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rand's ramblings on this and that


No Class Pretzels and the Art of the Pitch:
LA Diary 2: The Sequel

LA Diary
Day One, Thursday

When I decided to come to LA to attend Screenwriters Expo 2, I happened to be talking with my friend, Trevor. "Wish I could go," he said.
Trevor's in his early 50's and doesn't work -- he suffers from pretty hefty depression and takes a whole host of meds to keep it under control. He had to quit working a couple of years ago and was pushed into applying for permanent disability by his docs (and insurance company).

My conscience got the better of me, I guess. In a moment of weakness I said, "Well ... I've got a hotel room....if you could figure out a way to get a ticket..."

A couple of days later, he had a ticket, a gift from his businessman brother. He simply transferred the last number of points he had on American Airlines to Trev and, voila, Trev's on his way to LA.

We were both on the same flight out of Raleigh and Trevor walked up to me at the airport as I was putting my shoes back on. (Everyone was taking off their shoes for the x-ray machine. I suppose the three film scripts in my carry on and the possibility of really bad paper cuts that could be inflicted on the crew of the airplane seemed to escape the security folks, but I digress.)

" I'm in first class," Trevor said with the best enthusiasm he could muster.
Trevor? In first class?

I work my butt off in a job that gets on my nerves, save up for months for this trip. Back home, Trevor is mistaken for a homeless person when he goes to the coffee shop near his house. (One time, a homeless guy asked him for a hand out and another one said, "Don't try to get anything outta him! He's homeless, too!")

First class, eh?

I looked at my own ticket. Under the heading "Class" was the notation "N" which, I believe, is shorthand for "No class".

I suffered through the tiny bag of pretzels and slightly flat Diet Coke, the crowded stuffy cabin and seats smaller than my ... my .... Well, they were _small_.

We changed planes in Chicago and headed for Los Angeles. Trevor smiled and waved to me as I got on the plane and passed by the well endowed leather seats.

After getting off the plane at LAX and waiting for our luggage, I queried Trev about his First Class experience.

" There were a couple of Hollywood execs there," he said. "One of them took one look at me and immediately headed for another seat. The other had a trophy wife and trophy kid. You know -- blonde, big boobs." (The trophy bimbo, not the trophy kid.)

Note to self: On next flight to LA, get out credit card. Check credit card limit. Get First Class ticket. Wear nice black artsy outfit. Look disinterested but enthusiastic.

" I had a turkey sandwich. Piled this high," Trevor said, indicating a slab of meat about as thick as my .... my ... Well.... it was thick. "And lots of cashews."

My lunch was a single very thin slice of turkey. And cheese -- very orange cheese of uncertain provenance. And pretzels.

Note to self: On next flight to LA, get out credit card. Check credit card limit. Get First Class ticket ...

Checking into the hotel brought back memories of my last LA trip. In fact, I think this was the same room. (Perhaps I should leave some graffiti on the bottom of the desk in case I check in next year.)

For dinner, Trevor wanted to go to Clifton's Cafeteria. So, we set out walking. We wound up on the old Broadway, once a center of the movie theaters in town. We saw the old movie house that was built to show Chaplin's "City Lights". Now the whole street is like an open air Hispanic flea market, selling Mexican food, Chinese herbs, Latin music, cell phones and calling cards, and knockoff low rise Brittany Spears blue jeans.

Clifton's Cafeteria, built in 1933, would best be described as a hunting lodge envisioned by a Warner Brothers set designer. It looked like one of the interiors done for "The Petrified Forest" -- there was a stuffed bear wearing a floppy fishing hat with a fishing pole, a giant mural of a forest, and logs, logs, logs everywhere. On the second level was a little log cabin chapel with a big neon cross on top. (I found out later that the chapel in Clifton's Cafeteria was declared by "LA Weekly" as the best place to have semi-public sex.) Clifton's had photos and postcards on the wall covering their history; at one time they had another restaurant with a South Seas flavor that looked like Martin Denny upchucked a tiki-lounge, including a giant palm tree with leaves made of neon.

Then it was off to LA's Museum of Contemporary Art. It's free on Thursday nights and all the students were out. Featured were exhibits from the Gehry architectural firm that designed the new (and very controversial) Disney concert hall, just a couple of blocks up the street from MOCA. The designs reminded me a bit of a prodigious, gifted and annoying child playing with too much shiny silver wrapping paper at Christmas. The exhibits from the permanent collection were more promising -- I got to see a smattering of Jackson Pollack's, Warhol's and other greatest hits of avant gardes of the past few decades.

Note to self: Take along a Pepcid the next time someone drags you to Clifton's Cafeteria.

