THE ART OF THE PITCH

We hear more and more about pitching these days in Australia as we incorporate this aspect of American culture without somehow having absorbed the American ability to pitch. At least, most of us haven’t. Rick Kalowski is one Australian who is clearly better at pitching than most, but that didn’t stop one television network executive from giving this feedback to Rick’s pitch of ‘At Home With Julia’: This is not a show, it will never be a show, please stop wasting your time and move on.” The show was subsequently produced by the ABC TV, where Rick currently works as Head of Comedy.

Pretty much all of the panel have worked together on one project or another. Nicole Minchin, Amanda Brotchie and Adam Zwar represent High Wire Films, Debbie Lee currently works for Matchbox Pictures but was previously commissioning editor at the ABC, and before that SBS, and Jennifer Collins is currently Head of Entertainment at ABC, but is shortly to head off to become Head of Fiction at Screentime.

There were some gems in this session, such as Rick’s recollection of a VHS tape from Chris Lilley showcasing his character Mr G. At the time Chris couldn’t get work as an actor and felt he was failing as a stand-up, and had decided his best bet was to create his own show.

And to cut to the chase, Rick exhorted budding comedy writers to send him a pitch before getting a producer attached, if they don’t already have one. He told the audience at this workshop that his section of the ABC reads all submissions, and if they think one has possibilities, they will be in contact.

Of course, he also said that in order to pitch successfully you have to have done your homework. You need to know what’s already on air, and what has been successful in the same genre as your project. Rick said he’d received countless pitches at SPA, and he was surprised at the number of times people hadn’t been aware of similar shows already on air on the ABC, or famous sitcoms that have been made in New Zealand for years.

Brevity is a virtue, where pitches are concerned. Especially paper pitches, which ar apparently usually far too long. At the end of the session Rick went into detail on the five page pitch. One page for the concept, and no longer. One page for all the characters, and no longer. One page for a sense of story progression and the episodes. One page for two or three examples of what happens, the narrative arc. And one page on tone and style, and a paragraph on the program making team.

Brevity is good for verbal pitches too. Keep it to one or two lines, no more, and don’t overcomplicate things. Remember, it’s hard for the listener to absorb a verbal pitch, and all you’re trying to do is to hook them to want more. “Be positive and take your time,” Nicole Minchin advised. “Keep it simple.” Jennifer Collins: “What is it offering the network?” Debbie Lee: “Distill it into two lines, make eye contact, express your passion for the idea.”

However, Adam Zwar, co-creator of Wilfred, Lowdown and Agony Uncles, told the audience he’d heard of people getting the green light from a half page pitch, but it had never happened to him. Quite the contrary, with Wilfred they had an award-winning Tropfest short, and a pilot, and still they had to write all 13 episodes to convince the network to go ahead. “In Australia, from my experience you have to do a hell of a lot of work,” said Adam. “You have to know the characters inside out, the tone of the show, so that you can answer any question that’s put to you in a pitch session.”

Adam had a great tip he’d learnt from someone else, which is that if you’re pitching a comedy, make sure you mention the word ‘hilarious’.

Rick said he’s starting to see more pitches using Powerpoint, which can provide more of a sense of the feel of the show, with embedded stills and maybe video. Although several people, including Rick, said they didn’t want to be made to watch a clip from the project during a pitch meeting, as he would feel under pressure to be positive rather than feeling free to respond naturally to it.

Adam reminded people that you should rehearse your pitch, tell it to yourself in the mirror, tell your friends and watch where their eyes glaze over. Preparation is all.

As a group, the panel canvassed why Australia doesn’t do studio sitcoms – the last one was probably Hey Dad, or The Newlyweds, or Mother and Son. They all love studio comedy, and as Rick pointed out the ABC has a strong tradition of studio audience shows in factual, so why couldn’t they do comedy? And while Rick isn’t a fan of either, he noted that The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men were the two most profitable shows in the world.

MARK POOLE

ABC TV TALKS TO SPA

The ABC TV session was spearheaded by new Director of Television Richard Finlayson, who talked about the network’s priorities and challenges.

