Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Notes from Adrian Mead pitching seminar Pt. 2

Here's the second half of my notes from the TV drama pitching seminar Adrian Mead held in Edinburgh last May. As always, any inaccuracies, anachronism or errors are my fault, so don't blame Adrian. Right, on to the notes...


There are two root types of stories, from which everything else sprouts – drama and comedy. In a drama the character succeeds by their very best efforts. In a comedy the character succeeds despite their best efforts. Everything else grows out of these two root types. It’s a very good way to interrogate your story’s genre at its most basic level. If you creating a hybrid genre, there’s the great danger of scrambling your story. This is not about limiting your ideas. The more your know, the more you can break the rules. Rules can be broken, but you have to be very smart, really know your stuff. You’ve got to know all the conventions of your chosen genre. There’s a third branch of the root types and that’s tragedy: the character fails despite their best efforts. Where you stop your story can define what genre it is.

To create a great title for your story, try these methods. Titles can convey the genre to your story e.g. Star Wars; Medium; Grisly Tales for Gruesome Kids; Diagnosis Murder. Titles can emphasis the crisis: Bad Day at Black Rock; Kramer vs Kramer. Titles that pose an intriguing question: Waking the Dead; Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Titles can spotlight the star’s role: Rocky; Linda Green; Crocodile Dundee. Titles can explore cultural references: Monarch of the Glenn, The Untouchables. Titles can cash in on current slang: You’ve Got Mail; Dazed and Confused – but there’s a danger it’ll date your story e.g. The Smoking Room. Titles can perform triple duty: Reservoir Dogs – it tells us it’s an ensemble, it creates a metaphor, establishes a mood; Mean Streets. You can tell a hell of a lot just in your title.

There’s a lot of people now looking for things that aren’t London-centric, because of the new BBC Nations and Regions policy. BBC Wales is very, very strong, a tough place to break in as a result.

When developing your protagonist, try the HERALDIC SHIELD exercise: draw a shield, split it into four quadrants. Top two quadrants are personal, bottom two quadrants are career. Top left: what’s the personal achievement they’re proudest of? Draw a picture of it. Top right: what’s his big personal goal he’d like to achieve in the future past? Draw it. Do the same things in the bottom quadrants: greatest career achievement to date bottom left; greatest career goal bottom right. This is about them – not the story goal. And give them a motto at the top!

Stuff like this – heraldic shields and mind-maps – great for when you’re stuck, or when you’re trying to revive and resurrect an old idea. These methods make it fun, play with it, be outrageous. Go back to an old concept and revisit it with these tools and you’ll have fun – you should be better writers than you were before.

George Bernard Shaw: If you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, make it dance.

Context defines your protagonist: period, occupation – hugely influential, often overlooked. Their key emotion – mad, sad, glad or scared? Those four emotions are the key to your character. Their attitudes, their emotions, their backstory – all crucial. KNOW YOUR CHARACTER.

HOW TO HAVE MEETINGS: We don’t want to salesmen, but we have to be – it’s about selling our selves. Let’s talk about how you run a meeting and read people. It’s not about teaching you tricks. Same of you may be good at this anyway, just naturally.

At this point in the seminar Adrian handed over to Morag, an interpersonal skills coach and one of the most sought after experts in her field. Morag said: The way we read each other and interact is much more subtle than we realise. 55% of message processing is done by body language. 38% is via voice: tone, pitch, pace. Only 7% is from the actual words. [This is solely applicable in a physical face-to-face situation, not email or video conferencing or phone calls.]

90% of what people think about you is judged in the first 9 seconds they met you. We take in information through our senses. Those people who see things in pictures, will look upwards when they’re trying to recall something. Those who prefer to have things spoken, who process in words and remember things in words and streams of words – they’ll look to the side, that’s where the ears are. Those who use their emotions to process information, they’ll look down to their body – they are called Kinaesthetic learners.

People who are visual will say: I can see that, I can picture that. Auditory: I hear what you’re saying… - they’ll use sound-based words. Kinaesthetic: I feel good about that. As you walk into a room, watch where people’s eyes are moving to figure which they are. Kinaesthetic people like movement; audio response to language; visual respond to props. Put a mix of all three in your presentation and you should hit all three.

Roleplaying exercise: different writers arriving for a pitch meeting. Type A: ingratiating, disorganised. People hold on to things they don’t need, as a security blanket. You’re looking for the three opportunities, so they don’t become three strikes. Strike One: let’s get started. Open body language, invite them to form a bond. Strike Two: why don’t you tell us what you’ve got for us today. Once people start sitting back, crossing their arms over their bodies. Watch their shoulders – if they come forward, they are interested. If they go back, they might be relaxing – or, more likely, you’re losing them.

If you feel the meeting sliding away from you, pull out your PD and read it aloud. Desperate measures, but it can save the meeting. Strike Three: why did you come to see us today? Last chance. Watch for a chopping hand movement – cutting to the nub. At least get your pitch in, if nothing else – even if it’s a dull monotone. Type B: the pitching maniac. Don’t be so aggressive you frighten the other person. Don’t jump in and swamp them with your talking. Have a back-up story to pitch.

HOW TO PITCH PROPERLY. Walk in, shake hands, don’t crowd them – put your head at the same level as theirs if possible – make eye contact. Not everybody wants to shake hands, not everybody is tactile. Watch for the signs as you walk in – are they holding a security blanket. First thing you do: ask ‘How long have we got?’ If you start in on a pitch and the warning signs are bad, pause and let them say it’s a non-starter. If so, go to your back-up pitch.

