Pursuing a writing or filmmaking career can be a long, lonely road. Some days I would even welcome the Wicked Witch of the West knocking on my door. But memories of hiding behind my dad’s big leather chair during the flying monkey attack quickly bring me back to reality.
Dorothy’s journey to OZ is not unlike a writer’s journey to Hollywood. We need a little help from our friends; however, it’s critical to choose those who guide you wisely. After all, she had to stand in front of the Wizard and give the pitch of her life!
The ink had not dried on our Sundance Screenwriters Lab submission when my writing partner, Douglas A. Blackmon, and I decided to pitch our adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name (SBAN), at last year’s Great American Pitchfest.
One sheets, business cards, polished script – oh my!
We had a lot of work to do. The first draft of SBAN was beastly long. Crazy long. Like, no-f*cking-way-could-we-pitch-this-baby long. We were so close to the project, it was a struggle to see where to cut.
When I need advice, I don’t seek out those who give over-zealous praise for my work. I like to keep it real. Instead, my inner circle consists of writers who are smarter and more experienced than I, full of battle scars, and who will slap me aside the head, telling me when I’m going off track.
Enter trusted friends and professionals.
Normally, I wouldn’t show a first draft to a professional consultant, but we were in a time crunch. We sent SBAN off to Bill Pace, screenwriting professor at The New School and to Nevada Grey, Vice President of Virtual Pitchfest and Director of Development at DKZ Films.
Bill had been on this ride with us for months, but Nevada read with a fresh set of eyes, leading to an entirely different introductory scene for our protagonist. Like a SWAT team, Bill and Nevada helped us pinpoint flaws quickly and accurately. But they also gave us the emotional support we needed to keep forging ahead.
“There’s more skill displayed in this script than 99% of the scripts I read.”
I printed that remark from Nevada and pasted it to my laptop as a reminder of the potential of this project and everything that was at stake.
More 12-hour writing days, and several drafts later, we sent SBAN off to Julie Keck and Jessica King, better known as King is a Fink, and also to Zac Sanford, a development executive, trusted friend and fellow co-founder of Scriptchat. They literally read it while we were flying to LA.
My plane landed at 11:30pm, and as Zac drove me to Burbank, he gave me his feedback – kill the protagonist’s father. Awesome! Why didn’t we see that?
At midnight, I crawled into my hotel room, exhausted from jet lag, and opened my laptop, ready to commit character murder. I found Julie and Jessica’s feedback waiting in my inbox. Along with more suggestions for cuts, I read what was the most amazing compliment we could ever receive from writers I deeply respect:
“Very well done. I wish I had written this.”
It’s important in the midst of reading notes to not only pay close attention to the criticism, but also to not lose site of what you’ve done well. We were on the right track, of that, I was certain.
Despite being physically drained, my adrenaline wouldn’t allow sleep. In less than 48 hours, we would be pitching SBAN for the very first time. Hot damn!
When Doug arrived the next day, I had all our pitching material laid out. He picked up our official one sheet. The picture alone spoke 1000 words. Then I surprised him with SBAN business cards, with that same image on the front and our logline on the back. A few practices of our pitch, and we were ready.
As we stood in those cattle-call lines at The Great American Pitchfest, we couldn’t help but be humbled, knowing the incredible support we had along the way. We were there partly because of all the people who believed in us and helped in whatever way they could. That’s something we will never take lightly.
Doug and I only pitched four production companies and one major agency that day. Every one of them almost jumped out of their seat, not expecting something like this to come across their pitch table. In truth, we kept our expectations low and were only testing the market. But the read requests were the validation we needed.
No doubt, this project will take a special kind of production company – one with courage to take on a socially relevant period piece. But our incredibly rich characters will attract the talent needed to make this film an epic, changing the way our nation’s history is viewed forever.
Trust me, we’ll find the producers. They’re out there, and we’ll get SBAN in front of them. All we need is one “yes”… and a team of friends.
On June 4th, Jeanne and Douglas will be speaking at this year’s Great American Pitchfest presenting a case study of the adaptation of Slavery by Another Name. The class is free. Please stop by and hear more about their journey in person.