Vote for this guy,
wouldja?While much of what we do here at The Artful Writer centers around our craft & trade, credits, copyright law and all that good stuff, the fact is that Ted and I are both very politically active in our union, the Writers Guild of America, west. We both serve on the Board of Directors, and right now, Ted is running for President on a slate with a number of other excellent candidates.
If you’re a voting member of the WGAw or know some voting members of the WGAw, please spread the word. I’m not going to evangelize here too much, particularly because there’s a great way you can learn about Ted and his fellow candidates, known as the Common Sense team.
Just visit the Common Sense website to see what they’re about and why they’re the best choice for our union’s future.
Maybe if I had a resume like John August’s or Ted’s, I’d speak a little more glowingly about the work I do. I’m genuinely humble about my writing, and when I talk with guys like Scott Frank and see how humble they are, I feel even less entitled to acknowledge any theoretical writing laurels, much less rest on them.
I’m not so Christ-like about my ability to pitch. I’m proud of that. I’m good at it. And today, I’m going to do my best to teach you what I know.
I’ll probably regret this.
I’m proud of my ability to pitch because I enjoy anything in this business that feels like it exists in a clear continuum with the stuff of the Golden Age. Pitching is showmanship, hucksterism, theater, dance, psychology, chutzpah and good old fashion creativity…all rolled into ten minutes. The rooms are tough, the stakes are high, the odds are long…
Yup. I love it.
First, ask yourself this question…and answer honestly.
Are you good in a room?
By “good in a room”, I mean, are you a good story-teller? Do you enjoy public speaking? At parties, can you grab the attention of a group by telling an anectdote or a joke? I’m not asking if you like parties or other human beings. God knows I don’t. I’m asking if you can work them, or if you end up being that quiet guy who listens to the guy who can work the room.
Are you the quiet guy? Not all is lost. I’ll deal with you in a bit. Ted and Terry have a great method for you.
Are you good in a room? Good.
First, understand what it is that you’re pitching. You’re not pitching a script. You’re not pitching a story.
You’re pitching a movie. Don’t give me that blank look. You’ve already done it. Ever see a movie and then have someone ask you to describe it? That’s movie pitching.
What you want to do is achieve the same effect with the producer or exec. You want them to believe that you have already seen a great movie, and you’re just telling them about it.
In order to do that, you have to know your entire movie. The whole thing. You need a treatment. You’re not going to show them this treatment. You’re going to use it as the basis for your movie. By writing the treatment, you’re allowing yourself to watch your own movie in your head.
Good! You’ve written your treatment, and you’ve watched your movie in your head.
I hope it’s a good movie. I can’t help you if it’s not. But if it is…then maybe this style of pitching will give you a fighting chance. It’s worked for me.
What you have to figure out now is how much of the movie you want to tell, what you want to accentuate, and what you want to hold back. Generally speaking, here’s how I think it works best:
Milk the plot set up first. Really set the stage. Describe the character as if you’re all watching him for the first time. Give no details. Let them wonder. Go for mystery. Like this.
“We open on a man. Handsome. Sweaty. Leather jacket and fedora. We don’t know who or where he is, other than that he’s a movie star, and it’s a jungle. He walks into a cave…the guys with him scramble. Too afraid. He approaches a golden idol, hidden in here for what must be centuries. It’s right there! Why doesn’t he take it? What is he afraid of? He makes his choice. Takes the idol. Nothing. He did it! (you swig water here) And that’s when the 5 ton boulder comes dropping out of a chute, rolling towards him with unstoppable fury…”
Hoo-daddy! What’s good about cold opening your pitches is that it sucks them in. That’s why we do it in movies, right? And pitches are movies, right? Build the mystery. Let them wonder. And then when you’ve got them…
Anticipate and answer their questions. Now it’s time to tell them about Indiana Jones. What they want is the basics. Who is he, what does he do, what makes him special, what does he want out of life, and what’s his basic flaw? Bullet it. This isn’t the time to be fancy. And if possible, try and use this information to lead to the big plot point.
“It’s 1935. Indiana Jones is a world famous archeologist who spends half the year in a tweed jacket teaching at a university, and the other half on incredible and deadly adventures to retrieve lost treasures from exotic places. They say he’s dodged death a hundred times, and they’re right. But that doesn’t mean he’s happy. He once loved, but she left him, and now he collects women like he collects his artifacts…it’s all about the hunt. Belief in the power of love…or the power of the objects he finds? Nope. Maybe that’s why he’s skeptical when the CIA comes to visit him. They want him to find a supposedly unfindable object that’s supposed to have incredible powers…and he’s got to find it before Hitler does. And what is it? (swig your water) Only the lost Ark of the Covenant. The golden container of the tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. A direct connection to God himself.”
That’s exposition, character, backstory, theme, and the major plot point of Act One. Weave it. Milk it. Get into it. If you’re ashamed of your own story, you’re dead in the water.
No, I’m not going to pitch out the rest of Raiders. You get the idea. Pitch the action like it’s happening RIGHT NOW! (duck!). Pitch the character, theme and plot points as woven paragraphs, where the execs and producers see how the elements intertwine and feed into each other.
Now, notice that I wrote all that Raiders stuff out? Actually wrote it like dialogue?
This is the key, people. Here’s my biiiiiiiig secret.
Write your pitch before you pitch it.
It’s intuitive, right? We’re writers. We are paid to write words for prettier people to say. Pitching is our moment on the stage. Why shouldn’t we script it first?
Write the whole thing out. Nnnnnoooooo, you’re not going to recite the damn thing like a school play. No, you’re not going to memorize it.
Here’s what I do. I write it out. By writing it in my own voice, I quickly start to get a grasp for how I’m going to tell the story.
I print that document and sit facing a wall.
And then, without looking at the document, I start pitching my movie. Out loud. To the wall. The moment I stop for even a second, I look down at the page, see how I roughly scripted it, and then…
I start again from the very beginning. I do this even if I hit a slight bump near the very very end.
All the way back. Start again.
It usually takes about two hours to get through this process so that I can smoothly pitch for eight minutes. Smoooooothly. No bumps. No glitches. This is crucial. Remember, you’ve already seen this movie, right? If you’ve seen it, why would you be trying to remember it mid-pitch? No, you must be absolutely confident of this movie. If you’re not, they won’t be either.
As I go through this forwards-and-backwards prep, I find things start occuring to me. I begin emphasizing some parts of my scripted pitch and ignoring others. I find new turns of phrases. I discover the parts that get me excited. I find the theater in it.
And when I’m done…I’m ready. The effect is a well-thought out, well-organized, apparently entirely off-the-cuff extemporaneous telling of a movie.
In short, it’s a good pitch.
Okay, now if you’re not good in a room, you’re going to do everything above just as I suggest, but you’re going to add a prop.
Ted and Terry bring an entire corkboard with their movie plotted out on index cards. What the cards do for them is help provide a focus for the producers and execs…and them…that isn’t their faces.
Apparently, they don’t enjoy public speaking the way I do. No problem. The corkboard shifts the heat of the spotlight away from them, and instead of relying on pure showmanship, they’re using their cards as a visual reference for their audience. They bring the producers and executives through the movie via their pitch and their cards.
So…it’s the big day. Any last steps?
Step one: Arrid Extra-Dry. Forget “controlling” your sweat. You want to be able to strike a match off your pits.
Step two: Know where you’re going. Get there early, but don’t go in early. Show up exactly at the time of your appointment. You’re going to wait regardless, but that’s irrelevant. Don’t think about your pitch at all. That will screw you up. Just read Variety or stare at the wall and laugh about how superior you are to the world. You’re not, but just do it. It helps.
Step three: When offered a drink, accept water. Never soda. Too gassy. Just water. Don’t drink it now, even though you’re probably as thirsty as a guy with a bullethole in his gut. Wait until you start pitching. Then use it as a prop. When you get to a cliffhanger (drinks water) take a slug. Make ‘em wait.
Step four: When you’re done, stick around for a brief period of time to hear any immediate reactions, but not too long. You’ve got another pitch to get to right away…even if you don’t.
Step five: Profit.
Arrgghhh!I’ve been struggling through the latest Movable Type upgrade. Man, they just don’t make it easy.
In any way.
Still, everything’s pretty much working okay save for comments. Not sure what the problem is. I’ll be opening a tech ticket up tonight, probably, so I hope to get things back and running.
After all…what’s the point in publishing my big How To Pitch article if no one can tell me where to go stick it?
(Edited to add: I fixed it. Suffice it to say that the people who wrote the READ ME installation instructions should think about writing a new doc called STRANGLE ME, because that’s what they deserve.)
Yeah, I blog, so what?Perhaps most known for his membership in our world-famous Artful Forum, but also somewhat known for cowriting War Of The Worlds, Josh Friedman has a new blog called I Find Your Lack Of Faith Disturbing.
You should read it. It’s really good. I hope to God he doesn’t keep up his current pace of quality and quantity, because he’s making the rest of us in the scribosphere look like hacks. Or maybe just me.
Nice job, Josh!
First things first. Are you sure that the genre you think is your best is actually your best? The only way to find out is to actually try, and not everyone has the time to run a trial-and-error routine on their own writing talent, particularly when screenwriting is both time and energy consuming.
Still, you don’t know what you can do until you do it, and the more you do it, the better you’ll get. Hey, you might surprise yourself.
So…given all that, why do I simply answer “yes”, and not say something like, “You should write in the genre that excites you the most” or “you should write in the genre that really inspires you” “or you should let your passion tell you in which genre to write”?
Because there are too many bad scripts in this world. Way too many. If you can write a genre well, for the love of God, stick with it. There’s nothing wrong with moonlighting and giving things a shot, but if you’re the Michael Jordan of sci-fi, please don’t try your hand at either baseball or broad comedy.
Talented screenwriters are hard to come by. Talented screenwriters with the dedication required to be successful talented screenwriters are even harder to come by. If you’re one of the few, suck it up for the rest of us poor movie-going schmucks, huh? Deliver the goods you deliver the best, and save the cross-training for your novel. I mean…really…who wants to see a romantic comedy from John Milius?
Actually…that one might be kinda cool. Ka-Blam!
a little smaller…Writing is freedom, or so say people who don’t write. We who ply the live action screen trade are all-too-familiar with the concept of restraint. Our limitation is that annoying little aspect of life known as “reality”. I used to think the choke collar of reality would tug the hardest when I was trying to dream big.
Hah. Totally wrong.
Reality’s endless jabbing annoys the most when I haven’t been dreaming at all.
Case in point: you cannot walk into an office building.
Try having a character “walk into an office building”. That’s fine for now. It’s fine ten drafts from now. But if you’ve done your job well and the stars align, you’ll find yourself sitting across a table from the 1st Assistant Director in the production offices of the film of your movie, and he’s going to ask you what the hell you mean.
“Now, are we talking skyscraper, suburban office complex, three-office law firm type thing, is it nice, run-down, art on the walls, cheeseball, full of doctors or large businesses or crappy accountants, does it have marble on the floors, receptionist, elevator or walk-up, is it imposing, diminished, old, new, light, dark, clean, dusty, crowded, empty…”
And no matter what you end up answering, the first answer in your head…the real answer is…”Umm, I don’t know.”
Gentlemen and women, the rubber has hit the road. Welcome to production.
While it’s true that all the niggling questions of production will ultimately be determined by the director, that doesn’t mean we can’t help guide the director and the production as they create the world of the film.
No, I’m not suggesting that we write all of this stuff into a script. That would be awful. What I am suggesting is that before you find yourself face to face with the 1st A.D. (the person who’s really the field marshal of the shooting set), you prepare yourself with the answers.
There are lots of ways that we screenwriters can find ourselves disappointed with the rendering of our stories. One of the most common is the “that’s not how I imagined it!” syndrome. Oh? And how did you imagine it?
If you imagined it specifically, and by “specifically” I mean that you could have supplied the 1st A.D. or the producer or the director with a document describing in detail your imagined locations, costumes, hair styles, car makes, and all the other tiny flecks of color in your neural painting…then yeah, you get to be disappointed.
If you didn’t, then one of two things is true. Either you knew everything but decided not to speak up, in which case…your fault. Or, as is more often the case, you hadn’t really thought it through.
I am obsessive about “watching” my scenes before I write them. That’s how I’m able to prattle at length when the 1st A.D. asks me for those details. Still, he catches me every now and then, and I’m forced to say something like, “Dammit.”
It’s a scary “dammit”, by the way. It’s like someone asking me where I was yesterday, and there’s a two-hour period I can’t account for. We’re supposed to know our stories inside and out.
The point is not that we must do this to prepare for production. We must do this because it’s what makes a screenplay worth producing. No one will make a movie that seems like it could be shot anywhere with anyone wearing anything. The more you know about your world, the more it affects the story you set in that world. Do yourselves a favor. Go through your scripts like they were someone else’s, and your job was to actually go and shoot it. The only information you have is what’s on the page.
Make a list of questions.
And when it’s your time to sit down across the 1st A.D., make me proud, wouldja?
Ah, the Slu…I mean,
Sutton PlaceAs promised, here’s the first of an ongoing series reflecting my life in production. As hard as production is, it would be nice if it happened a bit closer to home than, say, Canada. Why am I here? And why are so many productions hurtling towards B.C.? I asked these questions of my producer today. What I learned are that there are three major reasons a movie like ours makes sense in Vancouver.
The Exchange Rate
There was once a time when you could travel north of the U.S. border and buy a mansion with a yacht parked in the front yard for a handful of nickels.
Welllll, maybe not. Still, the exchange rate has always been favorable, even though lately it’s much less so. Currently, a U.S. dollar will get you about $1.20 Canadian.
When you’re at Denny’s, that’s not such a big deal. When you’re spending forty million dollars, it starts to add up.
The Price of Labor (sorry, Labour) & Services
Generally speaking, producers can find better deals in Canada for the vast array of services and vendors that a production requires. In addition, while the crews in Vancouver are very skilled, the union scale structures tend to be a bit lower than their American counterparts. More importantly, the union fringe payments like pension and health also tend to be lower in Canada (perhaps because the Canadian government provides a higher level of health insurance to all of its citizens than we do).
The Federal & Provincial Tax Rebates
This is the biggie. In order to draw production to Canada, along with the jobs and local spending that production brings, the Canadian government and most (if not all) of the Provinces provide tax rebates to filmmakers. The basic idea is that a production must employ a certain amount of Canadian labor. Those laborers will pay taxes on their income, which goes to the Province and Ottawa. In turn, the governments will then rebate the productions a percentage of that tax collected (I’m simplifying, but this is the general idea).
The upshot is that for every job a production gives to a Canadian, they’re going to get some cash back.
So…what’s this all really worth? After all, there are additional costs inherent to shooting in Canada. Key personnel must be flown up to Vancouver and housed…and then there are those per diem checks to be handed out as well. The advantages must outweigh the costs by a significant amount.
For an average studio picture that costs about 52 million dollars to shoot in L.A., you’d probably spend about 40 million to make that same picture in Vancouver.
And that, my friends, is why I’m typing this at a desk in my one-room apartment at the Sutton. By the way, I’m enjoying all the recommendations from the locals (just don’t tell me how much the Sutton stinks…it serves me well and most of our production folk are housed here, which makes it convenient). Even though I’d probably eat scrambled eggs every day, my wife is reading the comments section and is planning some nights out for the two of us once she arrives.
