November 11th, 2015
By Danny Manus
There’s always a sharp adjustment period after I return from Austin Film Fest every year. And not just for my liver. It’s a constant whirlwind event for 5 days – and not just because of the Tornado that almost hit this year! There’s so much to take in – it’s wall to wall panels, parties and people! If you have never been, I highly recommend it!
This year, I was back teaching the Pitch Prep seminar alongside Pixar executive Emily Zulauf, as well as judging the early rounds. And I got to moderate a great panel on pitching as well.
While extreme weather and falling on Halloween certainly affected this year’s events, there was still a huge amount of learning and networking to experience.
My favorite panels that I saw were Phil Rosenthal’s interview with the legendary Norman Lear, who at 93 is every bit as sharp, hilarious and inspirational as he ever has been; the conversation between action heroes Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive); Michael Arndt’s (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) course on Endings; the TV/Film Crossover convo between Justin Marks (Jungle Book) and Amy Berg (DaVinci’s Demons); and my own panel on the art of pitching with Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring, San Andreas).
From all the panels I heard, as well as the pitching competition this year, there were some clear lessons, tips and quotes I want to share with all of you who couldn’t make it that will hopefully help you on your writing journey.
1. The greatest writers in the world all think Structure and Formatting is important. There are a few consultants and writers out there spouting about how structure is killing creativity and how having a beat sheet or using three-act structure isn’t necessary. And maybe it isn’t. But, when I hear writers like Michael Arndt, Brian Helgeland, Jeb Stuart and Terry Rossio touting the importance of specific structure, it’s clear those who don’t believe are in a vast minority. Even those who hate structure – still love structure. They just call it something else. You can look at structure from your character’s POV or thru visual beats or emotional beats – but it’s all structure. And it’s all important.
2. “At the moment of (true) commitment, the universe conspires to ensure your success.” – Norman Lear on becoming successful and what it takes. “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.” – Norman Lear.
3. “The big difference between action and suspense – suspense is cheaper.” (Jeb Stuart) He also said (and I’m paraphrasing): Action is when something exciting happens that the character and audience both experience. Suspense is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t and we’re not sure when or how they will discover it. For example, action is a bomb exploding. Suspense is seeing there’s a ticking bomb under the table and the character doesn’t know. Then finding ways to build the tension of that moment.
4. Humanizing your characters is about laying foundation with those small clues and moments early on that give us insight into them and connect us in some way. (Angela Kang, writer/Exec Producer, The Walking Dead)
5. When Die Hard was being developed, Joel Silver told Shane Black, “You have to blow up the top of the building!” Because if you don’t, you’re teasing the audience too much and audiences don’t want to be teased at the end of an action movie.
6. Insanely great endings are positive, surprising, and most of all – meaningful. There’s an emotional release, a new look on the world, and meaningful emotion… Always ask yourself – what’s at stake? And look at the External, the Internal, and the Philosophical (paraphrasing Michael Arndt in his Endings class).
7. “The connectors kill your script. They are what cause the lulls,” Shane Black said. He is referring to the exposition-filled PLANNING scenes where it’s just characters talking about what they are going to do or how they’re going to do it.
8. Good action scenes advance the plot. Never hit pause on your story to include action – it should be part of the story. (Angela Kang) And if you imbed the story in the action, then it can’t be cut for budgetary reasons later on. (Jeb Stuart)
9. In terms of pitching, TV was king this year. Two years ago, the pitch competition was about 60/40 in favor of film. Last year, it was 50/50. This year, it was about 70% TV pitches! And to that end, the WINNERS the last two years were TV series pitches.
10. When you pitch producers, pitch the External. When you pitch actors, pitch the Internal.
11. Have your pitch down. The winner this year had her pitch down so perfectly, she did not get ONE note in her preliminary judging session OR the finale. Her TV Comedy series pitch had everything one should have; a funny concept, likable characters and a strong entrée into the world, clear conflict, it wasn’t just a great pilot but a strong series, and she had great one-liners with perfect word choice, rhythm and cadence to the pitch. And she was unshakable. She knew her story and pitch so well a room full of drunken peers and three A-List writers judging her couldn’t shake her. That’s how you pitch!
12. “It took every moment of your life to get right here. And every second of mine.” – Norman Lear.
September 1st, 2015
By New Writer on Message Board
Hey guys, thanks for accepting me into your Facebook group. I’m new to screenwriting though I’ve read at least two books on it. Well, almost two books. And I read at least 3 scripts last year which I think really prepared me for my new writing endeavor, but I could use some guidance because…
I just wrote a complete sentence and I think I really have something here.
I know it’s not much yet but it took me 4 months and I think in the right hands, it has huge commercial potential and could sell. It’s certainly better than most of the crap Hollywood is churning out these days, which I can’t stand. It’s like there’s no originality anymore, right? I only want to write my own original thoughts. But I thought I’d ask you all for feedback and advice before I start sending it to production companies and agents.
Be brutal – but kind. Because this is the first thing I’ve ever written – or at least the first thing I’m willing to show anyone – and I think it’s a pretty great sentence. Here goes –
“No one else could possibly imagine the tortured pain he felt inside after she drove away.”
