I had no luck with the first two screenwriting competitions I entered, though I did get some nice encouraging feedback from the judges. Whatever weaknesses there were in the writing, it was clear that people saw the script as a potential film, and this was vital for keeping my spirits up regarding the project. In December of 2010, I decided to take some steps of my own in the hopes of finding representation. I was up for the tenure in 2010, so I was facing the possibility of spending the rest of my life in Kalamazoo if I was granted it (which I was). Living in Kalamazoo—in fact, living anywhere outside of Los Angeles—makes it very hard to sell your product. It requires constant pavement-pounding, networking, and following up in order to make film deals happen. At the very most, I could afford to take about two trips to LA per year in order to peddle my scripts, and this made it quite unlikely that I would see much progress. So I decided to look into finding an agent who would represent me when I was unable to.
I got a subscription to IMDb.com’s premium service, which contains names and addresses of industry professionals. From that, I made a list of about 50 agencies and proceeded to call all of them over winter break. Almost every single one said the exact same thing to me—that they were not taking on new writers, and that they only saw writers based on a colleague’s recommendation. In other words, you had to know someone even to get your feet in the door. I had heard how difficult it was to find representation as an actor. I didn’t realize it was even more rare to secure an agent as a writer. Talking to my tv friend, I was dishearteningly schooled about the harsh truth of Hollywood: cold calls will never work. The two ways you can break into the business are either to win a screenwriting competition, or to attract interest at what is called a pitchfest.
Taking his advice to heart, I started doing research into pitchfests. The most highly regarded one is called “The Great American Pitchfest,” and it is held in Los Angeles every June. I got a research grant from Western Michigan, and they generously agreed to fund my trip to LA and my first foray into pitching. “Pitching” essentially means providing a brief, potent verbal breakdown of your film idea in the space of a few minutes. Hollywood sees tens of thousands of pitches a day; a few of them eventually get the green light. So, yes, the odds are not good, but I reasoned that this may be my only chance for some exposure to Hollywood money.
Before I get into my experience with Pitchfest, I’ll mention the second project I found myself pursuing in this past year. By the end of 2010, I was reasonably satisfied that I had a good working draft of my screenplay. I was always prepared to do more revisions, but I was proud of the work I’d done, and I convinced myself that, even if my film is never realized in celluloid, I could always be gratified by the fact that I had started and finished a major creative project by myself, with no coaching or support. Along with this realization, though, came a little anxiety. Did one script make me a screenwriter? I wrote this script because I had an idea that I liked, because I had a bunch of student loans, and because I was looking to use writing as a sort of therapy to deal with my past. Would I ever be struck by inspiration again? Before allowing this line of thought to turn into a total existential freakout, which—knowing me—I was in danger of doing, I reasoned the following: I wrote a good, strong respectable screenplay. Some would say this made me a screenwriter. Others would not call me that unless my script were bought and produced. The bottom line, it didn’t really matter what I called myself. I was a good friend to my friends, a solid scholar who had published in books and journals, and a good teacher with a tenured professorship at a good school. This was what really mattered to me. This screenwriting stint was just gravy. Crisis averted, I let myself relax a bit and assured myself that I never had to come up with another script idea again and that if I never did, I hadn’t failed at anything. I should be proud of my accomplishment. The next morning, I woke up with a new idea.
Startled at how excited I was by this new prospect, I hurried myself to a coffee shop, and with a brand new notebook, I began project number two. A brief description: While I was in grad school—again in the early days of the internet—I remembered being shown a rather chilling web site. It was called “coincidencedesign.com.” It is now thankfully defunct, but it is still accessible in an online archive, and one can still witness firsthand the diabolical intentions of this site. It was a business that targeted wealthy businessmen who were in search of a wife or girlfriend. The service was a sort of matchmaking system with a repugnant twist. The company would research whatever woman a client had in mind and find out everything about her—they would interview old bosses, old boyfriends, family members, neighbors, etc. to find out every foible, every significant detail about her. They would create a dossier of the woman, all the while breaching pretty much every ethical code concerning privacy. They would screen to find out about any diseases or history of addictions and, perhaps most insidiously, they would arrange for their client to meet the woman “coincidentally” by finding out her schedule and creating a calculated situation which looked like Fate. They would coach the client about her likes and dislikes, find ways for the client and woman to connect in terms of their past, their families, etc. If the woman’s father served in Vietnam, the company would find out the troop and the client could claim that his father served in a nearby squadron; if the woman had a cause she championed—say, lung cancer—the company would invent a past for their client which included cancer activism. All of this was about a man’s gaining the upper hand in a relationship by manipulating the relationship from its very beginning. Ideally, the woman, thinking that Fate had brought them together, would fall in love with the client under totally forged and artificial conditions.
