The Witcher (Courtesy of Katalin Vermes/Netflix)
At Netflix, character is often more important than plot, said the company’s creative talent director Christopher Mack at CineGouna Bridge, the industry section of Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival, on Monday during his “Pitch Realization Masterclass by Netflix.” But it’s not about making him or her likeable, as their transformation is key to the storytelling experience.
“This change is driving people to watch our content. Your job is to make it interesting and engaging. Think about Walter White,” said Mack, explaining how to successfully pitch new concepts to Netflix. “Viewers develop a relationship with the characters, their engagement depends on whether they relate to them or not. Otherwise they won’t care.”
Mack also advised new writers to think about genres in need of reinvention, mentioning South Korean series “Kingdom” as an effective twist on the zombie thriller, or the hot-button topics in their country that aren’t often explored.
“What do people want more of? Teen sex? Family scandals? In some countries these are very sensitive, but push the envelope – that’s what we are saying,” he said. “The more authentic you are to your culture, the better it travels. Especially during this time of pandemic, when people are doing their traveling while watching our shows.”
Having a relationship with a star also helps, as well as making sure there is a broad enough audience for the project. “If it’s right for the local broadcaster, it’s probably not right for us,” said Mack, who started his career on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and served as a writer on “ER” and “The New Twilight Zone” before coming back to being an executive. He also focused on short-form content for a while. “I am glad I got out of it before Quibi failed. I don’t think people really want their content in such short form unless it’s on TikTok,” he said, referring to the streaming platform shutting down after just six months.
As the audience decides whether they are going to watch a series in approximately five seconds, it’s important to think how you introduce it – also by having a good teaser. “The researcher told me: think about going on a blind date. You walk into the restaurant, you see them and your mind decides whether there is going to be a second date. If you sell a series to us, the executives are going to ask you to put more story earlier. By the end of the pilot, the viewer must know who is your hero, what they want, their central conflicts, key dynamics and the basic rules of the world.”
While viewers like to get new information from each scene, the cliffhangers drive the binge-watching behavior: plot cliffhangers or emotional cliffhangers; they may be small on the screen, but their impact is huge.
“What is going to happen next? How are they going to get out of this situation? These are the questions you want the audience to ask after each episode. That’s what makes them click the button leading to a new episode and skipping the intro.”
Mack also described a perfect pitch document, which should include information about central conflicts and stakes. Also, it’s crucial to describe the story without mentioning the plot, concentrating on themes instead, as Christopher Nolan does.
“If you look at his body of work, he nails on a theme and beats it to death. The characters in [The Dark Knight Trilogy] talk about the themes. He really explores it through their point of view and that’s what makes his storytelling so relatable,” he said. “Coming up to me, a writer should say: ‘I want to explore greed. Or loss.’ If you ever meet me, try it this way.”
When writing the short synopsis for a proposed series, it should answer these questions: Who is the hero? What do they want? Why now? What happens if they don’t get what they want? Again Vince Gilligan’s series provides a model, with the short synopsis stating: “’Breaking Bad’ is a family drama about a down-on-his luck, high-school chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth in order to provide for his family after he is diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Armed with his intellect and the best meth on the market, he will outsmart rival drug kingpins and the DEA to become the biggest, baddest drug dealer in New Mexico. The only thing that scares him more than being killed or locked up is being found out by his pregnant wife and teenage son. It will explore the themes of family, greed and power.”
It’s important to know what makes a story fresh, be it location or tone. This can be subjective (“My version of ‘dark’ is different from my wife’s,” said Mack), so it’s useful to use pictorial references when pitching. If the story is set in the past, it’s better to wrap it around some historical event, and with sci-fi or fantasy, it’s good to figure out the mythology. Mack also stressed that the audience enjoys seeing characters who are flawed, like “The Witcher’s” Yennefer, as well as getting to know their backstory and moral compass.
“For me, she was the reason why the show was so successful. She wants beauty and power, so she exchanges it for her ability to bear a child, but then she wants to have it all and this obsession drives her to making decisions we may not agree with, but we understand her desire. We relate,” he said.
Quoting Kurt Vonnegut, he added: “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader, or a viewer, may see what they are made of.”
Variety's Marta Balaga contributed to this post.