True Hollywood Stories: the Stranger in the Room

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The producer calls the writer, says "I’ve got this fantastic property I want to develop." The writer says "Oh I love that property, by all means let’s do this." The producer and the writer have a series of meetings where they talk about what would make a good movie based on this property. The writer has ideas, the producer also has ideas, they work together to come to an agreement of what the movie should be. When they feel like they’ve got a firm handle on the idea, they call up the studio people and set up a meeting.

The day before the meeting, the writer gets an email from his representation: "Writer," the email says, "Mr. So-and-so You’ve Never Heard Of will also be in the meeting tomorrow." There is never an explanation as to who Mr. So-and-so is, just a dismissive "FYI"-style note so they can cover their asses. If the writer then calls his representation and says "Wait a minute, who is this guy and why is he going to be in the meeting?" the writer’s representation invariably answers "Oh, don’t worry about him, he has no power, he’s just some guy, he’s just happy to be there."

This, invariably, turns out to not be the case. Oftentimes, the Stranger in the Room is the rights holder, or perhaps a representative of some tributary aspect of the property (a publisher, an animator, the author’s agent) and, in spite of the fact that the Stranger has had absolutely nothing to do with the development of the project up to this point, and has, perhaps, not met either the producer or the studio folk before, the Stranger nevertheless feels that the meeting is actually about himself and his interests in the project, and will direct the meeting thus. The other people in the room, who care nothing about the writer or the work he’s done, will cater to the Stranger’s point of view, in spite of the fact that he has no power, no talent and no control over the project.

So, an imaginary pitch might go like this:

STUDIO FOLK: So, I hear you’ve got a project for us.
PRODUCER: We do indeed. Writer and I have been putting this take together and I think you’ll like it. Writer, go.
WRITER: So there’s this big shark, see, and the big shark is eating swimmers off the coast of this island town in New England. And there’s this new police chief, and he wants to get rid of the shark and nobody will help him. The mayor is this greedy bastard who puts the town’s financial interests before the lives of its citizens. And the police chief wants to hire this crusty old sea-captain guy to hunt the shark, but this smart-alec oceanographer comes along and has completely different ideas.
STRANGER: And it’s a musical.
PRODUCER: I don’t hate that.
STUDIO FOLK: A musical! I love musicals! Remember Chicago? That was great.
PRODUCER: Musicals are guaranteed moneymakers these days.
STUDIO FOLK: Our marketing people tell us that. Perfect crossover hits. I’m thinking of Reese Witherspoon and Hugh Jackman.
PRODUCER: I actually have a relationship with Reese.
STUDIO FOLK: And Hugh actually owes us a picture. Anyway, we’re getting off track. (to Writer) So, shark, police chief, crusty sea captain, musical, go.
WRITER: Um, well, the police chief, the crusty sea captain and the smart-alec oceanographer go out to sea to hunt the shark —
STUDIO FOLK: How big is the boat?
WRITER: Well, that’s the thing, the boat is really small, too small really, there’s actually a line of dialogue about that, I’m thinking it’ll be really funny if the police chief, the first time he sees the shark, he backs into the pilot house and says —
STUDIO FOLK: If it’s a really small boat, where are they dancing?
PRODUCER: That’s a good point, the boat has to be bigger. It has to be big enough for some real razzle-dazzle production numbers. And they should have a crew, like twenty, thirty guys, to function as a chorus.
STUDIO FOLK: Women like sequins.
PRODUCER: I see no reason why the police chief can’t wear sequins.
STUDIO FOLK: Anyway, I’m loving this. So, we’ve got this big boat with a huge crew, out at sea, hunting a shark, singing and dancing in sequins.
PRODUCER: It’s like Pirates, but present-day, with songs.
STUDIO FOLK: I love it. I’m thinking of Reese as the police chief, Hugh as the crusty sea-captain, and maybe someone younger to play the smart-alec oceanographer, like Zooey maybe, or Miley. So you’ve got the two women fighting over the guy between songs. (to Writer) Anyway, continue.

And so on.


Here is my worst Stranger in the Room story:

A Studio Executive calls me up. He says "Todd, I’ve got a great property, Sexy Space Fantasy, that we’re developing as a vehicle for Hot Effervescent Starlet, I’d love for you to take a look at the material." I say "Wow, Sexy Space Fantasy starring Hot Effervescent Starlet sounds like a surefire hit, Studio Executive! Send the material over tout suite and I will happily develop a pitch for free!"