I thought this morally reprehensible scheme would be great fodder for drama, and I began to think of a point of insertion into this madness. I started to envision a protagonist, a 20-something Latina woman getting her Masters degree in Austin, Texas, in the mid-90s, at the peak of the computer boom. I had lived in Austin at this time and thought it would be a great time to set the show. Austin was transitioning from a hippie college town into a yuppie technology capital. I began to think about this girl—I named her Carmen—and wondered how someone could find themselves in the midst of a horrible institution like coincidencedesign.com. I decided that I would make her an honors student, heavily recruited by IBM and Apple and the other big-time corporations, about to graduate valedictorian of her class. A bitter and vindictive ex-boyfriend would set her up to plagiarize her thesis and, just before graduation, she is expelled from her school. The companies who had been recruiting her so hard would now not answer her calls. She went from the next big thing to a punchline and a cautionary tale. On top of this, I imagined that she came from a wealthy family with a white father who was himself a computer company executive, who is so disgraced by his daughter’s failure that he withdraws all support from her, and her mother reluctantly follows. Her brother is already a black sheep in the family, and he has both drug and gambling debts piling up, to the point that his life is being threatened by loan sharks. On her own, Carmen is faced with few options, and when a man comes to her from Destiny Design dot com and explains the premise of the company, she is initially repelled by the horrible shadiness of the operation, but decides to take a job with them temporarily out of economic necessity. The company wants her because before her downfall, she was recognized as a great researcher and savvy programmer, and they are looking to hire a female to provide a feminine sensibility in coaching their clients. So the show progresses from there, chronicling her day to day involvement in a place to which she is morally opposed, but that provides her with a paycheck and, although she won’t admit it, a stimulating intellectual challenge. The fact that she is betraying women for a living is something she has to learn to deal with on a daily basis, as is hiding the nature of her job from friends and family.
While I began to sketch all the possible trajectories of the film, jotting down potential twists and turns of Carmen’s story, I realized quickly that I had too many good, viable ideas to be contained in a 2-hour film. Immediately, I started to think in terms of a quality cable show—one like Weeds with a really strong female protagonist who makes questionable choices. I had as little experience writing for television as I had for writing films, but I figured I would give it a try. What I ended up writing was a 15 page document called a “treatment” for the tv show. It began with the premise of the show, the background of the protagonist, and then proceeded to sketch out the various changes that happen in the first couple of seasons of the show. I was enormously proud of the premise, and I liked the potential for all of these stories to come to fruition. I liked Carmen instantly and wanted the best for her, but I was inspired to really put her to the test by painting her into incredibly raw and difficult situations. I shared the treatment with about ten of my film students in the spring, and they all responded positively to the show; some of them almost immediately had ideas for the directions of the characters.
Now, I had two different projects to talk to producers about at Pitchfest. I was both excited by this newest addition to my tiny portfolio and a little concerned that having two projects to pitch in 7 hours would prove to be too much for me to handle at once. I spent the next few months practicing my pitch on willing victims, though not nearly as much as I should have. As the date came closer, I received some info from the organizers. To my surprise, about 200 production companies and agents were taking part in Pitchfest. We got a partial list of those participating, and a partial list of people they represented or had worked with. The list was quite impressive, and a little intimidating. They also had advice about dress code and what to bring with you. They suggested wearing the standard “writer’s uniform,” khaki pants and a button-down shirt. This eliminated any guesswork for me. The “uniform” is justified by one philosophy I have heard about a writer’s position in Hollywood. However, I have just as often heard the opposite philosophy in use. The ostensible reason for a “uniform”: You are not supposed to stand out; your ideas are. Pitches are about selling an idea for a film or a tv show. You want the agent or producer to focus on your product, not you. In khaki pants and button-downs, writers are presentable, but not overly dressed. They don’t stand out; there is no real mark of individualism except for whatever is present in the pitch. The opposing philosophy, of course, is that, in selling your film or tv idea, you are also selling yourself. You need to engage the producer or agent and convey that you are trustworthy, bright, current, and interesting. In fact, most of the producers I met had opinions that fell in line with one or the other. Some thought the writer needed to minimize her presence when pitching ideas; others thought of pitching as an act of self-promotion.
