25 Little Words
Loglines and short pitches ☛
Do you believe in magic spells? Probably not. But if a filmmaker utters the right 25 words to the right person at the right time, their dreams will come true – they could be on the road to glory and a massive pay-cheque. If that’s not a magical incantation, I don’t know what is. I am of course talking about short pitches, or loglines, made famous by Tim Robbins’ character in The Player (two Player-based blogs in a row, must get out more). Attitudes towards the practice of boiling down your idea to a couple of sentences divide the screenwriting community. Those on the high-brow end of things, disdain it as being an overly simplistic practice that leads to dumb movies. More commercial filmmakers view the one-line pitch as a kind of popcorn haiku, which they’ll spend months honing to perfection. Industry folklore has it that Lethal Weapon was sold on only six words ‘Black cop, white cop, bang bang!’
Like it or not, in practice it’s impossible to do without that line of words. Any funding application or business-plan will require a one-line summary, in fact it’s a line of text that may remain relatively unchanged from an early draft of the script right through to the blurb in cinema listings. Quite often these listing blurbs are only interesting because of the names in brackets: the rogue FBI agent (Johnny Depp) or the troubled novelist (Cate Blanchett). But sometimes you’ll read a pitch, often for that indy movie that everyone’s talking about, where the story outline is more interesting that the cast. That’s something to aim for.
So what makes a good 25 word pitch? For a start, it needs to have energy and that energy comes from the most basic building-block of drama: conflict. As with the story itself, the conflict can be external (an adversary) or internal (flaws in the protagonist’s character, which they struggle to overcome). Whichever it is, it needs to be displayed prominently in your pitch; otherwise it will fall flat.
But conflict alone is not enough, we need to know about the focus of that struggle. If the conflict is external, we need to have a clear sense of the protagonist. Two armies clashing can be very impressive, but without a pair of eyes to see it through, someone with a definite stake in the fight, it is spectacle rather than story. If the conflict is internal, we probably know the identity of the protagonist; but we also need to know how that struggle relates to the outside world. One man battling his demons is all well and good, but without someone coming in and trying to change him, there’s no story. Alternatively the internal conflict can spill into the outside world in the form of aberrant behaviour – like that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
Then there’s the language. You’ve got to craft those words – a pitch is a Swiss watch. There can’t be one redundant phrase, and those words you do use need to lend as much meaning and flavour as they can. You can easily end up writing as many drafts of the pitch as you do of the script. Pitches are usually written in a heightened poetic style: characters don’t have an ‘objective’, they have a ‘quest’. This is an act of salesmanship: there are no prizes for reserve or understatement, even if that’s the style of your script. Think of the size of that big screen and make the language of your pitch match that space.
These things are basic requirements; without them you’ve just got a bad pitch, but they’re not enough in themselves to get that executive to open his cheque-book. To make the pitch truly exciting it needs a secret ingredient. A good place to learn what makes a pitch really sing is a pitching competition. Although a verbal pitch is a slightly different thing – for a start most are longer than 25 words – many of the same principles apply. In London we have Raindance’s long-established Live! Ammunition!, which I’d thoroughly recommend checking out. Sometimes as many as 30 movie ideas are pitched during the course of one evening. First time you visit you come away overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of stories that have been thrown at you in a short space of time. This is much like the experience of being a script reader – seeing the world through their eyes can be illuminating. When your head stops spinning, you might find yourself trying to pick a favourite. You’ll notice that many of the stories are pretty similar, they blend into each other. But there will be few that stand out. Some of these will be distinctive because the pitcher presented them clearly, confidently or in an entertaining fashion; but there will be a handful where the central idea hit you like a lightning bolt. It’s often a “why didn’t I think of that?” moment, a moment when we recognize “of course that would make a good movie!” It seems obvious, instantly you can play out the idea in your head.
Such ‘eureka!’ pitches are few and far between, but what makes them stand out? It often comes from a combination of the familiar with the unfamiliar. These are story ideas that subvert a well-worn genre, approach it from a new direction or show it in a different and original light. I don’t know which film first chose to make a vampire their protagonist rather than the antagonist – Interview with the Vampire maybe – but that would have been a surprisingly original idea in its day (feels like so long ago). I guess this where The Player’s ‘x meets y’ formula comes from – Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman – putting recognizable story elements together in an unfamiliar way. Incidentally, some UK producers are a little wary of ‘x meets y’ in pitches, so use sparingly, if at all, and only ever as an afterthought to support your story.
Often it’s the idea that’s right under your nose that can provide that eureka moment. At the recent London Screenwriters’ Festival I saw two filmmakers deliver a passionate pitch for their movie about Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering why nobody has made a move of this before? Especially now, it’s so relevant! Everyone in Britain has known about this story since childhood, it’s part of our national DNA. Hat’s off for spotting that one, guys. It’s more than just originality, you also need an element of surprise to get that ‘hit you between the eyes’ effect. The idea that turns in an unexpected direction, that takes you off guard. I don’t know how The Crying Game was originally pitched, but it certainly was an idea that had that potential.
Of course there’s a hidden catch. A eureka pitch will get a producer excited, but you have to be able to sustain that excitement, probably with a treatment and eventually with a script. If you sell the idea but can’t deliver on the promise of your pitch, then you may find yourself being replaced by a more established writer, who the producer knows can deliver. Still a ‘story by’ credit is not to be sniffed at.
But you may well be thinking: does every story really need to be able to smack you in the face in 25 words? There are plenty of fine movies that would have been impossible to pitch in this way. Absolutely true. There are both good commercial films like LA Confidential, which is just a particularly well-made example of a familiar genre, and art-house movies like Last Year in Marienbad, which would have been impossible to pitch in this manner… or in any other manner. It maybe that you already have a brilliant movie script that will be very difficult to pitch, that in 25 words will deliver little more excitement in the mind of the listener than a cautious “it could work…”. So be it – you’ll just have to hope that you can provoke enough interest to get them to read your script, and trust that that’s strong enough to hook them. The popcorn haiku doesn’t work for all stories.
Still, if you do find a good eureka movie idea, or even if you can make your story sound like it is that thing, go for it. A simple idea doesn’t need to mean a simplistic script – a clear story can be a great vehicle for complex characters and profound themes. Besides a knockout idea will make your life so much easier – isn’t getting a movie funded difficult enough already?
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011
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