BALLS OF STEEL™: Screenwriting Pitchfests - Ripoff or Opportunity?

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman rebuts a challenger of her opinion, by giving more opinion... and facts to back them up. Join the pitchfest discussion. It might just open your mind to a new tool for success.
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Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition, CS Expo Finalist, the Second Round of Sundance Episodic Lab, and as a PAGE Awards TV Drama Finalist. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Before you say, “Since she works for a company that has it’s own screenwriting pitchfest, why should I believe what she has to say?” I’d like you to take a deep breath and trust me. Why? Because I am a screenwriter too. I am you.

The following article is my opinion, and my opinion only. While others at ScriptMag and F+W Media might share my opinion, that coincidence does not change that this stated opinion is mine. I am not representing anyone other than myself in the declaring of said opinion. Period. Are we clear now?

Good. Because this might get ugly.

I never talk politics or religion. Why? Because no one ever changes anyone’s mind, no matter how blue in the face they get when trying to make a point.

Who would have thought the topic of pitchfests on Twitter would become as volatile as a political debate and leave my head spinning like Linda Blair in The Exorcist?

Let me set up the Linda Blair-ish exchange for those who missed it on Twitter. It began with someone responding to a tweet I sent out via ScriptMag’s account, in which he claimed I only wrote the pro-pitchfest article because of all the paid conference ads on our site.

Already, there’s a misunderstanding. Why would we pay ourselves to promote our own conference? But that’s not what put a burr under my writer saddle.

I can understand his assumption that I’m towing the company line, but he was also questioning my integrity. No, you didn’t. Yeah, I was doing the finger swag.

One of the many things I’ve learned in life is when one person feels a certain way, usually more than one person shares that opinion. Time to set the record straight once and for all.

screenwriting pitchfest

Allow me to be perfectly clear for any reader who isn’t familiar with my style, my integrity and my passion for defending and protecting writers: I am no sell out. Not now. Not ever. I’d rather cut my hand off than promote something I do not believe in.

I assumed the title “Balls of Steel” made that perfectly clear, but apparently not.

When I write any piece, not just an article on pitching events, I am speaking from my heart. I write everything, and I mean everything, from the perspective of being a writer myself. I am one of you. I am not some corporate cog who jumps when someone tells me to jump. To imply I am, is insulting.

In the almost three years that I have been writing my weekly column on ScriptMag, I have never once lied to you about my experiences, my failures, my successes or my disappointments. I rip off the veneer, pry open my wounds and hand you the salt shaker, opening myself up to ridicule and embarrassment.

Why? So we can all learn from my mistakes. You learn by hearing them. I learn by analyzing them to understand where I went wrong and how I can improve my craft or business perspective.

Since I have always been honest with you, why in the hell would I change now?

End rant. Maybe. I can’t promise.

Despite not acknowledging or apologizing for his repeated personal insults, he kept claiming all he was saying is that his opinion differs from mine, and he also objects to anyone selling “hope” to writers.

Fair enough. Opinions differ. I’m the first person to agree to disagree. “Hope” on the other hand is something I’ll address in a bit.

So, let’s not talk opinions. Let’s talk facts. Facts from my own personal experiences.

One of my major pet peeves is that people who complain about the value of pitchfests are almost always ones who have never attended them. Well, I have. Many times. Let me, someone with actual experience, tell you how it really is.

Before I begin, I want to clarify I absolutely agree to disagree on anything that is opinion based. Why? Because it is a fact, not an opinion, that we live in an amazing country where we can all speak our minds freely. It’s also a fact that there is more than one way to break into Hollywood. This person may be doing quite well without ever having attended a pitching event. Bravo to him! I genuinely applaud whatever paths he’s taken that have worked for him. While others, like myself, enjoy the experience of mass pitching and find value in it.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and as many ways to break into screenwriting as there are successful screenwriters. No two paths are alike.

Let’s take this one at a time, starting with claims I have heard from not only this one person challenging me, but also others. Please note, I am merely presenting my own personal experience that may or may not reflect yours. This is not a debate of who is right or wrong. This is my experience from years of networking, long before I was Script’s Editor, and my personal opinions, not necessarily those of my company.

1. Pros don’t believe in pitchfests: Has anyone really polled all the pros? Seems to me some of them must believe or why else would they be keynote speakers and lecturers. But I have absolutely heard of some pros who do not believe in paying to pitch, which I’ll address later. Even if that were true, that all pros collectively disliked pitchfests, every pitchfest I know of consists of more than just the pitching event. There are classes to learn about both the craft and the industry, often taught by professional writers themselves. Who would object to a screenwriter learning how to present themselves to executives? This is a skill you will need when you have general meetings set up by your future agents. Who would object to learning more about honing their craft? No matter how good you are at pitching, if your script can’t stand out, you’re doomed.

