Screenwriters are always being told what they should say in Hollywood pitch meetings, meet and greets, and query letters. While there is a plethora of excellent advice in that respect, it’s what screenwriters shouldn’t say that really makes or breaks those first impressions.
Whether it’s in a query letter to agencies/management companies, during a chance elevator pitch with a Hollywood power player, or during first time meetings at studios or production companies, these are the all too common newcomer mistakes that the powers that be hear all too often, and wish they never had to hear again.
1. “Hollywood needs something like my script.”
No they don’t. They’ve got an endless stack of scripts from writers that likely have more experience than you.
2. “I don’t want to ruin the ending.”
Their readers will likely do that for them before they read the script. Ruin it. And it better be a good one because nothing sells a script like a great ending.
3. “Ever since I was a kid, I loved telling stories…”
You know when the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons talks unintelligibly (Wa-wa-wa)? Everything after that opening sentence is what the powers that be hear. Get over yourself. Everyone in Hollywood has that story or a variation of it.
4. “This is my first script.”
In query letters, they likely won’t read any further. In chance encounters, it’s the kiss of death. In meetings, the first thing they ask after talking about your script is, “What else do you have?” If the answer is nothing, you’ve burned a bridge. Lesson learned? Don’t come to the game if you aren’t ready to play with a stacked deck (of scripts).
5. “It’s a western…”
Westerns are poison in the eyes of most development executives, agents, managers, and producers. They are costly to shoot authentically and audiences generally don’t show up to watch them in the theaters (A Million Ways to Die in the West, anyone?) unless name directors are making them (The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, etc.), and sometimes even then audiences don’t show (A Million Ways to Die in the West, anyone?).
6. “It’s a fantasy…”
Fantasy scripts are poison as well in the eyes of the powers that be. It doesn’t matter how much the Lord of the Rings trilogy made. You aren’t Peter Jackson or J.R.R. Tolkien. The exception would be unique takes on public domain fantasy properties like Snow White, Peter Pan, etc.
7. “It’s a space opera…”
There’s a little franchise called Star Wars. It’s hard to beat, especially with a plethora of new Star Wars films coming from Lucasfilm and Disney. You can’t beat that franchise. Even the Wachowski siblings tried, and failed, with Jupiter Ascending. And while Guardians of the Galaxy shocked everyone with its success, the only reason it came to be was because of Marvel and its Cinematic Universe success.
8. “It’s high concept.”
This is a term that is used on the other side of the table, and shouldn’t be used by screenwriters attempting to sell their script. The powers that be will dictate if your script is high concept by reading your logline. If it is, it’ll be evident by that alone.
9. “I’m not very good at pitching.”
You want to convey confidence. Apologizing for something you lack forces them into uncomfortable territory. In the end, the powers that be don’t want you to pitch. They really just want you to showcase your passion and knowledge of your script. If you can’t convey that, why should they hire you? So put your insecurities aside.
10. “My script has drawn a lot of interest.”
Um, if you’re talking to different powers that be about it, then that means those original people — if they do exist — saw something about it that didn’t work or wasn’t worth the effort. Do you really want to convey that?
11. “This would be perfect for Steven Spielberg (or any big director or actor).”
Um, easy cowboy or cowgirl. Bring it back down to reality a bit. Let the professionals handle that. It’s one thing to shoot for the stars. It’s another thing to just sound utterly naïve.
12. “This is an Oscar caliber script.”
Again, let’s come down from the clouds. First and foremost, you’re pitching to people that do this for a living. By saying such things, you, a newbie, are basically saying that you know more than them. And we all know that isn’t true.
13. “This script has major box office appeal.”
No, it doesn’t. Why? Because it hasn’t even been made yet. In fact, it’s not even in the same ball park as being made. It’s not even the same sport. It hasn’t even been purchased, optioned, or even considered to be in the running for any further conversation, let alone production, let alone being a box office hit.
14. “I have an amazing…”
Don’t tell the powers that be how they should feel. Let the project speak for itself. So don’t use words like amazing, inspiring, wonderful, excellent, or any equivalent. Let them decide that.
15. “This script won this contest…”
It doesn’t matter. What you need to do is get straight to the point, which is your concept. They’ll know right then and there upon reading or hearing that concept, as far as whether or not this is something they want to pursue. One could argue that mention of a Nicholl Fellowship or Sundance win — and we can’t forget ScreenCraft’s Genre Contests and Fellowship — could garner some attention, but to be honest, if that is so, it’s likely that win got you in the room in the first place. But overall, just keep it simple and get to your concept.
16. “This is perfect for your company.”
Don’t presume to know what the powers that be want or need. If you say this, it’s no different than slamming the door in front of your face yourself. Let them decide that.
These are some of the most common mistakes that all screenwriters make, and it comes from someone that has been on both sides of the table as a produced screenwriter with many studio meetings under his belt and as a former studio reader that has worked in the development end of things, working directly with development executives.
I’ve made all of these mistakes and have paid the price. And even after many years, I still find myself making a few from time to time. Screenwriters should study these, review them if they already seem familiar, and always pay attention to not only what should be done or said, but also what shouldn’t.