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Sunday, March 16, 2008

They Can't Hear Your Pitch If They're Not Awake

Mike Le, a member of the Genre Hacks group on facebook, posted a classic pitch story, which I'm reposting here for all to enjoy. Mikes own blog, entertainingly written as an ongoing comic, can be found here.

They Can't Hear Your Pitch If They're Not Awake:

I pitched to an agent at CAA awhile back. He had some director clients I was looking to attach to a pair of my projects. It was my job to get him interested.

The agent was on the phone at his desk when his assistant maneuvered me into his office. I sat down on the couch as the agent lifted his finger, gesturing for me to be patient with him as he said into his head-set, "...I know I'm being vague, but you gotta over-look his diva-like tendencies. It's a job, it's good money, and you'll be working for the rest of the year, know what I mean? Sure, sure, there are horror stories, but people still want to work with him, and so should you. It's only to your benefit, know what I mean?"

As the agent kept his focus on the phone call, I took a mental catalog of his desk and noticed two large empty Starbucks cups by his computer.

The agent yawned as he continued speaking into his headset, "...you gotta think long term, know what I mean? His cache is only going to rise after the summer. What's good for him is good for you. Listen, I got a 4 0'clock sitting in my office. Call me if you have any other concerns, which you shouldn't. Bye."

The agent hangs up the phone and yawns again. How weird, I thought. I've been in the office barely 5 minutes and he's yawned twice, and his body language seemed very low energy. I guess it is late in the afternoon, and agents do have long days.

The agent gets up and introduces himself. He joins me on the couch. We jump right to it and I pitch the first project. Every writer thinks they're good in the room, and I am no exception. But I couldn't help but notice by the time I was half way done with the pitch, the agent has yawned three more times and his eyes were kind of glazed. It was frustrating -- I could tell he was only registering a fraction of what I was saying. As I continued to pitch, I saw behind him were 2 framed photos. One photo was that of him and a girl in a loving embrace (most likely his wife). The second framed picture was that of a new born infant.

I started to connect the dots. New baby, not much sleep. Coffee may have helped earlier, but now he's crashing. He's in no state to hear a pitch. I was f-cked. This was the worst condition to pitch in. But I would be damn if I was going down like this.

"Get up," I said.
The agent looked at me with surprise and went, "Huh?"
I stood up and repeated, "Get up."
A pause. Then hesitantly, the agent followed and got to his feet.
"It's an old family remedy," I said. "Just do what I do and I promise you won't yawn for the rest of the day."
I backed myself completely against the wall. He did the same against the wall across from me.
"Keep your feet as close to the wall as possible," I said, "Then lean forward as far as you can without falling over."
I bent over and the agent did the same, but not after almost tumbling over first. His assistant looked on from his desk, wondering what the hell we were doing.
"Now take 3 deep breaths," I said, "But on the third breath, hold it in for 10 seconds." I did exactly that, and he imitated my every move.

Once we exhaled on the third breath and straightened up, I told him, "Now shake your hands, then clap them together very loudly 3 times, because when you clap your hands it sends electrical impulses through your arms to your spine, which stimulates the brain." Simultaneously, we did exactly that -- CLAP! CLAP! CLAP! By now, other startled assistants were looking into the office.

"How do you feel?" I asked.
A pause, then the agent said, "I feel a lot more awake now. That was great."
"It never fails," I said, "Something my mother taught me."

Now, here's the thing: This technique was not an old family remedy. It was something I just made up on the spot. I had to do something to break him out of his daze and shake him up. All that mumbo jumbo science I was spouting was bogus. At the very least, I knew the blood rushing to his head when he was bent over would temporarily clear his mind. I didn't care if he would stop yawning for the rest of the day, I just wanted him to stop yawning for the next ten minutes. If he believed it worked, it was good enough for me. But I wasn't quite done yet.

I asked him how he got into the business. If it's one thing I've learned about Hollywood, is that people always wake up when they get an opportunity to talk about themselves. He told me his story, how he worked his way through the mailroom, 4 years at the desk, blah blah blah.

Finally, he was awake. I remained standing and quickly jumped into the second pitch before he could sit down himself (having him on his feet keeps him alert). His body language has changed. His shoulders were perked, his eyes more wide, he seemed focused on my words.

By the end of it, he gave me a long list of his directors who he thinks would be perfect for the project. He really sparked to my pitch. We shook hands, and I left the office.

I took my parking ticket to the assistant's desk.
"Do I need to validate?" I asked.
"No, it's complimentary here," he said, but then asked. "What were you guys doing in there?"
I smiled and said, "Making movies."

A Filmmaker's Life: Live It Up and Write It Down

A Filmmaker's Life: Live It Up and Write It Down

This is a great blog on the importance of filmmakers keeping journals and sketchbooks.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Casting Eric Roberts in The Butcher

I asked action filmmaker Jesse Johnson (an unapologetic Genre Hack) to write something amusing from his latest shoot. Jesse writes:

Writing about my latest shoot is like remembering the details of a fist fight: it's difficult to find anything amusing about it until some time has passed.

So I'll go back to the film I directed last year.

"The Butcher" was going to be my first real performance driven story - still a genre movie, in the gangster/crime milieu, but with significantly less action than anything I had directed before, and mercifully, with no martial arts.

We were looking for a name (Valerie Macafrye was casting). William Morris put forward Tim Allen as a counter casting idea for our aging, ex-enforcer lead, but after a month that didn't work out.

The same thing happened with Ray Romano - when it came down to the wire, playing an alcoholic killer who finishes the movie slaughtering twelve gunmen in a point blank gun fight didn't appeal to him so much.

Somebody said, "Eric Roberts is always available, Jack Gilardi told me so," and we laughed.

But time was running out. Our financing required that shooting take place during a certain window of opportunity, and if we missed that window, it would likely go away. No money, no movie.

So, I met Chaz Palminteri at the Four Seasons. He was nice, but as a director himself, he couldn't see how I was going to manage the 18 day shoot with the amount of action required. I said there wasn't much action! He said that there was, and that he'd probably be required to do his own stunts, and didn't fancy getting bruised up. I reminded him I had been a stunt coordinator for ten years, and his safety would be paramount, but he wasn't overly impressed with my explanation. He passed.

Of course, Eric Roberts was still available. We shook our heads.

We finally got our "big star" when Tom Berenger read and loved the script. But at the last minute signed to his TV show. That was 48 hours to the start of principal. We were at the end of our rope.

So we signed with Eric Roberts.

We were all reeling! But, the joke was on us. Eric, as it turned out, is awesome in the picture. Charming, quiet, and professional, he is a film buff and a historian, and just loved the work, really immersing himself in the character.

The rumors about him being "difficult" proved unfounded, and as to Chaz's predictions: Eric received a fractured rib, third degree burns to his hand, stitches above his left eye, and a bruised abdomen from a machine gun bolt, none of which I found out about until after shooting (Well, truthfully, I saw the bruise, but thought it was make-up, it was so grotesque.)

During a quiet moment, I asked Eric about his vetting process with regard to scripts, he laughed, and said that after the Oscar loss on "Runaway Train" he had asked his agent to find him scripts that were fun and paid, and that had remained his criteria. He was a happy and rich man who owned almost the whole of his city block in the Valley.

I thought about his answer for a while, and can't really find too much wrong with it.

My film turned out well, but of course will not be a theatrical release, a solid D2DVD, hopefully. The point to this is; if there is one, is that there is more to life than the prestige associated with an A picture...

But... that's what we all want really isn't it?

"The Butcher" will be a 2009 DVD release with a theatrical in certain territories. "Charlie Valentine" has just completed principal photography, and it's turned out ever bit the performance driven genre piece I hoped it would be.

by Jesse Johnson

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

How NOT to Pitch to a Studio

On your way to the studio, get stuck in traffic. Use this time to review the pitch and discover glaring plot holes. Regret your decision NOT to rehearse the pitch beforehand so that it will seem more “spontaneous.” Arrive at the studio gate with sharp pains in your stomach. Finish your triple shot latte to help you focus. Forget to ask the guard what building you’re supposed to be going to, and get lost while parking.

As you walk past the soundstages, consider how all the events in your life have led you to this particular moment. Remember the girl who sat with you in a bean-bag chair in the seventh grade. Recall her recoiling from your cold, clammy hands, and squealing, “You are so NOT feeling me up.” Consider how this has become a metaphor for every botched opportunity in your entire life.

Now realize that while daydreaming, you have walked past your destination and nearly been hit by a passing tram. Maintain your dignity by waving at the tourists, knowing that you are a Real Hollywood Screenwriter on his way to a Real Studio Pitch…

… who is now 20 minutes late.

Later, in the waiting room, when the perky assistant asks if you’d like a bottled water, say no, and then wonder why you said it. As your mouth becomes drier and drier, decline to change your mind out of spite.

As you see that there are others in the lobby with you, waiting for their own pitch meetings, notice that they all have whiter teeth than you and much cooler shoes. They speak in confident whispers. They cackle with insider’s poise. Decide that they are a bunch of arrogant hacks. Page through your notes, but discover you can’t concentrate because you’re just so… thirsty.

As you look up at the framed posters on the wall of Hollywood Classics, get lost in fantasies of success and acclaim for your final film. Imagine yourself doing DVD commentary, or swapping cocktail chatter with Woody Allen and David Lynch. Compose your Oscar speech. Become smug. This way when the perky assistant tells you that the Big Executive is ready, you can be absolutely certain that all of your lifelong dreams are entirely dependant on the next ten minutes.

Begin to panic.

Arrive in the Big Executive’s office feigning an attitude of ultra cool detachment while understanding fully that you are fooling no one. As she sits politely, her pen poised expectantly over her notebook, make small talk about how you were almost killed by a tram.

At this point, a soft, rational voice in the back of your head will remind you that she is just an ordinary person, well-meaning and intelligent, who is just as eager to hear a good story as you are to tell it. Ignore this voice.

Instead, become paralyzed with rage and paranoia. Assume that this Hollywood gatekeeper is your personal enemy, the bane of artists worldwide. To her, it’s all about box office returns and bottom lines. Know that her friendly smile is secretly mocking you – judging you. Blurt out. “You wanna know what YOUR problem is?”

Silently pray you haven’t actually said this out loud. Fumble with your papers. Clear your throat. Feel your mind go completely blank. Look down at your notes, and discover they have morphed inexplicably into Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Then, without warning, remember the first beat of your story and abruptly begin pitching. Speak so quickly that the words gush out in an incomprehensible stream of gibberish. Continually glance up at the executive’s face to gauge her every reaction. When she stares blankly back at you, betraying nothing, assume that it’s all going terribly wrong.

When you see finally see an emotion cross her face, forget that you are pitching a horror film and that her revulsion is probably a good sign. Assume instead that she not only loathes your story, but that she hates you personally. She hates the dry-clicking sound your parched lips make in-between syllables. She hates your shoes.

As you continue to crash and burn, make up new story points and new characters off the top your head. Allow these impromptu thoughts to lead you into hopeless tangents. Make up further improbable twists and absurd details; then listen to yourself explain how at the end of the second act, your heroine vomits a three-foot-long centipede. Discover, as you listen, that you are pitching The Most Insipid Story Ever Told.

But then, when all seems lost, remember your story’s electrifying climax. Rise from the ashes. Speak clearly and emphatically. Finish with a crescendo of unexpected payoff and shocking revelation. Astound yourself, but resist the urge to burst into tears.

Bask in triumph.

As you stand to leave the executive’s office and she shakes your cold clammy hand, hang on her every word. Listen desperately for any sign of affirmation. Look for any indication that you might have gotten through. When all she says is “It’s really… very interesting. Thanks so much for coming in,” know with absolute certainty that you have failed.

Lose faith in yourself. Hate your pitiful life. Abandon hope.

Hours later, sit in your little office and sulk. When your agent calls and asks how it went, explain to him that it was perhaps the worst pitch in recorded history, and that you are seriously considering giving up filmmaking forever.

“I just called her,” your agent will say. “And she said the pitch went great. She loved you, and she wants to think it over.” Knowing full well that “think it over” is code for “you are so NOT feeling me up,” assume that your agent too has joined the vast conspiracy against you.

Lastly, as you turn off the light to go to sleep, describe these painstaking details to your long-suffering wife. After the long silence, do not – DO NOT under any circumstances – consider her suggestion…

“Honey, try to get some sleep.”

“I’m too anxious. I’ve got another pitch tomorrow.”

As you lie there, staring up into the darkness, allow her fingers to lace with yours, palm pressed against palm, dry and warm. For a moment, just one moment, be content.

(by Sean Hood - originally published in Written By)