What do you think? I’m really proud of it. I think it conveys a new type of character that’s never been seen and some deep emotion. I heard stories are all about internal conflict.
But since I’m new to screenwriting, I was just wondering a few things. I hope you can answer my questions and help find me the success I know this sentence deserves.
I heard Tarantino once wrote a sentence and it was bought for a million dollars. I’m not saying this sentence is as good as Tarantino’s of course, but who knows?
First, do you think I should capitalize any other words in my sentence? I’m pretty sure I read that the first letter in a sentence should be capitalized in screenplays, but am I getting the format right? Should I capitalize DROVE since it’s a verb? Or PAIN so that the reader really knows what I’m going for?
Second, I was thinking of Morgan Freeman when I wrote this sentence. I just think he’s brilliant and would really get it, ya know? Do you think he would be interested? And does anyone know how I could call his agent and send it to him?
I heard that you should register everything you write. How do I go about registering my sentence? When I send it out, should I put the registration number under the sentence?
How would you suggest I pitch this sentence? Should I read the whole sentence or just part of it and let execs ask questions about the rest? Should I send blind queries for it, and if so, would it help if I tell the execs that I’m currently working on the next sentence so that they know I really have a vision and I’m a hard worker who won’t give up until I’ve written a whole paragraph?
Do you think agents will like my sentence? Do you know any I could email about it? I know CAA is the biggest, but I’m thinking maybe ICM would respond more favorably?
In case you’re interested or know any investors, I also just launched a GoFundMe campaign so that people can donate to this project. Anyone who sends over $10 gets a personally written copy of the sentence. And a producer credit when it gets made. Please tell your friends!
Hey, guess what? I just bought a $45 online pitch session. I was told all I need is an idea, but luckily I have way more than that with my sentence so I think the exec will be impressed. How many writers do you know that have optioned their sentence? Does it happen often? How long should I wait to follow up on the pitch of my sentence?
That brings up another point – if my sentence gets optioned, should I move to LA? How much money do you think I should expect for the option of my sentence? I’m not looking for much, I’d rather just get my foot in the door. But if I move to LA, I’m going to need that sentence option money to get me through.
Oh shit, guys! I just read my sentence in another script that has already sold. But I’m pretty sure I thought of this sentence years ago before that script sold or was even written. I can’t believe someone would take my sentence and put it in their own script. I really feel like this sentence means more coming from me than it does in this other guy’s script. I think I’m gonna sue…
Does anyone know a good entertainment lawyer who will work for free until the settlement money comes in? I know it’s gonna be huge.
March 17th, 2014
By Danny Manus
One of the greatest themes explored in film is SIN. One of the tenets of a cinematic story is making it VISUAL and keeping the ACTION going. And one of the greatest things a writer can do to further their career, is continue to LEARN.
What better place in the world to bring these three things together than Las Vegas?
That’s why I will be returning to the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference for my third time on April 24-27th. The conference, given by the Henderson Writers Group, is perfect for book or film writers and allows participants to take seminars, workshops, network, take pitch meetings with literary pros, and of course – enjoy all that Vegas has to offer.
And if there is a town that can inspire excitement, originality, adventure, and interesting characters…it’s Vegas!
I’m delighted to have been asked back and will be teaching two all-new courses; Writing Your Natural Story and Creating Compelling, Castable Characters.
The first course will go through the nature vs. nurture of a script, explore story pitfalls, how to recognize when your story has gone awry, and how to make sure your story goes in the right direction. We’ll go through exercises that will ensure you’re always writing your natural story. And most importantly for book writers, we’ll discuss how the correct way to “write what you know” and the principles of adapting a book or true story to film.
In the characters course, we’ll go through 10 great specific exercises to creating compelling, castable protagonists and antagonists and we’ll examine the 12 elements of strong, three-dimensional characters. We’ll also discuss how to create interesting antagonists and supporting characters.
And perhaps my favorite thing about this conference is the first pages panel, where participants submit the first couple pages of their book (or script) and a panel of executives and agents listen as they are read and raise their hand when they would have passed. And then we critique the pages we’ve heard. It is a great way to get a guttural first reaction from professionals to know if your first pages are going to get past the reader. And it’s usually a good amount of fun too.
I hope to see you all there April 24-27th. For more info and to register, go to http://lasvegaswritersconference.com/.
And in case you haven’t been convinced yet, the last time I went to this conference, at least one best-selling author wound up in the trunk of a car. What happens in Vegas…
April 10th, 2013
By Danny Manus
This weekend, there are two big screenwriting events – the Screenwriters World East Conference in NY and the Toronto Screenwriting Conference in Canada. And both afford writers the chance to pitch the pros.
So, I figured it was a good time to whip out some quick pitching advice to keep in mind. There is no ONE set way to pitch your script that will guarantee your success, but here are 5 different pitching strategies or focuses you could use to grab, attract and impress the other side of the table. But you better know what your project’s strong suit is before you decide how to pitch it.