The bottom line, whichever your take, pitching is a unique activity that one will likely never do in another context. You have about 3 minutes to sell your movie, to use sound bites to paint a picture, tell a story, and argue for your idea’s relevance, originality, and marketability. It is indeed an art form to streamline the explanation of a 100-minute film into 180 seconds and maintain the spirit and the integrity of your piece. Obviously, you can’t do every aspect of your film justice in that time, but you have to figure out what will resonate the most with your audience, what sound bite they will take with them after the meeting, what idea will cause them to lose enough sleep to call you back or draft a contract.
The organizers also suggested bringing what is called a “one-sheet” with you to provide a visual illustration of the concept you are pitching. I wish I had taken this advice to heart. It is something that I kept putting off, reasoning that I had no artistic abilities and that my ideas should sell themselves. In retrospect, it was a mistake not to have one prepared, because almost every time a producer was interested in my premise, he/she would follow with “Do you have a one-sheet?” But I am getting ahead of myself.
Like most of the other steps in this process, I didn’t have any kind of mentor or teacher with experience, so I was pretty much feeling my way alone, basing my actions on intuition and whatever I could glean from people’s experiences on online message boards. The message I got from veteran writers was loud and clear and depressing: fewer than 1% of scripts end up getting read by producers; of that 1%, fewer than 1% of those are sold; of that 1% of 1%, only a small percentage of those sold are actually carried through to completion and made into and distributed as a film. There were plenty of jaded folks online telling me that I had no chance, that Pitchfest was a waste of time. It took all I had to take their admonitions with a grain of salt. I knew that misery loved company, and that a lot of those writers giving me online “advice” were projecting their own negative experiences onto me. Egos are fragile things, and it’s easier to regard your own personal failure as a universal experience than to recognize that there are exceptions.
The morning I woke up in Kalamazoo to fly out to LA, my first words upon opening my eyes were “Pray for me.” I immediately recognized it as the REAL title of my film. For a year now, I had been struggling with a good title for the film. I probably had generated about 40 titles before I settled on this one. “Pray For Me” was pithy, it captured the religious themes of the film, suggested that characters were involved in something for which they needed redemption, and if you really read between the lines, there’s an almost kinky aspect to the title: it’s an imperative verb, commanding someone to do something, and it’s what the onlookers are implicitly asking of their filmed subjects (without their permission). Having a title, even at this late date, felt good. It seemed as if I had solidified my “product” in an important way.
After flying into LAX, I saw a couple of old friends, some from college, some from Michigan, and I tried to get into the Hollywood mindset, whatever that may be. I had my friends time my pitch, making sure that I didn’t ramble or stutter. I got my film pitch down to 2 ½ minutes and my TV pitch down to 3.
The morning of Pitchfest, I woke up in my Burbank Travelodge, about a mile from the Marriott where the event was being held. I put on my “uniform,” gathered a couple of copies of my film script and my TV treatment, and set off on my walk to the hotel. I arrived almost right at 10:30, when Pitchfest was scheduled to start. I first had to get in a line to receive my registration package and an ID card. I quickly fell in with a group of five who were trading stories about previous pitches. All were veteran writers who had been doing this for between 3 and 15 years. They greeted me warmly, assuring me that no matter what, I would have stories to tell, if not a contract or even a contact. According to them, you are only truly successful in a pitch if they offer you their private information—phone number, e-mail, etc., and they ask you to send a document.
I got in line outside the Burbank Marriott ballroom, where 200 folding tables were set up across the dance floor. Velvet ropes snaked around to contain the masses at the front of the line. I saw all types around me. Men, women, 20-somethings, 40-somethings, 60-somethings. People in suits who had ignored the “uniform” suggestion. People in running suits going for the–well, I don’t know what they were doing. People were reciting pitches to each other in lines, to themselves, doing breathing exercises, personal grooming, affirmations. There was an actual cattle bell sitting at the front of the ballroom that rang every five minutes to let you know when your time was up. At the bell, you were supposed to get up, shake hands, and then return to the foyer to get in line for another agent or producer. If a producer wanted to, he could hold up the line for you and keep you for another round, but the norm was to cut and run when you hear the bell. Of the approximately 200 companies, I would say about 170 of them were representatives of production companies, and the rest were from agencies. Four days before the event, the organizers had sent out an additional document which was incredibly valuable. They had listed every company participating, as well as a survey each company filled out indicating whether they were interested in film or tv, what genre they specialized in, the past productions they had under their belt, and what kind of project they were looking to undertake, as well as any advice for prospective pitchers. I had made a wish list of about 20 companies that seemed compatible, either for Pray For Me or Destiny Design. Within an hour (and Pitchfest lasted 7 hours), I had ditched the list altogether, relying instead on word-of-mouth from some of the “friends” I had made in line at 10:30.