(Where is the producer? I hear you ask. Well, in this case, there wasn’t one, which made the project that much more attractive to me — one less step between me and The Job.)

The material arrives. I read it. It’s sexy, funny, full of action and spectacle. An idea forms in my head: this project is Female James Bond, In Space. This is a science-fiction fantasy that will appeal both to teenage girls because the protagonist is a girl who gets to have sex with at least three cute guys, and will appeal to their dates because the protagonist will appear in scanty outfits while kicking ass in space. The key, as I say, is to make the protagonist a Female James Bond. She’s not caught in a romantic entanglement, where she’s in love with two guys and must choose between them — no, she’s an empowered, independent, smoking-hot woman who moves through the galaxy sleeping with whoever she wants to, and pays no emotional price for her decision. I put together a whole three-act take on the project, full of action sequences, colorful bad guys, thrilling last-moment escapes, cute boys and skimpy outfits. I have, I believe, a completely fun adolescent escapist fantasy, tailored perfectly to the attributes of Hot Effervescent Starlet.

I call up Studio Executive. Studio Executive says "So, Todd, what do you have for me?" I say "I’m thinking of this project as "Female James Bond in Space." Studio Executive says "Perfect! Brilliant! When can you come out and pitch?" I say "Wait, don’t you want to hear the take I’ve put together?" Studio Executive says "No! ‘Female James Bond in Space’ is perfect, it says it all! Come out next week and pitch it to My People and let’s get started on this thing."

I hang up the phone and think "Well, that was easy." And phone calls are made, and the next thing I know Studio Executive has arranged to fly me from New York to Los Angeles, and I am booked into Pricey Pretentious Hotel, so that I can pitch my take on Sexy Space Fantasy to Studio Executive’s People.

So I fly to LA, I check into my hotel, and the next morning I drive to Big Studio Over the Hill to make my pitch to Studio Executive’s People. I walk into the room, and there is Studio Executive, Junior Studio Executive I’ve Never Met Before, and Complete Stranger. And, after some pleasantries, Studio Executive tells me that His People couldn’t make it to this meeting, so Complete Stranger has come instead. Complete Stranger, it turns out, is there to represent the interests of Hot Effervescent Starlet. Mind you, she does not actually work for or with Hot Effervescent Starlet, and she knows nothing about the project that Studio Executive and I have been discussing, but she does know Hot Effervescent Starlet well and is there to hear the pitch on her behalf.

Um, okay, why not? I conclude. Can’t hurt, right? So what? I’ve been flown 3000 miles to pitch to a specific person, and that person isn’t actually in the room now, but what is my choice? Am I to say "Hey, Studio Executive, call me when you get your act together?" No, I am not to do that, that would be rude, and unprofessional. No, I am now expected to pitch to Studio Executive, Junior Studio Executive I’ve Never Met Before (who has no power to make decisions) and Complete Stranger, who is there to represent Hot Effervescent Starlet.

Well, okay. Whatever. I have my pitch and I’m ready to go.

I start in. "Okay. So, out in space, we see a spaceship. This is the private spaceship of our protagonist. And she’s just waking up from a hot night she’s had with a really cute astronaut who she met the night before. Okay, so — "

At this moment, Studio Executive’s assistant, a perfectly nice young lady, walks into the room holding a Post-it note. Without introducing herself or apologizing for the interruption, she thrusts the Post-it note under the nose of Studio Executive. The Studio Executive, after divining the significance of whatever is written on the Post-it, gets up and, without a single word of explanation or apology, leaves the room, shutting the door behind him.

Which leaves me and Junior Studio Executive I’ve Never Met Before (who cannot make a decision) and Complete Stranger, who knows nothing about the project. And I give a little laugh, as though to say "Well, now what? The reason I flew 3000 miles to tell you this thing just walked out the door," and Complete Stranger leans forward and says "Go on."

And I think "What? ‘Go on?’ I don’t even know who you are or what your agenda is, you know nothing about this project or its development, why am I pitching to you? And how did you getto be the senior principal in this meeting?" But I don’t say that, because that would be rude and unprofessional. So instead I gather my wits, think "What the hell," and continue with my pitch.

I pitch for about a half-hour. I tell the whole story of the movie. The highs, the lows, the killer set pieces I’ve devised, the action-filled climax I’ve constructed, the sexy trouble the protagonist gets into, the comedy inherent in the escapist, campy premise. I wrap it up with a big finish, where the protagonist saves the galaxy and ends up taking off in her private spaceship with her latest conquest and on to more adventures.

