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Written by davidcsaint

March 28, 2010 at 7:04 pm

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A Pitch Autopsy (sort of)

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The Miami International Film Festival ended about a week ago.  It was pretty amazing, and one of the best parts about it were the 17 “reel seminars” it offered with industry pros.  The only one worth going to from a storyteller’s perspective occurred last Friday, March 12, 2010 at the Royal Palm Hotel in South Beach.  It was called “Pitching in the Big Leagues.”  It was about… pitching.

The panel boasted Nick Spicer of XYZ Films, Carlos Carreras of Paradigm, Samantha Horley of Salt, and Michael Dagnery of MTVLatin America.  The idea of the “seminar” wasn’t even a seminar at all; it was more an open mic night.  Anyone could go up and pitch his or her feature film or documentary to this panel and a room full of about sixty strangers.  I volunteered to go first.

This is something I do after every round/meeting/instance of pitching – a post-mortem.  It’s the single best way to systematically improve your pitching process and development as an up-and-coming screenwriter. Why?  You do a quick breakdown of what worked, what didn’t, and most importantly, you apply that for the next time.  As we know, writing and pitching and, well, business in general, are ITERATIVE processes, not discrete processes.  You will improve over time if you’re not a jackass.

I learned this from Ramit Sethi over I Will Teach You To Be Rich.  Check out his most recent p-m and learn from a pro.

Here’s a post mortem of the experience with some concrete takeaways that will help you as you develop your own pitch.

The most important person you have to convince that your project is kick-ass is YOU. It pays in a huge way to spend just 5 minutes thinking about why your project is so great, about how great you are, and about how badly these people you’re about to tell it to need to hear it.  I saw over 25 other pitches and 98% of them were absolutely awful.  The pitchers were up there shaking, their throats were dry, they couldn’t maintain eye contact.  It was a painful experience watching all those people utterly bomb.  A large part of that – of bombing miserably – is the little movie you play to yourself in your own mind leading up to the experience.  We tend to picture a host of excruciatingly embarrassing outcomes and we give ourselves a litany of negative self-talk.  Listen — success is impossible when allowing that to take place in your mind.  So spend 5 minutes picturing an awesome outcome, remind yourself of why this project is so great, and why these people need to hear it.

That said, if it doesn’t go how you think, embrace it. If there is anything worse than watching someone bomb, it’s then watching them desperately justify their pitch.  Do not do this.  When you finish your pitch, do one thing: listen.  It is a huge gift if someone tells you why they’re rejecting your idea.  This is like anabolic steroids for your idea, because they’re telling you how to improve.  So listen with 100% outward focus and make sure you incorporate the note if it’s a good note.  Do not jump in and try to explain or address their note.  THEY DON’T CARE.  You will never argue someone to read your script.  If the pitch flops, great.  Take the notes and make it awesome the next time.

Your pitch must reflect the tone of the project. This was one of the many areas where I went wrong. I literally said with dead seriousness, “This is a comedy.”  Not good.  If you’re pitching a comedy, you have to plan a routine that you know will make people laugh.  You have to get people in a comedic mood.  This is the same idea as actors who must come into an audition “in” their character’s tone and mood.  You gotta be funny if it’s a comedy.  Be serious if it’s a drama.  Don’t however be murderous if it’s a horror.

You live and you die by your one-line. The copy you prepare for your high concept logline must be absolutely snap-tastic.  It’s gotta pop harder and louder than a tire when it hits people.  That means the language has four characteristics:

1. Short

2. Concrete

3. Ironic

4. HARD: by hard, I mean ZERO ambiguity.

One perfect example:

1. THE HANGOVER: Three pals lose the groom at his Vegas bachelor party 40 hours before the wedding and have to retrace their inebriated bad decisions to find him.

