Pitching your book for film – Screenwriter Charles Harris

Screenwriter Charles Harris delivered a workshop on ‘Pitching your book for film’, at the AuthorCraft event in January 2018. Here is a transcript of his talk.

 So, I started off in the film business. I’m not just a writer, I’m a director and an author. But, when I started, of course I wasn’t any of those things. I was trying to sell my projects. I had these wonderful scripts. I went and pitched them to everybody I could: producers, agents, everyone I could pitch to. They didn’t get it, which clearly was their fault. It was very obvious that the failing was with the British film industry.

You know how it is, when you pitch, you adjust things, you change the words, who you’re talking to … So, I went on for quite some time, pitching different projects and changing the words. And then one day, something different happened. I don’t know what it was I quite said …

Something different happened. I don’t know what it was I quite said, but the person I was pitching to, their eyes lit up. What I call the spark. Something special happened. And I realized that’s what you need, that’s what you have to have. So thank you very much for being here, thank you for listening. I’m going to try and see if I can get you to do some work a little bit later on, which might scare a few people. But I think it’ll get our brains in gear. We’ve had a lot of great, interesting stuff already, thank you very much. And I was very interested listening to how much crossover there is between screenwriting and novel writing and nonfiction writing.

Essentially the pitch is, I call the pitch the great accelerator. It’s the essential thing that makes everything work. In film, we tend to pitch more face to face, but you still have to pitch a lot when you’re trying to sell a novel or a nonfiction book. It just more often tends to be in an email or something like that, or in a letter, but it’s still crucial, it’s still absolutely important. And that’s enough, that little short thing, we spent years and years maybe, you may have written 90,000 words, and now we have to do a couple of sentences.

So I just want to share, so the first thing I’ve got I love from Woody Allen. I’m not sure if we’re allowed to mention Woody Allen at the moment, but I’m going to. Right now it’s only a notion, but I think I can get money to turn it into a concept, and then later turn it into an idea. Which sums up the whole thing, somehow we’re dealing with a smoke and mirrors, this sort of vague stuff that’s just words, just hot air, there’s more hot air in the publishing and film industry than there is paper and there is celluloid, there are pixels, and yet that’s what sells.

And it’s getting that spark, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about. To a certain extent, it’s how you get the spark is, comes from the sheer hard work you do. So we’re going to do a little bit of work and look at some ways… You can’t make it, there’s a certain magic that happens. You can’t make it happen, you can’t force it to happen, rather the muse, and yet if you sit there waiting nothing’s going to happen either.

You put the work in, you put the sweat in, and then from somewhere or other the angel that’s been waiting for you to put the work to say that you actually deserve it comes down with what you need. And we’re going to do a little bit of that, as I say.

It’s interesting, though, how much, how important pitching is. It’s important obviously for selling. I always try and develop a pitch before I even start writing something. Because who’s the person you’re first going to sell to? Who’s the person who’s going to have to devote time and possibly money into your project? The first person is you. And if you haven’t got a pitch that sells to you, you’ve got nothing to start with. So, and that is also enormously useful all the way through the process as a kind of lodestone, a compass to give you a sense of where you’re going. A lot of scripts and manuscripts for novels I see start with a great idea and somehow lose their way because the writer’s forgotten what it was they were trying to do in the first place. So it’s there from the beginning to the middle to the end as a crucial part of the process.

Since those early pictures, I’ve directed just about every kind of thing there is. I’ve directed documentary, I’ve directed soaps, and written and directed documentary and feature film and dramas and corporates and picture nonfiction books. I’ve won awards, the books, I’m pleased to say, have been bestsellers. And everything has come from some way or other, has come from a pitch in the first place.

Even the novel I’ve got, “Breaking of Liam Glass”. I’ve realized, I was looking at it after I’d finished it, I realized it’s actually all about pitching. It’s a satirical thriller about a Machiavellian journalist who over pitches an idea to a tabloid, but can’t deliver, so he has to get together with a kind of rather sleazy PR agent to put together some fake news to sell to a tabloid, otherwise having just got himself a job, he’ll never work there again if he can’t deliver. So what could possibly go wrong? And of course the whole thing snowballs, spirals out of control to the point where he’s… He realizes that real people could die. Real lives could get destroyed by this. And then he starts to realize the kind of person he’s become.

