The Big Pitch: Get Ready, Be Ready . . . by Peter Fox [May 2011]

Enter the Arena.

Make the Attempt.

Endure and Achieve.

The first stage of writing your screenplay is now finished. If you have done your job correctly, you have probably spent at least the last year of your life in the various stages of the process. The treatments, character histories, monologues and beat sheets are piled on your desk, and the screenplay is now finished. You have shared your work with at least one or two people whom you absolutely trust, and have done at least one rewrite.

After doing this, you have now left the first stage of production, that being, finding the story and rendering it into screenplay format. The more difficult stages are now looming. Those stages are making contact with someone who has the means of production and distribution, and getting them to say yes. These are the toughest stages, and yes, they are tougher than writing your screenplay, as tough as that was.

But in order to get someone to say yes to your project, you must first get them interested in your project. Query letters are a waste of time. Yes, I am putting that in writing. Query letters are a waste of time.  No matter how well written, how eloquently executed, they are, more often than not, thrown into the trash. I have seen this happen first hand. In an office where the assistants are reading up to three screenplays per day, on top of all of the duties which go along with keeping a Producer or Director organized, there is simply no time, or any desire, for an assistant to open unsolicited mail and go digging for loglines or one page descriptions of what your movie is about. There are actually small companies out there-read their advertisements in the trades- who will do this for you for a fee. They don’t get results. Save your money and energy resources. They cannot help you and they never will.

Since I’ve begun contributing to IMAGINE magazine, I have been consistent with what I am about to tell you here; that most, if not all, successful screenwriters become that way because they have mastered the golden rule of Hollywood. That is, if you want an apple, don’t take it from the bushel. Grab it, instead, from the tree. This means doing things by yourself, and for yourself. You can do what is necessary for yourself. Alone.

So, if you have been following along these past two years, you know that personal contacts are very important. With that in mind, you have reached out to the assistant, or you have placed yourself in a room where principle members of industry are present. In short, you have gone to the tree and picked your own apple. And, with subtlety, you have artfully used your logline in order to set up a pitch. You have set the meeting, and because you have prepared, you are ready. Of course, if the Producer, upon first meeting, tells you: “Okay, go. I’ll give you ten minutes,” it’s game on. The moment has arrived. But, in all likelihood, you have set a meeting. So you have a little more time to prepare.

The pitch is your moment of opportunity. You will bring your screenplay with you to the pitch meeting, but you will not present it to the Producer. Not unless the Producer asks for it first. Why? Simple. If the pitch goes well, the Producer will more than likely ask for it. If he or she does not, then and only then do you offer to give it to them. If the pitch goes badly, then you have placed them in the position of having to take with them a screenplay that they have already rejected. This places them in an awkward position and is disrespectful. If you do this, they will never meet with you again. So, don’t do that. Be respectful, not pushy.

When trying to set the meeting, ask the producer’s assistant for fifteen minutes. Not a moment more. A half hour is a long time in the day of the Producer. They are not likely to say yes to a meeting of that length. But, they are much more likely to say yes to a fifteen minute meeting. If the pitch goes well, it will turn into a half hour or even an hour meeting on it’s own. By asking for fifteen minutes, you are showing respect for the Producer, and they like to be respected.

Okay, so you have set the meeting. Now it’s time to prepare. By being prepared to remain just fifteen minutes, you are ready for any contingency. You have to practice. Pitching is performance art. You are, in effect, on stage for fifteen minutes. Just as you have done in writing your screenplay, you have an objective. Each moment has an objective, and your objective here is to grab your reader and not let them go. How do you do this?

There is a great example of great pitching in a Robert Altman film called THE PLAYER. The character of Griffin Mill, a not so nice Producer, hears a pitch from a British screenwriter. It is at the end of the first act, watch it and see what I mean.  What makes it a great pitch?

The writer uses present tense, active verbs when speaking about his movie. There is never, ever any language added that is vague, or past tense. A character is never “kind of” this, or “sort of” that. That language is vague. Lose it. It won’t help you.

When describing how the character moves throughout the narrative, change the location, in present tense language, before you tell us what the character is doing.  Here is an example:

“The prison gates open. The guards force Jack into the yard.” Correct.

“The guard then goes and opens up the gates, and then Jack hesitates, and is finally forced through them” Incorrect.

Now, look at the description above. Remember, your job is to paint a picture in the mind of the reader/listener. Which of the above entries does this more effectively, and why?  When you employ direct, present tense speech, the effect on the reader is much different than using language that is vague, past tense. The effect is a stale, boring delivery. There is no tension. There is no suspense. By using present tense language that is active, not passive, the brain sees the action as the listener takes it all in. When the passive language (in the second example) is used, everything falls flat.

So, why is this so important? If the Producer hears you use past tense language in your pitch, he or she will know that you don’t know how to write for the screen. Because the screenplay requires active, present tense language. If it is not present in your pitch, it cannot be expected to be found on the page.

So, be good to yourself. You have worked hard to make this moment a reality. There is a Producer, or Director, or agent who is going to sit in front of you and offer you an opportunity of a lifetime. So, be prepared to cover the twelve major beats of your screenplay in ten to twelve minutes. Show respect by knowing your craft. Your moment has arrived. Now, go in there and take it.

Peter Fox is V.P. of Production at Tripeg Studios in Hamden, CT. He is founder of The Inside Track Workshops for Screenwriting. He has worked as a Reader and Story Analyst at Universal, Paramount and Columbia TriStar, and holds a MFA in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute. WWW.