How To Pitch A Feature Film Part I: The Art of the Beat Sheet

As our Make Your Feature Competition submission period is now closed, we are narrowing down our choices for the semi-finals. While the initial submission process only required a treatment of the film, the next round of selections will be based off of a virtual pitch to the community, as well as a few requisite presentation materials. The first is a beat sheet (covered below) along with an artistic primer (a statement describing the intended genre, visual style, similar films, approach to production, and tone of the film), and the second is a version of either a look book or proper pitch deck (both covered in PART II of this series).

What Is A Beat Sheet?

A beat sheet is a specific tool for storytelling on screen that serves as a road map or skeleton of the story that dives into the pivotal emotional moments that drive the story itself. Whereas an outline describes the scenes, settings, and more concrete details of a film, a beat sheet organizes the intangible thoughts and feelings of the protagonist and other main characters in order to guide the direction and structure of the screenplay. It is formatted in concise, bulleted form that follows the characters through the key plot points as it paints the emotional world being created. 

In general, feature-length screenplays have about 15 major story beats that propel the story forward. These beats can be in the form of events (where characters express their views, motivations, and inclinations), realizations (ranging from subtle moments to major epiphanies that will help determine the decisions made throughout the story), resolutions (decisions made by the characters that establish a character’s point of view that give the story an arc to follow), and interactions (the moments of conflict or harmony between characters that impact the course of the story). In short, these beats are all the moments that support and navigate the story through the opening scene to the inciting event to the consequences and inevitable rock-bottom to the final triumph.

What Are the Essential Beats?

For a feature length screenplay, it is typical to divide the story into three acts (five for a television series). The following describes the types of beats to incorporate into the beat sheet to provide a full picture of the story.

  • The opening image or first frame briefly describes the very first moment or event people will see. This is the moment that will set the tone for the story being told while hopefully sucking people into the world.
  • Introductory beats bring the characters and setting into focus. People should gain an understanding of who the story is about, what the needs and wants of the main characters are, and what potential obstacles may be in the way of achieving the goals that have been set. People should also have a clear view of the world that’s been created.
  • Thematic beats include the premise of the film and themes that will be referred to throughout. These beats set the tone for what to expect in watching the film.
  • The inciting incident or catalyst is a major beat that pinpoints the moment in which the main character either actively sets out to achieve their goals, follows an obligatory course, or goes down a rabbit hole not of their choosing. This is where the drama lives. This beat catapults the main character into their story through an intense experience.
  • The debate is where the protagonist’s internal and external struggles will be revealed.  This can be shown through conversations with other characters and voice overs of internal monologues. Either way, these are the beats of contemplation, reflection, and maybe even some rumination. 
  • Introducing B-Stories & B-Plots allow people to divert from the main character’s situation and notice all the other subplots of the story. In traditional story structure, the B-Plot often carries the first act through to the second act.
  • Additional characters who advance or hinder the protagonist throughout the story should have beats as well. These characters help heighten tension and enhance conflict throughout the story.
  • All the actual events that happen should get their own beats. All the capers, fallouts, and  failures expose the characters’ traits and flaws, allowing people to decide whether they root for or against them.
  • The midpoint is exactly what it sounds like; halfway through the story. This is a notable beat.
  • As is the low point of the story, when there is defeat of some sort, leading to confusion, desperation, derailment, agony, or some wicked combination of them all. But… what goes down, must come up, so...
  • The climax is that big, turbulent moment where everything comes to a head. The protagonist is almost within reach of their goal… but not quite. Big beat.
  • Victory or triumph beats are basically the beginning of the end of the story. The protagonist either achieved the goal they set out to, or didn’t. Loose ends are being tied up here with all the subplots as well.
  • The finale or final image is similar to the opening image in that it should hopefully entice people through a sense of satisfaction. Make it worth the wait and make this a killer beat. 

And there you have it. These are the beats to your story. If done correctly, we should have a clear idea of all the movement and emotional moments within the story. The story should be well fleshed out, the characters should make an impression, and there should be an interesting arc to follow. This is a beneficial exercise for the writer to undertake before actually writing the script, but is also an excellent way to convey the emotional through line of the protagonist, while summarizing the main plot points of your film. 

Written by Sapna Gandhi

Sapna Gandhi is an actor, singer-songwriter, and content creator. In addition to TV credits such as BOSCH, SHAMELESS and SCANDAL, she has appeared in numerous shorts, features, and series, including festival darlings IN ABSENTIA (Raindance) and THUMPER (Tribeca). Gandhi has produced several series and films under the umbrella of her production company Elegant Grotesque (most recently SCRAP, starring Anthony Rapp and Vivian Kerr, and Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds’ STRANDED ON THE EARTH, directed by Mike Bruce). She is also 1/2 of the musical duo, VATAVARAN, was born in England, raised all over the states, studied English and Women’s Studies, and trained at the American Conservatory Theatre in SF.


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