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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 18 of 18

Making Your Elevator Pitch

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

18. Making Your Elevator Pitch

Lesson Info

Making Your Elevator Pitch

So how do we get to that place? And once we feel that the script is as good as it can be, what can we now do with it? There is amorphous world out there, filled with nameless, faceless, no agents, producers and managers and lawyers. And, you know, what do we do? How do we get this thing that we now believe is good enough for them to look at? How do we get in front of them? It's a very It's a very daunting proposition and, you know, way, way, way back when we talked about the six words story back in the early steps there. There is something that we can do right now to place our story it once again back into a way that we can present it to these folks. Because the thought that if we have the notion that you know something that we as unknowns are gonna have our script read by people who can mean something, it's it's very unlikely to start with. But what they might possibly read is a query letter that has a kind of a pitch in it that that makes them understand this thing as a product that ...

they might want to have their factory make. We have to really, really think of it in a very, you know, as a small business plan things guy that we turned down from U. C. L. A. Program about three times. His name is Dave Johnson. We finally took him in on his fourth try, and I love him. Way kid, about kid about it a lot. He is now a very successful practicing screenwriters. Got three or four deals in part, and we bring it back to teach at school. But what he tells us, and he jokes, too, about being turned down three times. But what he said during those three years is what he did was kept writing scripts that he said he wrote 11 scripts in that time that even now that he's when he's successful in this is gonna be humbling to you. But you have to hear it that even now when he can get stuff made, he doesn't even bring those scripts out. First. The misses practice scripts, but so that's just something again. T understand? Yes, we feel a little precious about the very first thing we do, and we have to get a little bit of humility about it as well without taking away the value of the effort that has been put in and the result of that effort. We also have to understand that there may be some limitations. Let's write another one, but he. But when you think your script is indeed whether it's the 1st 1 of the 5th 1 of the 12th 1 when you think of script is ready to be seen, Dave has this thing that, ah, way of presenting a pitch. And it's kind of like that elevator pitch that we talked about about you know, where you're on the third floor and you have until the sixth floor to tell your story very quick. But he has a way of doing it, and he calls it the the but method. For two. It is Dave Johnson's, but, uh, but it's think about it as either two sentences, with the word but in between or one compound sentence with the word but in between. And the first part of the sentences, the circumstance who the character is and what she wants and because inside. And then there comes the word but and then right after that is a statement about what makes it impossible. You know, pregnant high school girl wants her baby to be raised by a perfect couple. But when she's eight months pregnant, that couple breaks up, okay, that just just that pitch tells us the essence of what that story is about. This is what people want. They want to hear the essence. They don't hit the nuances of every single scene that will come later. But the first thing is, they want to hear what the essence of the story is, because they can tell from that if they are interested in seeing any further so so s. So if you're going to write a query letter, um, choir letter is, um I wish it were more effective than it is. The truth is that people in the industry get a lot of them and get somebody to actually read one is difficult. But if you send an email address, email to somebody and you know you have something in that subject line that that will make them want to see what follows, Um, and it could be, you know, even does. You know, I am your long lost love child or, you know, But I hope graduated from U. C. L. A writing program where I studied with the UCL A professed, you know, just just something that will make their own, you know, give it a little bit of credibility because nobody wants to be the first person to say yes, anybody. That's just the truth of the world out there. Nobody wants to be the first person to say yes, they all want verification. It's why support the agents and managers and all these people because that means somebody has already validated you. Somebody has vetted you. Somebody has said yes. So, um, how did get that first person is not easy. Ah, query letter is possible. You know, if the story that you have is so singular, you know that you were a nurse in Iraq and Afghanistan and you nurse these people, you know, and you have their personal stories to tell you something that could certainly get somebody's attention. You know, something that makes what you have to say valid, vital, and that you are the single most the only possible source of this story. You know, that could be something that might get somebody's attention. So you know you want to try. You know there are the house or, you know, this Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and they on Thursday or Friday. They have a list of all of the films in production films. In pre production. You could do a lot of legwork these things online as well. You can see what companies are producing, what kind of movies you know, you could see your movie seems to be a perfect fit for the company that's making that kind of a movie. You know, you could try to write directly to two production companies to produces within those companies. Thes they're all big long shots is just absolutely, no doubt about it. Um, agents and managers are harder to get. Lawyers are a little bit easier, Um, a little bit easier, but all of them are will be very happy if there's some kind of a possibility of a deal in place. If you're you know the way things work in the world, if you are coming to them in need, it's easy that they go screw yourself. If you have something that they want, you know they're your best friends. It's a very sociopathic business, but a possible way. You know, we talked about the notion of getting somebody to say yes first, Um, there are and you have in front of you in your in your packet here list of