Thursday, March 22, 2012

Interview - Talking about Pitching with Mike Le!

I met Mike Le about four years ago either on Done Deal or the Craig’s List personals section. I can’t remember which. He actually watched me come up with the idea for Scriptshadow. We eventually met when he was the vice president over at HQ Pictures. I soon learned that Mike likes to keep his fingers in a lot of pies. As a screenwriter, he wrote TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH (based on the novel by Isaac Adamson) for Fox Searchlight. The project is now at Sony with Tobey Maguire attached to star and produce. He’s currently writing feature projects at Appian Way and Millar Gough Ink. He has a TV pilot with Tapestry Films, wrote the bestselling comic book MAYHEM for Image Comics, was co-executive producer on the reality show FIRST IN for BET and is currently producing K-TOWN. He’s the former assistant to Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson and was the Vice President of the aforementioned HQ Pictures, the production company of Tyrese Gibson.

That’s what led to the idea for today’s interview. Pitching is such a huge part of this business and yet there isn’t a whole lot of information on it out there. Since Mike used to listen to pitches daily as part of his job, I thought, BOOM, he’d be the perfect guy to discuss pitching with. Let’s get into it.

SS: Hey Mike, thanks for doing the interview. 

ML: No worries, Carson. You know I’ve been a fan and supporter of your blog since day one. I remember that day you walked into my office at HQ Pictures and my first thought was, “For a guy with such an ominous moniker like Scriptshadow, he sure is normal looking.”

SS: I think the word you’re looking for is “dashing.” And yes, I had an unfortunate last second wardrobe malfunction that forced me to wear my “normal person’s” clothes that day. It will never happen again. Anyway, because of your producing and screenwriting experience, I thought, “Who better to talk pitching with than Mike Le?”

ML: I’m so ready. Go for it...

SS: All right. To start off, how many pitches have you heard? 

ML: Hundreds. Too many. From writers that ran the spectrum, from established A-listers to unknown amateurs.

SS: And how did those writers get to pitch you? How does anyone get to pitch you?

ML: When I was the VP at HQ Pictures, we had a strict policy of not accepting unsolicited material, much like most of Hollywood. That means we only accepted material and pitches by writers who were repped or came through a personal referral. But I’m a writer myself, and I used to face those same barriers, so I understand how frustrating that is to those trying to break in. It’s very disheartening to slave on a script for months, even years, and then you can’t even find someone who’s willing to read the thing. So I implemented a thing at HQ, a thing called “Free Cheese Day.”

SS: Sounds delicious. Did they get two free toppings with that or did those cost extra? 

ML: Not that kind of cheese, Carson. It was something I borrowed conceptually from THE WEST WING. In that show, President Bartlett allowed one day of the year to grant access to interest groups that don’t usually get the attention of the White House, basically opening their doors to the people. Sorkin based this off of a real thing, when Andrew Jackson left a two ton block of cheese in the White House foyer for anyone to eat. So on Free Cheese Day at my company, I basically lifted our no unsolicited material policy, and me and my assistant and team of 6 script readers opened and read query letters that had been piling up. If we found something we liked, we would call the writer and ask them to talk about the script, basically pitch it over the phone.

SS: Okay now you have me curious. Did you find anything from those? 

ML: Sadly no. There were a couple of strong concepts that hooked me but the executions were poor. I wasn’t as lucky as you to find an undiscovered gem like THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM. Which by the way is not only a great script, but Tyler is a really nice and solid dude. I would kill to find and break a talent like him. Congats on that!

SS: Thanks and yeah, I hope to have some new news on Tyler soon. Here’s my question though - what about getting pitches at other companies? How would one go about that? 

ML: You can’t just walk into a studio and start pitching. You have to be invited to pitch. And to get invited, they (Hollywood) needs to become a fan of your writing first. Take Tyler for example. He’s got a lot of heat right now because everyone in town read his script. They’ve become fans because of THE DISCIPLE PROGRAM, and based off the strength of it, Tyler will get countless invites to pitch.

SS: Hmmm, you can’t just walk into studios and start pitching huh? That explains a LOT. Okay so lets move to the pitches themselves. What do good pitches have in common? What do bad pitches have in common? 

