Pitching The Descendants

May 23rd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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Ok, I think pretty much everyone would agree that pitching is about as fun as sticking needles in your eyes! Alright there might be a handful of people who love it or have come to terms with it as a necessary evil but those who are new to pitching generally feel something akin to fear and loathing. Why? It’s hard! It’s very challenging to condense your 110 page script into a 1-2 minute pitch that is conversational, entertaining and contains just enough information to hook an executive.

But pitching is a fact of life for working screenwriters so it behooves you to get comfortable with an admittedly uncomfortable process that is only one step removed from speed dating. And we all know how fun that is! One way to get more comfortable is to practice. Obviously you should do this with your own script (over and over and over) but you can also practice using produced movies. For example how would you pitch The Descendants?

Using the 7 steps to a perfect pitch here’s one way the pitch could unfold…

• My script The Descendants is a drama set in Hawaii about Matt who’s emotionally awol and calls himself a backup parent to his two daughters. His life’s thrown into turmoil when his semi-estranged wife, Elizabeth, falls into a coma after a boating accident. The doctors tell him she’s not going to recover and he has to take her off life support. Matt tells his eldest daughter Alexandra this upsetting news and she reveals his wife was having an affair and planning on leaving him.

Now you’re into the most difficult part of your pitch what is essentially the second act of your story. What you’re trying to do here is hit the main turning points that show how your protagonist handles the problem they’re faced with. Think 2-3 beats that form the central spine of your story. For The Descendants it might be something like…

• Matt had no idea she was cheating on him. Sure they had their problems but this was not what he expected to hear. Once he recovers from the shock Matt decides he has to find her lover, Brian, and tell him she’s dying so that he can say goodbye. Brian is vacationing on Kauai with his family so Matt takes his girls, and Alexandra’s slacker friend Sid, and tracks him down. It takes some time for him to orchestrate a moment alone with Brian but he finally does. Turns out Brian wasn’t even in love with his wife and is in fact devoted to his family. This knocks the wind out of Matt’s sails, but job done, they return home.

From here you want to quickly wrap it up and get to how the story is resolved and what your protagonist learns.

• Back at the hospital they take Elizabeth off life support and everyone gathers to say goodbye. They’re interrupted by Brian’s wife, Julie, who drops by the hospital with flowers and tells Matt she forgives Elizabeth even though she destroyed their family. This helps Matt to forgive his wife as well and he says goodbye with a tender speech and a gentle kiss. Our story ends with Matt and his girls cuddled on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and a movie and we see that they’ve been brought together by this tragedy.

Subplots

You’ll notice I didn’t touch on the subplot of the land rights issue at all. Pitches can get bogged down in subplots which are often confusing when telling just the bare bones of a story. For the purpose of your pitch, unless they are absolutely essential, you can leave your subplots out. If an executive asks for more you can touch on your subplot. If your subplot is truly integral to the main story then you’d want to set up the protagonist, goal and main problem before launching into the subplot. For The Descendants it might go something like this…

• Matt’s an emotional absent husband and father whose life is thrown into turmoil when his semi-estranged wife falls into a coma after a boating accident. Matt learns she will never wake up and her doctor tells him she needs to be taken off life support. He tells his eldest daughter, Alexandra, of her terminal prognosis and she reveals her mother was having an affair and planning on leaving him. Once Matt recovers from the shock he decides to find Elizabeth’s lover and give him a chance to say goodbye before he pulls the plug.

Now here’s the addition of the subplot:

• While this is going on Matt, who’s a lawyer, and the sole trustee of his family’s extensive land holdings, is trying to help his family find a buyer for their land which they are being forced to sell. As they settle on a buyer Matt learns that Brian, who’s a realtor, is the brother in-law of the man they are considering for the sale. If all goes forward Brian will stand to make a lot of money.

Once you’ve set up the main crux of the subplot you’re back to the main story beats and would return to the B-story once the main story has been resolved.

• Following Elizabeth’s funeral Matt’s extended family gathers to sign the papers for the sale of the land. Matt has a sudden change of heart and decides not to sell angering his relatives but bringing himself some much needed peace of mind.

Coming back to the subplot in this way shows that Matt has been transformed by the story events.

Spin your Story

Keep in mind that your pitch should “spin” the story not tell it beat by beat. While you want your pitch to accurately reflect your script (for example if your piece is a musical you’d want to state that up front and if it’s really a drama don’t feel you have to play up the comedy if it isn’t there) you can compress, delete, rearrange as needed. The idea here is to entice the executive into wanting to hear more and if this kind of story is in your executive’s wheelhouse (to quote George Clooney) they’ll hopefully ask for your script. So keep things light, fast paced and conversational.

In time pitching will get easier and you might even find you like it. Yes, really. And if you need some extra practice trying writing pitches for exisiting movies. It can help you to fine tune the skills you need to give a winning pitch.

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