L.A. Meeting #3: Making a Perfect Pitch

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.
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L.A. Meeting #2: Humble Pie and Coffee

The morning of L.A. meeting #2 started with someone else’s wake-up call. I was to meet Lee Zahavi-Jessup and a very successful producer at a popular L.A. cafe in twenty minutes and looking at the valet’s grim expression, I wasn’t going to make it on time. My stomach bubbled and I rested my head on the steering wheel for a moment. I couldn’t be late. I just couldn’t.

Successfully negotiating the rush hour traffic, I hunted for a parking space and emptied my pockets into the hungry meter. Inside the cafe, I quickly ordered breakfast and entered the crowded dining area. Lee and the highly successful producer were chatting and laughing over lovely pots of tea. I was late and I was drinking coffee. Swallow, step, smile, shake hands and sit.

I was so anxious to be in the presence of a producer known for shepherding authentic and unusual stories. She’s passionate about scripts that Hollywood should hate: period pieces, musicals, and dialogue-laden plays. Her first feature film began as a play on the east coast, but her determination transformed it into a film, starring Johnny Depp that was nominated for seven Oscars. Despite her success, she was so humble, lowering her voice to mumble names and titles, because in Hollywood someone is always listening. She was lovely in that easy California way and staring across the tiny table, I dug deep for a spectacular conversation opener. I asked, “Was it awesome working with Maggie Gyllenhaal?” Oh boy.
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L.A. Meeting #1: What’s High Concept and why do I care?

I stood in the well-used conference room of Madhouse Entertainment and stared at the Hollywood sign, beckoning from the nearby hills. It was a moment worthy of “Lawrence of Arabia”. My breath hitched and my knees locked. For the first time, I realized…”Holy crap! I’m meeting with a real Hollywood Executive and my life hinges on the next 30 freaking minutes!” And that’s when said executive walked in.

After nearly a year of accolades for my script, he blew the “High Concept” whistle and proceeded to tell me why this script won’t get far. He was pragmatic and kind, which are not easy bedmates. Luckily, I wasn’t surprised by the ruling. After all, I wrote a teen comedy with an autistic leading man. I was surprised and inspired by his reasoning.

He faulted my “Big Question”, which is the something that makes us watch the hero’s progress, mindlessly shoving popcorn into our mouths. We identify subconsciously with the big question and we apply our own emotional experiences to the story, which draws us deeper into the movie. He had recently spent years massaging a dark thriller script with a baby writer. When it finally hit the market, it was revered as an overnight sensation, which he still finds amusing, despite the countless drafts he personally reviewed. In that script, the big question is, “What would you do if someone you love is kidnapped; and you know who did it, but you can’t get justice through acceptable channels?” I admit, that many ideas and images pop into my head, and that’s the secret of the “Big Question”. My script obviously has mass appeal or I wouldn’t have made it into his office, but according to him, it isn’t big enough. And dammit, I agree with him.

Hollywood is more timid than a lost dog. It sniffs the same ground every day, hoping for a miraculous treat to appear. It chases rival pooches away, desperate to protect its very own barren ground. When a stranger bearing bones extends a hand, the Hollywood hound is more likely to bite an ankle without even glancing at the gift. If it manages to overcome its wariness, it takes a reluctant sample. If the bone is juicy and spicy in a way that satisfies it, the bone is gobbled in one gulp, along with a few fingers, too. Then, it goes right back to sniffing the garbage-strewn ground. As long as the stranger never shifts position, she’ll be included in the hound’s tireless search for treats.
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Finding Someone to Love…your Script

When my script, “Master’s Key” made the Top 5 of Final Draft’s Big Break contest, it was one of several positive reviews for this script and I thought, “here we go, baby!” I edited my digital business cards, bought a new top…the kind you dry-clean, and put new pens in my computer bag. Then I sat back and waited…and waited…and ate sorbet…and got depressed.

The script was already being scouted by ScriptShark and of course, the logline was sent out to subscribers of the various contests. But what was I doing to advance my cause? I’m as far away from L.A. as I can be without speaking another language. My professional background is marketing and motherhood, which limits my address book to exactly no one who could help me to sell my script. Or does it?
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Screenwriter on a Mission…Get sold in 2011!

Christmas has come early for me this year. Santa stuffed my stocking with a manager meeting…in LA. It’s enough to make a jaded, small-town screenwriter believe in miracles. But I know better.

For those writers, who still wish to believe in the Santa Scribe, stop reading here!

For the rest of you, you’ve reached the age where the myth of luck and the perfect script has gotten pretty hard to believe. It’s time to accept that no amount of wishful letter writing or selfless perfection of your craft will bring success to your inbox. The truth is not as magical, but still very exciting.

My journey into the light began with a simple RSVP: yes, I would attend a screenwriting business seminar. Until that moment, I hadn’t worn my career aspirations in public. Well-meaning pals usually patted my arm and smiled indulgently when they heard that I was writing scripts…for the movies…like, for famous people. Their support was strained and patronizing, to say the least, and these were people who liked me! How would I fare in the professional fish tank where sharks circled the little fishies like me?

