Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rocking the Pitch

Day 8
The Pitches. We rocked. I have to say I've rarely been in a workshop type of environment where we completely blew out the bell curve. I was really proud of my fellow American and Israeli participants. There were many a show and film I wanted see made manifest. More later

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

TALA Master Class - Day 7


Day 7
Gail Berman former Broadway producer, president of Fox TV and Paramount Pictures just started a new Film, TV and Multimedia company called BermanBraun and she’s talking with us today.

Gail: "Here's the best advice I have to give you…” After 5 years producing Broadway shows, starting with “Joseph…” in 1982 at (the age of 24), she was burnt out. Out of the blue, she was offered a position at Comedy Central. Her response, "Well I don't know. I'm a Broadway producer. What will my title be? What will my office be they say I'll have to share one. Who will these people be they say from MTV."

Bill her husband said at the time, "Why don't you try it and leave your posters at home?”

Then Gail continued: “You're not your history. You're only what your next thing is. Not even what your last thing was. It's a humility that's required to find your creativity every time. That humility is an important phase of moving forward.”

Well, with the amount of humility I've accumulated over the last 5 years, JESUS am I ready to move forward. She continued:

"We were sitting in a restaurant just before we started our new company and we role played. Starting the company means pitching to people who used to work for US." But they moved ahead anyway.

Back to Gail's rise to success. She finds a cool script: “Buffy”. Thinks it’ll make a great TV show, but is told it’s gonna be a feature. Is told "Forget it." Then the feature flops and the writer Joss Wheedon wants to redeem himself and the property because he felt the director broke a great script. She takes it out and Fox passes, as does everyone else. There’s a new network, the WB, and they buy it. She had one note for pilot. Reverse last and second to last scene. (Sadly, she didn’t show the before and after. I’d be interested to see what they were.)

It becomes a hit. It’s the star of the WB and they both benefit. She moves on to Regency, then president of Fox and then Paramount pics. Paramount didn’t work out, so she started her own company. She'll tell us more about that in a later session.

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Next session. They just keep packin'em in.

Gail Berman, Bill Masters (Seinfeld writer), and Eyal Halfon (Israeli-Oscar winning screenwriter) do a panel on pitching:

Gail: "I’m a producer pitching to a buyer and also the reverse. You have to sell it in the first 3 minutes. The pitch may be longer, but if they don’t want it in the first 3 minutes, it’s not gonna happen. How do you become a salesman and boil it down to 3 minutes? In order to get the money to make the project, you have to make the sale. If you’re a writer who can’t pitch (there are some who just aren’t good at it), find someone to work with…a producer who can act as the salesman too."

Bill: "Sometimes I pitch with the star of the show. And sometimes the best thing you can do is shut up. The comedian who’d be the star of a show I was pitching one time, didn’t talk about the show for 15 minutes. He just kibbutzed. He didn’t give them the story. [And our time was up.] I had to have a talk with him before our next meeting, but before that happened, we got a call that we’d sold the show – even though we never told them the story."

Eyal Halfon: “I don’t like pitching. I belong to a time you could make films without pitching. Don’t be too well prepared. I don’t think you should be too prepared for anything when making a film, because then you’re blocking yourself to something that might happen while you’re doing it. That’s very true with documentaries.”

Gail: ”That’s an artist speaking. I agree with that to a certain extent. I find that in film, but less in the commercial filmmaking world with budgets starting at $25 million dollars. For me if I think this guy doesn’t know where this is going, it’s not good. On the other hand, Brian Fuller who made Wonderfalls [yeah!] and Pushing Daisies when he came in to pitch Wonderfalls...” she couldn't figure out what he was pitching, but she knew there was something great in it. [Sadly, this very cool show only lasted 6 episodes in the States due to poor ratings, but go watch it on Netflix - d.r.]

Eyal Halfon: “Let me clarify. Be prepared, but don’t make a presentation like an actor. Pretend you don’t know, so you can improvise. The buyers want a place to enter. [If it's too polish they'll say] 'Thanks, we’ll come see it.' They want to get involved. They want to be partners.”

