HOW TO PREPARE FOR A PITCH
I'm really good at pitching.. now. I wasn't always. I always liked elements of it: performance, eye-contact, telling a story to a room of people. (If you don't like it, that's okay, too. You can't avoid it, but you CAN fake it -- with or without beta-blockers.) But I wasn't always good at preparing for a pitch and that's what I'd like to help you with here. I wish that someone had prepared me so I hadn't blown all the opportunities I did. So this is me turning my futile hindsight anger into something positive for the world, a specific look at what experienced writers are doing when they go into a pitch.
KEY WORD: OVERDRESS.
I mean this both in the sartorial sense (Why not look awesome? Chris Nolan wears a suit to the set each day, so let's take a chapter from this man's book) and the metaphorical sense. Over-prepare. I used to worry that coming in with a full take (I explain what a 'take' is below), a hefty set of cue card notes and my game face on would make me look foolish, like overdressing for a party. But nay, Scribe, you are not protecting your dignity by coming in with anything less than your A-game. Don't think you're gonna wing it. Don't think it's gonna be a conversation. Your casual approach - millennials, I'm looking at you, connoisseurs of casual! -- is doing the opposite: dealing a blow to your dignity and career.
A-Game. For me, this means 10 single-spaced pages of a pitch script. My pitch script has every word I'm going to say in the room. Said aloud, this is me talking for 30 minutes straight. I'm not gonna take up anyone's 30 minutes with my vocal fry unless it's 30 minutes of taut, emotional story-telling that shows that I've done a heckuva lot of work because I WANT this job. When I get to the pitch, I've practiced the script aloud enough times that it's just a guide. I can glance at it but for the most part I'm able to make eye contact with the people in the room as I tell them what I've told myself is a fucking amazing, compelling, moving story.
To get to that point, I've had to work for a week or so on a 'take.'
A "take" is industry vocab for a writer's interpretation of a story. You go to pitches to 'give your take', another odd industry term. Your take is what you think the movie or show should be, how you would write it. You should go in with a 'full take'. A 'full take' includes your view of the tone (including references to similar films/shows), the log line, the theme, character's arcs, and structure from beginning to end, including the opening scene, the ending scene, the turning points and one or two detailed set pieces (big scenes) from the body of the film.
If this is an original television pitch, your take includes descriptions of the main characters, what happens in a typical episode (Each Week you'll see Chef Sally & the robots deal with personal drama in the kitchen for the B and C storylines, and in the A storyline, they leave the kitchen to fight off a specific villain.) and some specifics on possible episodes (Chef Sally has to cook for the President while she and the gang work to prevent his assassination.). A television pitch should also include mention of where the series ends. I always think of Joss Whedon pitching Buffy to the WB and winning them over by pitching them what would happen in Season 7 to wrap up the series. This gives buyers confidence that your show has 'sustainability.'
If this is a pitch for a feature rewrite, your take includes some mention of what's not working with the existing drafts (though don't be mean about it because you are pitching to people who developed those drafts) but is 90% the tale of the movie that you would write.
All takes should include an intro that's personal... Why are you the person to write Chef Sally & the Robot Gang (is this the best show/film ever that I've invented here? Could be. You definitely can't watch it sober.) Because your mother is a chef. Because while you love all genres, you must write about complex female heroines, which Sally definitely is. Because the movie that made you decide to become a writer was Bladerunner, and your 'take' on Chef Sally is an homage to Bladerunner.
Preparing for a pitch is hard work, and it's unpaid work. Both of these factors will tempt you to underprepare. But hear this: your career as a screenwriter will involve an enormous amount of speculative work (as in, not paid; as in, work done to beget other work; bids). So, don't resist this idea. Give in to it. Be the best at it.
Work past your blocks. Ask yourself the important questions: What does the main character want and how is this different than what she needs? What happens at the end of act 1 to send her on her journey for the rest of the film? Which character and what forces cause conflict for your heroine? Is there comedy in this piece? Where does the comedy come from? Be specific about comedic moments. What is the all is lost moment at the end of act 2? Is it emotional? If so, tell it with emotion.
At some point you will have 15 pages of details. This doesn't mean that you are done with your preparation. It means you need to go make it leaner and meaner. Practice on someone and see what their questions and complaints are. Revise. Say it all aloud, with passion, like it's the best story ever told. Outloud practice is particularly potent when it comes to dispelling the pre-game jitters. You'll be really happy you did it. Now, time it. Did it take longer than 30 minutes? Good grief, cut it down.
I structure my pitch script like this: 1) Personal intro/ why me. 2) Log line. 'Chef Sally is a taut thriller with sci-fi elements, in the vein of Blade Runner and Lucy. A female chef working her way up in a 4 star restaurant in a futuristic Tokyo is thrust into an international conspiracy when the deactivated robot soldiers who staff her kitchen are reactived by a rogue dictator. ' 3) Table of contents. 'I'm going to take you through tone, a bit about the world of the film, and then the structure.' 4) Tone, with film references. 5) World of the film. Sometimes I bring a few pages of look book. The world is what the film looks like, what the rules of the world are. 6) Structure. Opening sequence. A few plot points of act one. End of Act one plot point. An overview of act two. 'In act two, Sally is forced to keep the secret from her family while fighting to keep the robots from inciting WWIII.' Some plot points, a description of any comedic beats/sources of comedy. Two remarkable set piece descriptions. 'Sally will be trapped in an autopiloted car rocketing through Tokyo's back alleys and pedestrian markets, trying to save herself as the dictator taps into the cars controls to kill her.' All is lost moment, with EMOTION if a drama. At this point, I am extra careful to be concise, 'cause I've been talking for a damn long time. So I sum up act 3, the climax and have a sentence that is a description of the final moment/image. 7) And then I wait for questions. If they like it, there are questions.
In conclusion, pitches are coveted opportunities, so do the work. And... don't steal my idea because I think I have to write Chef Sally on spec now.