewrite or Assignment Pitch is an entirely different animal, one we'll tackle later this week.
Oh, and in the name of all that's holy, no leave-behind. For TV series pitches yes, for movies -- never.
Good luck, and get back to work.