ML: The good ones I can tell what the movie is within the first minute of the pitch. I can clearly understand who the characters are, the conflicts, the goals, etc. If a writer can make me clearly see the movie, that means the writer can clearly see the movie, which indicates the writer has thoroughly worked out the story. The bad ones are just the opposite, they’re rambling, confusing, no sense of story but just a series of situations strung together. They fall apart after a few questions. The good ones get stronger after a few questions.

SS: So you’re constantly questioning people during these pitches? Which means you gotta be able to think on the fly. I assume this is where the newbies fall apart? 

ML: I don’t know if the ability to think on the fly is indicative of a newbie writer versus an experienced writer. Some people just have a natural talent for it, and some people just clam up when questioned. If you have a natural ability to insightfully maneuver through creative questions without sounding like an idiot, than you’re ahead of the game. Execs and producers want to work with writers who love talking about story, who welcome challenging questions, who can defend their vision. Perhaps newbies suffer more from this simply because of a lack of experience. But without every meeting, every pitch, being good in the room gets easier.

SS: These days, it seems like every agent wants a writer who's "good in a room," someone who can not only write, but pitch. Why is “being good in a room” so important in Hollywood? 

ML: Because Hollywood is in the business of ideas, and pitching is a dynamic way of sharing and conveying ideas. If you’re great at pitching, that’s a pretty good indication you’re great at engaging people. It’s important to be able to pitch because it’s not just about your script but pitching yourself as a person. Hollywood wants to know if they can work with you or you’re some weirdo that should have never gotten past the studio gates. It’s okay to be a weirdo or eccentric in Hollywood, many just can’t be creepy or come off as a waste of time.

SS: “Don’t be a weirdo.” I’m learning a lot here that I wish I would've known earlier. So pitching is also about people skills? 

ML: Very much so. And that’s why a lot of writers, even professionals, are scared to death of pitching. Look, I’m going to generalize here but I’m confident in saying most writers and other creative types are probably introverts. I sure as hell was one. Problem is we live in a society that has a bias towards extroverts and Hollywood is a culture that magnifies that. Movie stars seem like mega-extroverts right because they’re so fearless and colorful on the screen. But when you meet them in person or see them in interviews, they can be awkward and unsure of themselves without a script. That’s because actors are comfortable performing as characters, but are uncomfortable performing as themselves. It’s the same thing with screenwriters, they’re comfortable telling stories through their characters on the page, but uncomfortable performing the story as themselves in a pitch meeting. The journey of the screenwriter is one conundrum after another. Writing requires solitude, solitude breeds introverts, but filmmaking is a collaborative art that requires good people skills and the ability to adapt in high-pressure social situations. You can’t be a successful screenwriter and work in a vacuum, you eventually have to get out and try to win people over. It’s not like novelists who have the luxury of being anti-social. Novelists write their books, mail off their manuscripts and hope someone publishes it and sends back a check without ever having to leave their comfort zone.

SS: You said a lot of professional screenwriters are scared to death of pitching. Can you expand on that? 

ML: It’s popular to quote Malcolm Gladwell these days, especially his theory of “10,000 hours.” In his book OUTLIERS, he says you can only become good at something after doing it over and over again for at least 10,000 hours. It’s more complicated than that because the rest of the book factors in upbringing, access to resources, etc. But for the purpose of our discussion, let’s keep focused on the 10,000 hours theory. Say a screenwriter has put in at least 10,000 hours at writing, and he goes on to sell his first spec script. Boom, his life changes, big trade announcement, everybody in town in wants to meet with him. Next thing he knows, his reps want him pitching ideas and studios want him coming in to give takes on assignments. Here’s the problem, the screenwriter has invested 10,000 plus hours at writing to become a professional screenwriter but has zero experience pitching. So now it’s baptism by fire as he’s forced head first into pitching. The writer has to transform from introvert to extrovert overnight.

SS: Whoa, you’re making this sound terrifying. How the hell do you get 10,000 hours of pitching experience to prepare you for those moments if you’ve never done it before?? 

ML: Here’s the good news: screenwriters love movies, which means they love talking about movies. Every time you’re discussing films with someone, whether it’s with a circle of friends, around the dining table with family, or around the water cooler at work, you have to treat it like a pitch. Boiled down to its essence, a pitch is much like that moment when you come out of the theater after seeing an amazing movie. You bump into a friend in the lobby and you’re bursting with excitement and telling your friend he has to see this movie and you go on to broadly explain what is so exciting about it. If you treat everything like a pitch, then you’re constantly practicing pitching.

