Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Glengary GlenHollywood

Fascinating (if not terrifying) article in Tuesday’s LA TIMES Calendar section about the lengths a writer must go to today to sell a movie pitch. By and large you must polish your pitch, have rehearsals in front of your agents, videotape your spiel and analyze it, and the article suggests that in some cases even enlist focus groups to get feedback. It’s now officially insane.

What the article didn’t say was that generally pitch sales (for all of that) pay less than spec sales, only top echelon writers are invited to pitch (unless they’re attached to top echelon talent), and for all the hoops you must go through, pitches are sold more because the studio has a need for that particular genre, or wants to be in business with you or a member of your team for some reason (heat, Laker floor seats), or the idea is so bulletproof that Stuttering Larry could sell it.

And after they buy it they STILL make you change it. “Can you make the Chinese Warlord a high school ballerina instead?” “Does the fall of Rome have to be a period piece?” “Yeah, I know the part is the Grand Wizard of the KKK but I hear Samuel L. Jackson is looking for a project.”

And by this time you’ve put so much time and effort into making the sale you’re sure not going to let it get away.

What this new trend means is that in addition to being a great writer you now have to be Elmer Gantry. Or even, INSTEAD of being a great writer you have to be Elmer Gantry. Forget those pesky writing courses, go to Zig Zigman seminars.

The trouble is, many screenplay writers I know ARE screenplay writers because they feel most comfortable locking themselves alone in a room for months at a time. They hope to impress all the girls in high school and college they were afraid to talk to by writing dazzling movies. Now they must pitch, and who do they pitch to? By and large those same girls. All that’s missing is the Chinese Water Torture.

The reason pitching has evolved (sunk?) to this level is simple: studios spend less money. They buy fewer pitches. Writers have to do more to make a sale. And the added benefit for the studios is that writers now must practically develop the whole movie, with jokes, comic set pieces, trailer moments, one sheet suggestions, maybe even have talent attached all up front, all FOR FREE. Don’t expect this policy to change anytime soon.

The bottom line is, for that amount of pro bono work, it’s almost easier and certainly more satisfying to just write the damn spec. Sell the movie doing what you do, not what Professor Harold Hill does.

p.s.

The point of this was not to depress you but report on the reality and encourage you to just write that spec. No notes, no interference. And if it sells you probably make more than had you sold it as a pitch. So in that regard it's a win/win. And you won't have to sign up for any Karl Rove personal consultations.

11 comments:

Jacques said...

me = officially disheartened

Beth Ciotta said...

Well, jeez. That was totally depressing. And here I harbor a desire to write a screenplay. Well, at least I did. Before reading this post. Me thinks I'll stick to the evil I know--romantic fiction.

af said...

Holy crap. I'm just gonna write the spec.

Film writers go through all that for a pitch and then when it comes time to make the movie they've probably been rewritten five times and aren't allowed on the set, right? Forget that.

Alex Epstein said...

Has anyone been able to find the link? I couldn't find it on the LA Times site... I'd steal a peek at my neighbor's paper but it's the Montreal Gazette.

Vince said...

Here's the article. I wonder if this is more prevalent in selling comedies.

Beth Ciotta said...

Thank you for the link. Vince. Actually, a couple of years ago, I attended a workshop taught by Randall Wallace, screenwriter of one of my all time favorite movies: Braveheart. So not a comedy. He talked about getting 'the call'. Mel (Gibson) read your script. They're interested, but you have to pitch. (paraphrasing here) He relayed a fascinating story about him pitching a story he was passsionate about to Mel Gibson and several studio execs.

Wallace stepped up to the plate. Hit a home run. As then, is now... I'm in awe.

Tom Quigley said...

I thought Beth was gong to finish by saying ..."And Mel took that pitch and script, and turned it into "The Passion of the Christ"... Well, that's Mel.... "Braveheart," "The Patriot," "The Passion"... Weren't they all pretty much the same movie?....

Seriously though, good advice, Ken. I took a couple of screenwriting seminars and workshops while living in LA, and one of the things they sadly spend too little time on is the reality of maybe having to pitch a story, if you're in a situation where it's needed or called for. Out of maybe two eight-hour days, you get about 20 minutes at the end of the second day, by which time everyone is yawning and wondering where the nearest Carl's Jr. is located because the catered lunch consisted of Brie and Triscuits which you could wash down with a bottle of water that came from the 99 Cent Store... (oh, did I mention -- it's usually an agent that's sponsoring these things, and everyone knows how lavishly they like to spend money)...

At any rate, yes, you're better off writing the spec, and getting it out there for circulation. If nothing else, you'll give the 22-year-old reader that CAA just promoted from the mail room something to do over the weekend besides spending all his time on Santa Monica Blvd, trying to pick up hookers....

rorybaldwin said...

I am going to run and hide in my room. If the popular girls from my school have ended up as Hollywood execs, that might explain things...

Constance Reader said...

I write my screenplays because I have a movie playing out in my head and if I don't get it down on paper, I will go insane. If one of them ever sells, wonderful, I can pay off my student loans once and for all. If not...that doesn't diminish my pride in my scripts, the joy of writing them, or the wicked fun of telling people "I'm a writer" in a falsely-slurred voice over a glass of whiskey.

A. M. said...

A while back there was an article in the NYT or LAT re: pitchfests. The poor souls who fork out mucho moolah to get a few minutes of exec's time... what scams they (most often) are... how the pre-pro writers (they are the market for these things, after all, who else has to pay a couple hundred for the right to pitch?) spend their hard-earned cash - take a day off work, fly in from behindape'sarse, pay for accommodation - and still come out of a horrible pitch meeting feeling that it was worth it for the "learning experience". (You might as well throw your money at contests.)

They also talked to execs who had much to say about the perks they get when they do those things.

I'll have to remember to search for that article. It's worth posting.

Also - Rossmedia now offers a bargain. Only 50 $ to pitch to an exec over the phone.

gmjambear said...

I found your blog while surfing for some information on TV theme songs.

Your post provides one answer to the question I have about why Hollywood tends to produce more sequels and remakes and not as many original screenplays, independent features notwithstanding.

I'm not shocked but I'm not surprised. As someone who worked at a network affiliate for nearly two decades, I know a little bit about the politics of producing tv programs. It's not a pretty sight.

When a remake like Fun With Dick and Jane costs an estimated $100 million to produce and a critically-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated movie like The Squid and the Whale is produced for an estimated $1.5 million, something tells me that there is a major disconnect when it comes to projects getting the green light.