by Fin Wheeler
In order to get our scripts placed in the coveted “to read” pile, we need to successfully pitch our script, and to do that we need short documents for each project.
Must be less than 50 words. Premise. Protagonist. Point of difference. The genre also has to be clear.
Many producers are too busy to judge unsolicited specs by more than a logline, so it’s vital you get it right. There are many services available, such as the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition, to help you nail it.
One Paragraph Synopsis
The three acts of your screenplay’s story, premise, tone, genre and the main characters.
Producers often have an idea of what talent (actors) they’ll be pitching to, so make sure you’re clear about the major roles. This information is important to a producer. Make sure you tailor your pitch to their needs, and that the information you’re providing is an accurate reflection of your script’s content.
If you know you could rewrite a spec of yours to meet the requirements a producer is asking for, rewrite your script and, only after you’ve done the rewrite, submit.
One Page Synopsis
Less than 450 words. If you can set up the premise, the story and the journey of the main characters in even fewer words, all the better. The synopses with the most white space are read first.
Make sure you include how your story ends. Leaving out the ending in an attempt to create intrigue is a rookie mistake. Every producer knows that Act 3 should be seeded in Act 1. They need to know the ending so they can judge your knowledge of story structure.
If you’re submitting to a state or federal film commission or a screenwriting fellowship, you’ll often be asked about target audiences, demographics (the four quadrants – under 25 male, under 25 female, over 25 male, over 25 female), why you’re the best/only person who can write this project and what your personal connection to the material is. Make sure you answer all questions. Remain on topic. Respect the word limit.
Treatments aren’t used much anymore, but if the production company you’re pitching to has a fax number on their website, it’s a good indicator that they probably still use treatments, so it’s best to have one prepared.
A treatment is essentially a short story version of your tale relating not just the plot points, but also the tone and style of the work. Some producers like 5 page treatments, others prefer 10-15 pages.
Your outline is a writer’s document, not a selling document. A reputable producer will never ask to see an outline at the pitching stage.
Pitch Meeting Docs
Pitch meetings aren’t creative meetings. At creative meetings you are expected to take notes and have the relevant hardcopies with you. Pitch meetings are paper-free affairs.
You’re offered a bottle of water, you’re ushered into the room, there’s small talk, you make your pitch. If that goes well, they ask a few questions before you’re graciously ushered out again.
Some screenwriters like to pitch off the cuff. I don’t. We’re screenwriters. Our primary skill is our ability to craft scripts. It makes sense to write yourself a monologue. If you’re told it will be a 15 minute meeting, that means you need to prepare a 3-5 minute pitch. I also prepare clear, concise answers to key questions they’ll ask after the pitch.
There are two benefits to doing all this written prep. (1) Even if you’re nervous and your mind goes blank, you’ll reel off the perfect response automatically. (2) You can’t copyright an idea, only the written expression of an idea. If you have a script of your pitch, and later on someone mis-remembers who came up with what ideas and when, you are able to offer written clarification.
It’s a good idea to practice your pitch over and over in front of a full-length mirror. You want them to focus on your content, not to be distracted by random gestures and facial expressions.
Pitching for Adaptations/Rewrites
As above, if you’re short-listed you’re expected to verbally pitch your take on the material in person, or via phone/skype.
Writing yourself a script helps keep track of which ideas you brought to the table. It’s important to keep track of this because it impacts who gets the “written by” credit. Also, writing and rewriting your pitch script can help clarify why it is you really want this job and what your personal connection to the material is.
American TV works on the pilot model. Only a few very successful show runners are able to pitch entire shows (a complete series). Most producers pitch pilot episodes to production companies who in turn pitch them to the potential broadcaster.
So in your pitch documents, the producer is looking for a lot of detail about that all-important pilot episode, but also some more general information that illustrates that your concept will keep working week after week, episode after episode.
If the producer likes your logline, paragraph synopsis and one page synopsis they’ll ask to read the script. Some may also ask to see the series bible.
TV (Rest of the World)
Outside America there’s less of a focus on pilots. Only the American television industry has the money to film potential projects and judge them based on the feedback from the screenings of the pilots. In other countries it’s more usual for television projects to be judged on the popularity of the head writer’s previous projects, and the quality of the series bible being pitched.
Because conventional, traditional TV scripted shows aren’t getting the viewers they used to, and because of run-away successes such as Girls, producers are more open to considering pitches from new writers with only a few minor credits. Normally, you’ll be asked to submit a 1-3 page mini bible. They sometimes also ask for a 10-page script sample. If you’re shortlisted from that, you’re expected to immediately provide the series bible and the full pilot script.
Never submit more docs, scripts, or information than the producer is asking for. And don’t bug them with endless calls and emails. The way you behave while you wait to hear back from a producer is taken into consideration. And when they do ask for further documents or clarification, make sure you’re prompt (and concise) in supplying it.
Be prepared, and best of luck in your pitching.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.