As I’m pitching the last sentence of the take, Studio Executive walks back in and, again, without a single word of apology or explanation, rejoins the meeting. And I say "And so, our protagonist sails off into space with the cute young astronaut and onto more adventures," and Studio Executive says nothing. He says nothing, rather, he turns to see what Complete Stranger thinks. And Complete Stranger looks at me quizzically and cocks her head and says, as though to a child, "But, Todd, isn’t Sexy Space Fantasy really all about a journey to love?"

I splutter at the absurdity of the question. "No," I say, "it’s not about ‘a journey to love,’ it’s an escapist action fantasy, it’s not about anything so deep as ‘a journey to love’, it’s just pure escapist fun, it’s Female James Bond in Space." And I turn to Studio Executive for backup, as if to say "Right? Isn’t that what you flew me 3000 miles to pitch?  Isn’t that what you asked me to develop?  Isn’t that what you wanted, Studio Executive?  Isn’t that what I’m doing here?" And Studio Executive stares hard at me and says "Well yes, but isn’t it also a journey to love? Where is the journey to love, Todd?" And I’m thinking "The hell with the ‘journey to love,’ it’s ‘Female James Bond in Space,’ what the hell does that have to do with a ‘journey to love?’  What the hell are you doing flying me 3000 miles to pitch to Complete Stranger while you leave the room?!" Keep in mind, Complete Stranger isn’t working on the project, doesn’t work with Hot Effervescent Starlet, is not a producer or a studio executive or an agent or a manager, does not run Hot Effervescent Starlet’s production company or have any connection whatsoever to the studio where I now am pitching, and, to top it off, Complete Stranger has never heard of the project and has no vested interest in how it turns out. But, with one sentence, Complete Stranger has completely invalidated my pitch.

(Later, I find out that Complete Stranger, in addition to being friends with Hot Effervescent Starlet, is a Former Studio Head, and thus "outranks" Studio Executive, in spite of not being involved in Sexy Space Fantasy in any regard whatsoever.)

Anyway, the meeting ends and I go back to New York and I don’t get that job, and Sexy Space Fantasy never gets made, and Studio Executive never returns my phone calls. Later I have an even stranger adventure with Junior Studio Executive, about a completely different project, but that’s another story.

(And, as long as I’m here, let me add that, occasionally, the Stranger in the Room turns out to be a boon — I have been in rooms where the Stranger was the one saying "But what about the protagonist and what he’s going through at the moment?  Could we talk more about that?"  A question I’m all too happy to answer, but which rarely gets asked by studio folk, who’d rather hear about what the poster looks like and how the trailer will cut together.) 



45 Responses to “True Hollywood Stories: the Stranger in the Room”
  1. medox says:

    Goddamnit. Now I really want to see Female James Bond In Space. And the idea that it doesn’t exist is killing me.

  2. swan_tower says:

    . . . and that is why I could never do your job. I don’t think any amount of telling myself it would be rude and unprofessional would stop me from saying the things you avoided saying.

    Seriously, who thinks this kind of behavior is a good idea???

  3. quitwriting says:

    And yet the films that DO get made… *sigh*

    Todd, why does Hollywood ruin everything? Except for the things it doesn’t?

  4. notthebuddha says:

    How does a former studio head still outrank a current studio executive? Connections? Inertia? Incriminating negatives?

    • iron_pyrite says:

      I’d imagine it’s the ‘One Phonecall’ factor.

      The Current Studio Head may well have been promoted with her say-so, or at least her goodwill. It’s unlikely she was fired, as it would be suicide for the Studio Exec to have her in his office.

      Just one phonecall from her to the Current Studio Head saying ‘This Studio Executive doesn’t know what he’s doing’ would pretty much spell the end of that career progression. And what has she got to lose?

      She was at the pitch to size up the players. And have another excuse to meet Hot Effervescent Starlet for lunch. Also, I like to think there’s a faint subtext of matronly concern for the Starlet’s public perception: “You don’t want the Alcott pitch… it’ll make you look like a slut.”

  5. I suppose there’s no point in asking you what the property was, but would you be opposed to a hint? My only guess is a remake of Barbarella, but I’m doubting that.

  6. I honestly can’t believe the situation i’m in right now. It’s all too good to be true. Hollywood horror stories have yet to come true for me. Maybe soon! Fingers crossed!

  7. laminator_x says:

    I now have visions of Quint singing “Spanish Ladies” as the dawn breaks across the ocean in much the same style as Curly singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” Later there’s a big number with horns dancing chorus of deck hands for “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great story … that has happened to me, and now I know how to brand the experience to better deal with the blow to the psyche’ … SITM.

    I have an idea what the property was, won’t guess becuz that would be rude and unprofessional 😉

    Joshua James

  9. I think you could right a great film about this L’estranger concept right here. What dynamics.

    Also, I genuinely want to see this Better Barbarella space film. I love to concept.

  10. pirateman says:

    “It’s A Musical!”

    That suuuuuuuucks. And it sucks hard. Tres hard.

    Forgive me if you’ve spoken to this before (and I can’t see why you wouldn’t have already), but what would you say are the top three pitfalls of pitching? Like, what are some rookie mistakes; what should come out of a successful pitch meeting; what are some things that you should never, never do? I was just curious. And again, apologies if that’s a whole post that you’ve already made that I missed.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Your blog makes me never, ever want to work in Hollywood.

    Thankfully, I probably never will.

    — N.A.

  12. robolizard says:

    Doesn’t it seem like everything coming out of mainstream Hollywood is a love story at heart, even when it shouldn’t be? How many lonely men are running that place?

    I actually have a question, a writer came in to my feature writing today and talked about developing/pitching/using as specs screenplay for animated movies. Everytime I hear about a modern day animated movie, its always either homegrown or written by animators. Would it actually be possible to go around Hollywood, pitching a movie about a narcisstic, yet dancing, chipmunk?

    • Todd says:

      As the line between animation and live action becomes more and more blurred, the opportunities for animated pitches proliferate. When I started, there were maybe two places to take an animated pitch, now there are dozens.

      That said, let me add that these companies often have their own people who want to do their own movies, which puts screenwriters in their traditional place, at the back of the line. It’s more typical that a screenwriter will be hired to make an animator’s concept coherent rather than a animation company casting about for ideas for movies.

      I like the idea of a narcissistic dancing chipmunk. Sort of an Alvin meets All That Jazz.

      • I never liked Alvin all that much couldn’t we make it Chip & Dale and instead of All That Jazz couldn’t we make it more West Side Story? Latinos are still hot- if it was a few years ago I would have said Asians and then we could have done a Crouching Chimpmunk Hidden Acorn kind of thing- but that would never fly now…there’s a flying chipmunk joke in there somewhere…

  13. johnnycrulez says:

    So in that situation do you just run with it and incorporate it or argue for your original point?

  14. ndgmtlcd says:

    I see a wonderful play here. You, the protagonist, are going to meet the producer on the beach and shoot him dead with a single bullet. Then, you are going to pump four more bullets in his body.

  15. Anonymous says:


    I can’t stop laughing.

    Please post the even stranger adventure with Junior Studio Executive soon!

  16. Anonymous says:

    But I don’t say that, because that would be rude and unprofessional.

    Why do you have to be the only one in town who is polite and professional? What if you simply stood up and said to Junior Studio Executive and Complete Stranger: “Listen, I’ve got a thing over at Big Rival Studio at 3 o’clock, so unless Studio Executive–who called this meeting–can actually be here for it, I’m just gonna take off. Call me on my cell when you’re all here and ready to go, and I’ll see if I can squeeze you in.”


    • Todd says:

      In this case, it would have turned out that, since Complete Stranger was actually the senior principal in the room, hers was the only opinion that mattered anyway. It’s just that nobody told me that in the room.

  17. noskilz says:

    Neat story about a bad situation – but why the minimalist approach when they tell you about the stranger? Forewarned is forearmed, after all. Or is the person you’re dealing with often in the dark as well?

    • Todd says:

      In Hollywood, power is everything. If they told me they didn’t know who the stranger was or what he was doing in the room, they would be admitting a lack of power. Instead, they insist that the stranger has no power, which, to them he doesn’t, and perhaps on paper he doesn’t, but in the room it’s a different story.

  18. r_sikoryak says:

    So much for the harmony of the day.

  19. greyaenigma says:

    Forgive me if this has been asked and answered.

    Do you worry about these stories getting back to the people in them? It seems like many of them could easily identify themselves and they aren’t always completely complimentary.

    • Todd says:

      The sort of people I’m talking about, if you told them “Did you know that you enraged and humiliated a screenwriter?” They’d say “Which one, my breakfast meeting or my ten o’clock?”