True Hollywood Story: my worst pitch meeting

It is the summer of 2004. I am working with Ex-Studio-head Producer and Affable, Good-natured Assistant on a pitch for Giant Popcorn Movie. GPM is based on a hugely popular, instantly-recognizable Brand-Name Property with great, no-kidding potential for big-time synergy. It’s fun to work with XSP and AGA, who are wonderful collaborators and who understand the creative process of writers.

I’m doing a great job on the pitch for GPM. As well I should; I’ve been spending many months doing research through the B-NP’s fifty-year history and weaving all the many possible story-lines into a single coherent whole, a story I am confident will both pop in the consciousness of the mass audience and also have real meat and bones to it, a story of brotherhood and loss and redemption, of corruption in the highest of places and heroism in our darkest hour.

I get a call from XSP and AGA. A studio has called them with another project, Enormous Summer Tentpole, a title based on another hugely popular, instantly-recognizable Brand-Name Property, one with substantially more appeal than GPM. The studio wants XSP to produce it, and they want it in theaters by summer of 2006. That’s less than two years away, and the movie will be a huge production with ridiculously complicated special effects, so they need a screenplay right away. They need someone fast and reliable who works well under pressure and has a thorough understanding of the material.

So, XSP and AGA tell me, we want you to stop working on GPM for now and instead come up with a take for EST. This is a tremendous compliment, being asked to go from one big project that might get made to another big project that already has a release date. The fact that I haven’t been paid a dime for any of the work I’ve done hardly seems to matter.

So I set aside the mountain of research I’ve compiled for GPM and set about researching EST instead. Like many Summer Tentpole projects I’m offered, this is a project that seems a little bit silly on the surface, not something a serious writer who spends his free-time watching Kurosawa and Ozu should really get involved in. But this is Hollywood in 2004, they’re not making Kurosawa movies anymore, they’re making Summer Tentpoles. This is the game, the Big Game in fact, the Super Bowl of entertainment, and they’re inviting me to play. What am I going to say? “Sorry, this is a movie for teenagers — I am a Serious Artist and you would do well to look elsewhere?” To paraphrase one actor I’ve worked with, “They’re not asking you to botch surgery, they’re asking you to write a movie.”

Now, here’s the thing: as I’m doing research on EST, a weird thing happens. I get hooked. What seems like a shiny, mercantile, unserious commodity on the surface actually has, if one looks deeply enough, real roots. Strong roots. I find that, perversely, I’m enjoying working on EST substantially more than I enjoyed working on GPM. It’s got everything: humanity, wonder, action, passion, real characters, real sacrifices, and, weirdest of all for a Summer Tentpole, a quirky, powerful vision of the human condition.  I cast aside my doubts about the seriousness of the project: this could be a real movie with a heart, a brain and long, powerful legs.

There are whole oceans of material available on EST and it takes me weeks to wade through it all, selecting the best characters, situations and plotlines to develop. The property lends itself to big action and superficial spectacle, so I’m trying to find the warm, human love story within that, the thing that will give the movie legspast the opening weekend. I am aiming for a widescreen, action-packed special-effects bonanza with the humanity and emotional impact of no less than Close Encounters.

XSP loves my take. AGA loves my take. And no one is taking any chances — they want this take to go forward, they want to get the studio on board, they don’t want me to have done all this work for nothing. So they bring in Junior Studio Executive and I pitch a preliminary bunch of ideas to him. JSE is wildly enthusiastic about my take and says he can’t wait to get me in a room with Senior Studio Executive, AKA the Guy Who Can Say Yes.

This is the goal for the writer looking for a gig: to get in a room with the Guy Who Can Say Yes. Up to that point, you’re just whistling dixie. Anybody can sit jawing on the phone with anybody else about this or that idea for a wonderful movie; it’s only when you get into the room with GWCSY that the talk may actually become a real job with real money and, sometimes, a real movie being made, with real actors and real sets and real special-effects, with real credits with your name actually in them, and the revenue streams that follow and, who knows, once in a blue moon, maybe, a shot at cinematic immortality.

So it’s actually pretty hard to actually get into an actual room with GWCSY. Especially with a project this big. GWCSY has all kinds of people coming at him from all different directions all day long. Of course he does — he’s GWCSY. And, as I’ve said, the primary job of GWCSY is to Say No. GWCSY has a lot of things to do, a lot of projects to shepherd along, a lot of pressures on him from his bosses, who want him to Say No more often than he’d maybe like to. GWCSY and his confederates have this big-deal production to get on screen by summer of 2006 and they don’t even have a script yet, much less a director or a cast or any way of realizing the insanely complicated special-effects that will be required to make the thing sing.

