Intro & disclaimer

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My writing partner and I have been told flat-out a number of times that we do not pitch well. On one occasion, we weren't five steps out the development executive's door when our producer turned to us and said, "That was, without a doubt, the worst pitch I've ever seen." This was our own producer, remember. Supposedly one of the people on our side. I've blanked out with stage fright. I've stammered. I've experienced that horrible feeling of knowing that my mouth was continuing to speak words even though my brain had no idea where they were leading. Probably the most common failing we have is getting hopelessly muddled in minutiae, lost in detail. Steven Spielberg even said to us once, "It's a good thing you guys write better than you pitch." Ouch.

There's one advantage to all this, though. This complete lack of ability gives me a clear advantage when it comes to giving advice. After all, how much can you really learn from those talented bastards to whom all this comes easy? Those slick, confident, gregarious types who automatically shine in the spotlight, as easy as flicking on a switch? No, better to listen to someone who hates it. Someone who's had to come up with compensatory techniques to make up for zero natural ability. Someone who sweats.

Now, there's too much to talk about on the art of pitching in Hollywood for just one column. So I'm going to focus on one particular pitching technique: the use of a bulletin board.

We learned our 'board' pitching style from how they do it at Disney feature animation. No doubt they were inspired by the practice of pre-visualizing a film using storyboards. Plus they all love to sit around and toss those little push-pins across the room, impaling them into the bulletin board while pretending to have story meetings.

Push-pins aside, here's how it goes. You start with a standard 4' x 5' cork bulletin board, and a bunch of 3" x 5" index cards. (Many writers use index cards anyway to work out their plot, a technique I highly recommend. You can 'see' the entire movie at a glance, and can experiment with various changes and explore the impact they have on the overall structure.) You write one major action on each index card. Looking over at one of our project boards, ZORRO, the cards read:




In addition to actions, cards can also include key locations, thematic elements, character arcs, and important lines of dialog. For a theatrical feature, we'll usually will end up with about 40-50 cards that tell the basic story.

We also pin up a series of cards on the board that list the main characters. Again, using ZORRO as an example:

CRISTOBAL Rival to Diego. Truly loves Constance.

BERNARDO Gypsy leader. Like a father to Constance. Diego's mentor.

Our board can also include inspirational thematic quotes, photos, possible titles, and pretty much anything else we care to throw up there.

Now, these hand-written cards are NOT the cards we would use for the pitch. (At least, not for a 'selling pitch.' Once you've got the assignment, you can go in with the hand written 'rough cards' if you're working closely with the studio or the director on changes. This is so you can hand-write cards quickly.) For one thing, there's too many of them at this point -- 50 cards can look a bit intimidating, considering most pitches should run 10-20 minutes long.

So for the actual pitch we take the step of creating a 'presentation board.' The 'cards' of a presentation board are different. We make them out of standard 8 1/2" x 11" typing paper, cut about one-half or one-third full size. This lets us print the story out nicely on a LaserWriter, which gives a clean, legible, dare-I-say-it professional look. We pin these pages up onto the board beneath the film's title, organized into a loose three act format. The font size is big enough and dark enough to be read at a distance of about 12 feet.

We limit the number of these cards to just the 18-21 major sequences of the film. This is pretty much all you can cover in a pitch anyway. Each of these sequences gets a name, or header, which goes in a larger font size on the top of the card. Actions within these sequence then get listed under the headers (which are not unlike the old-fashioned style chapter headings of adventure novels -- 'Wherein Jimmy Discovers the Hidden Treasure'-type of thing.)

While the primary purpose of the presentation board is in fact to make presentations, we've found that creating the board often has a positive effect on the story at this point. A beneficial content-follows-form phenomenon occurs. By forcing ourselves to identify the 18 major sequences and edit the material down from 50 cards, we are forced to simplify the story and emphasize (or in some cases even 'discover') the major elements of the story. In clarifying the story for presentation, we also clarify the story.

Here, for example, are some of the 'presentation' cards from our first ZORRO pitch:

CRISTOBAL'S BETRAYAL Jealous, he reports location of Gypsy camp. Order given to wipe out the camp. Cristobal stages rescue of Constance. Tells her of raid. She believes Diego has betrayed them.

GYPSY CAMP RAIDED Diego and cadets sent. Diego unaware of target. A brutal massacre. Diego tries to stop it. Bernardo revealed as Zorro, taken prisoner. "Your sharp tongue needs blunting."

So the story is finally in presentable shape up on a board. And now here's what I'm telling you to do. You'll actually drag the board to the studio, carry it across the parking lot, take it into the lobby, up the elevator, into the waiting room, and finally into the conference room. All the while you'll be feeling a bit self-conscious and silly -- especially when you have to balance the thing on a couple of chairs or prop it against the couch.

Then you'll use this board as a visual aid to help you pitch. Hey, remember -- you're the writer. If you say this is how a pitch goes, then this is how a pitch goes!

It took my writing partner, Ted, and I, a while to learn that. One of the first times we tried this pitching style was at Amblin' Entertainment, to Steven Spielberg. We felt ridiculous. After all, who were we to decide this was the way it was done? What was this huge prop we were carrying around? Obviously we were so unsure of our own abilities, we had to resort to this silly crutch. What was this, show and tell?

Then Spielberg walked in to the room, saw the board, and immediately said, "This is great. This is how all movies should be pitched."

And we discovered that a magical, wonderful thing happens when you pitch off of a presentation board. At least magical for camera-shy people like myself. ALL THE PEOPLE IN THE ROOM START LOOKING AT THE BOARD, and not at us. The film was in the spotlight, and we got to stand on the sidelines and point at it and tell everybody how great it was.

It turns out that executives really, really enjoy this style of pitching. First off, they can 'see' the movie structure. It's right there in front of them, out in the real world, not just a fuzzy vision in the screenwriter's head. They can see it as a thing that exists, like the screenplay, or the film itself. It gives the executives a sense of security; it tells them that the writer does indeed know the film from start to finish, that the writer does indeed have an organizing plan.

And executives are used to having things presented to them. Toy lines are presented with drawings or displays. Building designs, set designs, etc. are done the same way. Executives are quite comfortable with this process -- so why shouldn't screenwriters take advantage?

Also, a good presentation board gives the impression that the writer truly cares about getting the assignment. The implication is, if the writer has gone to this much effort for the pitch, that writer will bring an equal amount of dedication and passion to writing the script.

There are other benefits as well. The entire film can be 'read' in just a minute's time, by skimming along the 18 card headings -- again, like scanning the chapter headings in a book. We know that executives do this in meetings; we can see them reading ahead. It's cool, though, because it gets them involved in the story.

The board also helps the executives not get lost. It's enormously effective to be able to literally point to the place you're at in the story. We don't get interruptive questions like, "Are we into Act III yet?" while just starting Act II.

This works with the list of characters as well. Often an executive may want to make a comment, but has forgotten the name of a lead character. With the board, the character name is sitting right in front of him. We don't have to repeat ourselves, or get interrupted ("Cindy -- that's the killer's girlfriend, right?" "No, she's the hero's mother." "Oh.") We help let the executive look smart. He or she can easily make their comments, which makes it easier for them to get involved in the story.

Executives love to be able to contribute, and to tinker. Having the plot up on a board makes it look like something that can be easily tinkered with. The writing process is demystified a bit -- and once they start tinkering, they're hooked. (This is an advantage, of course, only when you're trying to get the job. After you've got the assignment, it switches over to being a disadvantage!)

It's even possible to include on the board what they call at Disney 'visual development.' For our SANDMAN project at Warner Bros., we had in our possession all the original Neil Gaiman comics optioned by the studio. Do you think we left those comics at home? No way. We cut up drawings of the different characters and made a separate, spectacularly colorful 'character board.' If I were pitching TWISTER, say, I'd include as many photos of tornadoes as I could find. You get the idea.

Our last few pitches using this system were on a project with DreamWorks, and involved Katzenberg, Spielberg, and Elton John. We tromped into the Four Seasons hotel with our board, feeling silly as usual, rode the elevator up to the Penthouse board room, dragged our board in and showed them the movie. We got calls the following two days on how well the presentation went. So if you try this, and anyone gives you any hassle for it, you should know that both Katzenberg and Spielberg have said that they would like this presentation style to become the industry standard.

One last note. The presentation board is then finally useful in jump-starting the writing process. We translate the story into files on the computer, with each file titled with the heading of each sequence card from the board. In each file are the basic actions of that sequence. What's great about that is, each sequence is already 'started.' As a writing team we can then work on each sequence separately -- and since each sequence works out to about 5-7 pages, it's perfect for a day's work. You don't really want to 'look at' more than that amount of the movie on any given day. When each sequence is done, you print out the script, see if hangs together, and you've got a pretty decent first draft sitting there, ready for revisions.

So now, yes, we've become hopelessly obsessive about our cards and our boards. (And we're pretty good with flicking push-pins!) We had to do a pitch out in East Hampton a while back. We got to fly out first class and all, but it wasn't really reasonable for us to try and cart our board onto the plane along with us.

But we had few hours to kill in town the day of our pitch. Others might have gone and enjoyed the shops, the beach, or the restaurants. We spent the time searching through stationary stores for index cards and a medium-sized bulletin board. We eventually found a nice cork bulletin board at one of the downtown hardware stores. We carted the it back to the inn where we were staying, and went about getting the cards pinned up. We were feeling a little foolish, as usual, a little obsessive, and then the phone rang. It was the producer of the project, checking in ahead of the meeting time. He had one question for us: "Did you guys bring the board?"

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