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January, 2008


The Shy Writer

Fade In
Pitch fest
By  J.R. Kambak

Besiege Tinsel Town and take your best shot at outsmarting your competition.
Sunset Boulevard. Friday night. Police sirens mix with the odours and dissonance of a semi-arid land; the scraps of neighbourhoods crowded, enchanted. The air is unusually crisp and refreshing.

My enthusiasm for the two-day 13th Annual Fade In "Concept to Sale" conference and pitch fest is palpable. The glitzy Sunset Boulevard Tinsel Town setting is a place that works through its demons by lauding the facts of life. This is Hollywood, live and uncut, just like my life as a screenplay writer.

From my eleventh-story, hotel-room balcony I cast my view over a vast city of lights’ sprawl; a tangled net of intricate geometry shimmering like a mirage in the desert. My view becomes blurred, subject to the oceanic ebb and flow of a smudged horizon upon Hollywood’s altar: this concrete savannah is a screenplay writer’s Mecca-tropolis. A Hollywood pitch fest is its kissing stone.

Saturday
At 5:30 a.m., the participants' queue on the mezzanine has already established the order in which we get to mark our names on the pitch fest signup sheets – there are only eight scheduled pitch sessions. We sit together, get acquainted, and drink the ubiquitous mermaid caffeine, remaining independent and complicated but cool; hinting about our bulletproof script pitch tactics.

The writing pedigree is a montage of international citizenry, the universality of humanity with stories in the same vein. Some have one script, others a baker’s dozen. They’re all enticing enough for a tabloid pay check at the very least.

The Fade In staff arrives late, saying they're "suri" – the new slang for Hollywood apologies. The rest of the weekend is set to a Mickey Mouse toy clock, literarily posted out side the "situation" room – the place we'd be pitching all day Sunday.

The afternoon presentations open with producer Roy Lee revealing his clever deal-making remake rights for such successful horror films as The Grudge and The Ring. "The horror genre is easier to adapt," at least for starting out, according to Lee.

His latest remake is based on the trilogy series Infernal Affairs, renamed The Departed, and netted a few 2007 Oscars. Infernal Affairs was filmed with a budget of $3 million; The Departed was bankrolled at $90 million. Lee points out that of the three factors of film rights – moral rights, straight rights, and permission rights – the later was his way of carving a niche for himself in the crucial and intermediary step of becoming a film producer.

Next up is screenplay writer David Arata (Children Of Men – awarded the Oscar in Best Achievement in Cinematography for 2006). Arata hooked the story in what he affectionately calls an "R" Family rated movie, in his shirttail-out, unpretentious character, relating that these are reactive characters who make decisions that affect other people. For a cinematic opening scene, "You don’t always have to have an active character driving the storyline," he adds.

Arata's script ownership insights are noteworthy as he relates the life of a script’s cutting continuity. From the option or sale of that script, the original writer may never be brought back in for the rewrites. And the more writers attached to the rewrites, the further down the list of original writers goes the mention, until finally, they are dropped off as a line credit.

Other issues arise. In his script Spy Game, Arata, who shares writing credits with Michael Frost Beckner, wanted the CIA character, Nathan D. Muir, portrayed as much darker and less benevolent in getting Tom Bishop out of the Chinese prison. "But for Robert Redford, this wouldn't work."

So how does the original writer stay on board when the script is green lighted? Arata suggests that when you go into your first meeting to review the script, come with copious notes of your own suggestions for change. Have rewrite ideas to pitch. Be proactive.

Next at the lectern is Robert Kosberg, Hollywood's vigorous pitch man extraordinaire. He reminds me of the Jerry Maguire of script pitches. Sharp witted, mercurial intellect – the go-to-guy if you've got a story idea you want pitched around town. He achieved $2 hundred thousand for an elderly woman from just a Xerox newspaper article she pitched to him.

He challenges us, "Ask yourself, does your story do something that hasn't been done?" Then, in a one-liner, with cagey brevity, he advises us to summarize the three acts with passion and enthusiasm, pretending you’ve already seen the movie – use "poster" words. "It's very important to see the movie in your mind," Kosberg continues.

With that one-in-a-million idea, Kosberg knows he can work financial deals delivering pitches that have that "wow" factor. Even with iconic ideas that have been done before, he can bring someone a fair monetary dividend. He concludes, "The glass of water has to talk."

Sunday
The pitch fest starts at 10 a.m. We pitchers enter the surreal Mickey Mouse space-time continuum. Some bring graphic visual props, others newspaper articles or books for script adaptation, and some arrive with dummy posters. We're all trying to gain the edge during the short seven-minute window of opportunity in front of one or two production company reps.

In seven-minute segments, over eight hours I pitch to my targeted production companies. Based on a genre cheat sheet provided by the Fade In staff, I've picked these targets by what they were looking for. Then, on to the stand-by line I go for a chance to wing it with the luck of the draw, getting any pitch slots left vacant.

Cast over a vast territory of skirting and outsmarting my competition with politeness, I have presented eight screenplays of various genres and one concept plot. Outside, regrouped in line, some of us exchange our victories or give pep talks to others, bonding as a tour de force of writers, besieging the gatekeepers of Tinsel Town.

Afterglow
The pitch exchange was exhilarating, even if you were turned down from time to time. You got to share knowledge, penetrate barriers face-to-face with the goods of your imagination, participating in the immensity of movie making, paying for your ticket on that genuine fantasyland ride; a necessary sojourn in the rite of passage as a screenplay writer.
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J.R. Kambak is a regular IN contributor and award-nominated screen-playwright, award-winning videographer, and former corporate communications/media relations executive. Contact J.R. Kambak for more information and resources: zentoro@fastmail.co.uk

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