Balls of Steel: Managing Expectations

As I sat in the classes at the Great American PitchFest (GAPF) this past weekend, I looked around at all the writers full of hope and eagerness. They hung on every speaker’s words, hoping to hear the secret that would propel them from aspiring to produced. Their expectations were sky high, head in the clouds, dreaming of a world where one pitching event would change their destiny.

In fact, I’m writing this from 30,000 feet in the air on my red-eye flight home from L.A., literally with my own head in the clouds. Let me assure you, while it’s beautiful up here, you’re better off keeping your feet and expectations on the ground. The fall is more manageable.

In 2007, I was one of those stargazed writers attending my very first pitchfest. I compare it to childbirth: Seven straight hours of five-minute pitches that should have come with an epidural. I left that day with many script requests and a sense of validation, feeling like Sally Field, “They like me, they really like me!”

But as each “pass” came rolling in like thunder, my cloud started to dissipate, pockets of holes formed, and I fell right though, landing hard on my ass.

My expectations were unrealistic.

I didn’t understand the industry or the realities of a pitchfest. Perhaps Chad Gervich said it best in his GAPF seminar, Ingredients to a Perfect TV Pitch. He suggested pitchfests weren’t really for selling your work, but more for practicing your pitching skills and simply meeting people to connect with and learn from. After experiencing many pitchfests firsthand, I completely agree.

For all who attended pitchfests this past weekend, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly about what you can expect in the aftermath:

1. Be patient. It’ll take weeks, maybe months for your requested script to get read. Accept that. I had one company take six months to read my script, but I never panicked. Every two months, I sent a polite email, and when she finally read it, she saw the quality of my writing and offered to read my current script when it’s ready.

2. Don’t blow the follow-up. You have a stack of business cards you probably traveled hundreds of miles to get. Spend the time to enter them in your address book and then send an email. That way, you make it easy for them to just hit “reply” and stay connected.

3. Don’t expect a sale. Frankly, it’s easier for them to say “no” than it is to say “yes.” But even if it’s a “no,” these 5-minute meetings are about getting a foot in the door. You have a representation of your talent in their hands. If you were smart and savvy, and your work was great, believe me, they’ll remember you. Being memorable gives you an open door to present your future work. Your job is to sell yourself, not just a script.

4. They won’t tell you what you want to hear. Your baby may be so ugly, they threw it out while the bathwater was still hot. Or maybe you get to the pitchfest and learn a production company is making a script so similar to yours, you’re screwed. That’s the reality of the business. The sooner you accept that, the better. Just because it’s not what you want to hear, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to it. These people know more than you do. Period.

5. Learn from every opportunity you can.  Hopefully at these pitches, you were listening to the executives and learned something about what the industry is looking for. If they told you what lacked in your concept, or how it could be better, quickly jot that down on paper before you forget.

6. You won’t get feedback. Most producers will simply give you a “pass” and won’t offer feedback. Thank them anyway for their time and consideration. In your email, feel free to ask if they have any notes, but don’t expect they’ll send them. If they do, that probably means your writing left a decent impression. Take the notes humbly, without attitude, and be grateful you got to pick their brain. Even ask if they’d be willing to read a rewrite.

7. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. There is no way around that one. Ever.

8. You may need to completely toss your script. That’s right, toss it into a drawer, never to see the light of day again. When I mentioned that in my Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) adaptation class at GAPF, the crowd gasped. I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when you possibly spent years writing it, but it’s the truth. Bob DeRosa, screenwriter of Killers and The Air I Breathe, tweeted this the other day, “I’ve written 28 screenplays. Been paid for 8 of them. 2 produced, 2 optioned, 4 OWAs. Screenwriting is a career. You in for the long haul?” That is the reality. Accept it. What’s important is that you learn from every script. I often say SBAN was my masters in film school, and my first script was equivalent to kindergarten. In every script I’ve written, I’ve learned and grown as a writer. Always write a script knowing it may never get made, but give it everything you’ve got before giving up on it.

9. You may never hear from some of these new contacts again. Many people, even well-intentioned ones, simply aren’t good at communication. But before writing them off, ask yourself if there was something you did that failed to leave a good first impression. If possible, try to correct it. If not, don’t beat yourself up, but learn from it.

