by Doug Richardson
It’d been a disastrous pitch meeting at Paramount. The director, Señor Brit, had somehow decided the most important element of the presentation was for him to blather endlessly about how he would realize the story onto film. That might’ve been impressive had the studio actually known what the story was.
In lieu of confronting Señor Brit about his pitch-meeting faux pas in the VIP parking lot, I chose to beat traffic and cool my jets on the drive back to the Valley.
“(Señor Brit) is in director jail?” I asked, wondering why I hadn’t received the all-important memo.
“Far as I know,” said my agent. “Developed stuff and shot a bunch of pilots of late but he hasn’t made a movie since (his last picture) flamed out on the launch pad.”
Exactly what is Director Jail, you ask? Allow me to briefly digress. Director Jail is the metaphoric hoosegow where veteran helmers are sometimes relegated after they’ve delivered a big-budget/low-return box office disaster. How long the director spends in moviemaker outer-Mongolia is sometimes a matter of time, luck, the quality of his or her agent, and/or the ability to grovel at the feet of studio honchos looking for an experienced director to take the reins of some shit-sandwich sequel.
“So it’s not just Paramount where (Señor Brit) might have reason to be nervous?” I queried. “It’s possibly everywhere.”
“Pretty much,” confirmed my agent. “Sounds like he’s a classic case of a guy trying too hard.”
That much I could understand. We’ve all been caught pressing it in meetings. Overselling. Trying with all our pitchman’s might to haul our product over the finish line. Lord knows I’d been there. Somewhere, somehow, my anger toward Señor Brit melted into emotions more akin to empathy than fantasies of outright director-cide.
The next morning, I put in a call to the producer, Big Daddy.
“Yeah, I talked to him,” said Big Daddy. “He thinks the pitch went great.”
“Swell,” I grumbled, trying to hang on to my newly found compassion. “I expect you straightened him out.”
“I was thinking,” began Big Daddy. His qualifier already sounded ominous. “My job is pretty much done. I brought the two of you together. I think writer and director oughta put their heads together and work out how the next pitch should go.”
“Nuh uh,” I said. “Don’t do that to me. He’s your friend. You put him on the project. You should be the one to explain to him how we should present ourselves in the room.”
“You’re right. He’s my friend. That’s why I’d appreciate it if you’d figure out how to do this and leave me out.”
“Wow. That’s brave.”
“You’re the writer. The pitch is pretty much on you. Best you explain to (Señor Brit) how you expect things to go from here on.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to do the dirty work for a producer. It was a classic case of passing of the buck. I didn’t, though, have to accept. I could’ve simply refused. The words that came to me were dry and simple:
You’re the producer. You handle this or find yourself another writer.
What exactly compelled me to roll over and take up the mantle of responsibility is still a mystery. I chalk it up to this: some people are better at dealing with verbal conflict than others. Those who aren’t make it a habit to hide behind the skirts of those with more fight. I used to begrudge people with weaker hearts. No longer, though. Time and maturity have shown me otherwise. Some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of working with have struggled with face to face complications.
No time like the present, I thought. So I rang up Señor Brit.
“I thought yesterday went swimmingly well,” the director said.
“Totally disagree,” I said flatly. “I think it was a disaster.”
“Did we get a pass already?”
“No. But we will.”
“You’re certain of this?”
“I’d love to be wrong. But I’m not. While you were going on with your side of things, the execs were looking at their watches and eyeballing me, wondering when the hell they were going to hear the story.”
“But I was telling the story,” argued Señor Brit.
I went on to explain things simply to the veteran director in my most patient, fifth grade teacher impersonation.
“The purpose of the pitch is to get the buyer to say yes. They’re making a deal to develop a screenplay. A screenplay which they’re ostensibly going to pay me to write. Not you. So it goes that they’d prefer to hear the story told by the writer. Not the director.”
“… Uh huh.”
“Lemme put it this way. I’m a writer. Which means I’d prefer to be left alone to write. And I hate pitching. Hate it. But sometimes it’s my job to sell the story. If I could have you pitch it and then have the studio pay me to write it, all the better for Doug. But that’s not the way this business works.”
“I get it. That makes sense,” said the director. “But then why the hell am I in the meeting?”
Good question, I said to myself.
“You’re there because you’re attached. Just like (Big Daddy). The assumption is that you’re gonna direct the shit out of the script I write.”
