No One Minds Wasting Your Time
Or maybe it would better be stated that no one gives a crap about your time. However, his or her time is the most precious thing on the planet. Life in Hollywood is a game of status and power. You’re like a new pledge on campus. They don’t care that you’re missing work, canceling doctor’s appointments, missing job interviews, or about to lose your mind in traffic to make it to this meeting. If they want to see your face again—despite having seen it two days ago, having it on video and having two photos of it, they’ll make you drive back across the city in rush hour traffic just to look at you and say, “Nah, go with the other guy.” Even if the other guy could be your twin brother. Casting directors have no problem booking 100 people for the same audition time. They have no problem locating their offices in buildings that have no parking anywhere near them. They don’t care that you’re traveling twenty or thirty miles to say two lines. They don’t care that there are only two lines and they already know they’re going to cast their cousin in the part and not you. They just don’t care.
I thought of sharing the story about my meeting with the producer I mentioned in the intro of this book for a later time, but it fits well here. This particular producer had scheduled and cancelled a pitch meeting on me two times in a row. Well, the third one’s the charm, they say. So this story starts at the point where we’re finally going to meet. I’m pasting it directly from the e-mail I sent to my writing group:
I walk into the office and tell the receptionist (a young English woman) that I’m there for Larry and Gil. She says “Larry’s not back yet, but I’ll let Gil know.” Then asks if I’d like some water, juice, whatever.
“Water. Thank you.”
“So, you’re a writer?” “Wow, cool. You here to… what? Pitch a story?”
“What’s it about?”
I figure it’s a great time to practice, so I pitch it. “It’s Finding Forrester meets National Treasure, blah, blah, blah…”
“Really? I just can’t imagine why someone would want to make a movie like that. It couldn’t possibly do any business overseas. I mean, the whole black/white thing is such an American phenomenon, isn’t it? We certainly don’t have issues like that in England.”
I’m stunned, but I recover well. First, because they sure as hell do have issues like that in England and secondly because she’s a receptionist, right?
“With regards to race, maybe. But everyone has someone living in the neighborhood who’s different from everyone else… kinda mysterious. And it’s an adventure movie.”
“I suppose. But what I’m passionate about is women. Does it have many women in it? You know, white women between the ages of 40 and 55 are the most under-represented demographic in films. The most over-represented is young black men.”
I obviously don’t live on the same planet as this woman. Her planet sounds interesting though.
“I’d go see anything with Julia Roberts in it,” she said.
“Did you see Runaway Bride?”
“Oh, I didn’t li… Why? Did you write it?”
“Well it wasn’t her best work.”
“Funny that women would be a majority of the audience and yet there’s only one or two who have proven they can open a film—mainly Sandra Bullock. Even Julia and Meg Ryan seem to need other stars,” I reminded her.
“Well, there’s nothing catty about that.”
Enter a tall twenty-something man, “T.R., I’m Jason, Larry’s assistant.”
He stops a few feet away with his hand extended, hanging loosely from his wrist, seeming to beckon me to follow him. I stand, move towards him and shake his hand. “Larry’s finishing up on the phone now, and when he does, you can come on back. So just hang here a sec.”
I sit back down thinking how weird it was that he didn’t just come the other 3 feet to shake my hand instead of making me get up.
Bridget Jones pipes up again. I notice there is a stack of scripts in front of her and I realize she also reads for the production company. I’m thinking God help whoever wrote those. They’d better have a role for Julia.
“More films like Ya Ya Sisterhood need to be made,” she insisted.
I ask if it did well at the box office. She says she doesn’t think so. I tune her out and try to figure out how Larry got into the office without me seeing him. Before I get that figured out Gil comes out. “Hey T.R., good to see you again. Larry couldn’t make it in. He hurt his foot this morning, but he wanted to keep the appointment this time. Sorry about the cancellations. He’s going to meet over the phone.”
