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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Phone Pitch

An important weapon in the writer's arsenal. Because you'll be asked to do it a lot. It's one of my least favorite. And I had a big one today.

But everyone's different, and you may love it. But I prefer to see the people I'm talking to, telling a story to, so I can read their reactions. Interested or glassy eyed? Focused, or questioning? All of these in a five minute period?

Then I can always adjust, question, or alter the energy of the pitch as required. It might not take away the glassy eyes, but hell, at least I tried.

But on the phone you can't see 'em, just hear - well - a lot of nothing.

And you have to jabber on. This was the follow up call on my Dreamworks meeting from last week, with one additional producer and two additional excutives from another company who would share the cost of this movie. Cassic set up, standard procedure, five people, four locations.

My reps tried to get all of us all in the room, by the way, for the reasons I stated above, but schedules didn't allow it - so - you go with it. And with this one I had to bring more detail to the table, and really show the shape and flow of the movie. Meeting two people for the first time as well (the other two knew me).

So. How do you give a good phone pitch?

1) Lead the call. After the nicities and hellos the lead exec. may give a brief introduction and say get to it, or may not. Either way, be a horse out of the gate and lead clearly with high energy.

2) Hook them immediately: you need a great open to your story, and you need to paint a great visual. It's possibly your first introduction to them (as two were to me today) and you need to get their attention. First impressions are lasting. So do the work and nail a great start. It will make them realize they need to pay attention on this call and not just put in an appearance.

3) Don't assume everyone has briefed everyone else properly on where you are with your "take". And this is not about you and your history. It's about the story. Briefly re-summarize your love of the material and what excites you about it. Or what excites you about this original idea, whatever it is. Enthusiasm and passion are crucial in writing and in selling writing. I've stated here before that people want to be moved, and will believe you can do it if you can move them with your passion. And if you don't love the material and aren't excited about it, fake it.

4) Any good pitch has visual cues, gags for comedy, stark images for drama, and you must paint your juiciest in the room. Don't stop at your first one that started the show, keep them coming. (An atom bomb goes off in the desert and turns the sand to glass for half a mile. That was one of mine for an action film. That might have gotten me that job). On a conference call the visuals are all the more crucial. They can't see you act anything out.

5) Clarity. Be clear and concise. Who knows who's walked into the executive's office, or what email has come in, or what message prompt rolls accross the screen from their assistant. Don't deviate from your through line, hit your beats, gags or dramatic reversals, clean and hard.

6) Pitch a beat sheet not the blow by blow 90 minute detailed version of your film. And hit your acts cleanly and let everyone know where you are.

Additionally - you may be asked something akin to "what page are we at this point" or "where do you see us now?" "Where are we in act 2?" Know the answer. Don't guess. Confidence is key.

7) Have your theme, or your character's lesson/need, in your back pocket. You will be asked for them if they don't come out naturally in your telling. I didn't on this call, amazingly, and after a one second pause - created it, based on the character and the story I had made. Of course that answer was key, by the way. (and of course it was part of my prep, but for some reason I never articulated it in my notes)


You will be asked these spoilers that could shatter your world and tank your pitch, so be ready for them:

"I understand the first hero, but the second hero doesn't make sense to me, seems a mash of several different people. I don't see how that works." Don't fumfer around on that one or you're dead. They've just called you a crappy writer! Have your answer ready - in the guise of how you would cast this movie, and the talent that would play that part. Powerful charismatic people bring their own energy to a part that can pull together major swings in a character's arc. (Reese Whitherspoon in Blonde Ambition for exmaple, or Ian McShane of Deadwood). Place the actor in the role and defend your character.

"Why isn't there as much action in act 2 as there is in act 1?" Oh, but there is, wasn't I clear about that? Be ready. Perhaps you concentrated more on the dramatic elements, or character bits. Have your clear confrontations and conflicts at hand.

"I don't understand how that character can make the change you're talking about from the beginning to the middle. It doesn't work for me." Jesus, weren't they listening? It's very clear. Have your definitive moment that shatters your character's world - forcing them to see the true nature of their soul and change who they are. (This can be an act 1 into act 2 moment, or act 2 into act 3 moments, different characters have different lives).

"Do you see another movie after this one is over? If we were to build a franchise?" For crap sake, I just spent all this time putting together THIS story, now you want the next one too? This is a trap if you attempt to spin story number two, but there is a simple correct answer. "Oh, yes." Then follow that with "I'd have to think about it, but this is so RICH that there's plenty of OPPROTUNITY." Okay, you dodged that bullet. In reality, of course, that answer is always yes as the nature of stories with truly vivid characters are to weave on unending. Doyle tried to kill Sherlock Homles and look how that turned out.

Of course there are more spoilers, but these are fresh in my mind as they were just the ones I was asked today!

And I nailed the answer to each one because I was ready.

That isn't luck, or specifically great skill by the way, just a lot of hard work that you need to do before going in. Unless you do it, no one appreciates the amount of work that writers do. But if you do your work, you'll be fine. In the end, you can only do your best. So make sure that you do so. That way, you won't leave the call feeling that you missed an opportunity. Because you will not get a second chance.

Follow up: reps tell me call was received quite well and I'm to go to the next step, the final meeting before pitching to the head of production. Meeting is set for this Friday, so this is moving fast, they are very motivated. Very good sign.

Follow up: I've had a chat with the studio exec. about answers needed in this next meeting, the beats laid out clearly again, specifically two spots they thought needed attention, and this time, guess what, we'll all be in the room together.


Anonymous Anil Khedun said...

Wow, it's the way you tell it that gets me excited! Now I can't wait till Friday! I hope all goes well!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Break a leg, Phil! And if they piss you off go for an arm or two...

Wednesday, January 18, 2006  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Great stuff, Phil. Nail it today!

Friday, January 20, 2006  
Blogger writergurl said...

Wow, thanks for the dynamic lesson and if you're half as good in person, I'm sure you'll have a lock on it!

Good luck!

Friday, January 20, 2006  
Blogger David C. Daniel said...

I agree: Good info and advice. I hope you get the gig if you want it. Just promise me one thing: You won't do any writing for free. K? K.

Friday, January 20, 2006  
Anonymous odocoileus said...

Damn. Some of the best things in life ARE free. Thanks for the tips.

Friday, January 20, 2006  
Blogger Q said...

Wow, Phil, this is just gold, man. Thanks for the insight!

Friday, January 20, 2006  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

hey, take it and run with it guys.

Friday, January 20, 2006  
Blogger Piers said...

Great stuff! Thinking of you here... Knock 'em dead.

With a pipe, if you have to.

Saturday, January 21, 2006  

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