Screenwriting 101: The Pitch

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What would you say are the top three pitfalls of pitching? Like, what are some rookie mistakes; what should come out of a successful pitch meeting; what are some things that you should never, never do?pirateman

So in that situation [where some stranger walks in and ruins your pitch] do you just run with it and incorporate it or argue for your original point?johnnycrulez

If you’ve been reading this journal for very long, you know that I’m the last guy you should ask for advice about pitching.

I hate pitching with a passionate, burning intensity. Partly because it’s a degrading, humiliating experience antithetical to good writing, and partly because I suck at it.

Take yesterday’s example: I fly 3000 miles to pitch to a specific person, that person doesn’t show up and my sponsor walks out of the room, and so instead I pitch to a couple of complete strangers, and one of the strangers dismantles my entire pitch with one tiny, and, to my mind, ridiculous, irrelevant question.

Mr. Crulez correctly intuits that the proper response in that situation is to turn, 180 degrees if necessary, and instantly present a completely different version of the movie, on the spot, live in the room. This is a good skill to have, and I don’t seem to possess it. My problem is that I always want my work to have meaning, and to me, a writer who can go into the room, argue passionately for his vision, then instantly discard that vision for something completely different at the whim of someone he’s never met is a writer looking for something other than meaning.

Imagine Quentin Tarantino going in to a studio meeting to pitch Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is, if nothing else, a wildly passionate arguer for his vision, but let’s say he were not. Let’s say Tarantino goes into the room and pitches Pulp Fiction. And Junior Studio Executive, who has never made a movie in his life, says, as he must, "Well, you’re obviously a talented young man, but this sounds like three different movies — why not let’s pick one of those stories, and straighten out the chronology, and then maybe we’ve got something." The professional response is "That sounds great, let me go away now and develop this property as a three-movie cycle without any pretentious narrative tricks." And then the young Tarantino goes away and ruins his idea, comes back and pitches it again, and by that time Junior Studio Executive is working at some other studio and isn’t in the room, and it’s a whole new bunch of Junior Studio Executives, and Tarantino pitches the new three-movie version of Pulp Fiction and the new executives say "Gosh, those stories sound awfully thin for being three separate movies, not to mention absurdly expensive, why not make them shorter and combine them somehow into a single narrative?" At which point Tarantino goes home and shoots himself and we never get to see Pulp Fiction.

Now, yesterday’s pitch, Sexy Space Fantasy, was not a "spec" script — that is, it was not a vision I had on my own. It was an assignment, based on some underlying source material. I was bidden to come 3000 miles to pitch a very specific take on that material, and Complete Stranger’s question was, at it’s root, utterly antithetical to my take. My mistake in arguing for my take was that I under the impression that anyone in the room gives a damn about what the writer thinks.

Because no, nobody in the room gives a damn what the writer thinks. Including the producer who has brought you to the meeting and has posed as the writer’s partner and shepherd up to that point. The producer wants to get the movie made, that’s his sole goal, but when he goes in with a writer to pitch, he does his best to distance himself from the writer, just in case the Guy Who Can Say Yes doesn’t like the writer’s take (which is 95% of the time). If the Guy Who Can Say Yes doesn’t like the take, the producer wants to be able to say "Yeah, that take sucks, in fact this writer sucks, I don’t know how he got into this room and he shall never darken your doorstep again." And then the producer will go out and find another writer and repeat the process, until the Guy Who Can Say Yes says yes. Because there’s always a long line of screenwriters willing to step forward and come in and pitch.

(I think that non-writer folk in Hollywood tend to think of "writing" as something that comes out of a spigot — you bring a writer into your office, you turn him on and writing comes out. Oh, they understand that writing is difficult, arduous work — that’s why they don’t do it — but somehow they think that it comes as naturally as talking to a writer. A producer thinks, well, I would write the damn thing myself if I had the time, and the fact that the writer, in fact, has the time is proof that he has no power — if he had power, he’d be too busy to do something as difficult and time-consuming as writing.)

