BU Students Pitch H'wood



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  • BU Students Pitch H'wood

    A fun, non-controversial read from Saturday's LA Times.

    Making a play for Hollywood
    Boston University sends its film students to the heart of the movie industry.
    By Bob Pool
    Times Staff Writer

    December 16, 2006

    The plot thickened the minute the Massachusetts film students told the Hollywood experts their movie ideas.

    Seven fledgling screenwriters from Boston University had spent months, even years, meticulously crafting the stories they hoped would help launch successful entertainment industry careers.

    Now they were scattered around a recreation room at the Park La Brea apartment complex in the Fairfax district, nervously explaining story lines and character development to some of Hollywood's most successful film and TV writers.

    The veterans were there to critique the newbies' stories and their salesmanship. Later, a second group - producers with the clout to actually buy stories - would listen to the student pitches.

    "Pitch fests" are common in Hollywood, and they can be anxiety-inducing.

    Commercially organized story-selling conferences attract wannabe screenwriters of all ages willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a 10-minute opportunity to hawk a movie proposal or script to studio types. Local schools that have cinema and television classes, including USC, stage them for graduate students.

    But Boston is 2,600 miles from Hollywood. And Beantown's culture is far different from Tinseltown's.

    Boston University tries to bridge both gaps by having film students spend a semester in Hollywood. The program costs students $20,000 each, including accommodations at Park La Brea, and mixes course work with entertainment industry internships. The 3 1/2 -month visits are capped with a university-organized pitch fest.

    "They couldn't do this in Boston," said university writing instructor Brian Herskowitz, a longtime television writer (episodes of "Blossom" and "Tour of Duty") who recruited the event's panel of professionals.

    Justin K. Rivers, a 22-year-old senior film major from Amsterdam, N.Y., said movie-making seems different on his side of the country.

    "It's harder because being in Boston, we've been exposed to more of an East Coast mentality. Out here the films are a little more commercially oriented," he said. "When you get out here, you have to figure out how this town works."

    Nearby, Nicole Adams, a Boston native and a graduate theater arts student, nodded in agreement. Like Rivers, she is on her first visit to Los Angeles.

    "You have to get used to the people and the mentality out here. I love it and then I hate it. I hate the fast talking, the I-need-to-be-better-than-you attitude," said Adams, also 22.

    Nonetheless, Hollywood is sprinkled with Boston University alumni, said Bill Linsman, a veteran commercial producer and director who oversees the school's West Coast program. They include Lauren Shuler Donner, producer of "X-Men" movies, "Mr. Mom" and "Free Willy"; Jason Alexander, a writer and director and an actor whose shows include "Seinfeld"; and Richard Gladstein, producer of "The Cider House Rules" and "Finding Neverland."

    Soon it was story-pitching time. Rivers sat down in front of Allan Katz, a TV writer-producer whose work has included "Roseanne" and "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Adams took her place at the next table, where producer-writer Carla Kettner was waiting. Kettner's shows have included episodes of "Vanished" and "Strong Medicine."

    Rivers, a science fiction fan, had three stories for Katz. One involved aliens and cowboys and one centered on a businessman using zombies to conquer a small upstate New York town. The third was what Rivers called a "fantasy adventure" revolving around a 13-year-old girl who unleashes a horde of creatures "locked in a parallel universe" from the attic of an old hotel in New York City.

    The pitch was quick. Katz's response was gentle.

    "Have you thought about what an audience is going to do if characters get eaten at the very beginning? What does that do to the tone of the film? I'm not making a judgment," Katz said diplomatically of the hotel story.

    "You've got innocents who get killed.... I think for a family type of film, most people want things to work out to be OK."

    Rivers nodded. "That's true. You want the happy ending."

    At Kettner's table, Adams was outlining a complicated-sounding story focusing on an 11-year-old girl who is being raised in a subway and one day discovers "that she cannot sing."

    Adams, herself a singer, had considered putting her pitch to music. But she decided that might be too radical, even in Hollywood.

    She'd worked on the story for four years, Adams explained. Her lead character must sing in order to save her brother's life. The girl's effort to learn how to sing "opens painful memories" but ultimately helps lead her mother out of drug addiction, she said.