1. Focus on Story, Hook and World. If you think you have a very high concept story and the strongest selling point about your project is your amazing, original hook, then focus on that. If you have a truly original idea that hasn’t been done or you have a crazy new twist on a great existing concept that when you hear it, you get the story completely, then all you will really need to do is give them an awesome logline that gets that across and some perfect comparison movies that get your concept across (it’s THIS meets THAT). If you have a truly original – and COMMERCIAL – concept, you will get a visceral reaction to your logline. If you get no reaction, then either your logline sucks or you don’t have an original concept that grabs people’s attention and you will have to go into more depth on the story. Try to go through whatever exemplifies what’s original about your story.
Focus on the elements of your script that will make it stand out – the world of your script, the locations, time periods, twists and turns in the plot, etc. If you have written a futuristic thriller, and your world is so visual and creative that it jumps off the page – then focus on that world and bring the exec into it. Give them the highlights that will help them picture it and then go into the specifics of the story that will bring that world to life. Focus more on the actual plot and the build of the story to tell us why audiences will be hooked all the way through.
However, you should never EVER pitch the structure of your story. It is a major amateur mistake to just go through the Save the Cat structural beat sheet instead of the actual PLOT. Tell them a story like you would describe a movie you just saw to a friend. You’d never say “And then as we broke into three, the character did this…”
Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way – Olympus Has Fallen, Alien, Shaun of the Dead, Taken, The Departed, The Help, The Hangover, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Looper, etc.
2. Focus on Character, Arc and Relationships. Sometimes a project is more character-driven than plot driven and the new angle or most interesting aspect of your story will be the characters you create and the journey they embark on. Or perhaps it’s about a special relationship that is forged over the course of the story that will really touch an audience like in Thelma and Louise or Superbad (Side note: It’s often the creation of a great dynamic or relationship and putting that into a high concept story that makes the most sellable projects). In this case, you want to really make us love both your characters and get across their dynamic and backstory.
Sometimes a character is so complex, interesting or relatable that it’s the casting possibilities that hook an executive. Sometimes it’s the specific goals they have to accomplish and the obstacles they face that will make a story stand out. Focus on your character’s life, their struggles, their goals, give a morsel of their backstory, and then tell us what happens that totally turns their life upside down (the inciting incident) and what they have to do now. Build them up, tear them down, and tell us why we will want to watch it.
Very often, it’s the non-high concept or more indie films that might be better pitched this way. Or a film that’s based on a real person and their life story. Example include; Magic Mike, Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, Castaway, Rocky, Jerry Maguire, Into the Wild, Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums, etc.
3. Focus on You and your personal story. Sometimes it’s not about making them love your pitch or your project, it’s about making them love YOU. I can’t tell you the number of pitches I’ve taken where I hated the story, but there was something so charming, relatable or likable about the writer that I asked to read a writing sample anyway. If you can come off as comfortable, professional, collaborative, fun to be around (without being an over the top clown who is trying to hard), and someone who truly knows their shit – then they will want to deal with you more. If you mind your manners, have a pleasant disposition, are decently attractive, dressed normally, have done your research, and just have a disarming way about you, that will often get you further than a great logline. It comes down to three things – don’t be combative, don’t be desperate, and don’t be crazy.
If you have real experience in the film industry or with writing in general in other areas, then you want to stress that. If you’ve won MAJOR contests (and I said WON), you want to mention that. If there’s something that is special about you or that you can claim that no one else can, then mention that.
And if there is something about your life or your personal story or experiences that inspired the script you have written that will make us connect with you, you should share that. If you wrote an international action movie and you were a soldier fighting overseas, then that’s great to mention. If you wrote a sci-fi thriller and you’re a scientist or engineer who has been studying the very field you are writing about, then say that. If you were in a bank when it got robbed and it inspired you to write a heist movie, share that story. If you were witness to some huge event in time and you have a specific point of view or new information and your life rights are truly important to the story, then share that. If you are an EXPERT in a certain field, let them know.
However, there are some major exceptions to this rule!! If your script is about a woman who got beaten, raped, divorced, diagnosed as clinically insane, was sold into sex slavery, raised in a cult, got cancer 17 times, etc., and it’s your own personal true story – keep it to yourself. Keep it light, but meaningful. This is not a therapy session, it’s a pitch meeting. You want to share something that will inspire a connection and confidence – not pity.
Especially if you are pitching an agent or manager, you want to pitch YOU much more than a single story. Show them you have a real vision for your career, know what type of writer you want to be, what genres you want to write, whose career you’d like to have in 10 years, and what you’ve been doing to work towards that.
4. Focus on the Trailer Moments. Sometimes the plot and the characters may not insanely original or strong, but you have some awesome moments in your script and story that are sure to get people into the theater. This usually applies more to comedies, action films and horror movies, but if you know you have created some amazing set pieces or huge scares or amazing original action scenes, then that’s what you should highlight in your pitch. Don’t go through a character’s backstory or the beat by beat story – give us a logline, a quick overview of the story and then give us more of the specific, visual, compelling examples of the best parts of your story. Treat your pitch like you were writing a movie trailer. Set up the world in 1 line, set up the protagonist in 2 lines, give us the inciting incident that kicks the story into gear, and then give us the trailer moments and build to the amazing climax.
Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way include Project X, The Expendables, Evil Dead, Spring Breakers, Fast and the Furious, There’s Something About Mary, etc.
5. Focus on creating a relationship. This is where instead of sitting down to rapid-fire pitch a memorized speech for 4 and a half minutes and hope for the best, you just want to take the time to culture a relationship and create a connection. Get to know the person, learn what they look for, what type of project they’ve always wanted to find, what their pet peeves are, ask for general career advice and try to make yourself seem like someone who isn’t trying to SELL them something, but instead is someone they might want to get a drink with. This especially works if the conference you’re pitching at is NOT in LA, because those execs WILL be going to get drinks later and if you seem cool enough, they may invite you to come with. The best sales jobs are the ones where you’re not actually selling anything…while selling everything. The key to this kind of ballsy pitch is to make it seem natural – and they will know when you’re putting them on. But let them know you’re working on some new projects and that you’d love to contact them at some point in the future, etc.
Whether you’re in NY or Toronto this weekend, or any other pitching situation in the future, know what your strongest selling points are (and your story’s) and let that dictate what kind of pitch will be the best fit.
**On Saturday, April 13th, I will be teaching a LIVE in-store class at The Writers Store in Burbank. “12 Steps to a Screen-Worthy Script.” If you’re in LA area, you should be there! Sign up now and you get a free Logline Critique! We’ll go through different exercises and the 12 steps to getting your script to the next level. For more info and to register, click here – http://www.writersstore.com/12-steps-to-a-screen-worth-script/
May 7th, 2012
With the Great American Pitchfest in less than a month, I know many of you are preparing your pitch, getting your script in shape, and figuring out what your strategy should be to maximize your pitchfest experience. But how many of you have completed your one-sheet?
If your hand isn’t raised – you aren’t ready to pitch! One-Sheets are an absolute must if you are going into a pitch meeting, especially at a pitchfest event. It’s what you are going to give the executives at the conclusion of your pitch that will allow them to remember you and your story a week or two after the event, when they finally go through everything and decide what they want to read. If your pitch is your first impression, the one-sheet is your lasting impression.
It’s the only way the executive, who has listened to 50-100 pitches that day, is going to be able to remember you after the salient details of your glorious 5 minute pitch have escaped them. I write my comments on your one-sheet the second you leave the table – Yes, no, great concept, bad story, liked her, hated him, ask for script, totally retarded, smelled bad – whatever.
Your one-pager (another term for one-sheet) is your calling card and you should always keep one on you at all times. Even if the event you’re pitching at tells you not to!
It’s not just a selling tool for your story, but also for yourself. It differs from a synopsis in a few ways. First, as its name dictates, it’s only ONE page. Secondly, unlike the synopsis which is just about your story, your one-sheet can be a bit about you as well. It’s much closer to the query letter but without the letter aspects. You don’t need the greeting or closing, but a good one-sheet should include the following:
– Your name
– The title of your screenplay
– Your contact info including email (even if they have it already)
– The genre of your script
– The logline of your script
– If appropriate, 1-2 lines that state anything special about you that pertains to your story or the film business in general just like in your query letter. Or mention of any major contest wins, produced projects, etc.
– Then, 1-3 VERY short paragraphs (about 8-12 lines on the page) about your story, your world, your protagonist and what they must accomplish, what is against them, and what’s on the line. It should be a bit more stylized than your synopsis, which means your voice as a writer should shine through.
– Much like the query letter, you should not give away your ending, but you should tease and intimate your awesome ending – let the exec know that your story builds to something exciting.
On a one-sheet, you can also include at the bottom a few more titles with genre and logline of other projects you have written (if you have others), because the executive might not like your project, but they might like YOU, and want to know what else you’ve done.
And incredibly important for your one-sheet — no typos or grammatical errors!! If you cannot write a half a page without a typo or mistake, then you are sloppy or lazy and I don’t want to read your script. I know many execs who will throw away a one-sheet with a typo on it.
Execs can tell if someone can write by their one-sheet, and they often will not ask for a script if the one-sheet is unimpressive, bland, boring, or doesn’t tell them anything.
The paper shouldn’t be boring. You shouldn’t doodle little animals on it or anything, but I find that the one-pagers I keep and the ones I take more notice of have something different on the page. They are a bit more visual, perhaps there’s a picture or pattern on the page that connects with your story, or they are printed on a slightly harder stock of paper than regular printer paper. It doesn’t need professional graphic design, but I’ve seen many one-sheets that are basically the poster for the movie on one side and the synopsis and other information on the other.
Just like with your pitch – the more visual a one-sheet is, the more memorable it will be. Is an exec not going to read your script because your one sheet isn’t visually stimulating? No, of course not. But you are trying to do things that make you stand out, in a good way. Executives may tell you it doesn’t matter, but subconsciously, it does. People like shiny objects. It’s how Transformers got made. So if there is something visually stimulating – not detracting or distracting – but stimulating about the page, chances are execs will pay more attention to it.
