It started as a class exercise at the Center for Cartoon Studies. I was looking for a way to encourage my students to explore narrative structure and concision. So I broke the class into groups and assigned them each a genre—Western, romantic comedy, crime noir, etc.—and gave them a bit of time to discuss the tropes and themes of their genre. Students then had 30 minutes to compose a story using only 12 panels. The assignment was less about writing than about outlining and sketching out a narrative arc. The results were impressive—it was easy to imagine them as actual “pitches,” the kind of storyboard you might show a Hollywood producer to convince him to bankroll your long-gestating movie idea.
I was surprised that the students, especially those whose work was decidedly avant-garde, so readily embraced the task of constructing these tight, commercial pitches. My pet theory is that the endless stream of movies we’re exposed to throughout our lives has instilled in each of us an impulse to make movies of our own. What comes in has to come out—and I’m not talking about an iMovie or Vine video but a Hollywood, popcorn, lose-yourself-in-a-darkened-theater-type movie. Of course, getting one of those made is practically impossible. A hearty few spend decades chasing connections and resources in their attempt. Most of us are unable or unwilling to run that cruel gauntlet.
But many of us have an idea. And that gave me an idea. What if I sent my 12 Panel Pitch assignment to screenwriters, novelists, and cartoonists? If my theory was correct, this would be their opportunity to act on their moviemaking impulse. So I scanned my address book and issued my challenge: Produce a complete movie script that plays out in 12 consistently sized cartoon panels. My co-editor Sasha Steinberg and I then edited the scripts and then passed them along to cartoonists to illustrate. Every other Tuesday, over the next few months, you’ll see the results: Heart-wrenching historical dramas, secret agent mice, and zombies fighting vampires.
Translating a 90-minute story into 12 rectangles is not easy. Writers had a hard time boiling things down—there was only so much room in each of those tiny panels. Verbose descriptions had to go, and the age-old advice given to novice writers seemed especially pertinent to this assignment: Show, don’t tell. Still, the participants all seemed thrilled to finally have something they wrote actually produced.
If I’m right and everyone does have an inner Spielberg, then many of you reading this may be intrigued by the 12 Panel Pitch exercise. If so, I invite you to submit a script for the 10th and final 12 Panel Pitch installment. Submission guidelines can be found here; the deadline is Dec. 13. The 12 Panel Pitch team will select an entry and make it into a comic that will premiere on Slate at the end of this series. If Martin Scorsese or Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls you and wants to make your story into a feature film, we hope you’ll remember who gave you your first green light.
And now, without further ado, the first 12 Panel Pitch, Lost and Found, which was created by Center for Cartoon Studies students during one of those original class exercises. Coming soon to a theater near you!