Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Austin 2: Life's a Pitch And Then You Die

The worst part of the process of trying to get a script sold or a movie made, at least for me, is the pitch.

That's when you go in front of an executive or group of executives and try to explain in the span of a couple of minutes why they should buy your movie or TV script.

Some people are great at it. Anthony Zuiker, who was a nobody in Hollywood, sold a TV series he created largely on these amazing pitch sessions, which became sort of legendary around town because he would jump all over the room, over furniture, etc. in his excitement. The series, by the way, was "CSI."

I'm no Anthony Zuiker. The few times I pitched something to executives in Hollywood, they were 1-on-1 meetings over coffee, kind of low-pressure situations.

I went to the Austin Film Festival because my script, "Nightstrike," finished in the Top 10 percent of the drama competition and I got a discount on my conference badge. (And because my parents were generous to fit the bill; thanks mom and dad.) I decided to enter the pitch competition as well.

The pitch competition involves you standing up in a room full of other writer wanna-be's and pitching your script in 90 seconds to a couple of judges, who then score you and critique you. My session's judges were a producer who I had spent two days building a relationship with and a former Austin Film Festival winner for best script.

I figured with my natural, Cary Grant-like charm, I'd at least be competitive. Um, not so much.

Most of the people in front of me bombed. My confidence swelled as I figured I could win simply by not screwing up. Then the person scheduled to go in front of me got criticized for using notecards. Uh oh. I hadn't written my pitch out word for word, but I had a notebook with prompts that I was going to use to help my pitch along. Suddenly, I was self-conscious for bringing up the notebook.

So I told myself "Don't break eye contact! Don't break eye contact!" Ten seconds into the pitch, I looked down at the notebook for the prompt. "You broke eye contact, moron!" the voice inside my head screamed. I quickly looked back to the judges - without having looked at the prompt I had written down. So I look down again. "You just did it again, idiot!" the voice screamed.

So, with 80-plus seconds left in the pitch, I'm now completely discombobulated. I have no idea what I'm saying or where I am or how much time is left. I have an out-of-body experience in which I'm floating above my struggling self - it's like quicksand, the more you struggle, the deeper you sink - and the voice is saying, "What? Did you hit your head or something?" Somehow, the pitch finally ends - within 90 seconds, by the way - and the judges have these sort of frozen expressions over the car wreck they just witnessed.

The thing is, if I had any sort of level of competence, the contest was mine to lose. David, the exec I had been talking with all weekend, gave me a 15 on a 1-15 point scale for "quality of idea." I got 4s in both "performance" and "execution."

Bill, the writer serving as a judge, said to me (I'm not making this bit up), "You know, a lot of people had been talking about Nightstrike and I was really curious to read it. But after hearing your pitch, I'm not sure I'd want to read it after that."

There were other criticisms, though they are a bit irrelevent now. I scored a 50 total on the 90-point scale, the lowest total in the room. The only person I beat was the person who didn't show up. The two writers who won from my particular session absolutely deserved it. One was also an actor, and he gave a great performance in describing his horror script. The judges' nitpick was that his presentation was "too rehearsed." (Afterwards, he said to me, "Of course it was, I rehearsed it 600 times!") The other writer wrote a comedy that had the judges laughing the entire time.

The only other person whose pitch was any good was a writer named Isadora Deese, who attended FPD and now works at MIT. So at least one Maconite did the city proud.

After it was done, and I discovered a new level of self-loathing beyond my normal one, the pitch coordinator, a lovely young woman named Monica, offered me another shot at pitching that afternoon. I passed, since my self-confidence was already shot enough for one day.

Next time, I'll just hire an actor to do it for me.

TONIGHT'S BEST BET: I was told that some of the cast and crew for "Friday Night Lights," (NBC, 8 p.m.), which films not too far from Austin, was hanging around at the festival, but I missed running into them.

Anyway, "Lights" will air a new episode tonight, then switch to Mondays at 10 p.m. after "Heroes" for next week since NBC is no longer running dramas or comedies in the 8 p.m. hour, a rather short-sighted move and a band-aid, at best, for the network's problems.

The problem isn't the people buying and developing pilots; this is the network that this year alone has produced "Heroes," "Lights," "Studio 60," and "Kidnapped," the last three of which are doing lousy ratings not because of quality, but because of timeslots. "Lights" opened up against shows like "House" and "Gilmore Girls;" "Studio 60" has to go against "CSI: Miami."

Anyway, NBC has ordered a full order of 22 scripts from "Lights" producers; how many of them end up getting shot is anybody's guess.

Game 3 of the World Series (Fox, 8 p.m.) airs tonight. See if you can spot any illegal substances on the pitchers' hands.


Anonymous said...

Horified by the story of your pitch. Does that mean you have killed the chance of selling script? I don"t understand why you did'nt take the second opportunity to pitch. You could have practice

Zodin2008 said...

I agree with anonymous--he sounds like a wise man! ;-) But if you ever need help selling something, call me--it's what I do for a living.

I know how to verbally read a room and for what I am sure is an amazing script (though I wouldn't know since I haven't read it)--sounds like it's som ething to fight for.

"Friday Night Lights" is excellent and I think NBC realizes at this point that people have their bad T habits (i.e. the dull as rocks "CSI" franchise) so NBC might as well stick with quality and take all the Emmy's home.

I am sure you heard tonight that as of November 30th, NBC is bringing back the 2 Hour comedy block--the exact block I suggested on my Blog back in June--My Name is Earl, The Office, Scrubs and 30 Rock.

It should also give the wonderful Jane Leeves a chance to white out that horrible "20 Good Years" from her resume since the show will be leaving the airwaves soon.