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Pitch Perfect

It doesn't matter how good your screenplay is if nobody reads it.

Each year, thousands of spec scripts are written. Many of these scripts are written by established screenwriters who have agents and/or managers and an existing track record, all of which aids in actually getting someone to read the script.

Of course, there are many more scripts being written by those not yet established in the film business. In this case, a great logline and a sensational short summary are your two most important sales tools.

If your logline and summary are not exceptional your query letters and emails will go unanswered and your screenplay will languish on your hard drive.

Even the best screenwriters in the world struggle with loglines and summaries. It is simply a different skill set.

As the head of development for an independent film production company for nearly a decade, I have probably read a few thousand pitches. In addition, I have been responsible for writing the loglines and pitches for our scripts in development. These were used to secure financing as well as the attachment of name talent and directors.

What I have learned over this time is that nothing sinks your chances of success faster than a mediocre pitch. With so many scripts to chose from and so little time to read, there is little room for compromise.

The big question is, how do you create a great pitch? As with most creative endeavors, there is no one simple answer. Much like writing a great script, a great pitch takes time, patience and a lot of perseverance. To give some perspective, I will spend anywhere from 10-30 hours just working on a logline and short summary for a new project.

The first thing you must remember when writing your pitch is that it is a sales tool. The job of the pitch is to get someone else to request (and hopefully) read your script. This makes it very different from an advertising campaign for an existing movie. In other words, a pitch is not a tagline or a tease.

A pitch is a compressed retelling of the story of your script. The trick is in how you do the compressing so that the most enticing elements of your story are transmitted to the reader.

My favorite approach to this task is something I call the "Once upon a time" method. Here's how it works:

1) Imagine you had to recreate your script as a bedtime story. Start with "Once upon a time" and go from there. Don't worry about creating a beat-by-beat repeat of script. Focus on telling the story. This first draft will likely be a little long. Usually, my first draft of this exercise runs 1-3 pages. Keep in mind that you are writing a bedtime story so keeping it short and sweet is part of the goal.

2) Once I have my first draft I go back through it and see if there are any elements I could cut out completely without losing the central plot. Every good script has subplots and neat character bits but this is not what sells your script. It is a great central story that people want to read. The rest is gravy. Be brave and don't worry about leaving parts out - stick to the headlines and big ideas that make your script stand out in the crowd.

3) At this point I usually like to actually record myself reading my existing pitch aloud. Listening back to my own voice reading the pitch is incredibly telling. I can immediately pick out poor grammar, sloppy phrases and run-on thoughts. I can also easily begin playing with the words so that they scan more cleanly. There is nothing more upsetting than reading what could be a cool pitch only to find the writer struggles to convey the ideas in a strong and vibrant voice.

4) My next step is to rewrite based on what I have learned in step 3 then I repeat step 3 (and step 4) until I can listen back to my own pitch without cringing or spacing out or losing interest.

5) Whatever I have after this process is what I consider my first working draft of a pitch. Now, I take that pitch and I read it (or recite it from memory) to anyone who will listen. I'm not talking about industry professionals but friends and relatives. If they don't find my pitch intriguing there is no way that a professional reader is going to be impressed. Trust those close to you and ask them for feedback. These are your eventual audience should you script get made so it makes sense to hear what they have to say.

6) At this point, I should have something pretty darn close to my final summary. This should be a one-paragraph document and no longer. A short summary should be somewhere between 3-6 sentences, no more.

7) Now comes the logline. This is simply your short summary compressed one more time resulting in a single sentence that tells the reader the key elements of your story. This is NOT a tagline or a tease - it must convey real information about your script and it must be specific. There is no value in a logline that could apply to a half-dozen movies. Again, this is a real editing process. Your first draft might be two or more sentences but you must cut it back to one.

Now you should have the two key elements for convincing others to request your script.

A few other things to keep in mind.

First, don't be afraid to give away the ending. Unlike a movie trailer, most readers of query letters and pitches would really like to know the whole story before they request the script. Great openings tend to be a lot easier to come up with than great endings. So, if your script has a sensational twist in the third act, make sure it is in your pitch. Nobody has ever requested a script just to find out how it ends. It simply doesn't happen.

Second, make sure you know who you are pitching. It is often worthwhile tweaking your pitch to make it feel specific to whoever you are submitting it to. Additionally, don't just send a pitch to every address you can find. Do your research and make sure the people you are pitching are appropriate to your project. For instance, sending me your pitch for a sci-fi epic would be a waste of time since we have never produced anything like that.

Finally, be patient. Writing a great pitch is hard work. Sometimes its even harder than writing the script itself.

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