Preparing the Pitch

Woman reading a treatmentPitch meetings became more popular over the past few years due to its ability to quickly sift and sort the weak from the strong stories. Two weeks ago, I participated in a three-hour pitch session that included a couple dozen distributors and investors, along with a few dozen filmmaking hopefuls. Each person was given 5-7 minutes to share whatever information they thought might get them a significant followup meeting. The outcomes brought tears to the eyes of some newbies and hope to those who had refined their craft year after year.

When I wasn’t in a pitch, I took time to coach a few of the rookies with the hope that their next pitch would be improved. I asked one woman, who was sulking deeply, to share her pitch with me so that I might give her a tip or two. Hope filled her eyes and she dove into a very complex opening that I wasn’t able to follow. I shared a few adjustments and then watched her walk back into the pitch room.

Seven minutes later she returned to the prep room with a big smile on her face. She shared how the distributor enjoyed her pitch and asked for a copy of her script. I watched her dance around the room and head into the hallway with a sense of adventure stirring from within. Here are the three adjustments that I suggested:

  1. SHARE YOUR PASSION: Film is an emotional medium that takes people on a ride. The pitch needs to take on the same emotional tamber as the film. The explosive beats must be shared boisterously and the loving beats with tender care. If the listener can pick up on your emotional tone, they will be entertained and assume the film will do the same.
  2. BE YOURSELF: When a distributor or investor is listening to your pitch, they will judge the story on its merits, but from the perspective or through filter that you offer. Their decision to greenlight a project is based on three weighted factors: You (60%), your project (30%) and your business plan or ROI (10%). They want to know who they’ll be working with and whether or not you’re a storyteller.
  3. TELL A COMPELLING STORY: Pretend you’re hanging around a campfire and are taking turns telling stories. When it’s your turn, tell the story in a way that captivates their interest or raises a question that they have to have answered. Share some personal traits about your main character and the struggle he or she overcomes. And no matter what, don’t sound like a salesperson.

I used an iPad during my pitch sessions to show illustrations that reflected the style and design of the stories I shared. It quickly got everyone around the table onto the same page, saving enough time to discuss our next steps.

All but one of my meetings were successful. The odd one out was due to the exasperation of the distributor who had endured 2.8 hours of bad pitches. When I started to introduce myself with a handshake, he told me to sit down and dove into a lecture about what he needed, eating up 6.8 minutes of my 7-minute slot. I chose not to interrupt him. I knew he was exhausted and wouldn’t have been able to hear a word I said, so I just listened.

When he finished, he apologized for eating up my time and suggested it was my turn to talk. I said, “I have a story that meets every need you mentioned except for two.”

“Really? Wow, that’s great, let me hear it.”

“Unfortunately my time is up,” I said concerned for the next filmmaker awaiting her turn, “but I’ll be back in touch with you if I decide this is the direction I’d like to go. Thank you for your time.” I shook his hand and walked away. I glanced back to see a look of confusion on his face. He knew that his rant had blocked my opportunity and I wondered if he felt the loss of a potentially great story slip away. But I doubt it.

Film is a collaborative art form that requires all players to embrace some compromise in the melding of artistic values and ideas to be successful. While I might have raised some level of intrigue, I hadn’t given him any story information to merit him making a follow up call to learn more. I was the only one who lost.

Most everyone in the film industry I’ve met are polite and professional, not knowing who out of those they’ve met might launch their next level of success in the near future. Burning bridges is always avoided and being your own passionate, storytelling self is embraced.

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Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers

Selecting The Best Story Angle

The Angle of StoryI have a friend that found an incredible story that’s worthy of being developed into a screenplay. When he first told me about the true events, he talked about it from the perspective of the children. After chatting on the phone with the family, he shared the story again, but this time from the mindset of the mother. When he introduced me to one of the children, I heard the story from the father’s viewpoint. It was clear that the real life elements, or story beats, were significant enough to impact everyone in the family, giving us several choices in how to develop the motion picture.

After analyzing the information presented, I broke the elements down by each potential story angle to determine which one was best for the film. The categories I used included emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and entertainment value for the audience. The weighting of each category helped determine from what angle the story would be told.

EMOTIONAL BEATS

Film is an emotional medium that requires a story with passionate and poignant twists and turns. While beginning filmmakers think the story must first drive home a valuable message, it’s the emotional throughline that earns the right for the filmmaker to speak a message into the audience’s lives through the B-plotline. Those who try to craft the message within the action plotline soon find their story meanders or falls flat. The action plotline must take the audience on an emotional roller coster ride to properly make use of the medium. The film should therefore be from the perspective that drives the main character through a series of actions that heighten the emotional appeal and the story’s consequences.

Some of the films with clear emotional beats include: Les Misérables, Star Trek 2009, The Blind Side, The Darkest Hour, Schindler’s List, and The Wizard of Oz. These stories were well developed and crafted for the screen. The films were visual and hit every story beat that takes an audience on a journey of exploration. The stories argued both sides of a specific message in a way that enticed the audience to side with the filmmaker’s beliefs.