Gail: “I like to hear it a line or two about what this thing is and then you can repeat it a number of times over, “I want to know what room I’m in, what I’m hearing, etc.” Here’s what I’m pitching to you...That’s the way I’ve enjoyed the process.”

Last bits of advice:
Bill: “Never leave the piece of paper behind. The execs will try to pitch it to each other and they won’t do it as well. And make them feel a part of it. You want comments – even if you have to say “no” as you let them know where you’re going. Let them take you to where you were going anyway.”

Eyal: “Why is he doing it [this project]? How’s he related?”

Gail: “Your passion. Finding your way in to express that, but not an elongated discussion of your passions. I like interactivity – a conversation. It should naturally become a dialogue. Everyone leaves thinking this was a great interaction. So even if you don’t sell today, you’re a good pitcher, you’ve engaged the room and you’re welcome to come back again.”

Bill: “It also depends how much the people you’re pitching to want you to succeed. Don’t pitch someone at 4:30 in the afternoon.”

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Then we broke in to small groups and practiced pitching. I did my Bernstein in Palestein pitch. People seemed very interested, but it was a dialogue not a “pitch”. We’ll see how it goes when I pitch the whole group with an audience watching on Wed at 9am.
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Then we had a session on "In Treatment" with Sarah Treem a writer/producer on the HBO version, Keren Margalit (writer Israeli v.) and Hagai Levi (Creator of both).
It was interesting seeing examples of the differences between the shows as they adjusted for the different audiences.
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In the evening we had a lovely dinner at the Old Port and get a presentation from the Seasame Street Workshop people. It was wonderful. The pictures say it all.

And thank God for Jim Henson, Frank Oz and everyone at SSW. They're laying the foundation of a better world. Thanks.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Tala Master Class - Day 5


Day 5

Shabbat.

I slept late. 6 hours. 3:30am-9:30am.

I puttered around til 10:30am. Got to the beach just before noon after walking 10 minutes the wrong direction at first.

I’m usually the one with the map, telling people how to get places and since Daniel and others have been so great about it, I just let that go. I feel like a woman (sorry for the generalization, but it’s amazing the number of women I know well who say they just have no sense of direction and no interest or ability with maps). It’s been kind of nice. Except when I have 20 minutes extra walking to get to the beach.

Shmuel called to join me at 2pm and he and his girlfriend and I had a beer feet from the water.

Finally we went in together. It's like a bath. Then he wanted to pitch me his story.

See, Shmuel is an Ethopian Jew. He told me about his escape from Ethiopia as we waded in the Meditteranean. I didn't realize the goven't there had ‘pulled a Khmer Rouge’ type auto-genocide killing 500,000 people back in 1978. I knew it was bad, but I thought just against the Jews. And that’s why Israel airlifted them out – around 100,000 in my memory. Well, before the big airlift (there were 2 operations actually), his family decided not to wait. They had no idea the Israeli’s would be coming to save them, so when he was 7 years old, they walked for 2 months all the way to... Sudan – near Darfur and he eventually got to Israel. He wants to make it into a movie. I told him about the film “The Killing Fields”. He needs to see it. Question is who'll fund the movie. He also knows very little about development hell and how producers will buy scripts, rewrite them to hell and bring it back to the original writer to fix what they broke. So I gave him a little masterclass from what I know of my friends who've gone through it.

Later I met with a friend who lives here, but I met when she spent a year in LA. Great conversation. She’s up to good things. Including a script for a feature film directed by…the guy my roommate was having lunch with (I found this out later that evening). It’s a small small world.

At the end of the evening, six of us walked down to Old Jaffo at sunset and found some dinner. Beautiful country.


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Sunday, July 26, 2009

TALA Master Class - Day 4

Day 4

Danny Sussman, manager at Brillstein and inspirational organizer of this trip gave a talk this morning. He struts like Patton and barks at us like a general

His pithy bits of wisdom:

“What happens when you actually get someone on the phone? Pitch one thing you're totally passionate about. Not two, not ten. One thing.”

