Friday, June 17, 2016

The Art of Receiving Pitch Feedback II - The Sequel

Alright. Okay. Audible sigh. The struggle is real, people. The struggle is real.

I just got feedback on another pitch to another company via Stage 32 that I would like to share with you as a reminder of what we as writers are up against. This is a pitch to convince the industry insider to read your script. You pay that insider to critique the pitch - not the script, which is really just a way to prove that they did indeed read it, in my opinion, therefore justifying their fee.

Because I increasingly get the feeling that they don't really read them. Not really. Oh sure, they skim. Skimming could loosely be defined as reading. The point is that if all they do is skim when you're paying for them to read, imagine the effort they put into it when you don't use a service… You can't imagine it? Exactly.

So here's what I'm sharing. It's a TV series idea that I've written fifteen episodes for within the course of fifteen months. They're probably a little rough and in need of some polish or rewrite, but that's beside the point because I'm pitching the pilot and subsequent idea. I've edited down elements of the actual pitch here so as to protect the idea in case it ever does get picked up, but even the edited examples beg the question, "how can the reader miss this?"

So here's the industry insider critique. In pieces:

"I would add a section discussing characters and sample episodes since each one seems to be entirely different from the other.."

So here's a segment of the two page pitch they're commenting on:

 "Matt, at the core of the first season, struggles with the aftermath of [what he started]. It comes back to haunt him with every new [guest character] he encounters… He struggles with his place in [a new society] ruled by power hungry people… He develops from a lowly servant… to an equal partner… to an important member of [a rebellion]. Throughout the series, he manipulates the truth about his knowledge of [something specific in the original pitch] in order to survive among the power hungry people who try to manipulate him."

"Each episode focuses on a new [guest character] and how Matt influences their ultimate future. The second episode involves [insert character and detail]… Other episodes focus on [insert characters and detail on five more episodes]…"

How does this not qualify as "a section discussing characters and sample episodes?" The reader began her critique with "The document is well formatted, but poorly structured to pitch a TV pilot," then poses her question which is clearly answered at the start of the first paragraph that describes the series…

She then poses a series of questions she has about the idea that could well be answered beyond the limitations of a two page pitch. And lets be clear about this, the rules of using the Stage 32 service state that if your pitch runs longer than two pages, those pages won't get read. Still, the questions that the reader wants answered involve detail. Lots of detail. "What is the mythology behind [this element of the series]?" How does it carry over from character to character? How does it affect each character?  Oh, and here's a response to that last question taken directly from my two page written pitch.

"The characters struggle with their beliefs in religion and superstition, and with the importance of fortune... and power in their lives."

And here's a little something about the main character Matt that the reader apparently missed… "Matt… winds up… helping - and often times hurting - the oppressed masses that he identifies with, because [what he started] follows him at every turn, making him believe that he is cursed for having started it."

There's actually more detail in the two page pitch that I don't want to share here, but you get the idea. I went back to my letter and was able to find the answer to every question she asked right there on the page.

Some of you may read this and decide that I'm just bitching and moaning because it's a pass on reading the pilot. And I say, probably. I will also repeat what I have said before. Industry professionals are inundated with ideas and they are conditioned to say no. I will also point out that two pitches I made prior to this through Stage 32 for the same series idea were received with stronger feedback that makes me believe that the elements that this reader couldn't see are understood by others. But there is one element of the series that I can't share here that most of the people reading the pitch can't seem to grasp, and it's not necessarily that they don't understand that element. It's more about the fact that they don't believe in the concept of how it passes hands from one person to the next. And you'll have to trust me on this, that is insanely laughable in an industry where movies like The Grudge and The Ring exist.

The struggle is real, writers. Keep writing anyway.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Art of Receiving Pitch Feedback

So, I've spent the last few months (since March) working on this TV series idea that has gotten me so excited because I've been able to bang out 8 episodes in 7 months with more episode ideas just piling up in my head. But that's not the point of this post. The point is that, for me, it's time to get serious about pitching which is something I haven't engaged in for a long time. So feeling rusty, and being the typical reclusive writer type that I am, I have resorted to taking advantage of the pitch sessions that the organization offers. is a great access hub for writers who don't otherwise have an in to get people to consider their material, but the focus of this post isn't about them. It's about readers in general, and why every writer should listen to a reader's feedback but also take it with a grain of salt. I have submitted essentially the same written pitch to several industry gatekeepers, and without giving away my concept, or giving away the names of those gatekeepers, I'm going to share what all pitching writers must come to terms with, and that's the diversity of what readers take away from the same pitch. You can't get away from it. You'll even want to point out why your reader is absolutely and totally wrong. But you'll have to take it in stride and learn how to move on.

