An Interview with Master of Story, Robert McKee

Robert McKee, author of the widely renowned Story is set to give a session at the Great American Pitchfest in June. The Pitchfest recently interviewed him on the art of pitching, and here is what he had to say:

The Great American Screenwriter: There are a lot of pitching venues out there — and you have an exhausting schedule. What enticed you to speak at the Great American Pitchfest? There are a lot of mistaken ideas and foolishness around the whole business of pitching. A lot of people are setting themselves up as experts in this business and there’s a lot of information about that coming back to me from my students. There’s a sense of fallacy circulating about pitching and the way one goes about it and what they’re looking for. Look, if a company says they’re seeking romantic comedies but they hear a great and compelling pitch for a smart thriller, they’re not going to ignore that smart thriller. They want great material.

No matter what the genre, the key is to pitch well. But the hardest thing for a writer is to understand their own story. Don’t underestimate the essence of the story. In my session for the Great American Pitchfest we’ll discuss three important components for pitching.

1. You’ll discover the truth of your story. If you can’t find one you may be in a state of self-deception. You may not have a story.

2. How to judge whether you’re ready to pitch or not.

3. I will dissuade you from the notion that a pitch is a song and dance. You can razzle dazzle and bullshit your way through a pitch, but these development execs know how to pick a story out of all that song and dance. So just tell your story. This all goes back to knowing what your story truly is. You need to know the essence of it.

GASW: We’ve heard everything from the 30-second pitch to the 20-minute pitch. In your experience, is there a certain amount of time that you feel is just right for a pitch? The 30-second pitch is Hollywood bullshit. You can’t pitch in 30 seconds. In most cases you’ll get 15 to 20 minutes to pitch your script. It’s the first 1 to 3 minutes that are crucial. You don’t want to bore them in the first 1 to 3 minutes. If you do – you have at least seventeen minutes to dig yourself out of the hole. And you can turn it around.

Let me go back to the 30-second pitch – which is absurd. This is one of those fallacies … perhaps started by angry, untalented people who have been rejected before they could even get in the room. A pitch that is set up ahead of time takes around 15 to 20 minutes to be done properly. Again, the first three minutes are the most important.

GASW: Do you have advice for those private or shy writers on how they might overcome the very social aspect of pitching their script? Look, I’ve been pitched to hundreds upon hundreds of times. Some writers are so shy they stammer, they sweat, they shake … they’re terrified. But if they’re able to get to the nugget that is their story, and if it’s a great story – that’s all that matters. You don’t have to do the song and dance. You shouldn’t do the song and dance. We just want to hear the story.

GASW: In your experience with pitch festivals, do you think the majority of the companies who attend are looking for the next big tent-pole franchise? Or indie-flavored script? What’s the feel out there? Nobody knows what they’re looking for specifically. But if one picture does well, let’s say an animated Pixar movie – then all of a sudden everyone is looking for the next “Up” or “Toy Story.” These things go in waves and a lot of times it doesn’t pan out when you’re just riding the wave. Look at “Mars needs Moms”, which had a dismal opening.

You don’t want to rush something out just because there are other things out that are trendy or popular. You have to write what is in your heart – the story that you are passionate about sharing. This is the only way to have a truly great and unique story. This is what will grab attention at a pitching festival.

Why? Not because it’s a rip-off of the current or next trend, but because it’s a script that was written with great passion. I guarantee that if a company sets out to find the next great romantic comedy but you pitch them an amazing thriller and they see that it’s truly a great thriller – and one that you’ve worked passionately on, they’re not going to let someone else have a chance at it. They’re going to take it back to the office and run it by the rest of their company.

There’s a fallacy of following trends. Hollywood is five years behind the trend. And everybody’s trying to figure out the next trend and how long that trend will last. But if you try to write to trend, you’re no writer at all. You can only write the kind of story you love. Rather than chasing trends there are those who are quietly writing the next “King’s Speech,” “Black Swan” … stories that mean something to them and that they are passionate about telling. But where do those writers go if Hollywood is bent on following a trend? They go to the pitch festivals. They prepare their pitch and they try the independent companies.

I want to bring up Zachary Penn. He wrote “Last Action Hero” and a bunch of other high-concept action films – the stuff that you call tent-pole movies. But this is what he loves. He writes what he loves and he’s brilliant at it. There’s another fallacy that writers can write anything and this is absurd. Write what you love. Don’t write to be part of the current trend.

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