As for structuring a pitch, my problem is that I’m always compelled to tell a story, to take my audience through the experience of the movie, but a little faster. This, let me tell you, experience has taught me, is the wrong approach. If you tell the entire story, the audience will think your pitch is "too long" and "episodic." What you want to tell them is the setup, and then just enough of the second act to give the general impression of the narrative thrust, and then how it all turns out.

The way I like to put it is: imagine you have just seen the greatest movie you’ve ever seen in your life, a life-changing movie that has electrified you and sent you out into the world a new person. Now, you’ve just run into some friends on the street and they notice that you’re all bug-eyed and electric and they say "Jeez, what happened to you?"

That’s where your pitch starts. You’ve just seen this incredible movie and you’ve got to tell someone about it or else you’ll explode. Do it exactly like that. "There’s a war happening out in space. This big-ass bad guy is kicking ass and taking names, crushing the rebellion. Meanwhile, there’s this kid who lives on this crappy desert planet with his aunt and uncle, and he wants like anything to get off the farm and do something exciting with his life, and these two robots show up. And one of the robots has a secret message from the rebel princess!"

Then, when the Junior Executive says "I don’t like space movies" the professional screenwriter says "I don’t like space movies either. So here, let’s set it in medieval Japan." And that, I’m sure, is exactly how the pitch meeting went for Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.

Now then: it does happen that an excellent producer or an excellent executive has a good idea. When this happens, the excellent writer recognizes it for what it is and does, indeed, grab it and run with it, dropping whatever he came into the room with and making the new idea his own. How can the writer tell a good idea from a bad idea? Well, if the executive says something to the writer and suddenly the writer’s job feels easier to him, it’s a good idea. If the writer has been struggling with a narrative, if the parts aren’t quite fitting together, a good idea will suddenly make everything dovetail into a harmonious, elegant whole and the writer would indeed do well to leap upon that idea and cleave unto it.

What does one pitch? Generally speaking, what the money people want to see is the poster, and then they want to see the trailer, and then they want to hear enough about the characters to get the general dramatic shape of the narrative, and then they want to hear how it all turns out. They want to hear some killer set pieces and a handful of the jokes. If you tell them the whole story they’ll get confused and distracted by minutiae. Now then, that doesn’t mean that the writer can prepare only the broad overview — no, the writer must prepare the entire narrative, so that when Junior Executive says "wait, how does Luke get from Tatooine to the Death Star?" the writer can say "Ah! That’s the great part! There’s this smuggler guy with a broken-down ship who takes him to see the princess, but the princess’s planet has exploded!" and so forth.

The problem is, there are always politics in the room that the writer doesn’t know about. The canny writer tries to find out about the politics in the room before the meeting starts, and the excellent representative will inform the writer about the politics in the room before the meeting starts, but lots of times this isn’t possible and the writer walks into an ambush, a situation where an executive is mad at a producer, or vice versa, or an executive is trying to gain leverage over another executive, and the pitch is a pawn in some power game that the writer has no control over. And, well, that sucks, but doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the writer.

My favorite story about the politics in the room:

I am angling to get a job writing Hugely Expensive Comic Book Movie for Enormously Powerful Producer. I am told by my manager, my agent and one of Enormously Powerful Producer’s underlings the following: "Enormously Powerful Producer hates it when people talk. If you want to get this job, the important thing for you to remember is to not say anything. Don’t worry, Enormously Powerful Producer will not notice that you don’t say anything, Enormously Powerful Producer will be too busy talking to notice anything. The way to lose this job will be to speak your mind in the presence of Enormously Powerful Producer. Even if Enormously Powerful Producer asks you a direct question, do not say anything."

This sounds ludicrous to me, but, as I say, three different people tell me this advice, independent of each other, so I take it to heart. And the day comes, and I am ushered into Enormously Powerful Producer’s office, past the rows upon rows of posters for the gigantic hit movies Enormously Powerful Producer has made, and I am introduced and I sit down and Enormously Powerful Producer begins talking. And I sit, attentive and upright, and I listen to the things he says, and I don’t say a word. Gaps open in Enormously Powerful Producer’s monologue, but I don’t rush to fill in the silence, I keep my mouth shut and, sure enough, Enormously Powerful Producer begins talking again in a moment. Enormously Powerful Producer asks me one direct question: "Where you from?" and I hesitate just long enough to realize that it will sound weird if I don’t answer, so I answer, and Enormously Powerful Producer goes on from there and talks some more. I take notes on what Enormously Powerful Producer says, but I do not utter another word.

