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Geek School: How to pitch your scripts, with Guillermo del Toro, Travis Beacham, and more

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Aug 22, 2019

Welcome to Geek School! This new SYFY WIRE series will provide practical lessons in writing, producing, and selling the nerdy projects of your dreams, with advice from some of the top creators and professionals in the business. In this lesson, we're talking about pitching your project.

So you've got an amazing idea, you've worked the angles, labored over an outline, mapped out an immersive new sci-fi world, beat out the story, and written what you think is a pretty amazing screenplay or pilot. Now comes the hard part: Selling the thing to someone with the money to make it.

Hope you've enjoyed the time spent in your fantasy world — because now you're going to have to deal with the realities of Hollywood economics.

"It doesn't matter how good you are on the page if you don't get hired for the job in the first place," says Jeremy Slater, an executive producer and writer on Netflix's adaptation of The Umbrella Academy, the creator of Fox's Exorcist series, and writer of movies such as The Lazarus Effect. "And that's a problem because most writers are introverted weirdos who spend way too much time alone. Suddenly we're shoved into a room and asked to be passionate and funny and charismatic, and for a lot of us, that's an utterly foreign skill set. It's f***ing terrifying."

If there's good news, it's that in speaking with a number of top filmmakers about how they go about pitching a complicated project, a few points came up again and again. Here are some of the best pitching tips we've received from the pros.

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF — AND THE PROJECT

You're not just selling an idea, you're selling yourself. And if you don't believe in yourself, why would a studio executive with potentially millions of dollars on the line? Likewise, if you're not into your idea, why would anyone who's listening spark to it?

"I find that there is one secret and one secret only to pitching, and it's exactly the same advice you get when you fail rather than when you succeed at pitching," Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water, told SYFY WIRE. "I find that I never, ever, ever think of the people listening. I pitch to get excited myself. I find that if in the pitch I get excited and enthusiastic, I start adding details and I get really caught on the tale.

"I have now for 20-something years pitched successfully and unsuccessfully," he adds, "and what I've learned is that the only time it comes alive is if I am completely caught up."

Guillermo del Toro Getty

Source: ULISES RUIZ/AFP/Getty Images

Del Toro, as both a filmmaker and a producer, actively pitches projects while also fielding pitches from other directors who want in on his company's other projects. He served as a very involved producer on this summer's screen adaptation of the seminal kids' horror book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which was directed by André Øvredal. The Norwegian filmmaker subscribes to a similar philosophy as del Toro — be so excited for the project, you inject yourself into its DNA. And if you're pitching for a job on a show that's already been hatched, either as a screenplay or at least a concept, pitch your version of the movie or TV series, not someone else's.

"Normally you go in and you know that you're in competition with somebody else, and they could be amazing filmmakers," Øvredal says. "You have to stay true to yourself because in the end, you're going to make the movie that you're going to make. That's the movie you have to present because if you go in and present something that is not instinctually correct for you, you are going to be lying in a way."

Why is it bad to lie in a pitch? The truth will come out on screen.

"You're going to spend the next two years with these people and with this movie, and it's going to be your middle name for the rest of your life," he says. "So you'd better make the movie you're pitching."

CHARACTERS, CHARACTERS, CHARACTERS

Every studio and production company has its own aesthetic and sensibility, and while a significant part of that creative variety can today be chalked up to market forces and conscientious branding, these companies are also still run by humans. Things may be a bit more homogenous in this era of mega-studio conglomerates, but the people with the power to green-light projects still have somewhat distinct tastes and inclinations. As a result, as Slater explains, there's no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing your focus.

"Every executive is looking for something different," he says. "Some of them are sticklers for character work and dramatic arcs, others are obsessed with the goddamned three-act structure, and still others just want giant set-pieces and big ideas."

Still, if you're going to bet on one aspect of your story becoming a focal point of executives' inquiries, your best bet is focusing on your protagonists and their journeys. This was a key discovery for Travis Beacham, the writer of Pacific Rim and the creator of the new Amazon series Carnival Row.

"Pacific Rim's a good example of this because for a long time, I wanted to make some sort of giant robot, giant monster thing," he says. "But you can't go in and be like, 'Hey, I want to do something with [a] giant monster,' because [they'll respond], 'You and everybody else, what are you bringing to it?'"

 

Beacham instead mulled over his influences and own ideas, trying to find a unique angle. Most mecha battle monsters have single pilots — see famous anime series such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Mobile Suit Gundam for prime examples — and so when Beacham decided that his script's warrior robots would require two pilots, who must be "drift compatible," it went from a standard sci-fi pitch to a story about two characters and their intensely intertwined relationship.