But one thing you should NOT do – is put the actor you want in your movie on your one-sheet. Nothing will scream amateur more than a photo-shopped picture of Adam Sandler!
However you design it, I cannot express to you the importance of having one. Writers always ask if a business card is good enough. As far as getting an exec your contact info, a business card works. But even if the title of your script is printed on that card, that’s not going to remind the executive about your story or your pitch or some of those key words you dropped during your pitch. Business cards get lost, they fall out of pockets or bags, get thrown away, etc. A one-sheet is a preferred.
Some people say one-sheets are unnecessary and that if you don’t write them, an executive will have no choice but to ask for your script instead. Those people are complete morons. They have another option…not asking for anything! And if they were on the fence about your project, not having a one-sheet makes it that much easier for them to forget you were ever there.
June 21st, 2011
By Danny Manus
Today’s column comes from the “live and learn” files of Hollywood. I recently had a client, who will remain nameless, who had sent her script to an executive, who read it and liked it and asked the writer to come in for a meeting. During that meeting, my client pitched the exec a couple of other projects she was working on and was also pitched BY the executive a couple of projects their company was looking to develop.
This is what normally happens in a pitch meeting. Most production companies have internal story meetings where they come up with and pitch (to each other) story ideas that they may want to develop and find writers to work on. When I was at Clifford Werber Productions, I’d say at least one-third of our projects were self-generated between the two of us. Some were winners, some weren’t. But since A-List writers don’t write on spec and they usually only pitch their OWN original material – this is where YOU come in!
So, my client was pitched this one idea (which will also remain nameless) and given a few specific (but basic) notes on what they were thinking. It was basically a “reversal” of a concept of a popular movie from years ago (and that is ALL the information you’re getting). Now, here’s what you need to know about executives – they usually don’t really know what they DO want – they just know what they DON’T want.
I had this original project idea at CWP that I had written a 3 page pitch document for which basically had the set up, much of the first act, and premise to the story and characters. We pitched this to tons of writers and had 3 or 4 (over a year’s time) come up with a nicely-fleshed out treatment and pitch, but for one reason or another – Clifford didn’t like them. They just didn’t match with his vision for the project, even though he and I weren’t sure EXACTLY what we wanted that vision to be.
But a good take on our story is like obscenity – we know it when we see it.
Anyway, my client came up with a take on the project and presented it to the executive – but it wasn’t right for them. It wasn’t what they were looking for. But she was given one more chance. So, she came to me and we re-worked it and re-wrote it (No, I do not take co-writing or story credit), and I thought the idea that resulted from our 3 hour in-person consultation – was pretty damn solid. If it came to ME as an executive, I’d probably be pretty happy with it, though it was only a 4 page pitch and not an extended treatment. There were still many story specifics not worked out.
Unfortunately, once again, the executive did not think it was what they had envisioned. And she’s right – it wasn’t. In my eyes, it was better. It took the one-line concept they had given my writer and (in my opinion) expanded it, gave a different twist to it, made it more castable, etc. But that’s not what the exec wanted.
All too often, writers try to do something totally new and different – when all the executive really wanted was for you to basically regurgitate exactly what they asked you to do but in a more stylized and interesting way. Sometimes this takes great control on behalf of the writer, but it could mean the difference between getting the job and not. If an executive tells you they want a 16 year-old female protagonist, don’t change it to a 25 year-old male because you think it’s better – just give them what they asked for.
What I tell my writers to do, and what I would have done with this client if we had more time (the meeting was in 2 days), is to come up with at least 4 or 5 different takes on the concept so that if the executive shoots down your first take in the meeting, you have fallbacks and options that you can immediately follow up on and pitch instead. They will be impressed that you gave it so much thought. Perhaps in one, the focus of the story is on a different character, or it’s set in a different location, or there’s a different catalyst and inciting incident that sets up the story. It’s never a good idea to ONLY have one idea.
It was frustrating when I got the call from the executive, who was nice enough to give me a heads up because she is a personal friend of mine (yes, she knew I was working with the writer as a story consultant). She didn’t love the pitch we had come up with – I was honestly very surprised. But it wasn’t my place to fight the points she raised – it was my job just to listen, smile and nod and hopefully learn a bit more of what they actually did want. I could have argued, but I didn’t want to screw my client over, who was meeting with her the next day. Know your place in whatever situation you’re in.
But the phone call I received also illuminated a few things I did not know previously, including how my client had actually been pitched this project THREE months ago and was finally getting back to the exec.
Here’s the thing – if an executive tells you they want to hear your take on their project – they want to hear it SOON! Not the same week, of course, but probably about 2-4 weeks later. If you are taking more than 4 weeks to come up with a take, that exec is going to expect much more than a 3 page basic treatment. They will want a fully fleshed out story and characters and probably a 10 pg document.
Also, if it’s not an idea that you truly spark to – DON’T force it. I know you all want to make the executives happy and get on their good side and create that relationship. But they will respect you even more if you say “that’s a great idea, but I’m honestly not sure it’s an idea that’s right for me or one I can connect to enough to do a great job.” They would rather find something else you both agree on and have a vision for than waste their time hearing a take on something you don’t even like.
