Open post

How to Win a Screenwriting Pitch Competition: 9 Tips

The final tally comes in. The winner is Coming to Bits, with 105 votes. Second place: 38 votes. 

I was shocked. WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart’s logline/pitch competition had over 750 logline submissions. Mine made it to the top 10, then the top 5, and we squared off in a 3-minute virtual pitch. My first pitch ever won the popular vote by a landslide, despite very worthy competitors. Me – who heretofore looked at pitching the way Indiana Jones looks at snakes.

My logline, for the curious: When a government recycling experiment unleashes a plague of plastic-devouring bacteria, a spoiled 7-year-old battles to stop it before it reaches her toys.

So what did I learn about the pitch, and more importantly how did I not throw up on camera? 

1. Confusion is Death

Before it was my neck on the chopping block, I worked for the London Screenwriters’ Festival, and we ran a 60-second pitch contest. This is of course won by talking like an auctioneer and practicing holding your breath underwater so you don’t have to stop for air, right? Wrong. If the audience gets confused or can’t follow you due to information overload, you’re sunk. 

Bob Schultz, my LSF mentor and Jedi-level pitch master used to say if you haven’t hooked them in 30 seconds, you won’t hook them in 5 minutes. Pitchers so often feel if the audience just hears MORE of the story, they will like it more. No. No no no. This comes from my experience as an audience member above all else: LESS IS MORE. 

Character. Conflict. Clarity. The same keys that hold true for your logline hold true in the pitch. It is NOT about plot. It is about giving us just enough to be excited about the character’s journey. Don’t get lost in the details.

2. No Word Salad

Clarity starts with word choice. Listening is far different to reading, we don’t have the option to hear it again. The pitches that stuck with me at LSF presented a vivid picture using fairly simple language, no chains of adjectives like “After a tortuous drought smites his swamp, an angsty amphibian struggles to build an aqueduct to divert water from the runoff in the snow-laden mountains before his skin turns to parchment.” – Wait, what? Exactly. Be simple. Just made that up and now I want to see a frog journey to the snowy mountains to build an aqueduct. Dang it.

3. Know Your Story

If you’re having trouble narrowing your story down to a core idea, your script may need a substantial rewrite to give it a strong backbone. Harsh, but true. Focus on your main character, their main struggle, and how they overcome it. Mercilessly chop out those details and secondary characters you love so much, they can come later.

In Variety’s interview with Christopher Mack on how to pitch to Netflix, he shares the “elevator pitch” for Breaking Bad: “Breaking Bad is a family drama about a down-on-his luck, high-school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth in order to provide for his family after he is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Armed with his intellect and the best meth on the market, he will outsmart rival drug kingpins and the DEA to become the biggest, baddest drug dealer in New Mexico. The only thing that scares him more than being killed or locked up is being found out by his pregnant wife and teenage son. It will explore the themes of family, greed and power.”  Read the full interview here.

4. Emotion Trumps Plot

If you can create an emotional connection with your audience, either in the character, a relatable moment, or in your connection to the story, THAT is the thing that will stick with them. Emotions are tied to memory. We all watch films or TV in order to FEEL something. This includes the “mistake” moments. These make you human and spontaneous. One pitch was a writing duo presenting a comedy and their reactions to each other as they traded lines were the best thing, it made you feel the tone of the script coming to life.

On that note – tone. It’s a hard one when you’ve already diced your beloved story to the bone, but it’s important. If you have a thriller, bring the excitement. Horror, the creep factor. Mine is a children’s adventure so I tried to bring some of the humour. You’re a storyteller – don’t lose the flavour even though you’ve boiled it down to stock. 

5. Memorise. (Gasp)

I have heard many sources say: DO NOT MEMORISE YOUR PITCH. So why the heck did I do it? First of all, if it’s a timed pitch for a competition, you have to. I had three minutes. In reading it, I consistently hit 2:30. From memory, 2:45 to 2:50. Actual pitch with two slight line flubs: 3:01, ouch. So even with a lot of prep, I was very close to the edge. 

Let’s back up. Why do people warn against memorising? Because if you are working from memory and screw up or an exec asks a question that derails you, that little Apple beach ball of doom appears in your eyeball and you spend the next minute hunting for your place on the page with shaking fingers, apologising for even daring to exist much less write stuff. 

However, if you’ve ever seen a play, they obviously memorise – and each performance is exciting and fresh. I once took acting classes (which I strongly encourage EVERY WRITER to do) and if you could memorise to the point that the lines were so ingrained in you you could just focus on your partner and react to them, it was magic. But that was with a planned script, how does it work with a pitch where you are flying solo and someone may interrupt with questions? 

Memorise story soundbites. It’s like telling a joke. You know the setup of the joke. You know the punchline. You can tweak it a bit based on your audience, and if some drunk guy heckles you in the middle you can fold that into the story and still stick the ending. (Note: I am not calling execs with questions drunk hecklers). What’s the premise? (Concise sentence). What’s the inciting incident? (Sentence). Midpoint? Climax? Why did you write the story? Etc. Boil your story down to the key exciting sentences, and memorise those, so you can string them together any which way and still know exactly where you are. If you want ideas of potential questions you might be asked, check out the submission form for a previous Imagine Impact – Netflix contest.