SS: So sometimes a studio will buy a script and sometimes they'll buy a pitch. Why would they buy something that's not even written yet? I mean, how do they know it's not going to be terrible? Isn't that a huge gamble? 

ML: First, everything in this business is a huge gamble. Second, studios never buy pitches from unknown writers.

SS: Never? 

ML: Well, I’m sure historically in the 100 plus years of Hollywood a few unknown writers got lucky and sold an idea. But I couldn’t name them and neither can you. Hollywood needs proof of execution before they buy anything from you. My first studio gig as a writer was adapting the novel TOKYO SUCKERPUNCH for Fox Searchlight, but it was a project that I pitched to them. And the only reason I was allowed in the room to pitch was because Searchlight previously read my spec script NEON JUNKIES. NEON JUNKIES ended up not selling but it got a lot of heat around town and was my proof of execution. You also have to keep in mind that was a few years ago and the market is different now, it’s much more difficult to sell a pitch these days unless you’re Zaillian or Koepp who can pretty much sell anything they sneeze on. So yeah, buying a pitch is a gamble but it’s less of a gamble when you know that writer has a track record of proven execution.

SS: Let's say I have this AWESOME idea for a movie about snowflakes that come to life and start killing people. I have my first ever meeting with a producer tomorrow and I'm planning to pitch it. What should I expect? At what point am I expected to start pitching? 

ML: I would expect no one would buy your silly idea.

SS: No, you don’t understand. It’s really good and it has this wicked third act twist. I’m not going to give anything away but I will tell you that Santa Clause is involved. 

ML: Okay, I’ll play along... Given your scenario, we have to presume, as I said before, the producer is already a fan of your writing cause you wouldn’t even get in the room otherwise. The best pitches are the most casual ones, where you start off the meeting with small talk with the producer or executive. This is where you engage and connect with them on a personal level. It is so important for writers to think of these people as their peers and treat them as such. Producers would rather work with someone who they feel like they can have a beer with instead of working with someone who is obviously intimidated by them. The good producers don’t want a writer who is too scared to fight for what they believe in. Once you’ve made that personal connection within the first 5 minutes of your meeting, organically slide into your pitch.

SS: Okay now how long am I expected to talk about my story? Two minutes? Five minutes? 

ML: The shorter, the better. I think 5 - 10 minutes is best. One of the best pitches I heard was literally just a few sentences. Writer came in and said, “My script is a FREAKY FRIDAY type of comedy called WEEKEND WARRIOR. It’s about an out of shape football fan who switches bodies with the NFL’s greatest player.” Then suddenly, the door burst open and actors dressed like a football player, a regular guy, a gaggle of cheerleaders, and a marching band poured into my office. The band played a song while the cheerleaders danced around, and the player and regular guy threw a football back and forth. The pitch was less than 3 minutes. Great concept, lively presentation, I couldn’t wait to read the script. I was heartbroken when the script wasn’t good.

SS: So it’s okay to be gimmicky in your pitch then? It’s not looked down upon? 

ML: Execs and producers hear so many pitches that they appreciate anything that makes them more unique and fun. I remember a writer friend who pitched a Christmas movie in a Santa outfit. Can it be too gimmicky? I’m sure there’s a line somewhere that shouldn’t be crossed, but I don’t know where it is.

SS: So what's the basic approach to the pitch? Do I just hit on the key points (inciting incident, first act turn, character arc, etc.) You've heard hundreds of pitches. What usually works best? 

ML: You have to start with the hook aka the concept. Coming up with a new and unique hook that is easily digestible is probably the hardest part of screenwriting.

SS: Why is it so hard? Is it because every idea under the sun has already been done? 

ML: No, that’s a cop-out. We’re fuckin’ writers, our job is to come up with new and unique ideas. I think a reason why it’s hard is because too many writers don’t truly understand what the term “high-concept” means. High concept doesn’t necessarily mean bigger. It doesn’t mean more locations and bigger action scenes. Writers have pitched me these complicated sci-fi ideas that are about parallel universes on top of warring empires on top of alien races set against intergalactic politics. High concept means a broad idea with a strong hook that poses a over-arching “what if” scenario. Like the classic example of LIAR LIAR, what if a lawyer could only tell the truth? Or JURASSIC PARK, what if we were able to clone dinosaurs? Smaller movies can be high concept as well, such as MEMENTO, what if a man suffering from short-term memory had to find his wife’s killer?