I was the third person in my first line. This producer had put on his questionnaire that he was interested in both TV and film. When the cowbell dinged, I power-walked to the card table with the corresponding number on its flag. The table, like all the others, was white on the surface, and skirted with a lemony yellow linen. As I approached the table, I was terrified. A balding white man in his 50 sat facing me. He nodded that I should sit down across from him. After a quick handshake, he flatly said, “What’ve you got?” I asked him if he preferred a movie or tv show. He said “TV.” This turned out to be quite atypical. Of all the companies that indicated by questionnaire that they were interested in both tv and film, whenever I asked them for their preference, they requested the film pitch. Except for this guy.
I began my pitch Destiny Design. I pulled my laptop out to show him the web site I was using as the springboard for my drama—coincidencedesign.com. I knew I was in trouble when he had absolutely no response to the premise of the web site before I even got to the pitch. “This is probably a guy that would USE this service,” I thought to myself as I pitched my heart out. When I finished—about 3 minutes later, he sighed, “Is that it?”
“Pretty much, in a nutshell,” I answered.
He paused for a moment. “Sounds more like a movie.”
I waited for a follow-up question or comment, but nothing came. Deafening silence. I heard snatches of pitches going on around me. Vampires and baseball and spies, oh my. My impulse was to say, “You idiot, I just gave you about two seasons’ worth of content. How in the hell is this stuff supposed to be addressed in a two hour movie?” Instead I said, “So what do you think of it as a movie?”
He shrugged. The conversation was over. Mortified, I rose to my feet, mumbled a “thank you” that sounded more like a question, and retreated to the foyer. I was the only person in the entire ballroom standing up, besides those waiting on the sidelines. I hadn’t even made it to minute five of my first pitch. The walk of shame seemed to take forever. I was dazed and asking myself, “Is it going to be seven hours of this?”
I got into a second line. There were two people ahead of me. I had decided on a film pitch, just to get the taste of the first pitch out of my mouth. This was a company that was only interested in movies, looking for dramas and comedies. When my time came, I crossed the ballroom quickly, saw that I was approaching a man and a woman at my designated table. I shook hands with them both, and the man, obviously the alpha of the duo,” barked “Let’s do it!”
At least this pair had energy. The first guy had looked so miserable to be awake and alive and listening to me. These two were the opposite. At each pause in my description, he would bark, “And then what?! And then what?!” I got to the end, and he inquired, “Anything else?”
“That’s pretty much it,” I replied.
The man took a few breaths and then declared loudly, “I don’t think that’s a movie I’d want to see!”
Immediately, the woman (who I assumed at this point was his wife due to their body language) and I countered at the exact same time, “I WOULD!” The wife and I giggled, recognizing that we had spoken the same response at the same time, and without missing a beat, the man turned to her and barked, “Shut up!” Suddenly, I felt like I had launched myself in the midst of a domestic dispute, and one that I was clearly losing. Nervously, I tried to redirect everyone’s attention by asking for clarification.
“Why wouldn’t you want to see it?” I tested firmly but without any aggression.
“I just—I wouldn’t like those people. It’s just too much.”
So maybe my friend had a point. Maybe people would be turned off by my main characters. Again, the conversation seemed over before the bell had even rung. The man stretched out his hand to say goodbye. The woman looked cowed and apologetic. I made my second retreat, hugging my computer bag for comfort.
I had read in the registration packet that participants saw between 12 and 24 different producers and agents on the average. Here it was twenty minutes in, and I had already accrued 2 staggeringly clear rejections. I got into a third line, beginning to think about the virtues of an early, liquid lunch at the hotel bar. When my third cowbell resounded, I began to trudge toward my third table. Again, another man and woman whom I assumed were married. I really didn’t want a repeat performance, so I mustered the biggest smile I could as I sat down. I shook both their hands. They wanted the movie pitch.
For the second time in a row, I pitched the film. As I drew to a close, the man asked, “Is that all?” in a manner very similar to the last jerk.
“There’s a love story embedded in there. Do you want to hear about it?”
I cringed at my own question, realizing that I was sounding wimpy and defeated after two rejections.
“Of course,” the man responded, seemingly with interest.
I started to explain the love story, how it evolved out of the main plot, and how the film ends with this possibility as a redeeming moment in the film.
They were both quiet for a few beats. He doodled on the tablet in front of him and asked, “How much are you seeing this for?”
It took me a second to realize he was asking about budget. Boy, was I not prepared for a question like that! Or maybe I was, because I had an answer right away, although I was talking out of my ass.
“Four to five,” I retorted, trying to sound casual and confident.
Of course, I meant 4-5 million. I reasoned, in that moment, that only an amateur would actually say “million.” I saw their eyes widen a bit, and they paused.
I filled the silence with “You could do it for 2-3, but if you got a name for the lead , it’d be a bit more.”
I marveled at my own response. Where was this coming from?! I hadn’t really thought about discussing budget. I figured that would be a conversation to be had much later. But it indicated interest; that was for sure. My pulse raced, and I felt simultaneously elated and fraudulent, like I was 19 and trying to buy liquor.
They took this information in, and then he followed with, “Who do you see in it?”
Wow, this was for real. The surreal quality of the moment overtook me. Here I was, a nerdy English professor who had been living in southwest Michigan for going on 6 years, sitting in the Burbank Marriott discussing what Hollywood actors he would put in his own movie. This kind of kicked ass. The only thing that would have made it better was if we were drinking martinis. Luckily, I had some answers for this.
I responded, “I see Mia Wasikowska from The Kids Are Alright for the girl. For Preston, I’m thinking Zach Gilford from Friday Night Lights, Colton Haynes from The Gates, or Hunter Parrish from Weeds. This could also be Zac Efron’s “Fuck you, Disney” movie. That got a smile from both of them. They digested these names, appearing to mull them over. Their demeanor really warmed up. The man followed up.
“You got a one sheet?”
I cringed, not realizing that was something people were actually going to ask for. I immediately popped out a lie.
“You know, the maid in my motel this morning through out all my papers, thinking it was trash,” I apologized, “I can get you one in a bit.”
“And you have the script completed?” the woman asked.
“Yep, it’s all done,” I boasted.
“Can you get us a copy of that by lunch?” he asked.
Taken aback, I said, “Sure.”
“This sounds like something I want to read,” he said.
“Me too,” his wife chimed in.
The bell dinged, and they kept me a few extra seconds to ask me about who I was, what I did. They were impressed by the professor thing, and actually volunteered that they had a few distant relatives that worked in Kalamazoo at my university. Again, there were handshakes all around. This time I felt a warmth and a sense of connection to them. They said their goodbyes, concluding with “Don’t forget to send us your stuff as soon as you can.”
I was ecstatic, especially in light of my first two failures. I tore through the lobby in search of a computer lab. Right by a bank of elevators, I spotted a small room with computers and luckily, one was vacant. I figured it would require a credit card or some kind of code, but the organizers of Pitchfest had cleared the lab for our use. I was feeling very blessed at that moment. I got online, and I cut and pasted a one-sheet from various documents I had stashed away in my Hotmail. I knew there was no time for any graphics, but I played with fonts and bolds a bit. “Pray For Me” went in bold letters at the top. I realized at that moment that I had planned on working out a catchy tag line for the film, but I hadn’t come up with anything satisfactory. The adrenaline still rushing, I typed, in smaller letters after the title, “Online Baptist Wedding Night Porn. It was only a matter of time….” Not perfect, but it was definitely eye-opening. I liked that it captured the very spirit of the idea when I had first mentioned it ten years ago, when I asked “That internet! What are they going to think of next?” So this became my tag line. I then put a copy of my logline beneath that. The logline is a description of your story in about 50 words or fewer, preferably in one sentence. Often, it is followed by a combination of films whose marriage would explain your product. My logline read,
A darkly comic drama, a feature-length project. A recently graduated Ivy Leaguer, his girlfriend, and lifelong gay best friend spend their last summer together working at a Gatlinburg, Tennessee Baptist-themed Honeymoon Resort, where they create a successful porn web site by secretly streaming footage of Baptists losing their virginity on their wedding night (Boinkin’Baptists.com); when they are caught by the Feds, their friendship dissolves, as each friend’s real motive for exploiting the Baptists becomes clear, their capture resulting in disaster for two of them and the beginning of a very unlikely love for the third. In a nutshell, it’s Less Than Zero meets Zack and Miri Make a Porno meets Deliverance, with a decidedly queer twist.