"Plan your work, but work your plan." - Danny Sussman's Dad

“Admit your vulnerability. This is a relationship about human beings Goddamnit. Human beings have frailties. Good TV is about human frailty. Goddamnit. It's OK to be vulnerable. Took me 21 years to get in this room. Do you know how many mistakes I made? Thousands."

Things to "Write this down, Goddamnit" and then go see: Kill Me Again - John Dahl, Red Rock West, Bound, Rounders

“Admit when you fucked up. No one meeting, no interview, no audition, is the be all and end all of your career. It's just one more experience. It's a long road.”

“We do this because we love it, right? We are entertaining people. We're not saving people. We're supposed to be a bit of the mirror to the world.”

Always read for yourself. Books, articles, criticism, everything. Read: Weekly Variety, The NY Times Arts & Leisure section (Goddamnit!), LA Times Calendar Section

To the Israeli's. You've seen The Hangover? It's changing the way studios make comedies. No more stars necessary. This is a huge time for new writers. New talent.

Thanks Danny!

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Next we had an hour long talk by the creator of Israeli satire TV shows including their version of the BBC "Spitting Image" which is political puppetry. We talked about the moral issues around taking it too far, when do you issue an apology and how when he was told not to attack someone and he did, his show was actually cancelled.

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We had a third talk I can’t even remember. We had no break for 3 hours, and I began to break down.

Every night I’m up til 3am blogging, then up at 7:30a. I’m gonna fall over. I literally can’t see straight.

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The art directors of “Waltz with Bashir” spoke with us and made a presentation about how they made their film.

And they were AMAZING. The presentation was AMAZING. Best thing this whole event in terms of how fascinating it is. No contacts, of info for my work per se, but what a process and they were so clear and concise. Something we haven’t found from Israeli’s all the time.

It cost $1.7 million to make, with 10 animators over 4 years. It’s unheard of. Pixar is over 200 people working not including all the support and infrastructure for 4 years for over $125 million.

My question at the end: “Who makes all hose tiny decisions that give the film the amazing narrative detail, apparent in every frame? Example: In the opening scene, when the girl disappears when the chair is kicked. OR in the airport, when the departure board turns into a sort of roulette wheel and you end up looking down on the soldier at the end of the spin, OR in the junction scene when the RPG is heading to the reporter and at the last minute changes direction? That's not in the narration. That's a writer/director making an extraordinary choice. WHO makes those choices and how were you inspired in each of those instances to make those choices. You could have had the RPG miss him from the

beginning, the girl always there, or the departure board static.

Ari Forman's the visionary, but it seems like these two guys create much of that details from their own imagination.

Yoni is the animator who kept raising the bar higher and asking for more and more. David, the other main animator is the guy who says you can't do it. Like Scotty in Star Trek.

We watch a clip and every time there’s a complex shot for one second lhe let’s us know how long that one bit took, "half a day, half a day, half a day, half a day" Just so we have a sense of the amount of work.

These guys are awesome. The film is moving. If you haven’t seen it. Rent it now.


Click here for the trailer.

* * * * *

Friday night we had a brief service at a temple over 120 years old and then had a wonderful dinner at Bellini’s. After dinner we went to Omri and Natalie’s apartment and sat on the roof and told stories. I found out Omri and Natalie are friend with some of my friend in NY on the Daily Show. Small world. We staggered home after midnight and fell fast asleep.

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TALA Master Class - Day 3 (part 3)




Day 3 (part 3)

Can you get a sense of how exhausting each day is?

Next up, Jerry once again. This time he's going to "audition" Israeli actors.I'm not quite sure why.

Certainly, casting is important. He's taking the stance that "casting is everything". I won't argue a ton with that, because he's quite right that TV directors have almost no time to direct (more than announce blocking) and as hired guns directors don't have much ability to make an impact on a performance no matter how much talent they have in the film world. They're gone the next week. The actors there until the series is over. That’s all you need to know in terms of who’s in charge.

Jerry's talking about how he doesn't believe you need star actors - example ER. They were unknowns at the time, but now studios and networks all have their lists of who they want and to get anyone approved is an unbelievable series of hurdles. Sounds like he’s got another bedtime conversation with Nina there.