You need to know the politics and expectations of meeting with executives. You have to respect what they are asking you to deliver, you have to deliver it within an acceptable amount of time, you have to be incredibly prepared, and you have to know when it’s not a good fit.
How do you do this? Well, much like my client did, you live and you learn.
June 1st, 2011
By Danny Manus
- Have a FINISHED script in proper format.
- Know your target. Do your Research.
- Embrace the “Alternate” and use it to your advantage.
- Try to get a pitch session before lunch, but not the first session of the day.
- Know your story!! Backwards and forwards. Characters, arcs, plot, story, ending, act breaks, etc. No using Cue Cards!
- Be open to constructive criticism on your story, characters, pitch, and even your personality.
- Have an excellent and visual one sheet with your contact info, email, title, genre, 1-2 paragraph synopsis, additional project loglines, any relevant background info, etc.
- Ask us if we want to take your one sheet if we haven’t asked for it already. Or at least leave a business card with contact info and your project’s title.
- Dress appropriately. No costumes. No flop sweat. No spittle. Bring some hand sanitizer too!
- Make us think you’re from LA, or at least would move there.
- Make sure you can pitch in English. At least coherent enough to understand.
- BE NORMAL!!!
- Know what the hook to your story is, what the original twist to your story is, and highlight that.
- Make sure your first minute contains: your name, your project’s title, any pertinent background info, whatever sets you apart, your project’s genre, the logline and hook, one or two comparison films, etc.
- Make sure the rest of the pitch contains: your main story line, descriptions and arcs of your main character(s), some of your big set pieces, funniest/scariest moments of your script, etc. The most commercial and original parts of your script. The trailer moments!
- Prepare to answer questions about you, your story and your writing process.
- Make sure your TV show idea can last 4 seasons before pitching your premise.
- Gear your pitches to agents/managers so that it’s more about YOU and your vision for your career than a specific project.
- If we ask for it, send us your script within 2 weeks.
- Respect the pass if you get one at the table.
- Say hello if passing us in the halls after your pitch. Act normal and smile.
- HAVE FUN! RELAX!
- Set yourself up for failure.
- Cry while pitching.
- Use Cue Cards. You should know your own story better than that.
- Act your pitch. Just tell a story and have a conversation. Also, no singing, dancing, or funny voices necessary.
- Tell us that this is the first time you have ever pitched this to anyone. We shouldn’t be your first pitch.
- Use a gimmick. No posters, toys, props, etc. Trailers are okay and drawings are okay if you are a professional FX Artist.
- Fight with fellow attendees, even if they are taking up your time.
- Fight with execs and argue about their take on your story or pitch. Don’t tell them that you don’t think they’re right. Keep it all inside and just smile and nod.
- Start your pitch with something incredibly personal or embarrassing.
- Start your pitch with a rhetorical question!
- Ask execs to take your script at the table. And don’t beg.
- Ask execs for their card more than once.
- Pitch projects that are not appropriate for pitchfests (period epics, sci-fi trilogies, Hollywood insider movies, Oscar-type Prestige Dramas, Autobiographies that haven’t been published/covered somewhere – a book, article, short film, doc, etc)
- Deny execs your big twist ending.
- Have typos or grammatical errors on your one sheet!!
- Insist on directing or acting in your script.
- Make execs regret saying yes. Don’t be annoying or email/call incessantly.
- Under any circumstances, pitch execs in the bathroom or on a cigarette break.
- Become a horror story.
February 26th, 2011
By Daniel Manus
The key to getting someone to like your script…is finding someone else who likes it first. Hollywood is an institution that runs on word of mouth and is basically based on jealousy, insecurity, and the need to prove oneself. So the best way to entice someone to read your script is by creating the perception that it’s a hot piece of material.
What – you mean just lie? Noooo, not LIE. Not…exactly. It’s just using the truth to your advantage.
Subconsciously, people will be more hesitant to say something sucks when they know someone else loved it.
But the person who loved it has to matter – it can’t be your family, friends, trusted writers group or anyone on your payroll. One of the biggest turn-offs for me is when a writer tells me they gave their script to their kids and colleagues to read and everyone loved it. Now, instead of creating the perception that someone in the industry likes your work, you have created the perception that you are so far removed from the industry that you actually think that matters. It doesn’t.
But I digress…
Do you know why some of the scripts on the Blacklist were so well-liked? It’s because the writers were rep’d by powerful agents and managers – and they must know what they’re talking about…right? Some were well-known, A-List, produced writers…so what they write has to be good…right? Some scripts tackled really important subject matter – so it must be powerfully written…right?
Well that’s the perception so it must be true…right?
Personally, I thought there were a few downright shitty scripts on the Blacklist this year (I will cover the Blacklist in more detail in a future column).
Do you know why so much shit gets made in Hollywood? Because someone important with bad taste reads the script and likes it, and so many others just fall in suit. Or because when it’s dressed up and advertised as something GREAT, you feel like an idiot if you think it sucks – and no one ever wants to be the one to rock the boat in a room full of execs that “love” a script – so they keep quiet and shit gets made that no one actually thought was good.
