"A Beautiful Mind", "The Social Network", "Erin Brockovich", "12 Years A Slave", "Catch Me If You Can", "Casino", "Into The Wild", and countless other award winning, blockbuster hits, have been based on true stories that were developed into incredible film narratives that explore the human condition. There's an unmatched fascination audiences have in watching films rooted in true events, and producers gravitate toward these projects if there's a storyline that works. Pitching a movie idea or screenplay based on a true story is a good strategy for gaining the attention of Producers.
As a screenwriter or filmmaker, think like a producer when you're working to develop a pitch based on a true story. This often involves investigating any underlying rights. If you are able to secure exclusive rights to an amazing true story, you have a much greater chance for success when you pitch your movie idea. And it’s entirely possible that the most interesting story that you know may just be your own story, or the story of a relative or a close friend. Not every film-worthy story is public knowledge, so often it requires a storyteller with direct knowledge of that amazing untold story to bring it to the attention of the world. With tools like iPitch.tv in an age of new media, you can sell your movie idea directly to Hollywood. So let’s dive into five main categories that often hold the most viable true stories for film and learn a bit of strategy for crafting your pitches:
Life Story Rights - When you're pitching a true story based on a person's life, or specific event(s) in their life, it’s important to have their permission. This can be done with a simple letter of agreement that outlines your exclusive right to develop, pitch and sell a movie around their life story. Ultimately it will be the production company or studio who proposes a deal with all the fine points of participation, and you want yourself locked into that agreement by having the exclusive life story rights secured before shopping the story to any Studios, Networks or Producers.
If the story chronicles your own life experience, or that of a relative or close friend, then having the rights to shop it isn't as much of an issue. When it’s a story that you’re very close to, make an extra effort to really examine and identify the events that can best translate to a screenplay or movie. What's dramatic to you, because you actually lived it, won’t necessarily translate into compelling drama for a movie audience or television viewers. On a positive note, there's no person who knows your amazing experience better than you, so you'll be able to deliver a movie pitch that is rich in detail.
On a creative level, you'll want to write your film pitch so that it encompasses a storyline that’s both true to life and holds potential as a film. You should try to focus your movie pitch on themes like: against-all-odds, man vs. society, man vs. nature, man vs. himself, comeback/redemption, rags to riches, true crime, a love story, justice, social issues, and so many others that together are universal and relatable to the human experience.
Current Social Issues - When an issue in our society reaches mainstream news, causes broad debate, or impacts everyone directly or indirectly, it contains the raw material to become the focus of a movie idea. Once a compelling narrative is crafted from that raw material, the audience is able to experience your movie idea on a visceral and intellectual level. The best strategy is to identify the most interesting issues that can be extracted or related to from your original true story. You’ll be able to easily identify the issues if the story has been covered in the news, or any publication. Having the Life Story Rights tied to a Current Social Issue is a great combination for pitching a movie idea.
Historical Subjects - When writing a movie pitch based on an historical event or person, be sure you're focusing on some original aspect or angle that hasn't been explored yet. The freshness of your movie pitch is what will provoke curiosity in potential buyers and will likely be a key marketing angle in eventually promoting the finished film. Find the “new spin” on an old story that hasn’t been done before.
Magazine/News Article - Scouring news stories online or via print publications can uncover some very interesting story subjects for your film pitch. Newsworthy stories may hold undiscovered dramatic components that can be developed into a larger narratives for a feature film. Researching news is an efficient way to review a lot of potential movie ideas to find those stories that are essentially diamonds in the rough. Also, by having a story in print, it becomes something tangible that Producers and Studios can reference in the development process.
Non-Fiction Book-to-Film - Studios love adapting books for the big screen because they have a built in audience, and the narrative is already worked out for the most part. A book is a tangible intellectual property that provides substance that investors and filmmakers can get behind. Start by researching subjects and stories you feel may make a great movie. Then research to discover any books written on that specific subject. When you find what may be the definitive book on that subject, contact the publisher and request information on the "sub-rights" and who represents those rights. They'll typically refer you to a Literary Agent on the east coast. Contact that Lit Agent to learn the status of the book. If the book isn't a new release, then you'll stand a better chance to secure an agreement to shop the book as a movie pitch to Film Producers.