Back in May last year Adrian Mead held a seminar on pitching for writers in Edinburgh. Here's the first half of my notes from that day, with particular emphasis on the Pitch Doc. [Any mistakes, bad spelling or grammar are my own, by the way.]
ADRIAN MEAD ON PITCHING FOR WRITERS Pt. 1
Great quote: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. It’s about you inventing your own future, learning the skills to drive your career forward. The industry has radically changed in the past year and it will do so again. Open your mind, be brave.
Broadcasters and production companies all want a project to have integrity. That word keeps coming up, over and over again. They don’t want to be making fluff. They want to invest in it morally - but it doesn’t have to be highbrow stuff. ITV Drama is looking to bump up the intellectual content of its drama. Shows like Life on Mars are full of moral issues.
Target audiences: who is your audience, how are you reflecting their past and present experiences? Adrian met a producer who said she wanted work that reflected the viewers’ experience. Who watches TV? People in late 20s, early 30s – people with families. People in their 50s and 60s are out and being active; it’s people with kids who watch telly now.
They’re two experiences they want to nail with that audience: trouble with kids, worries about job, marriage, mid-life crisis, neighbours; they also want their experience of when they were kids. That’s why one of the reasons Life on Mars presses so many buttons. Plus it’s very well written. There’s a bunch of 1980s things coming out soon.
Your first goal is to write the pitch. Some people write the script and then the pitch. But if you write the pitch first, it forces you to understand what you want to write about it. I do this all the time – it helps me realise if an idea isn’t important enough to invest in. Your first goal is writing the pitch; you can then write a treatment, or you may write the script.
If you’re a new writer – someone nobody’s developed anything with, then you need to have sample work. That should be something that reflects the next kind of project you want to set up. Adrian came up with an idea with a comedy-horror that’s exciting people, but he had nothing else like it, so had to write spec material to show I can write that. After your pitch, you need a treatment of 25-30 pages; but if you’re completely new, a complete spec script will be required.
Your second goal is getting it optioned. All that means is somebody wants to have dibs on it. You don’t always get paid for an option, but ideally you do. Rarely for longer than two years, probably only one, giving them time to talk to money people, broadcasters. You can still use it as a writing sample for getting an agent, but no more; once it’s been optioned, it’s off the market. Try to avoid writing for free – that’s hard, especially when you’re starting out. If you’ve got an agent, they’ll help negotiate that for you. Your third goal is getting it made.
You’ll meet writers who are hugely wealthy who’ve never had anything made. Adrian has five different projects for which he's been well paid to develop but that never got made. It’s incredibly frustrating, but you’ve got to recognise you got paid, you’ve become a better writer by virtue of the process – and eventually the option will run out and the material reverts to you.
You start to develop stuff that keeps making money for you. An option never guarantees a project will get made. Don’t option your stuff to somebody who can’t get it made! You’ll meet lots of people who call themselves producers who’ve never made anything in their life. They’ll option stuff for free on the never-never, but the project never-never gets made often. You get sold much easier when you’ve got an agent, they have their ear to the ground.
Some producers say they don’t want new writers. But what they really don’t want is to be hand-holding new writers. Doing things like today makes you that little bit more professional; you’ll be less of a kid gloves problem.
There are three types of pitching opportunities:
1. The networking event – that’s a place where you don’t pitch, an industry event – the trick is not to pitch. You present yourself as a professional writer, so you can contact them later. Just talk about what interests, talk about the subject. Find a subject to chat about you’re mutually interested in.
2. The office meeting – you’re pitching yourself and the project. We’re going to do a few different scenarios of that today, you’ll get to see me bad and good pitches.
3. The presentation pitch – in Scotland that's schemes like Tartan Shorts or New Found Land. You pitch to a whole table full of people. If you’re not prepared, you don’t know where to look, you lose the focus. We’ll teach you how to cope. You have to figure out who’s the boss, who’s most visual, who’s processing information, who’s the chatty script editor who’s no use to you. You have to keep your focus on where the money is, that’s the important bit.
The Pitch Doc [PD] is a one page or page and a half document designed to sell your script. Adrian wrote a PD that got him six meetings and three nibbles. None of the people he was pitching had seen his work before. It was the subject and the way it was presented by my agent. More than anything, what sold it was the fact it’s rooted in what’s happening now.
Why do you need to do this? The PD is a first contact document. It can be sent out with a sample of your work, your great calling card script. You put cracking one page documents out. These will make or break whether you even get in the door. They want to know if you have good ideas. Is it quirky enough? Hard hitting enough? Your pitch doc makes you look professional.
It’s also a pitching aide. They’d rather you were nervous and clear, than nerveless and babbling. You talk around the document, or work your way through it. It’s about clarity. You run through the document and then have a chat.
It also works for as a leave behind, an aide memoir. Something for execs to pitch to their boss. The people you meet will not have the final say, they all have a boss and they have to sell it to the boss. You’ll meet a producer or a development exec or a script development exec. They’ll have to go to weekly meetings and talk about your pitch. Your PD saves them having to write their own version of your pitch. The Pitch Doc is a very, very powerful tool – it makes other people’s job easier. That’s what being professional all about, making other people’s jobs easier.
People will ask pretty basic questions – essentially, they want to know if you know what you’re talking about. If you’re engaging them, they’ll start to enthuse and start pitching in contributions of their own to the idea. A Pitch Doc doesn’t break their heart – but yet another 120 page script will! Whatever you send, such as a sample script, always include a Pitch Doc that explains it. There's no problem with sending another idea along as a Pitch Doc.
