Quality matters. Oh, it matters a lot.
Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.
You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.
But you can’t pitch quality.
And you can’t package it.
So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.
This is why untalented shmucks are living in mansions while amazing writers, musicians and actors are waiting on tables at Applebees and selling copies of TWILIGHT: BELLA GIVES BIRTH TO TRIPLETS at Barnes and Noble.
So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice, because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right and because it’s fun.
First up: two different bands.
The first band is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties, serious and talented. They play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.
The second band isn’t much of a contender by comparison. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band.The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.
Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.
Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a nancypants and cheaty McCheater.
Do it now. Go. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.
I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.
OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.
My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannel / angst.”
Four words, and I’m sort of cheating with the slash. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really good.”
My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.”
Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Really great band” or “Nirvana minus flannel / angst” when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?
Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.
Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The metal kids. It’s so much easier. Could I get newspaper reporters and a TV crew to shoot the post-grunge band? Not unless they show up and rescue a grandmother and her 14 cats from a burning building.
Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.
Next: two different books.
Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.
The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long BEFORE that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.
Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.
While we’re waiting, have you noticed that Kevin Bacon doesn’t really age? I mean, the dude has to be at least 84 by now, but he looks 40-something. On the other hand, Sylvester Stallone is living proof that action stars should stop with the action, and the plastic surgery, when they hit 55. Also, the teaser trailer for EXPENDABLES 2 is out, and it stars every washed-up action star on the planet. It’s like there’s a nursing home in Hollywood full of them, and the owner woke up one day and kicked them all out. Van Damme and Chuck Norris and Schwarzenegger? All these geezers make Jet Li look like he’s 12.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got. I’ve got nothing, since I’ve been busy making cracks about Stallone and Chuck Norris, so here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.
Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.”
Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.
Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.”
This is a kissing cousin to “Comet to destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet / asteroid / whatever with nuclear bombs.
The bottom line is, quality is one thing. An important thing, in the end.
Yet nobody will read your masterpiece / listen to your amazing album / see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging.
Quality isn’t a pitch. It isn’t attractive or descriptive. “You should see that movie — it’s really good.” That doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.
The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words. How would you pitch or package them? What could you possibly say — not just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?
If an idea is truly interesting — controversial, ground-breaking, weird, unique — it’ll get there. If all you have is quality, there’s no pitch or packaging to make it break through.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award.