I also practiced with my written pitch just beside the camera, so at worst I could glance at the headline for the section, then do that soundbite to camera, then glance again at the next section. The muscle memory helps so you know where you are if you get lost, a bit like a newscaster. 

6. Preparation Gives Confidence

It’s obvious but if you’ll be pitching on Zoom, make sure you have your background clear of clutter (nothing more interesting than you on screen), have decent lighting, headphones and a mic so there’s no echo, plug your computer in via Ethernet if possible. Get used to how you look on camera, yes it’s awkward, yes you pull weird faces, yes no one cares. 

Put a stuffed animal behind the camera if you can’t remember where to look, and imagine it reacting to you if it helps you not feel like an insect under a magnifying glass. DO NOT JUST READ YOUR PITCH. Eye contact is vital, so much more awkward in the world of Zoom. Which leads me to…

7. Create a Pitch Persona

A study revealed little kids perform chores much better if you give them a superhero cape. So find your cape. Maybe it’s a favourite shirt, or doing your hair a certain way. Your battle armour. 

You see, you already know how to pitch. If I ask you your favourite show on Netflix, your eyes will light up and you will instinctively pitch it to me, hitting the main idea and the moments or elements you think are So Cool. But if I ask you about your own story, you may look away and get tongue tied, make excuses about it not being ready, your posture showing that you don’t believe it’s good enough. 

Stop. Let Super You take over. Super You is your biggest fan, the one who fearlessly lets the love for your project shine through the pitch. So what if it’s not perfect yet? That’s what rewrites are for. It WILL BE AMAZING. I am a complete introvert and was terrified before my pitch – so I stepped back and channeled all those nerves into my Pitch Persona. She’s confident, funny, and laughs at her mistakes. When she’s there, I can relax – she’s got this. I sound like a crazy person, but trust me, it helps. Don your armour pitchers. For more, check out Scott Myers’ article.

8. Use the Force… of Structure

Uh oh. I used the dreaded S word. Love it or hate it, as Dan Harmon says in his Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit, stories follow an inherent pattern, a “descent and return”. Kid pushes in car cigarette lighter. Kid pulls it out and touches glowing end. Kid will never do that again (Note: that kid was my cousin). Using this can help your pitch. If you can set up something at the beginning (uh oh, a kid is eyeing a cigarette lighter…) and end with the payoff (it burns!) it’s satisfying for the audience. If instead you say a kid eyes a cigarette lighter – and aliens abduct his next door neighbour, who then leads an intergalactic space war… okay, but your audience may be disappointed. My story contains a strong “recycling” theme so I set my story in a fake town named Turtle Bay solely so I could point out that the sea turtles used to nest on the trash-cover shore, and at the end the beach is clean and the turtles return. Shameless circle-closing.

9. Pitch All the Time, to Everyone 

This is the last piece of advice (thank you Bob), and yet the most important. Take the show you’re watching, forge it into a pitch, and try it on people. Or imagine your show is already made and tell people about it the same way. Pitch your show to someone on the bus, or to your cat. As Captain Jack Sparrow says, “If you were waiting for the opportune moment, that was it.” 

Despite all these points, there is no “right way” to pitch – it depends on you and the story. The best thing you can do is watch pitches and find your own path. This is also the hardest thing, since most pitch competitions take them down following the contest. At the time of writing this, Christopher Lockhart’s group The Inside Pitch still has the 2020 and 2021 pitch contest semi finalists up, so come on in. Next year it might be you. If you’re not on Facebook, you can check out this hour-long video of a mock pitch session from No Film School.

And there’s always this sketch comedy gold.

A massive thanks to Christopher Lockhart for creating The Inside Pitch, where he generously donates his time and expertise to screenwriters at all levels of their careers and often hosts free live logline feedback sessions. Thanks also to Ramesh Santanam and the entire group. And to Chris Jones, founder of the London Screenwriters’ Festival – the last two years working with LSF has been transformative.

Go forth pitchers. You’ve got this.

Open post

Alison Flierl (Bojack Horseman) on Comedy – LondonSWF2020

Having written for Bojack HorsemanSchool of Rock, and Conan, you may be surprised to learn that one of Alison Flierl’s favourite shows remains her no-budget webseries called TV Guide Letter Theater – specifically the episode featuring a musical ode to NCIS. After watching an episode, I can see why: It’s impossible not to laugh as the “TV Guide viewers” parade out, singing their reactions to the show, with gems like: “I didn’t know there were so many navy crimes!”

The London Screenwriters’ Festival Interviewer Bob Schultz (still grinning gleefully as the clip ended), chimes in, “I feel like you guys were ahead of your time – making dry commentary on the commentary on the commentary.”

She laughs and agrees they were “very meta.” Even then, Flierl’s “voice” was strong. The entire first season was made for only $100 – and yet its fans went on to include two of the executive producers at Netflix (the studio behind Bojack). It brings home a point she made several times during the course of her session:

“The smallest thing can get you into bigger opportunities. You can find material anywhere. Get some pizza, get friends, and make something funny!”