The morning of the seminar dawned rainy and freezing, but I took my first steps into the world as a screenwriter. The weather kept the class limited to less than twenty hopeful souls. We ranged from lifelong dabbler to compulsive over-achiever with a God complex. We tentatively opened our notebooks and waited for the lightning to strike.

Our instructor, Lee Zahavi-Jessup of ScriptShark, was nowhere near what I expected, although it’s been oft established that I didn’t have a clue about anything. I was initially mesmerized by the fierce auburn curls that swept the length of her spine when she moved.  She had a warm smile, but there was a “No BS accepted here” edge to it. She began to lay out a horrifying, dream-killing picture of Hollywood’s bizarre script bazaar. I worried that I might throw up, the only reason I was happy to have a doctor sitting next to me. Lee’s dynamic dialogue was powered with concrete facts, anecdotes of her own professional experiences, and if we listened carefully, a blueprint to a successful screenwriting career.
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I got a meeting!

I’ll make my first trip to LA next month to meet with a respected manager. Let’s all do the happy dance together!

Thanks to everyone who’s cheered me on this past year. I owe giant gratitude to my friends and family, Lee Zahavi-Jessup and the team at ScriptShark, Lynne Shook, Gary Wolfe, and Geoffrey Sanborn.

I’m not there yet, but I wouldn’t be here without all of you.  xo Kelly

How Much Script Coverage is Enough?

Does this dress make me look fat? Is the Rudolph-red zit on my nose noticeable? I can’t help but ask these questions even though I know, I just know, I might not like the answers. And I never ask just one person…I ask everyone I meet. They all have a different answer depending on their relationship with me, their personal agendas and whether or not they’re actually interested in my zits.

Recently, I had a similar experience with my script.

After the sixth draft, I knew that I had an entertaining story. But I wanted an entertaining product. So, I did what I always do…I sought an objective opinion. I asked a script coverage service, “does this script make me look fat?” I also asked two other well known services. I waited anxiously for my golden tickets to arrive and then…

I panicked.

Each coverage service had a very different opinion on my dear script. Each one pointed out very different opportunities for improvement. Did I grab my red pen and jump into that rewrite? Of course not. I stuffed it all in a drawer and attempted to learn knitting for the seventh time. I just wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of albeit constructive criticism. It’s hard enough to face one dissenting reader, but how could I reconcile the fact that the readers disagreed with each other? Weren’t these people professionals? Wasn’t there one right answer to making my script a blockbuster?
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How to Kill Your Story

My script, my beloved story, has died. I can’t understand what happened. We were just together last week and it was wonderful. Now, when I look at its battered pages, I feel nothing. The symptoms were easily recognizable but I couldn’t accept the truth. Instead, I consulted with expert script doctors and their prognosis is unanimous…my story is dead. It’s time to let go.

Despite its glorious beginning, the subtle slide into oblivion began with a sudden disconnect between my protagonist and his goal. He started doing things just to be funny, just to stand out among the ever-growing crowd of notably unique supporting characters. I allowed this experimentation, hoping that he would find himself eventually. One hundred and seven index cards later, he had gone from chugging beer at a Christmas party hosted by a transvestite opera singer to robbing a bank dressed as an elf. And his height varied by as much as a foot throughout the script because even his physical self seemed to be in flux, too. By the time I received the official diagnosis, he was headed for Stuttgart…does it really matter why?

How did this simple holiday movie get so off track? Well, I make the mistake of confusing entertaining moments with enlightening scenes. My protagonist does have a unique perspective on the world. He has a flaw that enables him to make a myriad of wrong turns on his way to the finish line. But he also has a support team of characters who challenge, and often overshadow him. His opponent unfortunately, shares my hero’s lack of focus, making their conflicts wacky, instead of tight, tense, building to a final battle that brings visual and poetic closure to their conflict. But these are merely the symptoms…what is the problem?
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Fall in Love with Your Characters: Writing screenplay characters that resonate

I struggled for years to write a script that would make contest judges, producers and my twelfth grade English teacher sing its praise. Now, that it’s happened, everyone wants to know how I got here. Everyone, except my English teacher, I’m pretty sure she’s retired.

Well, I took classes, read lots of manuals, climbed the cliffs of the most exalted and marketed gurus. I got lots of sound professional advice. But none of it stuck. And then, IT happened.

In the end, it was like falling in love. My heart raced and my typing fingers tingled. The hero of my dreams was named Morgan Masters. He was only 16 and I was…well, a multiple of that. He had a social development issue and I had a debilitating addiction to the Boston Gay Mens’ Choir. But none of that mattered when we first met. I didn’t think about the whens, whys or hows. Unlike my failed relationships with ex-protagonists, I decided to let things happen naturally, organically. And it felt amazing. He fascinated me as no other character ever had. I wanted to get his view on everything.

“Fall in love with your characters” is not a cliche. It’s a screenwriting necessity. With Morgan, I discovered that the success of my script is wholly dependent on my relationship with the protagonist. If I’m dishonest, act passive-aggressively, or take his behavior for granted, then the story fizzles out. In this way, my writing process is similar to the rules of a satisfying courtship.
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