The Screenwriter's Toolbox Part I: Loglines and pitches
July 28, 2021
Every scriptwriter’s first job is to finish their script. Nothing can be critiqued, edited, promoted, or sold until it’s real. But film is somewhat unique in that during certain periods of any selling cycle, a pitch, written or verbal, can sometimes be enough to get a sale (or at least interest). It doesn’t happen often for those without a track record, but it can happen.
Writing on assignment is an example. My first sale was an assignment. I was hired to write a script based on a concept that I delivered to a film company looking for sequel ideas to one of their films. They liked my pitch. I then had to craft a story treatment to be approved. I was overjoyed to be hired to write the script. Honestly though, I was lost during most of that early experience because I had never done anything like that before. I made it through to start a great career, but I truly wish someone had introduced me to concepts that would have helped me stumble less at that time.
To that end, let’s begin a discussion about some of the tools a writer should have — and can easily learn in a classroom environment — to help our charges to succeed as scriptwriters.
Loglines, synopses, treatments, beat sheets, and pitch decks — all of these are marketing tools. Each serves a purpose and each is unique. Getting them right is as much an art form as it is a pure writing exercise. Outlining, be it mind maps, index carding, or just a standard, level-based structure (1, 1a, 1b, etc.) has a place here tangential to the creation of the others. They’re a little like Russian nesting dolls; each fits into the other. These are marketing concepts, and every writer and writing student should understand them.
Final Draft 12 has many tools geared to help with these processes, which can make writing life so much easier for both you and your students. Click here to learn about some of these tools. There are also templates in Final Draft that can help (we’ll get into those in subsequent articles).
Let’s first discuss pitching, a most horrible exercise guaranteed to make you insane.
I was hired by two producers to break down a book to then be pitched to Richard Donner as a feature. I read, studied, made outlines, etc. For the pitch session — which was to be myself, the two producers, and Donner — I made index cards so I wouldn’t get lost in the rather complex story of the 400-page book.
Just as I was sitting down in Donner’s office, nervous and overwhelmed to be pitching a director of his stature, I dropped the index cards. They scattered. They were unnumbered. I couldn’t for the life of me get them back in order. Flop sweats began, which soaked my shirt through and I delivered, at best, a sloppy mess. Donner was a gentleman but ultimately passed on the idea since neither he nor I could make sense of my pitch after that.
Pitching is hard and I’ve made so many mistakes doing it even though I consider myself a pretty good storyteller, both on paper and verbally. Basically, you’re orally telling the story of either a script you’ve written or one you want to write, as was the case in the anecdote I mentioned. It should all be simple. It should be fun. For me, for some reason, it’s neither. Necessary though, so I continue to work at it.
Based on the horrors of my experiences, I determined that as an educator, it would be helpful to create a pitch class that is hopefully both simple and entertaining to introduce students to the process. I’ve done it in many of my classes and it’s great practice for anyone who might have to do it in a professional situation, which we hope will be the case for all of our students.
The main boon is clarity. If you think you know your script well, try pitching it. I promise it will be a revelation. Every writer thinks they have a grasp on their story, especially if the script is already written. But for many reasons, delivering that script’s story verbally is a major challenge; a good challenge. The process reveals flaws and awkward story narratives. There is really nothing like having to tell your story in five minutes. That’s the timer I set on the pitches in class. Doing a pitch class in and of itself is invigorating, fun, and an easy way for you to get the entire class engaged in a process that is a standard part of the entertainment industry but also has other, tangible benefits.
Once we examine the rest of the tools in this series of articles, we’ll circle back to pitches to see how to specifically do a pitch class and what its goals are. The reason for this convolution is that once a student creates some of the marketing tools we’ll cover ahead, we can then discuss how they can use those tools to help create a pitch for their project. As I’ve expressed, these articles will reveal a logical process to creating the marketing tools for any script.
They used to call loglines the “TV Guide” pitch. Nowadays, it would be the Netflix/Amazon/Disney+ pitch. It’s the summary text you see accompanying the film or TV series when you’re looking for something to watch.
Here’s something that is deceptively simple. I require my students to put their loglines on the title pages of their submissions. I critique them along with their weekly submissions. This helps them hone their concepts. A logline is like a handshake (or fist bump); it’s a first impression and you want your students to create the best one they can. Many contests to which your students will submit require a logline. A good logline will sell a concept and a bad one will just lay there gasping like Salton Sea aquatic life.
Here’s a bad (fictional) one: "Homesters is a story about a couple tired of the fast pace of the cities who decide to move to a quaint village and make jam and decorative candles."
Yes, okay, right. Although I do see that story to an extent, it doesn’t compel me to necessarily want to read the script. It doesn’t create questions in my mind except bad ones like "who cares?"