10. Digest what you learn. Every single conversation is a learning opportunity. Think back to even the small ones, and I bet there’s a nugget or two you picked up during the pitchfest you didn’t know before. Even if all your pitches fell flat, and you walked out that door with no requests at all, that is one hell of a learning experience. Be grateful for it.

Managing expectations isn’t an easy task, but it’s an important life skill. Once you graduate from pitchfests, the lessons you learn at them serve you well in your future sit-down meetings at studios and production company offices. I know they helped me tremendously this week at our meetings for SBAN.

Live, learn and keep your expectations in check… and keep writing!

If you missed our presentation at GAPF on Slavery by Another Name, you can hear us interviewed on Film Courage L.A. Talk Radio, where we discussed the behind-the-scenes story from our first meeting to the completion of our script.

Get your FREE Pitchfest Checklist to increase your chances of pitching success!

get-my-free-download-blue

14 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: Managing Expectations

  1. Pingback: Your Truth

  2. Pingback: Live in Truth | ramblings of a recovering insecureaholic

  3. Lizbeth

    Jeanne, I feel like you read my mind with this column. I’ve been to a couple pitchfests and when I told people I was getting on a plane and flying across the country (from NJ to LA) to attend another one, they pretty much told me I was wasting my time.

    But as a Pitchfest veteran I do not harbor any grand delusions of selling a spec on the spot. I go into it like you, with certain goals in mind (and more realistic expectations) — to meet people, talk to folks in the industry and find out what they want, to just get away from the computer, and most importantly leave a writing sample behind, and maybe, just maybe, make a five-minute impression on somebody that might someday come back to help me.

    If nothing else, the Pitchfest gets me to kick it into high gear and finish those pesky rewrites with a purpose.

    I met a lot of smart, talented, creative, fun people in L.A….and that always helps re-energize my writing after I come off the Pitchfest high.

  4. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    With a column titled “Balls of Steel,” I feel it’s my responsibility to share my mistakes but more importantly, what I learned from my mistakes. I wouldn’t exactly have “balls” if I couldn’t do that 🙂

    Great American Pitchfest is my favorite pitchfest though, and one I absolutely recommend writers attend. The classes are free. That is huge! So you can go to the Saturday classes, even without paying for the pitching pass on Sunday. You have options of how you can network. One day for free, or both days for the pitch fee. I’ve done it both ways, depending on my budget that year. It’s one pitchfest I’ll continue to go to.

  5. Lee Tidball

    I’ve had much the same journey with pitchfests, Jeanne. All your tips are very constructive, and you do a very diplomatic job of helping new writers especially deal with some of the “dirty little secrets” of pitchfests that, as you point out in your comment, lots of people don’t want to talk about. These are places to network, practice, listen, and learn, not places where you’ll make a sale that will change your life. Anyone that’s serious about this business needs to face that reality someday. Thanks for stepping out and saying the hard stuff.

  6. LifesizeLD

    Brava, Jeanne! Great info.

    I agree with Dimitri – writers need to know their scripts are (far) more likely to become “writing samples” at some point than to sell outright. Sad but true.

    The good news is, every script we write makes us better screenwriters, and once we figure it out, we can maybe go back to some of that earlier stuff and fix it. (Or maybe just cringe when we re-read it!) 😉

  7. Dimitri Davis

    Very well done! Another gem of great tips. Harder to list a favorite this time. 😉

    But, #8 is something every screenwriter looking to be a professional absolutely needs to know. Sometimes the story just isn’t working, and you need to start all over again. It’s tough – great screenwriting is tough – but it’s worth it to write the best story you can.

    Sometimes that involves tossing your babies into the trash.

  8. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman Post author

    Thanks, Ron and Christine. It took me a few years to realize I needed to rework my expectations to allow me to learn and grow as a writer instead of to feel disappointed in the realities of the industry. It made me far less frustrated after pitching events when I looked at it with eyes wide open.

    I know some people are reacting negatively to this post, perhaps because I’m sharing things they simply don’t want to hear or because they completely disagree with me. The comment section is a wonderful place for discussion. I welcome debate, so don’t be shy.

  9. Christine Koehler

    You hit it right on Jeanne. I took a valuable piece of information from every speaker. From what you wrote, I would put myself in about the fifth grade. It’s really up to me to keep learning and keep smiling! Thanks for the great article!

  10. Ron Brassfield

    Well said, Jeanne. I enjoy your articles. It’s always appreciated when those who are tunneling into the hard commercial realities of screenwriting send out reports.

COMMENT