As to his directing style, he tells the Israeli’s: "I will say nothing to an actor. The more I say, the worse it gets. I wait for them to ask me questions. If have to give more than two notes, I just move, on because I know it's not going to change. My favorite kind of actor is the one I don't have to talk to. If a director's not talking to you, it's good."

Also…"Auditions have nothing to do with acting. And a pilot is just a sales tool. I wish they were the same, but they're not." Again, it’s a little cynical, but he’s got a point.

Now Jerry has Israeli actors read the opening from the Friends pilot. This goes on a long while.They continually lost where they were in the script and Jerry started getting frustrated.

We've move on to Monk. The one person auditioning in Monk’s role studied his lines, but the other ‘readers’ haven’t seen the script before. The Israeli’s aren’t prepared and they’re ability to cold read the lines is miserable. The language barrier is killing them. The pace is miserable. Finally, Jerry took over with great energy and blazing through the lines. "See. You've got to kick it." Then he invoked the old “Louder, Faster, Funnier.” adage. Again, he’s right, BUT you can’t tell if they’re bad actors.All you can really tell is that they can’t read English as well as we can.

I run to Ruth the director of this master class and ask her if there is a script in Hebrew anywhere in the building. Any script. I want to throw it to Jerry and have them do it ASAP. He wants the energy and the pace. It doesn’t matter if he understands or we do. It’s opera. It matters if THEY understand. If they do, then we get it.

Ruth says no. No scripts. I’m a little baffled, but days later I discover this place is just a art house theatre, not a film school as I first thought.Someone mentioned it was like AFI. I guess they don’t really know what AFI is.

We moved on to a scene from Will & Grace and they get a little better the more times they read the script, but it’s still kinda painful at times and one of the actors is a star of some kind. He was the lead in a film that was just at Cannes. It made a huge splash all over Europe. You’d never know.

Afterwards, I suggest to Jerry they do it with scripts in Hebrew next time.

“Man! Why did you say something during the class?” he blares.

“No one had a script on hand.”

“That would have been great. I didn’t need to know what they were saying.”

“Next time I guess.”

As I head home I’m desperate for a nap, but I walk home with a film/TV director Dani Rosenberg and he invites me to his apartment for coffee. I’m thrilled. I can’t say no. And I don’t want to (except for the DESPERATE need for sleep)

We have a great time and talk for two hours about the indie film world, how Bulgaria is the new Thailand for Israeli’s, etc. etc.

Finally, I get home in time for… me to change clothes and leave for a party at the Old Port.

______________________________

7PM We meet in the hotel to take taxis to the the party.

I can barely stand, but The Old Port party is fantastic. Right on the breakwater, this renovated area is hip and cool. A DJ spins MJ at my request and I flirt with a bunch of Israeli’s, drink many a free Goldstar beer while actually meeting some wonderful people both part of the master class and related to it. The most interesting meeting was Iris’husband. He was dressed in draped while linen, had amazing huge necklaces and walked with great difficulty and a cane.

We spoke. He had a bad stroke a

while back. We talked a while longer about strokes and how I’d just heard an amazing program on NPR’s Fresh Air about Jill Bolte Taylor, a neurological researcher who in her late 30s had a blood vessel explode in her brain.

She tells an amazing story of trying to dial the phone when she knew she was having a stroke and then the feeling of Euphoria that enveloped her when she lost all Left brain functions and past and future worry disappeared. She lived only in the perfect present. Objects before her had no meaning. They were all color and light. She experienced peace and joy like never before. But eventually

she recovered and after a long period of therapy, she could write and talk again and had written a book, the bestselling memoir My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. (click here to hear and read the story)


As for his story, he healed himself.Now he’s a healer for others. Based on his attire, I asked “Are you a shaman?”. He was amazed I knew it. I asked how he studied shamanism (as it’s a favorite study of mine). He said the Zulu. I mentioned I was going to South Africa and he said to ask any Zulu if they knew “White Bear”.Apparently, I will be welcome.

