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The Art and Science of Getting Your Idea Across

The Art and Science of Getting Your Idea Across
With all the money, glory, and careers riding on every decision in the entertainment business, no creative professional can escape the gatekeepers. Just as actors face a seemingly endless string of auditions and meetings with casting directors, writers have to go into room after room, sit down with producers and executives, and offer up a sample of what they think makes their new project great. It's a sport called pitching, and all successful scriptwriters are forced to master this ancillary craft before they can get paid to actually write. Just as auditioning is a separate skill that every actor must develop, every writer must build his or her own pitching muscle.

"I do think they are very different skills and mediums, with different structural breakdowns in terms of time," says Simon Kinberg about writing and pitching. A veteran of both pitching and being pitched, he has leveraged a successful screenwriting career ("Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "X-Men: The Last Stand") into a flourishing producing shingle ("X-Men: First Class," "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"). But as with acting and auditioning, there is also a great deal of overlap in the two crafts, Kinberg says. "I think they are similar in that they're both all about building compelling characters and stories, drawing a viewer/listener in."

"They're similar because they're both storytelling," says screenwriter Alfred Gough, who, with partner Miles Millar, has written a litany of major studio projects, including "Spider-Man 2," "Shanghai Noon," and "I Am Number Four." "But because someone is a good storyteller doesn't necessarily mean they're a good pitcher. Because the skill sets are oddly mutually exclusive. Writing is very cerebral—you're in your head, you're figuring out the characters. You have a lot of conversations with yourself. Whereas pitching, you're in a room and you're trying to get other people excited about the story or the idea."

Finding the Tone

There is no way to acquire the bag of tricks needed to pitch without pitching, and for many writers, the ability to perform is harder won than the ability to write. Before he became a TV wunderkind, creating the long-running series "Criminal Minds" at age 29, Jeff Davis was a respected screenwriter with multiple optioned scripts, finding his way through the maze of studio pitch meetings. "I remember my first pitch was utterly disastrous," Davis says with a laugh. "I was sweating, I was stumbling over words, forgetting things, shuffling papers to find notes. And at a certain point, one of the producers leaned over, tapped me on the leg, and said, 'You're doing fine; don't worry.' When a producer says that, you're not doing fine."

Kinberg, who sold "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" while still in film school, was able to push through his fears and make his first big sale. "It was terrifying," he says. "I was going to film school at Columbia in New York, and I flew out to L.A. for the pitch. The flight was delayed. I got in at, like, 2 a.m. and was pitching the next morning at 9 a.m. I tried to fake that I was sick, like a kid avoiding school. But luckily the producer forced me to come to the pitch, and it went okay. But it was very intimidating."

Anatomy of a Pitch

If the goal of a script is to tell a story, then the goal of the pitch is to sell that story. For writers who have worked to nail the three-act structure of a traditional feature film, Kinberg suggests a tweak to that in the pitch room: "For me, good pitches are usually weighted toward the first act, because that's where you're really building the people and the premise of the movie. So I'll use almost half the pitch on the first act, whereas a movie's first act is more like 30 minutes, or a quarter of the film. I think good pitches are like newspaper articles: They start with the headline, then the first paragraph is basically the overview, then you get into the details of the story."

Davis, whose current project is MTV's darker and sexier reimagining of the 1985 film "Teen Wolf," sees a difference between pitching feature films and episodic television. "For movies, I try to keep their attention for at least 12 to 15 minutes," he explains. "I know a lot of people who say, 'Eight minutes, then we've got to get out of there!' But it's not the same these days. People want to hear the whole story. With a TV pitch, I'll sometimes go 25 minutes. You've got to get through each character; you've got to get through what episodes in the future will look like; you've got to describe the world. It's a detailed process for TV."

"There are no absolutes," says Gough. "We've had pitches that go 20 minutes; we've had pitches that go 45 minutes. The rule is you never want to be boring. You never want to feel like you're losing your audience. I think shorter is always better, but you also want to make sure that you've covered everything you want to cover."

Scripting the Pitch

Perseverance and hard work on his pitching chops led Davis to his mastery of the craft. He sold his first script, "Book of Skulls," on the strength of his pitch and two years later sold "Criminal Minds." "I eventually learned that in order to pitch right, I have to write a script for myself and essentially memorize it," he says. "I'll even do a QuickTime movie and watch my own performance. For me, it's that detailed. I'm utterly envious and jealous of writers who can walk into a room and just do it off the top of their head."

Kinberg uses a similar technique for presenting his work to potential employers. "I write the entire pitch out, try to keep it to around five to seven pages, which averages out to 12 to 15 minutes," he says. "I rehearse like an actor—that's as close as I'll ever get to acting—so I can really be flexible when I'm in the room pitching. I think it's important to know it well enough to be able to improvise and adapt. I think about that line from 'Hearts of Darkness' where Coppola was telling Dennis Hopper that he needs to learn his lines before he can forget them."

In contrast to Kinberg and Davis, Gough and Millar have refined a pitching technique designed to be more fluid. "We always keep it very loose," Gough says. "It's not scripted or written down. It's not like I stand in front of a mirror and do it. I find what's helpful is if you get to do it a couple times to audiences. It helps you to get it on its feet, hear it, and you figure out what works and doesn't work, or also points that you want to make sure are salient and you want to lock in on more."

Finding the Niche to Pitch

Ultimately, a pitch is a very specific kind of conversation or dialogue, and Kinberg suggests framing it as such: "Think about how you would pitch a movie you saw at the multiplex or on TV. Imagine you're at dinner with a friend. How would you describe it if your friend asked you to talk about it? I think you'll find that you start with the main concept, then get into slightly more detail, then really walk through the structure of the movie."

But he cautions writers not to indulge in all the delicious specifics, which should be reserved for the script itself. "Writing a movie and describing a movie are different things," he says, "and be careful you don't start writing it in the room, going into too much detail, because a pitch that's too short is better than a pitch that's too long."

So what's the secret to pitching well? The same as the secret to doing anything well, says Davis. "Practice. Practice it over and over and over again. You may think that you can walk into a room and just wing it. But trust me, that is a talent reserved for a very select few."

For many writers, the hardest part is getting into the room in the first place. "You know how you get into the room a lot of times? You've written a script that somebody really responded to," says Gough, "whether it's a spec feature or television pilot or a play or something that makes people sit up and take notice of your talent."

He is quick to caution, however, that slick salesmanship is not enough to seal the deal anymore. "Studios used to buy a lot more pitches," Gough says. "Now it's not only about 'Do I like the story?' but 'Do I believe the writer who's pitching it to me can actually execute it?' And with the belt-tightening in development budgets, that's become a much bigger issue. They're not just buying an idea, expecting a draft, and if they don't like it, in 12 weeks they can hire a new writer.... They want to know that the person who's pitching the idea can actually execute it as well on the page."

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