Wednesday, April 15, 2015

No Middle Man!

From the beginning of 2011.

Before the holidays I had a meeting with a company about an assignment - they were looking for something in a specific sub-genre for a network they have a deal with that could be made on the network’s budget. One of the problems is that this network is one of the few left that make original movies and they have a target demo... and they want something they haven’t seen before. Imagine pitching someone like Sy Fy Channel and having to come up with two original giant monsters to battle - and a scenario for that we haven’t seen. Though I didn’t have to come up with any giant monsters, this network’s movies do tend to blur after a while - and they want something that stands out but still fits. So I worked to come up with a half dozen pitches that I didn’t think they had heard before. At least, in looking over their recent movies I hadn’t seen anything like these.

As with any bunch-o-pitches there’s always at least one that I love, a couple that are okay, and usually one that I hope they don’t pick because it’s the least thought out and least interesting to me. This time around there are two that I really like because they have ironic twist ends that I don’t think people will see coming, and both also have interesting characters and locations that I don’t think we’ve seen before... at least not in films on this network. As a test, I pitched them to a couple of writer friends... and the two I really liked got the best response.

Now, one of the problems is that you can’t have every story beat thought out for each pitch, so you decide which ones to give some extra thought to - and in this case it was the two I really liked and my friends had liked. So, I anticipated questions they might ask based on the kinds of questions I’d been asked in the past. I also went online and looked into the unusual locations - hey, could they be found in a state with film incentives?

Now, the way these things work is that the network is not at this meeting. The network doesn’t actually produce the movies, they have a few production companies that make movies for their network. The production company takes projects to the network for approval, and the network gives the production company the money to make the movie.

So the production company comes between me and the network guy (or gal), and I pitch it to them and they pitch it to the network - and sometimes things can get lost in translation, But also you are dealing with the production company’s taste rather than the network’s taste. Though the production company is a surrogate for the network, and much of the time they know what the network wants - sometimes they don’t. Everything is based on their past experiences, and that isn’t the same as all experiences. So one production company’s experience may be that all women in jeopardy movies must take place in the suburbs, but another company has had success with that sub-genre in a big city setting or a rural setting. So the network may *want* more rural women in jeopardy movies, but they aren’t getting them due to this filter of the production company’s experiences. If I’m pitching something like this, I like to do a little homework so that I can point out some other things the network has done, etc.

But you are still dealing with a middle man.

And I hate middle men.

I decide to start and end with my best ideas, and if something happens in the middle where I need to gain control I’ll just use that last great pitch early. These are short pitches, just the concepts and a few details - kind of an “elevator pitch”. Might be a page or two if it was on paper. So I go in, pitch that first great pitch... and before I can get to sentence #2, it gets shot down due to some strange thing. “Wait, the character wears a hat? No way is that gonna fly!” (The actual problem was that the conflict was a side effect of another conflict that they had seen before - like a woman running from an abusive husband who swaps identities with someone else... and they shot it down after “Woman running from abusive husband”.)

The problem is, you can’t argue and win. In this case, I mentioned that the real twist came next, but they had already decided they didn’t want it - so I pitched the next thing... and they didn’t like it at all. I was losing it!

So I pulled out that last great pitch and gave it all of my energy... and once again they shot it down after a few words. What? Okay, now my problem is that they are rejecting it before they even hear it! Can I have a full minute, please? Once again I try to explain that there’s more to the idea - that I’m taking a common situation that the core audience can identify with, and using that as the foundation for a completely original and different story. Could I please just get to that different part? No. They’ve heard enough. What else do I have?

So I pitch the last ideas... and they really latch on to the one that is the least developed and that I think is the dumbest. The larger problem is that this is what I call an “underhanded pitch” - something that sounds like a good idea, but when you start writing it you see that it is filled with problems. There are lots of ideas like this, that seem okay in short form but are one problem after another when you flesh it out - and many of them hit a brick wall about halfway in. I can see that brick wall from where I’m standing, but the D-Guy could not.