As I’m leaving Enormously Powerful Producer’s office, I hear him say to his underling "Well, that seems like a bright young man, let’s go ahead and do this," and I get the job.


36 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: The Pitch”
  1. swan_tower says:

    My mistake in arguing for my take was that I en impression that anyone in the room gives a damn about what the writer thinks.

    Yeah, because you don’t need a script or anything to make a movie good.

    (I think that non-writer folk in Hollywood tend to think of “writing” as something that comes out of a spigot — you bring a writer into your office, you turn him on and writing comes out. Oh, they understand that writing is difficult, arduous work — that’s why they don’t do it — but somehow they think that it comes as naturally as talking to a writer. A producer thinks, well, I would write the damn thing myself if I had the time, and the fact that the writer, in fact, has the time is proof that he has no power — if he had power, he’d be too busy to do something as difficult and time-consuming as writing.)

    Interesting that you think they know it’s difficult, yet dismiss it anyway. I speculated at one point that people don’t realize the difficulty of writing, because the craft of it is mostly invisible to them; they see the computer (or pen) usage, the English language (or local equivalent), and “the idea” (’cause you only need one, natch), and they think anybody can do it.

    And, in the case of the story-by-committee scenarios you describe, I suspect it means they don’t see why making one change can blow the entire thing up, like pouring sugar instead of gas into a car’s tank.

    But man, the lessons in this alien perspective continue. The first two things I notice about a good movie or TV show are the script and the acting — which one gets my attention first depends on which one’s being more outstanding than the other. I’m more inclined to be sitting there thinking anybody could do the director’s job. 🙂

    How can the writer tell a good idea from a bad idea? Well, if the executive says something to the writer and suddenly the writer’s job feels easier to him, it’s a good idea.

    Bingo. I always perceive it as being like a note that sounded okay suddenly coming properly into tune. Or, to steal Twain’s metaphor, it’s the difference between a lightning bug and lightning. It isn’t always that simple, of course; I’ve been given revision suggestions that would work, sure, but only by turning the story into something I don’t want it to be. And sometimes what’s been suggested isn’t the right idea, but it springboards me toward the right one. That kind of thing’s worth gold, when it happens.

    • Todd says:

      “Interesting that you think they know it’s difficult, yet dismiss it anyway.”

      The fact that it’s difficult does not mean that it’s also of value. Rather, it’s embarrassingly common in Hollywood. Every person with a cell phone in Los Angeles County has a stack of unread screenplays sitting on his or her reading table in his or her office. If one writer can’t give you what you want, there’s another one behind the first, pushing him out of the way to get a shot at the job.

      • swan_tower says:

        Which is why writers have no power; replacements are easy enough to find.

        Are there any writers who have established a firm value above that? Writers who have proven their instincts and skill sufficiently that if they say in a pitch meeting, “No, that’s not going to work” — or “Hey, get Studio Executive back in here” — will actually be listened to? Because writers may be a dime a dozen, but good ones aren’t, and I’d like to believe there are at least a few people in Hollywood who recognize that.

    • reverenddean says:

      I remember sitting in Calculus one day years ago and something dawned on me. The teacher navigated through the appropriate steps to go from the problem on the board to the most logical answer that one could devise given the parameters of the equation. My epiphany was that in following the logical path anyone was certain to get the correct answer. No one stood up disputing the logic of the mathematical path; teacher walked us right through it, held our hands, we all arrived where we were supposed to. I thought, why can’t everyone do this thing – math – it’s so simple; the formula to succeed is right there. A + B = C… duh!
      Later, during the test, everyone in the class applied this same logic to similar equations, and most of us found that the logic that was so easy to follow and that we could all agree upon was deceptive and hard to parse when we ourselves were independently walking the calculated path without a mentor to guide to us. After the test, the teacher demonstrated the logical procedure to solve the very problems we had just worked ourselves. It was like watching Bob Ross paint, our teacher adding and subtracting numbers; and once again, we could follow the equation and all agree on why X equaled what it did and why it didn’t equal anything other than what it could have logically. And we wondered why hadn’t we taken that particular route on the very same equation he was walking us through when confronted with the course on our own.
      For me, it lead to studying logic/philosophy throughout college. Surrealism is so much easier than the rational; why settle for what the answer IS when what it ISN’T offers so many more possibilities.

