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Sell, don't tell
Some do’s and don’ts if you want to sell a script
This second article deals with preparation, the language to use, what’s left for the writer and getting your foot in the door. Part 1
Do lots of research. You must find out about who you're going to see. These are people with big egos. They will expect you to know a lot about them and to understand their language. If they make reference to a particular film – particularly one they’ve been involved in - you need to know what they are talking about.
Make sure you have a business card that might be made for this particular purpose. Hand out the card before you start so they have got your name in front of them. With a bit of thought and design you might make the card do some work for you by prompting some questions.
It is worth looking for events such as a turning-point in history or any other relevant point of reference for your presentation.
Talk in terms which your audience will understand. Use visual references. Retell your project in terms of other films. So a pitch might go something like this: ‘Imagine Lord of the Rings set in the 18th century, posh frocks meets girls with guns, with wormhole in time leading to role-swaps’. This complete fiction is a presentation style of dynamic image building you could encounter. I was able to observe at first hand a pitch of something I had written. The pitch said nothing about the story I had produced.
You need to have the right personality to carry off this type of visual hyperbole. Don’t be tempted to adopt this approach if you are a wordsmith. Leave it to the insiders who understand the visual reference language. You need an agent or a director to talk this kind of talk with real conviction.
Learn the language
A series is not the same as a serial. If you're talking about a TV series serial then it is a series. If you are talking about the movies, it is a series. There are various other bits and pieces of the terminology that you need to master. Some producers are directors and vice versa.
What’s left for the writer?
So, having advocated actors as the best people to do the pitch and agents or directors to put their foot in the door, what is left for the creative genius who plotted the whole scheme? You are selling yourself. You might think that you have come to pitch your idea but it is you that the moneymen are looking at.
The people you are addressing probably have a cupboard-full of ideas that they can work on. That carefully crafted 60 seconds might not be exactly what they want to buy right now. These people have ideas of their own and probably already know what they want to produce. So give some thought about selling yourself on your own or as a part of your ‘team’. It might be you they are going to buy, rather than the project.
Modern directors like to lead the writing process. In this case they are the architect, perhaps following your brief, and you as a writer might provide the decoration. The secret is out that many films are made with alternative endings and some actors bring their own writers.
The first script is not usually full of detail. I have seen pitches that are just a listing of the characters. It is the characters who carry the story so they need to have some back stories. These will be developed by the director and the script-writer, who might be you if you are lucky enough to get that particular job for the first draft.
More likely, your project will be developed by a team of writers. The writer is pretty near the bottom of the food chain when it comes to making films with the money at the top. The person you are talking to is probably not at the top, so think about how you can support them when they have to face the film or TV companies.
So the best advice from writers who have been there is to listen very carefully to what they have to say, then make them thoroughly aware that you are prepared to put yourself out to help them remake the idea in their image. If you exude the attitude that this is your idea and it can only be done your way, you are wasting everybody’s time.
You are proposing something that can cost a great deal of money and involve a lot of people. If you’re going for a commercial rather than a small art a production you must accept that you're going to have to enter into a wider world. There will be wider issues than your desires and your ideas to be considered. If this is not the role you see for yourself then don’t waste everybody’s time going there.
If you can configure your pitch as something that can develop, you will give yourself an advantage. A one-shot, single programme idea is less interesting and less attractive to both parties. If you can conjure up something that has what they call ‘legs’ then it will be more attractive to producers. The money comes from the second series, sequel or the dreaded pre-sequel.
Try projecting yourself as a provider of a service to producers. Like any sales pitch you need to focus on what they want. People like to be asked questions and most people enjoy a bit of flattery. This does not turn you into a sycophant or fan. They do have a very clear focus, even obsession. Try and enter their orbit rather than attempting to pull them to your point of view.
If you are lucky enough to get a producer to take on your idea the first thing they are going to ask for is the script. This is the reverse of the process with a publisher or literary agent. They do things the other way around and start by reading your script, so make sure it’s ready before starting to make your pitch.
Getting your foot in the door
Pitching involves you in a lot of preparation. Before you start investing your time and planning your pitch, you need to give some very serious thought to how you are going to get to meet the people who matter.
The idea of rolling up at one of the festivals in the hope of meeting lots of producers is fanciful. Festivals are showcases for existing products and that is what the stars and producers have turned up to promote. All their time will be assigned by their team of handlers to obtaining as much media exposure as they can achieve. As a nobody you will not get past the front door. These events are extremely tightly controlled.
There are specialist gatherings but you would find it very difficult to gain admittance. So the first thing that you need to do is to find some way through the front door. Getting hold of a ticket for one of these events is down to whom you know. Tucked away at some book fairs is a gathering of film-makers. Government backed arts organisations put together events so it is worth approaching them to see what is on offer. You need to invest time in getting to know those who can get you invited.
This is a business for insiders. The useful gatherings of filmmakers are not well advertised. But there are conferences for the various genres of documentary film. Be aware that a ticket to one of these events is going to make a dent in your budget. You need to be in the know just to find out about them. This is all about networking, and networking is an investment of your time and energy. A top tip would be to cultivate somebody who works for the press as some publications will get a press pass.
It is a great gift if you can remember names. If you can't, then keep your notebook handy. The gestation period for projects is not measured in days or weeks but in years. So be patient and keep your notes. What might seem at first to be rejection might evolve. We like to pretend that the creative process is not all about competition. Every published and unpublished writer knows this is a lie. If you want to be a success, you have got to join in. You will not win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. The rewards are there, so if you decide to buy a ticket, good luck!
© Chas Jones 2009