HIGH STAKES AT RISK

The character with the most to lose typically finds themselves in circumstances that amps up the volume of the emotional beats. This is critical to drive the story to its climatic conclusion. While stories typically have comic relief or temporary lulls in the action, so the audience can catch their breath, the story must be driven by choices that turn into physical and visual action. A “talking-head” plotline, where the main character spews forth nothing more than teachable moments, does not move the story forward or raise the stakes. The throughline must overcome the rule of diminishing returns, which is only possible by raising the stakes.

The rule of diminishing returns relates to the weakening of the audience’s buzz. The college student who gets his first car is excited to drive a secondhand clunker because its his. When after graduation he gets a normal car, he finds it difficult to get excited if he has to drive a clunker again. After a wonderful promotion and driving his upscale company car, the newly married driver struggles to find the excitement in driving the minivan on weekends. With every increased excitement, comes the rule of diminishing returns that makes it harder to generate the same buzz experienced in past events.

P.T. Barnum was a showman who used the rule of diminishing returns to his advantage. Everything he did had to increase its shock value to draw in an audience during the depressed era. Curiosity drove the people to purchase tickets over and over again as Barnum kept increasing the amazing acts within his show. Film is the same way. The audience must be taken on a journey that continues to amaze. The good news is that a director can use techniques to reset the audience’s expectations before every emotional increase so his story doesn’t get out of control.

ENTERTAINMENT VALUE

At today’s high ticket prices and costly cable packages, audience’s demand their monies worth. They want to be taken on a journey that they’ve never been on before or introduced to a character that they can learn about for the first time. To accomplish this goal all stereotypes must be dropped by the filmmaker. He also must find ways of allowing his unique character to directly impact the plot based on his or her choices. The audience must find the story fun in order to watch it a second time, or stirring enough for those who like to have a good cry. A great story with fantastic production values are always at the top of the box office list or award categories—due largely to the embedded entertainment value.

The Oscar nominated film, The Shape of Water, takes the audience on a alien-like journey in time during the Cold War. The audience is also introduced to a compassionate, mute woman. Her unique circumstances and personal drive grabs the audience’s attention, whether they agree or disagree with her life choices. While the film is a far left propaganda piece, it’s entertainment value drives curiosity among conservatives who may revisit their political views after watching the filmmakers perspective.

Developing a cinematic story with great emotional beats, high stakes at risk, and emotional value, earns the filmmaker the right to speak into the audience’s life. The result is consideration by the audience of the filmmaker’s argument, but only when the picture is properly developed using the above proven elements.

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Copyright 2018 by CJ Powers

The Difference Between 3 and 4.5 Stars

Behind the Scenes with CJ PowersThere is a clear distinction that I’ve noticed between average and above average films. Most audiences pick up on the vibe, but can’t put their finger on the “why” behind the flat performance of an average film. Add to this the convoluted approach to look-alike pictures and it’s easy to understand the drop off in theater attendance.

The director is first to blame when a motion picture falls flat. While some might choose to direct a bad script, most directors that kill films do it instinctively. These directors are typically not immersed in the art form, which causes their natural gut instincts to be diametrically opposed to the requirements of telling a great story.

I remember a series of summer workshops that I conducted on writing and directing. In one arts conference I coached a class on how to write an award winning short film. We carefully crafted the story to include several key beats that made an emotional impact about the human condition. The final script was so amazing that I wanted to pony up a few dollars and make the film.

The script was then given to my director’s class. I taught on how to develop the story for shooting, and how to pick shots and blocking that would extenuate the beats. We even had detailed discussions on each character and the motivations that would drive their actions.

The individuals who signed up for the production workshop, which didn’t have a professional at the helm, shot a few of the scenes using a director from my earlier workshop. The next day everyone from the writing, directing and production workshops got together to watch the dailies. The excitement waned as we watched the flat clips. Disappointment eventually turned into an amazing conversation.

The screenplay had four very specific beats that were necessary to make the story clear and emotionally powerful. The director decided to experiment with the script and made artistic changes that unknowingly erased the story beats. He also gave up the helm, in the name of education, to other would-be directors and let them all have a shot at directing the scenes. None of them even knew what the story beats were.

The interpretations and experimentation were so far from the original script that it played flat and had no forward movement to the story. Nothing in the footage held the audiences attention or took them on a journey exploring the human condition. Even the dialog that the actors “improved” missed the focus of the story. Not one piece of footage looked like the award-worthy script.

Only directors immersed in the art form and focused on the story beats can bring a clear awareness of the human condition to the screen. Their gut instincts are well crafted to the medium and developmental process that turns great stories into great films. The sheer focus of a director on the story beats will transform and upgrade any film by an extra star or two.

Copyright © 2018 by CJ Powers