Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Three Stages of Pitch

One of the toughest things for many screenwriters to come to grips with is the Pitch Meeting. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were so bad at meetings that Steven Spielberg told them, "It's a good thing you guys write better than you pitch."

Lynda Obst, who produced films such as The Fisher King (1991), Sleepless in Seattle (1994), Someone Like You (2001), The Invention of Lying (2009), had the same problem when she started in Hollywood.

In her book, Hello, He Lied, and Other Tales from the Hollywood Trenches, Lynda says that when she first came to town, she wrote notes for herself, as she came to grips with this unusual social event.
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Pitch is transactional theater. The quality of its performance is an important factor in its outcome. Regardless of the nature of the story we pitch—historical drama, cartoon adventure, police procedural, inspirational coming of age, brainless comedy, classic remake—there is a customary structure to both its content and its performance. Each pitch has three stages.

1. The Prep

Before the segue into the pitch, the producer has to prep the room. We do this by talking about the spouse, the boy/girlfriend or lack thereof, Gymboree, yoga, diets, the playoffs (if it's the right season; any playoff will do), or whether some mogul is going to buy Sony or MCA or Disney or anywhere at all. Gossip is currency in prepping the room. Charm rules.

2. The Windup

The job of the windup is to warm up the room. No self-respecting producer should ever rely on the writer for personality and ease. (Notable exceptions are some comedy writers, who are like standup comedians. This brings to mind the perennial question: If the pitch is funny will the script necessarily be funny? Hard-learned answer: No.)

First of all, the writer is likely to be only person in the room more nervous than the producer. Second, his talent is often in inverse proportion to his ability to pitch—read: schmooze. Consider the almost axiomatic observation: Good writers pitch badly and bad writers pitch well. The exceptions—the good writers who pitch well—are a function of gifted personality. They're charming. They are often the most highly paid, more often future directors.

A tip: Writers for whom solutions come too quickly are suspect. The writer should know that the solution to a story point is supposed to be harder than that.

3. The Concept

Then the wired producer must meet his optimal challenge, the mark of a truly gifted pitcher: He must present the concept whole—the miniaturization of the idea. It must be succinct. This is the famous high concept. Its seminal influence is the TV Guide log line.  The most common (and banal) form of the high concept idea is the hybrid: as in "Pretty Woman meets Friday the Thirteenth" (a great-looking whore is dismembered by a horrific, hockey-mask wearing creep). It requires virtually no imagination. By combining the names of past hits, one forms genetically engineered new movie ideas—sort of.

The appeal of these ideas is that they appear to reduce the risk level for the buyer. And they don't take deep concentration to grasp. No limb jumping here. Just by referencing these past hits, we share their patina of success.

Before the meeting the producer should have prepared the writer to be able to tell the story without going into excruciating detail.
Members of the pitching party should have resolved among themselves any major plot disputes. This sounds obvious, but I can't tell you how many pitch meetings I've seen go awry through internal debate. Like an escalating marital rift, these meetings dangle perilously on the precipice of collapse unless grand synthesis is quickly found. This is your job (producer). Subtle theoretical issues can remain tactically open as these minor snags often invite debate from the buyer, intriguing and involving him.

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2 comments:

Ed Love said...

Fascinating as usual.

Kathy Smart said...

The high concept, always the high concept. It has taken me years as a writer to be able to define the high concept of my novels. In fact, it is only since I have worked out the major theme in all my novels that I can comfortably describe individual ones.