Article

Your Screenwriting Career: Getting execs hooked - Brevity to verbose (amended)

Written by: Gato Scatena - producer, Scatena & Rosner Films
Published: Jun 26, 2013
 

You are able to maximize your opportunities of getting produced.  You already have what you need to do it; you just need to simplify your approach.

Learn to be as brief as possible in the very beginning of any pitch, or any introduction to your material. Brevity is much more important than most screenwriters [or producers] realize.  And the ability to quickly hook a listener into your project is a skill in and of itself.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
(A) Loglines that Mr. LeBaron pointed out
(B) Producers point of view
(C) Breaking loglines and synopses down... to their core
(D) Synopses explained
(E) Script length
(F) Pitching in person
(G) Holding yourself to the highest standard
(H) In conclusion 

Just like writers, producers have to pitch distributors and buyers. As a producer, I have had to pitch more scripts and projects than you might imagine.  An estimated count would be around 60 pitches for the 5 films produced for which my company was a credited production company in the past three years. And those are pitches for projects that I've already vetted.  However, I've gotten much better results by pitching brief. 

 

(A) Loglines that Mr. LeBaron pointed out:

When you're distributing your materials and pitches via email or through InkTip, you have a limited time in which to stand out, and you have limited real estate (lines of text the producer is willing to read).  Producers commonly get long winded loglines and synopses, and they get a lot of them.  You, as a writer, want to end up with a producer who understands your material and gets what you're trying to go for, so why waste your time and theirs?  If you submit long, verbose loglines, you'll fall long on the attention span of some, and perhaps mislead some of the others.

For me personally, when my company sends out leads through InkTip (oh yes, I absolutely use InkTip), it's very common for me to pour a glass of Scotch on a Saturday night, login to InkTip, and read creative pitches, loglines, synopses, and scripts of writers who have material I might be looking for.  But, I would be remiss if I didn't admit to getting tired of the long, overly descriptive loglines.  However, when I'm 60 minutes in, and I run across a logline that is short and sweet, I feel a sense of relief like, "YES!  A short logline!  Tell me about your script!" When I read concise, captivating loglines, I feel like "now this writer knows what's up!"

Perhaps a short concise logline is just a mainstay of the experienced writer... so, become that experienced writer.  Show your professionalism by delivering on a captivating storyline in one or two sentences: get the producer's confidence before they even read your screenplay!

In the above-referenced article by Mr. LeBaron, he points out the following loglines of which we should take notice:

  1. "Independence Day" - Aliens try to invade earth on Independence Day.

    2. "Liar, Liar" - An attorney, because of a birthday wish, can't tell any lies for 24 hours.

    3. "Dead Calm" - A married couple, trying to recover from the death of their only child, are terrorized at sea by a handsome maniac.

    4. "The Hunt for Red October" - A Soviet submarine captain uses Russia's ultimate underwater weapon as a means to defect to the west.

    5. "The Last Boy Scout" - A private detective must team up with an ex-football star to catch the killer of a topless dancer.

Notice anything in common among them?  We have an action, comedy, and thriller script among these, but they all manage to harness the essence in one sentence.  I'm not necessarily trying to confine all of your current and future loglines to one sentence, but the brevity makes it easy for a producer to establish whether or not he/she may be interested in your material and genre, and whether or not it can be easily pitched to financiers and distributors to get it funded.

When I'm presented with five pages of loglines, the short ones do stand out.  And as a writer, it is your job to stand out.  Just saying.

 

(B) Producer's point of view

Let me give you an example.  Right now, June of 2013, my production company is trying to decide on either one or two projects to finance (out of about ten).  We have the money, we don't have the finalized script(s).  And just like writers have to pitch producers, the producers have to pitch distributors and buyers.  We also, in some cases, have to pitch other producers, in the hopes of a co-production, or the mitigation of financial risk by finding a co-financier.

In any case, we have one possible script that we picked up, and we're pitching it to Lifetime as our follow up to "Imaginary Friend" which was also released by them in 2012 (next airtime July 20 at 4PM :-) ).  What's more, we have a proven Lifetime director on board the project who's helping us with "pre-sales" (when a distributor helps to finance a feature film upfront by providing a sum of money against the total purchase price).  Pre-sales are hard to get for producers; they're the equivalent of a writer getting an up-front purchase of a screenplay they've pitched but have not written-no option, no negotiating: just "hey! We want your script."

