Screenwriters Roundtable, Part 2: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, John SwetnamFebruary 5th, 2013 by Scott
A special treat this week as each day I will be posting excerpts from a screenwriter’s roundtable I did with a group of talented Hollywood screenwriters: Chris Borrelli, F. Scott Frazier, Chris McCoy, Justin Rhodes, Greg Russo, and John Swetnam. How good are they? Between them, they have sold more than a dozen spec scripts and have multiple original screenplays on the Black List.
This is the second screenwriters roundtable, following up on one we did last year [which you can read here]. Hopefully this will become an annual event as it’s a great way to take the pulse of what’s happening in the screenwriting universe, as well as benefit from the many insights into the craft these writers share.
I will be running the series all week long. Here is Part 2 which focuses on the art of pitching:
Scott: I’m hearing a wide variety of approaches here which reinforces the whole idea there’s no right way to write. And it’s great to be able to take an organic approach, I guess you could say, but now the pragmatic reality is dealing with managers or studio execs who may want you to write about something very specific in the way of an outline or a treatment. How do you go about dealing with that if your instinct is more organic in approach?
Chris Borrelli: I just deal with it. Right now I have some cool directors attached. I have a pitch, a 24‑minute pitch roughly. It moves a minute or two each time I do it. It’s going over great. I’m very excited to take it out. That’s the deal. That’s the game I signed into here, which isn’t a saying, but I just made it sound like it was. That’s the deal. Then when I write, honestly, I’m going to do whatever’s best for the script. I will throw stuff out and that first draft is going to be something that’s going to be mine, for lack of a better word, and I’m going to absolutely. I hope none of them are reading this, but I think I’m going to go off in a crazy direction, because I’m not. It’s going to be the kind of thing where, some of these things are done to get the job, and then because you care about your job and your career and the script above all, you work on it as it goes. You give them the best possible thing, but in the beginning, it’s still making people comfortable, and that’s the deal.
Greg Russo: I’ll just add that any exec worth their weight usually will respect a writer’s process, or should. It’s in their best interest to. So if it’s getting a draft in 8 weeks, they’re not going to sit there and micromanage you. They’re going to let you find your process and deliver what you promised. Now you’re still on a deadline, you still have to turn it in. But hopefully you’ll have the freedom to go about the work utilizing your own organic process.
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah, I’ve been lucky enough to sell a couple pictures this year, and stuff that was pitched in the room ended up being a very loose guideline for what I wrote. It’s just a part of the process. I think you have to be good at coming up with that 15‑minute version of the story, but I think that everybody does realize that a 15‑minute version of the story is not a 110‑page script. So for me, after I put together a pitch and the movie has to be written at that point, I just start the process all over again. I go into it fresh, and I’m like, “OK, this is the basic idea of the movie that we have to write, but how are we going to write it?”
Chris Borrelli: It’s a new animal. You’ve got the job. Now you’re alone. You’re going to write it. They all helped you and everything like that, but now it’s your turn, and you’re alone with it, and the story and the blank page, however you refer to it, and at that point it has to become something a little different. Pitching is kind of an art on its own.
F. Scott Frazier: It’s totally a separate side of the career. It’s like, you have to be able to write some scripts, and that’s step one, and then there’s 15 other steps after it, and one of those steps is figuring out how to write a good pitch and present a good pitch. It’s tough. I sucked at it for a very, very long time, and I still think that I’m not great at it, but I’ve gotten better, and it’s just because I’ve done it, because I’ve practiced at it.
Chris McCoy: I forget where I saw it, but I once read that before David Bowie used to go on stage he would sit on the wings and tell himself that he was David Bowie, the rock star. Then he would go on stage and act like David Bowie the rock star and everyone would believe him. There are times when I feel like pitching is kind of like that, where outside the room, you go, “All right. I’m a successful screenwriter. I’m doing this.” Then you go in and that attitude carries through. It is a totally different skill set than writing. There’s a difference between being in your room in front of your computer at three in the morning, and facing down six people in suits. So I find it’s better to have fun with it.
Scott: Let’s talk some more about pitching. What are some of the lessons you all have learned in the process of learning how to pitch?
F. Scott Frazier: For me the successes I’ve had in pitching have always been based around a single character. My palms kind of get clammy when I start thinking about, “OK, I’ve got to introduce this guy and this guy and this other guy and what they’re doing and their plots and everything like that.” For me, the success I’ve had has been entirely focused on the main character, like “What is the main character’s story, and how is he relating to all of the other people in the movie? How is he relating to the themes of the movie, and how is he relating to the themes in the movie? How is he relating to the plot of the movie?” Just focusing on his journey through the movie, and then everything else, as you come to it, they get, but you don’t have to be like, “And then there’s this guy and then there’s this guy and then this happens.” That to me, I’ve done a couple pitches like that, and they just were awful.
Scott: So zeroing in on the protagonist’s journey?
