NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: How I Got Banned From a Pitchfest

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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In the Summer of 2010, a couple of months into my dual internships at production companies, I attended my first cattle call. *COUGH* I meant pitchfest. Oddly enough it wasn’t by choice, I was tossed in to the fire head first.

I was hanging out with a “producer,” who will shall call Jonn Jonzz from here on out. As it happens, he had invited me to this “event” where one of our mutual friends was going to be. I had nothing better to do and he mentioned “free booze.” So why the hell not?

I should mention that at this point, I had no idea what the event in question was. He sort of half assed explained it to me, but honestly, it sounded pretty stupid so I checked out while he was talking.

So, we head up to this hotel in Burbank to meet up with our friend. We walk in and there’s just people everywhere. All with that “writer look.” There were a lot of people in khaki’s and glasses, if you know what I mean. By the way, that’s not a slam, I was one of them.

THE OFFER

I was shooting the shit with a small group of people when Jonn Jonzz appears behind me and puts his arm around me (he was, and I assume still is, a very schmoozey guy).

“How’d you like to make a hundred bucks?” He says with a smile.

“Uh…do I get to keep my clothes on?”

“Seriously? How’d you like to make a hundred bucks?”

“Doing what?”

“Just tell me if you want to or not?”

“Um…you still haven’t said if I have to take my clothes off.”

“All you have to do is sit at a table all day tomorrow and hear some pitches.”

“Sure.”

Apparently, while at the party, Jonzz was approached by the director of the event and asked to “take a table” for the day. I guess a couple production companies had pulled out at the last minute and they were struggling to find people to fill the empty tables. HE of course wasn’t going to sit his ass there all day so he told the director that he wouldn’t do it, but he would have a “representative” from his company do it.

A.K.A.: Me.

Script EXTRA: FREE Webinar of how to make the most of a screenwriting pitchfest!

And that was that. My journey into the pitchiest world had begun. Completely unprepared, I woke up early the next day and headed back to the hotel totally unaware of what I was signing up for. Jonn Jonzz had given me my marching orders and told me what to look out for. Keep in mind that I was only an intern, had been working in Hollywood for all of two months AND didn’t even work for the company I was hearing pitches for.

I point this out because it’s important to know, when you drop cash for an event that promises access to “Hollywood insiders,” who you’re ACTUALLY getting. I promise you, I wasn’t the only intern there that day.

As you can see from my Tweet above, I was pretty excited to be on the other side of things. The event was promoting me as a Hollywood insider, and I felt like a Hollywood insider. I felt like I had a little power. It was cool.

As a first time attendee as an executive to a pitchfest, I was completely naive.

I heard a lot of crazy ideas for scripts, but I also heard a lot of good ones. Here’s where I really screwed up: anyone that had anything to give me, I took it. I walked out that day with a hundred dollars in my pocket and every one sheet, business card, partial script and full script.

It was a massive stack of scripts that I had to haul from Burbank to Huntington Beach on the bus. It all ended up on a shelf in my closet until I made my first move. Don’t get me wrong, I poured through all of it looking for the diamond in the rough, but honestly? It was all shit. Lots of good ideas that were poorly executed.

Anyway, even though I didn’t find a diamond, I was hooked on how I was TREATED. I was looked at as a peer and, while I didn’t meet any of my fellow execs that day, I knew that if I could find a way to attend a few more pitchfests, I’d be brought into the fold.

Script EXTRA: Step-by-step tips for turning your bland idea into a high concept story.

HEARING PITCHES FOR COBRA

Cobra CommanderOnce I started working for Cobra Commander, it was easy to sign myself up for just about every pitchfest in town. Sadly, the name COBRA got me a lot of mileage. It may have been an evil organization out for world domination, but there were still a lot of people that wanted Cobra at their event. A couple even used the Cobra name to promote their event. (More on that later.)

After attending a couple of pitchfests, no longer as an intern, I learned the racket pretty quickly. By my third pitchfest, I also learned NOT to take ANYTHING anyone wanted to hand me. I walked in to the event empty handed, I walked out empty handed. It felt SO good.

