Tips from an expert

Tips from an expert

By Peter May

 

The printed program for the recent New York ShowBiz Expo advertised this session as a Scriptwriter’s Walk-In Pitchfest. To understand its beauty we need to parse that class title front to back. Let’s begin with “Scriptwriters.” By the time we’ve got our title page laid out, we wannabees have begun calling ourselves “Scriptwriters.” Since we can print our own membership cards, “Scriptwriters” is a very big club. Next, “Walk-in.” “Walk-in” plays to the scriptwriter’s irrational optimism, the fantasy that at any moment, standing in the right place at the right time, we’ll casually toss off a high concept and before you can say, “synopsis,” find ourselves revealed as literary giants, greenlighted for glory. Finally, there’s “Pitchfest.” Of course, the “Pitch,” that quarter hour spent trying to talk our way into a Hollywood exec’s checkbook, is the most anticipated and feared moment in a screenwriter’s life. It’s a make or break, sweaty palm nightmare but add “fest” and it’s a party! I’m sure people would pack a shuttle bus headed to “Colonoscopyfest.” So you see, it wasn’t hard to figure a Scriptwriter’s Walk-In Pitchfest would be a hot ticket. That’s why I arrived a full hour early and I wasn’t the first one in the room. Fifteen minutes before the scheduled start the last chair, an obstructed-view seat to my right, was claimed by a big, clumsy man who managed to step on both my feet climbing in. By the scheduled start time the windowsills, standing room against the back wall and finally every square foot of empty carpet was occupied.

 

If the keynote speaker was surprised by the overflow attendance, she didn’t let on. “It’s like an Easter showing of the Passion,” Laurie Scheer joked as the room filled like a Tokyo subway at rush hour. Finally, reason prevailed and newcomers began to refuse her welcome, instead taking up positions within earshot in the hall.

 

The fact is, Laurie always draws crowds of anxious, hopeful writers. She’s spent nearly twenty years either sitting across the table from anxious, hopeful writers or as an anxious, hopeful writer herself. She’s heard pitches, good and bad for Women’s Entertainment, Showtime, MTV, Nickelodeon, Carolco, HBO, ABC Productions, Hearst Entertainment, Columbia Pictures and The Sundance Institute. She’s learned to recognize an effective pitch and, more importantly, she’s taken the time to codify her experience and is willing to share her observations, through her book (http://www.allworth.com), one on one (http://www.lascheer.com/contact.htm), or in packed Pitchfests like this one. Finally, as the room quieted Laurie began with a question.

 

“So, you’ve all got a script ready?” Advertisement

 

Round-Head Solid Brass Fasteners, No. 5, 1 1/4″ Her question drew a number of nods, some smiles, many mumbles and at least a dozen actual scripts offered as proof in raised hands. One was in the front row. “May I?” The owner of the script shrugged and handed it to her. “Now, I don’t know anything about your script but I know it probably won’t get read because you’re a Hollywood outsider.” Deflated, he shrugged again. We all leaned in to hear how Laurie had so quickly exposed his pitiful secret. The guy with the obstructed view was almost in my lap. “Three brads,” she said, offering Exhibit A to the jury. “Use three-hole punch paper but only use two fasteners, called brads, one at the top and one at the bottom and make sure they’re number fives. Gold number fives.” I’d often heard that a reader wouldn’t bother with a script that doesn’t follow the stylebook, but could an extra halfpenny fastener actually condemn a year’s work to the recycling bin? Someone finally checked, “Really?” “Yes,” she answered solemnly.

 

Hope seemed to flow from the room like a receding wave. Hollywood is filled with overgrown children whose hubris could snuff the sparks of any career ready to ignite. Laurie didn’t exactly disagree but she did try to show how the rules were not entirely arbitrary by offering context. Thousands of scripts make it inside the Hollywood city limits every day. If one makes it to the desk of an appropriate mover or shaker, that person might scan the first twenty pages over his or her morning latte. If the exec senses potential in those pages, they’ll pass the script to an office assistant for immediate copies. It’s in the writer’s interest to have those copies back in the exec’s hands before the passion fades. That means making the assistant’s job easy by conforming to the standard, using two easily removed and replaced #5 fasteners. No washers, no screw posts, just two #5 fasteners.

 

“A three ring binder is easy to  ” “No.”

 

“On the front page I’ve got a photograph of ” “No.”

 

“Those fluorescent plastic cover sheets stand out ” “Don’t.”

 

According to Laurie, it comes down to not giving anyone a reason to reject your script arbitrarily. No fancy covers, no binder rings, no formatting errors, no spelling errors and no non-disclosure or homemade copyright notices on the cover! “That says this guy might sue me!”

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