While he felt that “not a lot is broken at the moment,” with a positive culture at the ABC with people who are the leaders in their field, there is an understanding that they need to embrace the future. “We can’t do the same things we have.”

With half their top 100 shows being made locally, one challenge is to continue the production of such programs.

The second challenge Richard identified is the rush to on demand and personalised viewing. “Viewers don’t care if they are paying for content, or if it’s free,” he said. Last year there were 20 million views on iView, and the other networks are catching up.

Thirdly, younger people are dropping off the viewing charts, although the trend could be flattening out.

To address these challenges, the ABC has come up with a series of strategic priorities.

The first is to put audiences first.

“We need to adopt a user experience view of the world,” he said. “Iview gives us data on how people are using our content.”

The second is the need for high quality, high impact content.

The ABC wants to be seen as a destination for the Arts. Finlayson spun the fact that Foxtel has stolen the march on first run BBC drama from the ABC in a positive way, stating that it will free up resources to provide high impact content. “The audience will turn to the ABC for coverage of big events,” he explained. He also announced that they are relaunching a new version of iView for the Android platform in December 2013. He said they would also be releasing a major show exclusively on iview, so that it will be available for binge viewing.

The third priority was to promote the ABC brand, and communicate with clarity.

The fourth is to harness our creative culture. They are going for a cross-cultural approach, to utilise our diversity. “We also want to work with independent producers who think really big.”

The fifth priority was to improve flexibility and agility.

“The independent sector is vital to our success,” said Finlayson. “We need local ideas that resonate globally.”

He said that he had met with the Danes who have found such impressive success with their dramas (The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen). “They saw a need for change, and they found that the more local they got, the more globally successful they became.”

Chris Oliver-Taylor, who steered the session, asked some curly questions, which he was able to do as the current MD of Matchbox, and who previously worked at the ABC. He asked about the challenge of Netflix, and if was true that the ABC’s budgets have suffered a cut.

Finlayson agreed that there have been cuts, but they haven’t been material, more like 1 to 2% of overall budgets. “When I arrived I was greeted with a big spreadsheet which said you have less money. So we’ve had to trim across each of our budgets, but we have to be able to back our strategic priorities. Drama and kids programming are still absolutely our priorities.”

Another priority is to re-energise ABC Commercial, and to back Robert Patterson, who is the new director. “I’m asking my team and producers to work with ABC commercial to give them a go and put them back into the game.”

Asked where he will take the channel next, Brendan Dahill, the Controller of ABC1 replied that it’s about serving Australians the broadest, widest service across all genres. “It has been great to be number 3 in the ratings,” he added, “and that has grown our audiences, but it’s not about ratings.”

Brendan admitted that Serangoon Road hasn’t found an audience, and indeed it was the only drama he had to shift slots this year. “It’s disappointing but we’re not a commercial broadcaster, and it was a risk to work with international partners,” Brendan said. “We’ve learnt so much in the process.” He explained that their partner HBO Asia wanted more action, and the ABC wanted more character based stories, so that was an issue.

Chris asked what sorts of programming he wants to be pitched, and Brendan said it’s always about the ‘cool idea.’ “We have a fantastic slate of drama for 2014 that will work here and internationally,” he said. “We should be confident about telling our stories around the world.”

Next, Stuart Menzies talked about ABC2, which he said is getting great growth with interesting ‘noisy’ programs that are captivating audiences.

“We get competition from everywhere,” said Stuart. “The thing that we rest on is our Australian content. The shows that work are the shows that we commission. Our own commissions should work best.”

ABC2 will commission 100 hours this year, and hopefully more next. “It’s hard to make a whole network on 100 hours but it’s what defines us.”

Stuart mentioned that they had discovered a lot of their audience finds the channel via surfing, particularly around 9.30 pm when the main channels ‘go to sleep.’ They deliver ‘rock solid public service content, with tabloid titles.’