LA Diary
Day Two, Friday

The conference was off to a promising start. I had several sessions lined up today that dealt with the business end of being a screenwriter. One in particular had a lot of good info from an independent producer about lying your way into a job in Hollywood. (Of course, he wouldn't recommend outright lying to get a job in Hollywood -- just an expediate extension of truthfulness.)

His session was on writing for the cable and broadcast cable movie market. One trick he used, which I thought was rather clever, was to get a cheap (ie, no money involved) contract with someone who had an interesting true life story for a "right to shop". In other words, your contract gives you the exclusive rights to shop their story for a specified period. Hmm ... do I know any inspiring women overcoming breast cancer...? (Well, a ripped from the headlines TV movie ain't high art, but, hey, it's a living.)

Another had a great lady who had worked in TV for cop shows back twenty years ago when women just didn't write for cop shows. She talked about writing for the marketplace, how to research trends in the business, and told everyone to get over the delusion that an agent would actually get work for you. She encouraged everyone to start thinking of their writing as a small business with you - the writer - as the primary force behind the sales. Lot's of good advice -- look for "schmooze ops", look for ways to get your name and face out there outside of writing query letters to producers, find the niche you have -- the knowledge or skill that makes you stand out from the crowd. Oh -- and don't forget to give small gifts to agent and producer's assistants that have taken your calls or helped you out -- they're the real cogs in the wheel that can block or open the way for you.

One woman in the audience asked her an interesting question. "I'm writing a script about an inner city Black high school kid. What are my chances?" this very white woman asked.

The speaker paused a beat.

" Do you want an honest answer or do you want the politically correct answer?" Blacks, Hispanics and Asians, she said, really hadn't made much progress in Hollywood and tended to set up their own production companies -- unfortunately, they ain't gonna buy a script about a Black high school student from a white middle aged woman.

"It's really a shame," she said. "The only people that have really made progress in Hollywood are the Gays and Lesbians -- God bless 'em."

I thought about "Will and Grace" and "Ellen". I'm sure I winced. Visibly.

I started putting together a list of goals for the next year or two -- the sessions this year seem to be getting me to focus a bit more.

Trevor was hoping to use the bus system while he was in town to sight-see as I attended the conference. Of course, there would be a transit strike when we came into town. So, he spent the day around downtown, getting the low-down on what buses were in operation. He took a tour of all the old theaters done by the Chamber of Commerce. You could go inside these old movie palaces, some dating back to the days of vaudeville, and see how they had been converted into storefronts with warehouses in the back where the actual movie house part was. He was able to go inside all of them except one, now owned by eccentric televangelist Dr. Gene Scott. Scott converted the old decadent movie house into a church and doesn't let the tours in because he afraid that his church would be a target of terrorists. The interior, however, is fully restored and can be viewed if you attend one of his services on Sunday.

LA Diary
Day Three, Saturday

Nervous. Yeah, that's a good way to describe it -- nervous.

I'm doing two pitches tomorrow and I'm already feeling a little nervous. I'm going off in the corner to practice my pitch now and then between sessions. Not panicking, not yet. Nervous, yeah, definitely nervous.

Ran into a young African-American woman at the Expo from Sanford, North Carolina. She was quite happy to run into someone else from the Tarheel State. We exchanged pitches -- she seemed to like mine and it just rolled off my tongue like nobody's business.

Yeah ... maybe I can pitch tomorrow afterall ....

More good sessions today. One lady talked about getting over our fear of writing genre pictures -- thriller, horror, comedies -- because that's what sells in the spec script market. (A "spec" script is what all of us have -- a speculative, completed script done by a writer for no specific assignment.) She did a good breakdown of the market, noting that genre pictures are what bring in the most money and play in the theaters for 3/4 of the year. Most beginning screenwriters want to write serious drama, but a spec sale on a drama script is almost unheard of -- it's the thing you write after you get established. I already knew this stuff, but it was reassuring to hear it again.

Another was on shopping your work without an agent. More good advice here that I'd heard before -- make yourself unique, get your face and name out there, etc, etc. Here, I started understanding what an agent actually does -- really, a lot of nothing for most writers. They have one or a handful of a-list clients that are their bread and butter that they drool over all day. When producers are looking for someone to work, the names of the b-list writers are put on a list by their representative agents and sent to the producers -- it's rare that they actually network and push to get work for you directly and it can be kind of random. (One lady noted that she was involved with the WGA's application process and that a hefty percentage of writers that sell a spec script and get an agent never get another script sold or any work in town and have to give up their membership. She talks to them and they're always the one's who think that the agent's going to actually do all the work for them.)

