Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie pitches, Startup Pitches

I have developed pitches to studios, to networks and premium cable, and to "angel investors" for both startups and indie films. In the next eight weeks, I'll be pitching a TV series pilot, a feature film spec, and I will joining a larger team to pitch a startup to VC's. Quite a lot comes to mind when I compare the two worlds, especially as those worlds continue to merge.

So check out my answer on Quora to...

Venture and Investor Pitches: In what ways is a Hollywood film pitch similar to a Venture Capital pitch for a startup?

I have developed pitches to studios, to networks and premium cable, and to “angel investors” for both startups and indie films.  In the next eight weeks, I’ll be pitching a TV series pilot, a feature film spec, and I will be joining a larger team to pitch a startup to VC’s.  Quite a lot comes to mind when I compare the two worlds, especially as those worlds continue to merge.
Honestly, the biggest similarity is just the anxiety and dread I inevitably feel before attempting to sell myself and my idea.  People attracted to screenwriting and technology (or both) tend to be introverts and not natural salespeople.  Pitching to anyone about something you care deeply about can feel like going up on stage to do a tap dance routine… wearing clown make-up and a speedo.
However, my personal neuroses aside, I’ve noticed three fundamental similarities:
  • You Must Tell A Story
You begin the pitch with a hook that grabs attention of your audience and moves them emotionally.  They think, “Wow, this is a story I want to hear.” Then you tell a tale about people with a BIG problem and a hero with a unique solution.  The story is exciting because both the hero and the people want something very, very badly, but there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to getting it.  The story ends with a payoff, punchline, twist, a solution, and the audiences say “Ahhhhh, now I understand!”
The best pitches I have ever heard seem effortless.  They are delivered like a spellbinding anecdote told over martinis at a dinner party.  If the pitch is for a startup, the protagonist is the entrepreneur him/herself, but the structure of the story is the same: a big problem with unique solution executed by heroes who are the only ones for the job.  The “twist” or “punchline” of the story is (in startup lingo) your “secret sauce.”  It’s the unique quality of hero, his or her “superpower,” that will allow him/her to save the day.
These stories are told with passion. They aim for the maximum emotional impact and personal connection with the audience.  Charisma, eloquence, and authenticity are all essential when pitching your story.
  • It’s All About Execution
In both stcreenwriting and startup circles you often encounter the meme:Your Idea Means Nothing. 
Well, this isn’t exactly true.  Said Michael Wolf, “I’ve never met a VC who told an entrepreneur, ‘don’t tell me about your idea since it doesn’t matter!’”  Likewise, I’ve never met a producer or studio executive who told a screenwriter, “Don’t bother pitching me your story. Ideas don’t matter. It’s all about execution!”
However, when you walk into an office to pitch a great idea, what you are really selling is your execution of that great idea.
This often comes down to who is already “attached” to the project.  In movies and television, this means that a major star, a powerful producer, or a hot director has already committed to doing your project should it get set up.  Likewise, in start-ups, it’s good to have a great programmer, a great marketer, proven businessman, or some other “rockstar” on your team.
For example, if you went into a room and pitched a dark tale of madness set among dancers in a production of the ballet “Swan Lake,” you would likely be shown the door.  However if your director is Darren Aronofsky and your star is Natalie Portman, you have a much better shot.
Perhaps the key element in the execution piece is answering the question “How the hell does this make money?“  In movies, this often comes down to having the exclusive rights to a “property,” a popular book or famous movie that can be remade.  Having a built-in audience assures the investor that that there is enough potential interest in the story to turn a profit. In startups, this often comes down to a “proprietary technology,” something that distinguishes you in an established and lucrative marketplace. In both cases, the burden is on you to convince the investor that there are actually people or businesses out there who might pay money if your idea is realized.
  • Who The Hell ARE You, Anyway?
“Who you are” will set the tone, the receptiveness, and level of enthusiasm in the meeting before you even walk in the door.  Often, I can sense how a pitch is going to go, just by gauging the energy of the participants in the first 60 seconds.In both worlds, it’s easiest to pitch to people who either already know you or already know you for something.  Whether you have already had a popular movie, sold a spec script, been a key player in a successful company, or just have “buzz” around you and your project(s), it’s good to have “heat.”
Let’s face it, if you pitch a Question and Answer website, no matter how good your idea may sound, nobody is likely to care unless you just happen to have been players in the development of Facebook.
If you are unknown to the person you are pitching to, the first thing they will do before the meeting is google you.
For example, before a movie pitch, the executive will first look at my IMDB page and my blog, both of which (for better or for worse) show up on the first page of my Google results.  Likewise in startups, your online “brand,” as defined by your Linkedin profile, online articles written about you, or your website itself, will define “who you are.”
If you are a complete unknown and have no established reputation, what matters is who you know.  Someone important -  a powerful agent or producer, a powerful entrepreneur or expert in your business – has to vouch for you to get you in the room.
“Who you know” is particularly important because of the notoriousnepotism and cronyism in the film and television industry.  Truth be told, the best way to sell a pitch (or to become an actor, director, or producer) is to be the related to somebody famous.  While connections matter in every business, the startup world is far more concerned with proven qualifications.  Hollywood is NOT a meritocracy.
For example, if an entrepreneur graduated at the top of his class from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, or Caltech, with a host of awards and achievements, it would carry weight with a potential investor.  Conversely, I graduated fromUSC School of Cinematic Arts, arguably the best and most Hollywood-connected film school in the world, I had close to a 4.0 grade average, and I won several awards and scholarships.  Yet, while the time I spent there was invaluable to me in my development as a filmmaker, my USC degree means virtually nothing to anyone listening to a movie pitch.
  • Bonus Similarity – The Rejections
Even if a  pitch is ultimately bought, 99% of the people you talk to are going to say, “no.”  It takes a lot of strength, dignity, and most of all, passion to weather the long storm of rejection and indifference.  The King’s Speech took a decade to get funded, even with Geoffrey Rush attached.
In both worlds, the job of the people you are pitching to is to say NO.  Their task is to listen to dozens of pitches a day and figure out a good reason to pass on almost all of them, because they (and their companies) can only say yes to a very limited number of projects.  You can’t take it personally, and you can’t see the rejection or even many “reasons” given for a pass as indictment of your core idea.  You just have to take a deep breath, make adjustments if necessary, and move on to the next one.
The only thing you have to keep you going through the long slog is the (sometimes delusional) belief in your core idea and the authenticity of your “story.”
So, as it turns out, whether or not you have hot properties, great connections, or rockstar attachments, your “story” may indeed be the most important thing after all.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Does It Have To Be Three Acts?

