Two screenwriters once walked into a Hollywood producer’s office and said three words: ‘Jaws in space.’ That pitch won them the contract for the blockbuster movie Alien. Award-winning director, Charles Harris, wants to teach you how to do the same in his new book: Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV Screenwriters.
Jonathan Victory talks to Charles about his step-by-step guide to ensuring the perfect pitch.
In your previous book, Teach Yourself: Complete Screenwriting Course, you touched on the pitching process but with this book you tackle it head on.
I wanted to expand on Complete Screenwriting. I spent some time, about a chapter and half, two chapters, going over the premise at the beginning of writing and then the pitching at the end. Although they seem to be two separate things, the two are intimately linked. Essentially, the first thing I do when I am writing, and what I teach people about their writing, is develop my own pitch. Apart from anything else, I’m the first person I have to convince to spend time and money on the project. If I’m going to spend months, if not years, on the project I need to be convinced there’s a pitch at the end of it.
So it happens at the beginning and at the end of the process. In Complete Screenwriting, as the title suggests, I take you through the process, the different ways of developing a screenplay for cinema or TV from the very beginning to the very end. But, of course, there was only a certain amount of space in the book and there was a lot of areas of pitching, premise development and the whole process of doing the pitch itself that I really didn’t have time for in that book. So it was great to be able to spend some time developing those ideas, taking things that in some cases might have been a paragraph and turning them into a chapter with a lot more detail in and going into a lot more depth. Also, talking to some really good writers about their experiences and quoting them and generally being able to dig a lot deeper into one of the most crucial areas. Nowadays, if you don’t have a good pitch, quite apart as I said from convincing yourself, you’re not going to convince anybody else. Everybody now needs a good pitch to sell a script, to sell an idea, to sell a project, whether it’s a writer, director or producer, or even an agent.
The title of your book comes from the story of two screenwriters walking into a Hollywood producer’s office and saying three words: “Jaws in space.”
It is rare that you can get a story that you can boil down quite so short. “Jaws in space” is great because in three words there is everything you want to know. The truth is that for even the biggest names it is going to be tough actually raising the money from a pitch. The pitch is a very simple job and I think it actually makes it a lot easier if you realise it’s not about selling the script, it’s not about selling the project, it’s not about financing the movie – it’s about getting people to read the script. That is basically the job of the pitch. The best outcome of the pitch is if someone says “send me the script”.
The pitch itself has got to tick the boxes. At a screenwriter workshop, we used to bring producers in and we’d ask them “What do you want?” They’d be friendly, helpful and tell us everything they knew and you’d ask “what scripts do you want” and “how can we make sure you get what you want?” They would kind of fumble because they don’t really know. What they would generally say was “bring us something that excites us.” It is true – film and TV is all about excitement. It’s about hot air, if you like. There’s more hot air in the business than there is celluloid and that is what gets things made. But, what they don’t tell you is that there are five basic tick boxes that any producer has to tick in their own mind, whether they’re conscious of it or not. If you don’t tick those boxes in your pitch then you will get nowhere.
This is your A, B, C, D, E that is in the book.
A is appropriate – is your idea appropriate for the person you are pitching to? Which may sound obvious and yet many people are going to a pitch without having done any research into the production company or the agent they’re talking to. Not everything is appropriate for everybody. So first off, you have to do your due diligence as a writer and find out what it is they do. Sometimes that’s easy – nowadays, you can do that research a lot of the time on the internet. Sometimes it’s a question of just asking, talking to people. That’s why I often say at a pitch meeting the first thing you should not do is pitch. The first thing you should do is have a conversation. Basically, a pitch is about having a conversation. It’s not a big performance. So A is, is it appropriate to their needs – and you need to find out what their needs are.
B is budgetable. In other words, does the budget of what you’re doing fit the likely markets? It’s a mistake and one of the big myths that many screenwriters tend to buy into is that you work out the cost of a script, of making the film from the script and that is going to be the cost of the movie. Whereas, the truth is it’s actually the other way round. What you budget a movie at is what you think you can sell it for. So you need to have some sense of the markets – not the exact budget in pounds and pence – but you do need to have some sense of is this going to appeal to the multiplex, is this a big budget movie, is this a little indie movie that I can’t afford to spend too much money, I can’t afford to put in helicopter gun ships and armies and all sorts of expensive effects. It’s important to know, does this sound like something I can do within the budget that is going to work for the market?
C is cinematic or televisual. That’s the stuff all the other books talk about. In other words, does it work for the screen, which is crucial. Many people pitch ideas which are lovely but are not screen ideas. They might work beautifully as a novel, for example, but you wouldn’t be able to put it on the screen and make it work. There’s that visual, cinematic element that is vital. That’s not to say you can’t have a very good film about two people sitting in a restaurant. My Dinner with Andre was a very nice movie like that – but it was cinematic because of the way the characters played through their interaction.
D is for different. In other words, what makes your idea standout as being different from the rest? Now you can fairly say “Hang on, I go to the cinema every week and all the stuff there in the multiplexers is the same as everything else.” “I open the TV guide and they’re making 200 cop shows that look identical.” Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of copycatting the industry. But if you are trying to break in from outside you need to bring something that is different – something that’s you, that’s special. What is a Jonathan Victory script, for example. What is that special something? The thing is, they’ve got a hundred thousand writers who can write the same as everybody else to a certain level of third-rate script. What they don’t have, and what they need, is somebody who can bring something a bit special and different. They don’t know until they see you whether you can bring that something special. I see a lot of scripts that are very well written but they just fall down because you think, well I’ve seen all that before… why should I watch it again?
E is for employable. It’s the flipside of A – not just are they appropriate for you but are you appropriate for them? Can they work with you? What are you bringing to the table? That could be a track record but doesn’t have to be. It could be some particular connection with the story. It could be your passion for the story. There’s a lot people can work on. There was a Ken Loach movie made some years ago. A guy came to them who’d worked on the railways. He’d never written a script in his life, but he knew the railways backwards and he had a really good idea for a story. They hired him and essentially, with a script editor, Loach’s company taught him how to write a script. They worked together and created a very nice script. So in this case your own personal connections might be the thing that sell the script. Or maybe blogging. using social media nowadays, you can produce a blog and show that you have a got a following for your particular story or subject. This way you’re going to get a lot more interest for your stories.
So A, B, C, D, E – whatever you say to them, your 2-sentence pitch, part of what they’re thinking about, on some level or other is, have I ticked all those 5 boxes, and if not, you are going to be struggling.
Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV Screenwriters by Charles Harris is available now in paperback.