There was a pause at the other end of the telephone. I could practically hear the crickets in the woods outside his canyon hacienda.
“Okay, fine,” said Señor Brit. “I’m on board with however you want to sell it. How do you want the next meeting to go?”
“Pretty simple,” I said. “Let (Big Daddy) set the table. I’ll follow with the story part of the pitch. Then when I’m finished, you move in for the big close.”
“So (Big Daddy) first. Then you. Then me?”
“That’s how I see it working best.”
What followed were more crickets. I wondered if Señor Brit was actually struggling with the idea of going last. As if being preceded by the writer didn’t quite represent his perceived order of the universe.
“How about we do it this way?” he asked. “First (Big Daddy) sets the table. I follow with a few words about why I think they should make this kind of film. The father/daughter of it. Just some tone stuff. Then I hand off to you. You tell the story. Then I close.”
“A few words?” I asked. “How few?”
“I dunno. Two minutes tops?”
“Two minutes max. We’re talking about people with very short attention spans.”
“I’m with you. You’re there to tell the story. Not me. I get it.”
So there it was. A plan was finally in place. All we had to do was chill for forty-eight hours, meet in Century City, then ride the elevator fourteen floors up to the Walden Media offices and sell the damned thing.
But damned it was. No sooner did Señor Brit open his mouth than he began repeating the same “watch me direct” rap from the Paramount meeting. I tried to politely interject. Jump into the fray. Wrestle the story-telling from the inept British boob. But the jailed director demanded the floor and continued his endless spiel of colors and smash cuts and rap music cues.
And when the tall, feline exec eye-balled me with her am-I-ever-going-to-hear-a-story glare, I could no longer hide my disdain.
Some twenty minutes later, when Señor Brit finally ceded the floor to me, I chose to keep my comments brief.
“Nope. I think you said it all. That’s our pitch. Really appreciate your time.”
So there I was. Standing at the elevators, hoping to get a solitary ride down to the lobby when I heard Señor Brit’s voice behind me.
“Overall, I think that went well,” says Señor Brit. “Not exactly how we planned it but… So what do you think, Doug?”
That’s when the fantasy came to me in a near electrical flash. The one where I pivoted and proceeded to shove Señor Brit out the fourteenth floor window and watch him tumble to his cinematic death—saving countless other writers the mental anguish he was certain to inflict had I not acted with such extreme and precise prejudice.
“We’ll see,” was pretty much all I could muster in response.
We said our farewells in the parking garage. And as I drove home, I waited for my mobile to ring.
“That was a disaster,” said Big Daddy over the phone. “I thought you’d worked out a pitch plan with him.”
“I did. He didn’t stick to it. So I’m done.”
“With the movie?”
“It’s not a movie yet. Not even a pitch. At least not something I can sell with him attached.”
“You can’t step off. Not just like that.”
“I just did.”
“Lemme talk to him.”
“And say what? It’s the writer or you. And I choose the writer?”
“You know I can’t do that. He’s my friend.”
“But I thought you loved the property?”
“I do. But I can’t fathom a development process with that guy. Seriously. I’m out.”
“I’m not accepting your answer. It’s too soon. Go home. Cool down. We’ll talk next week.”
So that’s what I did. I returned to my home and family and eventually cooled on my silly murder fantasy. But my resolve to withdraw from the movie never abated. I was done.
I don’t know if they ever found another writer to continue the dance. And like so many other false starts and failed movie alliances, I’ve pretty much relegated my tête-a-tête with Señor Brit to my bad memory storage shed.
Yet what always lingers after nearly every one of my aborted collaborations is a story I wanted to write but was never given the opportunity. A few have come back to me. Most, though, remain as ghosts. Lost loves never to be consummated.
Don’t miss our next Screenwriters World Conference West in Los Angeles September 27 – 29, 2013
Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.
If you’re serious about your screenwriting career, this is an event that’s not to be missed.
Helpful articles to aide you in your pitchfest success:
- Checklist for Pitchfests and Conference
- Pitch Tips
- Managing Expectations
- Pitching Insights and Tips for Before You Submit Your Script
Tools to Help Prepare Your Pitch:
- Pitch Clinic: Get Your Pitch in Shape with The Story Consultants
- Writing Successful Loglines, Query Letters and One-Sheets
- No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive’s Perspective