    Kettner said the story needed more focus. She suggested beefing up the tension between the girl and her mother.

    "She cannot talk. If there's something urgent she has to tell her mother, she has to find her voice to deliver that message. That's cool, exciting, kind of a psychological thriller," Kettner said. But "if it's just to say, 'I love you, mom' or 'I don't love you, mom,' then it's not enough of a story to get somebody to write a check for."

    After the practice pitch period ended, Rivers and Adams mulled over their options. He paced at the side of the recreation room. She sat slumped in a chair near the corner. Both wondered if their movie proposals could be tweaked before the story-buying producers showed up for the event's second half.

    "People start getting killed as soon as the demon creatures get unleashed. As soon as they hit the hotel lobby, they start eating guests and doing horrible things," Rivers said. "Do I want it to be a really dark kind of movie where I can kill off those characters and have those consequences, or do I want it to be more of a family-friendly movie?"

    Adams was in her own quandary.

    "I realize now that one of my main characters in the story I've been working on for years does not have a concrete obstacle and a concrete destination," she shrugged.

    By the time the producers arrived, Rivers had come up with an easy way out of his dilemma. He bumped up the age of the girl who is his lead character from 13 to 18 so she would appeal to an older audience. A second change was easier still.

    "I switched from calling it a 'fantasy adventure' to calling it a 'fantasy thriller,' " he said.

    It worked.

    Several of the professionals voiced an interest in Rivers' work, as they did with several other Boston students' stories. Adams did not get a nibble.

    "There's a little disappointment since I've been working on my story a long time," Adams said.

    "I love to write. But I'm a talented actor, a good singer. I can go a lot of different directions. This is a learning experience."

    That's character development.

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  • #2
    Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

    a $20,000 pitch fest attract controvesy? as if!
    The Complete IfilmPro DEVELOPMENT FORUM (PDF)


    • #3
      Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

      Originally posted by Marine66 View Post
      A fun, non-controversial read from Saturday's LA Times.
      We'll see about that!


      • #4
        Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

        It's definitely a good tug when you're a newbie. But when I went through the same thing, I couldn't care less how they judged my stories or how I pitched it. I just wanted to see if I didn't wet myself from having the opportunity to start mingling with the big wigs.


        • #5
          Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

          Fun, non-controversial read? PASS!

          JK. Good stuff. Thanks for the story.


          • #6
            Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

            I felt bad for the poor girl who had been working on her story for 4 years. She seemed to take it pretty well...

            "There's a little disappointment since I've been working on my story a long time," Adams said.
            But if she really has something there, it could easily be tweaked into a story that actually progresses and goes somewhere (sounded a bit static and plotless from the article.)


            • #7
              Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

              I didn't really feel bad for her. If she had done a little research, here or at Twoadverbs.... tried to get some feedback from others, she would have realized some of her shortcomings 4 years ago.

              To hear her say she's from Boston and has to understand the Hollywood sensibility is silly. Anyone with the Internet (like me in NJ) should have some idea of what works and what doesn't.


              • #8
                Re: BU Students Pitch H'wood

                From Defamer:
                UCLA's TV Development Course Gives Students Six Minutes In Pitch Heaven

                LA TIMES ARTICLE:

                You have 6 minutes. Go sell it.
                A course at UCLA gives aspiring showrunners practical experience in the art of the pitch.

                On a recent fall evening, Correne Kristiansen, a student in UCLA's new course in TV Development, paced the linoleum hall outside the classroom. Her lips moved silently as she prepared for the midterm — a practice pitch before a panel of industry pros for an original dramatic television series. Some of her fellow students were outside, smoking; others gathered for a last-minute consultation with their pitch partners.

                They had been told that the average industry executive hears 400 pitches a season. They had six minutes. They had been taught that passion was the key.

                Soon the room would grow warm with bright, excited voices doing their best to sell ideas about, say, an out-of-work guy who opens a weekend brothel in his loft, astronauts in love and on a mission to Mars, or maybe "The Wonder Years" meets "Head of the Class" with a "How I Met Your Mother" subplot.