I’m not claiming to have the perfect logline. In fact, it’s probably too long by half. But I decided for myself that I’d rather have it be obnoxiously too long rather than confusing or misleading. I reasoned that anyone who was truly interested in the film’s premise wouldn’t reject it simply because its logline was too long.
Here is my current one sheet for Destiny Design
Anyways, back to Pitchfest. I e-mailed the script and one-sheet to the lovely couple and got back in the game. The following pitches were smoother, better received, and while a lot of them didn’t match the enthusiasm level of the couple, the producers seemed genuinely interested in my two stories.
During the lunch break, I had a long-anticipated Long Island Iced Tea and called some friends for moral support. They were super-helpful, since I had no real allies in this whole venture, and one of them gave me some advice that really got me through the afternoon. He told me to use my education, mention it, and be proud of it. He reasoned that anyone worth their salt would respect someone with a doctoral degree in literature. When I countered that a few people in the industry that I’d met seemed to shrink from the news that I was a Dr., he rightfully said that those were people I didn’t want to be dealing with in the first place. So, for the rest of my pitches, if the question of my background came up, I wasn’t afraid to tell them about my time in school, and my current role as a professor. He was right; more people were impressed than turned off.
In the afternoon stretch, I saw quite a few more producers and only one agent. I had decided for myself, while waiting in line, that I would go for producers over agents because I was really more prepared in the moment for selling my two products than I was for selling myself as a long-term client. I hadn’t really brought a portfolio or CV with me, and even more tellingly, I didn’t HAVE a portfolio that included a broad range of samples of my writing. I realized that agents were likely looking for someone who had produced quite a few original works. I knew from talking to my TV writer friend that agents (at least, agents for TV writers) liked to see both scripts from original shows and spec scripts of shows that already existed. A SPEC script is one that is meant not necessarily for production, but to showcase your talent. People write spec scripts in the hope that someone will like their style or their concept and hire them to come on board as a writer for a show, or hire them to write a whole other movie script. And I was woefully short on spec scripts, so I stuck with producers.
I ran into the nice couple later in the afternoon, and asked if they had gotten my e-mail. They said yes, and they expressed that my script was all that they had talked about during their lunch hour—exciting news, indeed. They told me they looked forward to both of them reading it the following week, and wished me luck on the rest of my pitches.
One thing I realized by the end of the day was that often a production company would send one of their junior people to functions like this in order to field possible future projects. I met with my fair share of 20-somethings who seemed very interested in my shows, but didn’t have the authorization to ask for a complete script. Instead, they would take their information back to the production heads, and make recommendations based on the pitches they had seen and liked. I hadn’t realized before that production companies are VERY reluctant to request full scripts from people, and will only do so if they know right away that they are serious about acquiring the property. Apparently, when you ask for or receive a full script, the legal issues kick in. Meaning, if the company makes a film or a show that is at all similar to yours, they can be sued, and the company looks really bad if they have acknowledged receiving the script. That is why, if you send a company a script without their soliciting it, they will usually send it back to you unopened. They really don’t want the hassle of lawsuits, and not even acknowledging receipt of the script is the only way to avoid some pretty serious legal entanglements.
Several of my other TV pitches went really well, and there was pretty much immediate interest. On the 5th or 6th pitch, I had the opportunity to lie for the second time that day, and I took it. After I pitched the show, the man asked, “Have you written the pilot yet?” “Of course,” I lied. “How long is it?” he inquired. “Fifty-five,” I deadpanned. I marveled at how good a liar I was in these circumstances. He asked for a copy of the pilot, which I agreed to send when I had “polished it.” Three others got the same BS response from me. So now, I had a new project to complete pretty damn quickly—write a pilot episode for a show I had just dreamt up months earlier.