      • swan_tower says:

        That sounds rather like my experience of calculus, too. And that’s when there is a right answer, and a specific (if hard-to-grasp) way of finding it; how much harder when the matter at hand is subjective and fuzzy?

  2. avaenuha says:

    For some reason, I was reading the Enormously Powerful Producer story, certain that the lessons of politics was going to involve those three different people each having something (but possible interrelated in some convoluted way) to gain from telling you to keep your mouth shut, when the real trick was to speak your mind as much as possible. I was so surprised by the ending I had to go back and reread the whole story…

  3. marcochacon says:

    I am no kind of script-writer–but I do know something about “executive communication” and, yeah, knowing your audience is important–like how Sun Tzu told you to know your enemy. In fact: it’s often literally applicable advice!

    So here’s my question: when I am “selling” (I don’t “sell” per-se, I try to convince high powered executives and business people to make the decision I think is right when there is no way they can have either the in-depth knowledge of the problem I have or acquire the skill-set I have which is necessary to make the “correct” decision … or even, often, an “informed one.”) I bring a PowerPoint deck.

    Now, I’m guessing that in a pitch meeting if you whipped out a laptop and projector people would look at you like you were nuts–and doubly so in the world of Hollywood as you describe it (where saying nothing makes the sale). However: when I’m trying to convince people I find that pictures–simple ones–diagrams–get the ‘1000-words’ out faster and in little blip-vert quickly digestible sound-bites that they can process before their need to speak overwhelms the meeting and they start talking.

    So I’m wondering if you have ever considered or seen a Producer+writer team go in with story-boards to show the story in a sort of more visceral accelerated manner. It’s what I’d gravitate towards with my 0-level knowledge.


    • Todd says:

      I’m sure studio folk would respond to an audio-visual experience — what they want is to “see the movie” before they “pay the writer to write the screenplay.” I have occasionally brought visual tools to help sell ideas if they’re around, but if I have to create them I’m pretty hopeless.

      When a director comes on board, or if a director is on board to begin with, yes, absolutely, that director is expected to bring storyboards, concept drawings, computer simulations, anything that will help the studio folk “see the movie.” And yes, the studio folk assume that all that stuff just comes free too.

      • marcochacon says:

        That’s interesting. What would happen if you told the next director: “Hey bro, before I come out there for the pitch, I need to put together the story-boards. That’s $200.00 for my artist team and I promise you’ll love ’em*.”

        Would the producer say “No way! Not gonna invest in that?” (presumably he is flying you across the country to make the pitch–that doesn’t seem in his self interest).

        Having commissioned quite a lot of art in my day, I can attest it is easy to find reasonable art (especially sketch-type art) for <15.00 / frame.

        * ‘Promise’ does not constitute a legal contract or warranty of any sort. Void where prohibited by law. Etc. Etc.

        • Todd says:

          Well, I could put together my own storyboards, but not in collaboration with a director. That would be stepping on the director’s toes. The visual ideas of the screenwriter are absolutely meaningless if there’s a director attached to the project. If the director is angling to get the gig, he might do his own storyboards for free or pay someone to do them, but no, I can’t imagine the studio or the producer paying anyone out of pocket just to sell the pitch. Rather the opposite — if the director wants the job badly enough, he’ll do the work for free, which will both make the producer look more powerful and get the director “pregnant,” ie, invested in the project so that he won’t give up at the first sign of studio bullshit.