Alison is living proof that it’s not a straight path to a successful screenwriting career – an idea she’s devoted her podcast to. In 2 Degrees of Alie, she interviews fellow Hollywood chums on their routes to the top.

So how does one follow in her footsteps?

“Learn to trust your voice. In a writer’s room you also have to learn to pitch with confidence. It took me a while to say, ‘I’m a writer’ – even though I’m not a shy person.” 

Good to know ‘imposter syndrome’ can affect someone even as confident as Alison. So how do you move beyond that? By getting a little help from your friends, of course! She recommends taking improv and doing stand-up.

“Creating your community is so important. Standup, improv – finding people whose opinions you trust, who make you laugh, who you want to get notes from – it’s really important to the writing process.”

For her, a key part of that community is her writing partner Scott Chernoff. They met while working on Conan and developed the TV Guide Letter Theater together.

Bob asks, “Tell us what it’s like writing with a partner?”

She laughs, “It’s a bit like marriage… In the beginning if we weren’t on a show, we would write at my house, on the couch, with Final Draft up on the big TV, both sitting there, bouncing off. But as we progressed, life got more complicated as we both had kids.” She pauses and adds impishly, “separately”  before continuing, “now we break it down more.”

That means dividing the workload by act or scene. But still, they go through it together several times prior to handing it in, acting it out, seeing what makes them laugh. All of this “a little harder right now with the pandemic,” she says ruefully.

Bob points out, “In the last 15 to 20 minutes we’ve been talking, you mentioned it’s important to make YOU laugh, not the audience… How do you decide what’s funny?”

“Different people are going to like different things. I have a good idea of when jokes work, but comedy is a weird place and hard to predict… I’ve hopefully been good at not falling in love with my own joke and overusing it. The best jokes come out of character.”

With advice like that, no one will be asking you “why the long face?”

Open post

Chris Lang’s Unforgotten Gobbets – LondonSWF2020

You may know Chris Lang as the creator and writer behind the breakaway hit Unforgotten, described by the Telegraph as “the most watchable cop drama on TV.”

You may know his prolific body of work, writing and creating over 85 hours of original prime time drama.

However, for the attendees of the 2020 Online London Screenwriters’ Festival, he’s known for a single word: “gobbets.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Rachel Patterson interviewed him during a session titled “Forensic Analysis of a Criminally Successful Career.” He initially trained as an actor, then got his start writing comedy alongside Hugh Grant (yes, really!), but it took him 10 years to transition to drama – something he regrets:

Q: Does training as an actor make you a better writer?

A: My desire to be an actor speaks to the same desire in me that led me to being a writer – an interest in telling stories. You could spend 50 years learning to be a writer and you’ll need every one of them. If I have any regrets, it’s that I wish I’d started writing drama sooner and believed in myself more.

Q: A debate rages among new writers over whether or not to try and get on continuing dramas like Casualty, do you have an opinion? 

A: A strong opinion. It would be insane to think you could go into making your own original series without first training on a show like that. It’s like flying hours, you need to get them under your belt. They teach you structure, character, dialogue, holding an audience – and all within a fairly benign situation.

Q: Unforgotten has the stories of four suspects in the present, their stories in the past, then the investigation, and the investigators living their own lives. How do you keep track of it all? 

A: A writer never creates a show like Unforgotten with a fully formed idea – it’s an evolving process.

For Chris, that process starts with a four or five page treatment outlining the core ideas, themes, and characters, and plot of the investigation. Then the hard part begins: structuring the series. He’s got a great way of mapping it out one thread at a time – but I’ll leave that for you to discover by watching!

Chris’s pitches can be seen in action on his website.

Q: How do you balance the elements of mystery without it becoming needlessly cryptic?

A: Ask a question and don’t answer it right away. Charles Dickens said, “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” That’s one of my credos: make them wait.

Finally, with only minutes left in his session, he was asked that dreaded question that has plagued most (though not all, it seems) writers throughout time:

Q: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

A: No. I am unusually – and perhaps dislikeably – confident in my ability to write something on a daily basis. Stop beating yourself up. It’s perfectly okay to write drivel!

The words that followed eclipsed Chris’s advice thus far: “Literally all I do all day long is throw gobbets of ideas – half formed – at a screen – and then some of the gobbets stick and I think – I can attach something to that… and everything you attach fleshes it out, and it starts to become more than just a gobbet – it starts to become an idea.”

One of my fellow attendees said, “If there could be a vaccine against writer’s block, this would surely be it.” I agree. It’s like someone gave me the cheat code to the game of writing. I don’t have to write 60 pages, or even five. Somehow that alleviates the feeling of hopeless frustration that can spring up in this oddly isolated world, when I’ve got “free time” and yet can’t manage to fill that blank page. I may not be able to write a proper scene – but I can write a bit of drivel.

So go forth fellow scribes, hurl your gobbets at your screen and see what sticks. Flesh them out, and if you’re very lucky, they will start to become more than gobbets. They will become ideas.