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.