Reader one:  Saw a lot of merit in the potential longevity of my series and in the complexities of the main character arc. BUT the pitch reader didn't think it was a good fit for their company because of its religious/faith inspired concept.

I really appreciate the positive approach that this reader took the time to focus on. But here's the thing. This reader made the assumption that my idea  is religious/faith inspired when it isn't... At least not in the way that s/he seems to infer. Religion factors into the series because of the historical setting when   people of the time relied on their beliefs to justify their actions. Still, this reader found it easy to lump this pitch into the faith based genre based on the fact that religion in general was mentioned in the pitch. S/he therefore passed.

Reader two: Immediately focused on the fact that a period drama is a hard sell. This is the best kind of feedback to get because whether you like it or not, it gets to the point. This reader is letting you know that s/he isn't in the market for this kind of script regardless of how good it is. But then the reader posed a question that irked me, as all writers probably have had happen. S/he asked if a particular  part of the story had a supernatural element to it.

Let me focus on my written pitch at this point, where I wrote, "This [prop within the story] is not some magical element. Rather, it's a catalyst for [the characters of the episode] to either benefit or suffer from based on their belief in it." In other words, no. It doesn't have a supernatural element. I stated that in the written pitch. The prop within the story is not magical. Still, the reader felt compelled to ask the question. 

What do I take away from this? Readers miss things all the time. They read a huge amount of material and they tend to gloss over things. As a reader myself, I understand this. As a writer, it still irks me that things that are obviously stated can still be overlooked. What have I learned? Get over it and move on.

Reader three: I didn't get feedback from reader three because s/he requested the script. What does that say? First of all, I love this reader... But seriously, this goes to prove that pitching is a hit and miss endeavor. The religious aspect that scared off reader one and the period drama aspect that scared off reader two was not enough to deter reader three from checking this idea out. A pass is a debilitating thing for a writer. Persistence often prevails.

Reader four: I outlined a unique aspect of my series idea in my pitch, where the nature of the series had the potential to cross the baton from one main character to a new main character at any time, basically highlighting the idea that the show could be carried by a new lead whenever the story allowed us to go in a new direction. I tried to promote how this idea could open up the longevity of the series.

The problem here is that reader four just didn't agree. S/he told me that we should always stay with a character long enough to satisfy their story arc. First of all, this reader made the assumption that a character's story arc couldn't be completed within one season even though I pointed out something like True Detective (season one) as a prime example.  Second, this reader based his/her opinion on a particular formula that s/he has seen work and therefore has adhered to that rule in determining salebility. That's alright. That doesn't necessarily make your original take on your material invalid. Readers have opinions. Some of them will mistake opinions for rules. As writers, we need to get past it and move on.

Finally, the biggest thing that I have taken away from  this session of pitching the same material in the same way to four different readers is that none of them agreed as to why they passed (or in the case of reader three, why s/he didn't). This is the biggest lesson to be learned, and gives you one of the best opportunities to learn it because the industry execs that you are pitching to are required to give brief feedback. 

If you pitch your material to several people, and they all tell you that the same thing is wrong, maybe you should consider their advice. But sometimes the problem isn't that your pitch is bad. The problem is that you don't know the recipient's individual taste. And the best thing to do in that situation is to move on and keep pitching.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

2015 Brings New Writing Recognition and New Projects

It is with sadness that I note the date of my last blog post over a year ago. Okay, there's no real sadness to that revelation. But I did note it. A friend of mine recently posted that she was reducing time on Facebook in order to focus more on her life diary via her blog. It made me realize I hadn't updated mine in a while, and that I really should. Here's why:

1. That competition I entered that got me a top 10 finalist ranking.

The competition was the Happy Writers/Stage 32 TV Competition. The script was a spec script for my guilty pleasure show Supernatural, titled I Got You Babe. So there's that. And I don't know. Whenever I do well in a competition, I feel like it's worthy of a look for all the aspiring writers out there. Yes, they chose my script as a finalist, and that warrants any criticism that says I'm biased. But here's the thing about Richard Botto and It is an active social network designed to help anyone in the entertainment industry (not just writers) connect and bring their projects to realization. Happy Writers also offers reader services and pitching opportunities with executives and producers. There are fees involved, but they're reasonable. And let's face it, executives and producers can be hard to corner if you're not represented by an agent or manager. So if you haven't already, check out. Membership is free.

