Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Pitching for fun and profit

Over on his blog recently, Jason "Jason Arnopp" Arnopp asked about links to articles on pitching, to which Robin Kelly provided this fantastic collection - take the time to check it out, it's well worth it. I championed this one here, by the Kung Fu Monkey himself, John Rogers, which is the best pro guide to pitching I've ever read. Danny has shared his pitching experiences here and here, with excellent advice, and Jason himself has also talked about his pitch at the Stellar Network's Big Pitch event here. So I thought it was time to share my experiences - I've pitched some original movie ideas, but also for a job writing a movie sequel, and one for a movie rewrite.

For my first big movie pitch, thankfully I didn't have to do it alone. The story was a collaboration between me and the director, so we both prepared thoroughly. It was a high concept idea, with lots of action, twists, turns, and groovy characters. We had a full outline, which we decided to use as the basis. I wrote up a bullet point version, just a line for each major scene (that we could expand verbally), and we divvied them up between us, printing them out as reference cards. The idea was that he'd start with the opening scene, I'd jump in with scene 2, then back to him, and so on, keeping it dynamic, keeping us both involved, and going through the entire plot beat by beat. We printed the full outline, with pictures, character breakdowns, and some sample artwork a storyboard friend of his had done, so we could leave a nice package behind for them to admire after we left. We practiced again and again, then finally the big day came. It went exactly as planned, and when we were finished, the exec pretty much had the entire story and all the details. We were very proud of ourselves.

It was the worst fucking pitch in the world.

The entire outline? Scene by bloody scene? Taking turns for each scene, referring to our cards, plodding through the entire story without a break? Leaving a huge printed document behind? Two people speaking, with different vocal styles, one laid back and relaxed, one excited and doing sound effects (me), making each scene swap-over seem like jumping into a different movie? Horrendous. We didn't realise, obviously, we thought it was great. Luckily the exec loved the story, and invited us to come back and pitch to the boss. Several days later, he called and said actually, don't bother, as he'd done the pitch for us (successfully), because "our strength wasn't in pitching". Imagine that. We were so bad, an exec actually did the pitch for us. Somehow it all went well, despite our best efforts to sabotage ourselves, and proceeded to the next level (before eventually dying a horrible death, but that's another story). So, don't do that.

For my next pitch, a sequel to a well known movie (don't ask! don't tell!), I had read the Kung Fu Monkey pitch post, and did it exactly like that. Start with a question, hook them in, go big on the opening, talk through the major beats quickly, and expand again for the big ending. No "leave-behinds", if they want something on paper, they can request it. Went incredibly well, and I felt great doing it. Didn't get the job though, they wanted a different kind of story. Fair enough, the take they ended up going for wasn't something I'd have wanted to do anyway, so it all ended amicably. They're all dead now, of course, a series of bizarre accidents, funny how these things happen.

The next one was for one of my spec movie ideas, and I did it exactly the same way, but even more stripped down. They had lots of questions, things that I'd hinted at or glossed over to keep the pitch exciting - but I had answers for everything. Always know more than you say, because they'll ask stuff. Some people were interested, but it's early days, so I'm waiting to hear if they'll go for it. Most people in the UK would rather wait, and see if you just give up and decide to write it as a spec anyway - that way they get to read it for free. Otherwise, they'd have to pay you to write it, and you might write a big pile of shit, and laugh at them for believing you when you said it would be good. I understand the risk for them, but it's very frustrating. Funnily enough, soon after this, they were all killed in a terrible woodchipper accident, which had nothing to do with me at all.

The most recent one was for a rewrite on an existing script. I read it thoroughly, making notes the whole time - what I liked, didn't like, thought needed to go, needed changing, bigging up, etc etc. When I went in, I had my headline stuff that I talked about - here's what I intend to do, what I think needs the most work. Once that was done, I talked through some of the smaller things, but *not* everything. Most of the rest came up in conversation, which showed that I had answers for most of their concerns, and had thought everything through. It showed I'd done my homework, basically, and that this would be in reasonably safe hands.

Midway through this big, important pitch, I glanced down at my foot while checking my notes for something. I had one leg half crossed over the other, my left ankle resting on my knee. And it was only then that I realised I was wearing "comedy" socks. I wear black socks, and some of them are "comedy" socks, Christmas presents and so on. When sitting or walking, you can't see the "comedy" bit, so they're fine to wear. Unless you cross your legs, putting your ankle on your knee. So when I glanced down, as I sat between the two execs on the sofa, clearly visible was a big cartoon man with his tongue hanging out, next to the words "LOVE MACHINE".

