Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Art of the Pitch by Max Adams

In anticipation of the bevy of AFF Pitch Sessions, VH-1 Pitch Sessions, High School Pitch sessions, bar pitches, standing in line at the theater pitches and, of course, the old - and sometimes effective - elevator pitches about to hit this city, we asked Max Adams to share some of her best tips on pitching. Read on and good luck!

The Art of the Pitch by Max Adams

Pitching is story telling. It is also, however, selling. And it is the "selling" part that makes people crazy. Perfectly normal people will go into a meeting to pitch, or pick up the phone to pitch, or be standing in an elevator or supermarket line and suddenly have the opportunity to pitch -- and choke. This is in part being nervous, thinking too much is riding on performing well. It is also an unfamiliarity with what needs to be said, which results in people being unsure of themselves and the bottom dropping out when they are in the hot seat.

Pitching really is not that hard if you simply think of it as story telling. Which is exactly what it is: You telling someone your story. And if you can relax, and just fall into what it is you like about your story -- and presumably you do like it, it is your story and if you do not like it who will? -- you can tell your story to anyone. All you have to do is put faith in the story and tell it.

That’s the story telling part. But there is that other part: The selling part.

There are several different types of pitch. One is the full on meeting pitch. That lasts anywhere from a half hour to forty-five minutes -- and less is better. One is the short one liner pitch. That’s what goes in query letters or what you spit out over the phone, essentially the premise statement. Another is a sort of in-between pitch, what you could call the elevator pitch. You’ve got one to three minutes from floor one to floor ten -- ready, get set, go!

We’re going to talk about the basic executive meeting pitch here. We will come back to the shorter pitches later on.

When you pitch an executive or a producer, he or she is going to have to be able to tell someone else the same story you just told him or her. And if it goes well, the person he or she tells the story to will tell it again, to someone higher up the ladder, and if it keeps going well, the story will slowly make it up the food chain in the studio system all the way to the president of the studio. And if the president of the studio likes it, and “gets” the “movie,” feels like this story is a movie, and a good one -- he or she can buy the pitch.

If he or she doesn’t feel like it is a movie, he or she won’t buy the pitch. And notice, to get to the president of the studio, the pitch had to go from your mouth through a sort of telephone game all the way up to the studio president, remaining more or less intact, and had to “feel” like a “movie” when it got there.

The difference between a pitch feeling like a movie as it goes from one person to the next, being told on its way up the food chain – or not feeling like a movie -- is whether or not you have included the necessary story elements in a pitch that a producer, and later an executive, and later still a studio head, needs to hear in a pitch. There are five elements that have to be there:

The Five Pitch Elements:

•Premise Statement
•Turning Points

Premise Statement: A premise statement is, essentially, the title, the genre, the protagonist, the protagonist’s story goal, and story stakes if there are big stakes. For example, Jaws is an action drama about a sheriff who must hunt and kill a monster Great White shark that is terrorizing his small island community -- before the shark wipes his community off the map. Lord of the Rings is a fantasy action adventure about a hobbit who must transport an evil ring of power across the land and destroy it in the fiery pit is was forged in -- or the ring’s evil creator will plunge the hobbit’s world into darkness forever.

Premise statements are pretty easy if you remember the parts that go into them:

[Title] is a [Genre] about [Protagonist] who must [Protagonist’s Goal] or else [Stakes if Protagonist Fails].

That’s a plot driven action picture. There is another kind of story: The situational story. In a situational story, there are no big stakes if the protagonist fails, but there is a defined central problem for the protagonist in the story. Moonstruck is a situational story. Moonstruck is a romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with her fiancé’s brother. Note the goal is not mentioned there. It could be. I could say Moonstruck is a romantic comedy about a woman determined to marry a safe man she does not love – there is a definite goal in Moonstruck. But that does not define the conflict in Moonstruck, which is the protagonist falls in love with her fiancé’s brother. Kind of a big problem if you are planning to get married to your fiancé.

The defining difference between a plot driven premise statement and a situation driven premise statement is, where is the conflict in the story? Generally, in a quiet character driven piece, it will be in the situation, whereas, in an action driven piece, it will be in the goal versus stakes.

Opening: The opening of a film is the first clue about the story world an audience is entering. Likewise, describing a script’s opening scene in a pitch visually sets the person who is hearing a pitch in the story world. Think about pitching Jaws. Who in their right mind wouldn’t set the stage with that opening in the pitch? Openings do not always have to be in the pitch, but they are a nice way to open a pitch and set a visual tone for the hearer. And if you’ve got a big cinematic opening – always a plus – use it.

Characters: Characters absolutely have to be in the pitch. Not every character in the story. You want to focus on the protagonist first, and then any important secondary characters in the story. And you don’t go into huge details, you just give someone enough information to get a handle on the character. This is a lot like a character’s introduction in the script. If I were introducing Marshal Gerard from the fugitive, I might give him almost verbatim the introduction he gets in The Fugitive. Buzz saw hair cut. Clothes that spell cop. Shoes that have been shined a million times – and still shine in spite of the miles on them. A cop without a single vice, and one who always gets his man.

Turning Points: Once you’ve introduced the central dilemma in the premise statement, set the stage with an opening scene, and segued into the most important characters in the piece, it is time to start turning the story. Turning points are points in the story in which there is a shift in power/story dynamics. For example, in Die Hard, John McClane is trapped in a high rise with bad guys – so he sets off the fire alarm. That’s a shift in power, help is on the way. But the bad guys disable the alarm and call off the fire department. Oops. Another shift in power, this time power has shifted to the bad guys.

You can think of turning points in terms of a good news/bad news joke. Good news, the fire department is coming. Bad news, the fire department isn’t coming. Good news [sticking with Die Hard], the police are coming. Bad news, the police are leaving. Good news, the police are staying. Bad news, the bad guys are kicking police ass.

Those are turning points. Good news, bad news, when power in the story shifts. You only want to use the big turning points. You wouldn’t, for example, if you were pitching Die Hard, describe every fight in the script. There are lots of fights. Telling them all would take two hours and you haven’t got two hours, with a full story pitch which is what I am defining here, you’ve got between half an hour and forty-five minutes so you have to use the big turning points that really drive the plot, and leave the rest out.

Climax: After you’ve beaten out the big story points for your listener – which are hopefully escalating and building up to a big pay off – you want to close your pitch with the big climax. In Moonstruck, this would be when the fiancé shows and says he can’t marry Loretta and Loretta is objecting, “A promise is a promise!,” while the brother is sitting there ready for a stand off with his brother and now agog the woman he loves is fighting over being set free to marry him. In Die Hard, it’s the big stand off with Hans Gruber who is holding the protagonist’s wife at gunpoint – only to get himself knocked out a window and try to take the protagonist and the wife with him when he falls.

Never close a film pitch without the big ending.

*Excerpted from The Art of the Pitch, a lecture series from Max Adams & The Academy of Film Writing,

Thanks, Max!

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