Quick, quick, here's the pitch

You've got this great idea for a movie, but only five minutes with aproducer ...

For writer Rob Miller it was butterfly time. "A little fluttering in the stomach was good," he says, remembering how he felt facing two movie producers in Santa Monica, Calif., before pitching his romantic comedy "Will You Still Love Me?"

A good sell could lead him down the road to a six-figure contract. A bad one could mean a quick turndown - "Thanks, but no thanks."

Mr. Miller is an eager player in Hollywood's greatest game: the movie pitch, that brief verbal avalanche of plot description that tries to bring a movie idea into crystal-clear, irresistible focus.

If Miller can be riveting and passionate in his short pitch to producers, it might lead to the kind of blockbuster movie success that opens all doors for a writer: Your work is copied, adored, and mentioned into the next century. And you make a lot of money.

Bob Kosberg, executive producer of the Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt film, "12 Monkeys," is sometimes known as the "King of Pitches." He says the pitch in its purest form is "like sitting around the campfire telling stories. It is the lifeblood of Hollywood."

"You glaze them over in the first three sentences, and you're in trouble," adds Miller.

The night that Miller pitched his scripts to Mantra Films at a pitching session with other writers and 10 producers, Mantra liked what they heard: Two of Miller's scripts are in their hands.

Now it's post-pitch time when months, even years could pass before the phone rings with a "no" or a "let's go forward."

As a young writer, Miller is close to getting an agent, but has yet to sell a script or have a pitch turn into a faucet of development money. His aim is access.

He did reach the quarter finals in the script competition of the prestigious 1997 Nicholl Fellowships, offered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And recently he received an honorable mention for "Will You Still Love Me?" from a Writer's Digest competition.

Quinn Redeker, a veteran writer and actor with an Oscar nomination for co-authoring "The Deer Hunter" in l978, has five scripts at MGM.

"My last pitch there paid me $75,000, and I had two months to come up with a first draft," he says, "then another $15,000 for the second. It was a script about boat people, a guy smuggling immigrants into the country. But the studio never went further with it. Now it's in turnaround." (Turnaround means the script is available to other studios if they want to pay all the original costs, known as "turnaround costs.")

Although traditional pitches are usually done in producers' offices or to development executives by writers, agents do variations on the theme regularly - on the phone or on the run. Jon Klane, a Beverly Hills agent, calls it "de facto pitching."

"Most agents are pitching all the time," says Fred Hunter, a writer with several TV movies to his credit. "In fact when I send a new ... script to my agent, I usually include a short paragraph to help him present the material to a buyer."

Mr. Klane, the agent, cites a script with a good concept that he pitched for a client to the manager of an actor. "Basically the script was flawed, but on the basis of the actor's attachment, we sort of sold the pitch with the script as a document.

"The studio paid $400,000 and immediately threw it in the trash and started over."

Pitch as performance art

What makes a good pitch? It varies according to the time, place, and who is listening. "The essence is simplicity and passion," says Mr. Kosberg, who pitches ideas to top studios and also hears pitches in his role as a producer. "You have to be able to walk in and explain the idea quickly so the listener immediately grasps the idea. It's the trailer for the movie." In other words, it's a performance - not necessarily what hermitic writers are deft at doing.

Actor Kevin Spacey was reported to have been paid $10,000 by two writers to pitch an idea, which was bought.

Kosberg will sometimes use a tag line, a one-liner like a movie ad. "I'm currently pitching a romantic comedy called 'Stepping Out,' " he says, "and the tag line is, 'A love story between a man who is afraid of everything and a woman who is afraid of nothing.' "

Tag line or not, there are plenty of stories of restless studio executives or producers who shuffle papers, avoid eye contact, or handle phone calls in the middle of a pitch.

"It's definitely fluid," says John Sclimenti, the chief operating officer of Screen Connect, a new Web site (www.screenconnect.com) that brings writers and producers together online, and also sponsors pitching sessions with an entrance fee. "If the phone is ringing, and an assistant is coming in and out, you have to tailor the pitch and make it fast," he says.

Often a pitching device known as the "meets" is used. For instance, a description of the new movie "Stepmom" mixes two previously successful movies. Thus, "Stepmom" is "Terms of Endearment" meets "Stella." Another film might be pitched as "The Dirty Dozen" meets the Space Age - which in reality became "Armageddon," a film that grossed more than $200 million in l998.

"You have to make them care," says Mr. Redeker, "get their emotional investment. I used to write with a guy named Lou. He was an academic, and I'm very crazy. In a pitch I would get up and shout and scream, and the producer would say, 'man, that's exciting,' and Lou would lean in and say, 'what he really means is ....' "

Hollywood is a hot broth where technology, commerce, egos, and storytelling mix. It's no secret that there are only a few great screenwriters, and a flock of also-rans.

"You don't get the quality of a 'Shakespeare in Love' every week," Kosberg says. "You get screenplays that are far less emotionally and intellectually challenging, but people will go because of the story, or the idea, or the star. But it all starts with an idea."

A woman from Arkansas sent Kosberg a story about a man living in the Statue of Liberty. "That little idea has led to a potential film with Polygram," he says, "and Michelle Pfieffer may star in it."

Marc Norman, one of the writers for "Shakespeare in Love," reminds everybody that it was his teenage son who gave him the idea.

Lots of dead ends

Some writers and agents insist less studio-development money is available these days because better-quality scripts are more plentiful than, say, a decade ago.

But for every pitch or script on spec that successfully travels the rocky path to the screen, hundreds fail, or fall into a development nightmare. Screenplays can disappear for years.

"There is a high ratio of development to production in this business," says Klane, the agent. "Some ideas sound good but on paper, they don't work." Or the studio loses interest for a variety of reasons. Moviemaking is collaborative, and all the pieces have to fit.

To protect an idea, most writers register it, or a script treatment, with the Writers Guild of America. Legally a writer can't really own an idea. Still ideas or concepts in Hollywood do get borrowed, cross-pollinated, or outright stolen.

"You have to do a sort of cost benefit [analysis] in your head," Mr. Sclimenti, who runs the screenwriting Web site, says. "Is the person I'm going to pitch to reputable? At the same time, if no one ever hears your idea, your chances of getting the go-ahead for a script are nothing. If your idea is stolen, what would my costs be to fight it?"

Kosberg, as a producer and pitcher, says studios want to buy ideas, not steal them. They don't want a bad reputation in a tight-knit community. "People are paranoid about ideas being stolen, but the truth is that pitching is the game, and you've got to get into it," he says. "That's the only way to survive in Hollywood. You've got to play the game."

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