by Emily Jermusyk (@EJemily24)
The first time I was invited to Pitchfest was a few years ago when I was an assistant in the industry. My boss encouraged me to go on his behalf, to find him writers. I rolled my eyes. I thought, It’s an event that hundreds of unemployed writers attend… How high-quality could the reps and producers be?
After attending the three-day weekend for LA Screenwriter, I found that I was completely wrong. Not only was the Pitchfest filled with representatives from top agencies, management companies, and production companies, the class sessions on Friday and Saturday were invaluable.
THE TV MASTER CLASS
The Master Class kicked off the weekend, hosted by Pilar Alessandra. This three-hour crash course on how to create a pitch for your television pilot and series felt like going back to college. So much information was crammed in a fun and informative manner. It was fantastic hearing so many great concepts from the other attendees as they honed their pitches. There were also exercises to help the writers introduce themselves to one another in a relaxed way.
Downside: The focus was on pitching. When it came to writing the pilot and structure, Pilar Alessandra said, “I hate talking about structure and I know you do too.” This was not true for me or the person sitting next to me. Maybe one day I will be able to find hundreds of writers who appreciate the “rules” as much as I do. Also, this event was scheduled at the same time as the Kick Off Party, making it impossible to do both, which was disappointing.
Highlights: Amazing pitches, a wide range of demographics (there was even a 14-year-old!), and a lot of courage from many of the writers as they were willing to speak up right out of the gate. Pilar Alessandra is also an amazing speaker and provided a plethora of current examples throughout the session. All in all, a great start to the weekend.
BUSINESS SCHOOL WITH LEE JESSUP
The second day began with a fast-paced hour in which screenwriting career coach Lee Jessup spoke with a room of writers on how to build their brand. It was a lot of information, and it may have been fairly sobering for some writers but it was all important to hear.
[Read a detailed review of this session, 5 Steps Toward Your Big Break]
In one hour, Lee Jessup encouraged the room of writers to be in it for the long haul, but made sure they knew the brutal truth:
- It will take three to ten years to succeed as a screenwriter once you find your voice.
- Potential is not enough. You need a brand and you need to self promote. Be good in a room.
- You need exposure – a manager, pitch events, online pitching, fellowships, contest wins, high ratings on the Black List.
Downside: 90 minutes was not enough! Our host constantly referenced how limited time was for her to go through everything.
Highlight: So much great information, and from someone who has been on the writing side before!
LAUNCH PAD PANEL
There is a fantastic documentary on Netflix called SHOWRUNNERS, and they had a panel with some of the writers from the documentary. I was planning on attending this session, but stumbled upon something else: Launchpad.
The Launchpad Presents panel included Andy Heriaud, Kaitlyn Kelly, Talia Gonzalez, Sean Costello, Santa Sierra, Eric Koenig, and the panel was mediated by manager Jeff Portnoy. Though it looked like they would simply advertise the Launchpad Screenwriting Contest, the writers actually were very informative about life after winning the contest. While the contest definitely opened doors, the writers had to continue to produce great material to prove their worth, and for some it was a long road after winning before they could consider themselves established. They gave tremendous advice and truths about the industry, even discussing how difficult it can still be once you are “in.” Considering I was not even planning on attending this panel, I was incredibly surprised by how the session turned out.
Downside: I had to miss the SHOWRUNNERS Panel. Also, the event did not highlight this panel much, so there were very few people in attendance, but we got some great advice and plenty of one-on-one time with the writers after the panel ended.
Highlight: Everyone discussed how important outlines and structure are. “Structure is everything.” – Gonzalez. “It is really about learning story and structure.” – Sierra. Naturally, this was music to my egotistical ears.
AGENTS AND MANAGERS LUNCHEON
After the “surprise” Launchpad panel, I hustled over to a VIP lunch entitled “Agents and Managers.” Writers paid an additional fee to attend, and we listened to Jeff Portnoy (the same host from the previous panel) interview a panel of agents and managers while writers sat together at tables and had lunch.
The panel was a bit of a let down, I will not lie to you. This is partly because a lot of it was information we had already heard, and partly because I do not believe managers who say they read queries. Managers who read queries do exist, but the panelists were from major houses that do not. Having also worked in the industry myself, it seems wrong to tell writers how great queries are when I saw first-hand how they are handled on the assistant level.
Finally, each table was provided an “executive” to answer any questions we had. At the table I was seated at, the executive arrived two minutes before the panel, so she couldn’t really answer any questions, and five minutes into the the discussion she took off.
This was not the situation at every table. Roger Wolfson (Writer: SAVING GRACE, THE CLOSER, LAW & ORDER SVU) was seated at a table in the back and he was incredibly engaged with his table, continuing to talk well after the lunch had ended. If you are in the LA area, look him up online. He has events at his house all the time. It is a sort of modern day “salon.” They have political speakers, movie screenings, and I have attended a couple performances of Shakespeare that were absolutely fantastic.
DOWNSIDE: The biggest let down was the executive at our table.
HIGHLIGHT: Seeing other writers really get their money’s worth with Mr. Wolfson.
CAREER IN A DAY and JEN GRISANTI MEETING
When I arrived at the weekend as a representative for LA Screenwriter, I had no idea what I would have access to. It turned out the event provided us full VIP passes, so after lunch I headed over to Academy 6 where a series of events called “Career in a Day” were being held. I was only able to see two pieces: Legally Speaking and Pitching with Bob Schulz. Each session was a half hour long and a great introduction to the topics.
