“Screenwriting is an intellectual exercise, but it is designed to elicit an emotional response,” said Billy Ray (Richard Jewell, The Last Tycoon) to a live virtual audience during the recent WGFestival event “Perfecting the Pitch,” hosted by the Writers Guild Foundation. “You want to do the thinking, so they can do the feeling,” and the key to every script you will ever write is to get the audience emotionally involved.
The key to pitching said script is to get the person you’re pitching to get emotionally involved as well, whether it’s a roomful of studio executives or a buddy you’re practicing with.
“When you pitch, the goal is to take [those you are pitching to] on a simple emotional journey,” that a) moves them, and b) communicates to them that you understand your job and role as a writer, Ray says.
One thing every script has in common, he went on, is the protagonist: “the emotional window through which we’re stepping into the story, and therefore stepping into the pitch... Your character is your story and your story is the arc of that character,” whose internal problem is resolved by way of the external problem: “something that is broken about them that only your movie can fix,” Ray explains.
“No one in the world has your talent, your history, your pain, your insight, your humor, your rage. No one has that except you. There are scripts that you can write that I couldn’t write at the point of a gun simply by virtue of not being you.”
“Ninety-five percent of screenwriting is problem-solving,” he continues. “If you were a mechanic, you wouldn’t go sit in Starbucks for two hours waiting for your muse to land on your shoulder and say, ‘fix the carburetor.’ You would just fix the carburetor. That’s what I do all day. I just problem-solve. I don’t think of it as art. I think of it as work.”
Here are some takeaway pieces of advice from Billy Ray and his career experience on perfecting the pitch:
- Because Ray says he is “not talented enough to be unprepared,” he uses 5x7” cards to write out what he’s going to say in the pitch, and highlights using different colors “so my eye never gets caught in one color.”
For example, his pitch for The Comey Rule was 78 cards that he had memorized so he could maintain eye contact, resulting in a 43-minute pitch that he brought the cards along for in case he needed them. After all, pitching with former FBI Director James Comey sitting next to you would make anyone feel the pressure.
- Sometimes it’s a good idea to open your pitch with why the story matters to you. For example, if you’re pitching a script about a police officer and you used to be a cop, lead with that since it lends you credibility as the storyteller. In other cases, you may want to lead with the theme and why your story is going to be universally embraced, or with what a day in your protagonist’s life is like, or with an incredible incident.
- Pitch lengths can vary greatly. Ray noted that his pitch for Captain Phillips was about a minute, while he has also had pitches that were close to an hour (which he does not recommend), such as his pitch for The Last Tycoon. “I sweated through my shirt.”
- When it comes to pitching versus writing on spec, Ray notes that some ideas are so complex they have to be demonstrated on the page rather than pitched verbally. “When it’s just about a tapestry of great characters and their nuance [and] their specificity is gonna be what the series lives or dies on,” you might want to write it, or if it’s going to be hugely expensive and they will want proof of concept. Still, Ray notes that he became a professional writer by selling a pitch—a romantic comedy that was never made.
- Reverse engineering: If you’ve got a third act you love, and it is not supported by the first and second act, you change the first and second act to make the third act as emotionally resonant as it can possibly be. “Endings are really hard. If you’ve got one you like, everything else is in service of it.”
- “Road-test your pitch.” Practice your pitch to three or four other groups of people, at least, before you get in the room for the real deal. That way, you know that everything in your pitch is essential, and everything nonessential has fallen out in earlier drafts. “Never, ever would I walk into a pitch that matters having never run that pitch before.”
- Brevity matters. Don’t over-pitch detail. “You always want them to ask the questions and then you shock them by knowing the answers.”
- Never pitch a story on a Friday afternoon later than 3:30, even if you have to wait three weeks to get a better time.
- When it comes to writing (and then pitching) a politically charged movie, write movie star parts: roles with texture, depth, subtext. Because if those you are pitching to think it’s cast-able, that’s a reason to make it.
- One way to talk about a character in your pitch is to establish their psychological baseline at the beginning in one of three ways: what they say about themselves (unreliable), what other people say about them (even more unreliable), and what they do/their actions. So you might open a pitch with just a character detail, or even with one line of dialogue that encapsulates them as a person.
- The purpose of pitching is so someone will pay you to write it. If you’ve already written it, then just send out the script, and the script will demonstrate what you’re doing. But if you’ve already written the script and you’re pitching, don’t give away the twists or the payoff ending.
“No one in the world has your talent, your history, your pain, your insight, your humor, your rage. No one has that except you. There are scripts that you can write that I couldn’t write at the point of a gun simply by virtue of not being you,” Ray told the virtual audience.
“You have a unique voice in the world. No one can duplicate it. And that is a commodity of tremendous value. So when your confidence starts to flap, remember that. No one can tell the stories that you can tell. Ever. Just maximize that. Work your ass off, never get out-hustled by anybody, never go into a meeting unprepared, never take anything for granted.”
And one final piece of advice from your union: if you are asked to leave written material with a producer after a pitch, don’t do it!
This article originally appeared in the January 7, 0222 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter.