The phone rang.
It was a big shot producer from a major studio. "Hey, Ken, I love what you've done! What a great idea! I'm gonna steal it from you."
Was he talking about one of my scripts? No. What he was talking about was - well, read on.
Let's say you've had a pitch meeting. (And I'll talk about pitching later in this article.) The producer likes what he's heard and the usual line is "Send me a one-page synopsis."
So you go home, knock yourself trying to condense your 118-page screenplay into one page.
And what you write sucks.
It reads flat, you've left out too many good parts, your characters have no life to them, the plot sounds contrived, and the big boffo ending just lays there like a whimper.
Synopses are DEATH!
There is no way, in one page, you can bring to life your story or write a condensation that communicates the innuendos, the shadings, the twists and turns, or the flavor of the screenplay. It just can't be done.
SO STOP WRITING THEM!
When a producer asks you to send him one page—here's the secret—you instead send him THE FIRST TEN PAGES OF THE SCRIPT! And you send it with the following cover letter:
Dear Mr. Producer,
I was delighted, in our meeting of July 27th, that you asked me to send you a one-page synopsis of my screenplay, For Us The Living.
Instead, please take 8 minutes to read the first ten pages of my script.
This will not only tell you what my story is about, but will show you my ability to write. After you've read these ten pages, I'm sure you will ask for the rest of the screenplay, which I will send you immediately.
I may be reached at (your phone number) or my email address, which is (your email address).
(Then, if you have representation, you also can include your agents name and contact information here.)
Awaiting your response,
In my screenwriting workshops, my students have been sending out ten pages now for the last four years and the response from the producers and executives has been 100% positive.
Remember the big shot producer from the major studio? He is but one of a number of studio executives who now call me telling me they are no longer asking for one-page synopsis but asking for the first ten pages.
So now, dammit, don't you screw up! Those first ten pages better be dynamite!
In those ten pages, we better darn well learn who the protagonist is, what he (or she) wants, and who or what is stopping him or her from getting it. Look, I've been Creative Head of four studios and I know what happens when I used to get these synopses. A quick glance and then right into the wastebasket. A synopsis cannot help you, it can only kill you.
Now, about the pitch. KEEP IT SHORT! Under two minutes. That's right, UNDER TWO MINUTES! Don't try to tell the whole story. Just tease them with a piece of business from your script so that they'll want to read the screenplay. Remember, you're not selling your script on the pitch. You're only trying to get them to read the script. Or, at least, get them to read the first ten pages to suck 'em in to asking for the whole script.
How short should the pitch be? Well, here are two projects I sold with one line.
To Sony Studios: "When I got divorced, I moved into a halfway house - for divorced people."
That's all I pitched. They could see the possibilities. Sure, they asked questions. But questions are easier to answer than it is to pitch. After all, who knows my story better than me?
The second project I sold on one line was when I was Creative Head of Cannon Films. I was talking to Stan Lee (creator of Spiderman, the Hulk, and other comic book heroes) and asked him if he had a super hero that was not tied to a studio. He said Captain America was available. I asked him to give me a poster of the ol' Cap.
I took that poster into my boss' office; Menachim Golen was an Israeli who probably didn't know Captain America from Magic Johnson. I held the poster in front of Menachim, and said, "Menachim, you of all people should make this movie!"
He looked at this masked hero with his skin-tight red, white, and blue uniform, a white star on his shirt, and said, "Let's do it."
That's how Captain America got made. (It was a disaster, but that's another story.)
Sold on one line.
Sometimes you don't need more. Keep the pitch simple. An example of a longer pitch, let's say, for the movie In Good Company might be:
"Dan Foreman, in his mid forties, is a loving husband, caring father, and top ad executive. A young hotshot, twenty-six, becomes his boss and usurps all of Dan's power. And to make things worse, Dan discovers the hot-shot boss, who can fire Dan in a moment's notice, is secretly dating Dan's teenage daughter."
Then I pause and say, "Would you like to read the script?"
I always end my pitches with: "Would you like to read the script?" to let the executive know that I'm done pitching and it's time for him to ask questions. Some executives might ask: "How does it end?" Don't tell them! Tell them to read the script. Don't give away endings. Don't do their job for them! Let them read the damn script.
So let's review:
- Keep the pitch simple and under two minutes.
- Don't send synopses; send the first ten pages of the screenplay.