God I love traveling abroad.


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TALA Master Class - Day 3 (part 2)


Day 3 (part 2)


Lunch

There was much confusion over lunch. Eventually, we went for some lousy schwarma. I'd have been happier with just a falafel in a pita. Still haven't had one this trip. Nor have I put my toe in the Mediterranean! I just fix that and soon! And while I bitch RE: lunch, I should also add, we are being treated to all our meals while we're here and I am most grateful for that and all the work our organizers have put into this..


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Afternoon Class #1

After lunch we had Danny Sussman moderated a talk with Nina talk about how cutbacks are effecting the TV biz. They said the financial crisis is effecting everyone and everyone has to sacrifice and get paid less. All extravagancies are being cut out.


She began by saying that when you write the slug line, EXT. Desert or EXT. Amusement Park, she freaks out and knows that's going to be a LOT more money. And while that's true, because of unions, etc. even if CBS did “In Treatment” with 1 set and two actors, it'd still cost 2 million. She estimated their cheapest show is 2.7 mil and episode and I'd heard Swingtown ran around $3.3. So in truth, the big savings doesn't come from cutting out the extravagant scenes -even car explosions (though certainly saving _ a million on a show adds up over time. The point is, if I produced a 90 minute indie feature with two actors and a one room set as I'm planning to, I can do a kick-ass production for $200,000 (yes, through SAG) and with everyone getting paid $100/day with most favored nation status.)


Now I was on a show 1-1/2 years ago, where a writer asked me to get him some Vitamin Water. I got some. The next day the UPM (the Unit Production Manager - who watches every dime spent) called me into his office and said, I can't get Vitamin Water where I did because it cost $1.10. Instead, I should drive an extra mile out of my way to buy it for $1.00. Now that's an extra $.54 cents for my mileage, but I guess he wasn't really thinking. Point is, there's a lack of understanding about where the real money is being wasted and where things need to be cut back.


Now Nina did talk for a long time about how showrunners won't be getting $40 million dollar multi-year deals anymore. Well, duh. Fox was crazy to pay David E. Kelly that kinda cash for a 5 year deal. How do you recoup that with such a huge cost and small profit margin? But none of us are in that position. In fact, there are maybe a dozen folks with deals anywhere in that $8/mil a year price tag. And frankly, Nina still has a stable of showrunners on deals (though less than before the strike) who're only making, I'd bet at least a million a year. Certainly cheaper than David E. Kelly, but look at my last blog for all the trouble that comes with hiring a show runner to work with a “baby” writer and the business (wo)man in you might wonder how great a move that is. Granted, this is somewhat analogous to the insane overpaying of CEOs in the corporate world, but haven't we learned that's usually a terrible waste of money as well?


Regardless, Nina is feeling the pinch. She's getting directives from Leslie Moonves and above that they need to trim. And because of this desire for cutbacks, the bottom line Nina sees, is that everyone's looking for new, young, cheap writers. It's our time. This is good news. Great news!


But, I wanted to ask how can that be, when then last two shows I worked on had one staff writer (the cheapest) and the 7 other writers were all senior writers, producer and higher. In fact, Swingtown had 3 Exec Producers and HawthoRNe had 4 (though one was a star and one was Jamie Tarsus a non-writing EP). If they want to save money, hire ME. I'd be a staff writer and I'd be cheap. Reece who's in the master class and works at Brillstein (a top management co.) told me that everything shifted in Feb/March and HawthoRNe staffed up Jan 28. I find it strange that the shift should right happen then and so abruptly. I certainly haven't experienced it, nor heard about it, nor seen my compatriots suddenly start breaking in, but I'm not in the thick of all these deals the way Reece is, so hopefully she's right and they will want more low lever writers ASAP.