By 4:40, I was exhausted. My pitches had all started to run together in my head, as had meeting all the various characters who represented the studios and companies. I thought about throwing in the towel and calling it a day until a friend I had made that morning took me aside and said, “Go meet with Robert, number 33. He’s a good guy, and he’d like your stuff.” I figured doing one last pitch would make me less likely to feel regretful later on that I hadn’t taken full advantage of the day. I waited in line and met up with Robert from C—- Productions. We immediately hit it off.
He told me right away that his company was quite small, and that they usually were looking for horror or sci-fi projects. I told him that mine was far from either of those things, but when I gave him the logline, he was immediately intrigued. I went through with the Pray For Me pitch, stopping (stupidly) every few minutes to say, “Are you SURE this is even interesting to you?” He got good-naturedly impatient, saying, “Will you please keep going? I like this.” When I finished, he asked (as I had grown used to) if there was anything more. I said, “Yeah, well, there’s a gay love story kind of embedded in there. Not sure if you guys are open to that kind of story.” “Of course we are,” he barked back, “If it’s a good story, it’s a good story.” I went on to tell him about the story, and how it fit in with the ending.
He paused a moment, then said, “I really like it. Will you send me a copy? I can’t promise my colleagues will be as gung ho, but we can give it a try.”
We shook on it, and I promised to send him a script by that evening. So, by the end of the day, I had a pretty elated feeling. I met up with some of my “friends” from that morning. They asked me how I had done. I told them that, out of 15 pitches, four producers had asked for a pilot episode of my show, and three had asked for a full copy of my screenplay. Also, three others had promised to make a good report to their bosses about Pray For Me. Of the others, only one person had gotten more than one request, which I found out was the average at Pitchfest. Suddenly, these friends weren’t so friendly any more. Our plans to go out drinking afterwards quickly disintegrated. I’m sure they cursed me as someone who came in with “beginner’s luck.”
After unwinding with a good friend and a margarita, I returned to my hotel to find several e-mails. The first was from Robert. His was short and sweet:
Good meeting you at pitchfest! I would like to read Pray for Me. Please sign the attached submission release form and return it to this email along with a pdf of the screenplay.
The attachment was really interesting. I’ll include the bulk of the contract here, just to show you how careful people in the industry are about plagiarism:
Dear C**** Productions,
I, _______________________, the undersigned author of the Screenplay entitled ________________________________, am voluntarily submitting said Screenplay and hereby request that you, C**** Productions, an independent film production company, read and evaluate said Screenplay. I understand that you have no obligation to read and evaluate said Screenplay or to inform me of its evaluation, if any. In the event the Screenplay is selected for further development by you, I understand that a separate contract will be executed stipulating all terms and other obligations of both parties, and that said contract will incorporate this release by reference.
I understand that you would refuse to accept or otherwise evaluate said Screenplay in the absence of the acceptance by me of each and all of the provisions of this release. I represent and warrant that I am the author of the above Screenplay; that I am the present and sole owner of all rights, title, and interest in and to said Screenplay; that I have the exclusive unconditional right and authority to submit said Screenplay to you upon the terms and conditions set forth herein; and that no third party is entitled to any payment or other consideration as a condition of the use of said Screenplay as set forth herein. I will indemnify and hold you harmless from any and all claims, expenses, losses, or liabilities that may be asserted against or incurred by you at any time in connection with the use of said Screenplay, including without limitation those arising from any breach or alleged breach of the warranties and promises given by me herein, including reasonable attorneys’ fees and other costs incurred defending against same.
I retain all rights to submit this or similar material to persons or entities other than C***** Productions. I knowingly acknowledge that no fiduciary or confidential relationship now exists between me and C**** Productions, and I further acknowledge that no such relationships are established between me and C**** Productions by reason of this Agreement or by reason of my submission to C**** Productions of said Screenplay.
I acknowledge that you receive numerous submissions of ideas, formats, stories, suggestions, screenplays, and the like, and that new ideas for motion pictures and/or television programs are constantly being submitted to you or being developed by you. I also acknowledge that many stories and ideas are similar, and often different stories and ideas relate to one or more common underlying themes. I acknowledge that you may have had access to and/or may have independently created or have had created ideas, themes, formats, stories, suggestions screenplays, and/or other materials which may be similar or identical to the theme, plot, idea, format, or other element of the material now being submitted by me. I understand and agree that I will not be entitled to any compensation because of the use by you of any such similar or identical material.
