A TEST MARKETING EXAMPLE
I have posed the possibility that you hold off on writing your script until you get a killer logline and title. I know this is painful. But here’s where it pays off. I have just been working with a screenwriter online. He did not have his logline. He did have a good idea – or at least the start of one – but the logline was vague, it didn’t grab me. I sent him back to the dreaded Page One (an almost total rewrite). He bitched and moaned, but he did it.
He put away his story and all the vivid scenes and the recurring motifs and started writing loglines – an awful, soul-eating chore. He tried to come up with ones that were still his story, but which met the criteria. What he discovered, after many failed attempts, was that he had to start fudging his logline to get it to have irony, audience and cost, a clear sense of what the movie promised, and a killer title. Arid when he finally let go of his preconceived notions of what his story was – voila! The logline changed.
Soon, he started getting better response from people he pitched to, and suddenly, voila! #2 – his story started to change to match the logline, and voila! #3 – the story got better! The irony of what he sort of had was brought into better focus. And when it was put into a pithy logline form, the conflicts were brought into sharper focus too. They had to! Or else the logline wouldn’t work. The characters became more distinct, the story became more clearly defined, and the logline ultimately made the actual writing easier.
The best thing about what this screenwriter discovered is that he saved everybody, all down the line, a whole lot of money and trouble. Can you imagine trying to do these kinds of logline fixes during postproduction? It’s a little late by then. Before anyone spent a dime, using only paper, pencil, and his own wits, he did everyone’s job for them. He not only made it easier for the guy with the newspaper to pitch to his friends, but he gave them a better story once they got to the movie theater. All because he had given his project a better “What is it?”
The other great part about road-testing your logline is that you have the experience of all-weather pitching. I pitch to anyone who will stand still. I do it in line at Starbucks. I do it with friends and strangers. I always spill my guts when it comes to discussing what I’m working on, because:
- I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur) and…
- You find out more about your movie by talking to people one-on-one than having them read it.
This is what I mean by “test marketing”.
When I am about to go pitch a studio, when I am working on a new idea for a movie, or when I can’t decide which of four or five ideas is best, I talk to “civilians”. I talk to them and I look in their eyes as I’m talking. When they start to drift, when they look away, I’ve lost them. And I know my pitch has problems. So I make sure that when I pitch to my next victim, I’ve corrected whatever slow spot or confusing element I overlooked the first time out. And most of all, it’s really fun to do.
A typical scenario goes like this:
INT. COFFEE BEAN AND TEA LEAF – SUNSET PLAZA – DAY
A melange of starlets, weekend Hell’s Angels, and Eurotrash snobs sip double mocha frappes. Blake Snyder eyes the crowd. He approaches the person who seems least likely to hit him.
Hi, could you help me?
What is it? I have a Pilates class in ten minutes.
Perfect, this will only take a second. I’m working on a
movie idea and I wanted to know what you think.
(smiling, looks at watch)
This, to me, is the perfect set-up and one that I repeat with all age groups, in all kinds of situations, all over Southern California – but especially with the target audience of whatever I’m working on.
This kind of test marketing is not only a great way to meet people, it’s the only way to know what you’ve got. And a “pitchee” who is thinking about being somewhere else is the perfect subject. If you can get his attention, if you can keep his attention, and if he wants to know more about the story you’re telling, you’ve really got a good movie idea.
What you’ll also find by getting out from behind your computer and talking to people is how that true-life experience that happened to you in summer camp in 1972, the story that you are basing your entire screenplay on that means so much to you, means nothing to a stranger. To get and keep that stranger’s attention, you’re going to have to figure out a way to present a compelling “What is it?” that does mean something to him. Or you’re going to be wasting your time. There are a lot more strangers than friends buying tickets to movies. No matter who is encouraging you on the friend side of your life, it’s the strangers you really need to impress.
What better way to find out what you’ve got than to actually go out and ask?