People get hung up on 3 Act Structure in screenplays, and all it really leads to are "problems in the second act." These problems come because the hour long "second act" has no "turning points" or "act breaks" within it as described in most screenwriting books.

The truth is that 3 Act Structure is a myth; or more accurately, it is just one way, among many, to think about "structure." You can look at movies as having four acts, or eight (usually called sequences.) In this link, a very funny blogger makes a case for the 5 Act Structure of Iron Man. A five Act structure leads to more complexity and character development.  (See Film Crit Hulk)

If it was good enough for Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, its good enough for your rom-com. :)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

John August asks, "Is Screenwriting Dead?"

Interesting post/podcast by John August: Is Screenwriting Dead?

It is indeed harder and harder for feature screenwriters to find work and make a living in traditional ways.

What I tell my students at USC (and what I tell myself when I face the uncertain future) is that screenwriters need to be entrepreneurs, and create their own projects and opportunities.

They also have to be willing to write for "anything with a screen." This means writing and pitching for TV, but it could also mean creating webisodes, interactive media or writing for video games, or transmedia. I've even encouraged screenwriters to write short stories, graphic novels, and even full length novels, when appropriate, instead of spec scripts, because the writer then owns the IP. There's a lot of hunger for content out there. Be proactive and connect with the people who are making it.

What's clear is the old model of taking out feature specs and pitching for feature writing assignments isn't enough to sustain even established writers. "There's just no business in it." I hear many say. So rather than be passive, we have to look at the changing media environment as opportunity.

You CAN eek together a living, you just have to be...well... CREATIVE.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Crowd-Sourced Screenwriting and

80,000 writers in "the crowd"
What we talk about, when we talk about screenwriting, is usually traditional/professional movies and television. However, with the explosion of youtube channels, there is a growing crowd of "screenwriters" who are writing completely different kinds of content and collaborating in unique ways.

I got a chance to speak with Sunil Rajaraman, who runs the, a website that boasts online screenwriting software and five times more members than the WGA. Who are these writers, what are they writing, and when should Final Draft get nervous? 

SH: The professional film and television industry has been dominated by the screenwriting software Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. Why hasn't an online service such as Scripped or Celtix been able break in? Is it just habit?

SR: I’ll push back a bit and say that we have gained a lot of traction since our initial launch in January of 2008! I know CELTX has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times. We have a user-base of over 80,000 writers and we grow by 25-50 writers a day.

With regard to the professional market, we aren’t after professional screenwriters so I’d say that we are not really trying. I always tell friends that if they want to be a professional, they should use Movie Magic or Final Draft – we are servicing a different market. Our revenue model is ultimately not based on selling screenwriting software – that business (at a macro level) is slowly dying, and isn’t all that interesting.

SH: Do that a service like Scripped will become the professional standard in the future, or will the Scripped community mostly consist of aspiring screenwriters looking to break in? 