contests. These are there, many others besides these. But these are these 123 but it's about nine or 10 of them there. These are the ones that have the highest reputation, and they know they all cost money to enter, but they are all worth they're worth while they're all reputable. Um, you know, the cost to enter them varies from, you know, 35 to $56. You know, you could go broke doing this, but the thing is that if you don't have to win any of these contests to get recognition, even if you're in the top 15 to 20% there are people who are hired, every interns or whatever that work for all the production companies that manages their job is to call the results of these contests, and if they they will, they will know. They know when the results come out. And it's their job toe, see who has placed in it. And there's usually a blurb about about the script, and if it's of interest, they will come to you on. That's always the best position to be in, just like we talked about, about about getting or giving information that it's a week place toe blurt information out, but a good place toe need it strong sense to need it in the story. Well, here it's hard, you know, the very same production company that you've said Kris and Corey's led us to, and they've just dismissed that not even answered you if you place well and he's kind of they're gonna call you, and that puts you in a much better position. So there is. There is value in entering entering some of these contests. If you don't get placed, don't be discouraged. It's very hard not to be discouraged. You always think that you know that that the judgment of this any one thing is upon you right now, it is very important to try to keep a thick skin on the best way. The best way to keep a thick skin about rejection is to be writing something else That is the absolute best way, if you are, you know, submit theory. Lucky enough to have somebody say Okay, I'll read your script. You know, you're sitting there by the phone and waiting and waiting and waiting for that call to come in and wait for the call to come in. You're gonna just make yourself crazy. But if you get yourself involved in writing something else that you care about, remember, you're You're a writer, not a waiter. You may be both. I've been both a waiter in a bartender, but But you want to be a writer. And what is the right to do? A writer writes Van Gogh painted all his life. He sold one painting. It is to his brother. Does that mean he was not a good painter? No, it doesn't. What he was doing all the time was painting. That's why we love his work. Now, if he was just waiting for somebody to buy it, well, you would have one painting. You folks have to go through the very same thing again and again and again. You just have to keep doing it. Dave Johnson wrote 11 scripts that he called Practice scripts. I want you to make sure that make you make yourselves understand that this is a thistle is not a sprint. It is a marathon. It is. So it is not just a one time thing. It is something that you are selecting and choosing to do for your lives, for your lives. There's no there's no no doubt about that. Okay. All right. Um, so why don't we take a few minutes and or And I'm wondering whether there are in many, many hours that we have been with each other. I know that I've covered every possible thing that you possibly could have wanted to know. But if there's any single thing I may have missed and really you know, it is your responsibility. I don't want you to walk away from here with there being any questions that you've had that you thought I shouldn't bother. Answer Asking that it sounds silly. Might be trivial. Might be naive. Do not have that thought anything that you would like to ask it this time. Please do invention earlier about, um except that Hey, went in about like, uh, keeping its 100 some pages. And I have heard many times. It's been like kind of back and forth, and we heard it, too. When you submit your, um, scripts onto someone for first time, if your first time screenwriter they're gonna want something that's very that's much less maybe like 90 pages and I've heard so many variables like just keep it this way. Just keep it in 90 because this simple, um, but what do you think the absolute best length Brady script is, the length that tells that story perfectly. That can be a script that 90 pages that would seem too long that might be scripted. 100 50 pages that seems too short. That seems hard to believe. But it's true. So you have Teoh. What you might sometimes do is ask somebody to say, you might ask, Would you please read the 1st 25 pages of my script? You know, with the hope that having having done that they will been moved, absolutely die to read the next part of it. That is certainly possible. But no, I don't think that you should truncate something that needs to be long, because what do you know? What do you what are you doing, you know? What are you doing by that? You are eviscerating but might be something that very important now, which is that this is all. It is also true that many first drafts are overridden. That certainly is possible. And that is something that you want to deal with in the rewrite process. But when you haven't at the length that feels like that. If you took the question you want to ask you looked through every scene. Can I Can I take this out without harming it? If the answer is yes, then take it out. The answer is no. Then it's going to stay in. So the bill, it's the It's the It's the value of, you know, what is the at? What is the ideal birth for baby? £7.3 ounces. The kid comes out £7.8. What do you do? You take away five ounces, You chip off a few toes. No, no, you don't do that. You don't do that. And you don't do that to your script. Unless something can be taken out. That doesn't hurt it. Which means it's excess. Okay. Was your writing schedule mine? I usually work early in the morning as early as I can. Starting. I teach. I have my teaching on one day. That's my, uh, lucky enough after teaching at U C L A long time that could make my own schedule. So I have all my classes on when they were sometimes two days, and the rest of the week is my writing week, so I usually will start. You know, a Z earliest. I can. You know, When I used to live in New York, I was totally a night person. I would I had worked as a waiter in a bartender, come over at midnight. And I work for five. AM Um, never saw sunlight, but now it's California, you know? So, yeah. Uh, so I usually work in the morning till about one, and then I do stuff. I didn't say I might go swim. I'm trying to do something to stay wealth, creeping decrepitude. And then, you know, I