There are three executive level people involved in this project right now: me, my business partner Jordan Rosner, and the director.  We have now spent three weeks on the logline, and the final paragraph of the synopsis.  The writer has been amazingly cooperative during this process, but the point is, THE PRODUCERS ARE SPENDING THREE WEEKS ON THE LOGLINE AND SYNOPSIS before pitching the network.  And you can bet your *you know what* that we're not elongating anything; we're shortening the logline and fine-tuning the synopsis.

We're fighting over how to take a three sentence logline down to two before we pitch Lifetime.  We will take it down to two, because as the director put it, "we only have one chance at this."

You as a writer have many moments to get us producers interested in your screenplay, but the producers have even fewer chances.  Therefore, we producers have learned to communicate in abridged shorthand, and we very much appreciate it when writers do the same.  And best of all, it's not that hard. 

(C) Breaking loglines and synopses down... to their core

In your loglines and pitches, you need to break down the (a) who, (b) what, and the (c) where/when/why (see the above logline examples).  You might think that you're script is too complex, like the film "Being John Malkovich." - "A man gets to take over the body of his idol by entering his mind through a secret mid-story building door."  OK, next?  The point is, even the most complex script can have a simple hook.  Every script can, and should, have a simple hook.

Part B tends to be the hardest for most writers and producers alike: "the what." If you're having troubles with your loglines, have your friends and family read your script to help you define what the hook of your script is.  Instead of using space to talk about your lead character's name and personality (unless it's instrumental to the story), utilize this newly discovered hook as the crux of your "what" dilemma. 

Each part of your logline should be an immovable object.  In other words, loglines should be so to the core of a story, that if you removed even one part of that logline, the entire thing would no longer make sense.

Take for example the "Liar Liar" logline from above:

An attorney, because of a birthday wish, can't tell any lies for 24 hours.

Sure, you could rewrite it with waste of space facts that don't yet matter, such as:

Fletcher Reed, an attorney who's made a career from lying, can't lie for 24 hours because of a birthday wish.

All of these additions are completely unnecessary and don't serve a real purpose.  However, looking at the first one, there is not one item you could remove without it falling apart.

(D) Synopses explained

Just like your loglines, synopses should be brief.  Where your loglines are one to two sentences, your synopses should be three four-sentence paragraphs.  Really break your story down into its root components.  I understand that there's a lot you want to tell your reader, but remember, they have a lot of scripts to read.  If yours jumps out off the page before they've even started reading the script, they're more likely to go into the script-already wanting to work with you... I know this for a fact: it's happened to me, and it yielded a movie produced.

Though there's no strict guidline, this basic rule is safe to follow.  Just keep in mind, brevity is beauty.

(E) Script length

Just to prove my point, there's one major issue about total script page-count that I have yet to see covered in any screenwriting article, or on any screenwriting website (correct me if I'm wrong).  Do you know why producers like a 90 page-count in screenplays?  It's extremely simple!!!

1 page of a script roughly equals 1 minute on screen.  And films 90 minutes or under allow theaters to show one more showing of a film per day!  That's it!  It's not magic!  It's math!  If you have a script that could be a success, and it makes it to theaters, a 90 minutes-or-less film will provide another showing, which provides another 100+ seats to be sold at $12 per person.  It's revenue!

So, when I see a 90 pages or less script, I do think, "this writer knows what's up."  When I see 120 pages or more, I think "this better be a great script."

Not to say that the 120 page scripts are bad, or aren't marketable, but when I see a 90 page script, it broadcast to me that this particular writer knows what I'm going through.  He/she and I have a relationship before we ever speak. 

If you have a script that's 120 pages long, don't fret.  Just know the market you're selling to.  I have absolutely read scripts that are longer than 90 pages long, and I thought they were amazing, but my goal in this article is to increase every single reader's chances at getting produced-a 90 page script can help those chances.

(F) Pitching in person

Pitching your screenplays in person can have a long terms effect.  The producers are more likely to remember you and your script because they have a first-hand knowledge of who you are, and what you look like.  I know that in one of my previous articles I mentioned that it's appropriate to have a pitch of 2 minutes or less.  Yes!  2 minutes or way less, indeed.  Two mentors of mine, who I respect immensely.  Screenwriter George Gallo ("Midnight Run," "Bad Boys"... et al), has eloquently described or pitched numerous scripts of his [and others] to me, and they all take less than 45 seconds... until we really start gabbing and riffing.  He's more than capable of going into more detail, but until provoked, he doesn't need to.

