First you should know the man is worth his weight in Hollywood gold. He is a script consultant, author and lecturer who works with filmmakers and executives on their screenplays, film projects and development skills. He has coached writers or consulted on projects for Warner Bros., Paramount, Disney, Columbia, New Line, Joel Silver Prods., CBS, Lifetime, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez, Val Kilmer, Kirsten Dunst, Robert Downey, Jr. and Julia Roberts. He has presented seminars and lectures to more than 30,000 participants throughout the US, Canada and Europe. He is on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriters Association and the Advisory Board for Scriptwriter Magazine in London.
I first heard Michael Hauge speak at a conference, where I noted he had everyone – including me – scribbling furiously to catch his every word. When I learned he had a new book coming out about pitching, I thought, maybe, maybe…
Kathleen and I are thrilled that he agreed to an interview with Writer Unboxed, and we know you will appreciate his wisdom as so many others have. Enjoy!
Part 1: Interview with Michael Hauge
Q: Your new book is entitled Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read. What commonalities do you find between novelists and screenwriters?
MH: Writers working in either arena have to get their work read by the people who can represent them, or who can help get whatever they’ve created in front of a mass audience. So screenwriters have to get it read by producers or financiers or studios, and novelists have to get their work read by editors at publishing houses.
One of biggest obstacles that writers in both arenas face is how to get through that seemingly impenetrable screening system that is set up to get it in the hands of people in power, so that those people can actually see the work you’ve done. Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds shows writers how to do exactly that.
Q: What have you found? What is key?
MH: The key is to realize that your chances of being able to do that are based on your ability to describe your story in under one minute in a way that piques interest and makes these people want to take a look. There are pitch meetings, especially in Hollywood in the film industry, but those are primarily for writers who’ve already proven themselves—they’ve already had something produced or sold a script, or a script has been read and someone wants to hear other ideas or talk about it at length. So at those meetings a writer may have 15-20 minutes, sometimes an hour, and you can talk about your story and bat it back and forth and so on.
But you’re not going to get that opportunity until people know you can deliver the goods, and nobody has an hour to spend listening to somebody tell their story, just to decide if they want to read your manuscript. So what you have to be able to do is, on the telephone or at a writers’ conference or at a pitch mart, you’ve got to be able to succinctly describe your story in a way that makes them think to themselves, “Yeah, I’d better take a look at this, because it sounds like something we’d want to produce or publish.”
Q: How important is high concept for novelist?
MH: I guess my best answer is I don’t know, and the reason I say that is because in both publishing and film, the biggest market is for stories that sound immediately emotional—they’re sexy, exciting, frightening, romantic, sad or tragic. So if the story description promises an emotional journey just in a logline—a single sentence description—that’s what I think of as high concept. If you have a high concept thriller, let’s say, that can be an advantage if you’re trying to get it published or if you’re trying to get it produced as a movie. But in both arenas there are also markets for projects that aren’t high concept. Some of the most successful movies last year were not particularly high concept movies. I wouldn’t call CRASH a high-concept movie. I don’t think that pulled people into the theatre just because they heard what it was about; I think it required word-of-mouth and awards and then built on the power of the emotion people felt when they saw it.
It’s the same in the publishing world, if you look at a list of fiction best sellers; you read the description in the New York Times for some and know immediately that you want to read them, while others you might say, “I’m not sure why anyone might want to read this, but it’s got to be good because it’s on the bestseller list,” so you check it out for that reason. So high concept might be an advantage, but it’s not a requirement in either arena.
Q: Is it easier to pitch high concept?
MH: Certainly if you have a high concept idea, it becomes a bit easier to give a one-minute pitch for it. Just the logline, which you can summarize in about ten seconds, is going to sound unique and exciting. The more difficult pitch is for the story that’s more complex, perhaps more interior, perhaps more about character arc and theme than just about plot and adrenaline. But it still can be done, because whatever the story is, something in that story will elicit emotion in an audience. If it won’t, then the story doesn’t work and it isn’t going to get made. If it is an emotional experience, whatever that emotional core is about is what you’ll need to express in less than sixty seconds.
Q: So the emotional core is truly key?
MH: Here’s the thing: Everybody you pitch to is thinking about how they’re going to make money. Your idea has to turn a profit. Publishers and producers and distributors aren’t in the business they’re in—and can’t stay in the business they’re in—if their income from a story doesn’t exceed its cost. Now movies are hugely expensive, which is why far fewer movies are made than novels published. Still, everything has to turn a profit, and to turn a profit it has to find an audience.
