I had the pleasure of returning to the Austin Film Festival to teach the pitch prep seminar alongside the wonderful and brilliant Pamela Ribon for the second year in a row. I was also one of the pitch judges for two of the pitch competition sessions, choosing two finalists in each session to go into the finals.
The pitching finals at AFF are unlike any other. Twenty Finalists must stand on stage, one at a time, under lights, face a panel of three illustrious writers (this year it was Ashley Miller, Scott Z Burns and Scott Rosenberg), and pitch their project in 90 seconds. Oh, and since the finals take place in a bar, there are also 400 writers, producers, filmmakers and guests drinking and chatting and bartenders shaking and serving and dropping glasses.
This year, the finalists came out swinging. And as hard as it was to choose an ultimate winner, it was just as difficult deciding who would go through to the finals. But through the preliminary judging process, there were some clear issues that prevented some writers from moving on.
The three criteria we are told to judge include; Quality of Concept, Quality of Pitch, and Overall Entertainment Value. What does that entail?
The quality of the concept, to me, means is it a viable story? Is it original? Does it grab you and is it a strong enough concept that it could actually sustain and sell in some medium? Does it have the necessary elements to be a strong story?
Quality of the pitch encompasses whether the pitcher is comfortable not just in front of the judges, but comfortable with their story. Do they know it well enough and clear enough to talk about it for 90 seconds? Yes, I deducted points if note cards were used (not if they were held, but actively used). If 10 writers didn’t need cards and you did, it’s not fair to them to be scored the same, is it?
Does the writer know HOW to pitch their specific story? Are they getting the important points across and know how to convey their story in a succinct yet compelling, visual way? Are they someone I’d like to listen to pitch more or am I as uncomfortable as they are? It’s about having…swag. It’s being able to own the room and that comes with owning your story first.
Last year, I didn’t know what the finals were like. But this year, knowing what the writers would be up against, a big part of choosing the finalists was knowing which writers (and stories) would stand out in that crowded room under that pressure and be able to grab the judges and come across in a way that would engage the room and WIN.
Entertainment value means knowing what is most entertaining about your story, and the best way to get that across. It’s about mixing plot with personality; getting across an idea visually while being engaging to those you are pitching to. It’s about the overall experience. Feel free to picture Russell Crowe in full gladiator regalia screaming, “Are you not entertained!?” Because that’s what runs through my head.
Knowing the context of the contest, I want to go through some important tips you need to learn need before the next time you pitch, no matter where you’re pitching or how long you have.
1. Be the expert of your story and make it feel like YOU are the writer to tackle that concept. Some of this is confidence and knowing the ins and outs of your story. But it’s also setting up what your connection to it is and if your personality, voice and experience matches the genre and characters. This may include telling the judges one sentence about you, your life, or what inspired you to write this story. It might be a quick funny anecdote about you that directly connects with your concept or story. It might even be the way you look. One of my AFF pitches was a comedy about cults and the first line from the writer was, “So, I used to be in a cult.” And immediately, that grabbed our attention and without being creepy or seeming crazy, he convinced us through his pitch that only he could write that story the right way.
2. Keep it Simple, Stupid. It’s an old adage, but completely true. Don’t try to do TOO much with the pitch. If you’re doing it right, and boiling your story down to the most important elements, 90 seconds is enough time. One of the biggest issues last year in the finals were that the judges “didn’t get it.” Or they misheard or tuned out or got distracted by the clinking of glasses and rowdiness of the crowd. And so they ended up missing important elements of some of the stories, even when they were clearly pitched. And this will happen in regular pitch scenarios too. Assistants come in, phones ring, a million things may be going on.
You can’t include every plot line, subplot, character, scene or shot. You have to think big picture in an extended elevator pitch and just include the few specifics that highlight your hook and concept and a couple sentences on the character so we know who we are following and why we care and connect. Too many pitches felt like a kitchen sink script where the writer was trying to make it feel commercial by throwing EVERYTHING at the wall to see what judges liked. Don’t do that. Focus your pitch to the most important, compelling parts and tell the story linearly so we understand it in a short amount of time.
The final judges brought up a term I hadn’t used much before but will be using now. And that is – “a hat on a hat on a hat.” This means you may be adding too much to the story and overdoing it. That will only take away from the hook and concept which they loved and which grabbed them in the first 20 seconds. If you go TOO many places with a story, it starts to feel like a different movie and like you’re just piling a hat on a hat on a hat.
Do not use more than three character names in a 90 second pitch, because no one will be able to remember them. Choose your 3 most important characters and use their name and for everyone else use their title or purpose in the story. Mother, Best Friend, Teacher, etc. We don’t need specific names. And don’t pitch more than two “left turns” in a 90-second pitch. Meaning, if you have a ton of twists in your story and your character is constantly going against expectations, don’t include more than two because you’ll lose your audience (for every five minutes of pitch time, you can add another left turn).
If pitching an ensemble, you need to keep the pitch focused and pull all the storylines together in a cohesive way. Either use the theme, the location, or the situation through which all your characters are connected, to reign in your story and keep it understandable in 90 seconds.
