Here's my idea for a weekend radio show.
Instead of Click & Clack the Car Talk guys, in the place of every food critic and computer know-it-all, put me on the air for two hours every Saturday afternoon. The subject? A call-in show to discuss what everyone's REALLY working on in their spare time:
We can call it "Pitch Me Your Movie... with your host Blake Snyder." And for two hours we can all listen in as aspiring scribes phone up and tell me why their movie idea is a winner.
I see myself as the Dr. Frasier Crane of the three-hole punch set, the "Ask Amy" of those, like me, who always carry a handful of brass brads in their car ashtray (just in case). I would be welcoming -- as I always am when hearing a movie pitch -- encouraging, and, yes, even helpful to those calling in for advice.
And as fun as that sounds, as potentially cool as it would be to host such a show, there is also the very real possibility... that each call would last about ten seconds.
It's not that I've got a Dr. Laura streak in me; it isn't that I live to cut people off at their FADE IN. But the truth is: ten seconds is all it takes. It's true of every script I've ever sold. And what's more that's the way it should be. If you can't get to the heart of your movie idea very quickly and grab my attention, well, buddy we're on to Line 4 and Billy in Yakima, Washington.
It is this painful truism that was one of the things that prompted me to write my how-to, Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. Because I've had luck selling spec scripts (sold my 13th this year!) and because I am known as an "idea guy" I've been pitched in every conceivable setting. And I can pretty much tell if people -- amateur and professional -- know what they're doing very quickly. What I also found after years of hearing pitches is there is a consistency to the bad ones. And it's not just the time it takes to pitch but one's whole approach to communicating it. A bad pitch is more than a flawed sales attempt, it is often a sign the idea itself is MIA.
So in preparation for my debut on national radio, here are some ways not to pitch me:
The "White Horse" Pitch -- Invariably screenwriters get caught up in a silver bullet they think will carry the day, so convinced are they that that one thing guarantees success. I call it the "White Horse" pitch because the pitcher is so in love with the idea he fixates on it, convinced that if they say it enough times I'll get it and I don't. "You know... a WHITE HORSE!" Years back I heard one such pitch from a fellow who was positive that X-treme Sports was all he had to say to persuade me he had a winning movie notion. What's it about? I'd say. The look of an alchemist who'd discovered a way to spin gold from straw came over him. "X-treme sports!" he said again. I shrugged. "Yeah? So?" A tad miffed, he went on to explain ski board jumps from helicopters down tall mountain heights. "You know, X-treme Sports," he kept insisting. "It's the hottest thing out there." Well, that may be so, Jean-Claude, but this is a backdrop not a movie idea. Next!
The "Fade-In" Pitch -- In my book, I talk about the need to pitch the poster and why stating the one-line up front is the only proper beginning. I want to hear what the movie is about first -- like any moviegoer looking at what's playing in the newspaper. What I get instead, in what I call the "Fade-In" Pitch, is overkill. The pitcher can't tell me what the movie's about so he starts telling me the plot. These are very atmospheric pitches -- the scent of the wet grass! the sound of distant fireworks!! "Get to the point!" I'm screaming inside as I clutch my Perrier. But by God the pitcher will not give up. He insists on telling me the whole thing. Beat for beat. And usually what I find is that the reason he could not encapsulate his story is: there IS no story. This is the part in the conversation where I wish I did have my own radio show: "Line 5, Doctor Screenplay!"
The "Vaguely Stolen Movie Idea" Pitch -- This is the pitch that got started when the pitcher saw an obscure movie years ago and then forgot the original source -- or hangs on the vague hope that he is the only one who saw it. But whether by accident or on purpose he is telling you almost exactly the story line of a movie we've both seen, and altering it only slightly so as to add his own "creative touch." This is the pitch that while it is being performed I am thinking: "This is The Great Gatsby set in Palm Beach..." or "Oh my God, doesn't he know I've seen The Fly too?" These pitches differ from the popular Hollywood technique of taking a template like Magnificent Seven (in itself an "homage" to Seven Samurai) and setting it on the moon. No such paradigm shift or sex switch has been performed in the VSMI. It is instead replaced by the childish hope that adding a chimpanzee into the cast of The Sound Of Music is all it takes to make it one's own.
The "True Life Story" Pitch -- "This actually happened to me" is how this pitch begins, and this is when I look around for the exit. Not to put your life down, but it is rare that a true-life event that really happened to you in "real life" can be the basis of a winning movie idea -- and if it was, trust me, they would have bought from you already. Instead it's best to write a book, pen an article for Esquire, memorialize your true-life story for your children and grandchildren, but don't expect to sell it to Hollywood -- or me. That summer camp adventure may have deep meaning for you, but for the rest of us the impact is moot. The other downside of this type of pitch is: then what? Let's say, miracle of miracles, you sell your script, well, what next? The skills of a good screenwriter, especially one writing on spec, will have to come up with the next pitch anyway. And unless you have a whole suitcase full of true-life events, you'll be stuck with nada.
So that's all the time we have for today. Tune in next week when Billy from Yakima will call back in and try to explain why "Hang Gliding" constitutes a movie.
For "Pitch Me Your Movie" this is Blake Snyder saying: Write well and sell!
You know, I think this show has potential...