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  • Just Give Them What They Ask For

    June 21st, 2011

    By Danny Manus

    Today’s column comes from the “live and learn” files of Hollywood.  I recently had a client, who will remain nameless, who had sent her script to an executive, who read it and liked it and asked the writer to come in for a meeting. During that meeting, my client pitched the exec a couple of other projects she was working on and was also pitched BY the executive a couple of projects their company was looking to develop.

    This is what normally happens in a pitch meeting. Most production companies have internal story meetings where they come up with and pitch (to each other) story ideas that they may want to develop and find writers to work on. When I was at Clifford Werber Productions, I’d say at least one-third of our projects were self-generated between the two of us. Some were winners, some weren’t. But since A-List writers don’t write on spec and they usually only pitch their OWN original material – this is where YOU come in!

    So, my client was pitched this one idea (which will also remain nameless) and given a few specific (but basic) notes on what they were thinking. It was basically a “reversal” of a concept of a popular movie from years ago (and that is ALL the information you’re getting). Now, here’s what you need to know about executives – they usually don’t really know what they DO want – they just know what they DON’T want. 

    I had this original project idea at CWP that I had written a 3 page pitch document for which basically had the set up, much of the first act, and premise to the story and characters.  We pitched this to tons of writers and had 3 or 4 (over a year’s time) come up with a nicely-fleshed out treatment and pitch, but for one reason or another – Clifford didn’t like them. They just didn’t match with his vision for the project, even though he and I weren’t sure EXACTLY what we wanted that vision to be.

    But a good take on our story is like obscenity – we know it when we see it.

    Anyway, my client came up with a take on the project and presented it to the executive – but it wasn’t right for them. It wasn’t what they were looking for. But she was given one more chance. So, she came to me and we re-worked it and re-wrote it (No, I do not take co-writing or story credit), and I thought the idea that resulted from our 3 hour in-person consultation – was pretty damn solid. If it came to ME as an executive, I’d probably be pretty happy with it, though it was only a 4 page pitch and not an extended treatment. There were still many story specifics not worked out.

    Unfortunately, once again, the executive did not think it was what they had envisioned. And she’s right – it wasn’t. In my eyes, it was better. It took the one-line concept they had given my writer and (in my opinion) expanded it, gave a different twist to it, made it more castable, etc. But that’s not what the exec wanted.

    All too often, writers try to do something totally new and different – when all the executive really wanted was for you to basically regurgitate exactly what they asked you to do but in a more stylized and interesting way.  Sometimes this takes great control on behalf of the writer, but it could mean the difference between getting the job and not.  If an executive tells you they want a 16 year-old female protagonist, don’t change it to a 25 year-old male because you think it’s better – just give them what they asked for.

    What I tell my writers to do, and what I would have done with this client if we had more time (the meeting was in 2 days), is to come up with at least 4 or 5 different takes on the concept so that if the executive shoots down your first take in the meeting, you have fallbacks and options that you can immediately follow up on and pitch instead. They will be impressed that you gave it so much thought.  Perhaps in one, the focus of the story is on a different character, or it’s set in a different location, or there’s a different catalyst and inciting incident that sets up the story. It’s never a good idea to ONLY have one idea.

    It was frustrating when I got the call from the executive, who was nice enough to give me a heads up because she is a personal friend of mine (yes, she knew I was working with the writer as a story consultant).  She didn’t love the pitch we had come up with – I was honestly very surprised. But it wasn’t my place to fight the points she raised – it was my job just to listen, smile and nod and hopefully learn a bit more of what they actually did want.  I could have argued, but I didn’t want to screw my client over, who was meeting with her the next day. Know your place in whatever situation you’re in.

    But the phone call I received also illuminated a few things I did not know previously, including how my client had actually been pitched this project THREE months ago and was finally getting back to the exec.

    Here’s the thing – if an executive tells you they want to hear your take on their project – they want to hear it SOON! Not the same week, of course, but probably about 2-4 weeks later. If you are taking more than 4 weeks to come up with a take, that exec is going to expect much more than a 3 page basic treatment. They will want a fully fleshed out story and characters and probably a 10 pg document.

    Also, if it’s not an idea that you truly spark to – DON’T force it. I know you all want to make the executives happy and get on their good side and create that relationship. But they will respect you even more if you say “that’s a great idea, but I’m honestly not sure it’s an idea that’s right for me or one I can connect to enough to do a great job.” They would rather find something else you both agree on and have a vision for than waste their time hearing a take on something you don’t even like.

    You need to know the politics and expectations of meeting with executives. You have to respect what they are asking you to deliver, you have to deliver it within an acceptable amount of time, you have to be incredibly prepared, and you have to know when it’s not a good fit.

    How do you do this? Well, much like my client did, you live and you learn.

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