The studio exec doesn’t want to piss off the agent, so he says it’s great even though he hated it. The agent tells the junior executive their boss loved it, so the jr. exec is forced to say they loved it too. Now a script is being developed that everyone actually hated.
So, what’s the key? Make your shit look and sound great. FOOL people.
There’s a trick producers use to garner interest in their projects from studios and/or talent. We’ll call up a TALENT AGENT and pitch our script for one of their clients and they request it. Then, we call up STUDIO GUY and pitch them the same script, except now we get to say that A-List Actor Man is currently reading it. So the studio requests it. We hear back from the agent that they like the project but want to know where the money is. We tell them that Studio Guy really likes the script (which is a pre-mature stretch, but they liked the pitch and requested the script, so whatever). Great. So, we call back the studio and tell them that A-List Actor Man really likes the project and is interested (he’s not yet, but his agent is – and that’s good enough). Now, the studio is even more interested in the project because they see the packaging opportunities.
No one ever said they want to make the script or that their client even read it – but they requested it and have shown some level of interest in the project. So we leverage that perceived interest to garner interest from others. And that’s what you should be doing.
There was a script called “Pierre, Pierre” which sold in 2008 for a MILLION dollars. It now has Jim Carrey attached. And it’s awful. Awful. But Ivan Reitman liked it and attached himself, and it sold. Reitman has since fallen out, but this was one of those projects that most execs actually hated, but we didn’t want to seem like the stupid kid in class who didn’t “get it” – so we all said it was brilliant.
It’s all about perception. Advertising executives learned this a long time ago – People like what they are told to like. If someone more important than you liked the script, then there must be something you’re not seeing, right? You don’t want to look stupid, so you say you like it too…and it goes from there.
The Amazon Studios screenwriting contest recently announced their first winners, and one of their winners is a man named Richard Stern, who was VERY active on many boards and websites talking positively about the contest and (in a not-so-subtle way), was promoting his script and talking about how he’s gotten really high ratings and votes and people seem to like it. This caused anyone reading his posts to go check it out and if they saw that 100 people voted it the best, chances are…they will vote that way too. And guess what – he won! He created the perception (whether true or not) that his script was a favorite so far and people really liked it (btw, it is a good script).
You have to hype your script without overhyping. Tell people that so-and-so really liked the script, but don’t tell them it’s the greatest script ever written – you can’t live up to that hype.
There is a bias against first time writers who aren’t rep’d and who live in bumblefuck towns outside of LA or NY. There just is. So…what should you do about that?
Well, if you’re at a pitchfest or just making cold calls, there is an easy way to hype your script and change the perception of your work. First, don’t tell them you’re NOT from LA. Second, tell them you used to be represented. If or when they ask which agency, you can tell them it was just a small boutique agency that doesn’t exist anymore or a small agency outside of LA (and that’s why you left). They really won’t know the difference. Just make sure you have a plan for what you’re going to say. And third, slip into conversation (in a subtle and natural way) that so-and-so over at such-and-such company requested the script already.
If you cold-call a company and they tell you they don’t take unsolicited scripts, say something like, “Oh ok, no problem, I understand, I had just been talking with THIS other company and they requested it, so I thought I would give you guys a try as well.” This MAY make them think twice before hanging up. If you hear them pause or say “oh…well…um…” – that’s your cue to give them one final push on the script in a nice, polite and professional manner. You’ve made them rethink their policy concerning your script, now you have 10 seconds to capitalize.
Companies who know that they are competing for a project are more likely to request it, read it quickly, and get back to you. It’s the basis of how and why the spec market was created and worked for so long. And it creates the perception that you and your project are something special. And in Hollywood, perception is reality.
November 30th, 2009
As I travel the country speaking to new groups of writers and attending pitchfests and conferences outside of Los Angeles, a certain trend in the types of material I hear has become clear and it alludes to a huge cultural difference between those who live in LA and NY and those who live elsewhere.
At an LA-based pitching conference, perhaps 5 out of 100 pitches I receive revolve around spirituality, new age religion or some faith-infused plotline. But at recent trips to Santa Fe, Portland, and Dallas, I would say at least 40% of the total projects I was pitched or consulted on were based on spirituality in some form, including some sort of Native American angle or practice. Since Native Americans currently only make up about 5% of the U.S. population, why do people think this would be a big commercial success?
And why is this observation of the connection between location and religion important? Because if no one in LA connects to this spiritual/new age/true believers movement, then why would we make a movie about it? Now, Los Angelinos are known for being progressive, spiritual and new age, but we’re more the organic, yoga, too lazy for real religion type of progressive. Screenwriters and producers in Los Angeles worship a different deity…and it’s green and fits in your wallet. I am convinced that this difference in attitude towards religion is what’s keeping many writers from writing a commercial project – because they think religion IS commercial…and it’s not.
Religious types will often retort with how successful “Passion of the Christ” was – and it was – but that was an anomaly directed by Mel Gibson. Now, there is a huge book market for these types of projects and most of these pitches would make for great novels, just not movies.