might I might do chores that have to take place, right? And then depending on what I'm doing, I might put an hour two at night. Um um, yeah, but but I I worked six days a week for sure. I mean, I'm at it. Yeah, you know, various procrastination. Uh, yeah, I like I like the racetrack. Yeah, Yeah. Have the state of a relatively new wife, and, you know, she has certain demand. Oh. How much do you value the high concept for, obviously, for commercial. Yes. Well, um, you know, I think that if you think that you can, um, anticipate the marketplace and guess what is going to be the next high concept. I think you're barking up the wrong tree. Usually, you know, like those even before something is successful or certainly the moment that it is. Every studio knows what it is, and they have their people that they get me another transformers. Get me enough. You know, why don't I have my so for you as the writer, you know, as an outsider to tryto guess, anticipate, and come up with next fast and furious. You know, it's unlikely that you'll be able to do it. But that said, you know, if you if you yourself if you're sort of golden vein is in high concept and yes, you know, I mean, every single one of us has our own voice. We're all different. There's no one right way to do it, you know, at U. C. L. A. We've had people. I mean, we have a gigantic amount of success. We've had people from way over here. Do you know Alex Cox and Alison? And people do really independent stuff to people who do you know, high concept, middle of the road gigantically successful studio stuff is one right or one wrong? No, but I think it's very important. It's a very good question that every single one of us needs to think about where we want to be in the industry, where is our niche? And we need to stay there. We need to recognize that's who we are now. It's very possible, and it happens very often. The guy, Scott Rosenberg is a guy that came out of our program. The first couple of scripts that he did were very small. What to do in Denver when you're dead and beautiful girls? Smallest David kept. His first movies were very small, but each of them has now. You know, I have been higher, but now that writing gigantic blockbusters, people, some people like to do that other people like to stay really fiercely independent. Stay absolutely true to what they want to do. You know, Mike Lee s. So you need to think about who you are as a writer. What is your brand, If you will, you know, it may be that your like, you know, in a cold whole of center. You like to write small personal stories about women in domestic situations. And that is your place. You know, she is. She is not going to Do you know, Batman returns to Batman's woman? That's not her thing. Doesn't mean that it's not a good thing. Doesn't mean that somebody else might not do it. But it's not her. I don't know who you are, but you need to know who you are and try not to overstep or step outside just to try to trade chase commerciality, is it? It's a recipe for failure. Yeah. Do you have any suggestions for writing exercises that might, like help develop character? Yes, I do. I'm glad you asked. A couple of really good way here is a cool and it's great fun. And I had meant to so glad because I was thinking about doing this right down the name of your character, His name okay? Or her name? Uh, funded. Sinfonia had done this. I have a character named scripts Call Whole Myer's Bridge characters named whole Meyer h o l m e Y e r And then for each letter that character's name, right. Internal characteristic That is true of that character. Okay, so I had, like, uh, trying to think what I had, um h is old fashioned and loves bridges. Music I love build a replica of the Arizona Bridge Loves bridges. I am, um oh, Manic And I forget exactly what they were eccentric, loner and rabbit. He lives with a rabbit. Tribes on a raft. There are was rabbits and rafts that it's a really fun thing to do. Yeah, um, another one is, uh, try to get small town newspapers and read the the marriage and the obituaries and the crime Onda Crime blotter. And and because they usually have, like, a couple of paragraphs about each and just as exercises just right the lives of those people you know, people who died, How did they meet? How did he marry this crime? You know this crime. But he was arrested for, you know, having announcer pot and jaywalking. What happened? Who was that guy? It may not necessarily be something for your script, but its expansive in the same way that some of the stuff that we did with six word exercise when it starts asking you questions about that Remember the two words. What if Alright, how It looks like we have reached the end of this screenwriting course. So before I do come up on stage and wrap up with you, what are some final thoughts that you want our viewers to take with them from this course? Good question. Um, whatever you don't write won't get written. That is, that is true. It's poignant. The thing is that you just never know what's gonna happen. Most people you know, uh, toward the end of their lives, when they look back at their regrets, it's not what they did do. That was stupid. It's what they didn't do that they really meant to do. And I think that if you have something that you think is worth writing, if you don't take the shot, you're just not gonna feel good. And, um, I think you should try to take the shot, as my grandfather used to say, What's the worst that could happen? Um, what is the worst that could happen? Which do you think would make you feel worse? Writing something that doesn't get made doesn't get so we're just not writing at all and never knowing. Um, I think I think it's, I think I think it's worse just not to take the shot. That's what I feel. And if you really have the urge inside of you to do it, then god damn it, do it. How did you come up and take center stage with me? So close it out. I'm gonna ask you the final and most important question. Which is? Where can people find you online? Find me online? Well, I can give you my email address. That's probably the easiest mark. It is how AC A, J, L. A. C K and the number 10 at yahoo dot com. I think I have a website, but it's difficult because I'm kind of a low tech guy, and it's hard for me to get onto it on my rotary phone with my manual typewriter, right? So but my email that you could try me there. I'm easily accessible. Happy to talk to anybody. Perfect. Well, I want to give a huge shout out and thank you to you at home for tuning in. Thank you to our students who are here in the studio with us. And thank you. How for being with young, creative live. And we'll catch you next time.

