It was my third and final L.A. meeting. I practiced my pitches in the mirror. I paced. Like “Alice”, I had stumbled into Wonderland determined to make my own way. I hit that town ready to prove myself as a screenwriter. I would do whatever it took to find representation. My pal, a best-selling author with years of experience in the movie industry, warned me, “Finding an agent or manager is like making a good marriage.” In other words, know my own worth and don’t look too desperate.
Later that day, sitting at yet another cafe table, I felt very desperate. I wanted to impress the sharply dressed executive sitting across from me…right NOW! The glorious California sunshine frizzed my hair and sweat coursed down my spine. I wasn’t sure if I was succeeding, until he sat back in his chair, watching me coolly, and said, “So tell me your idea.” For a moment, all the world stopped, except Rick James on a radio somewhere nearby singing “Super Freak.” There it was. The Holy Grail of meetings…an executive asked for my big pitch. And…I went blank.
On the plane out to L.A., I had made a sketch of my ideal representation. I included traits, like committed, positive, very industry savvy, organized, and kind. Aren’t I adorable? This executive perfectly fit the bill. He had a rich history in Hollywood. After becoming an agent at one of the big firms, he grew tired of the superficial agent/writer relationship and eventually, formed his own management agency. He described the connection between manager and writer as a team, working together to develop and effectively market scripts to production companies. I could have crawled into his lap. Instead, I asked, “What do you look for in a writer-client?” I was surprised and impressed to hear his requirements. He said, “I like my comedy writers to write scripts for features and television.” And they had to write often and well.
He liked my script, “Master’s Key”, but like those before him, felt it would take a movie miracle to see it onscreen. “And you’re funnier in person. I don’t think this script is a great example of your voice as a writer.” Wait…what? I spent months crafting the perfect example of my skills and POV. Shouldn’t I know better than anyone what my writer’s voice sounds like? He wasn’t finished. He tapped his thick, leather planner and said, “Your voice seems well-suited to TV sitcom. Have you written any TV?” I couldn’t have been more surprised if he stuck his fork up my flaring nostrils. Years ago, I took an online screenwriting course at Writers’ Digest. The instructor repeatedly criticized my scene pacing “as too episodic like sitcom TV”. Naturally, I took the comment as the insult it was intended to be. Now, this savvy Hollywood manager saw my flaw as a business opportunity.
The truth was that I did have a TV pilot in my portfolio, but I’d never intended for it to see the light of day. I was trying to be a screenwriter, not a showrunner. I mean, vegans don’t wear leather and skiers don’t snowboard, right? Apparently, in Hollywood, you do whatever writing gets you the right attention, but you do it really well. When the manager asked to hear my TV idea, I swallowed and froze. I hadn’t practiced this pitch. I hadn’t even thought about this pitch. In that frightening moment, I recalled a bit of advice I’d heard at each meeting: audiences love scripts that teach them about the world of that story. I started by presenting the story’s arena in one concise statement, using very descriptive words. He sat forward, nodding and rubbing his chin. What was he thinking? I gave him a sentence about each principal character and he nearly smiled. I mentioned a specific format detail that would set the show apart, while keeping true to its sitcom kin. I never mentioned the number of cameras or sets, the presence of a live audience or a laugh track. I talked only about the key story elements and I kept my word choices specific and expressive. He looked me in the eye and said, “I want to read that.”
What was I supposed to remember? It doesn’t matter. Anyway, why am I listening to my pal? She’s only got three best-selling books and a newly minted movie deal with a major studio. So what? I was having my first manager-buys-me-lunch experience and I’d made my first successful pitch. I put a thick, black check in the positive column and celebrated with a whole glass of wine that night.
On the long plane ride home, it hit me. I was a screenwriter. I may not have a WGA card in my wallet, but I have high concept story ideas and industry connections, who want to read what I write next. I have a growing community of fellow writers cheering my successes and foibles. (Did I mention that I nearly fell into hunky actor, Christopher Egan’s lap, as I entered this meeting? Good times, good times.)
My career plan, please refer to my earlier blog, now looks like an illustration for “Alice in Wonderland.” There are names and colorful pictures that help me remember key information about each contact. Arrows connect names to project ideas. I’m polishing two scripts, a TV pilot and a romantic comedy, for two different executives.
Like “Alice”, I was shrunk and grown and shrunk back to my normal size. I bet there will be more of that on this journey. Hollywood can be a scary forest filled with beautiful creatures gnashing their perfect, white teeth. It can also be a wonderland filled with knowledge and curiosities that inspire us to be the best writers we can be. For now, I wink at the little white rabbit sitting on my desk and go back to work.