2. That competition I entered that got me a semifinalist nod.

I can't say enough good things about Denise Gossett and Shriekfest. She is a tireless advocate of horror movies, and I don't know how she manages her own successful acting career alongside the responsibilities to run this annual Los Angeles festival. My short script Roadside Picnic garnered a semifinalist nod in late 2014. If you write horror -or if you're a fan of indie horror- check out Shriekfest.

3. That feature idea I've been sitting on for years just inspired me to write it as a series pilot.

No, I'm not going to share too many details because every writer fears that if they reveal too much too soon, someone will be inspired to write their own version and thus beat them to the finish line. I am truly at that stage. But the pilot episode is done and submitted to a competition or two. Also, I'm in the middle of writing episode two. The ideas are piling up in the back of my brain, and I can't research fast enough because the fictional element of the story is woven into a pretty complex period in history with real historical figures as characters. It's kind of like Shakespeare in Love in that respect, but with multiple episodes that could span the course of world history. I'm excited, I'm frustrated. But most important, I'm writing.

I've added a couple new links of writer friends who are worth a look. Check them out on the sidebar. And of course, keep writing!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Bringing in 2014

Hello, everyone.

I don't have much to post about this early in the new year, but I want to encourage everyone to come up with an idea and and get started on it. Or, finish an old one that may be sleeping in a drawer.

I have a goal to finish a short that seems to be growing into a feature, and I'm toying with another TV spec for the show Parks and Recreation. That's right, neither is of a horrific nature. but that's okay, horror scripts still lurk deep down in my heart.

Speaking of horror, I am tentatively scheduled to be on Shriekfest Radio on a Thursday night, March 20th at 7pm. What is Shriekfest Radio, you ask? It's an extension of the Shriekfest Film Festival, where winners and finalists get to be interviewed. You can tune in online here. They touch base with Shriekfest alumni throughout the year, so check it out. There are many cool horror writers to listen to and ask questions of. My feature spec A Good Soul was a finalist in 2013, and my short PWNED was a finalist in 2011.

Happy writing, everyone!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Updates on Competition Entries (revised as of September 30, 2013)

Here it is another September, and I'm pleased to announce that I am once again a finalist. My feature spec A Good Soul has made the top 20 finalist list of this year's Shriekfest. This will be the third time the script has been honored as a finalist, once in the California Independent Film Festival, and later in the Long Beach Queen Mary Paranoia Festival.

Speaking of Shriekfest, my short script PWNED had been a finalist there in 2011. This year, the script made the top 100 list of the Table Read My Screenplay Competitions. Where am I leading? I guess I'm trying to say that if different competitions share the same opinions about your script, you might be onto something. I hope so. Either way, I'm proud that both of these scripts have been recognized by these wonderful organizations. (Note: as of September 30, PWNED progressed to the Top 30 Finalists across all categories.)

Needless to say, if you've entered a competition and your script didn't make it to anybody's list, please don't get discouraged! There are so many people attempting to write screenplays that it's easy to fall victim to the notion that you're just not good enough. As a script reader I can honestly attest to reading so much material that is good. The problem is that there is only ten percent of the good that actually gets recognized. And yes, at that point, personal opinion does come into play.

As a finalist, I'm fortunate enough to have something to back up my ability as a writer, but as a reader I'm also painfully aware that  luck is also a factor. Last year I was fortunate enough to score finalist status in The Austin Film Festival and in Scriptapalooza with a Supernatural TV series spec, but I didn't make the cut when I entered the WB Writer's Workshop this year with two that were arguably better based on the opinions of other writer friends. Oh yeah, and one of them, subtitled I Got You Babe, is a quarterfinalist in Final Draft's Big Break competition (had to edit that in since I found out after this original posting - YAY!).