SR: We are definitely not after professional screenwriters. Professional screenwriters are paid a lot of money because they are the best at what they do (and they should have the best tools to write their screenplays). We are servicing aspiring writers who may be more interested in writing a short for Youtube, or dabble in screenwriting (with the hopes of someday becoming a pro).

SH: Some of the major innovations of Scripped are the collaboration tools. Screenwriters are able to work together in "virtual writing rooms." And soon you are promising "highlight authorship and revision compare features [that] will soon allow writers to access a comprehensive history of authorship." This seems to make the script into a kind of wiki-project. Do you think this kind of online collaboration can be as effective as a physical writer's room? Are your users really using this service actively?

SR: Writers are actively using collaboration – both on public and private scripts. I’m having a look right now at some of the public scripts on the site, and it always makes me happy to see writers working together constructively. We don’t ultimately seeing this functionality replacing a physical writer’s room – it’s fun,a nd our users love it! We want them to have great online experiences by working together with other writers.

SH: Many artists bristle at the idea of "crowd sourcing" stories. They argue that great stories require a single artist/visionary (or small team of talented visionaries) with a particular point of view. Why do you think a screenplay, a play, or even a novel can be "crowd sourced" like software or a wiki-article?

SR: All writing is crowdsourced – top professionals in every field of writing constantly iterate with editors, and peers. Crowdsourcing is just a fancy word to describe that phenomenon, which already exists – would love to meet the person who coined the term someday (he or she is a marketing genius). The difference with Internet crowdsourcing is that you’re doing the same thing with total strangers, and a lot of them.

SH: Working on open source software, wikipeida articles, or other "crowd sourced" projects requires a certain amount of altruism and willingness to contribute anonymously. Can this work in the competitive and cut throat world of entertainment, where so many are focused on selfish self-promotion? Will budding "auteurs" want to be just another voice in a "crowd?"

SR: It’s a good question Sean and the verdict is still out. There will be a lawsuit on this very subject very soon, and I can’t wait to watch it unfold. I think the studios are smart to hang back and wait to buy crowdsourced scripts.

SH: The most popular and successful mass-collaborations are often led by a single, charismatic celebrity who attracts large numbers of dedicated fan-artists. This celebrity then curates and manages all the myriad contributions. I'm thinking of Joseph Gordon-Levit's in particular. How has the involvement of people like Edward Burns, Steven de Souza, Dawn Olivieri and Alex Albrecht, driven projects on Scripped?

SR: The involvement of Eddie in particular has been huge – he’s a fantastic guy and is at the forefront of all things related to film/tech. Unlike Amazon Studios and some others, we are not really publicly crowdsourcing scripts through our contests – all scripts are private, and belong to the content creator unless they win (in exchange for the rights to their work, they are paid money). Our contests with Eddie, Steven and Alex were all very successful and drew hundreds of entrants.

SH: With the coming of instant video on Netflix and Amazon, youtube channels, and digital projection, the whole distribution model for movies and television is being turned on its head. Why do you think a platform like Scripped offers a better way for writers to work and collaborate in this new paradigm?

SR: We think that while the professional screenwriter will continue to use Final Draft, the amateur screenwriter who wants to hack together a quick youtube script will use Scripped. In other words we are after The Long Tail – the volume play (rather than going after a long established business).

SH: What are some of the other companies and websites out there that you think could be disruptive forces in scripted entertainment?

SR: I am a huge fan of Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey and what they’ve done with Triggerstreet Labs – I think they are the clear pioneers in this space, and have the star power to disrupt scripted entertainment. Franklin Leonard is really onto something with The Blacklist – I think he will figure out a way to somehow disrupt the system.

SH: Many new companies (like experience an initial surge of excitement, press and involvement from users, only to see the excitement plateau. How do you plan to keep Scripped vibrant and growing?

SR: Since we’ve been around for a while (wow 4 years now!) we have studied our user behavior patterns in detail. Thankfully we have fantastic user engagement and have a great understanding of how our cycles work. There is definitely a huge bump in engagement around Script Frenzy time .

SH: What are some of the most exciting finished projects to emerge from Scripped?

SR: My two favorite: Alex Albrecht produced his winning script, and it looks fantastic! (Check out the link: HERE) Steven de Souza’s Unknown Sender Episodes on Metacafe are an especially huge accomplishment – it marks the first time webisodes were completely crowdsourced (both script and videos were outsourced).

Final Thoughts: I'd be very interested in hearing comments from scripped users about what they like about the system, what they like about the community, and what kinds of projects they aspire to write.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Weekly Filmmaker Finds (May 20, 2012)

At least once a week from here on forward, I will be listing 10 fabulous things found on the internet related to screenwriting, filmmaking, or the future of storytelling. I will be collaborating with the mysterious, anonymous and brilliant curator "Boris," who describes himself as "author, screenwriter, filmmaker. A child of Marx and Coca Cola who strives to be Terrence Malick when he grows up (or David Lynch, he hasn't decided yet)." You should follow him on both Twitter and Tumblr.

