What is a Pitchfest Really Like? Screenwriters World Conference Attendee Tells All

By Peter A. Schnell

On the face of it, filling two conference rooms at a midtown Manhattan Sheraton with screenwriters, producers and agents seems harmless enough. Everyone is there to give or take, as they need. The next great script might actually appear. A producer might be floored by a pitch and ask for a hard copy. An agent might sense potential and schedule a meeting. So everyone meets in a professional and cordial atmosphere of… terror. Heart pounding, dry mouth, sweaty palms terror. Hold on. I am ahead of myself. There is a back-story to the terror.

The Screenwriters World Conference filled a weekend in April with lectures, camaraderie and the highlight for most attendees, the daylong pitchfest. With the military precision of a speed-dating event, one was given the rare opportunity to sit in person with over thirty studio executives, producers and agents. As many as can be fit into the day with five minutes allotted per pitch.  This is an exceedingly rare and exciting chance for those of us geographically far from Hollywood. The time to move from one pitch to the next is marked by the bell. The Bell! That Bell! That damned Bell! More about that later.

Screenwriters World Conference

From left to right, Sarah Ingerson, Peter Schnell, Elena Moscatt

My fellow screenwriters came with a purpose. First, to learn throughout the weekend from the cadre of industry professionals brought in to enlighten, teach and encourage. Most attendees were first time writers. Some had only ideas or treatments. Many had complete scripts. But we all had hope.

I found myself assigning characteristics and personalities to those whose path I kept crossing. There was “talks to herself woman.” There was “I’m a lawyer, but…” There was my favorite, “Jack Lemmon.” Not the Jack Lemmon of The Apartment or Mister Roberts. This was the older, wearier Lemmon of The Out of Towners but not quite Glengarry Glen Ross. I promise that the expression, rumpled clothes and five o’clock shadow was Lemmon incarnate.

Along with hundreds of others, we were there to pitch a script. To tell everyone that would listen about our movie. We quizzed each other. What was it about? Who should star in it? How would we pitch the professionals? We all wondered if we had the talent. The terror started to build.

The day of the pitchfest had broken sunny, cold and clear in New York City. We gathered outside two rooms of the conference center. At 10:00 AM, the appointed hour, we entered and made not quite a mad dash to one of the tables that circled the room. A sign marked the studio or agency. Behind the table sat the professional. I had researched each of the executives.  Then I had created a list of whom to pitch in the order that I felt would be most receptive to my screenplay, The Secret of Boomer Lake. Finding the first person on my list, I stepped up bravely to the table.

“Cancelled, last minute.” Whew. Dodged that bullet. Incidentally, there were to my count at most three listed professionals that were unable to attend.  The luck of not having to pitch eased my nerves. I smiled at the way my careful plan evaporated. This allowed me to breathe. I found the next person on my list and actually felt better about the day. Then it was my turn as the bell signaled the switching time. The terror was back.  The gentleman across from me could not have been nicer or more supportive. It is important to note that this continued to be true all day long. Agents, producers, execs. Each in their turn listened, commented and reacted as they felt appropriate, to the material. I heard this again and again from my fellow pitchers. Speaking of pitchers, I was offered water, as my nervousness was clearly apparent. This also relaxed me. I apparently was not going to be laughed from the room.  We talked. He offered me his card. The bell rang. I moved on. And so it continued.

The lines grew longer as the morning continued but never were they an obstacle. Some of the larger companies had longer lines. But it was our choice to stand there. And, of course, you could figure the wait by multiplying the people in front of you by five. No, Disney was not represented. I never waited with more than four or five people in front of me. I stuck to my list, but only to the extent that I could always be pitching within a short while.

pitching SWCThe nerves evaporated. I felt stronger about my presentation each time. I dropped the pitch points that were not working and kept those that did. If a joke elicited a smile, be sure that it came up with my next pitch. And I actually started to believe in my screenplay. I wasn’t playing at being a writer. I was one. My confidence in my material and myself was legitimized. I received a few requests for the complete screenplay. I received some polite rejections that never quite felt as if I was being rejected. It just wasn’t what they were looking for. Cards were exchanged as well as email addresses. The sun that shone through the tall windows kept the spirits of everyone, well almost everyone, high.

Lunch came and went and all I wanted to do was get back to the pitch. “Talks to herself woman,” “I’m a lawyer, but..” and “Jack Lemmon” all stuck it out to the end. Moving from line to line as the bell instructed, we talked and pitched and smiled at each other. Sometimes finding ourselves in the same lines. Incidentally, the professionals started ignoring the bell by about 2pm. If they had an interest in the person they were speaking with they would continue on regardless of that infernal dinging. Usually this was accompanied with a smile to the next in line assuring them that they would get their turn too.

It was an amazing opportunity. I made friends, met contacts and learned. What more could one ask for?

So, having unfairly cast my fellow attendees as characters in a film, by rights, I must turn to myself. So who was I? With a pitch, highly polished and rehearsed, but in my mind out of place and out of my league, I put it through its paces because I believed. I was, beyond an actual physical comparison, the farmer in Babe. And as I pushed myself away from my last table, I smiled, satisfied with the work of my script and thought “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”

Peter SchnellPeter A. Schnell optioned and wrote The Secret of Boomer Lake from the internationally beloved novel of the same name. His script was a finalist in the category of Best Screenplay for the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival 2012. Mr. Schnell is a broadcast producer, director and screenwriter in Baltimore, Maryland. schnellp1@gmail.com @pschnell

 

 

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