Top 10 Movie Pitch Rules
1. Your movie idea is now your pitch statement.
What, you thought your idea was a precious little jewel and the pitch was the horrible mucky commercial thing you had to cheapen it into to get it made? But why would your idea be different from your pitch? Remember, your pitch statement is also a check for yourself that your idea actually works and that you know how to develop it into a screenplay.
2. Your movie’s story is about somebody with a clear and consistent problem or challenge.
Remember, your wardrobe* is designed to hold your clothes rail, not to accommodate multiple branches. If your theme changes – if your hero/ine’s problem changes – your story just changed and this tends to make what came before narratively redundant and thus, in movie terms, a colossal waste of time and money.
3. Your pitch will show or at least imply that this challenge manifests both internally and externally.
This is because the story world you create will be designed to force the internal challenge into the open so the audience can understand it and follow as your hero/ine deals with it. In my book we will talk about this in terms of: scared of bunnies / world in which ‘oh look bunnies’. Oh the thrills that await you!
4. You will pitch through the story – through the trials of your hero/ine – not through all the cool stuff you have planned for the design of the spaceships’ laser turrets.
I’m looking at you: Half The Class…
Yes, if you are writing a science fiction epic we will want to know at some point what sells your particular vision of the future. This will be important for some aspects of your storytelling and certainly for production design, marketing and publicity. But think of Mimic, the premise is the six foot roaches, but the story involves Mira solving the problem she unknowingly created… which led to the six foot roaches. In your pitch you need to play this out, even though your premise was doing just fine pointing at six foot roaches and saying “cool, huh?”
Joss Whedon could have pitched the wonderful and much lamented series Firefly 2002 to Fox executives with a firm nod towards the words “cowboys in space” (although all evidence suggests they weren’t listening properly), but try summing up the science fiction concept of a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune as efficiently in three words: “Giant wormy jihad.” Meh. “Feudal space bondage.” Hmm. “Guild spice… pranks.” Grr. Aha – here’s the easiest gag: “No Sting. Result!” Now I feel cheap.
5. Tell us who your hero is in a well chosen phrase and link that description into the meat of the story or plot.
Here’s a more story heavy example: “After he is dumped by his girlfriend, Summer, Tom Hansen, a young unemployed architect who is paying the rent as a greeting card writer has to examine the five hundred days of their relationship to figure out where he went wrong.” (We know this is a story heavy pitch because it focuses on introspection leading action rather than action forcing introspection. This speaks directly to story rather than plot.)
Now this one is a tough pitch. There are still a bunch of unanswered questions begging but at least we have a hero with a double problem implied here: he needs to understand why he couldn’t make his relationship work (internal) and he needs to find a way of getting on with his career (external). In solving the former, he will also see his way clear to solving the latter. If he doesn’t, he’s stuck as Mopey Loser Stasis Boy, presumably forever, so let’s hope his emotional exploration of those (500) Days of Summer works it all out for him.
This might be the subject of your second pitch statement.
The pitch also implies the non-linear structure of the film. Of course our hero needs to think his way backwards and forwards through the 500 days. How else is he going to make sense of it all?
This might be the subject of your third pitch statement.
Here’s a plot heavy example: “In the 1930s Indiana Jones, a globetrotting archeologist has to outwit the Nazis in order to prevent an all powerful mystical artifact from being used for evil.” Yup, you guessed it, that one was for Annie Hall 1977.
As you can see from the examples above – ok I lied, the second one was Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981 just in case, for some unfathomable reason, anyone is reading this in the year 2467 and no copies of the film still exist – you can pitch to plot. Ideally you still need to do it as much as possible through your characters and their human problems. What does my hero have to do to be able to survive and thrive?
What this particular pitch doesn’t do is discuss Indy’s little personal problems up front because there’s a great big whopper of a problem that is already apparent. Be ready to talk about his internal problems, fear of snakes and being kind of unprepared for the reality of the supernatural, in a subsequent statement. For this pitch, pesky Nazis tells us all we need to be told.
You see how the worlds work variously to story, plot and character in these very different examples? Raiders is set in a world where ‘ooh look, Nazis’ and (500) Days is set in a world where ‘ooh look, other people don’t always feel the same way you do’. That’s Tom’s problem, he is crazy in love with Summer but she is never really in love with him. What’s more, she is honest about it from the start but he doesn’t want to hear it. That’s why their relationship is doomed and that’s what he has to come to terms with in his critical self examination. That’s the problem in the world; the trap written into the fabric of the story.
6. Give the name of your hero/ine in your pitch.
You should name them because then everybody has a shorthand for discussion and we aren’t working our dry, nervous lips around terms like “protagonist” and “main character” in a pitch meeting or class. Also names have power and can boost the punch of your idea. He’s an archeologist – hmm, could be really dull – but fortunately he isn’t doddery old Professor. McSchwardflovskinheimowitzberg, he’s Indiana Jones. Yup he’s a cool professor and we are going to have fun following his cool exploits. Did I mention the whip?
Also in the other pitch it is very important that we know right up front that Tom’s ex-girlfriend’s name is Summer. Otherwise nobody will understand the title.
7. It is a very good idea to specify the period and general location in which your story is set, if it is not obviously “Somewhere Cheap” and “In the Present”.
In other words, your pitch should give some indication of your film’s projected budget, especially if the budget will be high. A setting in the past, even the fairly recent past, will ramp up the budget and exotic locations will also cost a lot of money, to say nothing of complex action and special effects. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a period piece, with countless locations and loads of good old Nazi spanking action – expensive stuff. (500) Days of Summer needs some offices, a karaoke bar, assorted houses and apartments, a bench with a modest urban view, a train and an IKEA if I remember correctly – pretty modest.
Don’t hide this stuff from your audience. They are certainly not expecting you to quote a dollar amount, but they will expect you to be an honest broker. Let them know the kind of project they are potentially signing on for. If you sell a quaint little character piece featuring a touching romance between a retired landscape gardener and the owner of a cake shop and only when you submit the first draft does it become clear that you have written a Victorian steam punk romance with half the film taking place in the great sunken seaweed gardens of Atlantis and the other half on the Bakery Planet of Brioche 9 you will not be a popular person to say the least.
8. Don’t pitch the B story up front.
But make sure you know what it is and how it works for the inevitable follow up. We’ll talk more about B stories later but it probably involves your hero in a significant amount of snogging and being kicked up the arse. Not necessarily in that order.
9. Make it sound fun.
It’s so obvious, but remember you are trying to interest people in your idea, so be interesting. This leads us to the tenth and most frequently ignored tip for good pitching:
10. Practice, practice, practice.
Seriously, do this. Talk to yourself in a mirror. Bore the family dog. Record yourself and play back more than once (so you get over the cringe factor of hearing your own voice). Not only will it give you confidence when you actually have to make a pitch, but it will also make it much easier to hear and correct problems or just awkwardness or long windedness in your pitch statements.
All of these rules lead to this simple conclusion: at the end of your opening pitch statement nobody should be offering variations on Tom Hanks’ famous comment when presented with a rubbish transforming skyscraper toy in Big 1988: “I don’t get it.” Doubtless they will have many valid questions pertaining to the substance, detail and practicality of your movie idea, but they should already understand how we get from A to B and what both A and B represent in human and story terms.
If they don’t, your pitch sucked.
*see my book in August!