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How to Develop a Pitch: An Excerpt from 'The Hollywood Pitching Bible'

By Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado | Indiewire August 16, 2013 at 1:41PM

Douglas Eboch (who pitched the story "Sweet Home Alabama" is based on) and Ken Aguado (the producer of web cooking show"Yo Cuz: The Italian American Cook") have gathered their tips for people that are eager to pitch their ideas to Hollywood. They've written a book, "The Hollywood Pitching Bible," and they've given Indiewire an exclusive excerpt of the guide below, from the chapter "Constructing Your Pitch." For more information on the book, check out the website to ScreenMaster Books.
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Hollywood Pitching Bible

Douglas Eboch (who pitched the story on which "Sweet Home Alabama" is based) and Ken Aguado (the producer of web cooking show"Yo Cuz: The Italian American Cook") have gathered their tips for people that are eager to pitch their ideas to Hollywood.  They've written a book, "The Hollywood Pitching Bible," and they've given Indiewire an exclusive excerpt of the guide below, from the chapter "Constructing Your Pitch."  For more information on the book, check out the website to ScreenMaster Books.

Once you’ve chosen appropriate subject matter the next step is constructing your pitch. There will be situations where you will be required to pitch your story in a time frame that ranges from 30 seconds (the classic “elevator” pitch) up to 15 minutes (20 minutes is considered the unofficial upper limit).

Pitch vs. script.

Let’s consider what a pitch actually is and how it differs from the final product, such as a screenplay or teleplay. Understanding this difference will make our tips for constructing your pitch feel more logical and less arbitrary.

The most obvious difference is length. If your pitch is 15 minutes long, it can’t contain everything that will be in the final screenplay. You will have to pick and choose the highlights. You will have to summarize.

Another obvious but important difference is that a pitch is delivered verbally. It is harder for listeners to follow things delivered verbally, especially if the speaker is anxious or rambles. What’s vividly clear in your mind may not always be reflected by what you say. The complexity you might be able to achieve on the page will have to be simplified for the pitch.

On the other hand, because a pitch is delivered verbally and face to face, it can be more interactive. The listener can ask questions or ask you to elaborate if they have concerns or don’t understand something, or are taken with a particular aspect of your idea. This can be a huge advantage for the writer – if they are prepared.

It might be more helpful to say that a well-executed pitch is analogous to the final product. One is not merely a shorter version of the other. The act of pitching and the act of writing are derived from different skill-sets. And this is why so many writers have trouble with pitching, and why the best writers are rarely the best pitchers.

Learning from trailers.

Try this exercise. Pick a recent movie you know well that is also similar to the kind of film you want to pitch. Go online and find the trailer for the movie, then study how the distributor tackles their pitch. After all, a trailer is really nothing more than the “audio-video” version of a two-minute pitch designed to get you to want to see a film. The people who make trailers do it for a living and some are quite good. Study the things the trailer emphasizes: how it presents the concept of the film, the characters, the setting, the plot, and how the trailer “sells” what’s cool or compelling about the film. Does the trailer accurately reflect what you know the film to be? Does it represent what you loved about the film?

We are not saying you will be pitching the trailer for your final product. There are significant differences between a pitch and a trailer. For example, most pitches of any length will include a fairly complete outline of the story: beginning, middle and end. Whereas only a truly misguided trailer would give away the ending to the film it’s selling. Trailers tend to emphasize the “sizzle” rather than the “steak.” We’ve all seen trailers that seem to give away the entire film, but consider why this was done. In most cases it is because the trailer makers had a hard time figuring out how to sell the film in a concise way. On the other hand, we’ve all seen great moments in trailers that end up not in the finished film at all. This may be because the trailer was made while the film was still in a longer, unedited form. But in some ways this is perfect metaphor for the difference between a pitch and its final product. In fact, a good pitch will frequently include details that may never end up in the final product. Ironically, this is done for clarity and not deception. We will soon see why this is so.

Let’s start with a few guidelines that will help you build your pitch. These guidelines are not arbitrary rules. They are designed to help you define the best aspects of your pitch. The more defined your final pitch, the easier it will be for you to present your intentions clearly and with the greatest chance of success.

Building your full-length pitch.

The first step is to develop your pitch so that it will run a full twelve to fifteen minutes. From there you can derive a variety of shorter versions to suit your purposes. As we’ve said, a 30-second pitch has a very different ambition than a full-length pitch. But no matter how long or short your pitch, you should always keep that good one-liner in mind as you develop your pitch. Typically, this is how the notion of a movie or television pitch originates and it can be helpful in guiding the crafting of the longer version. If your 15-minute pitch doesn’t reflect and deliver the promise of the great one-liner that inspired you, there’s a problem.

There is a misconception among beginners that a pitch is merely a plot summary of what the final product will be. And while this may be true on a superficial level, successful pitching requires a deeper understanding of the differences between your pitch and your intended final product.

A fully executed screenplay contains every line of dialog and a detailed description of every location and action. More importantly, it embodies the sum total of the narrative momentum that is usually only possible in a fully realized screenplay. So, for example, the pleasure we get from seeing Rocky “go the distance” at the end of the first “Rocky” film is a direct result of the two hours we just spent watching the character struggle to get there.

Imagine the difficulty of conveying the experience of Rocky’s challenges in 30 seconds and you will come to understand the problem. Even in 15 minutes it just might not be possible to convey all the ups and downs of the character’s struggle in a way that is meaningful. Does this mean a story like “Rocky” is tough to pitch? Maybe, and in fact “Rocky” was sold to United Artists as a spec script. But even if you decide this is the kind of story you want to pitch, the essential nature of the challenge is clear: you need to find a concise way to shorthand the experience of the final product and why it will have special merit. After all, you’re trying to convince someone to pay you a significant amount of money for you to take what’s in your head and execute a fully realized screenplay. That’s a big leap of faith for a buyer. If you can’t get them to “see” the film, there’s almost no chance they will buy your pitch.

Let’s over-simplify this point for the sake of clarity. If you’re pitching a film that will be a comedy, is your pitch funny? If you’re pitching a drama, will the pitch make the listener cry? If it’s an action film, will your pitch be exciting? If it’s a horror film, will the pitch be terrifying? It seems self-evident that this should be true, but you might be amazed how rarely it happens in the real world.

Let’s expand the point from there. What’s the central idea of your story? Can it be summarized in 30 seconds? Can it be summarized in 15 minutes? Let’s use the example of “Rocky” again. Does your pitch rely on the nuances of understanding the subculture of professional boxing? Or, do you really want to tell a story about a subtle romance between an amateur boxer and a shy wallflower? Maybe your story is more about Rocky’s character transformation and less about the thrill of victory. Don’t forget, at the end of “Rocky,” Rocky loses the fight.

If you understand this example, you will start to realize why picking a pitch-appropriate subject matter is so critical and why a simple plot summary is never adequate for a successful pitch.

This is not a book about how to write a screenplay or a teleplay, and we assume the reader has significant experience as a screenwriter and has a solid understanding of the multiplicity of elements that are needed to construct a fully realized story. Not surprisingly, most of the narrative elements of a screenplay or teleplay have a corresponding element in a pitch. But typically these elements are presented quite differently in a pitch. For simplicity, we will look at the elements of a pitch one at a time, although every writer knows that these elements frequently overlap, often in every sentence. Of course, storytelling is storytelling, and the things that make a great script are related to the things that make a great pitch, even if the elements take a slightly different form in a pitch. 

For more information on "The Hollywood Pitching Bible," check out the website to ScreenMaster Books.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Screenwriting, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production







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