Monday, May 17, 2010

Tony Bill on Pitching

Tony Bill, producer and director wrote the following e-mail to second year students at the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Tony's biography published (below) is on his blog on The Ultimate Movie Site:

Tony Bill, after graduating from Notre Dame with majors in English and Art, began his career in the film industry as an actor. His acting years were distinguished by the quality of the directors who chose him for their films: Bud Yorkin, Sydney Pollack, Terrence Malick, Steven Spielberg, Francis Coppola, Hal Ashby and others, such as Sir Carol Reed, and John Sturges. Despite being hailed by critics as an exciting newcomer, Mr. Bill wanted to become a filmmaker, not a movie star. He made the transition to producer with DEADHEAD MILES (1971), which he followed with STEELYARD BLUES (1973). His next feature, THE STING (1973), brought him an Academy Award for Best Picture and won six additional Oscars. It became one of the highest grossing films in history. His other feature production credits include numerous box office and critical successes: TAXI DRIVER (1976), HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975), BOULEVARD NIGHTS (1979) and GOING IN STYLE (1979).

His feature film directorial debut was the very popular MY BODYGUARD (1980) followed by SIX WEEKS (1982), FIVE CORNERS (1987), CRAZY PEOPLE (1990), UNTAMED HEART (1993), A HOME OF OUR OWN (1993) and FLYBOYS (2006).

Tony Bill is best known as the consummate independent producer/director with a reputation for discovering new talent. His first film, DEADHEAD MILES, produced for Paramount in 1971, was the first script by then-unknown writer Terrence Malick. Starring Alan Arkin, it also introduced newcomers, Paul Benedict, Hector Elizondo, Durning, Allen Garfield and Loretta Swit.

For STEELYARD BLUES (1973), Tony Bill partnered with Julia and Michael Phillips in backing another discovery, first-time screenwriter David S. Ward. STEELYARD BLUES was an offbeat sleeper, starring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda, and Bill/Phillips' next Ward script was THE STING. TAXI DRIVER (1976) followed, written by another first-time screenwriter, Paul Schrader.

Other discoveries followed: HEARTS OF THE WEST: the first script by its author Rob Thompson; BOULEVARD NIGHTS: first screenplay by UCLA student Desmond Nakano; HARRY AND WALTER GO TO NEW YORK: first produced screenplay by John Byrum; GOING IN STYLE: first feature directed by Martin Brest; THE LITTLE DRAGONS: first-time writer/director Curtis Hanson.

For his own directorial debut, MY BODYGUARD, he also found a new writer, Alan Ormsby; and FIVE CORNERS was the first script of John Patrick Shanley. UNTAMED HEART was no exception to this rule, as it was the first produced screenplay of its author, Tom Sierchio. All were initially optioned outside the studio system with his own money.

In television, his directing credits include TRUMAN CAPOTE'S "ONE CHRISTMAS", with Katherine Hepburn, OLIVER TWIST with Richard Dreyfuss, BEYOND THE CALL with Sissy Spacek, and HARLAN COUNTY WAR, starring Holly Hunter, who received both EMMY and GOLDEN GLOBE nominations for her performance. He has also directed numerous commercials and episodes of television series.

In 2005, Tony directed FLYBOYS, a film about the Lafayette Escadrille; the legendary group of young Americans who volunteered to fly in WWI. Produced by Dean Devlin and Marc Freydman, the $60,000,000, independently financed film starred James Franco, Jean Reno and Martin Henderson, and was released by MGM. It pioneered the first 35mm digital camera: the Panavision Genesis.

In 2007, he directed the highly acclaimed PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS for CBS and The Hallmark Hall of Fame, starring Sissy Spacek, Alfre Woodard and Judith Ivey. Ms. Spacek's performance was nominated for a Golden Globe and the production earned Tony Bill a Christopher Award, a Camie Award and a Television Academy Honor Award.

Since 1974, his Market Street Productions, located in the heart of Venice, has been called "the closest filmmaking equivalent of an artists' colony you can find in the movie capitol of the world." For over three decades, independent writers, producers and directors have filled its offices and post production facilities; the list of tenants is legendary. In 1983, across the street from his studio, he founded 72 Market Street Oyster Bar & Grill ( Sponsoring a live radio show, a lecture/concert/performance series and other cultural events, it closed only after the death of his partner, Dudley Moore, and was one of the most popular and well-reviewed restaurants in Los Angeles for almost 20 years.