I highly recommend that when writers attend these kinds of events, they make time for anything involving legalities and WGA rules. So many newbie writers are taken advantage of, and at the end of the day, you will be the only person who has 100% of your best interests at heart. The pitching session was fantastic as well. For people who did not attend the TV Master Class on Day 1, this half hour was a great way to break down pitches quickly and practice them on the teacher and others around you.
Around 3:00, I headed next door for a one-on-one meeting with script consultant, Jen Grisanti. Grisanti has been working in the industry for years and currently does a lot of work with NBC Writers on the Verge and the Screencraft competitions . This was thirty minutes to talk about whatever I wanted with her. I had no idea what to say! I only received the tickets the night before and was not even sure if she would be able to fit me into her schedule. Jen Grisanti was incredibly kind, welcoming, and answered as many questions as I could fit in. I pitched her various ideas and she was very encouraging with every one of them. This meeting was definitely the highlight of my weekend.
DOWNSIDE: Career in a Day is an added expense, physically hidden from the attendees, but filled with extremely important information that is not always fun to listen to. Panels in this section should absolutely be promoted more.
HIGHLIGHT: Jen Grisanti. Cannot say enough. Also, writers had lots of different consultants as options with whom to meet. You would think that job would be very cutthroat, but in fact they were supportive and tweeted with one another the whole weekend. I love to see that kind of camaraderie in the industry!
BETTER CALL SAUL WRITERS’ ROOM
This panel was exactly its title and included writers Peter Gould, Tom Schnanz, Gordon Smith, and Jonathan Glazer. (There were female staff writers that were meant to attend but had to cancel at the last minute.) It was a very fun session covering a wide range of topics. One of my favorite moments included the writers discussing an idea they’d always wanted to reach but could never make work on BREAKING BAD. Essentially they wanted to reach a point where Skyler would say to Walt, “Take your best shot,” but in the words of Mr. Gould, “Skyler would never do that.”
Another moment that came up a few times was when the writers admitted that in BREAKING BAD, they never had it planned. Instead, they would have moments that they were building toward episode by episode, but often would have to push back the goal repeatedly. Ultimately, making sure they did not rush the emotional goal or moment was more important than reaching for a big, ratings-grabbing scene that appears too soon.
DOWNSIDE: Personally bummed that female writers (or racial diversity, for that matter) were not represented, but it was not for lack of trying.
HIGHLIGHT: “Don’t be a dick.” – Gordon Smith, sharing advice for people early in their careers.
THE GREAT AMERICAN PITCHFEST
It was the final day that hundreds of writers had been waiting for: Pitchfest. On this Sunday, about a hundred companies would send representatives (managers, agents, producers) in the hopes of finding the next great writer and/or story. The organizers set it up so that you would line up for the company you wanted to meet with (if they had arrived for the morning or afternoon session), and when it was your turn you would be given five minutes to sell your pitch and yourself as a writer.
It is essentially speed dating. Some industry people were very receptive, others were more differential. A lot relied on the writer to bring the energy — otherwise those five minutes would feel very painful. After pitches, writers would cycle back into the halls to share their stories of how it went and give tips on who was or was not receptive. At one point, I simply stood back and watched. The excitement in the halls was overwhelming, and everyone was very supportive towards one another.
I did not stay for the whole day of pitching, but I did attend the Executive Luncheon before leaving. I crossed my fingers, hoping that it would be better than the previous day’s lunch. Instead of a panel, this lunch sat four or five writers at a large table with four “executives.” The executives were primarily producers looking for material. With a one-to-one ratio and a three course meal, writers were given plenty of time to ask questions, pitch ideas, and exchange contact information. The size of the room often made it difficult to hear everyone, but I managed to get to know three of the four executives at my table very well and exchange information.
After my half hour with Jen Grisanti, this may have been my favorite event of the weekend. My “tablemates” were so receptive and many of us simply pitched new ideas on the spot to a producer who was trying to come up with new ideas for Lifetime. Walking away from that lunch gave me a strong burst of energy, so when I was done pitching I was able to get home to do what I really love: write.
DOWNSIDE: While many companies say they will show up (and the majority do), a lot of bigger name companies never arrive, which makes things difficult if you are trying to strategize and prioritize pitching to certain companies.
HIGHLIGHTS: You get to pitch! You get to pitch to people whom you would not get facetime with otherwise!
I went into this weekend thinking it was a great thing to try for free, but not necessarily something I would to again. By the end of the third day, my opinions completely turned around. This weekend was a phenomenal experience. I was surrounded by hundreds of great writers who challenged everyone in their presence to step up to their own level, and did it without any negative competitiveness. I received face time with major production companies and literary representatives in the industry, and had a private consultation with script consultant, Jen Grisanti.
My three day experience was invaluable and I would love to attend again next year.
Now, I would be remiss if I did not point out one thing to consider. If you have not attended before and are looking at the prices, truly weigh your options. VET YOUR SCRIPTS. That means that you need as many people as possible to read and give you notes so you can attend an event like this with the best feature or television pilot possible. This weekend is not cheap. The best parts are definitely the private consultation and executive lunch, on top of the actual pitch day. You are spending several hundred dollars to attend if you go to all three days of events, and if you are not prepared you will be wasting your own money.
Therefore, if you want to spend the money as a currently unemployed screenwriter, you better believe you are ready, have material to back it up, and test the value of your ideas with competitions, fellowships, and writers’ groups. Do whatever you can so when you attend Pitchfest, you can walk in knowing you are ready.
If you suspect you’re not quite there, the one-day ScriptFest pass is an amazing deal at $100. You’ll get to attend four to five classes in one day, and each individual class is easily worth a hundred bucks on its own.