I understand that the submission of the Screenplay to you may expose the Screenplay to others and hereby specifically release C**** Productions from any and all liability, direct or indirect, resulting from the improper use by any other persons or entities of any similar ideas, formats, stories, suggestions, and the like relating to said Screenplay. I have retained at least one copy of said Screenplay and release you from any and all liability for loss or other damage to copies of said Screenplay submitted to you hereunder. This release extends to C**** Productions, its agents, associates, employees, officers, directors, and volunteers.
I hereby acknowledge and agree that there are no prior or contemporaneous agreements, oral or otherwise, in effect between C**** Productions and me pertaining to said Screenplay including, but not limited to, agreements pertaining to the submission by me of any ideas, formats, plots, characters, or the like. I further agree that no other obligations exist or shall exist or be deemed to exist unless and until a formal written agreement has been prepared and entered into by C**** Productions and me.
Should any provision or part of any provision be void or unenforceable, such provision or part thereof shall be deemed omitted, and this Agreement, with such provision or part thereof omitted, shall remain in full force and effect. This agreement shall at all times be construed so as to carry out the purposes stated herein. I hereby state that I have read and understand this Agreement and that no oral representations of any kind have been made to me and that this Agreement states our entire understanding with reference to the subject matter hereof. Any modification or waiver of any of the provisions of this agreement must be in writing and signed both by the undersigned and Chaos Productions.
The above is a standard release form that is required by our lawyers, as project funding comes from various sources. If you have any questions or concerns about the wording of the agreement, we strongly suggest that you seek appropriate legal counsel prior to your submission.
The next e-mail was a Facebook friend request from Robert. Two other e-mails I received were similar written requests for the film screenplay, with similarly worded contracts attached. So freaking exciting.
Before I went to bed in my last night in California, I looked back to a note I had written myself a couple of nights previously when I was stressing about Pitchfest. I had titled it, “Things I Will NOT Do at Pitchfest.”:
1. Cry while pitching idea.
2. Admit to hating Forrest Gump.
3. Devolve into a synopsis of Cannonball Run.
4. Slap an executive.
5. Ask if they like me or how well it is going.
6. Burp, vomit, fart, snort, or squeal.
7. Act out plot with makeshift sock puppets.
8. Sing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
9. Call my ideas “edgy,” “the shit,” or “boffo socko.”
10. Ask for drugs.
11. Do America Ferrera impersonation.
12. Refer to “my personal pain.”
13. Forget the names of my characters or common words like “bathroom” [wizz palace, tm Amy Poehler]
14. Start with, “My name is Casey. I like fly-fishing, antique cars, and round numbers like a million.”
15. Affect a British, Australian, Puerto Rican…okay, any accent.
Looking back, I had only violated two rules I had set for myself. I’ll leave which ones up to your imagination.
I added to this list a new one. This list was “TEN THINGS I LEARNED AT PITCHFEST.”:
1. In moments of desperation, some go out for blood, and some realize we’re all in this together.
2. I prefer the latter.
3. “That’s a very good pitch” is a consolation prize.
4. Reading producers’ faces is very painful in that you know the moment when they disconnect, but reading producers’ faces has to happen or else you will never connect.
5. You really should have a cast in mind and a sense of budget.
6. Don’t apologize for anything you have done or thought, unless you can be really charming about it.
7. Bring one-sheets.
8. Hearing a cowbell every 5 minutes for 7 hours is demeaning, but you have to act like it’s normal.
9. A cocktail at lunch never hurts, but two might (didn’t test it).
10. People act like they’re open to lots of things, but usually have a very narrow field of expectation.
11. Be prepared to speak to how these ideas got in your head.
12. Don’t be afraid to admit to being over-educated. It’ll weed out a few, but more likely generate respect.
13. Don’t try to reproduce a pitch verbatim, or even close. Go with the flow in your head, as prompted by the demeanor of your audience.
14. Don’t stare at what they’re writing.
15. Refuse to be humiliated.
16. This is an arguable one, but I felt whenever I found myself saying, “This is the kind of experience I want my audience to have. I want them to feel this, and then learn that,” people listened harder and respected me more.
17. Never trust a damn hotel’s computer service for printing, copying, or (god forbid) designing a document.
18. Find a few anchoring, solid cool people to touch base with periodically.
19. If you love your ideas and stories, good people will see it.
20. I can survive this world of Hollywood, and maybe even thrive in it, at least once a year.