So, and everyone in the story is pitching to each other. It’s fascinating, I mean the fact that I’ve just written a book on pitching shortly before might be something to do with this. But there’s policeman, there’s politicians, there’s journalists, there’s editors: everyone’s pitching to everyone else. And I hadn’t realized I’d even done that, but of course, pitching is a fundamental part of the stories of his life, he was doing it all the time. Every time you write a word on the page, you’re pitching.

So one thing I would say about how to get better at pitching is, well the first thing to do is actually read enormously. As [inaudible 01:45:48] it was interesting coming along as someone with background in film, but also two feet very much in novel writing at the moment, and nonfiction, to hear as I say the crossover, but I think everyone, whatever you’re working in, should read everything. You need to read books that are not in your genre. You need to read pitches. You need to read trades. You need to get… There’s a table at the back. I would be disappointed, given the amount of passion there is in this room, if that table weren’t completely cleared by the end of the day. Because you should be getting everything. I don’t just say that because I’ve got books there, and there is a discount. But the other books, too. You know I very rarely walk out of something like this without buying a book myself. You do need to be reading stuff.

The word pitch has been used lots of different ways. The way I use it is, you’ve got one end of the spectrum where I generally call the pitch is what sometimes is called in the film industry a log line, it’s a very short one to two sentence thing that sells the whole story. And that’s the crucial bit that we all have to have. Whether it’s the first or second sentence in the blurb on the back of the book, or it’s the face-to-face pitch or that crucial bit that everyone sort of fights over in the query letter to the publisher or to the producer. The other end of the spectrum is the blurb. We get fuller detail, and the equivalent when you’re talking face-to-face … I knew I had some water here somewhere … where you go into some detail. I’m going to be talking the sharp end here.

And one thing I realized reading all these things, and you can read them in magazines, in newspapers, trades obviously, TV blurbs, and so forth, is most of the great films, books that I’ve seen, the fundamental idea is either a dream or a nightmare. Olivia was saying it earlier, that dream that we have, or sometimes a nightmare we have, that draws people in to start with. That’s what you’re aiming for to begin with, is share that dream, share that nightmare.

I’ve given you a few examples here: Reservoir Dogs, the nightmare of being an undercover cop who’s been shot and can’t escape, hoping he’s not going to be found out. Or the dream of being a Danish MP, a fairly obscure Danish MP, who suddenly becomes Prime Minister. And of course, the dream itself suddenly turns into a nightmare.

Normally when I’m making a film, I get somebody walking around with a script for me. Right. Where are we. Okay, so what we’re going to do is I’m going to talk a little bit about how to put that pitch together, and I’m going to give you a basic sentence that will work in 99.9% of situations. I’m going to get you to try it out on each other, and then we’ll have a chance, hopefully those people who are, I was going to say brave, but actually sensible enough to stand up and say it to everybody because that’s when you really learn. Does that sound okay? That sound interesting? Okay.

So the core sentence that will almost always work for you, and this is a basic story, we’ll talk a little bit later about serials and how to adjust this for nonfictional works as well is, it’s a conversational thing. A pitch is fundamentally a conversational thing. There’s a lot of myths about pitching that you have to be very clever and you’ve got to do this wonderful performance. Actually it’s a conversation.

Why is it a conversation? Does anyone know? Why do we say these things have to be short and conversational? Is it just that we’re being annoying? You say, he’s got you in two sentences when you’ve done 90,000 words? Why are we talking about, that’s not a rhetorical question. I’d like to know some answers. Why does it have to be short? Why does it have to be conversational? What’s important about that?

It is because you want to continue the conversation. If you don’t stop, then there is no chance of continuing. I’ve heard people talk themselves out of a deal by going on and on. There’s an even more important reason beyond that. Because what is it that sells? Particularly films, and to a certain extent, books? More than advertising, more than star names, more than testimonials, more than anything else. What is it that sells?

Word of mouth! That’s what really does most selling for you. Whatever else you do, ultimately most of the selling is gonna be done word of mouth. Word of mouth is short. You know we’re just standing at a bus stop or water cooler or on Facebook. You don’t have 90 minutes to say, well the sun rises over … and talk 90 minutes. You’ve got about two sentences before the friend you’re telling how wonderful this book is, or how wonderful this film is suddenly decides they need to go somewhere else.

