MORE ON ONE PAGE PITCHES
I know this is an area I’ve discussed in the past – but here are a few more observations inspired by 2 zoom sessions I ran recently with a BBC writers room group. In session 1 we talked about some of the principles behind effective, successful pitches. Then the writers came back 2 weeks later with 2nd draft 1 page pitches and 30 sec verbal pitch of their project.
The less successful ones got bogged down in over-detailed chronology of the plot. Particularly as I only gave each writer 30 secs to tell us about their idea (and ruthlessly cut them off when their time was up!) what I was looking for was the USP – the uniqueness and distinctiveness of their project.
When discussing it, I likened it to them asking me if they should be watching ADULT MATERIAL by Lucy Kirkwood and me telling them why they should watch it – ‘It’s a brilliant, warts and all, examination of the contemporary porn industry in the UK, about the damage it causes, the toll it takes on both the ‘actors’ and the audience, about its growing pervasiveness, all told through the prism of a woman in her 30’s who has been a ‘porn star’, has made a very decent income, has a husband, kids and a seemingly positive attitude to the work – but as she comes to the end of her shelf life, we see the psychological damage it has done, of the deep problems and ripples in her life…’ That’s my first (written) attempt at expressing what is so compelling about the show. There’s no plot, a mention of the central character, but mainly it’s about the themes and political / social intent of the show and how powerful this is.
It’s the same when you’re initially pitching your ideas, trying to interest producers etc. You don’t want to get into a recounting of the plot, a ‘This happens then this happens and they do this etc etc. If you do you will invite unwelcome questions about the detail and logic of the plot and you won’t be telling the reader anything about what is brilliant and unique about the show.
WRITTEN (ONE PAGE) PITCHES
Here are some of my general responses to the 13 outlines that I read and fed back on –
Make sure you give us the writer’s name, prominently at the top of the page – ie PROJECT by WRITER NAME. This is quite simple but it amazed me how many of the writers didn’t do this. It was almost as if psychologically they were anxious about taking ownership of their idea!
Also, make sure your (or your agent’s) contact details are also prominently displayed on the document.
Format – what is this? – feature film? 10 x 60’ series? 8 x 30’ series? 4 x 60’ serial? Tell us this right at the top (and something about which channel / broadcaster it’s intended for if this is something you have strong feelings about).
The structure of the document is so important. Generally I would always suggest CONTEXT before CONTENT. You need to start your document with the big idea, the dramatic proposition / logline, the tonal approach. Expressing clearly in one or two sentences what this is – in a way that will enable your reader to immediately understand the idea and see its dramatic / comic potential.
The opening block / paragraph needs to grab the reader’s attention with the brilliance / originality of the idea.
Then you need a slightly longer block expressing the project’s key elements – which may or may not include – genre, your personal connection to the material, why you think this is an important story to tell. Basically, anything that you think is going to excite us about the project, and anything that is going to give a valuable context to the detail of the story.
ONLY THEN should you go onto give us the crux of the story. At least give us a character (or two) who are central to the story who are engaging, fascinating and whom we’re going to care about. Make sure this central character has a compelling and (almost) insoluble dilemma.
And while we’re on character, make sure you’re clear about (and are conveying, if it’s a critical part of the concept) whose point of view we’re experiencing the story from, which character has ‘ownership’ of the story.
Too many of the 1 page pitches I read started with too much plot that I struggled to make sense of, before ending with a very brief paragraph of global overview. This global overview needs to be at the start, not the end – so it enables me to understand the context of the story, why you’re telling it and the tonal, specific writer’s approach.
Make sure the document reflects something of your qualities as a writer. If it’s drama, instill the way you write and structure the document with a sense of drama. Likewise, if it’s a comedy, imbue the document with a sense of humour. A one page pitch for a comedy needs to be funny and to demonstrate how this story is going to play funny.
Specifics rather than generalities. Give us as many specifics as possible – about the characters, the setting, the events. And make these specifics as idiosyncratic and distinctive as possible. For instance, in one of these 13 pitches, what (bizarrely) stayed with me was a reference to a Honda Civic as a benchmark for a mediocre, unfulfilled life. The specificity of this symbol of mediocrity struck me as being perceptive and funny. And I could SEE it (so important).
