Be Fearless – But Be Smart

You have to pitch.

If you don’t get out there and tell people how fabulous you are, they will never know. They will not hire you or buy your script or invest in your start-up. Communication, ideally in person and one-on-one, is essential.

But what if they steal your idea?

I hear this off and on from clients, students, and friends. It is probably one of the biggest reasons people don’t pitch. And they’re not wrong to think about it, ideas do sometimes get stolen. So be smart about it: copyright that screenplay (that’s “copyright” NOT “register with the WGA”), patent that prototype, get your marketing materials together, build the website, get your business off the ground.

But.

The idea is probably not the valuable part. You can’t actually copyright or patent just an idea; what you are protecting is the EXECUTION of the idea. An idea without work put into it isn’t worth much. Also, your idea probably isn’t that original to begin with. What matters, what makes it valuable, is all the time and effort and expertise you put into making the idea reality. And that is very, very hard to steal.

So 1) protect yourself, and 2) understand that a million other people may have had your idea but your passion and know-how is what makes it impossible to replicate. Then get out there and tell people about what makes your work singular.

Pitching isn’t the problem. Honestly, it is much more likely that someone will offer you a dreadful contract and try to land-grab your project that way. So pitch-pitch-pitch!

Just don’t sign anything without getting it vetted first. 😉 

How to Tell if a Writing Job is Real

Today, I clicked on a screenwriting jobs list and made myself dizzy from the eye-rolling it caused.  Here is my favorite ad: Seeking stealth writer… no pay upfront.

To translate: I’m not going to pay you for the work you do now, and I won’t give you any credit for it later.

Oh, pleeeeze let me be exploited by you.  Please, please, please!  No, really, I’m sure it would be an honor.

But we all need writing gigs.  So how can you tell if a writing job is real?  It has taken me a sadly long time to figure it out, but I share it with you in the hopes of saving you my learning curve: It’s a real writing job if they pay you. That’s it, folks.  If they are real, they will pay the writer for the writing.  If they don’t, they’re not.  Feel free to argue with me about this, but you will be wrong.  Every.  Damn.  Time.

Now, I do make exceptions: when you write on spec, that’s your nickel.  There’s a lot of free work involved in pitching, with no guarantee of winning the job.  But if they are asking you to write their idea, particularly if you will not have ownership of the finished project, and they are not willing to pay you for it, they are probably not real players in the game anyway.  And I will tell you why:

If they won’t put any money into the script or the pitch packet or the sales copy, they don’t care enough to go through the long, hard slog of making the damn thing real.  This is true whether it’s a big-budget film or an bootstrapping start-up.

Money is an indicator of commitment.  Once they put money into a project – for example, by paying you for your work – they have a stake.  Makes it harder to walk away.  No money… no problem leaving it behind when a shinier opportunity appears.

If you’re going to write for free, write your passion project.  Write a new spec.  Write poetry or your novel or something that feeds your soul.  Don’t fall for someone eager to trade your time and talent for his or her own aggrandizement.  

How To Write a TV Series Pitch Packet

It is pitching season, and the opportunity arose for me to pitch a new project, but I have to get the pitch packet together in the next few days. There is no time for bells and whistles (not that I’m a big believer in those anyway), there is only room for clarity.

So, what do they need to see in a TV series pitch packet?

Page One:

A Tagline.  Non-negotiable. It’s how I’ll start the pitch, and it’s how the execs I pitch to will start *their* pitch to the Powers That Be. It’s like a super-short logline, evocative and memorable.

Genre. Some people put the Genre (like RomCom or Sci-Fi) separate from the length of show (one-hour drama or half-hour, single-camera sitcom, for instance), but I like to put them together. “One hour action adventure dramedy.” That kind of thing.

Developed By. You want to put the major players attached to the project. I will copyright it under my own name, because I wrote it, but I’m going in to pitch with a producer, so both my name and the name of the production company will go here. Both my e-mail address and the producer’s will appear in the footer as well.

This is important: Never release a piece of work into the world that doesn’t have a way to contact you *directly* on it. Never.

