WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THE PITCH REVEALS!

If you're having trouble figuring out the logline or pitch for your script, that may indicate a larger problem... a story problem. Screenwriting is condensed writing - we try to paint the most vivid picture possible with the fewest words possible. Every word counts - we only have about 110 pages. So writing a logline or developing a quick pitch uses the same mental muscles that make you a good screenwriter. A problem condensing your story down to 3-5 sentences or a quick pitch may indicate an over-writing problem in the script itself... or a convoluted or unfocused story... or maybe you don't really know what your story is.

Every once in a while I get roped into doing a pitch clinic for Sherwood Oaks College or a film festival or some other organization. A few years ago I was on a pitch panel for the Hollywood Film Festival where a group of us listened to pitches and then gave our feedback. When you do one of these things you hear dozens of pitches, one right after the other... and begin to see the larger problems with most folks' scripts. Because the pitch reveals all of your script's flaws. By condensing your story down to a few lines, it's like seeing the story through a microscope. By the time you guys have read this I will have done *another* pitch panel for the Alameda Writer's Group on Saturday, and let's hope their pitches down reveal any of these problems with their scripts...

The main problem with most pitches - the story makes no sense. Either the idea isn't very good or the story hasn't been thought through or there's no story just a collection of incidents or the characters don't make any sense.

Actually, most don't even have a story. Every time I've done a pitching workshop and I get a bad pitch, I ask questions about the story - and usually the writer can't answer them. Basic questions. Often the story doesn't work, but they've figured out the way to pitch it to hide all of the big story problems. Or they have a high concept that has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

WHAT'S MY STORY?

At that Hollywood Film Fest panel, people would begin pitching one story and then go off on series of tangent stories until someone on the panel would ask them what their story was about... and they couldn't answer! They didn't really know what the story was about - even though the rules of this event were that you must pitch a finished screenplay. So these folks had 110 pages of meandering incidents that never really came together. What's funny is how many different people were unable to answer simple questions about their story!

Even though everyone on the Hollywood Film Fest panel gave a quick lesson on how to pitch before we opened the floor to pitchers - and the other panelist's advice was similar to mine: pitch the core idea for your story not the "this happens then this happens then this happens" chronological version - almost every single pitch ignored our advice... and I think the reason why is because they didn't have a core idea for their story! They only had a bunch of scenes that really didn't add up.

Story is a person with a problem. My definition of story is when a protagonist is forced to deal with an emotional conflict in order to resolve a physical conflict. So - who is your protagonist? What is their emotional conflict? What is the physical conflict?

NO PROTAGONIST

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You might be surprised by how many people had no idea who their protagonist was... and how many people had "stories" without a protagonist. Sure, there are those ensemble stories and love stories and stories about families and other vague, who is the lead? situations... but there were people pitching "stories" where there didn't seem to be a *person* in the middle of the story at all. One guy pitched a story about a ship - and all of the passengers were characters. Talk about a cast of thousands!

Then there were the pitches that started with one character and then moved to another character and another character - as if the story was a relay race. These were confusing pitches because you kept waiting for the first person to show up again... and they never did! What's more, with every character change we'd have new incidents, so it was like a collection of awful short stories rather than a screenplay.

But even if you have an ensemble situation, you need to *focus* your story and find the protagonist. A movie about a family like ORDINARY PEOPLE isn't about the family, it's about Tim Hutton's character. The protagonist is the character who is faced with the big decisions, faced with the emotional conflict... and that's can't be everyone. We are going to see the story through one character's eyes - which character? You have to know!

CONVOLUTED STORY

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The most common problem was a story that was so needlessly complicated that it was difficult to follow. My friend John Hill says that screenplays are simple stories about complicated people. When your pitch or logline requires that you explain all of these odd details and subplots or the story *must* skip from incident to incident or it doesn't make sense (or has enough "Broomstick Plots" to start a home cleaning service) it isn't the pitch that's in trouble, it's your story. A film story really needs to basically be linear - move logically from one incident to the next, so that we can *imagine* the incidents even if you don't mention them. What a good pitch does is give us the framework in a way that we can easily fill in the details with our imagination. If your story is so strange and complicated that no one could ever imagine all of the details we need to understand the story, you're in a heap of trouble! You want a clean, linear, easy to understand screenplay. No one in the cinema wants to take notes as if it's a test, they just want to sit back and enjoy the film.

A similar problem is a story that's all subplot but no main plot - basically a bunch of unrelated incidents featuring the same lead character. We heard a road story pitch that had no actual plot - but every town they stopped in on the way cross country was filled with colorful characters and some minor issue. The reason for driving cross country wasn't part of the plot - just an excuse for the road trip. When people tell you that your script is "episodic" they mean you have no main plot, or your main plot isn't strong enough to sustain the story or isn't used in the story. You don't want a scatter-shot plot. Movies have a focused story about a person with a problem. One conflict, not a grab bag of little conflicts.

NO CONFLICT

Which leads right to those strange pitches we heard that had no conflict. There would be a character, or sometimes a group of quirky characters; but no conflict. Just people hanging out and gabbing. Story *is* conflict. Take away conflict and you have people with nothing to do... and a boring screenplay. The most interesting character in the world is boring if they're just standing around. These people may have had scripts with interesting characters and great dialogue, but there was nothing driving the story - no problem that needed to be solved, no hurdle for the character to overcome.

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Some of these pitches had an *emotional conflict* but no physical conflict. The problem, with that is - we can't see emotional conflict! It's completely internal. We can't see someone struggling with sadness or worries about their children or dealing with shyness around those they love or any other emotion-based conflict. Sure, we can find ways to expose the emotional conflict by creating a *physical conflict* that brings it out - but these pitches didn't have the physical conflict part. So the emotional conflict remains hidden on screen.

Every good screenplay has an emotional conflict at its core - but you need the physical conflict to draw it out. A movie like THE MATRIX could have just been a story about a man who had self-confidence issues... but how would we have known? You need a *situation* that tests the protagonist's confidence (with real stakes if they fail) before we can "see" their lack of confidence. Think of the emotional conflict as an important message in invisible ink - you need physical conflict or that message remains invisible. This is, oddly, one of the biggest problems with many pitches - no physical conflict. Nothing that can be seen on screen. It's a great story for a novel that the writer has put in screenplay format... but it's not a visual story. Screenplays are about what characters DO, not what they think or feel. And the struggle - the conflict - has to be something physical. If we can't see it - it doesn't exist.

NO ANTAGONIST

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The main reason why so many pitches at Hollywood Fest and other events like this have no physical conflict? They have no antagonist. Whenever we asked the pitchers who their antagonist was, they didn't know. Usually, they just didn't have one - and that was the big problem with their screenplay. Many screenwriting gurus focus on the protagonist and the protagonist's need and goal and desire and... They forget to even mention the importance of the antagonist. The antagonist is the most important character in any story, because they bring the conflict. No conflict, no story. No antagonist (or force of antagonism), no story. Which makes this the most serious flaw exposed by a faulty pitch. There's a protagonist - but they don't have any problem. Here's the dirty secret of stories - the antagonist usually *creates* the story, and the antagonist's goal is more important than the protagonist's goal. In a rom-com like MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Julia Roberts' goal is, what? To be a contented food critic? That's not a story! It isn't until Cameron Diaz (antagonist) enters the picture to marry Julia's ace-in-the-hole potential husband that we have a story. No Cameron Diaz, no story! If Cameron Diaz didn't have that plan to marry Julia's potential husband , no story! The most important thing in *any* genre is an active antagonist. That gives the protagonist someone to struggle with.

Some of the pitches had multiple antagonists... and that means multiple conflicts.... and that means a scatter-shot, unfocused story. One antagonist per story. One conflict per story.

BAD IDEA

But here is the biggest problem of all. Every single pitch we heard was boring. They all started out with a bad idea. When you boil your 110 page script down into a pitch, pretty much all that's left is the idea - so it had better rock. You need a great idea. Why waste your time writing 110 page script based on a boring idea? Again and again we heard pitches about people in small towns who wanted to move to the big city (so buy a bus ticket!) Or stories about a group of friends dealing with the kind of problem we deal with every day. People go to the movies to be entertained - to experience something they *can't* experience in day-to-day life.

