American Film Market 2011 conference: unofficial notes
Nov 5, 2011 11 AM: Pitch Conference notes part 2
Notes by B. Hahne
The original blog location of these notes is: http://2011afm.blogspot.com
This is day 2 of a 5-day series, check back at the blog for more as the days go by.
Clarifications or pithy comments by the note-taker will generally appear in [square brackets like this].
These notes are copyright (c) 2011 by Bruce Hahne. Noncommercial, nonprofit redistribution and/or pointing people to the blog is permitted and encouraged.
Disclaimers: "Free notes, you get what you pay for!" There notes are a summary, not a transcript, and represent my best effort to capture the panel discussion plus Q&A. They also probably contain errors. I'm not in the film industry, nor am I affiliated with AFM / American Film Market or with any of the firms associated with the panelists.
Guy: I'm in L.A. and work for ABC Universal. Project is called Amazon Queen is a comedy and buddy film, modern day Robin Hood who is female who kidnaps a drag queen as a hostage, [and then the fun begins], and that turns out to be a mistake. Lulu the drag queen is a human rights attorney in NY in his day job and doesn't like being kidnapped. The two of them discover that they can turn to each other when they need support. And etc. etc...
Cassian: OK, you're starting to ramble at the end. For a movie that you said was a comedy, there was not much laughter from the audience as you pitched. I'm not sure how to repitch that to make it sound more funny. The Brazilian Robin Hood and the drag queen is an interesting pairing, but I don't know, nothing in it made me say wow, that's really funny.
Tobin: Wild premise... somehow you need to grab us, maybe pitch a scene. Have you written this?
Guy: I have a first draft.
Tobin: OK as background info, generally speaking in Hollywood, pitches are reserved for "high concept" ideas. If you're pitching Little Miss Sunshine or Priscilla Queen of the Desert, it always comes down to the script, nobody buys based on a pitch for those films. If you've done the work and written the script, get my attention and make me laugh, and then we can move on to let me read the script.
Cassian: You can go for the cheap laugh by saying, like, I'm going to get George Clooney to play the drag queen, which is the laugh because of course George Clooney isn't going to do that.
Stephanie: takeaway for this one seems to be that the pitch needs to live up to the genre. If it's a comedy then the short pitch needs to be funny.
Nancy the pitcher: I'm in the WGA and I wrote a script called Glow Worms, comedy, script won X contest. The year is 1969, war, riots, man on the moon, hippies. Women are just starting to discover that they have brains that really work well. [Yes that's how she phrased it.] There are 3 girls who decide to beat the boys at the annual science fair, and they decide to build a fission reactor in their backyard.
Cassian: OK that was good, it makes me want to read the script, but you don't need to tell me you're in the WGA up front. I was thinking oh my god, the unions are going to get me.
Tobin: I like the delivery. I thought you'd lose me when you said 1969 since only Cassian here remembers 1969. Maybe a bit more detail on the backend since you were on a roll when talking about the girls.
Cassian: Note how she set up the feeling and the year without a lot of words/detail. I got excited by listening to her feeling excited.
Troy the pitcher: comedy TV series about a washed-up golfer turned exterminator who gets a 2nd chance. He has to get off the driving range to get away from his psycho girlfriend, gets found by an ex-gambler. There's a built-in audience of golfers. New fresh comedy, new look on something that's old and dried up.
Cassian: You've lost me. That's dull delivery. You don't seem excited. And you've already got a beginning, middle and end, that's a 90-minute movie not 100 hours of TV series content.
Troy: A lot of drama could happen with the girlfriend, she hates golf.
Tobin: Remember Tin Cup? I'd go watch that. Watch it as an exercise and try to pitch it. You're pitching a show about a washed-up golfer and you need to start with passion about that world. Particularly for a TV show you need to pitch a world.
Cassian: Give us an idea of who would play the golfer.
Troy: We've got the guy who played the general in Terminator 3. [Cassian makes a face.]
Tobin: I MADE Terminator 3 and even I don't remember that guy. [Ouch]
Cassian: I don't do much TV, but if you walk in the door and tell me that the stars are some guy we never heard of, it's over. People want to cast stars on TV, they're thinking Tom Selleck as the ex-golfer.
Tobin: Focus on the world, focus on the character, think somebody like House, you can talk about House for 5 minutes and it's interesting.
