FIX YOUR PITCH!
This is perhaps the most dangerous screenwriting lecture you will ever hear.
That’s because today I’m going to be talking about one of the most dangerous concepts for screenwriters: the concept of pitch.
The reason that pitch is so dangerous for screenwriters is that when all we’re thinking about is “can I sell it, can I sell it, can I sell it?” it takes us away from the kind of writing that we can actually sell.
Similarly, when all we’re thinking about is “what do they want, what do they want, what do they want,” it cuts us off from our own voice.
If you’ve listened to this podcast you know that without your voice you don’t have a shot. That in fact, your voice is the only thing that a producer can buy.
The truth is if a producer wants to buy a well executed, well-crafted script with a good hook, there are thousands of working screenwriters from whom they can buy those scripts.
In order to take a chance on you, in order to take a chance on a new screenwriter, you need to be giving them something they can’t get from somebody else. That thing that you can give that they can’t get from somebody else is your voice.
The biggest danger of pitch is it’s potential to distract you from the questions that actually lead to great writing. What do you want the script to be? Who is the character that’s fascinating to you? What is the question that you don’t know the answer to, that you wish you did? What’s the event that moved you and changed your life? What’s the dream you had last night that kept you up? What’s the terror that haunts you? Or the dream that keeps tickling you?
Instead of starting there with the personal, we start outside of ourselves. We put our focus on what they want. And all kinds of problems emerge.
The first is that you don’t know who they are. And because you don’t know who they are, instead of dealing with the real they, usually they just become a projection of the most insecure part of yourself.
So, the first problem is that when we start to think about they, the they that we think about is not like some cool producer who’s going to dig our work.
The they that we think about is the part of us that thinks we’re not good enough.
It’s the part of us that thinks that our idea is never going to sell. The part of us that feels like we have nothing to offer. The part of us that feels like our craft isn’t good enough, or our voice isn’t good enough, or our art isn’t good enough. The part of us that wonders if we have enough talent.
As writers, we are all desperately insecure. We’re desperately insecure because, as writers, we’re introspective people. Our job is to look inside of ourselves, look at those little niches that most people don’t look at, those little doubts, those little questions.
And so, because of this, if you allow yourself to get into thinking of the they that is going to judge you, it’s going to cut you off from your real instincts. It’s going to cut you off from your freedom to improvise as an artist. It’s going to cut you off from your voice.
You may end up with a really clear, clean idea, but it’s likely that the execution is going to be lacking something. It’s going to be paper thin. It’s going to feel like there is something missing, like there is a glass ceiling that you can’t quite get through in your writing.
The second problem occurs when we start our process by thinking about Can I sell it? Can I sell it? Can I sell it? is that you probably don’t have a clue if you can sell it or not. And, most likely, neither does anybody else in your life.
Now if you’re lucky enough to have a really powerful agent or a really powerful manager, that person’s job is to be on the phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, finding out what is hip, what is popular, what is in style, what is in vogue right now.
But if you’re a normal human being who walks the earth, particularly if you’re a normal human being who probably has a full-time job, and on top of that is probably doing a second full-time job writing, the truth is you have no time to play the social networking game of finding out what’s coming in and out of fashion.
By the time you actually see a movie in the theatre, you’re already 2 years behind the trend.
So the next problem when you start thinking Can I sell it? Can I sell it? Can I sell it? is that not only are you most likely censoring your true voice, but you’re also probably full of doubt about the stuff that actually makes it on the page.
The truth is you probably have no idea what “commercial” is. Because the truth is the industry has no idea what “commercial” is. What “commercial” is changes every day.
Back when I was coming up in the 90s, what people were talking about was hook, and money. Hook and money, hook and money, hook and money. You had to talk pure business to the business people because they weren’t even seeing film as art, they were seeing film as just an extension of the MBA training they’d had before they headed out to Los Angeles to make more money in a very lucrative profession.
But when we were speaking to managers and agents and producers at the iTVfest Retreat, we were hearing something very different. We were hearing managers say things like “yeah, we’re making art.” “Yeah, we’re looking for artists.”
That’s a really exciting change. And where did that change come from? Did managers suddenly become philanthropists? Absolutely not.
