INT. THE INSIDE PITCH FACEBOOK GROUP – MIDNIGHT
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.