All of the above took three or four lines, tops. The rest of the page is devoted to:

Series Overview. Which is exactly what it sounds like. Just under a page, it should give an idea of what the series (not the pilot) will be: main characters, plot strands, what the show looks like each week. It’s important to give them a sense of the series’ franchise, which is a fancy word to mean what will the show look like every week. There’s a reason lawyers, cops and monster-hunters are the staples of hour-long television: it’s clear with each how, every week, there’s a new problem to solve — similar to last week’s problem, but not quite the same.

Pages Two – Three: Pilot Synopsis.

Ideally, this takes about a page and a half and launches them squarely into the best the series will offer.

Pages Four – Five: Character Bios.

List the characters in order of importance. This isn’t just an opportunity to give backstory (although do that, too), but a chance to show how characters relate to others – private feuds, grating personalities, forbidden lust. This is where you lay in possible storylines as well, as they work out their baggage and hidden agendas.

Page Six: Upcoming Episodes.

Title and a single paragraph for half a dozen future stories, roughly in order. If you have big reveals or a season finale that will deepen the show’s mythology, throw them in here.

Page Seven: Optional Additional Info.

This is where you put any kicker that you think helps you sell the show. Historical references, cool photos or concept drawings. When we pitched a time travel show, my partner and I culled old photos from the web that purported to show anachronisms, such as people with cell phones in a pic from 1887. DO NOT PUT A PHOTO OF YOURSELF AS THE MAIN CHARACTER. Even if that’s the ultimate plan, nothing scares execs more.

Note what isn’t here: a full pilot script. If you write the script, you don’t need a leave-behind for the series. Execs read the script and bring you in to talk about it (maybe) or to talk about working with you on one of their own projects (much more likely.) A script is a calling card for you; a pitch packet is a bid to see if they’ll pay you to write it for them.

 

Say What?

Pitching can be nerve-wracking. I don’t know about you, but when I’m nervous, I tend to just launch into the good bits as soon as possible. I rush, trying to get it over with.

Bad idea.

Because the words we forget to say are, oh, I don’t know, how about the title. The genre. The stuff that lets people grab on to our ideas and actually hear what we’re saying.

The first thing you should say is the title.
The second is the genre.
The third is the logline, which should give the key information needed to understand the piece.

After that, you should have a couple of additional sentences in case they’re intrigued and want to know more on the spot. Sometimes, however, the above three pieces of information are enough to ask them to read the script or the book.

Think of it as Mad Libs. All you have to do is fill in the blanks:

“Title of Piece” is a “Genre” about “Single Most Important Thing About Your Piece.”

Speed is Die Hard on a bus.” Die Hard wasn’t just a similar movie, it was its own specific genre – a thriller in a small space, one guy and one friend against an overwhelming foe. And what’s the most important thing about Speed? Yup, bus. And they can hear that, and understand it, because you took care of their top questions – title and genre – first.

Argo is the true story of how six Americans were smuggled out of Iran in the middle of the hostage crisis. You could say “thriller,” but the fact that it’s a true story is, I think, the more important genre.

Try it. Have fun! It’s not about distilling your entire epic trilogy into one sentence, it’s about having a few words prepared to start the conversation rolling.

The Stages of a Pitch

TV pitching season is swirling around me.  In all the chaos, I find that even I have to remind myself the basics of how to pitch.  Here are the stages of a pitch meeting:

1) Warm up the room.  Watch for their signal to begin.

2) Prepare their listening.

3) Tell them the single most important element of your project.

4) Listen to their response.

5) If invited, give them the highlights of your story, chronologically and briefly.

6) Create an opening for their input and allow a real conversation.

7) Clarify follow-up.

Every meeting you take will have these elements in it.  You need to be comfortable and confident with each stage.

You are not out there to sell.  This is not about you against them.  Sure, you’re putting on a bit of a dog-and-pony show, but at heart you are honestly sharing a project you love in the expectation that they will love it, too, and want to play with you.  There’s a great energy that comes with that – and it is a completely different energy than the one that comes with desperation or salesmanship.

There is joy here.  Have fun!