I casually moved my notes over the sock, kept talking, and hoped nobody noticed. Minutes later, I slowly uncrossed my legs and kept my feet flat on the floor.

The pitch went well, and I got the job. I have no idea if the socks swung the deal, or nearly messed the whole thing up. The moral of the story is, always look at the socks you're putting on, just in case. And listen to the Kung Fu Monkey. But mainly be careful with the socks.

Like everything though, it depends who you're pitching to. The above ones were all official type pitch things, where I'd gone in specifically to tell them about my idea. Sometimes, when meeting new people, they casually ask what you're writing at the moment, and you can just have a general chat about the scripts, or briefly give a logline. Possibly the best pitch I have ever given was to a mate, who asked what I was currently working on. It was a fast paced thriller, and I hadn't fully worked out the story. So I quickly told him the opening scene, and hit him with the three big revelations that happen in the first act, which sets everything up and gives you an idea of what kind of crazy shit is going to happen. He was goggle eyed. "What happens then? When's it getting made?" When I told him it was only a one page outline at the moment, nobody had bought it or even knew about it, and what's more it didn't even have an ending, he went bananas. I didn't realise, but I'd just given a perfect introductory pitch - I had simply been trying to tell a mate how cool and exciting the finished movie would be, like a trailer, and he went for it completely. Had it been a proper pitch, I could have then answered all the necessary questions. My current pitching method is a mix of this, and the stripped down Kung Fu Monkey style. Don't give them everything up front, tease it out, keep them in suspense.

The stripped down, drip-feed method is quite handy, because if they ask a question like "ooh, so does the guy use the special device to get revenge on his evil stepmum?", and seem all excited about that possibility, I can just smile enigmatically, and say "exactly! That's exactly what happens!" That way they're happy, feel like they've been clever, and if it's a rubbish idea then hey, the first draft is ages away and they'll have forgotten about that bit by then - if they haven't, you can just say you tried it but "the story and characters took it in a new, more exciting direction". And if it's a really good idea, you can just pretend it was yours all along. I have done this at least twice. I have no shame, and neither should you.

I'm still not too keen on pitching, because it's embarrassing, and I just want to jump out the window when it comes to the moment where they sit back and expect you to wow them. But I'm slightly more competent at it now. I think. I don't know, I don't know anything, stop looking at me.


Lucy said...

Fuck me! An Exec actually did some work??? You must have sucked worse than me when I had to pitch a load of bullshit about a samurai sword arriving in the mail as the story of the week to the head of EMMERDALE! ; ) And that was bad. He said it was good, but really I think he was afraid I really did have a samurai sword that I might come after him with.

Phill Barron said...

First time I had to pitch to someone important, I didn't know I was going to do it and had nothing prepared.

I was sitting in this meeting, slowly going cross-eyed as the producer and whoever this other mucky-muck was were discussing technical things about a script I'd optioned a year or so previously, when the producer said:

"This is the writer, he'll tell you what the script is about."

"Eh? What? You're fucking kidding? Erm ... it's about a guy I think, who's got some ... legs and maybe an arm or two."

Truth is, I'd written the script about five years previously and had very little idea what happened in it. After a bit of rambling I opted for jumping up and acting out a sword fight which may or may not have been in that script.

For some reason, this guy decided it would be an ideal vehicle for Johnny Depp and never spoke to us again.

Preparation is the key.

Dom Carver said...

You should hold a masterclass, make people pay to hear your ideas, or bring you presents, not give those ideas away free on this blog. You're a proper working writer now, man. Your time is money ;-)

Forest said...

Thanks James - lots of good advice there.
You seem to have hit on a winning format - with everyone who rejects your pitches dying an unfortunate, accidental, and I'm sure entirely co-incidental, death - no-one is likely to refuse you ever again.

How's the back by the way?

Jools not James said...

Ah excellent. I knew the comedy socks would come in handy some day!

Peter Pan said...

Where exactly does one find a woodchipper? Unless you happen to hang around saw mills, of which there is one at the end of our village now I think on it ..hmmmmm

James Moran said...

Dom: Good point - that's a tenner you all owe me...

Forest: Back's not too bad, been playing up thanks to the weird wicker chairs at this flat I'm temporarily staying at though.

Jools: Did you get me those??

Peter: I have no idea where to get a woodchipper from, had nothing to do with the accidental deaths, and wasn't even in the country at the time. Honest.

Jools not James said...

No, I'm sure I didn't get you those particular ones. How weird would that be, buying your brother socks with Love Machine written on them? (Unless you're a hillbilly). I have a sick mind, but it ain't THAT sick yet!
Sounds like you can blame this particular pair on your missis. Or your fancy woman.