Barbara Uecker, Acting Controller of ABC Children’s Television, maintains strong focus on audiences and quality as the secret of their success. “It’s about risk, reliability and reputation. We can take more risk than commercial channels.”

ABC Children’s has Dance Academy and the new Nowhere Boys from Matchbox – fantastic content that sells around the world, she said. Asked what they are looking for, she added that they were open to all kinds of pitches, but they have a focus on animation. “Please get in touch with us and pitch your ideas. We will love to get together and work with you.”

On documentaries, Brendan Dahill maintained that the ABC commissions as many singles as they ever have, but they also make more factual content and more series, so it looks like there are fewer singles. “The issue is its really hard to navigate an audience to singles,” he said. “Trying to make any one hour single in the schedule is really difficult. But we will be rigorous about why we are doing the things we do.”

Menzies said they commissioned the sorts of ideas ‘that keep you awake at night.’ “Unless it keeps you awake at night worrying, you probably shouldn’t be commissioning it.” He added that if you are trying to attract a younger audience, the ideas should be dangerous. He likes to see the fundamental idea pitched succinctly, rather than a 30 page document.

MARK POOLE

AGENTS – YOU GOTTA LOVE ‘EM! – SPAA 2013

This session was about the power and influence of the agent in advancing a producer’s project, and along the way it gave the audience goosebumps about how exciting lives seem to be in the big league of LA.

Speakers were:

Richard Klubeck, Partner – United Talent Agency

Bec Smith, Agent, United Talent Agency

Ian Collie, Producer and Partner, Essential Media and Entertainment

Mark Morrissey, Founder and Managing Director, Mark Morrissey and Associates

The session was well moderated by Annabelle Sheehan, Senior Executive, Development and Production Services, Media Venture Partners, and a former agent at RGM.

Annabelle began with a suggestion that producers must recognise the power of talent, and agents must accept the significant driving force that is a producer.

The session covered connecting, or linking to the project, negotiating, or what is best practice, how to collaborate and achieve both the red carpet of film festivals and repeat business, and whether agents represent producers, and how does that work?

Mark Morrissey is an Australian agent who spends a lot of time in LA, having trekked over there regularly for over 18 years. He said that he always starts with the script, and reads between 6 and 10 per week. “I still enjoy the process of reading a great script,” he said. He reads them if it has attached producers or directors he knows, or if he can be introduced to them.

That was a theme of this session and others – that Hollywood operates by linking people to others through shared contacts. Several times, the comment was made that you can get through to anyone you need to, but you have to approach them via someone you know who also knows your target. You can’t approach them cold. “You can approach me through people I trust like casting agencies, or directors I admire,” said Morrissey.

“I start with a great script and build around that.”

“I’ve got excited about smaller projects like The Rover which has just finished shooting in WA. It doesn’t have to be a big project. It was the quality of the package that was presented. I got a clear idea of the director’s vision and the level of the actors they wanted on board. The director had some wonderful success here in Australia with Animal Kingdom,” he explained.

Annabelle – What’s the situation in the US? What gets you excited?

Richard – “In LA there is so much volume, so many scripts, projects, from so many sources, so for us the biggest challenge is sorting through all that volume. If it’s coming through the studio there’s a straightforward process. For material coming outside it’s trickier. You’re looking for something good or special.”

For projects coming from Australia, it’s about who the filmmaker is, and whether they have done well in the film festival circuit. “Every actor is looking for projects outside the studio system,” he said.

Richard added that the truth is there are scripts that simply find their way to the top. “We look at the blacklist for projects that rise on their own to the top, or get through via word of mouth.”

Bec Smith is an Australian now based in LA. For her, if you’re an Australian trying to attract a certain member of cast, the best thing is to have a sense of the artist you’re trying to approach. You should do your research, and try to be introduced to their agent by someone who already has a relationship with them. She said that while there are some people who never jump onto a type of project they haven’t worked on before, most directors  don’t want to be pigeonholed and want to explore different genres.

