It’s walking through one door that enables you to try the next.
While writing a blog about “retirement as an open door,” I decided this August to attend a Screenwriters Conference in Los Angeles and, despite my reluctance to embarrass myself in public, signed up to present my screenplay at the conference “Pitch Fest.” The latter was to consist of sixty to eighty tables staffed with representatives from film agencies and production companies. Participants would line up at tables, pitch their scripts for three minutes, receive two minutes of critique, and then move to the next table on their list. A form of speed dating, I called it, in which all your dates are there for the express purpose of giving you criticism. I feared it like I feared sporting a bikini–thirty years after it looked good on me. The average age of script readers has been pegged at 22 to 27 years. Would I be the oldest person there?
I registered for a “pitch workshop” on Thursday before the conference proper began. The pitch fest was on Saturday, so I would have an entire day to relax and another day to get fluttery. Led by a man in his late thirties, who was funny, brash, and full of razor-sharp advice, the workshop was packed with details about how to create pitches, log lines, and one page “leave behinds.” Among the more general things I learned were that (1.) agents and production companies are interested in who you are and what it would be like to work with you, so don’t be weird. (2.) once a representative expresses interest in your project, stop talking. (3.) do not cry. “There is no crying at pitch fest!”
The leader of the workshop did not think much of scripts about personal transformation: “When I hear the words personal journey, the only thing that comes to mind . . . is no second act!” My script, based on my memoir, Tasting Home, is about a personal transformation. But despite this discouragement, I signed up to have the leader critique my pitch. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy who spent 45 minutes on my pitch instead of 30 and didn’t charge me extra. And he completely transformed what I had written. Underneath the tough exterior, he was kindly, and so, it would prove, were the representatives to whom I would ultimately pitch my script. Some would appear to be younger than my twenty-nine-year-old daughter. (One of the conference participants looked as if she were still in high school, probably writing one of those lucrative scripts involving zombies.)
A veteran of many academic conferences, which are not especially known for cordiality, I was surprised by the friendliness of the crowd. When I signed up for the conference, I thought Hollywood, ambition, competition, snootiness! But that wasn’t the case. Women especially introduced themselves and inquired about each other’s work. And the men were open too, open and not afraid to show their own anxiety. When I came upon a line of four young men at one of the pitch tables, I said “I guess I’ll find a shorter line.” “No” the four young men said. “Stay with us, stay with us!” Far from feeling like an outsider, I felt like a member of a club.
I pitched five tables. I had not been able to attend the morning session—having developed some nerve-induced digestive issues—so by the time I arrived, three of the tables I had most wanted to visit had closed shop. Still, I felt confident about the pitch, having had an expert rewrite it, and was ready to begin. And what did I do? I cried at pitch fest, cried twice, with the injunction “no crying at pitch fest” ringing in my ears. Was it low blood sugar, late afternoon fatigue, or actually telling the story out loud? I don’t know.
But the young people hearing the pitch couldn’t have been more sympathetic. One young man said, “I’d rather you do this than be boring.” In the end, four of the five tables requested a synopsis, a sign of interest. One woman in her early forties requested the whole script and, months later, the young women with whom I had shed the most tears asked to see the screenplay as well. I’m writing this before I know the results of these readings. I’m not expecting acceptance. I’ve received several sets of notes on the script since then, and I see there’s still a lot of work to do.
But the door I’d walked through with so much trepidation led me to a lot of useful information. And, despite some daunting opinions—“When I hear the words personal journey, the only thing that comes to mind . . . is no second act!”—I received a good deal of encouragement as well. It’s walking through one door that enables you to try the next.
And I wasn’t the oldest person there. I watched a man with a long white ponytail disappear into an elevator. “Wait,” I wanted to say. “Let’s talk.”