Note to self: Stop worrying that you won't be able to find an agent. They don't matter. They smell money and will come to you, if needed.

LA Diary
Day Four, Sunday

Okay...panic...maybe not as serious as panic. Maybe past nervous, but not exactly panic.

My two pitches are today, one at 10:00 and another at 3:45.

I can't seem to concentrate on anything else.

One good session this morning, though by a lit agent. Made a very good point that I hadn't thought of before -- the average movie in Hollywood costs $65 million dollars to make plus an additional $20 million for P&A (prints and advertising).

Rather sobering thought, don't you think?

I'm approaching producers and other big wigs and asking them to spend $65 million dollars on my idea.

She talked about having absolute confidence in your script and idea and using your own enthusiasm for your work to get others excited about what you can do. Afterall, who's going to invest $65 million in an idea from somebody who's mumbling, depressed, and acts like William Faulkner? Your enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm can spread like wildfire in a room.

Note to self: Stay away from depressed Trevor before pitch. Must stay away from Trevor before pitch ...

Architects -- that's what writers should think of themselves as, architects. She had a good point -- one shouldn't get all upset that the production company wants to change your script or hire someone else to beef up your dialogue. My script is a blueprint for a $65 million collaborative commercial project. I shouldn't get bent out of shape if a room has to be added or taken away in the best interest of the whole building. And I certainly shouldn't get concerned about what color the drapes are. They're looking for people who can collaborate and are easy to get along with -- leave the shit outside the door, go with the flow, just do the work and enjoy it.

She also talked about building up a library of scripts and ideas and being ready to pitch them at a moment's notice. Invariably, you'll go in to pitch one idea when an executive will interrupt you to say, "What else you got?" They'll do this, even if they're interested in your idea -- they want to have a sense of you as a total person and writer. If you've got everything invested in that one script and have absolutely no other ideas, you'll come across as not being serious about your work.

Time for my first pitch.

I had no idea what to expect. I had spent the last hour clearing my head, getting in a Zen-like state of blankness. Calm. Nothing in my head but my pitch. And remember to smile.

The pitches last five minutes, timed by a bell. The organizers stood outside the room calling out every few minutes: "9:45! 9:45!"; "9:50! 9:50!"

Suddenly, it was my turn. "10:05!"

I stepped into the room with about a dozen other people pitching at the same time to different company reps. We were herded into a kind of waiting area of three groups, a well-honed assembly line set up just for the purpose of sending pitches to company reps every five minutes for eight hours.

The group at the front of the room had some guy talking to them. Soon, it was there time and in they went.

Our group finally made it to the headmaster, an organizer from "Script" magazine. He gave us a pep talk and showed us a diagram of the room. "Head straight for your table," he said. "The clock starts ticking the minute you go into the room."

Palms. Palms sweating. Breath deeply, Rand, breath deeply.

" Be upbeat! Be enthusiastic!" he gushed. "These people have been sitting here all day -- don't let me down by going in there and making them feel down!"

He told some kind of story about meeting Katherine Hepburn and did a bad imitation of her as we were sent through the birth canal door to the chamber of horrors ... err... producers.

Something kicked in and I went straight for the table of the rep. I smiled, I shook hands. She smiled and said hello. I introduced myself and went into my pitch.

Her eyes ... her eyes are starting to drift ... what's happening? Change course, Randy, change ....

Oops, too late, time's up.

" Oh, I'm sorry," she said. "They had a misprint on the Expo web site. Your scripts sounds really interesting, but it's definitely a feature. We're only looking for one hour episodics..."

Smile. Grit teeth, but smile. Thank you. Have a nice day.

For some reason, the panic set in after I got out of the room. I feet as though I had just been in a near car accident, replaying a near death experience over and over again.

I can understand how fear grips this town. Everything rests on that one pitch, that one contact. This could be the one that makes something happen. Five minutes of someone's time resulting in someone else investing $65 million in your idea.

I went to another session after that, but don't remember much about it. It was about producing your own feature -- a panel of indie producers talking about shooting low budget 35mm and digital movies. Nothing new here; I found out all this when I made my own documentaries. They did hand out a good published article from an entertainment lawyer about viral marketing of movies like "Memento" and "Crouching Tiger".

It was time for my second pitch. 3:45 in the afternoon. The last pitch session of the day. The last group of writing hopefuls headed for the chamber of producers.

By this point, I was a lot calmer, seeing how the process worked. I rushed into the room and headed straight for my table. The producer was a young guy, probably in his early 30's. Bright eyed, dark curly hair. Thin, tan. He just screamed, "I live in LA."

He was talking on a cell phone.

The clock is ticking. Five minutes. $65 million dollars.

And he's talking on a cell phone?

I smile. Yes, I think, he's wanting to make this an authentic experience.

" Okay, okay ... gotta go. Bye" he finally said, putting away the cursed communications device.

I introduced myself. "I'm sorry," he says, "What's your pitch?"

High energy level -- I can tell that despite having heard these things all day long, he's got enough caffeine in his system to wake all the dead in Forest Lawn.

I go into my pitch. At least a half sentence of my pitch.

" What else you got?"

Deep breath. I hadn't counted on this. He's being active -- the last one just sat there patiently, smiling and politely listening. I struggled and came up with my book about Ray Bourbon, a true story about a drag queen who rode with Pancho Villa (among other things).

" Hmm...sounds interesting. What else?"

I go into my pitch about the redneck tow truck driver in outer space.

" Cool. Can't use it, but sounds cool. What else?"

Deep breath. Think...think. "Passing Through Armageddon. Mysterious man with no name biker defeats an organized gang of thugs in a post apocalyptic world."

" I like it, I like it. Can't use it, but I like it. Okay ... what's this one you came in here to pitch?"

I go into my spiel about "The Overpass".

" Yeah. Great. Sort of "Weekend at Bernie's" meets "Easy Rider". Go on."

(Well, it ain't exactly "Weekend at Bernie's" meets "Easy Rider", but why quibble?)
I tell him about the characters.

" Yeah. Sounds great. Your pitch sucks, but your script sounds really great. Send me thirty pages and a synopsis. Here's my email address. If I were pitching it, I'd do it like this."

The producer proceeds to give me back everything I've told him in the most wonderfully concise and well formed manner that I can imagine. This guy's good -- he's really good.

I was a little numb walking out of the room.

I went back to the room to polish up my synopsis and get my computer hooked up to the flakey phone line at the Holiday Inn to email him the thing.

Trevor was there. He spent the day in Santa Monica at the beach. Took some photos with my camera. On the bus, all the way there, he listened to a guy rant about Hispanics, Mexicans, and several other unrelated topics. (Hmph...reminds me of North Carolina ...)

Later on, we watched "The Sopranos" and "Carnivale" on HBO, the premium channel being one of the few really nice things about staying in a hotel room.

Trevor started coughing and hacking. Cold coming on.

Time for bed. At least, I thought it was time to sleep and my exhausted little self, after two really intense five minute pitches, was ready for some shut eye.

" Cough!" "Hack!"

Yep, Trevor's got a cold. I don't think I got ten minutes of sleep between the snoring, hacking, coughing, and blowing of nose that seemed to be occuring about every ten seconds.

Note to self: Stay away from people who use public transportation.

LA Diary
Day Five, Monday

They had a line up of "day after" sessions sponsored by Sherman Oaks Experimental College. The College does a lot of classes for screenwriters -- Ed McKee, that guru who was portrayed (parodied?) in "Adaptation" got his start in the seminar biz there. A good crowd turned out for the thing. Some good sessions with managers, agents and producers on the in's and outs of what they do and how they work with talent.

There was one really annoying woman in the audience who kept interrupting the speakers, give her question/diatribe with an odd unidentifiable foreign accent.

"Vy do I hav to vwrite crap!" she screamed. "Vy vant to write art! Vy vant to write scripts like "A Beautivul Mind" and "Good Vill Hunting". Vy should I have to vwrite crap!"

The speaker tried to be diplomatic, saying he had a slight disagreement with her about what constituted art. But, if she wanted to write art films, she could have a wonderful time doing it as a nice little hobby while she made her living doing something else. However, he politely and firmly explained, that if she wanted a nice half million dollar house by the beach and a trust fund to put her kids through college, she should shut the fuck up and listen.

" Vy don't vant to vrite crap!"

I thought all three hundred writers in the room wanted to throw very sharp pens at her vital organs.

By noon, I couldn't stay awake. I'm starting to sniffle. Must resist cold virus. Must wash hands. Must find antibacterial soap.

Came back to the room after lunch. Trevor went out briefly and bought cold meds, which I'm sure will have an interesting reaction with all the other depression meds he's taking.

Cough! Hack! Cough! Cough! Bleeck! Hack! Splat!

I collapsed on the bed and tried to sleep. So exhausted.

Cough! Hack! Cough! Cough! Bleeck! Hack! Splat!

I vant to be alone. I vant my half million dollar house by the beach.

Note to self: Stop being nice to people unless they can advance my career. Get first class tickets ....

11.13.03, rand@coolcatdaddy.com