Producer Ian Collee from Essential Media said that the success of getting Rake remade in the US came down to having a good package and the quality of the scripts. “The scripts that Peter Duncan and Andrew Knight wrote for Rake were fantastic. Who wouldn’t want to play Dogfucker?” Also having Richard Roxburgh as one of the producers gave the some cache, and he was able to get on the phone if need be.

Asked about the number of big stars playing cameo roles in the series, Collee said that some of the roles only needed one or two days max, so it wasn’t so hard to get someone like Cate Blanchett, who had worked with Richard Roxburgh in theatre a lot. “By then we were in the third season.”

However, getting a high profile Australian actor to commit to a role can be tricky as they will have other, more high profile projects waiting in the wings, and so sometimes you can’t get a format commitment, in case schedules change. Sometimes, you have to move on, said Collee.

For Richard, it’s incredibly important to understand what agents are doing. Agents like the producers who understand what agents are doing. “Every series director has two three five projects they are juggling. Every actor has two or three projects they are doing in a year. The problem for an agent is that if they suggest a project to a client that doesn’t come to pass, they are at risk of being fired. “So we want to know if the project is really going to happen. It’s vital that we do not overcommit, so that we make ourselves and our actors vulnerable. If a producer understands that, they can work with us and develop the trust, and we can commit to those producers and get the movie made.”

Annabelle commented that some producers and even funding bodies don’t get the word ‘attachment’.

Mark Morrissey agreed. “It’s a difficult process. We’re about wanting our clients to work. A working client is a happy client. You need to co-ordinate opportunities for our clients. We try to make it clear that until the contract is signed and all the ducks are lined up, it is only then that the actor can commit to it. Before everything is in place you can’t commit.”

OfOf course one of the conundrums is that if the client happens to be an A+ actor, his or her commitment may make the project happen.

The panel agreed that they appreciate preparation and research. Mark said one director approached him and he came along with a vision board of exactly how he planned to shoot it.

Richard said that if a book that a movie is going to be based on is already out there, then the producer should do the work and put in the reviews, and a statement on why Wes Anderson may wish to direct it.

Moving onto negotiating, Annabelle wanted to know how Ian Collee managed television finances with a marquee cast, like the Jack Irish series, which starred Guy Pearce.

Ian told the audience that before the project was locked off he approached the agent (Shanahans). “We had a brand to sell in Peter Temple. There’s a great Aussie Rules and Guy used to play for Geelong juniors. He’s a Melbourne boy and likes to be back.”

Ian added that once Guy was attached, they had to negotiate his fee, but once that was done they were able to raise more money in the market, as they had something to sell, namely Guy Pearce doing TV.

Annabelle – How do negotiations break down? Cut to the chase!

Mark Morrissey’s definition of negotiations breaking down is when he estimation of the value of his client doesn’t equate with theirs.

Bec Smith agreed. “Sometimes it just comes down to economics. In Australia everyone knows each other, and sometimes the producer just goes around you and goes directly to the client. They don’t understand that the agent isn’t trying to obstruct the deal.”

Richard blames the lawyers. “Lawyers make deals break down more than the agents do,” he offered. But he said that sometimes people aren’t clear up from about how the deal will play out. “Sometime there’s a devious approach.”

“We try up front to be clear about it – is it a money job, or is it a cut rate job, and if so how deep a rate cut are we talking about?”

Everyone has their price. Apparently.

Other considerations are, how big do they think the movie is, who else is in it, and how much of the back end is available.

Annabelle – are producers resistant to finding the back end?

Richard – Producers love to move fees into the back end. We know the projects where that is going to happen. If it’s a 10 million movie and the writer is a 2 million writer, he’s not going to get to 2 million up front.

The panel discussed the trend where actors ask for a producer or co-producer credit. While some wanted to discourage that trend, Richard spoke in defence of it, as sometimes it’s justified. As well, he said that sometimes the director wants a producer credit, because they then have more chance at the Academy Awards. “If you’re a director, it’s incredibly tough to get a nomination for Best Director, but if you’re a producer as well, you’re eligible for Best Film.”