What happened was we’ve had a little renaissance happen in television. And that renaissance is trickling up from television to features. And what agents and managers and producers have finally realized is oh my god there is “money in them hills.” There is money in art.
So, this is a very exciting time to be a filmmaker. But if you’re thinking about “What can I sell?” If you’re thinking about “What is hot right now?” If you’re out there chasing the trends, not only are you once again cutting yourself off from your own vision, you’re also most likely chasing a trend that is already over.
The truth of the matter is to sell something you’ve got to get a little lucky.
Because even if I were to whisper into your ear exactly what is hot right now, by the time you write the darn script, you’re now a year behind. Especially if you put the time in to actually get that script to a place where it fully captures your voice, what you’re trying to do as a writer.
I started my career writing with professional screenwriters. I had a really unique job in the industry. Basically, my boss would knock on my door and he’d say “I want to make a movie about Sacajawea,” or whatever, name the topic of the day.
And I would go out and I would write the story. And oftentimes writing the story meant writing the script, because I was never a guy who could just arrive at a story without really getting to know my characters. I couldn’t arrive at the kind of story that was going to sell.
So, in the process of writing the treatment, or the story, or the outline, I would often have written about 70% of the script. Not in the final version, but in a rough version.
Then we would go out and sell it, and we would find a professional writer who had more credits than I did to finish the script. And what would usually happen would be that that writer would screw it up.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some really brilliant writers we worked with that were able to take these concepts and do extraordinary things with them. Sometimes things that I could never have even imagined.
But most of the writers that we hired screwed it up. And if you’re a development executive, you know that’s pretty much par for the course. Sometimes 7 or 8 or 9 different writers have to be hired before the project either goes into the turnaround graveyard or finally gets the green light.
So my job was then to sit down with those struggling writers and to somehow save the script. Because it was a hell of a lot cheaper for my production company to pay me to fix that script than it was for them to fire that writer and hire a new one.
And that’s actually how I learned to teach. I learned to teach working with professional writers. And I was a really young kid. I was 22 years old.
So you can imagine, you’re 22 years old, and you’re staring across the room from an Emmy Award winner or Academy Award winner. Somebody who is extraordinarily talented, but is lost in the script. And you learn really quickly if you try to impose your idea on that script, you’re going nowhere. Because you’re 22 years old and that person is not going to listen to you.
So, I learned very quickly that the way that you get a great script is not by trying to impose your own ideas, and it’s not even by going back to what I originally wrote in the treatment, or what I originally wrote in my rough draft script.
The way I got great scripts out of these people was by identifying the little pieces of them that had somehow made their way into that bad draft.
And this is something interesting to think about. Why were these great writers writing bad scripts? Well, quite frankly, they were doing it for the same reason you’re likely to do it if you think about the pitch.
We were a smaller production company, so many of these writers were writers who’d had had tremendous careers but were kind of on the downside of their careers. Maybe they used to command a million dollars a script, and now they were commanding 250 thousand.
Now that’s still a lot of money. But when you have your million dollar script house, and your million dollar script divorce, and your million dollar script drug problem–I’m joking, please don’t develop all those things– for a lot of these people, they were suddenly dependent on now writing 4 scripts in the time that they used to write one in order to keep their lifestyle going.
In other words, they were no longer saying yes to these scripts because of their passion. They were no longer saying yes to these scripts because the idea moved them. They were saying yes to these scripts because they needed the damn money.
And for a lot of emerging writers, the same problem exists. You end up desperately chasing the money, instead of chasing the real dream.
If you’re going to succeed as a writer, you need a really great day job.
As many of you know, we have a motto here at the studio “Fuck Your Day Job, Write Your Screenplay.”
But it’s important to understand that Fuck Your Day Job doesn’t mean quit your day job.
Fuck Your Day Job means to find a day job that supports your art, rather than art that supports your day job.
Find a day job that’s going to give you time and emotional energy to write. And find a day job that’s going to give you enough money that you’re not feeling desperate.
It is almost impossible to write a great script when you’re feeling desperate for money.
And this is what happens to so many wonderful professional writers. Instead of doing the thing that made them successful, which is finding a story that lived in their heart and finding a way to get it onto the page, they instead end up saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” to anything that will pay the bills, without any emotional connection.
