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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Assistant Files

When writers come in to pitch my boss, he usually closes the door. I bring them Diet Cokes and room-temperature waters, ask if they need anything else, and go back to my desk.

Where I then eavesdrop on their conversation.

(The entire point of being an assistant, after all, is that you get to learn by example. You stay on your boss' calls, you have access to his emails, you listen to him in meetings. It's not much, but it's basically the entire perks package on offer, so you gotta take advantage of it when you can.)

It's interesting how easy it is to tell if a writer is good in a room. Even with the door closed. Even if I can only hear the rise and fall of their conversation over the hum of the A/C.

Good in the room: the writer talks for a while. My boss starts to interject questions. His questions and comments come faster and faster. There are bursts of laughter or exclamations of surprise and approval. The meeting runs long, and I have to bump the next thing on his calendar.

Bad in the room: the writer won't let him get a word in edgewise, because he has a memorized pitch he's rattling off. There are long, confused pauses. My boss opens the door again after twenty minutes. "Thanks for coming in," my boss says to the writer. "Great on paper," my boss might say, after the writer leaves. "But did you see how sweaty he was? Poor guy."

You need to be both a good writer and good in a room to have a career here, which probably seems awfully unfair to a lot of writers: not only do you have to be a great writer, you have to shave and put on pants and go be charming to some studio guy!

Hollywood as an industry likes to think of itself as "Cool". You can still work if you're writer-quirky (and in fact it might do you some good) but if you have a hard time making eye contact, screenwriting as a career is going to be tough. You spend a LOT of time in meetings, especially as a new writer whose spec just went out. Welcome to the meeting machine. Can we get you a beverage?

From where I'm sitting, "good in a room" has a lot to do with confidence. A writer who's calm and happy to talk about his story because he knows it and knows that it's good is pleasant to listen to. A writer who's tense and sweaty and thinks his story might be pretty bad, not so much. Which is not to say that his story actually IS bad, just that the executive listening to his fumbling pitch has probably already stopped listening and is thinking about Pinkberry.

People who are decent at pitching usually do it a lot. This is how the progression seems to go:

First, you have to get over the embarrassment that you're even talking about your idea.

Second, you have to stop apologizing for it. If you're going to write it, it must be pretty good, right? Nobody likes a braggart, but everybody likes calm and confident.

Third, you need to just tell the story. It's amazing how bad people are at this. I have a lot of sympathy, because it's hard to boil down 120 pages of your blood and sweat to a quick chat. But think of how you describe a spec you just read and loved, and then try to do that for your own work. Nix your insistence on talking about themes and subplots and character arcs. Tell us what the story is, and what's so great about it.

Fourth, you pitch so often that you get comfortable doing it. It makes you tense to listen to a pitch by someone who's nervous. It's very relaxing to listen to one by someone who knows his stuff and is calm.

Fifth, I eavesdrop on your conversation with my boss. Later, my boss comes out and says "That guy was awesome. Call his agent and set something up for next week. Let's get this going."

Congratulations, you're officially good in a room.

Andy Sachs

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Anonymous said...

This is depressing. How many writers are good at both? A friend of mine can talk craps into gold, but his writing just craps. Another is brilliant on paper, but can't complete a sentence when more than one pair of eyes on him. Doesn't the power that be recognize the personality traits of brilliant writers?

Julie Gray said...

yeah, it can be depressing. Although I know writers who are great in a room as well as being good writers. But I agree, a predominant personality trait among writers is shyness. But I guess if this were easy, everyone would do it, right? And I really do think that if the material is AMAZING and I mean AMAZING your goodness in the room is less important as long as you are not downright freaky. But it pays to learn how to do the dance in the room. You might be shy but there is an art and a methodology to pitching - stuff like leave some air in the pitch for the exec to ask questions, look him or her in the eye, have a firm handshake, take a quick peek in the mirror before your meeting. Anyone can learn how to be unfreaky for 20 minutes. Right??

Kirkland said...

I'll confess (okay, it's not much of a confession), I'm not all that great at pitching, hell, I'm barely adequate. Never have been, and it's been a while now, my share of movies sold and made.

But, and this is biiiiiiig BUT...

What I am good at is not being afraid. I'll talk to anybody (well, almost anybody, it took me a few seconds to realize that that guy who sat next to me at Starbucks was one of the aluminum hat people, and by the time I realized it, it was too late and I couldn't get rid of him. So, I'm a little more careful now, hence that scowl on my face when you pass by), and can hold my end of a conversation.

Am I good in a room? No. But I can get by. I do my thing, leave the little gaps you need, and I'm pretty good at thinking on my feet (or ass, as the case may be). I know my story, know the holes (and trust me, every "finished" script has them--even if you don't see them they're still there) , and have the answers to whatever question that may or not pop up.

If there's one key to surviving the in room experience, it's being prepared. And even shy or freaks can do that work.

Julie Gray said...

Maybe it's about being good ENOUGH in the room. :)

E.C. Henry said...

Great column as always, Andy Sachs.

Living in the state of Washington I'm not afforded the opportunity to pitch very often. But at the most recent Northwest Screenwriting Guild pitch event, a couple weeks ago, I did heed the word-of-mouth Stephanie Palmer's, "Good in a Room" was getting, and bought that and Blake Synder's "Save the Cat." Oh, I did pitch too.

When it comes to pitching I face a conundrum. On one level I LOVE to it; I have stories I WANT TO TELL to other people. But on another level somethings make me real nervous. My boss makes me nervous. Being in close proximity to people with excessive tattoos and noserings make me nervous. Looking at my checkbook ballance makes me nervous...

Now I don't know if I just need more practice pitching, OR if I just need some couch time with professional help.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA