This is a guest post from John Robert Marlow, author of Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood:
Everyone wants to sell a story. Almost no one can. Part of the reason is just that: people try to sell stories. But few (okay, no) working professionals have time to listen to or read every story that comes through the door. There are two reasons for this: all stories are long, and most stories are bad. And while other stories being bad gives you an edge if yours is good — no one knows it’s good unless they read it. And (as mentioned) no one has time to do that. What to do?
Easy: Don’t pitch the story. Pitch the concept.
Consider: the WGA registers 50,000 new screenplays every year. An undoubtedly larger number are copyrighted instead, or not registered at all. Conservatively speaking, that’s 100,000 new scripts hitting the market in any given year — on top of those already in circulation. Put yourself in the rep or buyer’s shoes: in the next three hours, you can read one script, maybe two (with a 99% probability neither will be much good) — or review well over a thousand concepts, and then ask to see only those scripts whose concepts seem promising, timely, and appropriate to your needs. Which method do you think your competitors are using?
A good, pitchable concept conveys the three most basic elements of your story in ten seconds or less: WHO the story is about, what their GOAL is, and the nature of the OBSTACLE that must be overcome to reach that goal. Lest you think this cannot be done, here are a few examples I cooked up for movies you may have seen:
•A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal (The Fugitive).
•An orphaned boy attends a school for wizards, where he must learn the ways of magic to defeat the evil wizard who killed his parents — and is now after him (Harry Potter).
Even relatively complex concepts can be gotten across in this way, with the addition of a brief setup line:
•In a society where criminals are arrested before their crimes are committed, a cop convicted of a future murder goes on the run to prove his innocence (Minority Report).
Dissecting the first concept (also called a logline), we have: A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife (that’s our WHO) struggles to prove his innocence (the GOAL) while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal (the OBSTACLE). If you can’t boil your story down to a 10-second pitch, it means one of several things: you suck at loglines (an entirely different skill than writing a great story); the story itself is missing one or more of the required main elements (you can’t distill what isn’t there); or your story is non-classically structured (which means a harder pitch, a tougher sell, and less certain box office). And while unconventional films can be fabulous, know this going in: well over 90% of all commercially successful films are classically structured (three acts, seven plot points).
A story that can’t be distilled to a brief conceptual pitch makes buyers worry they won’t be able to sell the movie with a 30-second trailer — which often spells death at the box office. It also makes them wonder if the story itself has problems. Finally (or so goes their reasoning) if the pitch can’t focus and hold their attention for 10 seconds–what are the chances the writer can keep them engaged for the two or three hours it takes to read the whole script?
Don’t pitch your story. Pitch your concept. You spent hundreds of hours on your script. Spend a few more on the logline. It could make all the difference in the world.
JOHN ROBERT MARLOW is a novelist, screenwriter, producer and adaptation consultant. His latest book, Make Your Story a Movie: Adapting Your Book or Idea for Hollywood, draws on the expertise of authors, screenwriters, producers and directors whose combined films have earned over $50 billion and scores of Oscar nominations.