Even when Adrian sends a 5-page treatment, he’ll include a Pitch Doc that explains it. Something that points out the theme, that lays out who is the protagonist, his story. It sounds impossible, but you can show your style, the themes, the integrity, the depth of a story in a Pitch Doc – you can do it.
There are very experienced writers who are terrible at pitching. They use the children’s jigsaw principle – big, simple pieces, not 500 tiny bits. All you’re trying to tell people is what happens next and what to focus on. All you need to tell them: who’s the character, what’s the challenge, who’s the other significant character, what happens, how it ends. Adrian never pitches the same story quite the same way twice. Keep the big, simple jigsaw images of your story in your mind.
WHAT’S IN YOUR PITCH DOC?
1. the title
2. the time and the place
3. the genre
4. the protagonist
5. the goal
6. the obstacles
7. the theme
8. “in the end by…”
Those are the big chunks of the spine, the essentials of the Pitch Doc. You completely miss the second act, skip over what happens. You can include a log line at the top. Don’t try to reinvent the PD. It gets the conversation going, the chat going – that’s what it is designed to do. Keep it dead simple.
TITLE: don’t underestimate how important your title is. It’s the first thing anyone sees. If the title hooks readers from the start, they’ll be more likely to keep reading.
TIME AND PLACE: be exact – 1930s Ireland too unspecific, there’s a massive difference between 1931 and 1939 in Ireland. Where and when you set a story hugely informs the story, has a massive impact.
GENRE: Discussions about genre generate a lot of hot air. Movies are marketed by genre increasingly. There are two root types of stories, from which everything else sprouts – drama and comedy.
PROTAGONIST: the hero, the central character – buddy movie is a joint protagonist. Give them a name, a specific age – nail the age.
GOALS: What your character wants versus what they need. Only give your character one, clear goal in the PD.
OBSTACLES: these create conflict. You have to have three of them. They need a heck of a lot of things to keep them busy for 120 minutes or six episodes.
THEME: if you think Genre generates arguments, theme is much worse. You really need to nail your theme. You want something that resonates with the audience, that encompasses the issues that are important to people.
“IN THE END BY…”: This is the method by which the story and thematic elements are concluded. Don’t try and explain the whole thing – leave out the second act.
Readers often want a Pitch Doc with each script. A poorly written Pitch Doc is as bad as a poorly written script. Do multiple drafts of your Pitch Doc [Adrian frequently does seven drafts of each PD].
STORY SOURCES: as writers you come up with ideas all the time. As professional writers you have to create a lot more, sometimes while you’re sitting opposite the person who asks for an idea. You say “I haven’t got it all worked out but…” You need to be constantly generated ideas. People are looking for authored pieces. Be brave – jump in with big ideas, big themes, the big stuff of life and how it works in a small setting. TV is becoming quite ambitious, bigger themes – the waters between film and TV are getting muddied.
However a strong subject isn’t a guarantee a strong story. You have to find a story. Make certain there’s an emotional core you can identify with it. Finding the emotional core of the story is a good way of testing if your story works. Producers look for stories that tie into anniversaries, such as Chernobyl. You want to be looking for what’s going to have an anniversary in two or three years.
Don’t research your subject before you write it, otherwise you can become an expert on a subject without every writing your story. Just get the basics – is there a story, what’s the emotional core of it, what happens to those people. You will only use 1% of everything you’ve researched. People care about have events impact people.
Go to the children’s library, they have great reference books – simple. Try channel4.com/learning – a great site. You only need as much information as a child learns at school. Then write your script and when you reach a bit that needs detailed info, put the word RESEARCH. Once you’ve gotten to the end of your story, you research the bits you need – and no more. Your script will change anyway, so don’t bother pre-researching the factual basis of it. You’re writing a drama, not a text book.
DOES YOUR STORY HAVE LEGS? Can it be a long-running series? Will it come back? Is there a sequel to your movie? Particularly with TV, broadcasters and production companies want anything you’re pitching to have potential for five series. They have to build sets, source costumes, spend money – if they can spread that spending over five series, it’s far more cost-efficient.
WHERE ON THE SCHEDULE WOULD IT GO? DIGITAL OR TERRESTRIAL? Sunday night at 8pm?? Tuesday at 9pm? Thursday at 9pm? There’s a massive difference between these slots. BBC3 has a max budget for new British drama of £400k, whereas BBC1 is £500k - £1.2m. A show on Sunday night at 8pm it won’t be set in a brothel. Don’t give away your lack of knowledge by such blunders.
IS IT EVENT TV? Does it obviously generate digital spin-offs, documentary tie-ins, website linkage? A post-show issue debate shows integrity and depth. They also want to get the maximum out of your product. They get excited because it is a big subject, big issues. They’ve got to take your idea and sell it upstairs, if it can become a magnet for other stuff, that’s a bonus.
You are a bean seller. Beans are no different to pieces of paper with black ink on them. If you went into a bank and said you want £10k for these beans (pages), and there’s no guarantee they’ll germinate. You’re essentially flogging magic beans but it’s ideas and stories and scripts. It’s all about how good you are at convincing people. Adrian tries to make writers into better salesman, because you have to be to get work. More than any other form of writing, you have to sit in a room and collaborate. You have to prove you can do it professionally. You’ve got to be a salesperson.
Writers are in the best position. We get paid first. Once you get any kind of professional status, you’ll get paid and get paid first – producers can be working for years with no money coming in.