Pitch according to your goal.  Nail down what you want and then determine what pitch is appropriate. At the end of your pitch, what outcome are you looking for?  It has to be one single outcome.  Now write that down.  This is key for two reasons:

1. If you know the goal of your pitch, you can then pitch appropriately.  For example.  If you’re trying to get someone to read your script, you’re not going to pitch them the entire story.  You’re going to pitch them the CONCEPT.  Your one-line.  Your logline.  What’s “sexy” about it.  If you’re goal is to direct a project and your pitching to the studio, then your pitch is going to be much more extensive.   If it’s an open writing assignment and your goal is to be selected as the writer to actually write the project for the buyer, then you’re going to pitch the whole enchilada.  But if you’re up-and-coming, and you just want someone to read your script, then pitch your concept.

2. It helps you manage your expectations.  If the answer to the question above (“What outcome do I want as a result of this pitch?”) is “I want them to buy my script,” take a moment and put yourself in your (potential) buyer’s shoes.  Way too many people think that someone is going to pull out a million dollar check after just hearing the idea.  Not gonna happen.  So pick an achievable goal, and pitch accordingly.  As a result, you’ll feel less nervous, and have a better pitch, and won’t come across as some desperate wannabe.

A little showmanship goes a long way. This is something I just learned from Hollywood billionaire Arnon Milchan.  He puts on a little show before he gets down to business, in order to set the tone and to surprise his audience.  Despite knowing exactly what he’s going to say, he’ll pat his pockets as if looking for notes, then shrug and say, “I can’t find my notes.  Let me just speak from the heart.”  Read about this mastermind here.

Learn how to process the notes people give you. Pitching is as much about listening as it is about talking.  However, if you’re lucky enough to receive notes from someone, about 99% of those notes are going to be about that person’s REACTION TO your pitch.  “It was just kind of boring,” “You lost me at X,” “I’m not really sure who this is for,” “I don’t know, I can’t really see it,” etc.  The way to process these notes is to ask one question: “What must be true in order for this person to say that?”  You have to ask yourself, WHY.  Only after a careful exploration of the why behind each note should you apply it.

Employ the 50-50 Solution. Steve Jobs rehearses his keynotes for HOURS.  They are intricate performances and so demand that level of precision.  If your pitch is between 30 seconds and 2 minutes and you rehearse it 100x’s, that’s only 3.3 hours.  That’s no time at all, and if you consider how much you’ll learn from it, that time is precious.  So rehearse it – OUT LOUD – 50x’s.  Then do it 50 more times improvised (i.e., “off book”).  The result?  A beautiful performance – at once natural, but also so deeply driven into your mind you can pitch it over gunfire.

Written by davidcsaint

March 18, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Chipping vs. Chopping

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Here is a tough question:

When was the last time you FINISHED something that actually mattered?

And when I say finish, I mean really put something to bed, definitively, completely, dusted your hands, and said, “What’s next?”

A related question is: How many active projects do you have going on right now?  How many things are percolating in your mind?  10?  20?

About two days ago I nearly suffered a nervous breakdown because I looked at my slate of projects and just felt this opening maw of doom — I knew I’d never be able to finish all that stuff.  I had seven projects I was running around chipping at.  And then it hit me.

We are chopping trees.

That’s right.  Think about this scenario.  One day, you decide that there are ten trees growing too close to your house.  These are fairly large trees, all of the same size.  You decide you’re going to cut them down.  How would you proceed?

Most people would probably cut down one tree at a time.  This is the most sane thing to do.  Because we know where we are in relation to our progress, we stay focused on one thing, and it kind of just makes sense.  Plus, at the end of your day, you look at the trees, and you see nine.  You’ve made definite, obvious progress.  That feels good.  It’s a success.  Success makes us confident.

What most people don’t do is this: take out their axe, then hack for thirty minutes at one tree, move to the next, hack for thirty minutes at that tree, then move to the next, hack for thirty minutes at that tree, then move to the next, etc.  At the end of the day, you look at your forest, and you’ve still got all these trees standing.  You’ve spent a day working your ass off and still haven’t finished anything.  This feeling, if it goes on for too many days, will actually lead you to choose a new project, because this current project is just too painful.  There are no obvious gains in sight.  This feels terrible.  It’s a loss.  And losing makes us feel nonconfident.

Yet this is precisely how most of us (including me) manage our project slate.  Instead of chopping, we’re chipping.

The question is, Why do we do this?