          When I worked on Wonder Woman for Joel Silver, after I’d turned in my first draft Silver went and asked ace production designer Dennis Gassner to whip up a ton of conceptual art and it was all quite staggeringly beautiful. Whether Silver paid Gassner anything for his work (or got WB to pay him) or whether Gassner did it for free in order to possibly land the big gig is unknown to me.

          • swan_tower says:

            Well, I could put together my own storyboards, but not in collaboration with a director. That would be stepping on the director’s toes. The visual ideas of the screenwriter are absolutely meaningless if there’s a director attached to the project.

            Which is probably part of why the director’s art isn’t as visible to me as the screenwriter’s; I expect my background means I’m ascribing lots of details to the script that actually belong to the director, the actors, the editor, and so on. (Less the actors — I recognize the difference between words and the delivery thereof. But visual details, pacing, etc, yes.)

            • reverenddean says:

              I’m curious as to Michael Bay’s cronies and the like that get a hold of “outdated” properties and “re-envision” them for today’s audience; what is that pitch like? Do they just watch a cut of the old film and say, “Who are these people? Let’s replace her with famous starlet that was just discovered yesterday. That seems appropriate.”
              What was the pitch like for watchmen?
              “Well, here’s the book.”
              “Seems a little long…”
              “Well we’ll cut out this and that and get rid of the giant squid at the end and package all that “bonus” stuff on a dvd for the fans.”
              How long until we see a jaws remake? Only this time, let’s use Rob Schneider instead and make the oceanographer some cute little doll in a swimsuit and the Bruce will be all CGI.

  4. stormwyvern says:

    “I think that non-writer folk in Hollywood tend to think of “writing” as something that comes out of a spigot — you bring a writer into your office, you turn him on and writing comes out. Oh, they understand that writing is difficult, arduous work — that’s why they don’t do it — but somehow they think that it comes as naturally as talking to a writer.”

    I think the majority of the public had this impression about and form of creative expression. I’ve come across so many people who seem to think that an individual either can draw or can’t draw, no middle ground. Those who can draw are presumed to be able to draw anything and everything effortlessly and always enjoy doing it. I’ve seen cases of artists being asked “Hey, can you draw this thing in an anime style?” despite the fact that the artist in question has never drawn anything in an anime style or anything resembling an anime style prior to that. I have seen some artists who seem to be able to shift between a variety of very different styles and do all of them justice, but I feel like they’re the exception rather than the rule. It’s either that or the opposite, where people get the idea from art museums that each artist picks an easily defined style (impressionist, surrealist, photorealist) and defines him or herself that way, which I don’t see many commercial artists I know doing.

    • Anonymous says:

      This was probably one of the biggest things that screwed me up in college, actually. I majored in CS because what I wanted to do was computer game design, but after about a year or a year and a half I had figured out that I just wasn’t that interested in the programming side of things. My parents got frustrated when my grades dropped (because I couldn’t get motivated) and basically ended up telling me I needed to figure out what I wanted to do so I could get some degree at least, since I’d already spent a year and a half trying to get there.

      The problem was, I had convinced myself that writing was a talent that you either had or didn’t, that going to school for writing was silly because you didn’t need any sort of formal schooling to be a writer (why, look at all those people who just ended up being writers after getting a “real” job), that I basically drove myself crazy thinking if I was going to major in creative writing I may as well have dropped out.

      While the creative writing/history double major I ended up getting may have been pretty useless in terms of what it actually gets in the job market, what it actually gave me in terms of understanding the craft and realizing that writing is a skill that needs to be practiced like any other was pretty immeasurable. I think there’s a big myth out there that great writers or great painters or great directors or whatever just sprang from the womb with the raw talent to do whatever. The truth of the matter is that some of it may have been talent, but there was a lot of work involved to get to that point first — and even then, there’s a reason writers have editors.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well, talent *does* play a large part in becoming a writer.

        The reason I say this is because, while anyone can learn to write (e.g.) a screenplay, the work to make it great when you lack a natural ability with words would take far too long per screenplay to ever have a career.

        • swan_tower says:

          Re: Well, talent *does* play a large part in becoming a writer.

          You’d be surprised how much of what looks like “a natural ability with words” is actually the result of years of putting not-so-brilliant words on the page.