Class Description

The most overwhelming, yet critical step for the screenwriter is the first draft. Staring at a blank sheet of paper can induce "writers block" faster than any other challenge facing a screenwriter. Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft will equip you with a roadmap for tackling your initial draft and guide you to the next steps on the scriptwriting journey. 

In this class, Hal Ackerman will teach you how to jumpstart the writing process and complete a written first draft of your screenplay. You’ll learn how to:
  • Organize your ideas into scenes and acts
  • Approach character development and dialogue
  • Take next steps after the first draft is complete
Hal has been teaching screenwriting to students at UCLA since 1985. He has sold material to all the broadcast networks and authored well-known books on the art of screenplay writing and selling In this class, he’ll offer actionable insights on developing your concepts and turning your ideas into a compelling and complete script.

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft is your opportunity to learn how to conquer one of screenwriting’s greatest challenges and get your ideas developed and down on paper. 

Check out our complete collection of filmmaking classes here


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Hal Ackerman is the Man!!! Loved this course and will be watching it again. Mr. Ackerman is one of those people who truly wants to help you get better at your craft. He's encouraging yet realistic about what it takes to write a great screenplay. I highly recommend this interesting and helpful class.


After taking a number of other screenwriting courses, I can tell you that Hal Ackerman's course, The Art of the First Draft, is the BEST EVER!! His methodology of teaching is fantastic. He takes you on this journey from start to finish in a way that you WILL KNOW how to write a script by the time you finish this course. I liked how he used examples throughout his training to help you better understand screenwriting. If you really want to learn how to be a good screenwriter, then I would highly recommend taking Hal's course. You won't be disappointed.


I've read a lot of books on the subject and I've been to a few seminars. Hal Ackerman's class is genuinely one of the best and the most helpful classes I have experienced. What makes the class so great is that every concept has you putting pen to paper or fingers on keyboard right away. Ackerman really has tools that are called to be used. Thanks for the wonderful resource.