Pippa shared this post on how we used the ‘pitch’ in the first phase of the Cross Channel Film Lab. Our script development workshops with UK and French writers and directors honed the process of using a short project ‘pitch’ as a useful development tool.

During the CCFL Screenwriting Lab, we experimented with using a ‘pitch’ as something other than a sales tool. Instead, we used it to shape and interrogate feature film stories, to get immediate feedback on new developments, and to practice communicating core ideas directly to an audience.

Our final CCFL version of a ‘short pitch’ lay somewhere between a description of the story and a more market-focused traditional pitch (which is the kind of pitch I’m generally more familiar with, so I had to shake off everything I associated with that). In the labs, our focus was firmly on telling the story succinctly to an audience (at first – each other, and then to strangers), not on trying to sell the project to anyone. Which took a lot of the pressure off…

As we tried various versions of what a short pitch might include (going down from 8 minutes to as close to 3 minutes as we could) we found that the following elements were the most useful to include as part of the process:

  1. Introduction to the writer
  2. Introduction to the world of the story – setting the scene, introducing the protagonist and main characters and taking us up to the point of the ‘inciting incident’ or key moment that spurs the story into action
  3. A description of the protagonist’s ‘external want’ and ‘internal need’ that would drive them through the story
  4. Any key plot points or twists (keeping these as simple as possible)
  5. What happens when the want and need collided at the climax

Unlike many ‘sales pitches’, this pitch gave us all the core story information. It didn’t leave us wondering about the ending, with a ‘what happened next?’ cliffhanger. Instead it gave us a strong sense of the world, the writer’s ambitions, and the whole story spine.

This allowed all of the lab participants to respond quickly to each others’ stories as they pitched them – assessing whether the lead character was clear and engaging, whether they were active enough, and whether their drive took them to a strong dramatic climax. As the story’s first ‘ audience’, we could immediately tell whether we were engaged with the story or whether it needed something more, and share that feedback with the writer.

The great advantage of this approach was that the writers could try new directions and approaches before spending a huge amount of time developing these. These kind of conversations might otherwise be had at a first draft stage – and if the core story doesn’t work then, a huge amount of much-loved work has to be jettisoned – which is always hard. With this kind of flexibility, it’s no surprise that several of the stories changed rapidly and dramatically during this pitching process – all of them for the better.

We also filmed the pitches – giving the writers a chance to listen to their own stories, putting themselves in their audience’s shoes. They could make mistakes without all the fear that comes with speaking in public. And the repetition and performance of the pitches helped them to create a physical link to their own stories – a sense that they really owned them. It’s a very different experience to speak your story out loud than to write it down – and that’s something that as writers, we don’t tend to do enough.

The other advantage of having filmed pitches was that we could screen them to different audiences as we got further along the development process – firstly, to a public audience in Brignogan, and then to a mixture of the public and industry at the Dinard Film Festival, inviting more direct questions for the writers after each screening. This was a great way of presenting the work undertaken at the lab – much less scary for the writers, and providing a more dynamic and varied experience for the audience. Most importantly, it gave the writers a chance to get responses from a much broader audience – informing their next stage of development.

So how can individuals use a technique like this usefully? If you haven’t tried this kind of approach before, I really recommend giving it a go. I’ve since used elements of the CCFL pitch myself – writing and then speaking aloud a short pitch for an adaptation I’m currently working on. This was really useful, allowing me to test and discard all sorts of possible story permutations before getting stuck into the nitty-gritty of writing a treatment.  I know that at least one of our CCFL writers has also used the process again on their own to refine a new idea.

Describing your short pitch can be useful on your own – and probably even more so if you are able to share your pitches with your peers for feedback. One additional advantage of filming your pitch is the potential to share that film with peers all over the world – so if you don’t have access to other writers to bounce ideas off locally, you could link up with a writer or writers group anywhere in the world to share pitches and responses as you shape your ideas.

Remember – you’re not trying to sell your idea, you’re trying to find the strongest possible spine for your story and to express this as simply as possible in order to refine and reshape this to become the best it can possibly be. Before spending half a lifetime writing it..

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