This past week, a professional executive with impressive credits responded to a written pitch I submitted via Happy Writers. The proposal was for my new whimsical comedy/action screenplay that was born from an idea out of the Stage 32 Screenwriting Forum. Though a seemingly absurd concept, the executive was intrigued by it and requested the script. Here is his paragraph of written feedback:
“It’s hard to tell exactly how serious this pitch is, as the idea is too ridiculous and the delivery doesn’t really assuage fears that it’s all a big joke, but it’s a funny concept at its core. It's quickly delivered, and while the absurd nature of the pitch means I’d like to see a little more before I were truly to commit to it, it’s such an absurd idea that it has a 'we’ll just look and see' vibe to it."
Many newer screenwriters ask, “What is the process for writing a good submission? What do I need to interest the industry people?” What you need to have is a clear picture of the film you want to make and convey that to the executive that is looking to find a saleable concept and how do you do that? Assuming you have a compelling idea, you convey it with a catchy, concise logline and a well written, no frills synopsis of your screenplay.
Though this may seem basic, let me begin with the process of getting an industry professional to read your script. First, you must craft a logline that is no more than thirty-five words. That logline needs to intrigue the reader enough to want to take the next step, which is reading your synopsis. If the synopsis is well written and the executive thinks there’s a possibility of a good story, then they’ll want to invest the time to read your script. Make no mistake, reading a screenplay is an investment of valuable time. This is a short attention span world of technological gismo distractions and if your logline is dull and unimaginative, most readers won’t even look at your synopsis.
Case in point, a couple of years ago, a producer wanted to pitch one of my scripts that he optioned to Emmett Furla Productions. The reader at EFP told my producer to send him a no more than two page written pitch with logline and synopsis and if that passed muster, he would read the screenplay. I spent four hours going over the logline and pitch and streamlined it to fit the two-page requirement. I wrote my logline and a very journalistic synopsis of my historical fiction story, this is the logline:
“A young man survives a massacre at a Nazi death camp emigrates to Israel, becomes a general and leads two generations of family into battle during the Six Day War."
The executive at Emmett Furla was interested enough to read the script. Though the project was not optioned, my logline and synopsis got me up to bat with a major studio. The more you get up to bat, the better chance you have of selling a script or getting a writing gig. This is why I look at selling screenplays as a numbers game and maximize my opportunities to present my work in a professional and compelling manner.
So how do you write a good logline?
A good rule of thumb is a logline should be around thirty words, plus or minus five words. It should contain protagonist, antagonist, obstacles and challenges. Then summarize your story in a sentence or two. Look at this logline from the classic cult film Mad Max:
“A vengeful Australian policeman sets out to avenge his partner, his wife and his son whom were murdered by a motorcycle gang in retaliation for the death of their leader.”
The Mad Max logline provides the reader with the protagonist, his obstacles and his challenge, the antagonists and why they are mad at Max as well as why they victimized Max’s family and partner. This extremely well crafted logline does all that in exactly thirty words and the logline is all one sentence that flows like a beautiful stream.
Now, let’s examine the logline for Harry The Hydrant, which was the one used for my recent pitch.
“When a fire hydrant is struck by a lightning bolt, he transforms into a walking crime fighter who battles an alliance between a white supremacist and mob boss victimizing immigrants and minorities.”
Writing Your Synopsis
For the purpose of this blog, let’s stick with the Happy Writer’s parameters for submitting a written pitch. You have two pages to provide the prospective buyer with the following:
In pitching at Happy Writers, you can get an eight minute Skype session and hope you remember to convey your story and do it justice, or you have two pages to provide the writer with what you do best, a sample of your written work. Over the past several months, I’ve gotten four script requests from Happy Writers and even my passes have stated that my clarity in conveying my stories has been pretty on target. Let’s examine this recent rejection I received from Happy Writers.
Title of Script:
Four Negro Girls in a Church
Name of Writer:
Writer’s Email Address (listed on pitch)
1 (poor), 2, 3, 4, 5 (best)
Pitch Delivery/Format -4
Clarity of Pitch - 5
Set Up of Protagonist(s) & World - 5
Obstacles & Conflict - 5
Clarity of Tone - 5
Originality of Concept - 4
Strength of Voice - 4
Feedback (4-6 sentences on story & pitch): A very important story to be told. I remember Spike Lee’s doc well and it is amazing this has not been made as a narrative version yet. The protagonists are well-drawn and their arcs and stakes are very clear. The antagonistic forces are particularly menacing. This has all the makings of something great, just not the type of story we are looking to tell at this time. Best of luck with it.