There is also a big and potentially profitable niche market for faith-based movies – “Fireproof” proved that one. However, this is a mostly Christian market and we all know how Christians feel when someone tries to horn in on Jesus. So, there really is no market for new age spirituality or Native American tradition. I cannot think of one company that is actively looking for anything like this. If I’m wrong, please – companies – tell me so because I got about 100 pitches I’d like to send your way.
I respect how important spiritualism is to some people and if there is some sort of religious theme you would like to express through a completely unrelated story, that’s fine. Or maybe you read a passage in the Bible and it inspires an idea for a horror or action movie – that’s fine. Or maybe a character’s spiritual beliefs are a small part of his or her arc – that’s fine too. You just have to be aware of how much you are including the religious/spiritual aspects on the page. I understand trying to bring one’s religious beliefs to a larger audience – but that’s what Republicans are for, not screenwriters. As a general rule, if you want to write a commercial and mainstream Hollywood movie, keep your religious beliefs in your heart and your head, not on the page.
July 3rd, 2009
What is it that would propel a writer to jot down one hundred and thirty pages about the one-legged woman who married the inventor of the soybean? Or a story about the quadriplegic midget who falls in love with a gold miner in 1886? Or a nice sentimental drama about a man who was raped be a seal?
The answer – bad instincts. That thing every writer has inside of them that basically serves as their navigation tool – their story compass – that points their script in a certain direction. They can kill a writer’s career long before it ever starts. If your instincts drive you to a completely noncommercial, ridiculous, boring, inappropriate, or confusing place – there’s not much we can do for you. And by the way, I have been pitched at least ONE of the stories in the first paragraph.
One of the most common remarks you’ll overhear an executive say at a pitchfest, is “we can tell the writer just has bad instincts.” We can usually tell if you have the right instincts, but often bad instincts can be disguised by a great pitch. I’ve had pitches that blew me away but when I started reading the script, the characters were downright despicable and the story went into odd, random directions that were never even discussed in the pitch.
It’s THE dreaded comment really, because most other things can be fixed or improved upon with a little hard work and dedication, but we can’t change a writer’s instincts. Sure, we can change the story your instincts have driven you to write, but to change a writer’s instincts is like pushing a 10 ton truck up a hill. It’s just too hard to try. There’s too much resistance and not enough upside, because a writer with bad instincts is like dead weight on the page. It’s also the most frustrating comment for us to give, because we can see that you have a spark of a good idea or something that COULD work – if it were in another writer’s hands. And we want to take that idea from you and make it what it SHOULD be – and sometimes we are tempted. But we know that giving you notes to change your whole story is only going to anger you and waste our time. There’s nothing we can do but show you alternate directions for which to take your story, but ultimately, if a writer wants to write a story about a quadriplegic midget who buys a horse, nothing we say is going to make him reconsider.
There are a number of things that go into shaping a writer’s instincts. Much like how one’s upbringing and relationships growing up affect their future relationships, it also affects their writing. If you were born on a hippy commune, your first script might be an anti-government conspiracy tale. If you come from a home with divorced parents, your first script might be an “American Beauty” wannabe (as my first script was). This is because when you start your writing career, everyone tells you to write what you know. I always tell people to write what is in them to write – and then put it aside and write something that can sell.
How do you know if you have good instincts? Well, let’s say you have a great general set-up but you’re not sure what direction to take your story in. For example, your set-up is a guy falls in love with his lifelong best friend’s girl. Common enough right? What’s going to show us you have good instincts is your take on how this occurs, why this occurs, and where it goes once it has occurred. If you have poor instincts, you go to the same place everyone else goes – the men fight over the girl trying to best each other being nice until she gets sick of both and they learn that friendship is more important.
Someone with better instincts will put a different twist on that story. Perhaps instead of the girl realizing she doesn’t love them, THEY discover they don’t love her, but neither wants to lose, so they keep dating her trying to drive her to the other guy. That’s a new twist on a really old concept. I’m not saying it’s a great idea, but it’s a new twist. There are a hundred ways to go with this kind of concept, so I suggest a writer sit down and list 10 different directions you COULD go with your story – even if you have your whole story figured out. Give yourself options. Because invariably, some studio exec is going to give you the note, “we love the set-up, but is there another direction this story could go in?” And you will already have 9 more ideas to pitch them.
Everyone says that a person’s first instinct is usually the right one – that is not the case with writing. Often it takes the rewriting and editing process for a writer to realize his or her story’s true potential!
How do you know if it’s your concept that isn’t working or your story instincts? Pitch your story two different ways. First, pitch your project as just a high-concept logline. Then pitch your project more in depth with more of your story. If you get bites for your concept, but your story gets you rejected, then your story instincts have led you astray.
Improving ones instincts is a great deal harder than just rewriting a script or improving your dialogue, because it goes deeper. It’s not just a line on a page, it’s what you feel in your heart. However, in order to get past your writer’s block, repeated rejection, or repetitive story rut, it’s your instincts that you’re going to have to examine.