SS: And what happens when I'm finished? Do they go, "Yes, I want to buy that. Let's do it?" Or "No, that's not for me?" Is there some protocol that's used? A code I have to learn like In and Out's secret menu? Like "Sounds cool" is code for "sucky idea?" 

ML: Not every executive or producer is created equal. They all respond differently. Some maintain a poker face even if they’re over the moon about your idea. Some are too excited and give you a false impression of their interest level. Those are the ones where you leave a meeting feeling great about yourself and you’re dreaming of buying that new car until your agent calls to tell you they didn’t bite. Depending on where you are on the writer’s food change, most of them time you’re not pitching to the ultimate decision-maker. So really, the executive you’re pitching to can’t get too excited because they have to re-pitch it to their bosses. So the writer may be asked to come back and pitch a few more times as the idea climbs the ladder. You can tell if they’re interested in your pitch by the questions they ask afterwards.

SS: Like what questions? I need to know the questions! 

ML: If they’re interested, they’ll ask questions that help the writer build on the pitch. Questions like, “What if the protagonist’s original sin was B instead of A?” Or, “Maybe the third act set piece could take place in B instead of A?” Those are questions that show they’re interested enough to help improve. It’s questions like, “What makes your story any different from AVATAR?” that you don’t want.

SS: What if you're in the middle of a pitch and you can see that the other person is bored out of their mind. What do you do then?? 

ML: The first rule to pitching is that you always have to be in control of the room. I’ll give a personal example, this is a true story: Years ago, I went in to CAA to pitch an agent. I was pitching as a producer cause the agent repped some directors I was hoping to get attached to a pair of projects. So the agent was on the phone as his assistant shuffled me into the office. I sat down on the couch as the agent gestured to me from behind his desk, indicating with his pointed index finger he’d be with me in a minute. As the agent continued talking on the phone, I noticed on his desk were a few empty Starbucks cups. In addition, I saw the agent yawn like three times while on the phone. He finally hung up, then joined me on the couch. He yawned again as he shook my hand, and I registered the low-energy of his body language. Dread slowly seeps in. I jumped into my first pitch and halfway through it, the agent yawned a few more times and his eyes were glazed. He was honestly barely taking in my words. As I continued the pitch, I noticed behind him were two framed photos on a mantle. One was a photo of him and his wife. The other photo was that of an infant. I immediately connected the dots: New born baby, not much sleep, agent’s been caffeinating all day, it’s 4pm in the afternoon and he’s crashing. The worst conditions for me to pitch in.

So I told the agent to stand up. He was startled by my request, stared at me blankly. I stood up, asked him again to get up. Hesitantly, he finally stands up and I tell him I’m going to show him this Vietnamese remedy that will keep him awake for the rest of the day. I backed up against the wall of his office and he did the same on the opposite end of the room. I told him to keep his heels to the wall and lean forward as far as he can without falling. I did so, he followed. Then I told him to take three deep breaths but on the third breath hold it in for 10 seconds. We did exactly that. Next I told him to shake his hands, then clap them together 3 times because that sends electrical pulses through your arms, to your spine, which stimulates the brain. We both clapped our hands three times very loudly. I could see his assistant staring at us through the door. I asked the agent how did he feel? His eyes popped wide open, said he felt great! I told him it’s a trick my mother taught and it never fails. So before the agent could even sit back down, I immediately jumped into my second pitch. This time the agent was fully alert, his shoulders perked, his eyes alive, he focused on my words. By the end of my pitch, he was excited about my projects, said he couldn’t wait to give them to his director clients. So here’s the thing... There is no such Vietnamese remedy. I just made that up on the spot because I had to do something to shake the agent up. I just needed him to stop yawning for five minutes while I pitched. Moral of the story: Always be in control of the room.

SS: Got it. So execs falling asleep during your pitch is not good. Boy I wish I would’ve known that one last week. So what are some of the pitfalls to watch out for when pitching? 