F. Scott Frazier: Yeah.
Chris Borrelli: Chris mentioned David Bowie, and I watched this other thing years ago with a musician who suddenly had to be in music videos, and he’d enjoyed just making music in his studio or whatever, and now people were like “Act.” He’s like, “That’s not really what I do.” I kind of feel as screenwriters, we suddenly have to put on a performance, and it depends how comfortable we are or aren’t with that. The very basic grounded things I’d say is, the better prepared you are, the better off you’re going to be. The more confident you are, the better you’re going to be. Building momentum in the story. So for me when I pitch Act One, it might only be a quarter of the actual film but almost half of my pitch. Act Two is shorter than Act One in the pitch, and Act Three I do very basic, because I just want to get this feeling that momentum is building. Then I’d just say to anybody who’s reading this that is a little nervous about pitching, don’t be, because you’re the boss. For those however many reasons in the room, you are telling them, and think of it aggressively, you are telling them what the movie is, and honestly, fuck ‘em.
Where it gets tough is going after jobs you don’t really believe in anyway because they might see that when you pitch.
F. Scott Frazier: Absolutely, that’s 100 percent.
Greg Russo: Yeah. I agree with that, too.
John Swetnam: You’re all fucking rock stars, I love that.
Chris McCoy: I will give one important piece of advice to people getting into pitching – Never bring a prop.
Chris McCoy: On my first pitch, I brought a biography of Tom Selleck to a meeting, and that didn’t go over well.
Chris Borrelli: Was he in the movie? Or did you just want to show off some pictures of Tom Selleck?
Chris McCoy: No, no, I wanted it to be like a Sellecky character, and that just did not work.
Justin Rhodes: I think one thing about pitching, when I first started doing it I would get bogged down by all the menu of things I had to deliver. You almost get stretched out about, “I’ve got to hit character, I’ve got to hit plot, and I’ve do this, and I’ve got to do this.” As I’ve gotten better at it, I just relax and I write out the pitch verbally on a piece of paper as if I was telling it to somebody, but not necessarily to an executive. Like if I was telling it to my wife, or a friend. Then I’ll go in the next morning, and I won’t bring anything, and I’ll do it from memory. Just talking to somebody, looking them in the eye, telling them the story, and being engaging in that way makes so much more sense to me than whatever pitching means. I used to get really hung up on the idea of what the presentation of it was. Just coming in and telling somebody what it is about, I’ve actually had a whole lot more success with.
F. Scott Frazier: I do this weird thing where I spend all this time typing up a huge 15 to 20 page document of the whole story of the movie and then the day of the pitch, I’ll just write down in my notebook two pages. After having read my outline over and over and over again, I’ll write down from memory the important plot points. Honestly, that’s the pitch. What you can remember as being the most important usually gets you through the 15 minutes of the pitch.
John Swetnam: Another thing to think about, and I don’t know if you guys go through this, but for me, there’s a lot of different circumstances to when you’re pitching. Depending also on who I’m pitching or what actually the pitch is will also be different. Obviously television’s a whole other animal. If the pitch is teed up with somebody and they already know a lot about it and I know that person’s personality, I may go in and just be really passionate and have more of a conversation and get them involved. If it’s another set of executives where there’s five or six of them in a room and there’s a bunch of people pitching, I know I have to go in and be more prepared and organized. I do think there are different kinds of pitches and I tailor them depending on what kind of pitching I’m doing.
F. Scott Frazier: I agree.
Chris Borrelli: Absolutely.
Greg Russo: For me, energy and excitement are probably the biggest factors. I’ve been told I’m good in a room. Whether that’s true or not, I know it comes down to this. The people you’re pitching to have a hundred things they’re trying to do that day. You’ve got to go in there believing no matter what you’re pitching, whether it’s a big action movie, drama, whatever it is, that it is the absolute, all-encompassing, most exciting use of their time that they could possibly imagine, and they’re going to love every second of it. If you go in believing that, and honestly convince yourself of it, then you’ll make them believe it too. They’ll see why this story is something they should invest in. But it’s all about that energy and excitement for me. The one promise I make to myself and anyone I pitch to is that they won’t be bored.
John Swetnam: For me, it’s really easy. I just think about all the money that I could make if I sold the pitch, and I get really fucking amped up, and I become super passionate.
Justin Rhodes: One other thing I’ll say is that when you do the pitch, you do want to make it where it’s simple enough that whoever you’re talking to can go take it to the guy that signs the check and redeliver it. Sometimes you’re pitching to the guy that can sign the check, but oftentimes you’re not. Your pitch actually will sometimes live and die not based upon how well you do in the room, but how well the person you talked to does relaying it to their boss. If you can get something that’s memorable and simple that can be restated by somebody else, sometimes a day or two later, that can put you over the edge.
Greg Russo: The higher up the chain you go, the less interested they tend to be about what you’re pitching and the busier they are. That’s why you really have to nail it cleanly and concisely the first time you walk into the room.
Chris McCoy: I feel like when you engage with them, if they start talking, that’s good. The pitches I’ve sold have typically happened when I’m balancing joking around with the executives with the pitch itself.