If their head tilts, they’re interested. If they ask questions, that’s good, especially if they go up at the end of the interrogative. Chuck in a big visual image. Keep it grounded in today. Physical contact with somebody makes you more memorable to them. Listen as much as you talk. Go in prepared, know about the people, the organisation. Have your back-up stuff ready in case things go off-stream. Have a clean, professional persona to present yourself.

MIRRORING BEHAVIOURS: a strong way to send a signal that you are empathetic with them. If you can [subtly] reflect their body language, it creates a bond. People who are good friends will naturally mirror each other gestures. At the start of your career, you’ll almost certainly start off writing somebody else’s characters – it’s all about can they work with you? Leaving: make eye contact, shake hands if possible. Afterwards: send them a card!

There are people who don’t like a lot of eye contact. If they don’t want it, it should be obvious – so stop staring at them. You can sit slightly side on to them and make them more comfortable as a consequence. People instinctively recognise phoney gestures. The more aware you become of yourself and others, the better you’ll do. Google and IMDB the people you are meeting. Look up PAL – playwrights and authors lab – it's a valuable resource.

If you’re meeting a quietly spoken person, speak quietly. You have to be aware of your physical presence and the impact it makes. Mirror your voice to the other person’s voice - where possible. If it’s going good, don’t bother with a second one. If first flops, try the second. It that tanks, ask if you can leave them a third. Try to leave on a positive note. [Don’t accept a cup of coffee – you’ll have enough stuff already]

CHARACTER GOALS: It has to be something absolutely clear – it has to be something they want, not something they need. Their goal is what they want – an active thing. Often the want versus need is shown by the personal and career ambitions on the heraldic shield you’ve created. The biggest obstacle character's have is usually an obstacle to achieving their professional goal.

Conflicts are usually described as: Inner [from within the central character]; Inter [from another character]; or Extra [everything the central character doesn’t have a personal relationship with]. Man versus himself, man versus man, man versus nature is another way of describing the three levels of conflict. JAWS: Sheriff scared of water, dodgy mayor, big shark! Give your characters physical, emotional or moral hell – ideally all three.

THEMES: Ask yourself - is it a big, important thing that resonates. I often pitch the theme first, to see if it resonates. People start making assumptions as soon as you start talking about theme and genre, that’s why you have to be able to nail that, to answer their questions. You’re not telling them the story – you’re laying out the eight pieces of the jigsaw, not all 500 pieces of the plot and stuff.

BIG THEMES; destructive love, unrequited love. You will have asked yourself all the questions they might ask. If they say it’s a bit like, say I see where you’re going but it’s also… If something is absolutely unique, it may not resonate at all. If the body language is going wrong and it seems too familiar to them, move on. Theme is about building the emotional spine and thematic integrity. Think of it in pictures, if possible.

You can pitch the elements from your Pitch Doc [PD] in whatever order you want, but keep it as simple as you can. Try doing a version of the PD for all the scripts you’ve already done. The biggest mistake most writers make is sending stuff out before its ready. The only script reading service AM recommends are:
The Script Factory and Script-a-Looza.

The good news is there are still plenty of regional funding schemes to get something made. You have to bombard them with new scripts, break them by attrition. Write constantly throughout the year, don’t wait for the deadline. Don’t just stick to Scotland – look at Screen East, Midlands, etc – approach a producer in that area to front for you. Don’t bother getting caught up in the politics.

AM’s agent says nobody wants to read new writers, except via agents and producers. You have to be focused and careful – you have got to get an agent. The climate for new writers has gotten tougher, the field has narrowed. Using tools like the Pitch Doc takes you a step up from other new writers. The best way to get an agent is via recommendation from an established writer. It’s all about establishing relationships.

Don’t say you’re a new writer – say you’re an Edinburgh-based writer, coming to London on business and looking to set up some meetings: I’d like to meet [insert name here] – can I send you a sample of my work? Even when you’ve been rejected, send them a card saying Thank You for the opportunity to meet and talk. There are certain companies that are better to approach then others, what broadcasters call ‘preferred suppliers’. Research who these are, ask around.

When you meet a writer or other working professional who may have useful information, ask if you can take them for coffee and pick their brains for 30 minutes. Turn up prepared with a list of questions and don’t overrun your allocated time. Chances are that after 30 minutes they’ll be happy to continue. You must build contacts. Any kind of track record is useful.

PITCHING TO MORE THAN ONE PERSON. Try using a pitch board: Large piece of hard cardboard, folded into three like a triptych. Put photos and images on the left panel. Put one-paragraph character profiles down the left of the middle panel, making each name big enough to be seen from distance. Then break the story down into scenes, running these in columns down the right hand side of the centre panel, and on down the right hand panel of the board.

This helps do your job for you, sucks people in to the narrative. If possible, bring photographs for people to hold. People will look at the pitch board instead of you. It’s great for a room of people. The Pitch Board fulfils the needs of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic people.

Why do new writers get rejected? Here are some of the most common mistakes: No Pitch Doc supplied with each script. A poorly written Pitch Doc is just as bad. Don’t ignore the guidelines – if they want 9 minute scripts, don’t send a 15-minuter. Read the small print of any competition or opportunity. Bad dialogue is fatal – read it out loud. Keep it simple, make sure you believe it. Don’t include camera angles or musical suggestions. Flashbacks, flash forwards, dream sequences – if you must use them, do it sparingly – but preferably not at all. Too many stage directions. Voiceover. No theme, or a theme that’s not big enough for the story. Hybrid loglines like ‘Jaws meets the Bicycle Thief!’

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