Pitching a Screenplay by a Pro

Northrop Davis has sold three movie pitches
to major film studios in Los Angeles.

I am proud to have him join us for a
guest column on pitching a screenplay…


First thing, why a pitch? We all know it’s very hard to sell one.  But it’s also terrifically difficult to sell a spec script.  Pitches take less time to develop (though far more than you’d think).  But that’s not the reason I like them.  I like them for feedback.  They allow you the opportunity to present your story to industry feedback, and “find the spine of your story.”

I pitched one story to Ridley Scott and then realized, even though they nearly purchased it, that I didn’t want to do that story after all.  I then massively reconfigured it, wrote it as a spec, and it turned out to be my biggest sale.  It made me realize what story I loved most of all, and wanted to live with for the several years it normally takes to develop a project in Hollywood.  The point being, if they don’t buy the pitch, which odds are they won’t, you can go off and write it as a spec, with the input you’ve gotten, if you think any of it is valuable.  It’s all about doing what YOU want to do, and making the choices you want to make, but keep in mind that feedback can be very useful.

The logline for the big space movie I sold to Warner Brothers ended up being “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Space”.

#1. DEVELOP YOUR CONCEPT.  When choosing an idea, I tend to start with a “high concept” because I know Hollywood prefers those and I feel comfortable with them. But high or low-concept, I have to love the main characters and the story. Otherwise, it’s not worth working on something for months and maybe years.

I start by brainstorming on oversized paper with bright markers. Sometimes I’ll write every word that comes into my mind. Start making random associations. Maybe put on some great music. Go to a good place to work. A great coffee shop. Wherever stimulates you most. This is your moment of pure creativity. It’s wonderful to be in that point of the process.  (I recommend a book about the act of creating, “Aha!” by Jordan Ayan.)

#2. DEVELOP YOUR LOGLINE.  Once you get possible premises and, above all, CHARACTERS that you love (remember, characters drive great stories), you want to work on your logline. A succinct description of the project. For example, the logline for the big space movie I sold to Warner Brothers ended up being “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Space”. This combination of movie ideas set in different arenas from the original story can make an effective logline, but it’s just one approach.

#3. WRITE A ONE-PAGER. I personally like to write the story in three paragraphs, or five, depending on the number of acts in the story. This keeps me focused on the story spine, helps to find the major beats. You may work differently. It also comes in handy to keep you focused on the story once you are hired to write the script and even when you are pitching.

The actual text of the pitch I write on oversized paper, single line, and it can reach up to three LARGE (think artist’s easel paper) pages.  But that’s my style, very detailed, but I blow it by very fast.   You may decide you want to paint broader strokes, but my theory is that they want to know you have it really worked out.

Pitch it until you have it pretty much memorized. I say “pretty much” because you want to make sure it still has a feeling of spontaneity.

#4. PRACTICE IT.  Pitch it until you have it pretty much memorized. I say “pretty much” because you want to make sure it still has a feeling of spontaneity. Pitch it in front of the mirror, maybe videotape yourself pitching it (then ask yourself: Would you buy this pitch?). And pitch to your friends. Let them give you honest feedback. Make them feel they will not be penalized for telling you the truth, but also make sure they are not there to deflate your confidence (if they are your friends, they shouldn’t be!) My rule for creative input by others, is “if two or three people independently agree” it might be good to assume they may be right. A comment from one person, I take with a grain of salt unless I agree with it. Refine it so there are no dead areas in it. You are giving a performance. These people hear so many pitches, you want to really give them 15 minutes of tight, fun entertainment.

#5. KEEP IT TO 15 MINUTES MAX.  These people are BUSY. Don’t irritate them.

I went into Fox without an agent and pitched the “Battle Angel Alita” manga, and they then acquired it [for] James Cameron.

#6. AGENTS ARE BEST.  SO WHAT if they don’t dress or act like you?  They give you credibility and can get you in doors, provided you have the goods. It’s always best to have an agent set up the pitch meeting, for protection, but it is possible to pitch without an agent. I went into Fox without an agent and pitched the “Battle Angel Alita” manga, and they then acquired it, and now James Cameron is directing it. When they offered me a deal on it, I simply called a new agent I wanted and he closed the deal, along with my entertainment lawyer.

#7. DON’T EVER BE LATE! Give yourself time to park in the far away lot the studio may assign you, and to get lost a couple times. If you arrive way too early, go hang in the studio commissary or bathroom or walk around rather than lurking for 45 minutes in the exec’s anteroom. Studios are very cool places. As your passion is movies, and studios are chock full of past history and current filming projects, they are fun to tour when you have a few minutes to burn.  And if you keep a low profile, and stay out of areas where you should not be, you should be fine.

#8. VISUAL AIDS CAN WORK. Gladiator was sold to Ridley Scott from a painting of a roman gladiator in the arena. There is no “one way”, and what one exec. loves, the other may hate.  But making things easier for people to understand, I don’t believe is a bad strategy.

#9. GO FOR IT.   When I sold a pitch to Fox, I went in with maps of the fictional galaxy I had created and timelines of the history of these civilizations before the story even began. When I am pitching, my eyes are lit up with fire, and I blast through the story with verve and enjoyment, making it entertaining, showing I am PREPARED and enthusiastic and above all, CONFIDENT in it and myself. Why is this so important? Because in Hollywood, as William Goldman said, “nobody knows anything.” Their faith that your idea and story will make a successful movie begins with the fact that you seem to believe it.

#10. HOW DO I DRESS? As a manager said to me, you can drive the Flintstones’ car and look like Frankenstein’s monster, but if you have the script or pitch they want, it won’t matter. Writers are expected to look like they just fell out of bed. Too slick can make people suspicious. But looking like a street-person may not be so bright an idea either. Hollywood is very corporate, however, the screenwriter is not expected to look like the accountant. Some say dress just a little bit more casual than the exec. This is difficult, as who knows what the exec is going to wear. But choose a style that fits you.
That should get you started. I wish you luck!

best regards,
Northrop Davis

Northrop Davis, M.F.A, screenwriter, has sold three pitches — two which he subsequently wrote as screenplays (to Sony and 20th Century Fox), and a third in which he found and pitched the “Battle Angel Alita” manga series to Fox, who subsequently acquired it for James Cameron ( Cameron Ready for ‘Battle’).

Battle Angel manga

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