For who don't know, here's the list of Writer's Guild TV writing titles in the US:

TV WRITING TITLES (US)

1. Staff Writer (lowest)

2. Story Editor

3. Executive Story Editor

4. Co-Producer

5. Producer

6. Co-Executive Producer

7. Executive Producer

8. Executive Producer/Show Runner (highest)


I've never been on a show with people in slots 2-4. And Staff Writers start at (approx) $5,000/wk that increases to Producers who get (depending on their deal) around $10,000/week on a network drama. Half- hour (comedies) pay a chunk less. And Cable pays less yet again. So a comedy writer on basic cable, might get around $3,000/wk. I know that sounds like a lot, but many shows are now only making 13 episodes a year which means 20 weeks of work, which equals $60,000. And that's before agents (10%) and taxes (30%). Leaving you with $40,000 made over 12 months unless you can land a second gig in a year. And some contracts forbid that as a staff writer. Moreover, staff writers don't get paid for their individual scripts. So while Story Editors and up get a bump of $13K (basic cable comedy) to $30K (network drama) per script, staff writers get nada.


The only real difference when you become a producer is that you often get to more fully supervise the episode you write both in pre-production (Casting, Tone and Concept meetings), production (on the set) and sometimes in post (depending on the showrunner). Otherwise, if you're sitting in the Writer's Room, it's hard to tell who's the staff writer and who's the Co-EP. And let's be really clear, TV producers are NOTHING like film producers - esp. indie film producers. The latter have to hustle and have know how actual film production works, how to get a film from concept to distribution, following the money the entire way. TV producers never have to deal with this. Showrunner/EPs are another story. (No one's really been explaining this to our Israeli counterparts, so I thought it was worth mentioning, but enough of my giving a master class.


Back to Nina.


She and Danny also disagreed/contradicted themselves a bit at one point saying actors don't deserve $200,000 an episode like some get on ABC's “Brothers & Sisters”. Why? Because it's too expensive and people don't watch that show because of Calista Flockhart, Sally Field, etc. Then she went on to say she had to have LL Cool J in the new NCIS: LA spinoff/clone because his name would make the whole show work. And you know they're paying him the big bucks. So…Which is it guys? How are you going to save money?


She talked about Canadian productions and that they just stared to license shows that are being made there like Flashpoint (last season - a flop )and their fall show The Bridge (looks nearly offensive - about cops being treated badly in the press). If I understand correctly, they'll broadcast The Bridge simultaneously and have a little input in it's creation, but basically someone else is making the show for them on the cheap. Why couldn't they have done that with a GREAT Canadian show like Slings & Arrows? This lovely little show takes place in a theatre and a bar. Two sets for 90% of the show. Talk about cheap. And actors? The US loves Canadian actors. 4 of the top 7 actors on HawthoRNe were Canadian. And they were GREAT. Slings& Arrows is eve starring Paul Gross who's staring in the Jack Nickleson/devil part in the new ABC “Eastwick” this fall. Let's remake that for the US. No wait, they won't touch it. It's about a struggling Shakespeare festival and they think no one in the US would watch. Certainly not on CBS.


At the end of her talk about how they want CHEAP stuff. I asked her about "We Need Girlfriends" the show Darren JUST talked about in the previous session (see last blog). I said “How you get that out of development hell and over to Showtime?” She said she passed The Tudors over to Showtime (and didn't quite mention that she had essentially TAKEN “Swingtown” FROM Showtime two years ago), but there's no mutually beneficial relationship to CBS or Showtime even through they're all part of the Viacom family. The Tudors flipped over just because Nina's friends with Roger Greenblatt who runs Showtime. Interesting. I thought the Viacom link was more vital. From what she was saying, CBS has nothing to gain by getting "We Need Girlfriends" to the premium cable channel where it would have a much better chance of getting made. So WHY oh WHY did they buy a show about 20 something losers knowing their meat and potatoes are conservative 55+ year olds who like watching cops catch the perps who mutilate beautiful girls??? (And just to spread the blame, why did the creators agree to it? Sure, the money, and they don't know better cause they're 23, but they've got to be miserable now.)


And that was the end of the talk.


Sadly, I never got a chance to ask her about the pitch "formula". It shall just be a mystery what she believes the perfect pitch to be. Until I pitch her “The 40-Year Old Assistant” in LA when I get back from Africa in September.



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