It wasn’t just the event that wanted a part of the Cobra name, it was also the writers who were pitching. That first day, when I was an intern, I got a decent bunch of level headed people. Once I started hearing pitches under the Cobra name? Well, that all changed.

The crackpots came out of the woodwork.

I started to develop a list in my head of things NOT to do at a pitchfest. Things that people would do over and over and over and over. Some had no idea they were doing it; most had no idea that the four writers before them did the same things.

I felt the need to do two things…

First, this industry is hard enough to break into as it is, and a lot of people were talking (and writing) about what someone SHOULD do, but no one was talking about what they SHOULDN’T do. I took it upon myself to be that person. Maybe if these writers would stop doing some of this bullshit, they’d have a better chance at finding some success.

Second, as it turns out, once I was part of the fold, my fellow executive friends and I would chat about some of the crazier writers we heard pitches from. I wasn’t the only one that noticed these patterns of bad behavior.

To prove a point, I took Cheryl with me to a pitchiest. She had been reading my columns, hearing me bitch and thought that I was being hyperbolic about the kind of shit I encountered. I asked her to write up her experience. I share this so you know that I’m not making any of this up and to establish a pattern. Here is her recount of what she saw at her first pitchfest.

(Originally Published in 2012.)

I had the pleasure of stepping into the executive side of a pitchfest, yes, the other side of the table you’re sitting at, this weekend. Fascinating! I read Manny’s article every week, have had long discussions about what a pitchfest is like so I knew the worst of the worst that could ever possibly happen. Now Manny is accurate on his descriptions of how this all rolls but I think he has higher expectations than I had.

It was pretty obvious, to me, the herd felt they were being corralled into a bludgeoning station. As they reached our stall I’m sure they looked at Manny with a “Why does he look mad at me? Shit, has he heard something about me! I give up.” Then! They saw me… 5’2, smiling blonde chick with my hand out for shaking and a “have cookie, sit down and tell me your story” kind of look. Surprise, 98.9% of the pitches were then directed at me. That was fine, I do the “I am very interested look” pretty well.

First pitch was gone, no memories of it, just getting my feet wet.

Second pitch said “I have a list here of ten scripts I’ve written, which one would you like to hear. I have a great Christmas story for you!” As I glanced around for cameras, sure that Manny had set this up. I mean… really?… second pitch… and this guy just made two of the fucktard mistakes! I got my snicker under control, I had actually prepared for this. I tell him, “I think you should pitch your favorite, unless it’s the Christmas one and then you should pick a different one. Go!”

Yeah, see… I don’t remember what his pitch was because I was surprised he gave me a menu and tried to pitch a Christmas story to the company that…Gwyneth…head….box. Manny and I would have joked hysterically after that but the cow bell (not kidding) was clanged and the next pitch was in the seat before that guy could finish saying, “I have an interracial, teenage coming-of-age story too!” (wish I was joking about that too.)

It was literally like that from 10:00 am to 5:04 pm (would have been 5:02 but the last guy thought he should stay and chat since he was the last and apparently was somehow deranged enough to think we might like to “blah blah right up until the last fuckin’ cow bell which, believe me was only cute up until the third time heard, people.

NEXT UP! THE CAST OF PITCHFESTERS

I did a lot of praying after the gong: “No No! We don’t want the 4’0 lady in the 1930’s Wal-Mart dress with her..son/husband/lover!” Yup, they were here to see us.

“Nooo nooo not the guy with the legoland toupe!?” Us, again. “Please, please… pretty please not the guy that looks like the SNL character “old Jewish guy in a track suit” who had so much stuff in his hands he couldn’t even shake mine.

Yes, we got all those. One after one, every five minutes they came. I hoped they wouldn’t be here for us, because I so couldn’t see them having the next great script, but they were.

In fairness, I do remember liking the script from the 1930’s Wal-mart lady…but…do you see someone like that in a Hollywood producer’s office, I’m not taking her in. I can’t sell her, no matter how good her script is.

THE WHOLE KIT AND KABOODLE

This is very harsh, but, companies are looking for the whole package. Do you speak confidently, with enough excitement but not too much? Are you dressed in business casual…not shorty shorts and flip flops (gentlemen, you know who you are)?