ML: The thing I hate the most is when writers read their pitches to me. One writer had his lengthy pitch written out in 10 pages and had them sitting on his lap. The whole time as he slogged through the pitch, I watched him flip the pages. So instead of being caught up in the story he’s pitching, I was thinking, “Oh my God, he has 8 more pages to go.” It’s okay to have notes or bullet points sitting in front of you when you pitch, but keep it to a page or a few note cards. I mean, these days you can have your notes on an iPad or Kindle. Some writers like to memorize their pitches, which is fine as long as your delivery isn’t rigid and feel too practiced.

SS: What about visuals? Should I and can I bring anything visual to the pitch? 

ML: Visuals are definitely encouraged. Especially if you’re pitching a huge concept that requires a lot of world building, like unique alien landscapes, futuristic technology, otherworldly monsters, supernatural beings, etc. Also, if you’re re-inventing iconic characters you’ll need to clearly convey what you’re going for. For example, everybody knows what THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA looks like, but if you were pitching a steampunk re-imagining of the character, you better have a way to show that. If you’re not a competent artist, hire someone to illustrate the images. It’s a worthwhile investment. And you don’t have to break the bank hiring an experienced artist. I believe here on Scriptshadow you will be offering a service where artists create concept art and such, correct?

SS: Hmmm, no comment on that one. We will have to see! Now pitching isn't just limited to meetings. You can pitch someone anywhere. In the elevator, in passing, at lunch. It seems like the pitches in these situations are a lot more informal. So how do you approach them? I'm assuming they're more conversational in nature? 

ML: Every pitch should be conversational in nature. But we have to be careful here. I think amateur writers, and anyone else on the outside looking in, have this romanticized notion on the culture of pitching. They think it’s like Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER where writers can sell an idea if they just get the opportunity to corner a studio exec for 5 minutes pool-side at The Standard Hotel. Yes, these things do happen because it’s Hollywood and anything can happen here (you’re talking to a guy who was discovered working at a Blockbuster by Owen Wilson), but it’s not exactly like the Wild West where roaming writers are ready to be the fastest pitch on the draw at every moment. But if you’re lucky enough to get Bruckheimer’s attention at a party or in the check out lane at Gelson’s, then go ahead and be fearless and pitch. Worst thing is he says no, but at least you’ll get a good story out of it. You should treat every pitch with the same energy, whether it’s over lunch or in the room at a studio.

SS: That’s how you landed the assistant job with Owen Wilson? I have to know more about that. And hey, we can even make it relevant, since you were essentially pitching yourself to him. So, how did that whole thing happen? 

ML: Sure, there’s actually a detailed story of it here.

SS: What was the worst pitch experience you had to endure, both as the pitcher and pitchee? 

ML: I already gave you my worst personal experience giving a pitch. But the worst experience hearing a pitch was from a really established screenwriter. I mean, this guy wrote a hit movie a few years back that held the #1 spot three weeks in a row. So when his manager called me and said he wants to pitch me an idea, of course I was excited. Writer comes in and just goes on to mumble through a 45 minute pitch. I just remember after 20 minutes, the writer said, “And that’s the end of the first act.” I almost fell off my chair.

SS: Okay so before I leave, can you give me like a checklist of the most important things I should have squared away before I go into a pitch? Sort of like a pitch kit? 

ML: Well, the process is different for everyone but to answer broadly: Make sure you have your pitch notes, any visual aid, and a notebook to jot down any questions or comments the exec/producer might have, for they may be helpful as you refine the pitch. Before the pitch meeting, pump yourself up. Whether that means listening to Eminem, gulping down a Red Bull, hitting the gym, or watching Alec Baldwin’s monologue in GLENGARY GLEN ROSS. Make it a ritual. Because if it works for you the first time, it will give a sense of comfort that it can work again, and you’ll have something in your control that improves your pitching skills and gets you in that zone.

SS: Awesome, so as long as I have you here. I have this idea for a movie. Are you ready for this? What if Robin Hood...was actually a woman? Now stay with me here-- 

ML: Carson?

SS: Huh? 

ML: I have to go now.

SS: Now is this code?  Are you trying to say something here and I'm supposed to understand the subtext?

ML: Carson, I'm leaving. Good-bye.

SS: Oh, okay, no problem. We’ll talk again I’m sure. Thanks Mike! 

Mike Le is repped at APA and manager Jonathan Hung. You can follow him on his Twitter Feed @DFTVYP.