Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Going to a Pitch Summit with Phillip Mottaz

I'm bringing in a guest blogger today. My friend Phillip Mottaz recently attended a pitch summit and wrote about his experiences on his blog. I thought it was very informative and quite on-topic to what I cover here, so with his permission I'm reprinting it. In addition to checking out Phillip's blog, I recommend you follow him on Twitter.

Going to a Pitch Summit
by Phillip Mottaz

I recently participated in the Fall 2012 InkTip Pitch Summit, wherein I met with over 50 industry insiders to pitch my screenplay. It was a long day, and I don’t know many people who have gone through such a thing, so I’m sharing my thoughts, as is the point of a blog.

I arrived at 7:45AM, as I had paid for the “executive” level of attendance, meaning I paid a little more for the privilege of eating breakfast and lunch onsite, allowing for more one-on-one schmoozing time. So I arrived at the Burbank Marriot convention center, checked in and wandered around the gigantic room.

It was filled with numbered tables and model-type girls in short black dresses. No food yet. And nobody really explaining what was going on. When the food arrived, I helped myself, but realized there wasn’t a clear plan laid out of where to eat. I gathered that I was supposed to sit anywhere and engage whoever I wanted or could. Except for the model-type girls, who were as uninterested in everything as you could possibly imagine.

I sat at Table 36 and talked with one of the few people in the entire room sitting on the producer side — so a quick word about that. Each of these numbered tables would represent where a respective producer/agent/talent/script-seeker would sit. You, the writer/pitcher, would sit on the opposite side of the table. The tables were organized by genre, which would make more sense later when the writers assembled outside the convention room, but inside it kind of didn’t matter.

ANYWAY, I sat and had a nice schmoozy chat with a producer who was looking for comedies as well as a guy to do punch-ups. We also talked about web videos, which it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about. The line was basically “The old way is gone. Computers are the future, man!” I didn’t argue.

9:00AM and the InkTip stage managers call all the writers out of the convention room and into the hallway. There, we found a series of numbers and names hanging from a clothesline. These were related to the tables inside. Organized by genre, each table could have as many as four different companies sitting at it at any time (I stress “at any time,” because these producers were real people existing in the real world, so some were late, some left early, some never showed, and many had to get up to pee a few times, so it was entirely possible that when you entered the room to pitch, the table wasn’t filled). Writers picked the line they wanted and stood under that number.

The stage manager would call “Writers on deck,” and all the writers at the head of their respective lines would step into the pre-boarding area, waiting to hear “Open doors.” When the doors opened, those writers entered the room and their time began. Five minutes. Five minutes to make your introduction, pitch your movie, get some sort of “Yes” and get their contact information. Sounds like speed dating, and I’m sure it is very much like it.

Personally, I had a lot of fun doing this. I was rehearsed, but nervous. I’ve pitched at formal meetings, but never done this sort of thing, which sometimes went like a personal one-on-one and other times verged into “American Idol” territory. I met a ton of people and — most importantly — I did my reps at pitching. I thought on my feet constantly, not to feed them what they wanted, but to adapt to the particular situation at that moment. If a decade of improv experience has taught me anything, it’s that recognizing the weird things everyone sees is a good thing. Ignoring it makes you seem out of touch. So I did that. I made jokes about how well these guys memorized each face, and told the last guys before lunch that “We’re half way there!” I figured it’s better to behave like a reasonable human being than try to wow people with a lot of flashy crap…

Which leads me to the advice portion of this entry. There were probably 200+ writers there, ranging from one end of the professional spectrum to the next. Many people flew in for this event; I met people from West Virginia, Iowa and even Alaska and Scottland. So my first piece of advice to anyone considering doing one of these pitch fests is: Don’t hang your career on it. Professional buzzkill Craig Mazin has made it a point in the Script Notes podcast of saying that these types of events are not after making movies, they are after your money. Make no mistake: there were no A-list super-power agents or producers at this thing. Nobody with tremendous clout was going to sit for 8 hours listening to mini-pitches on a Saturday in Burbank. They do that during their work week, with established writers who don’t pay hundreds of dollars for the slim chance of getting a nod from a production assistant. I’m not calling out InkTip in any way — I think it’s awesome that they do this and I like their site. I’m just saying that if you live in Rhode Island and you’ve saved up all year to pay for this trip and come to this pitch summit, you are wasting your money. Overnight success rarely happens, and it’s even more rare that it happens over night. If you truly believe in your project and you live outside of the Southern California area, then you’d be better served to make the movie yourself.

This leads me to my other bit of advice: Flashy is not professional. As I said, there were a lot of people at this summit, but I felt I could pick out the pros (or semi-pros) without thinking twice. They were the guys who dressed comfortably. They were probably not wearing really nice suits. They were probably not the ones carrying art work for their as-yet unproduced screenplay. They were probably not the ones with a trailer for their as-yet unproduced screenplay on their laptop*. Guys, I get it. I’ve been there, too. You think, “I’ll impress them with how passionate I am.” But it looks ridiculous.

When you think about it, if you went to the trouble of creating a poster or character concept art or a trailer for your UNPRODUCED screenplay, why don’t you just make the movie? Why are you at this summit? You think you’re giving off a message of professionalism, but I’d argue you’re coming off as lazy. You obviously have a vision and you have some time on your hands. You may even have some money. Why are you asking these guys for more?

Like I said, I’ve been there. My sketch group sent out “hilarious” press packets and we made “ingenious” posters for pitch meetings we had. But even at this level, you’re dealing with pros. And even if they’re not pros, they’ve seen a poster before. They’ve seen a trailer before. They’ve seen a suit before. All you end up doing is making things complicated and distracting from your actual script. You end up being memorable for the wrong reasons.

BACK TO THE SUMMIT: My main focus was the Comedy Genre tables (29-39). Some fit my logline, some did not. There were some tables looking for “spiritual elements,” others asking for “Horror comedies.” I initially skipped those. But by 11:30 or so, I was done. I had pitched my feature to every one of those tables. I moved on to the “All Genre” tables and started cruising through them, too. I watched the clock thinking, “It would be a waste of money to finish by lunch. I paid for the whole day.” So I expanded my push in two ways: I justified my story to fit more genres (“It’s about a community coming together, spiritual table. What could be more uplifting than that?”) and I actually pitched another movie all together to tables I’d already visited.

See, my plan was to focus on ACTING COACH, the script I’d just finished and was most proud of. But I had other stuff — particularly VAMPIRE SURF BAND, a horror comedy. The problem (and I use that term loosely) was that I had only printed out one sheets for ACTING COACH. But when I stared at the Horror Comedy table, and saw their line was unfilled, I improvised. I took out some business cards, wrote “Vampire Surf Band” on the back, and quickly ran through an impromptu pitch in my head.

And it worked (in as much as they liked what they heard). One table actually started writing down the names of directors they knew who might be interested in such a project. All that off of an opportunity seized, and without a full-sized poster!

In hindsight, my advice would be: roll with it, adapt and bring more ideas than you need. Had I a great action script, I would have been really busy.

Like I said, the main thing I took from this was getting in my real-world** reps of pitching. I had my speech all rehearsed, timed and prepped, but I would always have to adapt to their questions. “Who do you see as the lead?” “How’s it end?” “What type of budget are you looking at” “Will this make a lot of money?” (that was an easy one to answer) “Not interested. Got anything else?” etc. Writing them out now, they seem like obvious questions anyone in a pitch meeting would field. But in the live setting, it’s easy to get flustered.

No lie, I stumbled a couple times. Especially when I added the second pitch to my repertoire, I would sometimes forget which one I was leading with by the end of the night. But the point is, I did it. Next time I have a pitch meeting, it’ll probably feel more comfortable. I got through it, I know my line, I know my story, and I can handle myself without looking like a crazy person.

I think.

*Getting really snarky, the pros were probably also not the people who had to ask me “What’s a ‘dark comedy?’” As in “Give me some examples.” Look… if you don’t know your own genre, and you don’t know what the other genres are — and you’ve been paying attention for the last 20 years — and you can’t think of at least ONE dark comedy, y’might be a redneck.

**Y’know, for me.

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