I pitch badly in person. I’m insufferable on the phone. And I’m starting to realize I’m pissed off. I drove all the way across town to talk on the phone? You didn’t know he hurt his foot earlier? You couldn’t call me and have me pitch on the phone from home?
We get to Gil’s office. Gil dials Larry up. Larry answers. “Hi, T.R.. Sorry I couldn’t be there.” I try to adjust. I tell him my manager says hi and try some small talk—warm up to the guy. He says to tell Peter hi and then… “So whatcha got?”
There was no ice broken at all. Not only is this asshole chillin on his Barcalounger somewhere, but he’s ruckin’ fushing me. So I start into it. “It’s basically a story about the mysterious last white man living in a black neighborhood and that white man is Jack Nicholson.”
“Ah… I wonder why they thought of us for this?” he says sarcastically. Gil smiles. No doubt because he’s the one who thought Larry would love to do it. But it took me a minute to figure out what he said because it was a cheap speaker phone with a voice activated mike and the first couple words get cut off as the mike switches back and forth. “Yeah, okay, go on.”
“Well…,” I started.
“… the minimum age this guy has to be?”
“… got to be how old? What’s the minimum? You don’t mind me cutting you off like this do you?”
“… there?… T.R.”
“I’m having trouble with the voice activation. I’m missing the first part of everything you’re saying.”
“… voice… yeah, the phone. Yeah, there’s that pause.”
“…ah. So what’s the minimum age?”
And it only gets worse from there. It ends with they’d love to see the script when it’s written, but it doesn’t sound like something they’d want to develop. He loved my sample script. Blah, blah, blah. Tell Peter hi. If you’ve got anything else to pitch, you and Gil can go over it after I hang up. Again, sorry I couldn’t be there. “Nice to meet you.”
After Larry disconnects, Gil says, “Hmm. I thought you were going to have it all beat out scene by scene?”
“I do. But it sure didn’t sound like that’s what he wanted to hear. I was thrown off by the phone and everything.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. He hurt his foot this morning…” Like I didn’t hear that the first two times. I figured I’d chalk it up to experience.
I called my agent on the way home. He apologized and said, “You may have a bad pitch, but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. There’ll be other pitches,” which was encouraging.
I called my manager and he said it was a shame. I told him I doubted they intended to do anything from the jump because he’d canceled the meeting twice before. I figured Gil was just trying to be nice and didn’t want to do the dirty work of saying no. He agreed. Then he said, “And what’s worse, Larry was probably sitting in another room in the office the whole time.”
Am I serious, you ask? Yes. Imagine driving forty-five minutes across town only to talk on the phone with someone after they’ve already cancelled on you twice. Amazing arrogance.
I had a meeting with John Woo’s company earlier that week. John Woo, as in Mission Impossible II John Woo. They never cancelled. They were on time. They met me in person. They didn’t criticize my ideas. In fact, they asked to see everything I wrote. So not everyone is bad. Had a meeting with John Wells’ company the next week—very courteous.
John Woo’s office is twenty miles away in Santa Monica. John Wells’ is on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. Both meetings were to “meet-n-greet.” This is where a producer or one of the producer’s underlings sets a meeting with a writer whose work they’ve read and liked. The purpose of these meetings, as far as I can tell, is to pull you away from whatever important thing you had planned that day and waste a few hours of your time. Okay, not really.
Meet-n-greets supposedly benefit the new writer. Ostensibly the purpose is to meet a writer to determine if that writer has the right personality to fit with a producer or production company. The producers want to hear your ideas. They want to see how you pitch, get to know you, get a feel for your personality and style. After all, if a producer is going to work with a writer, they may end up spending days, weeks, months or even years developing the screenplay. Millions of dollars in time and money may be invested before a camera ever focuses on an actor. If there’s any doubt in a producer’s mind that a writer is a great person that they would love to hang out with and put that kind of time into, they would rather be safe and skip you and your screenplay. Ideally, if they like you, even if you don’t have a story they want to make, they may hire you to work on some other project.