The answer: I’m not really sure.  But I think I’ve identified why I do it, so I hope that can help you.

I’m just going to share the process that I went through to get my project slate under control.  Note: This is not about discipline.  Discipline, is, frankly, bullshit.  It’s about habits and systems.  I don’t want to think.  I want to do.

1. Write down an exhaustive list of all the projects you’re juggling.  It’s probably a lot.  Let it all out.

2. Then stop.  Time for some self-reflection.  Ask yourself, “WHY am I working on this?”  “WHAT will make the biggest difference in my life?”  Identify THREE — JUST THREE.  This will feel like murder to you.  Your mind will scream, “BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS PROJECT X??? YOU’VE ALREADY SPENT X TIME AND ARE SO INVESTED!!!” Be merciless.  Three is the magic number.

3. Take the rest of your projects.  Go to your computer.  Open up an Excel spreadsheet.  List all these projects.  Name the spreadsheet “Next Projects.” Save it to your desktop.

4. Now you just have three projects to focus on.  But the work isn’t over.  You need a system for dealing with new thoughts and ideas.  I recommend creating a database of this stuff.  A searchable database.  I like OmniFocus, but you can use a spreadsheet, a long document, or Mac’s “notes” part of the Mail application.  But it is critically important that you get a system for capturing these new ideas, then filing them away so you don’t forget them.

5.  When the temptation to start something a new comes up, and it will, take out your three projects and look at them.  Ask yourself, “Have I finished one of these yet?”  If the answer is no, then put that new thought into your database, and get back to finishing your three projects.

Once you get into the habit of finishing, take a look at Study Hacks.  Cal Newport over there has created a metric for measuring his project completion, which he calls a churn rate.  I’ve adopted this myself and I think it works really well.  It makes you stop chipping, and start chopping.

Written by davidcsaint

March 4, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Beware the Straw Man

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I had a really interesting experience recently.

I was invited to see a rough cut of an independent feature.  The editor and the director were showing the movie and wanted to get notes on how to improve it.  The problem was that the STORY of the film itself was flawed in three major ways:

1. The actions of the protagonist and his companion never resulted in any kind of consequences that put them in danger, whether perceived or actual.  The world around them never pushed back in any meaningful way.

2. It was not clear from the outset why the characters were even doing what they were doing.  What motivated them to pursue their goal.

3. Sequence by sequence, the payoffs resulted in exactly what you expected.

What this meant was that everyone at the screening had to come to this tacit agreement: “Yes, I know the story is not very good, but let’s work with what we’ve got.  How can we make what we have stronger?”  And while this is admirable on a “Let’s buck up and finish this” kind of level, this type of process will not result in the strongest film you can make.  And we’re all out to make really strong films.  Thank the universe, this situation is entirely avoidable.

How?

Simple.  As you’re formulating your story, TEST IT.  Go out to your target audience, and tell them, “Hey, I saw this interesting movie the other day.  No one’s ever heard of it, but it’s really cool.”  They’ll say, “Really?  What is it?” or “Really, what’s it about?”  At that point, you summarize your story to them and gauge their reactions.  If they are bored, if they aren’t excited or intrigued or interested, then you need to get back to work to change it.  If they ask you bewildered questions or question why the protagonist is doing this or why he’s not doing that, then you got it, you need to get back to work and adjust.

There is absolutely no reason to make big story-quality concessions in your work as you near the end of the process.  At that point, you must get EVEN MORE honest and ruthless, not brush stuff under the carpet and settle for working with less.  During a rough cut it’s time to figure out how to tighten sequences, restructure beats, etc.  But no matter what, despite all those surface changes, the STORY must be strong underneath.  Give your editor something really great to work with.

The takeaway here is to pitch your story to complete strangers in your target audience to get a feeling for whether or not your story makes sense.  Otherwise NOT doing that, then just going ahead and casting, producing the film, assembling the footage, creating a rough cut, AND THEN asking for feedback is not only too late, but from a business standpoint, is a huge waste of resources and practically guarantees shit ROI.

Beware the Straw Man.

Written by davidcsaint

February 24, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Posted in Pitching

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