They’re saying “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” thinking “money, money, money, money, money.”
For those established, working writers, at least there was some method to the madness– they were likely to at least end up with some short term money even if ultimately those crappy scripts did end up eroding their careers.
But as an emerging writer, writing a script on spec, if you follow this path, not only are you almost certainly going to end up with no money– you’re also going to have no fun along the way.
Very few writers can write a script that doesn’t come from somewhere in their heart.
So this is what I used to do with those struggling professional writers.
I’d basically throw out whatever my ideas were for what I thought the script should be (even if it was awesome). And instead, would look for what little piece of them had somehow made its way onto the page.
Because by the time you’ve done a draft, even if it’s a terrible draft, even if it’s just a draft that you have phoned in because you just had to get it done, by the time you’ve written a hundred pages, some little bit of your subconscious has made its way onto the page.
Some little bit of the beautiful and broken thing in you that made you a writer in the first place has found its way onto the page.
And even at 22 years old, what I learned was that if I could help the writers see that beauty on the page, see that beautiful piece of them, understand what this script could be– not to me, but to them– that suddenly everything changed.
Suddenly rather than feeling external, and fake, and false, and mechanical, suddenly plot and structure started to feel like they were flowing organically from the theme, from the idea, from that beautiful and broken thing.
Instead of feeling like mannequins or puppets, suddenly the characters started to breathe on the page. Suddenly they started to do the work for the writer.
And the most exciting part of this is that rather than being something that got chewing-gummed and duct taped onto the top of a script, rather than being a “commercial” candy shell that you dip the script into, suddenly hook and pitch started to grow organically out of the script itself. Out of the instincts of the writer.
It takes a lot of craft to succeed in writing a script. But it’s so important to understand that craft is only going to take you so far.
If you don’t have that emotional connection, if you are not telling the story in your heart, then the truth is you are not doing your job. And if you’re not doing your job, you are not going to succeed.
So, even as we talk about pitch, I want to talk about the pitch in a way that helps you to do your job. And to understand that, you have to understand that pitch is not how you sell your script to somebody else. The hook is not how you sell your script to somebody else.
Pitch and hook are the things that already exist inside of the script that are selling the script to you.
Pitch is how you sell your movie to yourself.
And this is really important, because no matter how bad your idea is, if you keep following your instincts, if you keep following the thread of that question you don’t know the answer to, that beautiful and broken thing in yourself, that character you want to understand, that thing about the universe that doesn’t make sense, that idea that makes you laugh or cry, the characters that live inside of you; if you keep on doing that, and you’re willing to push hard enough, eventually the hook will emerge. Even from the most terrible idea.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
The worst idea that I’ve ever heard for a movie is called Lars and the Real Girl. If you know Lars and the Real Girl you know that this is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, and it launched Ryan Gosling’s career.
And if you know Lars and the Real Girl, you also know that the hook is ridiculous.
So, here’s the hook: A neurotic man orders a sex doll and decides that she’s going to be his girlfriend. And everybody in the little town where he lives accepts her as if she was real, and it makes his life and everybody else’s life better.
This is a terrible idea. And in fact, the bad version of this movie was actually made. Back in the 80’s, there was a movie called Mannequin, which is the bad version of the same idea.
But if you’re willing to push on Mannequin hard enough, it stops being Mannequin and starts being Lars and the Real Girl.
And suddenly this incredibly unlikely idea turns into a huge commercial success.
Commercial success doesn’t come from copying everybody, else because there are a million people who are better at that than you are. Commercial success comes from writing the movie that you want to see, and then figuring out what is it about the film that matters most to you? What is that one core thing that made you want to see it? What is the thing that sold you?
So the first thing to understand is that even the worst premise can become a great premise if you’re willing to push on it hard enough.
Let me give you another example. Because here’s another problem, no matter how good your idea is, about halfway through the process you’re going to be convinced “this is the stupidest idea I’ve ever written.”
About halfway through the process no matter how wonderful your idea is, no matter how commercial no matter how sellable, halfway through the process you’re going to think you’re an idiot.
If you don’t believe me, then you need to know the story of M. Night Shyamalan. M. Night Shyamalan wrote The Sixth Sense, which for years held the record as the highest grossing thriller of all time.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that M. Night Shyamalan actually threw out the fourth draft of that script. Can you imagine?
