Writing a 90 second screenplay pitch that wins competitions
Credit: Flickr

You've decided: you're entering the 90-second screenplay pitch competition at the film festival you're attending. Maybe the numerous dirty martinis offered encouragement or maybe you've just finally realized that there is more to being a screenwriter than merely writing. Screenwriting is a business, and pitching your screenplay in a competition is a great way to showcase it, possibly garner some interest and help build that screenwriting business.

Or is it?

Yes, it is. Order another martini, switch to scotch if you have to (maybe you should eat something), but do it. There are really only 3 possible outcomes:

  1. You win the competition. Winning a pitch competition usually comes with some swag: prize money, writing software, maybe even more vodka. Not to mention bragging rights and something to put in your bio.
  2. You don't win, but do well. Hey, there's always going to be something subjective about the stories people relate to. Making it to the finals and/or placing high is still something you can benefit from. And that goes in your bio too.
  3. You kinda think you sucked. Well, maybe you did -- or again, maybe the subjective nature of the medium dogged you somehow. It doesn't matter because you will have learned how to do better next time and grown your skin a little thicker in the process (thick skin is required covering for screenwriters).

But with all of those scenarios the chance exists that maybe, just maybe, someone -- possibly one of the judges or industry professionals in the audience will be intrigued enough by what they heard to want more. You might just get that screenplay optioned thanks to the competition… and those martinis.

The structure: beginning, middle and end

That's probably how you structured your screenplay, so that's definitely how you should structure your pitch: in three acts. Even if you're pitching something that has more acts, like a TV show, or less acts, like a stage play, break things down so you have that beginning, middle and end. Use your screenplay as your guide. Distill down what happens in each act to its simplest, clearest form.

But if you're not too sure about your screenplay's structure, there is plenty of fine reading on the subject.

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It's way too long. 

90 seconds tends to be a standard time for pitch competitions, but whatever the allotted time -- you're probably now staring at what seems like your own quirky version of a David Mamet monologue, but with maybe less swearing. Maybe.

What you will experience is an unanticipated benefit of preparing a 90-second pitch: it forces you to focus on what your story is truly about. Many writers will go back and rewrite their screenplays solely based on the revelations obtained through working out their pitch.

Pare down

That character that you love but isn't really germane to the A story; he's gone. In fact, any element that doesn't directly serve the A or B stories will probably have to remain hidden in the pages of your Final Draft file for now.

Punch the twist

You know you've got one. It's the midpoint reversal that takes the story off in an unexpected direction or some other plot turn that changes the game. It's surprises like those that audiences love when they're hearing a pitch, but don't use too many: that's confusing at best, baffling at worst.

Pick your shots

The big decision moments that everyone can relate to. That point in the third act when it looks like your hero can't possibly succeed, win the game or win the girl. If it's a comedy, that really, really (and it better be) really funny situation. Build to those moments and sell your story with them.

Memorize it

Let's not even debate this -- just do it.

Time it out

Yay -- you performed your pitch out loud in your hotel room and it timed out to almost exactly 90 seconds. Now all you have to do is… cut more. You actually want it to be 75 seconds.

Why 75 seconds? Because you will feel a lot more comfortable knowing you have that padding. It will enable you to slow things down a bit. It will allow you to punch that line or pause for effect or even make a mistake without fear that you'll run out of time. 

Writing a 90 Second Screenplay Pitch That Wins Competitions
Credit: Flickr

Don't skimp on the presentation

Unlike more subtle office or bar pitches, you need to perform your 90 second pitch. You might have a huge audience; you might have a single judge, but the competition format demands a high level of enthusiasm and most importantly, passion.

Be mindful of your pace and don't speak too quickly. Remembering to breath will help slow your speed.

Keep the hands still. It may feel natural to animate yourself during your pitch, but by keeping your hands clasped or at your side, you'll keep more focus on your words by both you and your audience.

Is it clear?

Let me repeat that: IS IT CLEAR?!?

It doesn't matter if you have a story that will reinvent modern cinema if everyone who hears your pitch is just a little fuzzy about, well, everything.

Test it on a friend

And truly take to heart the feedback they give. Even if the person listening to your pitch isn't the ideal audience for your story, they still have the ability to recognize a story when they hear one. If you get feedback that involves a lot suggestions or changes -- don't worry, it's just that something isn't working for them and they don't know how to articulate it. The important part for you to take away is that something isn't working.

TIP: Avoid long metaphors or elaborate jokes. The last thing you want are for the pitch judges to still be figuring out what you meant three sentences ago while you're now four sentences ahead.

Now go pitch that baby, and remember, not winning isn't failure; not trying is.