          I won’t deny that something talent may exist, but in my experience it takes a back seat to practice, dedication, and attention to craft.

  5. Any monkey with a typewriter can write a script.
    But have you ever heard a monkey say, “Yes.”?

    From my limited experience it has always struck me that when going into a pitch you have to be more of an improv actor than a writer.

    Maybe next time you pitch you should ask the room for three unconnected words and riff on them- it seems like the odds wouldn’t be greatly diminished from walking in with a richly thought out piece of writing…

  6. taskboy3000 says:

    I feel your pain

    I am a programmer. I started college thinking I would like to be a writer, but I got pulled in a different direction.

    Programmers have a huge influence over the direction of projects, just as writers do. However, professional programmers are never burdened with the illusion that that just because the project could not happen without them that they alone set the direction.

    It’s a maturity thing. It’s hard to dance to someone else’s tune, especially when you think it sucks.

    This is the problem of the Golden Rule (he who has the money makes the rules). It’s not a meritocracy. Movies are a business. When you front the cash for a project, you get to make all kinds of bad decisions.

    I’m pretty sure that the Suits see you as a necessary technical resource. They need you, but frankly they don’t understand the details of your craft. And perhaps that’s OK. They have to worry about making a product that produces a profit, which is not an enviable job.

    Josh Whedon and JMS both mentioned how liberating comics were compared to TV and movies as there were far fewer cooks in the kitchen (and not as much cash).

    Still Todd, you get to be abused by people the rest of us can only see on TV. That’s got to count for something? ;-D

    • Todd says:

      Re: I feel your pain

      For the record, I’ve never been abused by anyone I’ve seen on TV. All my abuse has come from behind-the-scenes folk.

  7. mikeyed says:

    So wait, would you suggest preparing alternative versions of your screenplay for these underling executives to use as a gambit so you’re basically posing one movie as multiple “completely different” scripts?

    • Todd says:

      I don’t think it’s efficacious to prepare entirely different, contradictory takes for a meeting, but it is worthwhile and valuable, as you’re developing your take, to keep track of all the ideas you discard on the way to your pitch. That way you can call up those ideas if the wind in the room suddenly changes direction and say “Well, maybe not a musical, but there’s definitely room for more comedy in the shark movie,” or whatever the case may be.

  8. johnnycrulez says:

    And I guess it goes without asking that you can’t take a five-minute break during a meeting to collect your thoughts when they make you come up with a virtually new movie on the spot?

    • Todd says:

      That would be awesome if that were possible. I find it hard to write in the room with five people watching me do it, but I seem to have no trouble writing while walking to the parking garage after the meeting.

  9. curt_holman says:

    Incidentally, you may enjoy this story from The Onion AV Club about the commentary track of ‘The Limey’ and the relationship between screenwriter and director:,23702/

    • teamwak says:

      That was a great read 🙂

      “You need to go make a movie. Because you will then either have a lot more or a lot less respect for what I do, because right now, you have the best of all worlds. You just get to sit back and take shots at me from the roof of a building, while I’m down in the courtyard.”

      Brilliant! lol

  10. teamwak says:

    A little off topic (to say the least), but I came across this really cool old photo from 1918, and thought my cousins across the pond may enjoy it.
    Image Hosted by

  11. pirateman says:

    This was great! Thanks for taking the time to write it! In a lot of ways it sounds like pitching to people is the hardest/most stressful part of being a screenwriter. I guess pitching, like anything else, probably just takes a LOT of practice – and even then, certain factors just really have to luckily come together to make everything work out.

    • Todd says:

      I don’t know if it’s the hardest part of every screenwriter’s job, it may be just me.

      • Anonymous says:

        the sales point

        Well, I’m a songwriter/performer and the same formula applies like I’m sure it does in most every artistic field: Being able to sell your “product” often becomes more important than creating a meaningful work of art (that “they” consider “product”) in the first place.

        It’s a real shame that artists are supposed to be salespersons of themselves.
        And that people who are good at the pitch may end up being more successful (money-wise, not creatively) than those who are good at actually doing the work.