That’s why it’s short. That publisher, that producer listening to the beginning. Yes, they’re short on time, but more importantly they’re thinking how is that going to get pitched at the end? How am I gonna pitch it to my boss? How’s he or she gonna pitch it to whoever needs it pitched to next? All the way down the line to somebody standing at a bus stop, or in a queue or in a book club saying let’s choose the next book for the book club reading. They don’t have a lot of time. They have a couple sentences to grip people. And that’s why the sentence is so crucial.

Now there are other ways of doing it, absolutely. One of those famous pitches is in fact the title of my book on pitching, George in Space. Which is in 3 words. We’ve heard some great pitches already today, we started off with a question, or as Oswald did explaining what his background was, that’s great, but fairly quickly you have to get into this bit. Which tells you what the story actually is.

Doesn’t matter how good the preamble is, we want to know okay what is it I’m buying into here? And the first thing, conversationally, I always start with “It’s a” That means you already know the first two words. Someone’s gonna say, so what do you got what’s the book about? Well it’s a; doesn’t matter if it’s an email or conversation, it’s a, and then genre. Why genre? Because one of the most important reasons for people making decision is the emotion they’re going to get out. Yes? Is it a thriller, is it a comedy, am I going to laugh, am I going to be scared? That’s what people look for when they decide whether they’re going to watch or whether they’re going to go read a book. What’s the emotion?

Genre is another word really, for emotion.  Genre is all about the emotion you’re gonna get. It just means what kind of. People talk a lot about genre. It’s actually very simple. It means what kind of thing is this? I’ve heard people stand up and pitch, I don’t even know whether it’s a book or a TV series. Why not tell me? Then at least I can put my mind at rest. Yeah?

The why question is very much foremost one of the first and most urgent things we need to know. We’re sitting listening to someone talking talking talking and I wonder what kind of thing is this? Am I supposed to be laughing? Am I supposed to be crying? So why not do that? I would always start off with, It’s a [inaudible 01:57:13] satirical thriller, it’s an action adventure, whatever.

About, and then the next bit that people really want to know is what’s the engagement? And the main engagement is with the character. Particularly in a fiction book. The main engagement and this is even more important when it comes to film, because there is so much more money at stake. So much you could have really [inaudible 01:57:41] in. And particularly … notice I’ve written about a flawed character because it’s the flaws that are going to engage us. Because the story is about someone dealing with their flaws. What their issues are. What their problems are. It’s a machiavellian journalist. Or it’s a woman who can’t stand up for herself. That’s what we’re gonna bring it to. That’s the universality of it. Something we can all identify with.

And the next bit: Oh yes, is the art of story. That’s the bit they’re engaging … their flawed character is forcing them to face and therefore hopefully deal with those flaws. Not all stories, but most stories. It’s about dealing with those flaws overcoming something. Going on a character journey in the outside world. This is, again, one of the major differences between the written word and the screen word. On screen, you’ve absolutely got to have an outer story it doesn’t matter what the story, how wonderful the story is inside someone’s head, it’s got to take place in the visible world because we’ve got to film it. It can’t happen inside someone’s head. You CAN do that, to a certain extent, in novels and poems and short stories although I have to say the publishing industry is becoming more and more[inaudible 01:58:57] and they want more and more this kind of story.

So whatever it is about a flawed protagonist who wants a particular goal. That goal is gonna be the key decision they make that’s gonna drive the story forward. And it may not be where you think it is. What people tend to do is they do a lot of preamble till they get to the main story.

Even for Liam Glass I found myself pitching earlier decisions that he made until I finally got the big decision, which is to engage with his PR guy to create a fake news story. Because I was afraid of giving too much away, but actually that’s the big decision that drives the story forward. In fact, when I realized that, I then went back to the story and brought that earlier into the story.

One reason I call [inaudible 01:59:46] the great accelerator is because I generally say people who come into my workshops most of them will change their scripts having dome the workshop. Having learned something about their story. It’s actually a lie. They all will. And they all do. By saying most it lets people feel more relaxed about it.

And they all do, but I say most of them so people feel a bit more relaxed about it.

Because the moment you know more about your story, the better you can tell it. So it’s a science fiction action adventure story about a woman who can’t stand up for herself who discovers she’s being chased by a homicidal indestructible robot who’s going to kill everybody with her name. Just Terminator.

