I recently took a new position in development at the production company I’ve been reading for and it’s giving me an insider’s view of that mythical fortress – the ProdCo – all of us spec writers are trying so hard to storm.
Before I begin my ProdCo work, I do switch hats from writing to development, but don’t think for a moment that the writer in me isn’t always listening closely and taking notes. The game of telephone, and how it applies to a screenplay pitch, has been my first lesson.
A screenwriter friend shared a script with me as a potential submission to the ProdCo. She also shared her logline and, in trying to clarify a point, mentioned another produced film as a potential comparison. The other film not only bombed at the box office but was equally terrible as a movie. The first thing I thought was I should never mention that “in the vein of” when talking about this script. But the seed was planted and hell if it didn’t grow when I wasn’t looking.
A few days later, I’m chatting with a ProdCo colleague and we’re discussing ideas that have been floating our way. We hit upon the genre of the script my friend had given me and I tried my best to remember the exact logline. I kind of remembered it, but boy did I wish in that moment the logline had been a little snappier, with more of a hook, because as hard as I was trying (and writers, know, I was trying), I was doing a terrible job of re-pitching this idea.
It wasn’t working, I saw no spark of interest in my colleague’s eyes and my brain scrambled for how to position this script. Then, there it was: The seed that had grown into a putrid flower, that regrettable “in the vein of” line, bubbled up in my head and popped right out of my mouth.
As the pitch flopped on the carpet, gasping for air, I did what any working Joe in my shoes would have done; I averted my gaze and moved on to the next project.
But the writer in me made note.
Most writers know how important their pitch is and work hard to craft a great one they can deliver. But what I certainly hadn’t thought much about is the fact that as writers we’ll probably, if we’re lucky, get to pitch one employee of a ProdCo and then they’re the ones who’ll go around the company trying to recreate our pitches.
Ever play telephone as a kid? Now imagine your pitch told and re-told by other people. What are those key words and ideas that will be remembered and passed on? Is there anything in your pitch that’s working against you, such as a comparison to a bad film or a character name or location or minor detail that will trump more important aspects of your story in the re-tellers mind?
If you’re practicing your pitch, you’re probably already pitching it to friends and family to help refine it. Try adding another step: Wait a few days after pitching to a friend and then ask them to try to pitch your idea back to you. Listen closely for what they remember, where they struggle and if they are able to re-pitch your idea with anything close to the enthusiasm with which you pitched it to them.
Like it or not, pitching is a big old game of telephone. You have control over what words and ideas you use to start the chain, but after that, you have no idea of the storytelling skills of the folks down the line.
We’re all working too hard on our writing careers to get stuck at the pitch. If you whisper in the first ear “an adventure comedy about two bumbling musicians on the run from the mob” and all the last person in the telephone chain can remember is “in the vein of Ishtar,” then you need to rethink that pitch.