Here’s a solid one from HBO’s website: "The Sopranos follows James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano: husband, father, and mob boss whose professional and private strains land him in the office of his therapist. Created by David Chase."
Put aside the mentions of the star and the writer. Can you see the important elements in the logline? … mob boss whose professional and private strains land him in the office of his therapist.
A mobster who needs a therapist? Yes, please. That’s the billion-dollar concept and the essence of what you need to teach your students.
It gets directly to what makes the show unique. Without that one line it’s just a mobster story. The therapist angle makes it potentially compelling and worth a look. How does a mobster get to what’s bothering him? "Doctor, I really regret putting Vito in concrete shoes and taking him fishing." Like Tony said, it would be impossible for him to admit to the things that are pushing him into panic attacks. Right from the start, as part of the logline we’re exposed to the unique angle of this brilliant series.
But also, the mention of Tony as a husband and father makes the series even more of a winner and stand out from most all other stories about the mob. This is no la famiglia, where the sons are soldiers and do hits for papa capo. This is his son and daughter; typical high school kids who curse at the dinner table (“No [redacted] baked ziti?”) and run around against Tony’s wishes, even as he has unquestioned control of his criminal empire. No one disrespected Tony better than his wife and kids. Mannaggia!
'It's this meets that'
In a way, The Sopranos is like Parenthood meets Goodfellas, which is another technique to pitch something. Combine two successful series or movies to tell a producer, quickly, what to expect. This is legit. Everyone does it and you can teach it easily in any class. Even fourth graders get this. It can work as part of a logline or any verbal pitch.
Just make sure you guide your students to pick successful properties that also aren’t too eclectic. No one wants to hear a pitch about two cinematic failures, or a movie that only played in Borat’s country, or a series that was canceled after the pilot aired.
By the way, there’s always a lot of discussion about how long a logline should be. I don’t think this is productive. Certainly, you don’t want paragraphs — it is a logline after all — but going two or even three sentences is fine. Who do you think is going to not read a few sentences if those sentences are compelling? Brevity and impact — not some rigid, arbitrary structure — is the key. A terrible logline of one sentence is much less desirable than a good one of a few sentences.
You can easily spend quality time with this concept in a classroom environment and it will accomplish several things for your class, including having the other students participate with critiques of the loglines being presented. This helps your students refine theirs both for length and compelling content.
There’s a pretty simple formula for loglines that can guide your teaching. I apologize that I can’t properly credit this because I don’t remember where it came from and wasn’t able to find the original author online. I’ve had it in my files for years.
_____ (title) is a _____ (genre) about a___________ (description of flawed hero) who after ____________ (event that changes everything), wants to/must/struggles to (circle one) __________ (outer goal) by ________ (plan of action) before ____________ (dire things will happen). This becomes increasingly difficult because _________________ (obstacles & complications).
That may not fit every property exactly (although it is pretty universal — try it), but it clearly illuminates the important aspects of what a good logline will cover. Perhaps a genre isn’t specifically needed if it’s clear from the rest but besides that, I think it all works well.
A flawed hero, an event that changes everything, struggles, etc. are all in there to create word images and good questions in people’s heads. We want to hear the story once our interest is piqued by these elements. If you look at it with structure vision (not a real thing or even a new MCU series), everything there is basically what you’d find in Act One of any screenplay; hero, villain, plot, etc.
This is the type of logline that you want to teach your students to create and hone, because it hits everything and it’s concise.
What is this good for anyway?
There’s a logical process in place for bringing a script to market, and a logline is the first tentpole of the marketing tools any scriptwriter needs.
Many producers looking for material start by asking for a logline. If it fits their needs, they then move onto the synopsis and potentially more, hopefully ending with asking for the script to read or hiring you to write it. It’s an easy way for the people who are making movies and TV to separate something they want from something that won’t suit them.
If your students submit anything to those specialized companies who make "love connections" between writers and producers, invariably you are submitting a logline and synopsis first. Once that’s received, the producer will read and hopefully ask for either a meeting or the script itself. Hollywood fame and fortune is certainly next.
By the way, pro-tip: you should warn your students that unless they’re being asked to specifically pitch concepts only (like for an assignment), they should never submit or pitch an unwritten or unfinished script. You don’t want a producer asking for a script that you then must spend weeks either writing or finishing. The clock starts ticking louder than Big Ben once someone asks for the script.
All the concepts here and those in the next segments can be tremendous fun, creating interest and excitement in your classes, and they all also teach valuable creative and practical lessons for your writers.
In the next articles we’ll discuss synopses, treatments, pitch decks, beat sheets, bibles, and then circle back to a bit more on pitches once we’ve covered all the marketing tools.
Written by: Mark SeviMark Sevi is a professional screenwriter, screenwriting teacher, and podcaster. He is the founder of the Orange County Screenwriters Association.