This successful approach isn't limited to George's career, or even our industry.  Another professional at brevity is his wife Julie, who consults for successful non-profit organizations.  Julie approaches every opportunity with potential donators, talent, and volunteers as a valuable use of time-as such, she has this majestic way about her where she can communicate the importance of her current objective in 2 sentences or less.  It never seems rushed, is always genuine, and always straight to point.

Both George and Julie are successful in their own right, and both use brevity to their advantage.  It's only after their brevity that the listener wants to hear more... much more.

Now let's do some more math.  If you're at a pitch meeting, and you have twenty minutes, would it be best to have four 5-minute pitches, or as many as seven 2-minute pitches prepared?  If you only have a limited amount of time, but a lot of potential material, using less time to pitch improves your chances of closing a deal.  Not to mention that before any deals close (as I discuss in Part II of this article), there must be time to establish a "friendship."

Knowing producer Benamin Scott ("Lovelace" starring Amanda Seyfried), his phone isn't out because he's bored--his phone is out because he's already interested, and he's getting the writer's information. There's no time to do this if you're busy pitching. So, not only do you increase pitching opportunities with brief pitches, you increase industry "friendship" opportunities.

The number of pitches you can deliver becomes a multiplier of your success. 

Take screenwriters David McClellan & Martyn Eaden, who pitched 55 companies at 2012's Pitch & Networking Summit (see photo). If they had only pitched one script, then they really only pitched 55 times.  But if they managed to pitch at least two scripts to each company, then all of a sudden they've really pitched 110!  Could they throw out three one sentence pitches per meeting?  I think they could.  And that would mean they would've really delivered 165 pitches!  And judging by the high number of script requests they received (47), and the fact that one of their scripts was immediately optioned, it would be safe to assume that they had some consise pitches. Isn't math fun?

In everything you do, you should be making the best use of your time.  Being brief will be beneficial to you, and to the producers you work with.

(G) Holding yourself to the highest standard

To really get the most out of your career, always hold yourself, not others, to the highest standard. Being brief is one of the most important tricks you can learn, and though I've written other articles on professionalism and creating friendships instead of "contacts," it's important to look at brevity as a tool within the context of pitching producers and representatives.

You will take several in-person meetings during your career. It's important to be brief in order to quickly get the attention of your potential buyers, but brevity is a standard to which you should only hold yourself.

In other words, you should be brief, but always encourage and welcome everyone else to talk your ear off. People, in general, love the sound of their own voice, and this couldn't be truer for producers and filmmakers. After all, this is an artistic industry built on opinions (i.e. "I like this story better than that story. I like this character better than that one."). There is no better way to get a producer hooked than if you let them ramble on about their thoughts, likes and dislikes surrounding your pitch or project. However, do NOT ever take critiques personal!

This leads me to my second point on professionalism. The same way you should hold yourself to a standard of brevity, you should wear your professionalism on your sleeve by welcoming criticism, and becoming a master of artistic flexibility. What I mean by this is that you should always be open to hearing producers' ideas, and never shoot those ideas or criticisms down outright. I'm not saying you need to bury your artistic integrity; I'm saying that if you want to sell your scripts and build a career, you need to be a team player.

I have seen far too many writers pitch projects that lead to in-depth critiques from filmmakers, only to be followed up by the writer explaining to the filmmaker why he or she is wrong in their critique--essentially critiquing the critic! Well I guess those writers forgot why they were pitching in the first place.

Writers are pitching to sell scripts and get produced. That's the goal. Secondary to that is getting your scripts produced the way you want them to be produced: it's secondary! I cannot stress this enough. If a producer wants to critique your project, what's the harm in listening? What's the harm in showing him or her that you're able to be a team player, and potentially mold a project to suit their needs? There is no harm whatsoever; it only helps build your relationship with them.

Just remember, filmmaking is a solo act only until you, the writer, type "FADE OUT." From that point forward, it's a team sport, so it's best to be a team player.

(H) In conclusion

It's very easy to get caught up in the awesomeness of your stories and screenplays, so just remember that when you're pitching someone, online or in person, their attention span is diminished until you "catch their attention." Use the hook of your story, then once there's a request for more, give them all you got.

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About the Author:
Gato Scatena is a producer with Scatena & Rosner Films, and former vice president at InkTip.  His most recent productions include the film, "Filth," starring James McAvoy, the upcoming comedy, "Mantevention," starring Mario Van Peebles, and Lifetime's "Imaginary Friend," starring Paul Sorvino.  Scatena & Rosner Films is in development on more features for 2015, and also works in film tax incentive financing.

Questions for Gato can be tweeted to @GatoScatena on Twitter.