Stephanie: Takeaway: It's a good point that as an exercise, take other movies or books and pitch them out loud. You need to learn to make it succinct + compelling.
Jared: My film is Grey, a scifi horror film about a NYC cop who moves to the country and after mysterious disappearances and deaths it looks like he has a mystery. It's out as a graphic novel [he has the GN with him as a prop], we have distribution deals etc.
Cassian: That's fine that you put the book out, but you don't have to hold it up the whole time, it's kind of weird. And Grey is a boring title. And there's another movie called Grey just made, a werewolf thing with Liam Neeson, so you might have to change the title. Any time somebody says cops and aliens, that's well-tread territory. The way you were pitching it I didn't get a story, there was a one-liner about the cop and disappearances, but no story.
Tobin: I'd go deeper into the story.
Cassian: So was it aliens or not? Creature feature?
Cassian: So it's like predator?
Jared: No, based on the UFology, the grey alien, based on abduction theory, sort of "real".
Tobin: You've written a script? You've made a teaser?
Jared: Yes and yes.
Tobin: Everybody is doing horror these days, you need a teaser, everybody is doing that.
Stephanie: Takeaway; Note how he asked "is this like predator"? You need to be ready to answer questions about "what movie is your film most like?" These are really genre questions - is your movie in a genre of other successful movies?
Pitcher: [Walks over to the panel] It's 7:33 AM and there's a knock at the door from your significant other's lover. Our project is an African-American dramedy with characters named name1, name2, name3, told from 3 vantage points.
Pitcher2: it's a smart, sophisticated drama, based on existing material, growing fan base. Target is multi-ethnic African-American females.
Cassian: If you get up like you just did with an executive and walk over to me and approach the buyer, I'd be calling security, you make the buyer very nervous. You have to practice what you did sitting down. I didn't understand the built-in audience stuff, why?
Pitcher2: I'm trying to let you know that the audience exists for the film.
Cassian: Why does the audience exist for this movie? You said there's a built-in niche audience for this story and I say why, what did she just say? If you say there's a niche audience because of movies like Jumping the Broom, that's different, I get that.
Tobin: Tyler Perry there was a built-in audience, but what you're referring to is an African-American core audience that's underserved. You have a good point but it's how you couch it. As soon as you said you're making an African-American romantic drama with comedic elements, I get it, that's all you need to say, then I'm concerned about what is your story.
Stephanie: if you come in with 2 people like they just did, you have to choose who will speak. Often people talk over each other and it doesn't help.
Audience Q: Is it distracting to have multiple people pitch?
Tobin: No, there are multi-person writing teams. Maybe 1 person does the pitch but if they start to stumble then person #2 helps them out. And sometimes person #2 says nothing. But you don't want to have the "now we cut over to the slow boring guy".
Pitcher: black comedy about Hollywood called Poison _____. Comedian insults most of the people at the Oscars and then abuses them at the party, then he ends up dead that night. What will the celebrities do to protect themselves?
Cassian: As a general rule, movies about the movies have usually never worked. Our obsession with celebrities is very real. But celebrities generally don't want to play celebrities. Very few films you can point to where you say "that's a great movie about Hollywood" - maybe The Player, that's great, but it wasn't very [financially] successful despite fantastic reviews. You're only going to get B people to play the celebrity. It's not a real movie, I wouldn't buy that.
Tobin: I don't like inside Hollywood stories, but if you want to go with it you need to explain how the characters are accessible. Dangerous to make movies about topics that are very current [??]. I just worked on Ides of March, very political, about a campaign, but we're in campaign season now, if people can see the same thing on the news that's in your film, they might just watch the news and not your film.
Stephanie: Takeaway: I had a hard time understanding the title of her project, was it Poison Soup Days? I don't know - be sure you're clear.
Stephanie: One technique to deal with nervousness is to point your focus to the listeners.
Susan the pitcher: Prairie Bones, gripping adventure. Melissa and a runaway slave meet in the middle of the civil war during the night. Melissa helps him fly away.
Cassian: which airline?
Susan: on foot. They're on an adventure on the prairie. Could be Dannie Glover paying the slave. [etc. etc]
Cassian: I have no idea what you're talking about. Train yourself to not use "um" and "er", and you told different parts of the story and I wasn't sure what was happening.
