The film-pitch session – the one in which I’m one of 10 pre-selected participants – has begun and I’m not there.
I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to free my new pink tie from the coffee stain it just acquired. I consider taking it off, but that would ruin my plan to brand myself as the guy pitching “Pink” by wearing a pink tie each of my four days at the American Film Market.
“Pink” is a dramatic comedy based on Sacramento’s 1969 “bottomless” stripper trial, which made national news when Judge Earl Warren Jr. temporarily moved proceedings to a strip club so jurors could fairly determine whether the nude dancing violated community standards.
Hoping to jump-start a long-shot mission to get my screenplay made, I shelled out $495 for a four-day pass to attend AFM in Santa Monica this past November.
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The American Film Market is one of the largest film events in the world. It’s Cannes on the California coast minus the red carpets, stars and big premieres. In a mad multiday rush, independent film producers try to find financing and distribution for their projects.
I’ve been working on local films for three years now, but my credits don’t amount to much when compared with most of the nearly 8,000 people attending the market.
But some of the people attending the pitch session in the cavernous hotel ballroom are like me – looking for a break.
On the stage evaluating the pitches – and offering constructive criticism – are three Hollywood heavyweights: Stephanie Palmer, a former director of creative affairs at MGM; Tobin Armbrust, producer of “Begin Again,” “Rush” and “End of Watch”; and Cassian Elwes, producer of “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Blue Valentine.”
Participants get two minutes on stage to pitch their idea. Ten were selected ahead of time after submitting a video. Another 10 were plucked from the audience. At the end of the session, the judges will pick a winner, who receives a modest cash prize, and hopefully some notoriety for his or her script.
In the bathroom, I blot my tie with a moist towel and then hustle to the ballroom where I’m set to present.
“Can you tell I spilled coffee on my tie,” I ask the security guy at the door as I enter the ballroom.
“Oh yeah,” he replies.
‘Always lead with genre’
As I reclaim my seat, Palmer is offering an abbreviated lesson on pitching a film to Hollywood producers.
“Always lead with genre,” she says (a tip she gives in her book “Good in a Room”). “Don’t make people guess whether it’s a comedy, drama or otherwise based on your description.”
Despite a changing technological landscape, the face-to-face pitch has endured as an integral part of the filmmaking process.
“The verbal pitch is one of the most powerful ways to get an idea across simply because it’s not technologically scalable – it requires the scarce resources of time and attention,” Palmer said in a recent interview. “Granted, a verbal pitch can be captured on video, but even that isn’t as compelling as pitching in person.”
While she’s talking, other presenters around me are staring at their phones and reviewing their words. I’m half-listening as I make a risky decision to rework the top of my spiel.
Public-speaking experts say that opening with a joke is a great when it works … but only if it works. With my turn approaching, I decide to start my pitch with a zinger about the stain.
It’s a risk, but you know the saying: Fortune favors the bold.
What is the AFM?
Six months ago I didn’t know what American Film Market was. When a local actress asked me whether I was going, I played it off by saying I wasn’t sure.
Getting a script read by anyone who matters in Hollywood is ridiculously difficult. Most agents, producers and studios won’t read unsolicited work. Winning a screenwriting competition is one way to get attention, but that involves months of finger-crossing. After weeks of failed attempts to get “Pink” read, I was ready to try something new.
For people outside the business there isn’t a lot of reason to know about AFM. It’s more business than glitz and glamour. As the name states, it’s a market, where goods are sold and bought. This year, the event attracted 1,670 buyers from 70 countries.
The event, founded in 1981, is the outgrowth of independent film producers trying to solve a problem. When a big studio makes a movie, its European arm handles subtitling, marketing and distribution. But what’s the indie producer to do? The answer has been to sell the distribution rights to a partner company, explains Jonathan Wolf, executive vice president of Independent Film & Television Alliance, the organization behind AFM.
Each year, the Loews Santa Monica Hotel is turned into a bazaar, as distribution companies turn hotel rooms into temporary offices adorned with posters of each company’s recent works, from Asian action movies to B-grade slashers. Producers without pre-arranged meetings network by walking the halls.
Wolf said writers attending AFM might benefit most by meeting an experienced producer who can move a project forward. For a script to sell, it often needs to be “packaged.” In this world, “packaged” means attaching a director and talent of note, which can help secure money to make the movie.
“Filmmaking is a collaborative art and collaborative business,” Wolf said. “You need to meet the right people. Most writers aren’t great pitchers or packagers.”
I hoped to defy those odds.
And the pitch …
Back at the pitch session, I’ve watched a few of my colleagues crash and burn.
One presenter got the business from the panelists for looking at her notes. Another was told his idea was boring. And two screenwriters from France were ridiculed for having a talking plane in their television show pitch.
None of my pitch practice sessions had gone perfectly, but I’m determined not to let a quest for perfection ruin a good pitch. Confidence is what I need.
My turn arrives. I open with levity. I explain that I spilled coffee on myself and that if Palmer had a book “Good in a Suit” I’d be interested.
Laughter from the crowd.
I then deliver my pitch for the next minute and 50 seconds. “Pink” is a sexy dramatic comedy. A free-speech-loving exotic dancer battles a small-town sheriff and bares it all to convince a jury that her revealing dance is art worthy of protection.
Giving their feedback, Armbrust and Elwes make these points: Period pieces are expensive; I didn’t address the dancer’s motivation; and it might be hard to cast the lead, given the requirement for nudity.
I counter by saying that creating a late-’60s look wouldn’t be that difficult; if I had more time, I’d speak to motivation; and Hollywood is filled with brave women.
Defending your work to people with the power to make your project is a delicate proposition. I don’t want to be steamrolled, but I don’t want to disrespect their wisdom, either.
But it’s clear that my pitch went over well. During a break in the program, I collect business cards from dozens of people who suddenly want to talk to me. In a flash, I went from a nobody to a guy who people wanted to chat up.
When it came time to announce the winner, I was sure I had a shot.
Elwes announces the winner: “Blind Courage,” the true story of a blind man who hiked the Appalachian Trail with his dog, had several things I did not – a director, an actor and money.
Several people tell me they thought I should have won. It soothes the ego some, but does little to help move “Pink” from script to screen.
You never know, right?
The perfect ending would have been for me to have signed a big-money deal to have my script produced. That didn’t happen.
AFM probably wasn’t the best use of my energy, but I didn’t know that when I signed up. That the marketing material touts: “How George Clooney’s ‘The Ides of March’ was financed at the AFM” should have been a clue. There are very few George Clooneys.
I came away humbled, but undeterred. But here’s what I learned: Films don’t come together in a weekend, even after great pitch. Despite new ways to connect, nothing beats the lobby bar for networking. And films are not made by people who stay at home.
Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.