Tales From a Pitchfest

One weekend, hundreds of movie pitches.

INT. BALLROOM – DAY

By the end of day one, I’ve already heard movie stories than I’ll see movies in a year. Since 9 AM, I’ve listened to at least a hundred different ideas for movies. Big action blockbusters, small indie movies “with a heart”, a “new take on X”, an “X kind of movie, only different”, a “star vehicle”, and the most common one: “a completely original story”. One that I’m hearing for the third time today.

The event is called a “pitchfest”, where hundreds of writers gather to pitch their ideas to people in the movie industry.

As more pitchfests spring up all over the country, they need more industry professionals to listen to all these pitches. And the criteria to be called an “industry professional” has lowered drastically

When the first pitchfest started, it was a unique way of offering writers a chance to sit down with an executive, or producer, or agent, for just a few minutes, pitch their story, and get out.

Since then, pitch festivals have sprung up across the country (and world). There are now smaller events called “Pitch boot camps” that prepare writers to the pitchfest. There are even “virtual pitchfests”, where writers pay to submit their pitch to companies, either via email or via webcam.

As more pitchfests spring up all over the place, they need more industry professionals to listen to all these pitches. And the criteria to be called an “industry professional” has lowered drastically. Which is where I came in.

A friend of mine, a B-movie producer, who we’ll call “Jimmy”, was going to a pitchfest with his producing partner. His partner cancelled, and I got the invitation instead. While I would describe myself as a film buff, I’m not a film industry professional. I don’t have an agent, I don’t work for a production company, and I don’t have a first-look deal with Paramount.

But for two days, I got to sit at Table 23 with my friend and listen to pitches. A lot of pitches.

Pitchfest: a cattle call for writers

In the film industry, a “cattle call” is what many actors go to in auditions. Producers will look to fill their movies/videos/shows with actors without any particular look — everyone is welcome. So everyone goes. Lines and lines of all sorts of actors waiting to go in and read a few lines. But most of them will be (politely) dismissed as soon as they utter the first line.

This is what pitchfest is for writers. One after another, they come in, introduce themselves, sit down and pitch their log line (a one or two sentence summary of what the movie is about). And as soon as that logline ends, you know if you want to see that movie or not, you know if you’re interested or not. But at a pitchfest, you don’t get to yell “Next!”. You sit there and politely nod your head as the writer goes on to describe the rest of the story. Unless they decide to move on, which they often don’t — some will spend their time trying to convince you that this is the greatest thing ever and you’re an idiot for passing on it. Of course, they don’t say that to your face.

The very first pitch on Saturday morning, the writer pitched his logline and spent 5 minutes explaining it. After he left, Jimmy turned to me and said, “That was retarded. We’re gonna need more coffee. And a lot more sugar”.

“By the time they’ve said a few sentences, I already know whether I want to hear more or not”, he tells me. The thing is, even if you think it’s the worst story ever, even if the guy sitting across from you has the worst breath in the world — and this happens more often than you’d think — you still have to sit there and listen to him for five minutes. Because at a pitchfest, the writer is promised a set amount of time — usually around 5 minutes — to make his pitch.

“By the time they’ve said a few sentences, I already know whether I want to hear more or not”

The opposite of listening to a lame story at pitchfest is listening to a writer who has half a dozen stories and wants to cram them all into his 5 minute block. At the end of 5 minutes, you don’t know what’s what.

“Today, just keep your mouth shut”

Jimmy was worried that if I spoke, I’d mess things up for him, I’d make him look bad. So he politely told me to keep my mouth shut in the beginning. It was fine by me, because I had no idea what to say to a writer.

But after the first few hours of just listening, I got the hang of it. I understood how a protagonist should have an internal and external drive to solve his problem, I understood what having a “theme” really means, and I definitely understood what a good “hook” is — something that makes you go “Oh, I definitely need to listen to the rest of this“. Hearing a pitch with a good hook is like a shot of caffeine to your bloodstream. Finally, something that wakes out up after listening to ten duds in a row.

Some pitchfests are organized into lines for each table — want to talk to that production company? Get in that line. The pitchfest I’m at, it’s a more open, free-for-all kind of deal. The ballroom has dozens of tables, each with a number and a sign the says who is represented at the table (agents/producers/production companies etc.). If a producer or company wants to hear more, business cards are exchanged and the writer is asked to send in the script. Many writers have printed copies waiting in their hotel rooms.

