Wednesday 5 November 2014

Eight easy ways to kill a movie pitch stone dead

This is post #1,100.
Last month the venerable Lucy Hay posted the following as part of the lead up to London Screenwriters' Festival (24-26 October 2014). Lucy is, of course, a novelist, script editor, screenwriter, a blogger who helps writers, and one of the organisers of London Screenwriters’ Festival. She is a mother with a backpack full of practical common sense and a ton of experience hearing pitches. Here she shares eight easy ways to kill a pitch utterly stone dead. (Don't try this at home unless you have your own cliché-o-meter.)

8 Pitch Killers To Avoid At London SWF

At London Screenwriters Festival, you’ll probably be turning your thoughts to making the best impression you can, especially when speed pitching, not to mention sending out those one pagers afterwards.

   Human beings prize novelty: if your pitchee has heard or read the same thing over and over, chances are your pitch or (just as importantly) YOU will not stand out during the festival. And standing out, as we know, is half the battle.
   So what are those Pitch KILLERS that make Execs, agents and filmmakers roll their eyes and say, “What else have you got?” Well, maddeningly, this can depend on the individual … but a decade of script reading/ talking to my colleagues has prompted me to share the following list:

1.) Dystopian / Post Apocalyptic. Yeah, we get it: THE FUTURE SUCKS. And why not. Science Fiction usually has something to say about our present, so it’s no accident recession and austerity spawns negative views of what’s coming next for the human race. Also, if the future is a barrel of laughs, then why are we watching? Drama is conflict and all that. So it’s not that I’m asking for UTOPIAS (though if you can pull it off, by all means); but rather, why not use DIFFERENT WORDS that mean “dystopian” and “post apocalyptic”? We are writers, after all. FYI, I’m bored to death of “not so distant future” as well. Get those thesauruses out!

2.) Steampunk. I don’t care what anyone says; Steampunk is NOT a genre—it’s an aesthetic, related to an arena. But regardless of what you think, Steampunk is like Marmite. People really do seem to love or hate it. So know where the people you’re pitching to stand on this issue. Do they love or hate Steampunk? If you can’t find out in advance, be aware even just uttering this word can be a calculated risk. For the record, I hate Steampunk, but someone got one past me only recently, which I recommended “up the chain” … How? The writer never once called it Steampunk. Yes, the language you use can make all the difference. ‘Cos it’s PROFESSIONAL WRITING.

3.) Supernatural. This word is defined in the dictionary as: “attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature; manifestations or events considered to be of supernatural origin. Synonyms: preternatural, unearthly, weird, miraculous.” It’s often an industry “catch all” for ALL things “not natural”, whether that’s vampires and werewolves; the paranormal; or—get this—ALIENS. 
   Note: no one cares whether you think aliens should come under the “Science Fiction” banner … That’s a genre. 
   “Supernatural” is not a genre, it’s an adjective; it describes the weird and (not so) wonderful, the NOT every day, of which aliens are definitely part. So be very careful if your pitchee says this word about your project that involves aliens. DO NOT OBJECT and start ranting* about how Sci Fi and Fantasy are two different distinct genres blah blah blah, otherwise you may just talk yourself out of the game. 
   (*Yes, I have witnessed this. Countless times. Never let your Geek side overcome your writer side!)

4.) Guilt ridden/ Guilt struck. So your protagonist did something in the past that HAUNTS him/her (especially her)? LE YAWN. This is one of the most overused adjectives in loglines and verbal pitches, to the point I want to reach over tables or through laptop screens and give the writer a bop on the nose. 
   Look, I get it. You want to give an idea of character motivation and relate it to backstory; sometimes guilt can do that (though it is horribly overused, especially with female protagonists). Again: get those thesauruses out!

5.) Learn to live & love again. Dudes, seriously. Not only is this red alert on my patented B2W cliché-o-meter, it tells us next to nothing about the goal or mission of the protagonist or how the story works. Turning up most often in dramas and romantic comedy pitches, this phrase is super redundant, as any story about relationship can end only two ways anyway: they stay together, they get pulled apart. So tell us which way the story goes and how!

6.) Heal old wounds. OK, amber alert on the B2W cliché-o-meter, so slightly better because at least it gives us a hint of backstory and that there will be a happy ending (albeit vague) BUT … And there’s always a “but” with me … It’s still crap. Soz. For one thing, every member of the audience signs up for a story arc in the characters they watch, so “healing” is again pretty redundant, as is “old wounds”, as the notion of the flawed character is universal in our culture. Again: be specific!

7.) Confront old demons. Aaaaand we’re back up to red on the B2W cliché-o-meter! I can’t stress enough how much of a DANGER cliché is to your pitches and submissions. Just as people in the industry do not want stories that have already been told, they do not want submissions the same way they’ve always seen them. Now I like to play what I call “Script Reader Bingo” and keep records and lists of phrases, words, characters and storylines that crop up again and again, year on year. Here’s how many times I saw the phrase “confronts old demons” in 2010: 67. In 2011? 85. 2012? 22 (and I barely read any scripts that year, ‘cos I was ill!). 2013 knocked every year’s block off though, with 126! That’s practically once EVERY THREE DAYS.

8.) Prophecy / Destiny. It comes down to this: if you write or talk about prophecy or danger in your pitch, there’s a very strong chance you’re taking your characters and/or plot into passive territory. Ditto that for characters “discovering” exposition handily via the mediums of diaries, psychic powers, or amulets/other objects. And guess what: we generally watch TV and go to the movies to see characters DO STUFF, not have it all served to them on a plate as stuff happens TO them. In other words: reject the passive; go for the ACTIVE. Every time. Because your audience will.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is not so much about pitching as about original plotting. Written in an angry tone but still valuable advice.

And thank you, Henry, for the translation of soz.