JPCatholic professors Chris Riley and Nathan Scoggins share their advice on pitching a script:
– By Sam Hendrian –
One of the most popular emphases at JPCatholic is screenwriting. Stories told through the medium of film are quite powerful when done well, and they can truly be a gift to the audience. But writing a good script and then pitching it to people who can bring it to life is no easy task. Screenwriting professor Chris Riley and directing professor Nathan Scoggins shared some insightful advice for students on how to get their screenplays produced.
For students who have a script that she or he would like to get noticed, Professor Riley confirmed an oft-told truth: the key is to know somebody who knows somebody. Fortunately for students at JPCatholic, Professor Riley is a somebody who knows somebody. However, he encourages students to network amongst themselves before coming to him. “If you wrote a script, and you came to me and said it’s awesome, I’d think, ‘Well, maybe so, maybe not,’” he said with a slight grin. “If three of your classmates came to me and said, ‘This is the best thing we’ve ever read,’ well, then I’d look at it that day.”
As a former script reader at Warner Brothers, Professor Riley has read a lot of scripts in his day, and he simply encourages young writers to seek lots of feedback from their peers before having him read their scripts. He also stressed the importance of knowing more than one somebody-who-knows-somebody, saying, “If you know one somebody, that’s one possibility. It means one ‘no’ can stop you. If you know five somebody’s, then potentially you have five paths.” Networking, then, is the surest way for a script to find its way to buyers.
While writing a terrific script and selling it for lots of money is an appealing idea for many students, Professor Riley stressed that this is often not the case for first-time writers. “The most likely thing that happens when you’ve written a great script is not that you sell it, but that somebody uses it to sell you as a writer… An agent looks at a new script and doesn’t say, ‘I think I’m going to sell this.’ They mostly think, ‘I’ve just discovered a great new client, and I’m going to sell this client many times.’ And so that script doesn’t sell, but it launches your career.” Professor Scoggins also affirmed that a good first script is primarily a promotional piece, saying, “The best thing to do with a good script is write another one.” If an agent or producer likes a script you have written, he or she will likely want to see evidence that you are not just a one-hit wonder. Can you write another script in the same genre that is equally as good? This can be challenging, but it is necessary for a fruitful screenwriting career.
If a screenwriter has a movie or television script that a production company or network is interested in, the next thing he or she must do is pitch it. The basic act of pitching involves sitting in a room with executives and telling the story out loud. If pitching a movie, the writer should focus on characters, theme, and the overall structure of the story. If pitching a television show, the writer should focus on the world of characters that he or she has created and convincingly express how these characters will be able to generate episode after episode. “If you’ve written a script [for a feature], I can buy the script, and I don’t have to worry if you can deliver the next script, or the next fifty or one hundred scripts,” Professor Riley said. “In television, I’m buying your idea and your ability to deliver on that idea for a hundred episodes.” In this way, a television pitch is slightly more exciting and high-stakes than a movie pitch, for a full-time job may or may not come out of it.
As experienced pitch-deliverers, Professors Riley and Scoggins both gave some great advice about what makes a good pitch. “You want to first of all have a great story, and then you want to have figured out how to tell it in a way that does it justice and is as brief as possible,” Professor Riley said. “Don’t bog down in plot detail; plot detail is sure death for a pitch.” Professor Scoggins advised that a pitch be limited to 20 minutes and be delivered in a way that is highly-engaging. It is also important to do some research ahead of time on who specifically you are pitching to so that you know what they have produced in the past and what they will likely want to hear story-wise.
In a pitch meeting, it is also crucial to “know your story backwards and forwards,” Professor Scoggins said, for the executives will likely ask questions about it. Professor Riley remembered a scenario in which after he finished a pitch, a producer asked him about some plot detail that he had not yet given thought to. He simply replied, “I don’t know the answer to that yet, but I’m going to find it.” Fortunately, while Hollywood may be known to some for its amorality and fakeness, humility and honesty are still virtues that are highly-valued in writers. “I think that signaled that this is a writer who can take notes and is willing to recognize weaknesses,” he said reflectively. At the end of the day, though, you can never tell for sure what is on a producer’s mind. Professor Riley and his wife Kathy once had a pitch meeting that they thought went terribly, but a month later, they were offered a second chance and got the job, which would eventually pay for the house they live in today. “You cannot tell, unless they specifically say out loud, ‘This did not go well.’ And they don’t. You don’t know what they really think. You answer their questions.” As Professor Scoggins said, questions are good; “Ok, thanks” is usually a bad omen.
Writing and pitching a script is a rigorous adventure, but it is most certainly an adventure worth embarking on for all those who are passionate about storytelling. Professor Riley and Professor Scoggins have each had their fair share of tough experiences over the years, but it is these failures or roadblocks that have strengthened them the most and molded them into the sage, successful men they are today. As Walt Disney said, “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.” With this insight taken to heart by aspiring storytellers, even rejection can bear much fruit and ultimately lead to success.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.
About the Professors
A veteran of the Warner Bros. script department, Chris Riley is the author of The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to Script Format and Style. From 2005 through 2008, he served as director of the acclaimed Act One Writing Program in Hollywood, which trains Christians for careers as writers and executives in film and TV.
An award-winning filmmaker, Nathan Scoggins‘ list of credits include The Least of These, released in 2011 by Universal and starring Isaiah Washington (Grey’s Anatomy) and screen legend Robert Loggia (Big, Independence Day), as well as the The Perfect Summer, starring Eric Roberts. He won the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest in 2012 and 2013 with “Sling Baby” and “Fashionista Daddy.” In addition, two of his award-winning short films were released by Lionsgate on DVD in 2008. He has written and developed projects for many companies in Hollywood.