Richard added that sometimes an actor gets involved very early on, and they are taking a risk, so they should get a producer or co-producer credit. Bec said that the actor may be the lead actor who attracted a number of other actors to the project, and giving them a producer credit may be a way of acknowledging that.

“Attracting an actor to an unfinanced project is a big deal,” said Richard. “It’s emotional, because the actor may develop an attachment to the director, and then if they can’t do it because the schedule changes, it can get messy and the agent may get blamed.”

In concluding the session, Bec said that there is a lot of ‘white noise’ in the industry in the States, and an agency can help you cut through that to what is real. “Also the US is so much a culture of advocacy, so it helps to have someone who can introduce you or put you together with someone they think you should be working with.”

Mark Morrissey said that producers sometimes falls into the trap of believing that the relationship is over once the deal is signed. “If there’s ever an issue with one of my actors, I’m the one to call,” he said. “If there’s a problem on set, I don’t want any standoffs or issues for my client. I want it to be as good as it can be for our client.”

Richard said that most people try to sell a script to a big studio if they think it has a chance there. If you can’t sell to a studio, or don’t want to, then it’s a different process, and that’s where packaging comes into play. Packaging can work if the screenplay is a very good one, or if it’s a genre that sells, like The Sixth Sense or The Others.

“I think it comes down to whether the director can convince the actor to do the project.”

Annabelle had a final suggestion for Australian producers who can’t get the green light from a local distributor. “You can get them to tell you which cast members they would need to approve the project,” she suggested. “Then you take their list and work down it via their agents. Once you get the cast that’s been preapproved, you can go back to the distributor and say ‘we’ve got your cast.’

MARK POOLE

 

US producer Howard Rosenman

Yesterday veteran US producer Howard Rosenman came to Melbourne to share his wisdom and experience.

Rosenman has an extensive track record and has produced more than 35 feature films including Father of the Bride, starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. He is in Australia as a guest of the 2013 Israeli Film Festival. At present his passion is producing documentaries, for which he has won 2 Peabody Awards. As he said, his obituary will mention the Peabody awards and not his Oscar, for the documentary Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt, about the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

He has just remade Sparkle, a film he made originally in 1976. As he says, he is now so old he is remaking his own movies.

Rosenman said his motto was GIO – Get It On. That is what a producer must think of every day.

“Producing movies isn’t rocket science,” he told the gathering at Monash University. “99.99 per cent of the time you’re going to get rejected, but you have to push on until you find the schmuck who’s going to say yes to your project.”

Rosenman showed a clip of an audition with undiscovered actress Julia Roberts, at the age of 17. It was one of the few times that he saw talent in one of the many hopefuls trying out for a role. He took Roberts aside and told her to learn a part and return the next day, and he would make sure the director auditioned her again. She got the role and earned the enduring friendship of the actress.

Building relationships was a key to building his career. He conned himself into a job working with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and once they realised his con they just thought more highly of him than they did before, and Elizabeth Taylor became his supporter. When he created an organisation in support of AIDS sufferers, Taylor was the first person to donate with a cheque for $50,000.

His first mentor was a powerful man who told him – I’ll help you but don’t ask me for anything. Apparently the mentor was sick of being asked for free tickets to this, for an investment in that. “Don’t ask me for anything, but you can ask me for one thing, and that’s all,” he was told. So when the time was right Howard made his request and it was granted – and it started his producing career.

Another time he met a young guy called Ari Emanuel who was only 22, and Howard could see his ambition shining through. He took Ari to a party full of the rich and famous, including Princess Caroline of Monaco. Rosenman showed Ari how to network. Ari is now one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood.

His recipe for networking? Find a point of commonality. Maybe you both went to school in Brooklyn, for example. “These days it’s so easy to Google the person and find out the commalities between their life and yours.” You use that as an initial bridge.

Asked about pitching, he said he teaches pitching in California – and it takes 15 weeks. for his own projects, he spends six months working on a pitch. For him it’s about telling the story in as compressed a manner as possible, and he dwells on the setup, skips over the second act and emphasises the climax.