Bottom line, it's a tough business. Persevere by keeping an open mind to criticism, recognizing personal opinion and continuing to write.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Simple Idea Can Go a Long Way

I was recently struck by the revelation of how one simple idea can develop into surprisingly divergent stories, and this came from watching – of all things – House of Wax, the 2005 edition. I predominantly write horror themed material, but don’t necessarily feel compelled to watch it – especially if it’s a remake. But I occasionally feel guilty about that, and the movie happened to be on cable, so I forced myself to sit down and know about it.

House of Wax is a typical slasher movie with typical college cutouts on a road trip to a big event. Two of them get stranded – their hot rod breaks down, and they are saved by a creepy guy in a creepy truck who leads them to an abandoned town where they can get a part to fix the car. I didn’t think anything special about this setup until the movie cut to a scene of our couple arriving at the town, Ambrose. The image of the town was a single street. Abandoned, run down, reminiscent of an era lost in time.

The first thing that popped into my head was Radiator Springs! Radiator Springs is the town in a totally different movie. It has a single street that feels abandoned, run down, and reminiscent of an era lost in time. And we are brought there because of a car that gets lost, essentially breaks down and is befriended by a creepy guy who happens to be a truck. That’s right; House of Wax has a very similar bare bones setup as Disney Pixar’s Cars.

There is a very strong throughline that couples these two very different films. That throughline involves abandonment. Our industrious wax maker was essentially abandoned in his childhood, and his talent ignored at the same time when the town of Ambrose and its tourist trap wax museum was abandoned because of the construction of a major highway that blew right past it. In Cars, Radiator Springs becomes lost to the world because of the construction of a major Interstate that makes the historic Route 66 obsolete. 

Then a stranger arrives, Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen in the case of Cars, and Elisha Cuthbert and Jared Padalecki as the doomed couple in House of Wax. And just as a side note, Wilson’s character McQueen has some extremely strong abandonment issues… Something that Cuthbert, as the main character in Wax, doesn’t. Her twin brother Chad Michael Murray does, but the story doesn’t capitalize on it.  Regardless, in both cases the pristine nature of the town frozen in time becomes threatened. One barebones story idea, two amazingly different outcomes. I find that awesome.

So what is the point of this rambling on about horror and family film being the same? I guess, as a writer, it’s a lesson in starting simple. Come up with a simple idea, a simple theme that may seem trite and done to death, and then build on it. Once you have that in place, there’s no telling what road your story might go down.

Happy writing, everyone!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Jury duty

Let's talk about jury duty and why every aspiring screenwriter needs to just get it over with and do it once if he or she has had the unfortunate opportunity to serve. Many of you might be saying, "Of course! It makes perfect sense if you want to write a spec script for a show like Law and Order, or Franklin and Bash, or any courtroom drama be it TV or feature. But I don't write those." Well, I've been stuck on jury duty for a full three weeks, and while its often been a long, tedious, boring event, I feel like I've learned a great deal with regard to... get this... screenplay structure, writing, and the dos and don'ts of pitching.

While I'm not at liberty to give details about the case in question, I can describe some of the players. Our plaintiff attorney is a younger Alan Alda without the funny. Even better, he's Sam Waterston of Law and Order. He wants to win this case because it's the right thing to do in a world where people need to be held accountable for their mistakes. He wants us to pity his client and the horrible, despicable events that led to his client's unfortunate situation.

He looks the part. He caters to our most basic emotions. And while he stood before us and spent over an hour pouring his heart out for his client in his opening and closing statements (that's over an hour for each), all I could think to myself was, "I get it. Your client was wronged. You've hit me with the same visual information at least five times and you haven't moved forward. OMG, this guy would make me feel suicidal on the receiving end of an elevator pitch." For me, the courtroom was the elevator, and the elevator was stuck between floors.

What I was witnessing was the bona fide reason for learning to make your pitch short and effective. The plaintiff's attorney was neither, and even though it was clear that he himself believed in his cause, he was incapable of selling it to me in over an hour.

Two other attorneys represented two separate defendants. Again, think of a big Texas lawyer representing some corporate entity, and then a fast talking weasel representing some lower level government operation. These guys really fit some stereotype standards for casting attorneys. The soft spoken yet passionate victim's attorney versus the blustery big jowled defense counsel and his "I should have been an agent" co-counsel. You don't want to like these two, and their physical manners made it easy. Good casting.

But I digress. Because these two had a skill that the plaintiff attorney didn't. They got to the point. They summarized their story clearly, concisely and quickly, and they remained consistent in that talent throughout the trial. Our Waterston wannabe did not.