Remember, you are pitching yourself as well as your work. I know it’s hard, I completely agree. How do you get the perfect mix of excitement, right look, and connection? One of the very last pitches was a guy who was extremely monotone… pitching a thriller. Of course I asked “are you not excited about your script?”

He first said that he had told the story too many times today, ok…I get it…but save some for me dude, I shook your hand and gave you the “cookie look” dammit! I understand you’ve been pitching for 8 hours but guess what? I’ve been listening to them for 8 hours. I still put on the smile and did the dance. Why can’t you?

After putting him on the spot, he admitted he was that monotone all day. I gave him a speech about this being his work and that he should be excited about it. In other words, I had just informed him his day was a loss, which it was.

CLANK ,CLANK, CLANK!

More Cowbell

There was the other end of the spectrum too. These two guys sat down and immediately started doing an infomercial style…you say two sentences then I’ll say two sentences thing.

Guy #1: TODAY ONLY! For 19.95, ORDER NOW…

Guy # 2: …AND WE’LL THROW IN THIS…

Guy #1: …POTATO PEELER! But wait!…

Guy #2: …There’s more!

It was like watching a tennis match. Back and forth. Thank God Manny got whiplash following both and told them to stop. “Guys…cut the canned routine and just tell us your story.” The transformation was amazing! They told their script in their own voices and it was SOOOOO much better. They both said: “Wish we came to this booth earlier.”

CLANK, CLANK, CLANK!

Looooved the guy who told Manny: “Cobra Commander? They made (INSERT BIG FILM NOT MADE BY COBRA COMMANDER) right?”

Manny: “No.”

Pitcher: “Yeah they did, that one with Ashley Judd.”

Manny: “No, but way to do your research, dude.”

Is it so hard to look it up on IMDb people?

He pitched us a – What if the south won and we still had slavery…as a *wait for it* … COMEDY! My comment to him was, “Good one, cause we all know how funny slavery is.” 

Pass.

I think the thing I was most disappointed with was that there were very few original ideas, very few people comfortable talking about their own project, and definitely not enough freaks there for our amusement.

I was very disappointed the two gay biker dudes both dressed as Mr. Slave from South Park, did not pitch to us, cause, you know, that woulda been a great story to tell. I was also disappointed we didn’t get to hear from the guy roaming the room with three bimbos in black dresses. We later found out he was pitching a reality show. These clowns would have broken up the day a bit.

Last but not least, a guy that hasn’t been mentioned before:

The “My day job pays me enough money to sponsor this pitchfest, complete with banners and swag bags for everyone and I could probably produce my own idea but brought it to you instead” guy. Why are you here?

Now I do not offend easily and what saved his ass from being reamed was the fact that he was shorter than me and was pitching a Harry Potter-esque type script. Somewhere during his pitch he whips out some bootie shorts with his script name across the ass in hot pink to give me…really? Says I should wear them to help advertise… brings fucktardom to a whole new level. Well, I hand them off to Manny and say here ya go… could you wear those for him please.

All in all I have to say that it was pretty fun seeing things from Manny’s side of the table. I never thought he was making these people up, but I did think he was exaggerating a little bit. Maybe a little bit of hyperbole for comedy.

He’s not.

They do exist.

Obviously, Cheryl and I were publicly critical of the people who pitched to us. At the same time, in our defense, would YOU put your reputation on the line to support any of these people or their ideas?

Here’s a few more people who we (“we” meaning, me, Cheryl, friends and fellow executives talked about) pointed out.

LIVE TWEETING

There were a lot of people that weren’t big fans of my harsh honesty. Whether it was because they saw themselves in what I was telling them or it was because of my… um… choice of words. (If you haven’t noticed, I tend to be a little fucking “blue.”) Looking back on it now, the reality of the situation was that most haters didn’t appreciate my negativity. There were a lot of people that didn’t get that I was trying to help them by breaking their bad habits.

Anyway… the natural progression to finding a way to get my message out, and to wholeheartedly entertain myself, was to live Tweet the pitchfests I attended.

Clearly there’s a lot os snark attached to my Tweets. The whole sarcastic, “Detroit Manny” character was coming through loud and clear on my Twitter feed.

Script EXTRA: Social Media Etiquette Tips

BINGO WAS HIS NAME-O!