Pass or Request? Pass
You’d think with the scores and the feedback I received that I should have gotten a script read request. However, this executive was not the right buyer for this material. Yet, I took this report as tremendous positive feedback on the synopsis I presented to this executive. I’m offering the example above to illustrate that even if you do your job well, that’s merely just the first step in getting you into the ballgame.
The synopsis I wrote for Four Negro Girls In A Church is seven paragraphs. The challenge for this story is that there are many different characters and events to cover in less than one and a half pages. So for this synopsis I provide the reader with a very journalistic account of the events that transpire in my story. Let’s look at the first paragraph of the synopsis.
“On an Indian summer day, four young African American girls sit chatting in the ladies lounge of a Baptist church. In an instant, a thundering explosion destroys their earthly lives and leaves a sizable portion of the church in ruins. As sirens from fire engines and police cars wail, battered people walk around in confusion. Emerging from the rubble, a valiant church pastor named John speaks to the growing crowd and cautions them violence is not the answer.”
In the opening paragraph of the synopsis, I provide the reader with the inciting incident for the story, with a fairly vivid description of the event that drives my characters forward with their journeys. Yet, I only introduce one of the many protagonists and none of the antagonists. I introduce the antagonists in the first line of my second paragraph:
“Only hours earlier, Dynamite Bob and his Ku Klux Klan associates eat donuts and drink coffee, while plotting the brutal attack on the black community. In the wake of the murderous assault, local politicians worry more about Birmingham’s image and do little to help.”
The synopsis should give your reader a sample of your writing style that showcases your talent in a no frills way. I normally do that in a slightly modified third person narrative style. The narrative is modified in the sense that I’m not completely objective. I offer the reader small tid-bits of the traits of the characters. Pastor John is 'valiant' while antagonist Dynamite Bob is described as plotting a 'brutal and murderous assault'.
Let’s examine the Harry The Hydrant synopsis. To begin with, this synopsis is one of the shortest ones I’ve ever written, about half the length of Four Negro Girls In A Church. Here is the opening paragraph:
“One night in New York, Harry the Hydrant and his friends Buster the Bench and Ronnie the Rat join forces to save a fireman named Ricardo from committing suicide. When Harry prays to the man upstairs to be able to help more people, he is struck by a mysterious bolt of lightning during a thunderstorm. Afterward, Harry transforms into a half man, half hydrant. He immediately uses his new skills to stop a pimp from assaulting a pretty hooker named Veronica. The grateful woman and Harry hookup and move in together. In the days that follow, Harry becomes a youtube sensation, when he foils a bank robbery and saves a child from a burning building that’s about to collapse.”
In this opening paragraph, I provide the reader with a lot of information. I introduce the four main characters, one of the villains of the story, I provide the inciting incident, I give you some action following Harry’s transformation and I explain how Harry is catapulted into his fame as a folk hero.
The last thing I want to address is character arc. Your readers will often try to see if your character has an interesting trajectory. So I say give that to them on a silver platter and tell them a little bit about your main character arcs. I list this at the bottom of my synopsis. For example, this is what I said in the HTH synopsis.
Character arc: Harry begins as a talking, inanimate object with a soul and a longing to do more than just be a piece of equipment serving the city he loves. After he helps a suicidal fireman, he prays to the 'Man upstairs' to help him to do more to help humanity. When a mysterious lightning bolt allows him to do that, Harry comes to understand and appreciate he’s been given an awesome responsibility. With his new abilities, he feels increasingly compelled to protect the local citizens, as well as those in his inner circle. Including Harry, the characters that populate this story are pure New Yorkers with a humorous edge and a big heart.
So there you have it folks, this is how I approach doing written pitches. This methodology has netted me many script requests over the past several years and those requests have led to relationships and options of my work.
About Phillip E Hardy
Phillip is a four time optioned screenwriter whose work has recently been presented to Jay Roach, William Morris Endeavor, Tyler Perry Productions and A & E Network. He has placed and won at 45 film festivals and contests including Page International, Austin Film Festival, Cannes Screenplay, Shore Scripts, Screencraft, Beverly Hills Film Festival and Sunscreen Film Festival. Phillip has obtained a bachelor of science in business management, a master of management and is a Stanford University Certified Project Manager.
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