Hitting Producers With the Big Pitch

Three women, all TV producers, were sitting around topping untoppable stories. They were thinking of those times when they got hit with a Big Pitch. Movie people know that the Big Pitch could come at any time of the day--from a cab driver, a landlord, even from one's psychiatrist.

The women had heard them all. One woman, an Emmy-winning producer, said nothing could really be worse than the time she was at her dentist's office. After the doctor had stuffed her mouth with hoses and appliances, he hit her with a screenplay idea.

Her friend got pitched in even more vulnerable circumstances--at her gynecologist's office during the examination!

Brenda Wilson, producer at Hickox-Daniel Productions, the one with dentist story, admitted that was the topper. But later she remembered the time that she was approached by a would-be writer at her father's funeral service. "In Spokane, Wash., of all places," she recalled with a sense of wonder. "I guess you're not safe anywhere."

"But development people and producers are at fault for that, too," she added with a laugh. "You set yourself up for that. Every place you look, you look for a story. A car crashes and you think there's a story in it. 'Who has the rights?' We're kinda vultures about it ourselves. The people pitching us are innocent. They're just fulfilling our sick needs, you know."

The need for a hot movie idea is a need that burns all over town. In the movie-factory heyday between 1925-46, when studios cranked out 50 movies a year apiece, much of the idea work was done by a staff out in the writer's stable. The unattached writer had only a limited number of offices to sell a script. The move to independent production offices began in the late '40s, and today every director, teen-age star, lawyer, fired studio boss and fatcat music-biz honcho has his own movie production company.

Now there are hundreds of people overseeing the flow of movie ideas, and a writer might have to peddle his story to dozens of parties.

Don Simpson, who with Jerry Bruckheimer produced "Beverly Hills Cop" I and II and "Top Gun," noted, "It is not only an important part of the process, it's a critical part. The process begins and ends with a story."

The pitch might never include the goofy intangible that actually makes a good picture. The process begins and ends with a story."

The pitch might never include the goofy intangible that actually makes a good picture. The premise behind the hit "Stakeout" might have been as brief as: "A plainclothes cop falls in love with the woman he's shadowing." The secret ingredient was, "It's Richard Dreyfuss being charming as hell in an involving situation." A writer cannot sell that. But he can sell an idea, and in today's movie industry, he has to sell it with a vengeance.

"With studios turning out only 10 or 12 pictures apiece now, it has become a free-for-all," said I.A.L. Diamond, who started as a contract writer and went on to glory with Billy Wilder on "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment." "It was not so cutthroat in those days."

Since all the plots known to human experience probably have been filmed already, the plotmongers speak in their own shorthand. What the pitcher wants to spring on the potential producer is the situation. Screenwriter William Goldman ("All the President's Men," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Princess Bride") once posited that, in the zany movie biz, Nobody Knows Anything. To that can be added a footnote on the those who harvest the plots: Everybody Knows Everything.

This is just what would happen in an industry that has been mercilessly cannibalizes itself. Many people in power believe that a plot ought to be understood in a moment.

"There's no question that having to reduce a movie to three sentences has affected the kind of movies that get made," warns writer Ron Shelton ("Under Fire," "The Best of Times"). "I like movies you can't reduce to three sentences. Try to reduce 'The Wild Bunch' to three sentences. Try to reduce 'My Beautiful Laundrette' to three sentences. I can't even reduce it to 50 sentences. It took 120 pages to tell whatever that story was."

In the TV-charged generation that arose in the late-'70s, there appeared a method of peddling movie ideas in an abbreviated format that somehow got to be called High Concept. There is nothing elevated about the scheme, really. The object is not to make stories intriguing but to simplify them and make them familiar. To what purpose? Salesmanship.

For most Hollywood writers now, the hardest plot of all to crack is how to push a screenply idea past the first few rooms of a vast and stupefying maze.

"Unless you are a bigwig writer," advises movie writer-developer Miguel Tejada-Flores ("Revenge of the Nerds," "Three for the Road"), "the guy you are pitching to doesn't have the power to say yes. He's got to go upstairs with it, and he probably doesn't have your facility as a storyteller. So the development person essentially becomes a writer's advocate, his agent. They are going to sell it to the Lord High Almighty Moohah. If you make it short, pithy and memorable, that gives you an advantage when they retell it."

Like many development people, Tejada-Flores was trained as a script reader, and is known for his fast studies of an idea. "The process of distillation," he argues, is not an insult to the storytelling process."

Still, writers grumble that this is an unnatural process. Said one aggrieved screenwriter around town: "You have to have a high-high-high concept that captures their attention in the first five seconds. I used to work one idea to perfection and take it in, but that's a waste. Now I take five ideas and give each one 10 seconds. They want it simple, and they don't want anything original. They want to hear 'Used Cars' crossed with 'Citizen Kane.' "

A favorite parlor game of beleaguered screenwriters is to come up with just that kind of thoughtful combination of old hits. Rising from his opium bunk, the writer calls downtown with the latest. "It's a mixture of 'Lolita' and 'Rambo,' " he argues persuasively. And why not? It could go big: A muscle-bound Commie-killer with a passion for real young girls.