Anyone know any really nice romantic restaurants where she and I can gaze into each other’s eyes and talk about the beauty of tax incentives and exchange rates?
My beautiful prison…Well, I’ve been sitting on a wee bit of a secret here at The Artful Writer, but it’s kind of a cool one, because it’s going to shape how the next couple of months of posts are going to work.
I’m in Vancouver now, hard at work on Scary Movie 4, and I’ll be with the pre-production, principle photography and then, after a return to L.A., the post-production.
What that means for you is that I’ll be doing a lot more production-related essays here. I encourage you to keep the questions coming, and no doubt I’ll be dealing with some credit issues and copyright topics as well, but my life is going to be firmly planted in the world of locations, camera angles, casting, blocking, rewriting and editing.
Of key interest to me (and hopefully you) is how all of these tasks and disciplines relate to the job of the screenwriter. I’m going to try and approach all of the segments of pre-pro first, with an emphasis on the role the screenwriter can play in helping the production get ready for shooting…and the role the production can play in helping the screenwriter perfect the story that’s about to be shot.
Before I get too deep into that stuff (and it’s piling up around me already…), the first question I’m going to try and handle this week is the most obvious one: what the hell am I doing in Vancouver?
The truth is that I have a fairly weak understanding of the advantages that Canada offers productions. I’m going to get as many nuts and bolts as I can to explain why so many films shoot here, and I’ll be back with the answers as soon as I come up for air.
Posts have been humming along at a two-or-three per week clip, but that will probably slow to about one per week. The days (and soon nights) are long. Hopefully, however, the quantity of useful info per post will rise.
A short while back, I wrote a typically unrestrained essay about all those screenwriting charlatans trying to separate screenwriting wannabees from their money–even though the authors of these “advice” sites and books were hardly legitimate screenwriters themselves.
It is, therefore, with great humility that I must now reverse course somewhat (somewhat! I say!). There actually is one very good book out there that you might not already own.
Alex Epstein is one of the most active members of the scribosphere (his site, Complications Ensue, is linked in our left column under Writing). The only thing that made me wary of Alex (other than his Canadianness, or his somewhat cliched political liberalism, or the fact that he went to Yale, which is an altogether inferior school to Princeton as everyone-who-didn’t-go-to-Yale knows) was that he was hawking his book, “Crafty Screenwriting” on his site.
“Sigh,” I sighed. “Why must everyone have written a book?”
When Alex offered to send me a copy, I accepted, thinking that posting a very frank review on The Artful Writer might serve the same role as a decapitated head on a spike in front of a castle’s walls.
“Ah,” thinks the how-to writer, “I’d better travel around this website. Nothing here but trouble…”
Alas, the book is good.
Actually, it’s very good.
What I like most about the book is that it’s written with a particular philosophy in mind, and it just so happens to be the same philosophy Ted and I espouse here on The Artful Writer.
Screenwriting is a job. A profession. A trade. A vocation.
For those of you who have been reading the essays here, you’ll find a lot in common between my views and Alex’s. He talks about the necessity of outlining (me too), the value of pitching, even if it’s just to your friends (me too), the importance of a good title (yup), the necessity of a good hook (check), and above all….the two most important sentences in the book (and on page 1, natch!):
A screenplay is not a complete work. It is not intended to be appreciated on its own.
Alex’s time as a development executive taught him what so many screenwriters fail to understand. This simple truth is our mantra here at The Artful Writer: the screenwriter’s job is not to write a screenplay, but to write a movie.
In addition to some decent passages on character and dialogue, Alex seeds in a few bits of insight, at least one of which was new to me. He makes a very cool distinction between horror movies and “terror” movies.
In a terror movie, you’re terrified of ending up dead. In a horror movie, you should be so lucky.
That’s a great bit of shorthand for someone like me who occasionally writes horror, but is still somewhat new to the genre.