Rosenman said that writing was the toughest of all the crafts. You have to be concise, you have to tell a story in 110 pages, and align the plot strand, the character arcs, the theme and subplots all at the same time, and you have to use an original voice. He said it was easy to see when a writer had a distinctive voice. He picked up the script for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, written by Josh Whedon, and knew immediately that the writer had talent. He recalled how he used to read 30 scripts over a weekend, as by page 10 he would know that it was a piece of shit. “Most scripts are shit,” he said. These days he reads them on his iPad, but the process is the same.

Rosenman talked about becoming an actor late in life, when he was asked by Guy Van Sant to play a small role in the film Milk. Before then, as a producer he regarded actors as those people who created unnecessary overtime bills by not doing the scenes within the schedule. He auditioned for the role and to his surprise was given the part. Then, on the day of filming, he was overawed by realising he was acting with the great Sean Penn.

Rosenman said that Penn saw the fear in his eyes and approached him, explaining that he saw the scene as equally challenging, but together they would support each other and it would be all right. “I was amazed by his generosity,” Howard recalled. By the time Van Sant had got the coverage he needed and asked for some improvisation, Howard had got into stride, and generated lines freely. At the end of the day the actors were all hugging each other, having been through this emotional experience. “I realised that actors are the ones who really call the shots in this industry.”

The session was hosted by Associate Professor Con Verevis from Monash University. Howard Rosenman is Adjunct Professor at University of Southern California’s School for the Cinematic Arts.

MIFF is here!

MIFF began, somewhat shakily, with an awful Almodovar film I’m So Excited!. I’m a big fan of Almodovar’s films but this is one that someone should have suggested he leave alone, I believe.

Anyway, this weekend saw the seventh 37 Degrees South (latitude of Melbourne, not to be too parochial) Market. Quite a few local and interstate producers, sales agents and distributors milled around, and some of the talk sessions were interesting.

It was also the seventh Books at MIFF, where book publishers attempt to sell the film or TV rights of their favourite projects to producers. I don’t know of any that have been picked up at the event. However, a few years ago Warp Films did purchase the screenplay Snowtown, based on a non fiction book that had been cannily optioned by writer Shaun Grant. So there is hope!

Writing for reality TV and documentary

US-based Australian producer, Brian Armstrong (Red Rock Films) talks the modern art of not writing documentaries for the American networks.

Armstrong mainly talked about how to write narration and structure documentaries for today’s television world, and to provide the latest trends from an American perspective. He was also shamelessly promoting his recent book, The Exotic Booze Club, which mainly follows his exploits in making docs for Nat Geo around the world.

So why the not in the secret art of not writing?

Because, according to Brian, if you do it right the pictures will say it all. It’s not a new philosophy, but it’s even more relevant in programs with a ‘reality’ feel. You get information in these programs, but you shouldn’t notice that you’re getting it.

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Graeme Mason new CEO of Screen Aus

Screen Hub
Wednesday 24 July, 2013

Graeme Mason, currently the CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission, will be the new head of Screen Australia. He will start in November, and his term will run for five years.

Pundits have claimed for some time the job would go to an Australian who has worked overseas for some time, has strong commercial experience, and can work with government. Graeme Mason was an obvious possibility.

According to Deanne Weir, the new deputy chair of Screen Australia, Mason “brings strong and commercial experience of distribution. It will be great to have that perspective over the next five years, while there is such change in distribution models.”

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The Business of Development

Published in Screen Hub 5 July 2013.

This week the Australian Writers’ Guild hosted a lively session on script development, with speakers from both Screen Australia and Film Victoria.

It was a timely opportunity to hear from three people central to development decisions, namely Jenni Tosi, CEO of Film Victoria, Veronica Gleeson, Senior Development Executive of Feature and Professional Development at Screen Australia, and the new person on the block, Jo Dillon who has just taken up her post as Development Executive at Screen Australia, based in Melbourne.

The session was pointed at times, if not outright heated, and each participant spoke from the heart about what moved them in a screenplay, which was fascinating to hear. However it also reflected the development limbo we’re in at present.

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