Justin Rhodes: Along those lines, what I will say when I sit down is, “Hi, I’d rather think of this as a conversation than a pitch. Please interrupt me at any point.” If they interrupt you, the more that happens, the more it becomes just talking to somebody, the better.
F. Scott Frazier: Another quick trick that I came up with is that the very first thing I say in the pitch is always, “This movie is about blank.” Just a very short sentence up front. This movie is about father and son reconciliation, like what we were talking about earlier, and then it’s just everything you say in a pitch is coming back to that one sentence, so that they know what kind of movie they’re getting into, and they’re not having to try and figure it out as it goes along. You tell them right up front this is an action movie about “X”.
Scott: What about this idea that less is more when it comes to pitching? Leave them hanging. I find this with a lot of younger writers where they tend to overstay their welcome, overstate things.
F. Scott Frazier: Like Borrelli was saying earlier, my third acts in pitches are usually one sentence long. I think if you’ve done your job, most people understand what the third act of most movies are, and if you’ve set up who the characters are, and what the stakes are, and the tone of the movie, and everything you don’t need to pitch the third act. People understand what third acts are.
John Swetnam: I think Borrelli was right, 50 percent or more of the pitch is the first act. It’s really setting everything up and then you hit a few points in the second act, and then third act is boy, girl, 360 slow-motion camera, they’re kissing, the end. At least that’s what I do.
Scott: It sounds like that first act is important to do that way because you really want them to understand the story universe and get them connected to the characters.
Chris Borrelli: Yeah, and not lose them. Again, if your whole movie’s about an incredible third act action set piece I think that’s almost harder to do in a pitch because you just want to have them with you the whole time and without adding stress. Any younger screenwriters out there might get stressed out by this. To me, once you lose them you lose them in a pitch. The whole idea is to make act one make sense to them, gets them excited, they see all the connections. Hopefully, there’s very few connections you need to do in a pitch. Then you move forward. That’s why, to me, so much is in that first act.
Just one more thing. I don’t know if you guys all agree with me, but phone pitches are the absolute worst. They sound easier, I think, when you first start out as a screenwriter, like, “Oh, I can read it,” or something, but you can’t get any sense of feedback. We’re all talking about the same sort of idea, of having a conversation with that exec, or talking to them in the same tone of voice I’m talking to you guys, or better, and over the phone, you just can’t tell what’s coming back at you.
Greg Russo: Did you ever have a pitch over the phone drop out? I had a high-level exec drop out halfway through a phone pitch, and I just kept going for like ten minutes.
John Swetnam: Did you sell it?
Greg Russo: Hell, no.
Chris McCoy: Have you ever had a meeting where you’re in the room with a couple executives, and another one of the other executives is on the phone?
Chris Borrelli: Yes, you think he’s a phone. Like, hopefully, that’s who he is.
Chris McCoy: You’ll say something, and then the executives in the room will turn to the phone like it’s HAL from “2001.”
John Swetnam: A simple way to think about it for me is just to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you’re pitching the head of a studio, think to yourself, like if you sitting there, if you were the guy that had to commit $50 million to some guy across the table who’s pitching you a story. What would you want to hear? If you were on the other side of the table, how would you want to be presented? What would get you passionate? What would get you to sign over and say, “OK, yeah, let’s go make a $50 million movie”? In that simple way, I think that helps.
Justin Rhodes: My agent actually has a saying along these lines, that “You have to think of an executive like an animal, and you have to build a cage,” because he really desperately wants to escape, because saying no is the way out and he doesn’t have to pay his money and doesn’t have to take a risk, doesn’t have to do any of those things. So you have to build a cage around him precisely constructed so that there’s no way out.
Chris McCoy: Did he say what kind of animal to picture him as?
Justin Rhodes: Something timid and slow.
Each day for this series, I’m going to highlight one of the writers. Today: Chris McCoy.
Chris McCoy has had three scripts on the Black List – GOOD LOOKING (Double Feature Films/Dreamworks), GET BACK (Sidney Kimmel Entertainment) and GOOD KIDS (Depth of Field Productions). Other projects include R.A. (Double Feature Films/Dreamworks), LITTLE WHITE LIE (Laika Entertainment), YEAR ABROAD (Strange Weather Films) and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Marvel). His book SCURVY GOONDA was published by Knopf in 2009. He recently co-directed the short film THE BICYCLE. He is currently working on an untitled romantic comedy for Disney.
For my interview with Chris, go here.
Please take time to leave a reply with your observations and follow-up questions, and while you’re there thank these writers for taking time out of their busy schedules to do this roundtable for GITS readers and the wider online screenwriting community.
F. Scott Frazier: @ScreenWritten
Chris McCoy: @thatthere
Justin Rhodes: @twopointfour
John Swetnam: @JohnSwetnam
Many thanks to Laura Stoltz (@LeStoltz) for logistical help with the roundtable. Laura is one of my UNC former students, currently an assistant at Haven Entertainment, and a talented writer in her own right.
For Part 1 of the roundtable, go here.
Tomorrow: Part 3 of this exclusive screenwriter’s roundtable.