Remember, before you ever get a meet-n-greet, the producer has already read and liked your sample script. They might be interested in producing that sample script–although that is rare; usually they like your writing style but they don’t want to do your script. Instead, they want to talk to see if you have other ideas that fit better with their company goals–if you have a story they would like to do. Sometimes they just want to meet you now just in case you do become famous one day. But I also believe that some of them just want free ideas. They want your pitches. They want you to tell them what you think about their movie ideas. They loved your script, but they don’t want to make it. They know you’re smart though and that you can write, so why not pick your brain for an hour or so? You’re new. You’re not jaded yet. Maybe you have a fresh take on a project they are stuck on.
I have left many of these meeting scratching my head and wondering, “what the hell was that about?” They didn’t need to make me drive across town to tell me they want to read anything else I write. Hell, I already know that. More importantly, my agent already knows that—you’re currently on his list of people he sends scripts to, right? Why would he take you off? When I write my next script, you’ll get one. You don’t have to meet me to tell me you want to see my next script. But maybe they were just looking for that spark? They thought they would find it when they met the guy who wrote this great story. Okay, that’s cool. I got my hopes up when I heard they wanted to meet me, so maybe I’m just a little disappointed they didn’t hire me? Maybe they were just a little disappointed that I wasn’t as electric as my story? Maybe my agent did his job and hyped the hell out of me and they couldn’t resist meeting me? Or maybe they were doing him a favor?
Or maybe–just maybe–they wanted to a few ideas? New writers have new ideas, right? Producers make their living off ideas, right? And, for producers, ideas come walking in the door every day of the week.
Ever wonder why, when a big movie comes out, there are three movies just like it from three different studios? I first noticed it back in 1997 with Dante’s Peak and Volcano. Then there was Armageddon and Deep Impact and another TV movie called Asteroid or something. More recently even my daughters noticed that both Ashton Kutcher’s “No Strings Attached” was the same movie/premise as Justin Timberlake’s “Friends with Benefits” and both hit theaters within weeks of each other.
They say these “same movie-different name” situations are “accidental” or just the result of the zeitgeist. Really? Or are they are the results of ideas that were pitched, passed around, talked about and eventually… stolen. I wonder if the writer who pitched those ideas was told, “We’re not interested because we already have something similar to that in production.” Yeah. They do now.
Screenwriting books, agents, managers, producers, professors and studio heads often argue that studios don’t make money stealing ideas because of the threat of being sued. Really? Good luck with suing a studio over a pitch. Studios are sued every day for stealing people’s ideas. Even people who made their characters and stories famous in books and other mediums often end up suing studios over violations of agreements, copyrights, licensing, etc.
Right now, believe it or not, all the following characters and their creators have current law suits against studios: Superman, Winnie the Pooh, Captain America and 45 other Marvel characters by Jack Kirby’s estate; Stan Lee Media, Spawn, Betty Boop, Dick Tracy, The Crow, Kung Fu Panda, Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Winnie-the-Pooh lawsuit has been going on for 30 years. Regardless of what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not people–studios and prodcos are not human beings. They don’t run out of patience, time, or money–they can fight you in court forever. Meanwhile, they continue to make million off the contested rights. I can’t even count how many Winnie-the -Pooh products I bought for my daughter over the years. I never knew there was a lawsuit going on. And if studios and prodcos will take advantage of the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, why wouldn’t they take advantage of you?
Like I said before, these producers are some of the brightest people on the planet. And they are gamblers. Pitching these guys your best ideas is giving them your best ideas. They will turn and pitch it to someone else and forget all about you, then hire a writer to write it and control it better when it’s their own rather than worry about your vision. On top of that, these guys can move from one prodco to another and pitch your idea to anyone and sell it. You’ll never trace it back to the source.
