The Napa Valley Film Festival created their Pitch Panel Contest as another exciting way to connect film fans and the creative community with some of our industry’s top executives. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing new talent, some who’ve never pitched before in their life, come face-to-face with top decision makers in film and television for a true shot at getting their big break. Each year we’ve learned that when put in the same room, any ordinary person with an extraordinary idea can get the nod from the powers that be. I’ve had the privilege of being on the Panel for several years, helping new writers refine their projects and pitches, and would like to share some basic insight on creating and pitching that may help new creatives entering the NVFF Pitch Contest:
Make Strong Choices: Film audiences arrive at theatres with a willing suspension of disbelief. They want to believe in your story, and connect with it. Its your opportunity as the Writer/Creator to make strong choices in any aspect of your story or concept. They want a heightened, or intensified reality, and there’s a few ways to get there when you’re developing your story. Create an ironic premise, but with a very plausible setup. This propels the story, giving the main characters a lot to work with. Give your main character a very unique challenge, and in their journey they encounter things that test their resolve, and sometimes change the course of their agenda, so ultimately we see them grow as a person. How that’s done is up to you, the creator. Talent lies in the choices made by the artist, so make strong, unexpected, beautiful choices. It will resonate through every facet of your story, and connect with buyers hearing your pitch.
Create a Great Logline (The short pitch): Whether you’re pitching casually at a coffee shop, in a room full of executives, or to a pitch panel at a fun festival like NVFF, you want to have a very clear Logline that communicates your core concept. Its the short pitch that boils your story or concept down to one or two sentences. For film, a logline most often gives the unique premise (the set up) along with the main character’s extraordinary agenda. The same applies to television, except you may be dealing with a different genre like a reality docu-series where you’ll want to describe the unique world or subject we’d be covering, and the plight of the person(s) involved that we’re following. I’ve always known the logline to be the true test of a project’s potential. It really tests the writer to see if they know their project well, and more often than not, if you can’t create a strong logline, then the concept itself isn’t strong enough. Its the anchor for all that happens in the story. Its the reason for the rhyme.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT MOVIE IDEA? Some stories and concepts are very clear in entertainment value, with such a unique premise and turn of events that the idea itself is marketable. This is considered “High Concept”. The Producer can see the potential for humor, drama, conflict, etc, simply based on the set-up, and unique twist in the story. What the new writer has to be careful of, especially when trying to sell a “pitch”, is pitching a concept that is very subtle and relies heavily on the execution of the screenplay and actual filmmaking. Both are good things, but assuming you’re not already a bankable screenwriter, they need to fall in love with the highly unique concept you’ve constructed for a pitch, enough to want to then develop and produce it as a feature. The goal is to create a pitch that holds the most compelling components (Premise, and Character’s plight) that together fuel the story, and from that they can see the entertaining results.
If you’re going to sell an idea, that idea has to be extremely original, with a premise, plot and resolution that makes us want to see that film. Often, when a concept works, you’ll easily see how the story can play out, and a Producer will have confidence that it can grab an audience as a film. Gravitate toward subjects and premises that haven’t been explored yet. Too often a pitch may be clever, but the content is too familiar. That being a fact, there’s still an exception to the rule. If you can find a new angle on a subject audiences are familiar with, that surprising and fresh approach to the subject can work well. Also keep in mind that Comedy plays very well in selling pitches. While dramas often pull us into subtle details and nuance that is heavily reliant on the execution of a great script, comedy is more about the big ingredients that are set against each other to create ironic, unexpected, funny moments and episodes in the journey of our characters. Then, even with that, keep in mind that the best comedy often results from dramatic conflict. So again, its all about making strong contrasting choices.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT TELEVISION SERIES IDEA? In pitching a series, you’ll need to convince Producers that there’s an appetite for the subject, the set-up and circumstances of our characters will drive a storyline in multiple directions that collide in comedy or drama, and that your main protagonist has the type of dimension and character traits (with flaws) that viewers will become emotionally vested in. A great series is most often a study of the human condition in a unique world built around the characters.