So, is there anything wrong with this book?
Yes. In fact, there’s something terribly wrong with it, and if there’s ever a volume 2, I’m going to go to Alex’s house and sit on him until he fixes it.
The most important element to screenwriting is theme. I can’t be clearer than that. Theme drives everything. Theme must be an argument, and it must be present. It is a lack of thematic presence and progression that makes screenplays episodic (not a lack of character development, as Alex posits, although he’s at least not making the classic mistake that episodicism derives from poor plotting), and all good movies have a theme.
Alex doesn’t think so. Oh, how I gnashed my teeth and wept when I read this:
You don’t need to have a theme to have a great popcorn movie. Alien is a well-crafted story about a bunch of human beings in danger of being eaten by a monster. While we find out that an evil corporation put them in danger, the movie isn’t really about the danger of evil corporations. It’s about people trying not to get eaten by a giant bug. We come away from the film with just the adrenaline rush.
Arggh. No. The theme of Alien can be expressed in a few related ways. “Humanity’s greed will be its downfall.” Or “Our pride is our greatest weakness”. Or “There are things better left unexplored by man.”
The theme creates the details. Humanity is reaching beyond itself. It’s motivated by pride and greed. It believes it is safe. What it encounters in the form of the Alien is a lesson in humility.
Alien is, in the end, a retelling of the tale of Icarus.
If those elements weren’t there, the movie would be very very scary, but it just wouldn’t be as compelling. It wouldn’t be about anything.
Alex also makes the mistake of presenting themes that aren’t arguments, like “guilt versus redemption”. That’s not a theme, really. It doesn’t take a stand.
That weakness aside, the book is really terrific. Worth owning, especially if you’re an aspirant. Alex does a fine job of presenting a view of screenwriting that simply isn’t articulated often enough, and he does so to the reader’s benefit.
Well done, Alex. Amend that chapter on theme, and you’ve got yourself a gem!
First they take your
pupils, then your
authorship…As all of our faithful readers know by now, movie and television writers and directors in the United States are not considered the legal authors of their works; the companies that commission the shows and movies retain the copyright. This is pretty much the way it’s been since Hollywood began, and that’s why the WGAw and the DGA had to fight for the right to determine credits–the credits are our way of acknowledging de facto authorship even if we don’t have de jure authorship.
However, a new phenomenon is being recognized by the U.S. Copyright Office–so called “orphan works”–and in the ensuing debate over what to do with these orphans, screenwriters and directors have a chance to continue establishing the fact of their co-authorship.
Orphan works are essentially intellectual property for which it’s impossible to determine ownership…or for which ownership has not been passed on through chain of title. Let’s say, for instance, that you find a wonderful book at a garage sale, and you want to adapt it into a film. The problem is that the author died five years ago without any heirs. Who owns this book? Is it public domain? Or can some relative of the author make a claim?
In the case of old films, the WGAw and the DGA have an answer. Just as in the case with foreign levies, the writers and directors are arguing that they are the true co-authors of films (sharing authorship on a 50-50 basis). The “copyleft” movement, which general works in opposition to private ownership of intellectual property, is arguing that orphaned movies should lapse into the public domain, where they can be freely exploited without limitation by anyone.
The writers and directors are arguing, and properly so, that this is baloney. If a work is still within the time-frame of copyright protection but its copyright owner cannot be determined, then the copyright should revert to and be shared by writers and directors.
Is this really a revolutionary issue for us? Will it lead to a windfall? No. Most movies of exploitative value are not orphaned. What’s important about our stance on this is that it cements the continuing understanding between writers and directors, two historically adversarial groups, that we are both the authors of films. The Auteur Theory, long reviled by screenwriters as moronic (see William Goldman’s genius quote in the preceeding link), is now being tacitly acknowledged as illegitimate.
Writers and directors are the coauthors of films. I suspect anyone who’s done both jobs would agree.