Tony Bill has shared his experience by teaching and lecturing at various universities: UCLA, USC, UCSB, Yale, Notre Dame, Columbia, AFI, NYU and Trinity College among others. He has served on the Motion Picture Association of America's Board of Governors and Board of Trustees, and on the board of The Public Justice Foundation, as well as being active in community services. In 2003, he was elected to the Producer's Guild Hall of Fame. Mr. Bill serves as a judge for several national and local screenplay competitions, and has several times been invited to teach a special course in producing for the USC Ray Stark Graduate Producing Program.

He is the author of MOVIE SPEAK (Workman Publishing, 2008), a book about the history and use of the language of the movie set; the first of its kind. He has also published articles for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Plane and Pilot and Flight Journal, among others.

A deep-water sailor since his teens, for over fifteen years his 65' yawl "Olinka" was a contender in major ocean races, logging over 50,000 miles on the West Coast, Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and New England. Having soloed at 14, and with time in over 50 different aircraft, he is a commercial-rated pilot, with multi-engine, seaplane, instrument and glider privileges, and has been active in aerobatic competition.

He is married to producer Helen Bartlett (NORTH COUNTRY, IN THE TIME OF THE BUTTERFLIES, UNTAMED HEART), his partner in Barnstorm Films; both are avid collectors of literary first editions. They live most of the year in the oldest house in Venice, next to the Santa Monica Airport, with their daughters, Madeline and Daphne, several vintage cars and a barely-controlled number of four-legged, finned, and feathered critters. The rest of the time they can be found in an eighteenth century farmhouse in Washington Depot, Connecticut.

I think it's the best description of what makes a great pitch that I've read. With his permission I am reprinting this letter here:


By Tony Bill

As I was driving home after the morning session of the “Pitchfest,” I had a sudden, singular moment of clarity: I realized that during the entire 2-hour session of 25 or so encounters, I had not heard a single “pitch.”

What I had encountered was, basically, a series of 6-minute regurgitations of plot-points, motivations, character analyses, scenes, salesmanships...ENTIRE MOVIES. These were not pitches. They were book-reviews; synopses; verbalized treatments. They were almost universally rambling, over-detailed, and over-rehearsed. I am compelled to explain and describe to you all what a pitch is...or should be.

First: why did you all feel compelled to burden the entire six minutes (a few went well-over or were unable to finish) with such detailed, descriptions of your yarns? Why was no one willing or able to pitch their project in 2 or 3 or even 4 minutes?

A pitch, as the baseball metaphor implies, should be fast, simple, and directed toward the this case, the buyer. Realistically, although it really doesn't matter, this “buyer” will, in your cases, not be a studio-head, a major producer or director or even a powerful agent. It will be an underling of one sort or another, who, if sufficiently impressed, will endeavor to repeat it to his or her boss. Can you imagine anyone repeating your 6-minute pitch to someone else?

2 to 3 minutes; 4 max: that's it. Anything longer is blowing your chances ENTIRELY!

Second: what is a pitch for, anyway? One of only two goals: 1) To get someone to read your script; 2) To get someone to hire you to write your script. In either case, why would you endeavor to detail the whole story? That's what the script is for. A pitch is not a scene-by-scene description. A pitch has one purpose only: it's to get the “pitchee” to say “I want to read your script.” Or, “Tell me more.” That's it. After that your script is on its own. They'll like it or they won't.

So don't try to make them like it before they read it!

Just get 'em to read it; that's the pitch.

Look at it this way. You're describing a blind date to someone. Do you spend six minutes going into details of their exact height, weight, education, family history, life story, musical tastes, religious views, etc, etc, etc? I don't think so. You give them the basics – maybe a couple of tasty details – and let it go at that. You don't oversell or go into excruciating detail. You pitch 'em and let it go at that. Over and out. Maybe they'll fall in love, but... That's what the date is for!

Same with your script.

So, please...never, never again spend 6 or even 5 minutes on a pitch. It's a waste of time; it's ineffectual; it's a disservice to your script. And it's doomed to failure and rejection. Don't think you can squeeze your plot into a couple of minutes? Check out a couple of reviews of a complex, plot-heavy movie like “The Godfather.” You can read the description of that story in a couple of minutes. You ought to be able to do the same for your own story.

There's an old vaudeville axiom you might want to keep in mind; it'll serve you well: “Always leave 'em wanting more.” And - in the best of all possible scenarios - after a brief description of your project, your “pitchee” might ask you to elaborate; might ask you to fill in a few details; might wonder about a scene or a character or a plot point. You should be so lucky: your pitch will have done its job.

And that, my friends is my pitch. Reading time: 2 ½ minutes, max; shoulda been shorter.

1 comment:

Angry Customer said...

I'm not sure if you even check this, but if so, what would you say to a treatment for a feature length screenplay that is 4 1/2 pages... too long???