Tobin: It's super small. You're creating an uphill battle for yourself when you pitch a story like that. Grab me. Why am I watching a movie about a runaway slave on the prairie, that's a tough sell. Why am I excited about this? It's like the guy with the prosac movie.
Cassian: doesn't anybody here want to make some commercial movies? I spent my whole life making art movies but ultimately you have to make movies that make money. Your movie will be extremely hard to sell overseas - it's a Civil War picture.
Stephanie: takeaway: a verbal pitch is different from written.
Guy: cross-cultural story about an Indian doctor raised in US, forced to go back to India for her sick father. Romantic comedy. She has to get married to somebody in India, they have candidates lined up for her. Twists and turns. that's the main story. And there's this other character Beatrice who xyz...
Cassian: I got the kernel but you could have done that in a simpler way - "it's a fish out of water story [etc]". The way you pitched it, for a comedy, what's the movie poster, what's the concept?
Guy: It's a story about almost every unmarried Indian girl in the US. And every parent trying to push their kids to get married through arranged marriage.
Tobin: And you want to make it funny? It's not that funny.
Guy: the funny part is the candidates, they're misfits.
Cassian: OK so the poster is the pretty girl on the front with the long line of misfits lined up behind her. But I'm not sure that it's such a funny idea?
Tobin: In a lot of the world, arranged marriage is a hard concept to get with, you need something in the plot that drives the premise that a sophisticated female doctor in the US is going to yield to this cultural pressure -- you need something in the plot that drives that.
Guy: it's her dying father.
Tobin: Not enough, you need a stronger driver.
Ron the pitcher: producing a dramatic comedy called Thai Surprise. Victoria has panic attacks and is a Xanax addict, wants to open her own restaurant. Her father dies, her mother disappears after the funeral. Mom turns out to be in Thailand, Victory interferes with mom's peace in Thailand, they have to deal with family secrets, main character learns about Thai cuisine and reconnects with her own sense of joy. At the end of the movie she creates her own restaurant and renews her relationship with her mother.
Tobin: Small. Really small. Look for places in that pitch, where this is a small idea, to blow it up, spice it. If you're making a movie about cooking or a restaurant then you need madcap or some touching scene. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding - if you're trying to introduce me to Thai food I need something.
Cassian: The biggest problem with cooking movies is that you're doing taste and smell, and you can't do either of those in the theater, so your audience can't participate. I worked on a movie called What's Cooking, the director went on to make Bend it Like Beckham, but it was tricky because you can't sell the food.
Brandon the pitcher: One Amazing Thing, cross-cultural drama by ___ Chittra. Late afternoon in SF office, 9 strangers are applying for visas, there's an earthquake and they're all trapped. One of them challenges each to share one amazing story about their lives. African-American Vietnam vet, retired couple from Pacific Heights.
Cassian: Is the idea that you tell the stories, or you visualize them as they're told?
Brandon: visualize in flashback.
Cassian: so this is episodic, we have 9 different movies.
Brandon the pitcher: Yes, narrow it to 5 might be better since some stories are large.
Cassian: depends on the stories. Those types of movies aren't too difficult to finance, with short stories you can fill it up with a group of movie stars since they only have to work for 2 weeks out of your 6-8 week shooting schedule. They're difficult movies to watch since just as one story gets going it ends.
Brandon: What we like about this is can marry US + Indian cinema with actors from both places.
Tobin: If you're doing a movie with multiple storylines and you want the movie to have more breakout [commercial success], look at Valentine's Day - you take a concept of multiple stories and back it into a larger universal concept, something most people have culturally. Or weddings.
Audience Q: How do you get the meeting so you can do the pitch?
Tobin: that's a complex question. It depends on the person you're trying to meet. If you've never had a screenplay bought, you're not pitching to a studio, they don't have time for you. So you'll be pitching to producers. If you have a small movie like what we've heard today, WRITE THE SCRIPT first, don't pitch just the idea. Then you work with a producer who might take it to a studio. Most of the time they want you to write the script on spec [for free]. First step is to find a producer who works in the genre you're writing for. Use your agent or your lawyer or whatever.
If you're an established writer who has sold scripts before then there's still some sort of dance - your agent doesn't call producers saying "let my writer come in and pitch to you".
Cassian: the spec screenplay thing has been picking up lately. It used to be that people were writing scripts on spec just to find an agent. You're almost never going to be paid up front to write. But market is picking up because people are saying OK, I want to write something commercially successful. If you have a good commercial idea then you can write the script.
