Guest Blogger: John Robert Marlow
So, you have a great story, and you want to pitch it to Hollywood. Before doing that—grab a stopwatch, start the clock and answer this question out loud: What’s your story about? Tickticktick… When you’re finished, check the time. If your answer took more than ten seconds, Hollywood isn’t interested. Unfair? Perhaps. But consider…
Hollywood is deluged with literally hundreds of thousands of projects each and every year. Christopher Lockhart is executive story editor at super agency WME (formerly William Morris Endeavor). It’s his job to review stories for the agency’s A-list actor clients. “I can’t read every story out there,” he says. “I just can’t do it. No one can.”
And so no one tries. What they do instead is look at concepts. After all—why spend the next three hours reading one screenplay or half a book (which may turn out to be terrible), when you can review well over a thousand concepts in the same amount of time, and then request to see only the best? “If you don’t have representation or a solid recommendation,” says Lockhart, “concept is the best way to catch someone’s attention.”
All well and good—but can you really get the crux of a full-blown story across in a measly ten seconds? Well, try this (and time your read): A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. marshal. That is a ten-second pitch (or “logline”) for THE FUGITIVE.
A properly-constructed logline has three elements: the WHO (A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife), the GOAL (struggles to prove his innocence), and the OBSTACLE (a relentless U.S. marshal).
Rightly or wrongly, Hollywood folk reason that if you can’t convey a coherent concept that holds their interest for ten seconds, giving you another few hours of their time isn’t going to help. They also worry—with good reason—that if your story can’t be boiled down in this way, they won’t be able to sell it to the public in a 30-second trailer.
The logline can also act as a diagnostic tool: if you find that, after hours of effort, your story seems impossible to logline, one of two things is true: you’re not good at loglines—or your story is missing or unclear on one or more of the required three elements. If you can’t quite put your finger on the main character’s goal or obstacle—maybe it’s because there isn’t any. And that is, commercially speaking, death.
You needn’t wait until you’re pitching Hollywood to distill your story’s concept; ideally, you create the logline before writing the story, using it as a guide to keep the writing focused throughout. Loglines are as applicable to books (both fiction and narrative nonfiction), plays and other storytelling formats as they are to movies and the screenplays they’re based on. Other steps—structuring the story and creating a pitch sheet (or one-minute pitch), for example—are strongly recommended, but it all begins with the concept.
For more on loglines (including more examples) see “Building the Perfect Logline” on John’s blog.
John Robert Marlow is a novelist, screenwriter, and adaptation consultant. His new book MAKE YOUR STORY A MOVIE: ADAPTING YOUR BOOK OR IDEA FOR HOLLYWOOD was published today by St. Martin’s Griffin. He also runs the Make Your Story a Movie blog, which includes sample chapters, source interviews, box office figures and more . John recently closed a Hollywood script deal—an adaptation he wrote and will executive produce, with an estimated budget of $60 million.