Television today has also given the creator and producer a huge spectrum of opportunities in factual-based programming, with outlets for subjects and stories that would never have found a home on TV in decades past. Viewer appetites for documentary style programming is very high, and reality TV (for the most part) is no longer just a stunt for ratings. At its best, its brain candy that takes us into a world or experience we’d never find in our own lives. Its truly a genre where anyone from any corner of the country may have an idea that can translate into a series. Look at your life and world, and you may just find a great premise for a docu-style series. Unique lifestyles, professions, families, and other adventures can all translate into entertaining content for reality TV.
Scripted Series: This is the arena that is much more insulated within the industry, and extremely difficult to find traction in for a new writer. Its also heavily reliant on execution of a spec script. That being said, if you’re bold enough to pen a brilliant pilot script that breaks open a new subject and world we haven’t seen before, then its worth a shot, and its a very admirable pursuit.
Pitching: The first thing to keep in mind is knowing that the executives want your pitch to work, even when they’re being scrutinizing. They’re trying to solve a puzzle with you in hope of coming out of the meeting with a viable project. They live and breathe puzzle solving, so more often that not you’ll learn something new about your project. Even executives with zero experience in writing and crafting concepts will have a very refined sensibility for what is entertaining. If they like your concept and the way you think, they’ll want to roll up the sleeves to develop it. The best pitch meetings I’ve had were creative conversations that took the project in a better direction. Usually the reason for that is they like the premise, and they like the payoff, they just need to know that the content we’re watching in between is truly interesting. Its like agreeing we’re driving from L.A. to New York City- but we just have to figure out the most exciting route to take. So be open to questions. Be open to scrutiny. Be open to a new direction. Engage that process!
The Real Agenda: Connect creatively with the person you’re pitching. Don’t look at your pitch as the only approach to your story or concept. At best, its a point of departure for whatever its true potential is, and that takes the collaboration of others with more experience in refining stories to deliver the most compelling and entertaining result. Be ready to collaborate in conversation.
The buyer may love the subject and premise, but is put off by the main character’s secret agenda that is revealed in the third act. They may love your idea for a travel series, but feel that its too reliant on having the right host. They may absolutely love your high-concept comedy, but feel that its just too familiar in some regard. Those are all big challenges to solve, but more importantly, the buyer is learning how your think, how you conceptualize, and the types of strong choices you make in the stories and concepts you create. When they like your approach to creating, they’ll at the very least be open to future projects you bring to them.
In The Room: In the competition at NVFF’s Pitch Contest, reading from a page is ok. The most important thing is to get the critical details of your pitch across to us, and not get bogged down by fumbling for details under unusual pressure. Do your homework, and know your pitch inside and out. If you rehearse enough with friends, and by yourself, you should be able to sit down with anyone and take them through the story with ease. But when you’re under a bit of pressure, with an audience, in a competition, just read from your page so those of us on the Panel can get the important details clearly. Having the page to work off of should then free your mind up to connect with the story more, and probably give a better delivery. Passion with a subtle urgency helps us SEE your story.
Come from that place of excitement you had when you first conceived of the story, as if you’re telling your best friend about the most amazing thing that happened. Not overselling it, but simply communicating with urgency and focus.
If you’re pitching without referencing a page, that means you know your story and concept inside and out. But don’t obsess over reciting word for word the pitch you had developed. Often with the bit of adrenaline you’ll have, you may race over a few details, but what your mind is actually doing is filtering out the less important fodder, and focusing only on the most critical aspect of the story you’re telling. This is why doing cold pitches for practice with your project is the best way to refine and understand what really works.
In the end, we’re all wanting the same thing; to discover fun, entertaining, inspiring stories. If you’re selected for the pitch competition at the Napa Film Festival, your competition is in the same boat, and you’ll find a camaraderie that often generates new friendships and alliances. Make that the focus of your time at the Festival. Our business is a contact sport, so take advantage of being there, and make connecting creatively with anyone you meet the priority. And when you make your pitch in the middle of all that fun, you may just accidentally win.
OPEN FOR #NVFF16 ENTRIES STARTING JULY 2016