Our Waterston wannabe felt that it was necessary to revisit the details of what happened to his client with every witness (there were about 20). And he wasn't doing it for the benefit of the witnesses. No, he wanted to make sure that we the jury didn't forget those details. He wanted to make sure that we hadn't forgotten the foundation of the story, so he repeatedly went back to it. In screenwriting terms, he was repeating exposition because he was afraid his audience wasn't smart enough to follow along. A standard rule in screenwriting - don't assume that your audience won't get it unless you spell it all out for them. Doing that slows down the read. It makes the audience lose interest fast. And that was certainly the case in the courtroom.

The weasel, "I should have been an agent" guy was particularly efficient in selling his closing argument, and believe it or not, it was because he adhered to a screenwriting must - stay focused on your theme. He literally stepped up to the plate and stated it from the start. "Stay focused on the ball." His words. Then he proceeded to the definition of "the ball." It couldn't get any simpler than that, and for me, he sold his argument. He kept on point. He kept to his theme.

Now for the deliberations, or how I like to think of it - the writers' room. Technically speaking, I have never officially been part of a writers' room, but they're not hard to figure out. Writers and other pertinent creative decision makers sit in a room that is led by the show runner, the one in charge, and theories are discussed, plot holes are exposed, characters and their motivations are clarified, etc. etc. until a decision is made on the outcome of the show. It's pretty much the same as a jury room - 12 people with decidedly different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs thrown together to interpret material and determine if is right and true to a perceived end.

We had a good mix of intelligent jurors with diverse backgrounds to draw from. We even got along to some extent, and I'm told that it is a crucial element to any successful writers' room. But that doesn't mean that we agreed on the points of the case. In fact, we were far from it.

Our jury foreman, we'll just call her the Showrunner, did not want the job. I'll bet that many a TV showrunner can relate. But she was vocal and expressive and the type of person who naturally attracts attention. Therefore, she qualified. Her first order of business was to remember the jurors in the room by visual identification as opposed to just remembering people's names. I was Coke Lady because I had a bottle of the stuff with me every day. Then there was Oxygen (she had an oxygen tank), iPad Red, iPad Black, Bun Lady (she wore her hair in a bun), etc. etc. I was struck by the fact that screenwriters need to do this every time they introduce a character to their stories. It's not enough to give a character a name to make him or her memorable. There needs to be something for the reader, for the audience, to latch onto that makes the important characters stand out. Sometimes it's a visual trait. Often times its a unique quirk. More times than not, it's a visual cue. Heck, I did it when describing the attorneys.

The discussion in the writers room took two and a half days. We were evenly split over two separate verdicts that needed a nine vote majority on both counts. Opinion came into play. The correct definition of "reckless" was discussed repeatedly and how that definition applied to this case. We assessed the value of witnesses, or in the case of writing a story, characters. And guess what - some of those characters really served no purpose in the plot that we'll call a trial. If this were a screenplay, those characters could have easily been cut. One witness in particular had been on vacation at the time of the incident in question, and while he was an interesting moment of potentially goofball fun, he had nothing to add to the case. Absolutely nothing. An easy character to cut in spite of the potential for an interesting little sidebar.

We didn't agree on the first verdict. It was an evenly split decision. We debated evidence that conflicted with other evidence. We tried to convince each other why the verdict should be what it should be, and we brought our own opinions and experiences together in a creative way to sell our individual decisions, much like how writers in a room might try to sell their take on where a script should go. I was on the side that successfully pitched the deciding verdict to the other side. The "I should have been an agent" attorney was happy, and it reflects positively on the idea of keeping to a theme and staying focused on that ball.

The second verdict in question was also a split decision. We couldn't get past that one, although we tried. Sometimes writers and executives have creative differences. We were deadlocked. The judge, a likable authoritarian, allowed the deadlocked decision, and we were free. I was free. And inspired to write something. I'm still not keen on a courtroom drama - maybe a Franklin and Bash spec one day, but that's not the point.

The point is, for lack of coming up with any reasonable subtext, is that writers can learn ways to master their craft by experiencing jury duty. I highly recommend it because it costs far less than any professional seminar that promises the same results. In fact, you might even get paid a little. So, if you're a writer and you get stuck in jury duty, think of it as a gift and maybe it will help you through it - even if you don't write courtroom dramas.