For many years, I taught a class called, The Creative Business of Screenwriting, which taught students how to “pitch” in person, on the phone and on paper. The class helped many people get their work read by agents, managers and producers. My students have had screenplays produced and novels published.
A number of years ago, for the LA Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles, three of my students came with me to “pitch” their current scripts and new concepts that we had developed. They were all successful in creating interest and ended up submitting screenplays to reputable producers and agents.
Because my students have uniformly had such success, I wanted to share my best tips for pitching with you.
The key to pitching is: You must bait the hook to suit the fish.
This means you must have or know the following three things before you make a pitch:
1. A strong title
This may be the hardest part of the whole process, but you must fight for it. It’s the first contact any potential reader, producer, agent or actor will have with your material. The title should suggest the type of story and tease the audience’s imagination. They want to know what they will be seeing before they buy it. For example, a title such as Date Night, suggests a romantic comedy, Nightmare on Elm Street sounds like a horror film, and Insomnia sounds like a thriller. Bait the hook to suit the fish. The right title for a screenplay can be the perfect bait.
2. Identify the genre
Finding the right title will also help you identify what style of screenplay you have written. Few films are purely one genre or another, but identifying the main genre is the key. Little Miss Sunshine is clearly not just a comedy, but since it is more comedy than drama, you would pitch it as a comedy. What is the main kind of story you are telling? Screenplays are products like anything else and by knowing what you’re selling it will be easier to identify who will read your script and who will buy it. Basic genres include but are not limited to: Comedies, Dramas, Horror, Thriller and Action. There are other genres and sub-genres. Looking at IMBD or browsing NetFlix will give you some guidelines to categorize your own story.
3. Create a logline to find your “hook.”
A logline is a one-to-three sentence summary of what the screenplay is about. This also is a way of testing if your script has all of the elements needed to get a “yes.” Does it have: a strong main character with a clear objective that is either achieved or not? Does your logline describe the plot in as few words as possible? Does it suggest your script’s “hook,” that is, the plot element, which makes your story unique? For example, in The Usual Suspects, the “hook” is the twist that the narrator turns out to be the villain. My technique is to ask: What is the hero or heroine’s dream? For example, In Iron Man 2, his dream is to create a peaceful world with no war. In Erin Brockovitch, her dream is to get a job and make a stable life for her family, but she is an unwilling heroine — a good example of a “hook.”
In my book, The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting, writers answer the key question, What is the Main Character’s Dream, before they begin to write, but answering the question at this late stage will still help you focus your pitch because most successful movies are character driven. Great characters are the way to attract successful actors to play the parts. Attaching Actors to your script is an excellent way to break into the industry. For example, in Then Came Love, my student Caytha Jentis was able to attract Vanessa Williams, Ben Vereen and Eartha Kitt because the character parts were so well written.
Putting it all together:
- Use a title that describes what kind of film you have written and stimulates the imagination
- Identify the genre
- Create a logline that showcases the “hook,” the unexpected plot twist that makes your screenplay unique.
Once you have this organized, the last part of baiting the hook is to see if your “fish” (whoever you are pitching to) is “hungry” for your story. Do this by going slowly and taking the time to make the connection by saying hello with a smile, introducing yourself and taking a moment to let your “fish” tune into you. Then ask if he or she is ready, and then go for it. What you’re hoping for is that the producer or agent wants to hear more and after hearing more, wants to read your screenplay