Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Dog and Pony Show

Hi, folks!

Recently I had the pleasure of hosting Agent's Hot Sheet - Live! for the second straight year at Great American Pitchfest. Once again, we had a killer panel of heavyweight Hollywood literary reps, and we discussed all manner of things. We'll be bringing you video excerpts right here on our blog over the coming weeks. Humongous props to UTA's Amanda Hymson, Benderspink's Jake Wagner, Circle of Confusion's Jairo Alvarado and Chris Mills from Magnet Management.

One of the things I had to ask the panel was about the necessity of being "good in a room." We've all heard this expression; in short, it means being compelling, knowledgeable and personable. But this concept seems oddly incompatible with being a screenwriter. In fact, I know a lot of writers who are the exact opposite -- kinda introverted, quiet, neurotic, etc. -- heck, the reason we pursue writing in the first place is because it's insular. Walk into any LA coffee shop, for crying out loud, and you will see twenty screenwriters cranking away on their laptops -- together in a group yet interacting not at all. I wanted to know if simply being a great writer is enough for Hollywood. Watch this video to see what our panel had to say:
Not long after moving to Hollywood two decades ago, I scored an agent, and one of my comedies went out as a spec. A couple of companies were interested, chief among them New Line Cinema. I was ecstatic - I figured all we had to do was go in there and answer some questions. But the producer who was attached, to my shock, explained to me how things really worked. "They probably have not read the script," he said, although they no doubt have skimmed the in-house coverage. But how could they take a meeting on a project they haven't even read? "Happens all the time," he noted. And then he explained that for the most part the people you meet with in these types of meetings are just filling up their day to justify their salaries. No, he said, we had to put on a dog and pony show.

What that meant telling them the entire story from beginning to end, in the most insanely high-energy, unforgettable way possible -- literally putting on a performance. Frankly, this pissed me off. As the writer, I felt the words on the page should stand on their own. Further, I resented having to go in there and be a performing monkey for some bored, ADD middle management creative executives.

Yeah, whatever. Naturally, we worked out the mother of all dog and pony shows.

The producer and I went in there and spent a good half-hour literally running like madmen all around the room, reenacting all the major set-pieces, tag-teaming off of each other. One of us would do the set-up; the other would kick it into the goal. And so it went for a half hour, until by the end we collapsed -- exhausted, glistening with sweat, but still beaming these huge, dumb-ass smiles, 'cause you see, we had to pretend to enjoy this charade as well as project "these guys are super cool and easy to work with." It was one hell of an effort.

Well, we made it all the way up to Mike DeLuca, who was running the show over there at the time, and of course we did the whole dog and pony show again from the top. And... ultimately they passed. But still, that was my first experience with trying to sell a script to Hollywood. The screenplay was merely the ticket to entry. I've never forgotten that pitch, one of the more elaborate ones I've ever done. There have been many others, but the one thing they have in common is that at all times, I try to make it clear that I'm easy to work with, I respect their time and opinions, and that I'm a pro who will get it done (whether or not any of those things are actually true.) The screenplay really is just half the battle. Once someone calls you in for a meeting, it becomes all about them weighing whether or not they can work with you. Because we're talking what could be a protracted period of development, especially if the project gathers momentum. The exec, agent, manager or producer needs to know that you're someone who can communicate their story verbally as well as not be a looney or a pain in the ass or paralyzed in a sea of neuroses. Who wants to deal with that person for six months or more?

So this means that many of us who are not necessarily the best at presenting or public speaking have to find a way to become so if you want to make it as a screenwriter. Here's a simple but obvious tipper: plan everything out in advance. P.P.P.P.P.P., as the Rogue Warrior himself Dick Marcinko says -- Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. You should write out your pitch and rehearse it, just like a stage actor for a performance. You don't have to necessarily memorize it, although that helps -- a few glances at notes every now and again is fine. But the main thing is to be upbeat and keep eye contact, which forces the people you're meeting with to stay engaged. And do some research into who you're meeting with (hello, interwebs) so you have a few things to discuss, and connect the dots in a friendly (and non-stalkery) way. Maybe they went to college in your hometown or grew up near you, or you know the same people or like the same teams. Check out the company's slate so you can talk knowledgeably about their projects. Above all, just try to be cool -- even if you're a nervous wreck inside. Don't ever let 'em see ya sweat, as they say.

I know none of us signed up for this writing thing to be performers. But there it is. Crap! So: embrace it. Who knows, you might find out that, shock of shocks, the people you're meeting with are actually kind of cool. Before you know it, maybe you'll even be knocking back a few beers with this person you were so nervous about meeting. And if all else fails and you're losing 'em, run around the room like a maniac and shock 'em out of their torpor. Like it or not, they want to be entertained. (Woof! Neighhh.)

Jim Cirile, Coverage Ink

1 comment:

Chesley Lydekker said...

Jim, You are the greatest. This is so true. MANY THANKS.
Best from Chesley Lydekker,
Lenox, MA USA 7.12.14