March 2009

The Hollywood Pitch What's the Catch?

For the studio exec, learning to field a movie proposal is a high art

Nicholas
Weinstock

How to Field a Hollywood Pitch Nola Lopez

It was during my first year in L.A., toward the bottom of my third glass of wine, as my office clock passed 10:30 a.m. and the writer leaned forward, blouse largely unbuttoned, to pour me a fourth while continuing to propose her TV series about the wine industry, that I realized I’d arrived. Here it was: the all-out Hollywood pitch, complete with alcoholic props. This was the heralded showbiz tradition, as lampooned in The Player, practiced by quirky writers and smooth-talking producers in this town and roundly mocked by people (including me) outside it for generations.

I had expected, of course, that hearing pitches would be a necessary part of my job as a studio executive. However, I had no idea how to respond. So I looked to other executives as examples, and what I saw surprised me. It turns out people’s methods of receiving pitches—their catches, if you will—are at least as quirky and clumsy as the proposals that provoke them.

Over the past five years as a TV and movie executive, I’ve learned that while there may be as many types of pitches in professional entertainment as in professional baseball, there are also as many ways recipients accept, repel and bungle them when they’re delivered. The behavior of the Typical Executive can be just as weird as that of the Pitching Writer. The difference is that executives aren’t judged by it. Until now...

Pitch Type 1: THE HARDBALL
The Hardball comes fast and straight, powered by props and/or overpreparation: the wine-show pitch with a side order of wine; the improv-show pitch interrupted at preplanned intervals by improv. One time, a writer had pre-Googled me, found an old photo and then printed, cut and pasted my face into a collage of his ideal cast—leaving me not with the intended sense of flattery but feeling like I might be sitting across from the murderer in The Silence of the Lambs. Recently a writing team began its presentation by hurling those tiny paper-wrapped snappers against the wall to ensure my attention. The Hardball comes from all angles but always with an intensity that is equally admirable and startling.
Executive Response: THE BOBBLEHEAD
The Typical Executive’s reaction to a Hardball is that of a perfectly agreeable and recently lobotomized mental patient. There is nodding, a vague half smile, perhaps a noncommittal chuckle. There’s the raising of eyebrows—although this may be accidental or an optical illusion, just as the glance of the desert sun off the brow of the Sphinx can make him appear, for an instant, pleasantly surprised. The presence of more than one Typical Executive generally renders an effect as stately and stony as Mount Rushmore. And the experience leaves the pitchers with no earthly idea as to how it went.

Pitch Type 2: THE SOFTBALL
This is a more delicate toss, designed to approximate an off-the-cuff conversation between pals. Often it starts with a smokescreen puff of disclaimer, like, “This probably isn’t something for you” or “I’m no good at pitching my stuff”—and before you know it, it’s been lofted. Of course, the Softball can backfire. One writer casually delivered me a Softball over breakfast and was so spontaneously struck by his own comedic plot climax (which he seemed to have just conceived) he collapsed in weeping laughter and actually couldn’t go on. Another pitcher asked if we could hang at his local bar, and then he got drunk enough to talk more convincingly about stalking his ex-girlfriend than about the romantic-comedy idea he’d now rendered fatally creepy. Not long ago, an agent lobbed a phone Softball so gentle as to be backward—he muttered, off the rec­ord, something about my having asked him to bring me a movie pitch from a writer I’d in fact never heard of, then blabbed the proposal over my objections and hung up before I could reject it. That’s a Softball for you: too gingerly thrown to be caught or even batted away.
Executive Response: THE ROBOT
The Softball generally provokes in the Typical Executive the kind of stilted and flailing dance the canoodling Dorothy got from the Tin Man. Drag a Typical Executive into an informal conversation about a proposed show or movie, and he or she appears pained. Physical symptoms of receiving a softball generally include stammering, hot flashes of pleasure immediately followed by cool cynicism and a stiffness throughout the body and vocabulary that can resemble a seizure. This is the struggle of the really relaxed person within the Robot eager to get out. Unfortunately, any attempt at a loose chat with that person is all too often drowned out by the metallic bang of his or her cage.

There are other types of pitches, of course. The Changeup starts as one idea and mystically morphs into another depending on the listener’s reaction. The Curveball is thrown, for instance, by the two graduating USC Film School students who asked to come in for some commencement advice, then promptly assumed dance positions and sweatily rapped a musical comedy that brought wall-pounding complaints from my neighbors.

And there are other types of Typical Executive responses. In the Powerpoint, the exec proceeds to break down the value of a creative idea according to preanalyzed data and bullet-pointed comparisons to projects of the past. The Jabba the Hutt has the listener cruelly relishing his or her grotesque power while belching out nonsensical opinions and ultimately eating the visitor alive.

But most important—and thankfully—there are Hollywood types beyond the Typical Executive. Often deep in the burrows and pens of entertainment companies are more individuals savvy enough to appreciate creativity when it walks in and greets them—and as eager as anyone to do away with the petrified formalities of the Pitch.

Because the truth is, pitching is a brutal ritual, as strained in its gestures as a first date, as stilted and overrespected as a Japanese tea ceremony. Far better to cut the crap and candidly swap bright ideas. Now more than ever, what the jittery and constricted entertainment business needs is big innovation, unwieldy notions and ballsy thinking, regardless of the tactical smoothness of their presentation.

To stand on ceremony now—or, worse, to sit with feigned might on our secondhand and temporary office-issue thrones—is to fail at something bigger than pitching or catching. It’s to risk missing out on the generally unpackaged brilliance that is the occasional miracle of our work—and certainly its greatest fun.

NICHOLAS WEINSTOCK is the head of motion picture development at Apatow Productions and the author of one nonfiction book, two novels and three children.