Dramas are hard to sell - hard to set up, hard to finance, they're the best to see but it's hard.
Pitcher: [Plays to audience: "how many of you have heard of X?" thing.] _Trading Volatility_, action drama about Wall Street and what it does to people. I wrote this as a summary of my 12 years in the trading industry and about how the industry spits you out at the end.
Cassian: I just saw that movie, it's called Margin Call. Potentially this is a problem for you, that movie is already out. And you can't play the audience like you just did - "raise your hand if X". You said it was an action picture, I expected some AK47's on Wall Street, how is this action?
Tobin: I don't think you have a story here. Where I thought you were going is that some Wall Street firm had some Inception-like thing where they could figure out people's deepest desires.
Cassian: I have a better idea, you said this was an action movie, how about the 1% get pissed off and decide to rob the bank where they used to work?
Tobin: I need to hear more than what sounds like Wall Street, which was nearly a flawless film.
Stephanie: Takeaway: Issue here is the speaker is personally involved, and if that's the case, as the listener I want some juicy details so that I want to read your script.
Pitcher: scifi family action adventure comedy [that's a mouthful] movie about an orange elf princess. Escapes and lands on earth and collides with a family that needs the light back in its life. The father is a scientist looking for energy efficiency, and the princess is a renewing energy source. The family has lost their mother so they have a female influence. In the end they defeat the alien bounty hunter.
Tobin: I think I saw that this morning on Saturday cartoons with my kids. This comes down to execution. I think this is a big growth area for movies. There's something universal about an alien meeting a family - think the old Amblin films, Spielberg [ET]
Cassian: bring a visual aid about the orange princess - you get lost trying to think what she looks like.
Pitcher: we actually have a pitch trailer and you can watch it etc.
Stephanie: for family movies, mention the age of the main character - it matters. A 14-year-old might not see a movie with an 11-year-old star, but 5-9 year olds will. "Family" movies have a wide range of target audiences and it's a big deal.
Tobin: And writing is presently on par with some of the best writing in Hollywood - the stuff even on TV is close to Pixar level. You have to be on top of your game if you're writing for kids.
Pitcher: scifi post-apoc movie. Surface of Earth is destroyed by the sun, people live underground. Some guy discovers God is dying, God was an alien, and this guy needs to become the new God, defeat the devil.
Tobin: You sound so sad pitching it. I feel like I just watched The Road 4 times.
Cassian: the moment you say God's an alien, you may be sitting with [pitching to] people who believe in God and they say hang on, I don't want to have anything to do with this. You can finesse it by saying you have this God-like being without taking the hardline religious position that the character IS God. The moment you say "God is an alien" you may get some stepback. But if you say there's an alien creature who is dying who is Godlike, and a devil-like character, then you might be OK.
Tobin: Generally this material needs to be branded or a mythology. Pitch me mythology. With scifi, get into the world. Pitch it like a book you just read.
Cassian: A lot of studio executives do have ADD, they process based on stuff that's already out there, which is why we have these graphic novels first. My suggestion is to turn this into a graphic novel and say "here, read the GN, it's a great action movie and here's the screenplay."
Stephanie: As a former studio executive, definitely I'll say that the people who determine how much money to spend aren't film people. They're totally from a business perspective, and you need to provide evidence that your concept will succeed. The more original it is, the less evidence you have due to lack of precedent for success.
Cassian: Let me do a quick tutorial on how this business works: When studio makes a film, they go to every department they have: TV, DVD people, foreign business units, and they say here's the idea, the script, and the star, please run some numbers and make a model, based on previous SIMILAR FILMS and similar marketing budgets, what we think the revenue could be in Germany and Japan and everywhere. Every decision is based on a financial decision at the moment that the screenplay package is assembled. This is why sequels are so much easier to sell - the risk is understood and the financial models are already in place.
Pitcher1: We have a horror film script and we're happy with it, but we could edit it some. About 4 college kids on a road trip to Cancun and they help a woman being beaten up by her boyfriend. They take her home and party and wake up and one of the friends is gone. They go look for him. The Texas family they're staying with starts behaving weirdly, Latin prayers at dinner, weird stew [I think we can see where this is going]. It turns out that everybody in the town is in on the conspiracy, the whole town is a cannibalistic cult.