To me, the big problem is that the two great ones they shot down without listening to the whole things were something the network would really like. And I fear the one they like the network may not like - and that kills this deal. Now, I still own those two great pitches, and there are other producers who make movies for this network (plus I always try to come up with an idea that stands alone and can just be a movie), but it is frustrating to have a middle man get in the way of a deal.

Much of my career is due to middle men - they pass the script to their best contact - but that also means a bunch of deals that never were is due to middle men screwing things up. Sometimes you get a Devo with kind of a “tin ear” and they completely fumble the pitch to their boss. Sometimes you get a person why knows someone looking for an action script, and they want to take submit your women in jeopardy script (WTF?). Sometimes it’s the middle man who is the problem - though I don’t think that Brad Pitt Guy actually had a good connection with Brad Pitt, it still might have been nice if he’d tried giving him one of my scripts. I also know of a “producer” who is just bad news, so when he hands a real producer a script and says he has to be attached, that script gets rejected even if it’s CASABLANCA. Sometimes there’s a different kind of “tin ear” at work - where someone has a connection to an ultra conservative producer and hands them your ultra liberal script... when you have scripts that would match that producer’s politics available. This is when someone doesn’t do their homework. On one of my projects that never was, the producer could not get this money guy’s name right whenever he talked to me. I kept correcting him, but he just kept getting the name wrong. Guess what? The project did not get funding from that source, even though the producer had access to the guy (it was a distrib that picked up his last film). I knew this was going to happen, dreaded it every time the producer talked to me, wished I could be at the meeting to get the guy's name right ("Mr. Lantos" not "Mr. Santos") and maybe save the deal... but no. This becomes frustrating after a while, and you just wish you could get rid of all of these middle men and just do it yourself.

But part of this business, or any business, is that you not only have the connections that you have, you have the connections that your connections have. I don’t have time to know everybody, I’m writing screenplays. I know a small handful of people, and my scripts sometimes travel to people I do not know. But each person knows someone who knows someone else - it’s networking. The thing about networking is that it’s one of those chains that is only as strong as its weakest link - so you should always expect a bunch of links and chains to break. There is no sure thing, it’s all a numbers game. There will always be people between you and the decision maker, and some of those people may screw things up for you. But others may champion your work and open doors for you. I often have people who read something long ago and remembered it, and maybe submit it at their new company. So it’s not really middle men I have a problem with, it’s just the ones that screw up somehow - usually in some way that seems obvious to me, but probably doesn’t to them.

So, I got an e-mail from the producer about that pitch of mine - they want to meet with me sometime to discuss it. In my reply, I included the paragraphs for *all* of my pitches, with the best two first. Maybe he'll read them all the way through, maybe not. I may end up having to write the worst idea of the bunch because the middle man likes it most.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Be Indispensable YOU want to be the one they ask for.
Dinner: Ham & cheese.
Pages: 4 pages on the side projects, still working on the main project as I type this.
Bicycle: Short ride to a Starbucks.

7 comments:

Todd said...

it never fails eh?

Pj Perez said...

Someone STOLE your bike? From where?

The Political Film Blog said...

Stole your bike? Bastards!

Get a better one. Living well is the best revenge.

How's your Dream Girl / sci-fi whatchamacallit production going? Any middlemen?

Emily Blake said...

I feel sad now. Why are people such jerks?

Leif said...

Is this a situation where an Agent / Manager, your own middle man in effect, would help or hinder the process?

Richard J. McKenzie said...

Bill,
I have a Uni-vega bike that you can have.
Free delivery, too.
I have to drive up to Camarillo on Saturday for a 90th b'day party (not mine!)
It'd be easy to stop in the valley.

You want a free bike, let me know by Saturday morn and it's yours.

wcmartell said...

Richard - no thanks, just got a new one.

Leif - I don't think so. Once you are in the room, it comes down to what the producers want.

PFB - I hope to shoot that in August, and no middle men at all. I'm paying out of my own pocket!

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