I invite anyone and everyone to submit links, articles, or videos for Friday Finds For Filmmakers by emailing me at And so, without further introduction:

1. A shot of a script page from the original "Alien."

This is how script pages look during the filmmaking process. They are protean documents under continual revision from concept, through shooting script, through filming, editing, and re-shoots. If you are rewriting your script, this is what your pages should look like: covered in marks, cross-outs, alternate dialogue, and notes for later. All writing is re-writing.


2. David Lynch on Stanley Kubrick.

David Lynch tells the story of meeting Stanley Kubrick and showing him Eraserhead.  It's a short but fascinating audio, and it reminds me (I worked on Twin Peaks as a set dresser), that David sounds exactly like Mr. Rogers... if Mr. Rogers ever dropped acid.  Click the link HERE.

3. Christopher Nolan on shooting his first film, The Following, on “no budget.”

He was the Writer, Director, Producer, Editor, and Cinematographer. 

4. A student short film, No Time (1994), by Darren Aronofsky.

"When I went to film school we had to do three short films," stated Aronofsky who sought to obtain his masters in directing at the American Film Institute, "so I started reading the short stories of my favourite authors."  Here is his third,  No Time (1994) which features Robert Dylan Cohen, Chas Martin and Billy Portman.

5. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman on Alfred Hitchcock and writing ‘North By Northwest’. 

Lehman received 6 Academy Awardnominations during his screenwriting career. In 2001 he received an honorary Oscar for his works, the first screenwriter to receive that honor.

6. A rare documentary on John Cassavetes.

He acted in many Hollywood films, notably Rosemary's Baby (1968) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). However, Cassevetes was also a pioneer of American independent film by writing and directing over a dozen movies, which he financed in part with his Hollywood paychecks, and which pioneered the use of improvisation and a realistic cinéma vérité style.

7. TED Talk of the Week:  

Just in case you all think I've gotten too "film-school-artsy-pretencious" with all this Kubric, Lynch and  Cassavetes, here is Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E) with tips on storytelling: start at the end and work back to the beginning.

8. Twitter Feed of The Week:

Follow Ted Hope, legendary producer: @TedHope

The Hollywood Reporter recently cited Hope and his partners as one of the twenty-five most powerful people in the Independent Film business. Says Ted, "I produce films -- and try to find a way to make indie film sustainable. We need to build it better together."

9. Short Film of the Week: The Nails

I like three things about this nifty little horror short film: It was all shot on an i-phone, the performances are oddly authentic, and its really scary.

10. Blog of the week: A Filmmaker's Life.

So, you really want to find out what it's like to live the life of a fiercely independent filmmaker? Then follow this blog by award-wining filmmaker and Sundance alumni, Jacques Thelemaque:

Thanks again to Boris, who I hope will become a regular collaborator in my weekly filmmaker finds . And if you readers have found something cool, email me at, and if I post it, I will credit you here! I believe we all should be curating great content, particularly great films and shorts, but please don't just send me your own stuff for promotion. Let's support our peers!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

You ask,"Why is there so little originality coming out of Hollywood?"

A recent question on "Why is there so little originality coming out of Hollywood?
Remakes, ripoffs, adaptations, sequels and prequels. Where did the creativity and originality go?"

I answered the question this way:  Hollywood funds movies that are daring and original when large audiences go to see daring and original films. To some degree, this was the case in the 70's before the rise of the blockbuster (Jaws and Star Wars.) It's hard to imagine today's audiences flocking to see movies like Chinatown, Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, or Taxi Driver.

I would also challenge those who bemoan Hollywood's lack of originality to look beyond mainstream Hollywood, and check out the thousands of movies being made outside the Hollywood system. We live in a time when Netflix can send or stream just about any foreign film or independent that might interest you.

For example, the next time you update your Netflix Queue, check out these startlingly original films: 

If like the rest of the world, you have already seen The Avengers, why not check out another movie in theaters that has a 93% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, the action-thriller from Norway, Headhunters?

There are startlingly original movies, both foreign and American Independent, out there in every genre, from drama to horror, thriller to comedy.  You just have to dig a little deeper, do a little research, and instead of just watching any "event" film that is marketed to you, take responsibility for the media you consume, and seek out movies of high quality.  I'm sure you liked Jennifer Laurence in Hunger Games, but she was better in the far more original indie-film, Winter's Bone.

Hollywood makes more of what audiences pay to see.  When more people start showing up for original movies, more originality will come out of Hollywood.