The only ideas they won’t steal are ones no one else could write. If your uncle worked for the CIA and told you a bunch of stuff no one else knows, and they want to make that film, you’ll get the writing job for sure. Otherwise, if they steal your idea, they’ll change a bit here and there—it will take place in L.A. instead of New York; the villain will drive a ‘79 Regal instead of a ‘78 Impala etc.—but you will recognize it.
What can you do about this? Nothing. Just keep coming up with more and more ideas that are better and better. This business is what it is–a dragon that feeds off of the creative energy of artists. Keep feeding it and it might take care of you. Or you could publish your stuff somewhere else–online for instance. Write your stories in a blog or a book and get copyright that way. You risk other people stealing them, but you get other people to read them, too. After all, that’s what you want as an artist, right?
Keeping a journal of everyone you pitch to and what you pitch could help as well, but not for the reasons you might think. In such a journal you can record what you were told: “Bring us other stuff you write.” “Our door is always open,” etc., and the names of each person you talked to. Later, when you see these people elsewhere, you’ll remember them and what you talked about. If they move to another company you can remind them of your meeting, etc. It might turn into an opportunity later.
Whether you are a writer or actor or anyone trying to break into this business, beware that a lot of time can be spent running to and fro with high hopes only to find you’re wasting your time. That’s okay. Go anyway. That’s Hollywood. That’s the only way in. You have to meet people.
Here’s a taste of what you can expect in a meet-n-greet:
You will show up at an impressive office. I’ve never seen a producer who didn’t dwell in swanky digs—except the ones who work for studios. If the office is cheaply furnished, it’s because it’s a block from the beach and they’re trying to give that laid-back hipster vibe. Usually though, there will be couches, posters of movies they’ve made—no matter how good or bad—and displays of any awards.
The receptionist will offer you water–take the water. If you’re lucky it will be a glass bottle of Voss. You may need to specify whether you prefer it chilled or room temperature. An assistant will meet you first. He will usher you into the inner sanctum where the producer will either be on the phone, hanging up from a phone call, or not yet in the room. You will wait patiently, taking in your surroundings. Hopefully you recognize a few films. Pics of stars with or without the producer may hang on the walls. If you meet with the producer alone, you will likely just chit-chat a bit and be on your way. If so, it’s apure butt-sniffing meeting and hopefully they like what they smell and will actually keep you in mind. If you meet with the producer and the Creative Director, or the Development Director, they are seriously considering you for something and these guys are there to see if they like you personally and whether they think you’re cool to work with. Relax. They will break the ice when they are ready. But make sure that you turn on the charm. This is no time to be timid or artsy.
The biggest person in the room (the producer) will introduce the smaller folks, if any, and then tell you they loved [insert the name of your script]. He or she will talk about how easy it was to read, how well you developed the characters. He will talk about how gripping it was—he couldn’t put it down. He will ask you what your inspiration was and what your background is. He will reassure you that you are going to blow up and that he wanted to meet you before you do.
Depending on how talkative you are you may find he’s from the same part of the country as you. Or you may find you know someone in common. It doesn’t matter. That’s not why you’re there. Eventually, he will tell you what he’s working on. And he may ask about other projects you’re working on.
In my meetings, I noticed was how often they described next to nothing about what they were doing. Many times, the only thing I was told was the title or the name of a star they have attached to a project.“We’re doing The Alchemist.” “We’re doing Like Mike 3.” “We’re looking through the vault to see what we might do with a new twist.” “We’re working on this new reality show like The Bachelor, except he’s running for President.” Or even more vague, “We’re finishing up a project with [insert a star’s name here].” Or,“We’re developing some new stuff.”
Regardless of what he says, it’s what he asks next that is the most interesting part: “So what other ideas or stories do you have?”