Suddenly, there were questions to be answered: Do they get along? Do they have troubles? And, most pressingly, "how are they gonna work their sh** out to save the world?"

The characters, Beacham explains, "are everybody's access point," regardless of genre. "Whether you're a fan of monsters or robots or this or that or whatever, everyone's a human being," he says. "As long as you're talking about character, you have the universal skeleton key."

Olan Rogers was a YouTuber who had never really pitched a studio when he began working on the outline for what is now his Adult Swim sci-fi cartoon Final Space. He linked up with David Sacks, a TV vet who had produced on The Simpsons and The Tick, amongst other shows, and the two went about hammering out as many details as they could about the world Rogers was building. When he was in the room with executives at Turner, he had the same realization that Beacham had while he was outlining Pacific Rim.

"The thing that I realized that everybody really wants to know what the characters' arc is," he tells SYFY WIRE. "It's characters, characters, characters, characters. We hit those characters on Final Space. I want people to feel something in that pitch. If you can get them to feel something, then you've accomplished what you want in your story. That means they understand the character arc, and they bought it and they're in."

It's also crucial to know how the story ends, Rogers says, which is a far more useful tip for would-be television writers pitching a series (if you haven't determined the end of your movie screenplay, consider pushing back your pitch meeting). Even if you're just looking to get a pilot greenlit, it helps to think seasons and seasons in advance — Rogers has six full seasons of Final Space plotted out in his head, even though the show is just in its second.

 

DO THE PREP WORK

Rogers' deep understanding of his project points to just how crucial it is to be well-prepared. That should go without saying, but it's also worth emphasizing. Beacham is meticulous in his pre-writing preparation, a habit that extends to his pitching, as well.

"[Pitching] is really hard and helps to have a document with you," Beacham says. "I used to think it's badass to go out there and speak off the cuff, but I've definitely found it with ideas like this, it helps to have a document to have everything worked out beforehand. Even if your head is buried in a paper the whole time like that, you have to do as much preparation as possible. Across the board in all matters in filmmaking from the pitch on, everything is preparation."

PUT ON A SHOW

Needless to say, having your head buried in a paper the entire pitch is better than not being prepared at all, but optimally, you have the confidence and knowledge to present your ideas in a way that doesn't resemble a scared kid giving a book report.

"When I was first starting out, I treated pitches like homework assignments: I wrote a speech, I memorized it, and then I stumbled and plodded my way through it," Slater remembers. "My attitude changed when I realized that most executives hate hearing pitches just as much as we hate giving them. It's stressful to sit there and politely feign enthusiasm as some flustered writer stammers his way through a boring, unfocused speech. It sucks hearing from ten hopeful candidates and knowing you're going to have to crush nine of their dreams."

You're on borrowed time during a pitch meeting, so you've got to make every second count. The best way to do that is to engage those bored and bummed executives on a human level, and there are several approaches to doing that.

"Anything you can do as a writer to alleviate that boredom and awkwardness goes a long way toward earning friends in this town," Slater says. "The looser and more relaxed your pitch, the better. I start most of my pitches by telling them I want the next 30 minutes to be as informal as possible, and encouraging them to interrupt me with ideas or questions at any time. My goal is to turn the meeting from a presentation into a conversation. I want to show them that I'm flexible and I can think on my feet and that I'm happy to incorporate a (good) note into my pitch without getting precious or defensive."

Rogers, on the other hand, focuses on making his pitches more like highly produced presentations. He began his career on YouTube, where it was just him, a webcam, and some janky editing software, and while it took him a while to figure out how to crack the story he was trying to sell, it wasn't a hard transition to creating narratives that would help sell those stories.

"I really got into it," he says of his Final Space pitch. "I acted out scenes, I played music, I even did like a John Hammond, Jurassic Park thing where my presentation spoke to me, and I spoke back to it. I made it very interactive, very fun. I want people to feel something in that pitch."

The overarching goal, after all, is to access people's emotions and make them trust that you not only can write a good story, but that you can be a good (and safe) partner in what will inevitably be an expensive venture.

"At the end of the day, this meeting isn't really about selling any specific ideas; what you're selling is yourself," Slater offers. "You're saying, hey, if you hire me, you're not getting some moody artist or shy weirdo; you're getting a regular human being. They're looking for collaborators and creative partners, sure, but mainly they're looking for someone who's not going to be a pain in their ass over the next several months. Don't be the artist they're going to have to manage; be the person who's going to make their lives easier."


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