So I work and work with XSP and AGA, honing my take, trying this, trying that, extending this storyline, truncating that one, bringing in JSE to referee the proceedings. Everyone is wonderful: supportive, enthusiastic, friendly, collaborative, helpful, available. They know that I’m doing good work under ridiculous pressure and they are anxious to see me get the gig. This is a good feeling.

October 2004. I’ve been working on this pitch now for a few months and summer 2006 is way too close. I’m told that the Studio Head is only talking to “A-list” writers (which I am not) but that everyone is excited by my take and thinks I have a real shot. I work and work and have many meetings with many different producers and studio people, all of whom encourage me to “keep going.”

A phone meeting is scheduled (I live in New York and the studios, for reasons they know best, no longer fly writers like me out for pitch meetings), and then canceled at the last minute. Another is scheduled and then canceled at the last minute. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this, but all the people I’ve been working with assure me that this is good — they want to make sure that I get in the room (figuratively speaking) with GWCSY, and this is all heading in that direction.

Finally the big meeting happens, the one meeting all this work and planning and effort have been building up to. I’m in my office in New York, the producers are in their offices in Hollywood, the studio people are in their offices on their lot. There are at least five people on the phone on five different phone lines, which means I can barely hear anyone.

The first thing that happens is JSE announces that GWCSY got “called away” at the last second and can’t be on the call, but he wants me to go ahead and do my pitch, and he’ll duly report to GWCSY. This immediately takes the wind out of my sails — if GWCSY isn’t on the call, why are we doing it? Should we even bother? What is reallygoing on? JSE assures me that everyone is very interested in hearing my take and that it is still a very real possibility that I will get this job.

Okay. I start in on my pitch. At the other end of the phone is silence. No “uh-huh”s, no “great”s, no “oh, wonderful”s, no indication that anyone at all is listening to me. Silence.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t speak into phone silence. It freaks me out. I get disoriented. After a minute of speaking into dead phone silence, I start to lose track of what I’m saying, I get self-conscious, I start to babble, I begin to listen to what I’m saying instead of merely speaking.

I stop and say “You still there?” and everyone assures me they’re still there and still very interested.

I take a breath and continue. My pitch is about 25 minutes long — I’ve written out practically every scene in the movie. About five minutes into it, I hear a click. Someone, I don’t know who, has put me on hold.

I say “Hello? Are you still there? Someone just put me on hold.” Several voices, belonging to who I’m not sure, they are very far away, assure me that they are still there and listening. So I continue.

Hold music comes on. I’m apoplectic. Someone, I know not who, has definitely left the conversation and put the call on hold, unaware (I hope) that their phone automatically plays hold music when they press the “hold” button.

What am I supposed to do? JSE, the ranking official on the call, laughs and apologizes, but apparently it’s not him who has put me on hold while I’m pitching. Several beeps, clicks and noises later, the hold music stops and I continue.

A minute later, I hear someone else (maybe the same someone) set their phone down on their desk and start answering their email. I can actually hear their fingers on their keyboard and the pinging of their inbox. What I should do is say “okay, look, I may want this job, but I’m not going to pitch a take that I’ve spent months putting together to some hold music and a guy answering his email,” but that’s not going to help. I don’t know what’s going to help but I know that that’s not going to help. Or I don’t know, maybe it would help, maybe calling people on this kind of behavior would help in some way, but all I can think is about getting my hard-won pitch back on track and into the ear of JSE, who assures me he’s still there and still listening.

I limp to the end of the pitch. JSE is cordial, congratulatory and polite but brief in his comments and the call ends.

A few days later I learn from my representation that the studio had already hired another writer and was only doing my call as a “courtesy” to me, to honor the work I had done on the project. Neither XSP or AGA ever call me again, about GPM or any other project.

EST did not hit its target release date of summer 2006, but it was made and released and was a great big fat hit.

hit counter html code


10 Responses to “True Hollywood Story: my worst pitch meeting”
  1. tablesaw says:

    If I’m reading between the lines correctly, I’m not surprised that you’d get sucked into the franchise. There’s definitely . . . a hidden depth. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see your impression.

  2. teamwak says:

    Thats just harsh!

    See its The Player all over again. You should be glad you werent strangled in a parking lot by GWCSY!

    I just wish I could figure out which movies you are on about.

  3. ghostgecko says:

    I’m amusing myself imagining GPM was the movie version of The Gummi Bears.

    Man alive – you posted once about why you do this, instead of a slightly less coronary inducing job. What was the reason again? 😉