Monday, January 17, 2011

What's The Big Idea?

Shine Pictures (backed by New Regency in the U.S) launched a UK competition called The Big Idea, looking for commercial genre ideas, with a prize of a £25k development deal. The brief was to outline an idea in no more than 700 words (or a one-pager, basically) but they specified four genres in which to pitch: sci-fi & fantasy, action adventure, romantic comedy, and family. To be eligible, you needed some form of professional experience (agent, option, commission etc). Overall, they had 730 entries, and they shortlisted only 7 for a pitch interview before making their final choice.

I was lucky enough to be one of the final 7, along with my regular co-writer Sam Morrison. We pitched an idea for the family genre called 'Santa Jnr'. Here's the logline: Santa’s son hates Christmas because he never gets to spend time with his father but when he accidentally puts Christmas in jeopardy, he sets out on an adventure with a ragtag bunch of friends to save Christmas before it’s too late. Even with the title and logline, it's a pretty good idea, immediately suggestive of a visual story that compliments the genre well. For the pitch interview, we were asked to expand on the initial submission and talk through the bigger picture.

Sam and I aren't complete strangers to being shortlisted for high-profile competitions and schemes. Most notably, we were runners-up in the inaugural The Times/Chicken House Children's Book Award (down to the last 5 manuscripts out of 2000!), and were also the bridesmaids in an exciting pitching scheme with Eon Productions (the producers of James Bond). So, while it was terrific to make the shortlist for The Big Idea, we were immediately pragmatic about our chances.

We didn't expect to be asked to 'perform' a pitch but our experience in other schemes had taught us to be as prepared as much as possible. However, Sam was busy with various writing deadlines, so we couldn't meet up to practise our pitch. We relied instead on a written outline and emails. On the day of the interview, the earliest Sam and I can meet up is 15 minutes before the actual pitch. As we walk to Shine's offices, we finally get to discuss the pitch 'live', and agree where to allocate responsibility as well as allowing for some improvisation or tangents.

Shine's offices are part of Kudos and we get taken to the big boardroom to meet Paul Webster (head of film), Stephen Garrett* (executive chairman), Ed Clarke (head of development) and Melanie Coombs (project co-ordinator). I've been to the boardroom before to discuss details of the Red Planet Prize, so it's not unfamiliar terrain, but I'm pleased when the execs choose the comfier sofa option for us to pitch (rather than the Dragons' Den-like boardroom table). There's friendly introductions and congratulations on getting this far, and we begin our pitch.

Our experience of Eon's pitching scheme comes in particularly useful as we relax into an evenly divided pitch, each trusting each other with any improvs or jokes as we go through our spiel. More importantly, the expanded story is well-structured, giving the right kind of tone and flavour of detail without getting bogged down with unnecessary plot waffle. The execs seem to enjoy our presentation and have a few questions. We're able to provide some satisfying answers as well as being unsure about certain areas which we confess we don't know the answer to yet. They thank us for coming but kind of let slip that they've chosen their winner already (something I've either misunderstood or picked up on), but may choose another for a separate development deal. Whatever the case, I'm pleased with our performance (another assurance of me and Sam working well together) and feel good about the pitch, which is always vital experience. Before the pitch, with nerves kicking in, we were like: 'I don't think I can do this, I've forgotten everything, let's cancel'. Afterwards, we were like: 'I really enjoyed that, nice one'. We went for a noodle lunch to celebrate, which Sam paid for: RESULT!

A couple of weeks later, Melanie phoned us to tell us that they were going to pass on our idea but that their door was open to us as writers, and we could pitch them other ideas or send them scripts. Although we'd been crushed with runner-up disappointment before, this time we felt happy to have been involved in the whole process and we viewed it as a positive meeting rather than a failed pitch. Congratulations again to the winners, and let's hope the competition runs again next year.

* I met Stephen Garrett in 1994, soon after I had arrived in the UK to make my way in the media. He asked me what I wanted to do. I replied: 'everything'. His advice: 'choose one thing, and stick to that'. Six years later, I took that advice as I gave up everything for writing, and ten years after that, I'm pitching Stephen in his boardroom. Nice.


Adele said...

Well done to the both of you, and thanks for posting this - it's so lovely to hear from good news!

John said...

Good to hear how it all went, Danny. Well done to the two of you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

Quick question about approaching agents. Many don't want unsolicited approaches, which is fair enough.

Instead they ask for an industry recommendation and CV. Does the former carry more weight? Or is a recommendation nothing without some professional writing credits to your name.

All a bit chicken and eggs it seems.

Thanks in advance.

Danny Stack said...

A recommendation is good because it means someone is vouching for you or thinks you're worth some attention. It's even better if you have some credits to your name but it's not strictly necessary.

sam morrison said...

Again Danny does himself a disservice. Though we developed the idea together it was Danny's concept and Danny also, knowing I hate the performance aspect of pitching - because I mentioned it several times that morning - took on the backbone of the pitching too, allowing me to butt in with what, in my mind, were hilarious interjections.