                A new breed of media student, these people see opportunity in the exploding, competitive world of television and want all the help they can get — no matter how nervous it makes them. Responding to the demand, UCLA this year has added several new television courses, such as TV Development, taught by Touchstone's vice president of drama, Channing Dungey. The class aims to shape showrunners — the creator-writer and producer behind a series.

                According to Robert Rosen, dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, the field has become increasingly attractive as cable and series television has improved in quality, and work opportunities have multiplied through a dizzying array of channels and new technologies. Students now "see possibilities for dramatic programming as sophisticated in many instances far more so than the area of motion pictures," Rosen said.

                The students in Dungey's class are in their 20s and 30s and represent a fraction of those who had applied for admission. Some already hold internships or part-time jobs in the industry.

                Their professional aims vary.

                Television is the "primary medium of our time," said Byron Hudson, a student who wants to participate in "cultural dialogue." He described his pitch as "a 'Northern Exposure'-esque character-driven dramedy." Because movies are getting dumb and dumber, he said, television is where he can "push the envelope."

                Sebastian Matthews hopes to create a groundbreaking series like "Lost" or "Heroes." "There's something very special about telling your favorite stories to 14 million people at once," he said.

                As he sat at a table with friends waiting for class to begin, he said he suspected that more than a grade might be at stake that evening. "It's a big opportunity," he said, referring to the panelists who would be judging his idea — a story about a ladies' man who runs a business to help less successful guys win the girls of their dreams. "If I put myself in the shoes of an executive and I'm here amongst creative young people and somebody has a great idea … then why wouldn't I keep in touch?"

                Only amateurs are afraid someone might actually steal their ideas, he said. Still, he had registered his idea with the Writers Guild.

                Kristiansen, a former attorney who interns at Touchstone and produces a comedy show in Beverly Hills, wants to create a hit sitcom. Considering the amount of television she consumes, she said, "There's no job in the world for which I am better qualified."

                For their midterm, the students appeared to have followed the advice in one of their textbooks to dress as if going to a backyard barbecue: Casual, but nicer than they usually dress for class. They were paired in random teams, each with a "showrunner" and a "development executive" to make their pitches. They drew numbers to determine their order and when it was their turn, sat facing the panelists — Jennifer Turner, vice president, drama programming, NBC Universal Television Studio; Jocelyn Diaz, vice president, drama development, ABC Television Network; and Daniel Pipski, senior vice president, production, LivePlanet.

                Despite a long day, the panelists listened attentively to each student, took notes, asked questions and offered gentle advice.

                The students experimented with a variety of suggested approaches, including starting with a logline ("If Boston's underground syndicate doesn't kill him, law school will,") explaining how they wrote what they knew ("Before I had to prove to the INS that I was legitimately married to a nonresident immigrant, I was unable to relate to the people involved in immigration politics,") or sound effects ("Mary is sitting on a huge skyscraper. Below her is a dog furiously barking at her. Bark! Bark! Bark! Splat! Mary's body has just quieted his bark.")

                Loretta Ramos, a "development executive" whose role was to introduce the "showrunner" and make him look good, began with an optimistic prediction about the weekend brothel idea, called "Lofty Expectations." "We think that precious demographic of twenty- and thirtysomethings will tune in week after week to see one of their own try to get ahead in that very American way: pure, unashamed capitalism," she said.

                The judges took a dim view. "I've been to screenings for movies with a brothel element and those are horrible screenings," Pipski said. "Most of America doesn't want to see it."

                On the other hand, they liked a story about a Boston law student who decides to start an Internet porn site. And they really liked "Mission to Mars," about a new generation of space explorers with a very tangled back story. ("He doesn't want to go to Mars. He just wants Karen.")

                Drawing position No. 7, Kristiansen took a breath and launched into her idea: a corrupt prosecutor, faced with his own mortality, decides to reopen his past cases and seek justice for those he had wronged.

                In a key scene, the attorney learns he has cancer. "He leans against the wall outside the hospital, unable to walk, near tears. Finally someone stops and asks him if he needs help," she said. It turns out to be a homeless beggar the attorney had dismissed earlier. Kristiansen's voice broke and her eyes welled up.

                "Sorry!" she said with a little laugh. "It's a powerful scene."

                The judges smiled indulgently. After all, series television is, by definition, high pressure. Lesson learned.