The first thing you notice is that almost all writers are well prepared: they know what they’re talking about, they know their stories in an out, and they’re very good at answering questions as succinctly as possible.

With some writers, you get the sense that they’ve pitched their story a million times, like an NBA player who shoots his free throws with perfect form every time. They way they talk and gesture with their hands, you can tell they’ve had a lot of practice. But it also makes you wonder: if this guy is so good at pitching, why hasn’t he sold/optioned/made this movie yet?

Writers who go to pitchfests are ones with no industry connections. There’s no one there to vouch for them, to read their work, say “that’s great”, and then hopefully pass it on to someone in the Hollywood machine. And those listening to the pitches aren’t exactly Hollywood hot shots — Hollywood hot shots don’t go to a pitchfest to find the next Hangover or Matrix trilogy.

Most of the people on the receiving end of the pitches here works in the industry in some capacity — most are representing production companies in some way or another, from the head of development to the “executive assistant”. Some are independent producers, some are directors, and some are agents or managers (or both — and “stay away from those assholes”, Jimmy tells me).

Jimmy sips his coffee and tells me that pitch fests these days will take anyone to listen to these people, and by “these people” he means the hundreds of writers standing outside, getting ready to pitch their work. If you’re on IMDB as a director or producer on the smallest of projects, they’ll fly you out here and put up in a decent hotel for a weekend. All so that you can sit listen to “these people” and the screenplay they’ve spent years perfecting.

Alien drug traffickers

“Did you hear the one about the alien drug traffickers?”, an agent-looking guy asks me during the lunch break. “This guy, I’ve heard his pitch for the third time now, he goes to pitchfests and pitches the same story.”

“Not yet”, I tell him, looking over his shoulder, trying to figure out if the line to the espresso machine is too long. A name tag identifies the agent-looking guy as “Todd”, and while we wait, Todd tells me how he goes to a few of these Pitchfests each year. “It’s a way to get out of LA for a weekend. I don’t expect to find anything useful”, he says. He does add that he’s optioned a few stories over the years, but none have come to fruition.

I ask Todd if he knows anyone who has ever actually put a movie into production that was pitched at one of these events. “Not that I know”, he tells me. “But I read that some woman sold a comedy earlier this year at one of these”. So there’s that.

Most pitchfests are not only about pitching. There are panel discussions, there are seminars, workshops, there are mixers, etc. — like any good conference, there are a bunch of side dishes to sample during your time there. The writers, who pay anywhere from $100 up to $500 for the whole weekend, depending on the size of the event, usually have enough to do the whole weekend besides pitching.

Most pitchfests are not only about pitching. There are panel discussions, there are seminars, workshops, there are mixers etc.

After I get my espresso, I talk to Micheal, a writer who’s also a Pitchfest veteran. He always comes with at least 3 stories he wants to pitch, each in its own category. As far as I can see, Micheal is the only writer here who’s wearing a suit, and looking pretty good in it too.

He never sold a story or optioned anything, but says that Pitchfests have been worth the money and the time. “I’ve learned a lot from the workshops and I’ve met lots of writers and become friends with many of them”, he says.

I ask if there’s a sense of competition between the writers. “Maybe if you’re pitching in the same category. If you’re both horror-guys or both pitching comedy, there might be some tension” he says, adding “But everyone’s always been really nice and professional.”

He’s right about the last part: everyone is nice and courteous at Pitchfest. There are no Hollywood assholes here. But then again, we’re about 1,000 miles from LA.

INT. HOTEL ROOM – DAY

The weekend is over and I’ve heard more movie pitches than I’ll see movies in the next two years, maybe more. Despite sitting on my ass for most of the two days, I feel exhausted. Jimmy stops by my hotel room and tells me that he’s optioned a story that was pitched to us on the first day. I don’t remember the story, but he tells me that it’s got potential. A little indie horror movie. He’s got a hard copy of the script and asks if I want to read it on the plane back to LA.

“No thanks”, I said. “I don’t wanna talk about movies for the next few months.”

FADE OUT.

Written by on July 3rd, 2015. This article is part of Screenhead .