At this point, you face a choice. It’s not much of a choice because you have to do it. You have to pitch him your ideas. You have to pitch them well and with as much energy and excitement and you can muster. If it’s a good idea, he will plunge deep into the story with you. He will ask questions, laugh, ask more questions, and laugh more. He will ask about character, plot twists, and how it ends. And finally, he will ask how far along you are. If you tell him it’s finished, he should ask to read it.
If you tell him you have an outline, he may tell you he wants to see it when you’re done. If you say it’s just a pitch, he may congratulate you on it, ask if you have other ideas. And he may just steal it, or more likely he will steal a scene, a plot or subplot idea, or some intriguing unique aspect of your story or one of your characters to help improve a film he’s already working on.
I’m not saying they do this on purpose. Perhaps all the ideas they hear throughout the day just sink into their subconscious and accidentally pop out as their own brilliant ideas in later meetings. Whatever happens, just know you will start seeing the ideas you pitched in films at the Cineplex.
Regardless of what happens, you will not likely walk out of this meeting with a deal to write a script, nor with a check for a script. You will only walk out with a story to tell and a name to drop to your friends, who will be very impressed if they’ve never had one of these meetings. At best, you will get a call from your agent in a few days with good news. The best news? They want you back to pitch again–this time to higher-ups.
By the way, there are many good books out there about pitching–the elevator pitch, the five-minute pitch, the 10 or 20 minute pitch and how to do each one, so I won’t go into much here. It’s often very frustrating for writers to try to condense a 90-120 minute story into a single line thrown at a stranger in an elevator or at a party. But one tip I heard that really helped me understand and get more comfortable with pitching comes from screenwriter Michael Eliot and was echoed in a book called Thinking Like Your Editor: When you pitch your story–book or film, begin by telling them how the idea sparked in your own mind–i.e. what fueled your fire for writing this story. Your goal is to generate in the listener the same excitement you felt when the idea popped into your mind. According to Eliot, if you do this well, they may not even need to hear the story–they can be sold on the genesis of it alone–especially if you include clear thought-out marketing-based reasons for why this movie will be popular with audiences.
Remember studio execs are mainly numbers crunches, not creatives. The main question in their minds is not “is this a good story?” Their main question is, “Is there an audience for this and will it make money?”
I know this is hard for writers to accept. Writers are in love with their brilliant story, their complexed and original characters, the twists of their intricate plot, the layers of mystery and connection. Studio heads could give a crap, but they don’t. They will happily make the same film fifty times if people keep going to see it. They are already on Beethoven 8, the tenth Nightmare on Elm Street and the thirteenth Friday the 13th. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, they’ve even remade the exact same movies multiple times–as they did with the Omen, The Day the Earth Stood Still and War of the Worlds. And whether you realize it or not, TV series are the same stories told over and over with slight situational changes. Showing execs that you understand their bottom line won’t hurt you. It is a multi-million dollar marketing business, remember. If you don’t understand and appreciate this, Hollywood is happy to leave you to write your story in a blog.
I’ve never had a meet-n-greet as an actor. I don’t think producers do this for actors. I did have something like this with a casting agent once. It was much shorter. My acting agent called and said the casting agent wanted to meet me at a certain time. I showed up at that time. He just looked me up and down, took a pic and said he wanted to use me for something one day soon. He did. He called me back more than ten times for commercials and TV roles and booked me on two commercials.
For the most part, actors do the meet-n-greets at parties. But I suppose meet-n-greets do lead to the next thing I WIK…
This is just one chapter in a book that will help artists of all types better market their talents in Hollywood and keep from becoming discouraged by a system that regularly seeks to thin the herd. Described as “Laugh out loud funny!” that will “keep you turning pages,” “Hard to put down” and “Extremely entertaining and honest,” T. R. makes you laugh as you learn from his pain. In addition, get secrets and insights from other successful Hollywood actors, singers, writers, producers, comedians, filmmakers and executives, including one TV star T. R. interviewed who earns $275,000 per week acting. This book is “recommended reading to anyone looking for a career in entertainment.” Get the book now!