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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

Tagged with , ,