From the book Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, the basic rules of pitching.
In case you are not familiar with William Goldman (1931-2018), he’s been one of the best screenwriters Hollywood has seen. He was the author of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (an original script that won him his first Oscar), All The President’s Men (maybe the most difficult adaptation ever made in Hollywood, it won him Oscar number two), Marathon Man (excellent script from his own book) and The Princess Bride (same again).
As well as writing 25 produced scripts, Goldman created 17 novels, 3 plays and 6 non-fiction books about a variety of subjects. He even wrote one, Hype & Glory, about his experience as a member of the jury at the Miss America pageant and the Cannes Film Festival in the same year, 1988.
But his most remembered non-fiction book is about screenwriting: Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983), a very successful and fascinating account of a key part of his film career. In 2000 a follow up came called Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade, which we’ll be dealing with here.
If you are into screenwriting, both books deserve to be read and fully enjoyed.
The Art of Pitching
In one small section of Which Lie Did I Tell? Goldman gives advice on something that all screenwriters at some stage will have to deal with: pitching a project.
You should take a few notes now.
William Goldman’s Ten Commandments of Pitching
1. Never forget whom you are talking to. The studio executive views you as an impediment to either his lunch or his tennis game. But some part of him also knows you might help his career. He doesn’t want to listen to you, he would rather he lived in a world where he didn’t have to listen to you. So do not bore him. Rule one is this: Be brief.
2. Brief means this: in and out in five minutes. Unless the executive asks you to stay.
3. Remember you are not telling the story, you are throwing out a hook.
3a. Keep it simple.
3b. Not a lot of detail.
3c. One or two lines. What you tell the executive is this: “Here’s the setup, boom.” If they buy the setup, there is a real chance they will buy the movie.
4. Grab them. You want them to think, “Yeah, I get that.”
5. People are busy. (Same as rule one but I thought you ought to be reminded.)
6. Do not pitch more than one idea per meeting.
7. If you can, leave an outline. Executives love this. Not a detailed shot-by-shot deal, but a couple of pages where you start with what you hit them with and thicken it a bit, embellish it; if you have any glorious scenes in mind, put those in. (Likewise, if your ending sucks, leave it out.) Giving them something to read can only be a plus. It helps them fill out your pitch. It also makes them think you actually care about the piece of shit you are selling. (Piece of shit, as you should know, is the way executives refer to screenplays Out There.)
8. Never read a pitch. Some writers are more comfortable doing it that way, but the meeting is about your future, not your comfort. Learn to tell your story. Practice it by yourself or on friends until you are comfortable. Executives like eye contact.
9. Pitch the same idea ten times in one day. Obviously, keep that news to yourself. Do not say to Mr Fox, “I would love to talk more but I’m late for my meeting with Mr Time Warner.”
9a. Be aware of the values of multi-pitching. It is good to get your idea out there. Especially if you are new, because more people will know of your existence.
9b. Be aware of the risks of multi-pitching. It is not good if your goal is to have a relationship with a particular studio, which you might actually want. There are no secrets in the movie business. Everybody knows somebody. Be aware that your multi-pitch day will get out. Never tell anyone you are giving them an exclusive if you aren’t. Your word actually has a certain value in Southern California. Even if theirs doesn’t.
10. Never forget that even if they buy your pitch, most studios are planning on firing you as soon as you hand them your first draft.
Read about Goldman’s most iconic lines here.
More about the William Goldman in Best Screenwriting Books: ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, William Goldman Speaks, Ten Amazing Discussions On Screenwriting And Filmmaking From The Masters Of Cinema and For Screenwriters: Endings.
More about Screenwriting in Best Screenwriting Books: ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING, How to Make Film Adaptations, According to Linda Seger, How Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT Was Written, Best Screenwriting Books: Dmytryk’s ON SCREENWRITING, Best Screenwriting Books: McKee’s STORY (1), Andrew Kevin Walker on SE7EN and 8MM and Best Screenwriting Books: THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING, amongst many other posts!