I often pitch Terminator as a very feminist movie and people look at me surprised. But it’s actually about this woman growing and learning to stand up for herself. So you have one little bit on the end, which is that little bit of change, or that big bit of change. And by the end she’s a better killing machine than the robot. If you can do it in an amusing and wry way, all the better.

At the end of Liam Glass, the machiavellian journalist starts to realize the kind of person he really is and then has to make a decision as to which way he’s going to go. That’s the journey he’s on, and that’s the journey that draws us in, the two things, the inner journey and the outer goals that’s forcing that inner journey on the character, otherwise they just go on the rest of their lives like that, we know people like that don’t we.

Many writers spend far too long overthinking. You’ve only got to say one, two, three, four things. Doesn’t need to be in a particularly coherent sentence, this is the groundwork for the pitch.

So I want to know what the genre is, what the protagonist’s flaw is, that can be a bit tricky so if you don’t know just make a wild guess. It could well be something you’re dealing with yourself in fact it probably almost certainly is without trying to get psychotherapeutic about it, it’s going to be something that’s life for you otherwise you couldn’t write it, it would be dead thing. It could be an issue you’re dealing with in some way, something you care about, something that makes you passionate.

What is the key big decision and if it’s at the end of the story don’t worry because you’ll just be rewriting that bit. I’ve had people say, well it’s about this woman, she hasn’t got any money and she’s trying to [inaudible 02:03:20] and then right near the end she decides to rob a bank. That’s your beginning, or at least that’s your main first act turning point.

That’s the key decision, so be aware, we all do this, we all prevaricate until the story is finally over, until we finally get to the point.

So you may find that decision quite late on, but what is the key decision that drives it, and how does he or she change?

They may not change, some stories people don’t change but quite often they do. If you’re doing … anyone not working on anything at the moment by the way? Or not anything they want to talk to the other person about? Great.

Anyone working on a series?  If you’re doing a series you need to do an extra pitch which is what’s the overarching idea, what’s going to happen every time. There’s two types of series, there’s a series like House where you get lots of episodes in which case the pitch would start off and you would say the show is about, well I’d probably say, it’s Sherlock Holmes in a hospital. Every week someone’s going to some with a particularly difficult disease and the flawed character is this guy whose brilliant pathologist but is totally unable to relate to the other human beings. You start to see what’s going to drive your story and then you do something like this for a number of individual episodes. For example, in one episode this happens.

Anyone doing a multi stranded story? Or complex multi stranded story? Some series of multi stranded stories just work like this, there’s multi character multi strands like Oceans 11, they’re all trying to the same thing so you just talk about the whole group and treat them as one protagonist, that’s easy. But when you’ve got a multi strand story like Crash, the film crash or a series where a lot of things are interwoven, again you need to look at what is the overarching theme that holds them together. And quite often it will be that flaw. Anyone seen Crash, you know the Paul Haggis movie? So what is it that binds all of those 8 stories, 12 characters together? What’s the one thing, the overarching… what I call the nutshell that holds the whole thing together?

It’s one incident, what else is it that binds all of those stories, that they all have in common? Their victims of what? Race, it’s basically about race in Los Angeles. So you’ve got to have… you know the outer incident and people also have something inner going on that’s holding them all together. And you want to say that as a pitch.

So it’s a multi-strand story about people who are effected by a car accident but also their all about issues to do with race. They’ve all got issues to do with race in Los Angeles. For example, then you treat it like your treating a series episode. You’d say For example there’s this guy whose wife gets groped by a cop and he can’t stand up for her and so on. Do you get how it works?

Okay, so what you’re going to do… I’m going to give you a massive amount of time, I’m going to give you two minutes just to say four things; genre, flaw of the protagonist and if it’s a series you might have 5 or 6.

If it’s non-fiction or a documentary, is there a story there, in which case do the same thing or is maybe… is the story the people you want to teach the flaw is in the people you teach. Same basic thing, all these people need to learn about  Pitching therefore I’ve written a book about it and this is how I’m going to go about it. This is… it’s the same basic pattern but slightly shifted. If it’s a history book or a true story, if you’re dealing with everything that happened in 1592 whatever, generally it’s got the same basic things. Either going to be one story or it’s going to be the overarching theme that holds them all together for example.

We’re winding up now,  thank you for that. I just want to say how much of us practice till they get it right? Professionals practice till they can’t get it wrong. You can’t pitch too much. Thank you very much.