TITLES – again these need to be as distinctive, attention-grabbing and memorable as possible (while also being helpfully reflective of the tone and content of the show). Too many of the titles in this exercise felt bland, familiar, uninformative and uninspiring.
What is your project about on a deeper level? What are the (again) specific themes and subjects you’re addressing? For instance, one of the pitches was about grief, about one woman’s attempt to deal with her partner’s death through immersing herself in her young son’s football team. But the word ‘grief’ was never mentioned – it should have been, this was the central issue behind the show.
The writer. In these 1 page documents, the reader needs to get a sense of the writer, in particular, the writer’s relationship to their material. This could come out in the style and tone of the writing of the document (flippant / jokey? Angry / passionate? Ironic /detached?) but it could be more ‘on the nose’ than that. It’s OK to directly address why you think this is a story that demands to be told and why you are THE writer to tell this story. (One of the ideas was written in the voice of the central character – this instantly gave it a life and energy that some of the more straightforward ones didn’t have – think about different, unexpected and imaginative ways in which you can make your pitch stand out).
Too many of the writers gave me too much backstory rather than actual, on-screen story. And too often it was also hard to tell which was which. The reader needs to get a sense of how the writer plans to organise and structure their story material over the course of the series and beyond (if it’s a series you’re pitching). How and when you intend to reveal key story information can be a very persuasive element in selling the story and ability of the writer to tell it.
For new – and experienced – writers, it’s so important to keep restocking your catalogue of brilliant ideas, of stories you’re burning to tell; and of working, reworking and perfecting your one page pitches so that they articulate and sell these ideas as coherently and effectively as possible.
Only one of the 13 pitches really made me buy into the writer’s agenda for needing to tell their story. This personal connection to and passion for your story is so important and persuasive.
It’s also important to remember just how brilliant your ideas need to be in order to interest potential producers. You are in competition with Sally Wainwright, Jed Mercurio etc. In order to get commissioned your idea needs to be much more attention-grabbing, unique and exciting than ideas from these established writers who will be seen as less of a risk than a new writer.
These documents are very hard to write. So keep working at them in the same way as you would a script. With draft after draft, trying it out on the right people, getting feedback, honing, editing and improving until it’s as good as it can possibly be.
Last week I asked for your suggestions about what else we could be doing to support the writers who come close but don’t get onto the Channel 4 screenwriting course; and about how we can spread the word about these other excellent writers to potential employers.
I want to say a huge thank you to the very many of you who got in touch and for all your brilliant ideas. I will discuss the best and most practicable ones with the Channel 4 drama department and will definitely implement some of them. Watch this space – hopefully I will have more news soon.
And, I must say, after the reading I’ve done over the last couple of weeks, I feel even more passionately that we must do more to support and encourage more than the 12 writers we choose for the course.
Helped hugely by my brilliant team of readers and their recommendations, the last couple of weeks of reading has been like my own personal Edinburgh Festival / London Film Festival combined, in terms of the quality, originality and pure entertainment value of so many of the scripts. I feel truly privileged to be able to read the work of so many new, talented dramatic writers. So many of the scripts I’ve read would grace our TV screens, cinemas and theatres; and so many of the scripts are so much better than so much of the stuff that does get produced.
Finally this week I wanted to share with you a recent tweet by screenwriter Peter Bowker –
‘In five years as Heads of Drama at Granada TV – Sally Head and Gwenda Bagshaw made Prime Suspect, Cracker, Band of Gold, the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes, Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster, Maigret and Medics. The thought just occurred to me so thought I would share.’
Like Peter, I was lucky enough to work with Sally and Gwenda at Granada. In fact they gave me my first ever job as a script editor. At the time it felt like the golden age it’s turned out to be – people who worked in the department and on those shows included Nicola Shindler, Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, Kay Mellor, Neil McKay, Julian Farino, Patrick Spence and so many other brilliant people, too many to name-check here. But it was such a great environment to learn in; and Gwenda Bagshaw was the most excellent, generous mentor. The one thing everyone says about the Sally and Gwenda team is that there were always plenty of laughs – such an important part of any creative setting.
The next newsletter will be on Friday November 14th,
Until then –
Very best wishes
October 30th 2020