The only way books make money and movies make money is if people want to buy them and see them and read them. So one of things that has to come across in your pitch is what that commercial potential will be. The first thing the buyer is looking for is something she can take to her boss and say, “I think we can get a deal for this. I think this is going to sell and make money.” It doesn’t mean that it has to be a high-concept story, but it does mean that is has to create an emotional experience that the mass audience is going to want to have. And it means that whatever that emotional experience is, it has to attract enough people to turn a profit.
It’s a little different in publishing, because you can run off a thousand books and it doesn’t matter what the story is, the cost of running it off is the same. In movies, however, there are high-budget and low-budget films. So if you’re pitching a movie that’s going to cost about a hundred million dollars to produce and distribute, which is probably about the average for a Hollywood film, that means it’s going to have to bring in more than $200,000,000 at the box office and in video sales just to break even. So a whole lot of people are going to have to see it. But if you have screenplay for a movie that’s only going to cost a few million dollars or a few hundred thousand dollars and can be distributed slowly, it doesn’t need that kind of response.
Take a movie like THE SQUID AND THE WHALE from last year; I thought that was a wonderful movie, and it was probably made for about a dollar and a half. But I’m sure it was quite profitable, because it didn’t cost that much and didn’t need the audience that Harry Potter needed to make it successful. The same with CRASH; it’s done extremely well financially, in part because it didn’t cost that much to make in the first place.
Q: So let’s assume you have a good manuscript or screenplay with a strong emotional core. Are there any tricks to getting your story read? What do you touch on in your book?
MH: The whole book is full of tricks, but I’ll tell you the number one trick, the number one rule of pitching your story: you absolutely do not try to tell your story. That is the single biggest mistake that the vast number of writers make when trying to pitch their script or manuscript. Somebody says to them, “What’s your story about?” and they think they’re supposed to answer that question. But they’re not! You cannot possibly tell your story in sixty seconds.
What you can do is describe your story in a way that makes someone want to read the whole thing. So the toughest challenge you face when preparing your pitch is to figure out which of the key elements of your story are the ones you want to include in your sixty seconds. These are the elements that you believe will hook people in. In my book, I give a list of ten key story elements: there’s a hero; that hero has a goal; the hero faces big obstacles; there’s an arc for the character; the story has antecedents—other movies or novels that have been successful and that are like your own; etc. Those are some of elements. The idea, the process, is to go down that list and ask, “Okay, of all these elements, which are the ones that would be the best to talk about?”
For example, if you’re writing a big budget action thriller, the main thing you want to get across is the goal and the conflict: a woman’s child is kidnapped and she has to go up against gang of killers to rescue him. If that’s my pitch—and that took me about four seconds—I’d still have almost a full minute to go into the most emotional details. If that’s the kind of story it is, then those are the main things to get across—what the hero wants and what the obstacle is.
Or consider a movie like SHOPGIRL. If all you said was, “A salesgirl wants to date two guys and choose between them,” or, “A salesgirl wants a relationship with an older man,” that log line doesn’t convey the emotion of that story. What you’d want to emphasize in that pitch is the genre, the inner life of the characters, the arc the shopgirl and the other characters take, and probably the antecedents, to clearly convey it’s a serious comedy. In other words, the idea is to pick the items that are best going to convey the emotional potential of your story, and focus on those when you give your sixty-second pitch.
Q: What if a story has an emotional core but can be delivered as an exciting plot-driven piece?
MH: That can be dangerous, because you don’t want someone to become interested in your story almost on false pretences. In a case of that kind of story, even though you think it has a lot of depth and character arc and so on, and it’s probably true because most good stories have this, if your story is equally geared toward visible obstacles, then I’d pitch those because that’s what’s going to sound most commercial. The deeper stuff will come out after you give them the screenplay. If there’s no action at all, your logline should convey that.
The key is to sift through all the story elements and pick one that makes your manuscript the most interesting. Your goal is not to convince me of the value of your story or all its richness and detail during a pitch; it’s just to get me to read it.
Q: Is there a concern that you’d tell someone something to read it, such as putting an emphasis on action in a story that may be more emotional, and in the end they’d be disappointed?
MH: If you’re doing that, you’re not following the process I’m talking about in the book. I’d never suggest just making stuff up about your story just so you can get somebody to read something, because then they’ll just be pissed off when it isn’t what you promised. The key is to take whatever already is there, and succinctly express that in a way that conveys the emotional power of the story. One of the reasons I strongly recommend using antecedents is that if you say your story is like ROMANCING THE STONE and LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER, it tells me you have a woman hero in an inflated action story that’s going after adrenaline and excitement. And you’ve revealed all that in about four seconds, just by mentioning those two films. Now you’ve got fifty-five seconds to give me the specific details that separate your story from those other two.
Good stuff? Great stuff! Click part two below for more of WU’s interview with Michael Hauge, where you’ll learn some of the best tips we’ve ever heard for pitching your story.