In search of the American dream, 100 babesin the Hollywoods pitch scripts and battle for options in a down-and-dirty screenwriting cattle call.
Thursday, May 3, 2001
After seven years of writing, rewriting and hacking my way down to the pith, I managed to produce two screenplays, both lean and ready for market. (Truth be told, there is a first script that''s akin to one of those embarrassing family secrets for which I live in constant fear of exposure.)
For a first-time screenwriter, getting an agent is nearly impossible, given that the ratio of unsold screenplays to agents is at least a million-to-one, especially if you have fewer than three scripts. So I set about selling my work myself. Knowing that scams thrive in Hollywood like artichokes in Castroville, I did my research and discovered a legitimate portal for the poorly connected: Spec Script Marketplace, created and run like a military exercise by one Eva Peel.
Here''s how it works: Ms. Peel rents a large room in a Hollywood area hotel. She brings in approximately 30 production companies, all on a quest for a career-making diamond in the rough. The rough is comprised of 100 screenwriters who have one or more completed film scripts ready for slaughter.
Each writer pays $100 and is guaranteed four five-minute pitch sessions to sell material to the producers of his or her choice. There may be bonus pitches (if someone finishes in less than the allotted five minutes, any writer standing around can rush in and pitch for the remaining moments) or unused pitches that can be commandeered (if a producer isn''t in high demand and isn''t fully scheduled).
As an enticement, Peel sends an email of a list of companies that have agreed to participate, but Hollywood being what it is, last minute cancellations are the norm and Peel does not provide writers with a confirmed list until the event. Even so, production companies like Samuel Goldwyn Films, Dreyfuss/James Productions (Richard Dreyfuss'' company), Carrie Productions (Danny Glover''s gig), Olmos Productions (of Edward James Olmos fame) and others with major film credits but names unrecognizable to the average moviegoer are all the bait needed for the eager writers.
Writers arrive at 6:30pm and spend 45 minutes perusing the list of companies to select targets--Peel includes producers'' credits and film genres they''re looking for.
Many of my colleagues apparently know the game. A pack forms at the front of the room by 7:15, when Peel turns the herd loose for a round of musical sign-up sheets. Sheets are posted at 30 tables, with each accepting 20 pitches. Priorities in hand, the stampede disperses, knocking over the competition, fighting over who is in line first, grabbing the pen, or simply cutting straight to the front of the queue and signing a name, before running off to the next table.
Always up for a little friendly rivalry, I bolt to the end of a long line at one of the evening''s hottest tables: Marc Platt Productions, a feature company with a deal at Universal. Marc Platt, formerly of both Universal and Sony, made his reputation choosing and pushing through such successes as Dances With Wolves, Silence of the Lambs, Jerry Maguire, My Best Friend''s Wedding, As Good as it Gets and American Pie.
I come up in line just as the 20th spot is taken, but one line appears to be blank. Or is that wispy squiggle that looks like a cross-out, in fact, a signature? I write my name next to it and, as insurance, quickly sign up for four additional pitches, then approach the daunting Eva Peel to arbitrate, inciting a brouhaha that swells across the room to include many others similarly confused by an apparent rash of squiggles.
Peel grabs the microphone and barks, "If anyone is signing their name with an initial, come immediately to the podium!"
Meanwhile, while waiting for the verdict on Marc Platt''s, I sign up for five tables. Peel made it clear earlier that more than four sign-ups would be tantamount to treason. "We check," she snarled.
Believing this to be a scare tactic, but attempting to be conciliatory, I confess my action to Peel and explain my rationale. "Get it off," she snaps. "The last person who signed up for five has never been allowed to return."
Fortunately, the real gatekeepers to the Hollywood shrines--the producers--are not in the room to witness this pitiful sight. Once sign-ups are finished, the producers glide in, the atmosphere takes on the air of a peacekeeping operation, and the two-hour pitch session begins.
The Silver Scream
An estimated 20,000 screenplays are written each year and 300-400 films are produced in the U.S. during an average year. The odds of a first-time screenwriter selling a script is 37,000 to one. These statistics, spouted off as scientific fact by one screenwriting authority, are, in fact, purely anecdotal. But one thing is certain: Screenwriters, the only original artists who contribute to a film, are often treated like step-children by the other artists who interpret the lowly writer''s work.
Despite accounts of appalling abuses of screenwriters--for example, author Joan Didion''s fateful foray into the shark-infested waters of Hollywood, books with titles like And the Writer Got Screwed, and innumerable cautionary tales--there are increasing numbers of average Josephines like me who are struck with the thought that, "Hey! I could write a better movie than that!"
Unless you''re the Mozart of screenwriting, or you wrote a piece of shit, creating that script was a lot harder than you thought.
After dedicated years learning to write well, a writer can expect to spend years more selling his or her work in Hollywood. Hollywood. The very name evokes stereotypes ranging from studio cons in suits to misbehaving stars to ego-maniacal directors--such one-dimensional characters a good storyteller learns to avoid. What good storytellers cannot seem to avoid, no matter how hard they try, is the second-class treatment they receive in a city that lives off their words.
Long before I had the impudence to write, when awestruck by a song well sung or a line beautifully uttered on stage or screen, I wondered, Who wrote that? While I appreciate a good performance and good direction, I''ve always been surprised by the extent to which the populace adores a great performer above a great writer of performing arts material. Naturally, I believe the writer deserves equal credit for the collaboration.
Because you, too, may have said, "Hey! I could write a better movie than that!" and may have even done something about it, you should know about one local organization that does appreciate the well-typed word: the Monterey County Film Commission. The commission hosts an annual screenwriting competition and an annual Screenwriting Day, among other film-oriented events.
If you''re even thinking of writing a screenplay, don''t miss the Monterey County Film Commission''s Screenwriters'' Day on May 19. For more info, call 646-0910.
In case you''re wondering whether my signature triumphed over the squiggler and I got to pitch Marc Platt Productions, well, after all that, guess who turned out to be the only company on the list not to show up?
Carmel Valley resident Jeanne Howard was a finalist in the 1998 Maui Screenwriting Competition and recently optioned two scripts. She can be reached at Jeanne@coastweekly.com