Will This Sell? - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Friend of the Blog hired me to do story notes on his script, and I did. Then he asked:
Q. But I have one important question: is this script worth working on? With your experience, would you say that this script could be sold one day if I would follow your notes?
Well, yes. I'm not one of those cheerleader script editors who says nice things to be nice. If I say "this could be good if you do this," it's because I think it could be good if you do that.

But the script I have in my head -- the script I think your script wants to be when it grows up -- is not your script now. Can you get it there? Or get it close enough that someone will buy it and hire someone else to get it all the way there?

How should I know?

What I tell everyone is: pitch your story out loud, to lots of people. Don't read it off the page, but tell people your movie story, out loud, without notes. Do this over and over, to anyone who'll listen. Ideally to the kind of people that you think are its natural audience, but also to any kid between 10 and 14. Kids are more open-minded than adults, and if a story is too subtle or too complicated for them, it's probably too complicated and subtle for a movie.

(Note: a kid might not like AWAY FROM HER, or LES INVASIONS BARBARES, but the story is simple enough to explain.)

If you pitch your story out loud, several things will happen.

You will immediately get a sense of whether people are interested in your story. If you give someone a script, they will say, "Hey, that was fun!" But if they have to sit through it, you'll know if they really like it.

You will improve your story. Parts of it will seem lame. You'll come up with better stuff as you pitch, or after you pitch.

Parts will seem boring. You'll cut them, or come up with better stuff.

Parts will seem confusing. You'll forget what comes next. That's where you need to fix your story logic.

Your listener will ask questions. That will help you track where the audience is. They will often spot your plotholes, too.

Your listener will make suggestions. Some of them will be better than you've got.

Pitching your story is scary and hard to do. But the more you do it, the better it will be.

Don't ask me if the script could work. Pitch it to your friends and neighbors, and you'll get a visceral sense of whether you believe it will work. And it's hella cheaper than hiring a story editor.

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6 Comments:

Quick question: About how long should a pitch like you describe above, for a feature length movie, be? In your experience, are we talking 5 minutes? 15? 30 minutes? It sounds to me that there would be a lot to convey, but you certainly wouldn't want it to run 1-to-1 with the length of the feature...

By Blogger Arlo, at 1:13 PM  

I would think 5 to 10 minutes. More than that and you're including too much detail. Less than that and you're not pitching the story, you're pitching the hook, or talking *about* the story.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 1:49 PM  

Could you provide an example of (or point the way to) a good pitch? I've never been able to find a beginning-to-end example. For example, what did the BON COP, BAD COP pitch look like?

By Blogger Josh, at 2:14 PM  

I didn't come up with the original BON COP / BAD COP pitch. I understand that was Patrick Huard's hook with much of the original plot worked up by Leila Basen.

Just, you know, tell the story. "There's a big spaceship chasing a little spaceship. And on the little spaceship there are these two robots who are panicking. But before they can escape, this princess stops them and puts a secret message on one of them..."

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:32 PM  

I appreciate it! I think what I get stuck on is how to tell the ending, especially when it involves a twist or reveal that really hinges on the listener paying attention. Something like the Narrator's relationship to Marla in FIGHT CLUB, and the way the reveal retroactively changes it, seems like it could be tough to get across in five minutes.

By Blogger Josh, at 2:46 PM  

Even a twist can be explicable - as it must be in order to be clear when we're shown it on screen: 'As he looks at the whiteboard, he realises that Verbal, true to his name, was making the whole thing up. Everything we've been told, up to this point, is a lie...'

By Blogger David, at 9:13 AM  

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