He threw out the fourth draft of the script– and here’s what you need to know– he threw out the fourth draft of the script because Casper, the live action Casper the friendly ghost movie, came out.
The exact quote, when he threw out that script, is “Well there goes that.”
That’s right, the writer of the number one grossing thriller of all time thought his movie was no longer going to be successful, was no longer going to be commercial, because Casper, the freakin’ friendly ghost came out.
But here’s the really interesting thing: at that time, M. Night Shyamalan was right.
Because at that time, M. Night Shyamalan had not yet figured out that the Bruce Willis character was dead. At that time, M. Night Shyamalan was truly just doing a live action version of Casper, the friendly ghost, which at that time, was the hottest concept he’d ever thought of.
He didn’t know the trick ending.
He was lucky enough to have someone in his corner, who said “dude you’ve got to keep going.” But even still, it wasn’t until draft 10 that he realized “Oh my God, this guy is dead.”
Listen to the languaging there. He didn’t say “Oh my God, I could make this guy dead,” “Oh my God, this guy should be dead,” “Oh my God, they would really like it if he was dead,” “Oh my God, it would be so commercial if he was dead.”
He realized “Oh my God this guy is already dead! And I just didn’t know it yet.”
Writing a script is a process of discovery. Which means that if the script you write is the script you plan to write, and if it unfolds exactly in the way you expected it to unfold, you’re not doing your job.
And if you want proof, think about M. Night Shyamalan’s later movies. In which, rather than finding the surprise ending organically, he tried to impose a trick ending on every freakin’ movie. Notice the difference in the quality of those films. And in the commercial success of those films.
So, no matter what, when you’re thinking about them, when you’re thinking about “Can I sell it?” when you’re thinking about “Is it commercial?” you can know 100% for a fact you are cutting yourself off from your voice. And you’re cutting yourself off from your real chance at success.
So what are you supposed to do about pitch?
Are you supposed to just ignore it? Does it not actually matter?
Well I’m a pretty strong believer that movies are expensive, and that means that when I write a movie I’m asking someone for somewhere between a hundred thousand and a hundred million dollars. To do something that I believe in.
So that means a couple things to me. That means number one, I better darn well believe that person is going to make their money back.
If I don’t believe that person is going to make their money back– if I don’t believe that my movie has something in it that is going to pay back the person who just put a hundred million dollars in, or a million dollars in, or a hundred thousand dollars in– if I don’t think it can do that, then I haven’t done my job.
Because then I’m asking that person to do something that I wouldn’t do.
I wouldn’t just throw a million dollars, or a hundred million dollars into somebody else’s project if I didn’t think that it was going to be successful.
So, as writers, it’s not that we should ignore pitch. Because unless you want to think of yourself as a charity case, which I don’t think you should, pitch is one of the ways that you make sure that you have something valuable for your producer.
Ultimately, pitch is the thing that’s going to determine if your movie is successful.
The thing to understand is that that pitch is not something you find outside of yourself, it’s something that comes from inside of yourself.
Next Friday, April 21st, we’re going to be doing a free pitch seminar and event at the studio and online. It’s totally free, and I’m going to be talking a lot about how to built a personal pitch. And then we’re going to actually do some demos where we let people practice their own pitches and make their own pitches better.
But what I want to talk about now, to give you a way to begin thinking about that, is a very important concept.
All pitching is personal.
When you go in to pitch your script, what you’re really doing is not just telling a story of what the movie is, you’re actually also telling the story of who you are in relation to the movie. Where did this movie come from in you?
And the reason for that is, although producers and agents and managers often believe that they’re making business decisions about the movies and the writers they invest in, the truth is there is no rational way to choose one movie over another.
There is no rational way to say yes to a movie. Because the truth is, nobody knows what is going to be successful.
Producers thought so little of Star Wars that they gave a guy named George Lucas all of the toy rights! Billions of dollars they gave away, because they thought so little of Star Wars. Every single studio had passed on it.
Francis Ford Coppola had to mortgage his house to finish The Godfather.
So, if one thing is clear, it’s this: nobody really knows what’s going to be successful.
Which means there is no rational way of making these choices.
Even though people believe these choices are coming from a business place, and even though there are business decisions underneath them– making the decision to say no is a business decision, but making the decision to say yes is an emotional decision.
And when you make that decision, you’re not just investing in the project, you’re also investing in the artist. Because you are going to be a partner with that person. They’re going to be a partner with you. And you’re going to be a partner through years of work– more rewrites than you’ve ever imagined. You’re going to be a partner through problems when you lose a location, when an actor gets sick or you have to do a last minute rewrite, and they’re going to be dependent on you.
They want to know that you can get them there. They want to know that you’re the only writer in the world who could’ve given them this project before they even open up that script. Because they want to know that it’s worth taking a chance on you. They want to feel like you’re the kind of creative partner that they want in their endeavor.
So, all pitching is personal. Which means, before you start thinking about how to pitch your script to somebody else, you want to start by asking yourself “How am I going to pitch it to myself?”
You want to practice talking to yourself about the script. Not talking about the millions of great elements of your script, but instead talking about the one thing that it’s really about for you. The thing that is the most important thing, that if people don’t get that thing, you haven’t done your job. Or they haven’t understood your movie.
At the beginning that might be a thematic idea. That might be something like, “this is a movie about mothers and daughters.” Or, “this is a movie about love.” Or “this is a movie about what is it like to live with a devastating illness.” Or, “this is a movie about not knowing who you really are.”
So it might start with the thematic hook.
Oftentimes, as writers, before we fully know the story, that theme will start to emerge for us. We get a feeling– I’m curious about this, I want to understand this.
But, as the story emerges, we want to start to transform that thematic hook into a more literal hook: a more structure-based hook.
We want that hook to become a hook that’s about “a guy who” or “a girl who.” We want to understand who this main character is and what’s the incredibly ironic journey that they go on that’s going to lead them to the theme?
So, rather than thinking about hook as some way that you make your script commercial, rather than thinking about hook as the idea, I want you to think about hook as the character’s journey.
I want you to think about hook as the incredibly ironic twists and turns that happen along your characters journey that takes a person who starts off like this, and changes them to somebody like that. How the twists and turns of their journey allow them to transform into a completely different person.
I want you to think about hook as the thing that makes your movie different, or cooler than others in the genre.
So, for example, a while ago, a beautiful movie came out called Brokeback Mountain. And the hook of Brokeback Mountain was “gay cowboys.” And once you understood “gay cowboys,” you pretty much could tell yourself the story.
You could anticipate the kinds of twists and turns. The kind of ironic complications of who these characters were, with very little additional information.
A couple of years later, another “gay cowboys” movie came out. Except this time it wasn’t cowboys. This time it was a movie called The Kids Are Alright.
And that movie was set in suburbia, with a lesbian couple.
Prior to Brokeback Mountain, that story alone would have been worthy of a movie. But the truth is, after Brokeback Mountain, even though it’s just a different location, the “gay cowboy” movie had already been done.
So what made this movie a little bit different in the genre? It was gay cowboys with kids. Gay suburban “cowboy” moms with kids. And to make it even a little more complicated, one of those gay cowboys ends up having an affair with the biological father of her children.
So, here’s what’s really beautiful and organic: even if your story is starting off in a place that seems familiar, if you keep on putting your character in situations that complicate their life, if you keep on putting your character in the most ironic situation that you can put them in, if you keep on saving the best for first and letting the biggest, wildest, most incredible thing happen early in your movie rather than saving it for later, what will happen is that that hook will start to naturally evolve in your script.
It will start to develop just from the ironic situations; the twists and turns you put your character into.
And the more organically you find those things, the more intuitively you find those things, rather than depending on the advice of friends or things you’ve seen in other movies, the more you find those things inside of you, the more likely you are to have a hook that we truly haven’t seen before.
And the more likely you are to have a hook that’s going to feel emotionally, and intuitively, and organically connected to the theme of the movie: the reason that you’re writing it in the first place.
If you’d like to learn more about how to construct a pitch like that, and how to communicate those things inside of you to other people in a way that gets you in the door, gets people excited about your script, shows people the marketability of this thing that comes so beautifully from inside of you, then I invite you to join our Write Your Screenplay Level 2 class that starts tonight.