A variation by hopeful moderns is to update a story by adding the magic preface "a rock 'n' roll version of" to a tried-and-blue plotline. Such as, "It's a country-and-Western 'Camille' " or "It's a kind of a punk-rock 'Battleship Potemkin.' "

A movie pitch is a performance, which does not endear the process to the pipe-chewing guys in the tattered sport coats. "If we were good pitchers," argues an accredited writer, "we would be actors."

A successful writer is one who has relearned the child's instinct for getting attention. One TV writer, a poetry lover, novelist and Vietnam vet, got past the maze by acting out the part of a blustering combustible war vet who might drive home a plot point by ramming a combat knife into the producer's desk.

Or the two writers who went to pitch a studio boss on a movie concerning industrial espionage: In the middle of the meeting, they informed the mogul that their very meeting was being bugged. The studio boss was so shocked and impressed that he gave them the go-ahead on the deal.

Producer Simpson is wary of such shenanigans. "If the story is strong, all it takes is a very straightforward telling," he warns, "not a tap dance. There are some people in this town who pride themselves on being great dancers. They consider themselves Pitch Kings or Pitch Queens.

"You can smell them a mile away because they're so busy dancing, they forget about the story. Sparks are flying around the room! They're up on your table, they're balancing ashtrays on their nose and they're talking about who should play the part. 'This would be great for--!' . . . but meanwhile, Jerry and I are looking at other and going, 'Great, but the idea. . . .' "

More daunting than facing veterans like Simpson and Bruckheimer, however, can be the prospect of facing an undeveloped development person. "If you pitch a romantic comedy movie to them," one writer snarled, "they will always think of the last romantic comedy they saw. They'll say, 'How's this for an idea? He's got this friend, kinda dumb but handsome, so we can make it a love triangle?' And you want to reach across the desk and punch him and say, 'Yes, I saw "Roxanne" tool!' They'll do that no matter what genre you're talking about."

This is something else collected by bruised screenwriters-favorite rejections. One writer tells of the time he took an action-adventure story to Universal. "This guy's criticism of it," the writer moaned, "was, 'This is not realistic or believable, like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' " In other words, no Nazi agents were turned into tuna melt by the Ark of the Covenant. Reality is whatever you bought.

Ron Shelton's favorite rejection happened in 1980 when he tried to sell a movie about rambunctious rocker Jerry Lee Lewis to producer Simpson. "It had taken weeks to get a meeting. I went in and he said: 'You're on. Go.'

"I unfolded this big picture of Jerry Lee Lewis smoking a cigar. I said, 'I'm here to talk about Jerry . . . Lee . . . .'

"Don says, 'If you say Lewis, this meeting is over.'

"And I said, 'Schultz. What do you mean this meeting is over?' He said, 'Rock 'n' roll is over, new wave is in. Next story?'

"Don probably won't want to remember that because it was one of 60 meetings he had that day."

Of the dubious fates that await a struggling writer, one of the worst is that an unscrupulous producer might just steal the idea and lob it to one of his own writers--"Wait. Don't tell me any more. We've been working on that same story for two years now."

Producer Bruckheimer knows of the flipside dangers that exist for movie executives. Every time he gasses up his car, the mechanics hit him with a pitch. "But with all the lawsuits now," he sighs, "you've got to stop them immediately. So the fun has gone out of it. Two years after you've made a movie they might say, 'Remember when I ran in to you at that service station? That was my idea.' "

Another dark side of the scenario is that an ambitious, perhaps talented, writer might slave away for years and only see his works end up in that well-padded limbo called Development Death.

Dozens of glib writers make tidy livings just selling pitches and writing reams of dead-end pages. "The best writers will write anyway," observes Tejada-Flores. "The scripts that get written are the ones the writer feels strongly about."

In the best of all possible words, one just becomes a star writer who never has to pitch his damned wares in the open marketplace. "All anyone aspires to be," said a struggling writer, "is a William Goldman, a Paul Schrader, a Robert Towne--someone who never has to go to a meeting.

Ron Shelton, for his part, is through with pitching. "There's too much baggage attached. Too many committees. Too many complicated turnaround deals. Too many changing executives. It's better to just spend six months writing one for nothing and then own it."

But then, Shelton got lucky. When producer Thom Mount asked him one day what he wanted to write about most, Shelton snapped: "Two men and a woman and baseball season."

Some pitch. Mount swung for it. Sounds like the stuff of myth--but that's the way Shelton tells it. He got his deal and wrote his screenplay, "Bull Durham." It was eventually put in to production, cast with Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon.

Perhaps in 95% of all movie pitches there is a distant echoing cry that says, "But what I'd really like to do is direct."

Honor of honors, Shelton was picked for the job. And somewhere in Mudville (actually Durham, N.C.), Shelton directed his baseball screenplay and is now in post-production, heading for a summer release. Every working day, he got to pitch the idea to his actors.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°