After doing a couple of pitch clinics for Sherwood Oaks I finally began bringing the Sunday entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times and asked the pitcher to find a film like their story in the film ads. Most couldn't. If we look at the top 10 films for this week (probably the largest ads) we have:

DARK TOWER
DUNKIRK
EMOJI MOVIE
GIRLS TRIP
KIDNAP
SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING
ATOMIC BLONDE
DETROIT
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
DESPICABLE ME 3

Okay, are there any films there about small town waitresses who want to move to the big city but can't because they're forced to take care of their elderly mother? Anything that even comes close? I wonder why that is? Answer: because the average film costs $100 million to make, and probably needs to make twice that much to break even, and the average cinema audience member is 15-25 years old (dating age) and they probably won't be standing in line to see the small town waitress movie. It's just not entertaining. It's not interesting. But even the "Adult Crowd" doesn't go to see movies like that. Those stats that pop up about older cinema goers? Those are the ten films they wanted to see this week. And those older cinema goers? They are the ones who stand in line to see movies like SPIDERMAN: HOMECOMING! They read that comic book when they were kids and are big SPIDERMAN fans. Comic book movies are *not* aimed at kids! The core audience are fans of the comic books... and those are older adults. People go to the cinema to be entertained - so your story's *idea* has to be entertaining. You need a great *concept*.

Even an arthouse film like last year's THE KING'S SPEECH has a great concept (though not a high concept) - the new King of England stammers like crazy and can barely make it through a sentence... but must make an inspiring speech announcing that they are at war with Germany - one of those speeches that pull the country together and give them hope when things look hopeless. So, with the clock ticking, he must use an untraditional unlicensed speech therapist. This is a small film with very high stakes - the fate of England!

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I always find connections between things, and the connection between the words *concept* and *conception* is pretty hard to miss. So think of those hundreds of sperms swimming up the tickle tubes to fertilize an egg - only one will succeed. Now think of those sperms as IDEAS. You need to come up with hundreds of ideas in order to select the strongest one - which will survive to fertilize that story so that you can grow a screenplay. Don't write the first idea that you come up with. Find the great idea first. Not some okay idea, or even a good idea - you need the idea that knocks their socks off. You need the idea that is amazing (and amusing).

There is no market for a standard genre script - you need an amazing idea as well. The pitches that were something you might find in the Sunday movie section of the newspaper were generic genre pieces. Romantic comedies or action movies or thrillers or horror flicks without a high concept. Which actually makes them things you *wouldn't* find in the movie section, because those films usually have a high concept (unless they are based on a popular comic book or TV series or other source material). Let's look at THE DAVINCI CODE - it's a thriller. Okay, that's a popular genre. But the concept is - there's a group within the Catholic Church that uses a hitman to kill anyone who discovers the big secret - that Jesus was married and had children... and there are descendants of Jesus walking around today. Okay, that's a cool idea for a thriller. MINORITY REPORT is a cool idea for a thriller. You can't just have a standard genre story, you still need a really cool high concept idea or some sort of hook that makes it unique.

FAKE HIGH CONCEPT

I read finalist scripts for a contest a few years ago and one had a man get into an accident and come out unable to sleep. That's a high concept (stolen from Lawrence Block) - but the story was a rom-com about a developer who fell in love with a woman whose deaf son went to a deaf school the developer was about to bulldoze to put up a shopping mall. Okay - tell me what the never-sleep thing has to do with that shaggy-dog logline? It's the developer who doesn't sleep, but that has nothing to do with developing shopping malls or schools for the deaf or anything else. It's a tack on high concept.

One of the pitches at a pitch clinic I did at the Take One Bookstore years ago was similar - it was about Van Gough being reincarnated as a gang tagger (gang graffiti). The tagger witnesses a murder and goes on the run... Okay, what does that have to do with Van Gough? The writer's answer was that this tagger had the soul of a great artist - he was brilliant. Um, that's nice, but it has nothing to do with the story. The high concept wasn't being explored, it was just a gimmick.

But even when the high concept is being explored, it's often explored in the least interesting way... or through the least interesting characters. Or elements of the story never add up to anything. When you hear a pitch where there *is* a good high concept, but the writer has figured out the absolutely worst way to use it, you wonder about their writing abilities. If they can take something good and screw it up that bad, how awful is the stuff that wasn't all that great to start with?

All of this stuff is WRITING, not pitiching. It's the pitching that exposes the flaws because it condenses 110 pages into a handful of words. It's the same as painting a small section of a wall, then stepping back to see the whole wall - and the big flaws are suddenly noticeable. You can't see the problems when you look at a small section, only when you get an overview. The pitch shows the story problems.

So anything that may help a writer improve their story skills (the writing part) is going to be more important to me than the pitching stuff. The biggest pitching problems are always story problems. Pitching is one of those things that doesn't really matter. If you write a great script and give it to anyone with the slightest connection to Hollywood, that script will travel until it ends up on someone's desk - and they'll call you about buying it or meeting with you.

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CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!