3. Characters are always the key. Perhaps the note most often given in pitch critiques was, “I needed a bit more about the character.” Conflict drives a story, but without a character to connect to, the conflict isn’t interesting. Your character is our entrée into your story, and by glossing over your protagonist by just giving a name and an adjective, you’re doing them a disservice. Tell us their place in the world and what kind of person they are so we know how much they change, why we care, and why they are the perfect character to experience this story through. And they need to feel castable. Don’t pitch actors – pitch the character. We’ll do the rest. If half the pitchers spent 10 seconds more on character, their pitch would have been 50% stronger.
4. Pitch your story, not your issue. One of the most common pitches I received this year were pitches about specific social issues, and a writer pitching their agenda is never the right way to go. Because I don’t give a shit about your agenda. There were a few writers this year who used their 90 seconds as a soapbox for whatever ISSUE they felt passionately about. But the issue is just the backdrop to your story (or should be). Your job is to tell us the characters and context and hook through which you’re going to make your issue – which has probably been covered on the news ad nauseum – brand new and compelling. And if you’re writing a message movie or issue movie, it better be an issue that a broad enough audience would care about and hasn’t been done in film and TV 100 times before.
This tip is also geared towards any writer with a chip on their shoulder who feels the need to point out the lack of diversity in film. If you’re writing a female protagonist story – GREAT! I can’t wait to hear it! But don’t lecture judges in your pitch about how your story is what Hollywood needs because there aren’t enough female-led projects or characters of color on screen. WE KNOW! You’re preaching to the choir. We don’t need to be told how to do our jobs or how YOUR script is single-handedly going to save Hollywood. You have to know your audience, and if you have all white male judges, don’t go on a feminist rant about your feelings on the industry – it won’t go well. You want to change it? Use your 90 seconds to pitch the best fucking story that producers will feel compelled to make. Okay, stepping down from the soapbox now…
5. Last year, I got a handful of TV pitches. This year, probably 40% of the pitches in my sessions were for TV. That doesn’t surprise me, but if you’re pitching TV, I want to hear four things; the concept (and the original hook to the concept), the context (or world), the characters we will tune in for every week, and the conflict driving the series. And most important – your TV pitch needs to make it feel like the show has legs and I can see the potential for where that series can go for 65-100 episodes.
What I would suggest is to spend 60 seconds on the concept, world, characters and what happens in the pilot, but then save your last 20-30 seconds for telling us where the series goes from the pilot and what we (and your characters) are going to experience going forward in a way that sets up the stakes and SCOPE of your series.
6. If you’re pitching a short film…stop. I actually heard 3 short film pitches this year, which was a first. But to be honest, none of them had a shot to win. The final judges would never vote for a 10 page short or a short film idea over a full feature or TV series no matter how well it was pitched. Producers RARELY option a short and develop it into a feature because they can probably just go find a feature script with the same premise already written. And if you’re pitching a short, it can’t feel like it’s 70 pages long. All of the shorts that were pitched felt like features the writer just hadn’t written yet.
If you’re pitching shorts, you better know what elements great shorts need to include and it better sound like a project that could be shot for under $10K and in a week’s time. FYI, we can tell when you’re pitching something unwritten.
7. You have to pitch the EXTERNAL. There were a few pitches where it was a small, personal story where the main character had to overcome something internal or change internally or come to realize the bad situation they were in. Small is fine, but you can’t just say your character goes on a “journey” unless you have visual specifics to back it up. What kind of journey? To where? To what end? What’s compelling and EXTERNAL about it? What is the external conflict driving the story? If you don’t have one, you don’t have a movie. You have a book.
Knowing what platform your story feels best suited for is another HUGELY important tip. There were a number of film pitches that felt like books or TV pilots, and even the final judges called out a few finalists for this.
8. Know the market and the tropes of your genre, and what execs (and the audience) needs from that genre so you know what to highlight in your pitch. For instance, we had a couple animation pitches, and especially in TV animation, there are only a few buyers and it’s all about the world – the town, the characters, what makes them special, etc. Don’t pitch one character – pitch the world. If you’re pitching comedy, you better make me laugh. Yes, even in 90 seconds you should have three to four good laughs. When pitching in a room full of people, you better get a reaction from your comedy pitch or you’re doing something wrong.
9. Know the comps. While there are some who dissuade writers from using comparison films to set the context of your script, I highly recommend it. Because if you don’t state the films your story is like, we will. And then it might seem like you didn’t even know your script was just like two other movies. But use the right comparisons. Use ones that are similar in tone and genre, and that either did well at the box office or were highly critically acclaimed. And don’t use films from before 1975 because no one you’re pitching to was born yet.
10. The final tip is actually a litany of small tips. Ready?
Don’t use screenwriting terms or structural terms in your pitch. Ever. If you use a term like “dark night of the soul” in your pitch, I know you are a rank amateur; Don’t read a passage of dialogue from your script in the pitch. It wastes time, and if you pick the wrong passage you will show your weakness as a writer instead of your strength as a storyteller; Make sure you get across how the stakes of your story are raised as the plot progresses. Without an increase in stakes, your story will sound boring and monotonous; Finally, have a strong opening and closing line to your pitch. Something clever, intriguing, funny (if writing a comedy), thematic, powerful, a question that leaves us pondering, or your tagline if you have a great one (most writers don’t). But you want the last line of your pitch to sum everything up and leave an impression. Give yourself a drop the mic moment.
Follow these tips, and I hope to see you at the finals of next year’s competition.
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