Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Don't Pitch the Chicken

The Great American Screenwriting Conference & PitchFest

This weekend is the Great American PitchFest, where aspiring screenwriters get the chance to meet one-on-one with industry professionals and pitch a screenplay. The catch? A ticking clock -- a concept every screenwriter should be familiar with.

You get five minutes. Go.
The pressure of a five-minute movie pitch can be just as stressful as the Facebook programmer test in THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
But how can you tell the story of a two-hour movie in five minutes?

Answer: You don't.

I've had the privilege of running a Pitch Boot Camp practice session at GAPF and other pitch festivals around town. People fly in from all over the world with their single-spaced two-page synopsis thinking that pitching is reading a description of each and every scene in their movie.
Example: This college nerd, Mark, goes on a date with a girl named Erica. It doesn't go well because he talks like he has ADHD. He insults Erica and she breaks up with him. So he goes back to his dorm and gets drunk and blogs about her. She sees the blog and gets really pissed off. Then Mark hacks into the university's computers and creates a web site that lets people compare pictures of all the female students. It becomes so popular that same night that it crashes the university's server. That gets the attention of these wealthy twins in this exclusive club that Mark wants to get into. They approach him, Mark, to build a web site for them, but he...
Time! Thank you. We have your contact information. Don't call us, we'll call you. Next!
Mark Zuckerberg's date goes about as well as most pitches. (Jesse Eisenberg in THE SOCIAL NETWORK)
At that rate you'll never get to that really funny scene in Act 2 with Eduardo and the chicken. When the first five sentences of a five-minute pitch are about a date, the listener mentally prepares himself to hear a romantic comedy. He's not expecting that much detail about the first scene of the movie, and he's completely thrown off by the next part of the setup. He assumes you're into your second act by that point -- because you should be.

If you're pitching The Social Network, you want to sit right down and say, "This is about Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest billionaire in history. He invented Facebook in his college dorm room while drunk. It connects 500 million people, but ironically, the guy who invented it is incapable of connecting with anyone in real life. In fact, his business partner and only friend is suing him for half the company after Zuckerberg shut him out."

That pitch tells you about the protagonist, the theme, the conflict, and what the script's hook is.
When pitching THE SOCIAL NETWORK, leave out the part about the chicken.
Over and over again at Pitch Boot Camp, I hear writers nervously describing every beat of their first twenty pages for five minutes and I don't know what their movie is about. Yes, the chicken scene is hilarious, and the reader will love it when he reads it in your script, but it can't be set up properly in the context of a five-minute pitch, and it's not key in getting a studio to understand who's gonna buy tickets to see the movie or why they should bother reading the script in the first place.

So if you're going to be at GAPF this weekend, remember: Don't pitch the chicken!

2015 UPDATE: GAPF has been rebranded ScriptFest. It will be held at the Burbank Marriott, May 29-31.

(Portions of this article first appeared on Five Sprockets on November 7, 2011.)

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