The Moment of Truth
Take a moment to picture yourself in a slick Hollywood office with big windows looking out onto the sprawl of Los Angeles. It’s quiet, and maybe someone else in the room is tapping their foot with impatience.
You’ve been working on this script for a year or more. Now the time has come to convince a producer that this idea is worth the studio’s time and money.
This is your chance to get your career started. How can you make them believe that your script is worthy of their attention?
The question of how to pitch a script to a producer is certainly not a new one. For those who hope to succeed in the entertainment industry, this question is key to achieving future success.
Producers are often the gatekeepers, deciding which scripts would make for successful content. But many screenwriters are unsure of how exactly to pitch their ideas.
While there isn’t just one “right way” to pitch a script successfully, we do want to discuss some incredibly helpful tips that will light your way and lead to more intelligent pitching.
For Hollywood insight and advice, we turn to award-winning screenwriter Sammy Sultan, the man behind Black Cab BOX Chat, a popular interview series with championship boxers and the short film Felix’s Bar Mitzvah, which was shortlisted by the Million Dollar Screenplay Contest.
Sultan currently lives and works in Los Angeles, where he has been named a BAFTA Los Angeles Newcomer. He will be providing tips and tricks he’s learned from personal experience to help you get better at selling your own scripts.
The Need to Network
If you want to be a successful screenwriter, you need to network. You just do.
That’s probably not news to many writers out there, but knowing how to network effectively with entertainment professionals remains crucial.
But as Sultan mentioned, it can also be a good idea to keep your friends close, especially if you all share similar approaches or artistic intent.
“First of all, I would say do not underestimate the importance of your existing friend group. You’re likely to climb the ranks together, and if you all believe in good karma- you will be in positions to help each other out! Also, remember to talk to people you meet from day-to-day. You never know who you’ll cross paths with.”
No one is looking for you. You can’t count on industry leaders to actively search for innovative new talent.
Networking involves putting yourself, and your work, out there again and again, even if there’s only a slim chance that others will see it.
Tradition and Structure
When it comes to finalizing a script, there are many different questions that arise. Do you want this script to be a groundbreaking exercise in experimental storytelling or should you simply play it safe and follow traditional screenplay structure?
There are many different factors that come into play here, not the least of which is who you’re trying to sell the script to. Whether it’s a single producer or an entire production company, check out their track record beforehand.
Do they have a history of taking chances on forward-thinking content? Or do they tend to produce run-of-the-mill content for a wide-reaching audience?
As far as Sultan is concerned, your best bet is to make use of traditional film structure. It will feel familiar to producers, and they may be more likely to greenlight your project.
“Someone once said you need to learn the rules in order to break them. I think that’s really applicable to screenplays. I would say that abandoning film structure is a risky strategy for a writer. Audiences have become so conditioned to three acts that unless your work is pure genius, it’ll be difficult to maintain their interest.”
After you’ve sold a few features and have a house in the Hills, then you can work on creating strange experimental, nonlinear scripts. But for now, maintain respect for the format that has worked for countless cinematic masterpieces.
Knowing When It’s Ready
So you’ve been working on your script for a while now, maybe more than a year. In your head, you probably know your script in and out, all the small details and plot twists and character quirks.
It would be great if you could transfer all that knowledge directly to an influential producer, but that technology just doesn’t exist yet.
Producers probably won’t even read your full script until you’ve sold them on the basic idea.
So how do you know when your script is ready to pitch? Well, it has a lot to do with knowing exactly what the core idea is, and whether that core idea will be appealing to producers and other industry professionals.
When you finally get to that big meeting, you can’t be second-guessing yourself or the script.
Sultan refuses to pitch an idea until he feels completely confident in the idea and himself. More than that, he has to be ready to fight for the idea, making it clear to producers how much he cares about the project.
“Producers are among the busiest people in the business; they just don’t have the bandwidth to hear anything half baked. Once I’m happy with the way I articulate an idea, I feel comfortable contacting producers. Once you’re in front of a producer, the most important part of a pitch is passion. It’s an infectious quality that you can pass onto them.”
We’ll talk about the finer points of the pitch itself in the next section, but maintaining a positive, enthusiastic attitude while presenting your idea is ultimately just as important to your success and the idea itself.
Producers are highly skilled when it comes to assessing enthusiasm and confidence. You’ve worked hard on your script, so you should be proud to share it with others.
We’ve arrived at the moment of truth. You’re back in that slick Hollywood office with big windows looking out onto the sprawl of Los Angeles.
You’re sitting across the table from a high-power Hollywood producer, maybe there’s an assistant taking notes in the corner.
This is what you’ve been waiting for, ever since you first decided to write a screenplay.
The conversation could last anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour. Generally speaking, your pitch should be short. As Sultan discussed, 30-second “elevator pitches” are a good rule of thumb.
“To this day, 30-second pitches are the ones I use the most. If I have an hour-long meeting with a producer or production company, it’s really empowering to know that all it takes is a slick delivery of your well drilled 30-second pitch. It can change everything.”
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t also prepare some additional information about your project. But leading with your elevator pitch sets you up to gauge the producer’s interest.
If they ask questions about the idea, it’s a great sign. Be ready to give more detail about the project each time.
Blender pitches can also be incredibly handy during a meeting with a producer. You’ve probably heard this basic structure before: ‘That movie felt like X mixed with Y.’
Find well-known movies or television shows that are similar to your project in tone or subject matter. Reference these during your pitch. This will help give producers an easy way to understand what your script would feel like if produced.
Lastly, if a producer seems enthusiastic about the project but wants to make certain changes, remain open to these suggestions.
Entertainment is inherently collaborative, and if a producer decides to move forward with your project, you’ll need to make many compromises during the production process.
Don’t get overly attached to small details like character names, settings, or even specific lines of dialogue.
Backup Plan: The Age of Accessibility
If a producer agrees to move forward with your project, then congratulations are in order. But in most cases, you should be prepared for rejection.
It’s rare for a script to be greenlit during the first or even the second meeting with a producer. Chances are you’ll need to shop your script around quite a bit before it finds a proper home.
Back in the day, there were only so many studios to meet with, and if they all passed on your idea, you were more or less out of luck.
Thankfully, this isn’t really the case anymore. This is the age of accessibility, meaning there are more production companies than ever before, and more ways to make something yourself, rather than waiting for studio involvement.
Sultan summarized the phenomenon beautifully:
“It’s now feasible to shoot a feature film on your iPhone! The barriers to entry have unquestionably dropped. Granted, you can’t go out and shoot an Avengers-style film without enormous resources, but you can produce something with enough quality to get you noticed. That’s what it’s all about. The beauty, and perhaps the difficulty, of this industry is that there is no set path to success.”
Making a name for yourself no longer means signing a 5-year overall deal with a major studio. Today, success is more amorphous, and you may find that even a short film you shot on video may attract the attention of movers and shakers within the industry.
Even if your pitches don’t go well, you’re still far from being out of options.