In 2014, after many pitchfests over many years… both online and in person… I finally went to, what would be my last pitchfest, At this point, most of the “pitchfest craze” had died. Many of the events just disappeared due to it being A) a massive pain in the ass and B) usually resulted in a loss of cash for the company putting them on.

It’s really hard to believe when you see what they were charging people, but whatever, I’ll take their word for it. Even the pitchfests that still existed, seemed to have a lowered attendance. I should note, to keep the litigious at bay, that this is based on my observation and have no actual data backing it up. All I can say is that the amount of people I saw at my table and others was greatly reduced at my LAST pitchfest compared to that FIRST pitchfest.

So you do the math.

In typical fashion, I was planning on live Tweeting the day. On this day though, I had brought something as little fun for me and my peers to keep our sanity during the day. At the suggestion of one of my Australian friends (what up, Matt!?) I created Pitchfest Bingo!

Bingo

Believe it or not, everything in those squares are things that I have seen in my years attending pitchfests. Myself and every other executive that’s attended a pitchfest, I won’t throw anyone under the bus, but let’s just say I had more than a couple of executives on board.

(I should note that all joking aside, I did actually try to make a deal with this guy.)

Yup. I lost at my own game.

If you’ll notice, I never used the hashtag associated with the pitchfest in question. That’s because they were, for whatever reason, running a live feed of all the tweets using the hashtag on a big screen in the back of the room. I figured it would be best to not SHOWCASE to everyone in the room that a small band of us were playing a game to keep our sanity.

Besides, it’s not like I was Tweeting to a large group. I think I had MAYBE a whopping 125 followers at that point.

I will say that I did end up using the hashtag once. At the end of the day, just to get a laugh out of the group of executives around me, I Tweeted this:

It worked. What can I say, I think I’m funny. As it turns out, the people in charge didn’t.

MANNY GETS BANNED

In 2015, I was planning out my year and looking at all of the events coming up. I sent my annual “Hey, I can sit and hear pitches” email to the directors of the events.

This was the response I got:

Yeah. We’re going to pass.

Somewhat joking, I wrote back and asked if it was “something I said?”

I received a response where I was flat out scolded for “being mean” to writers and that they were “very disappointed in me and my behavior.” They ended with stating that they didn’t think “I was a good fit for their event” and that “I was no longer welcome.”

Look, no one likes to be scolded, and I was hurt at first, but then I got kind of pissed. See? The thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the “disappointment.” In the email, it was implied, that for years I was nothing more than a stand-up citizen and that, for me to stoop to “playing bingo” was somehow letting every writer down.

Really? I’m the guy who ALWAYS live Tweeted with dripping sarcasm, the guy who had a column AND a podcast where we had a segment literally titled “FUCKTARD OF THE WEEK.” A segment where my co-host and I would chastise something stupid a writer did in order to stop anyone else from doing it. Clearly, this person didn’t know me AT ALL or what I was about.

So just how the hell could I disappoint them?

It’s not MY fault you finally figured out how to use Twitter. I mean, did Bingo cross a line? I don’t think so. But if that had been the thing and ONLY the thing that got be banned… Fine. My bad. I’m sorry. Shouldn’t have done that.

But can the disappointment bull. That was B.S.

Regardless, I sent a polite email back, apologizing for any problems I caused and explained that I thought they knew what I was all about. It’s not like I’m not public about it given the column and the podcast, both of which I pointed out had been in existence for years at this point.

They never responded.

EPILOGUE

In 2015, I got a very nice email by one of the staffers of the pitchfest to invite me to that year’s event. Actually, let me correct that…while it was sent to my email account, it was actually addressed to “Manny Rogers.” I wrote back and politely asked if she was sure she was emailing the right person as I had been banned permanently from the event.

Embarrassed, she explained that she would look into it for me. She emailed me the next day:

Hi Manny,
It seems like you are indeed on the naughty list but at least you can quote from Karl Marx.

“I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”

Annie Hall

I wrote back:

In this case I’d probably attribute that quote more to Groucho Marx by way of Woody Allen in Annie Hall and say: “There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

Manny

🙂

I don’t think she got it.

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