Cassian: I don't know. Totally execution-dependent [one of several unintentional puns made during this particular pitch]. Could be a B movie, cannibalism, I don't know. Is there an action chase around the town? Depends on the director and if they've done a similar film.
Tobin: We're in that genre, one of the companies we own made 300 horror films over 40 years. For newer horror and suspense films, you have to look for what works. "Found footage" is well understood. Once you get beyond the initial shock of cannibalism, it's not scary, it's just disgusting. You're missing Jason or Freddie, some character to make movie unique, you need that.
Cassian: The bad one is Lyla, the woman they picked up.
Cassian: BTW don't tell me "we really like the script" and don't say "we really like the script but it's not quite ready but we're going to work on it and it's going to get there", don't tell me up front that you're not ready and you need script help. Everybody knows that there are very few BAD scripts that got made into good movies. There are also a lot of GOOD scripts that got made into BAD movies, but almost no bad script ever becomes a good movie.
Tobin: embrace the genre, if you're making a horror movie, make a horror movie - you're pitching Fatal Attraction to me there at the end, that doesn't work.
Greg the pitcher: _With This Ring_, romantic comedy. Jacquilyn the young surgeon gets a marriage proposal and the guy presents her with this huge ring and says you can't take it off, but she does during surgery. The ring ends up in the intestines of the evil attorney she just did surgery on, and she has to try to get back. She ends up falling in love with the attorney and leaving the boyfriend.
Cassian: Good delivery, got main ideas across, not clear what happens at the end. Certainly a movie I haven't seen before, which is a start.
Stephanie: Takeaway: notice that his pace was sufficiently slow and we could take in the details.
Dave the pitcher: _Panic_, suspense thriller. Guy who suffers from panic attacks witnesses a murder and he can't go to the cops and all he can do is panic.
Tobin: So... he panics? This is a comedy?
Dave: A suspense thriller.
Cassian: Start out saying this is Hitchcock-esque kind of like Vertigo. You haven't explained how the panic works, does it help him or hurt him or what. And what you're saying is funny, but it's not a funny movie, so you're confusing me. Your delivery suggests the film could be unintentionally funny, which you don't want.
Tobin: In _Copycat_ Sigourney Weaver couldn't leave her house and that was the hook. Your movie maybe isn't about panic, it's about overcoming panic. And why is panic interesting?
Stephanie: Takeaway: in this delivery, he [Dave the pitcher] has a warm friendly personality, but it doesn't match the genre.
Pitcher: _Short Men Are Better in Bed_, inspirational romantic comedy. [Reading from cards, tooo nervous] Pokes fun at racism, sexism, and short-ism. [various anecdotal snippets]
Tobin: You're doing something most people haven't done here much, which is you're pitching individual scenes. You're trying to elaborate in a quick way to show it's a comedy. If you can give me 4-5 moments that are funny or sweet, that's good.
Cassian: If you start shaking and are nervous in the room... first of all, don't bring index cards to your pitch, you have to have it in your head. Pitch it to your friends, people you don't know, keep practicing, because the moment will arrive and you have to be ready.
Monty the pitcher: family-oriented fantasy adventure, 13-YO girl goes camping and finds a beautiful rock, brings it back to the trailer park where she lives and it hatches. She has to raise a baby dragon in her park. This is a parallel fantasy world, 1978, analog technology and bad fashion, dragons are real, but everybody believes they're extinct. Dragons are supposed to be bad and evil, but they form a psychic connection. As the dragon grows, she grows. It starts to breathe fire. Girl grows in responsibility and eventually realizes she needs to return the dragon.
Cassian: 1st act is finding it, 2nd act is it become a big dragon, 3rd act is that it belongs back with its family. You dropped your 3rd act into one sentence at the end -- acts 1-2 aren't as interesting. Your listener wants to know what the conflict is - are people trying to kill it, how does she get it back to the dragon family, there's a whole interesting 3rd act. As a buyer I think that could work.
Tobin: I don't think the idea is that great, actually. You're copying How to Train Your Dragon, and they're making a sequel to that by the way. And I don't like the choice of putting it into a fantasy world. Too often people are saying "here's a fantasy world, AND by the way here's an exception". I'd say look, dragons don't exist, it's our world, then this dragon shows up, that's OK. And don't be afraid to change dragon mythology, like the vampire movies have changed vampire mythology these days. You don't have to go with fire breathing. Focus on the relationship between the girl and her dragon.