Fact: I did find it ironic that two of the people coming to my defense on Twitter both are professional writers. One has sold/optioned nearly 20 scripts, signed seven-figure deals and three picture deals. The other is one of the most talented professional writers I know but chooses to not flaunt his career online. He only has a social media presence to selflessly help writers… for free. Lesson to those who tweet: You never know who you’re talking with so don’t make assumptions. They might be “bigger” than you realize.

But let’s assume all pros do object specifically to writers paying for pitching, which I’ve already established they don’t, but moving on…

2. Don’t pay to attend pitchfests. Does he think they should be free? How could someone spend countless hours organizing to get as many as 100 or so executives in a room, feed them, rent a space large enough to place the tables and not expect you to pay for the opportunity and advantage of having so many executives in one place… where you don’t have to drive through L.A. traffic to get to the next table to pitch. I’ve had as many as 17 pitches in a given day at an event. Do you know how long that would have taken me if I had to drive all over town for those meetings? Or how many trips to L.A. I would have to make to meet them on their schedule? How much that would cost me in gas and air travel? Or how long it would have taken me to get these executives to agree to meet me in the first place?

Then there’s The Black List’s relatively new service, where for a monthly fee, your script has the possibility of being discovered by executives who visit the site. Again, that is paying to pitch, albeit a different kind of pitching. Why should you pay? Because The Black List is providing a valuable service and platform you could not create yourself that is built on their reputation in the industry of recognizing great scripts. When someone does all the work for you, you need to pay them for their services. Period.

People work hard to help writers get discovered out of passion and love for our craft and efforts. Don’t assume just because a price tag for the service exists, those people are trying to gouge writers. Again, in my opinion, this is Business 101, not robbery.

As ScriptMag contributor Jeff Richards said to me recently, these platforms are merely tools for writers to learn from. “To hate them is like hating a hammer and a wrench.”

pitchfests

Maybe you’re not a hammer guy. Maybe you’re a screwdriver. That’s the point. If you don’t like using one tool, try another, but don’t ignore the tools simply because you’re unfamiliar.

Does that mean every pitching event or networking site that charges is valid? Of course not. That’s your job to research them and decide what fits your lifestyle, your budget and your goals.

One thing a writer could do on a budget is get an IMDb Pro account (relatively cheap) or Hollywood Screenwriting Directory to research companies and cold call or query them the old-fashioned way. It still works. In fact, one of our readers queried dozens of companies before coming out to SWCW last year and had meetings set up outside of the event while he was in town. He maximized his trip in the best possible way with the combination of tools.

Fact: I took the time to count up how many pitchfest pitches I have done over the years and how many of those people I am still in touch with, years after meeting them on a 5-minute “speed date,” and with whom I still have an open door to present my work via an email or a phone call.

Pitched: 117.
Still in my network: 89.
Not bad odds.

Many of those 89 people have graciously given me introductions to other people in their own networks, which more than doubled my connections. I returned the favor when I could, connecting writers, agents, and producers whose philosophies and work interests matched. Give to receive. For pitching 117 execs, I now have at least 200 people in the industry in my contact list, and it grows every day.

Caution: If you meet execs and drop the ball at staying in touch, you wasted the trip. You need to do the work after the event, not just during, in order to make the contacts last.

Here’s a perfect example, and Bonus Fact: Scriptchat, a Twitter screenwriting chat I co-founded with Zac Sanford, Jamie Livingston, Kim Garland and Mina Zaher, would not have been born if not for my attending a pitching event in 2007 and pitching to Zac. Yes, he turned the script down, but we stayed in touch on social media and nurtured our friendship both professionally and personally. Scriptchat is a project we’ve helmed for years, tirelessly helping writers for no personal gain. I believe my record of supporting and loving those in my community is as solid as it gets. So when someone claims I am “ripping them off,” that makes my Sicilian blood boil.

End rant… again. Maybe.

But aren’t these people just assistants to the assistants, you ask?

3. Only lower-level execs listen to pitches: Um. No. Because of today’s economy, more and more indie production companies are attending, with the final decision makers sitting right at the table, not assistants to the assistants. Many are managers and agents who want to meet potential clients face-to-face. In smaller production companies, you’re pitching to a development exec. But let’s play devil’s advocate and assume they are all assistants to the assistants. Guess what? Today’s assistant is tomorrow’s studio head.

Fact: Of those 89 execs I am still in touch with, about half have moved up in their companies or moved onto a different company at a higher position or started their own production company. The ones I lost touch with either dropped out of the business, or we just didn’t “click” on a personal or professional level. Yes, not everyone likes me and my writing. I’m cool with that. It’s important everyone trying to succeed in any career have the ability to manage their expectations.

Which now brings me to the most important issue of all, hope.

4. Pitchfests only sell hope. Pitching events and conferences are marketed as learning and networking events. That is exactly what they are. And yes, they sell hope. Hope you will learn something from attending. Hope you will connect in a community of like-minded writers who understand you the way your own family doesn’t. Hope you will meet an executive who likes your work. Even the executives attending have hope they will find that “diamond in the rough” to discover.

Hope is sold in every level of our lives in every kind of business, not just screenwriting.

What I found fascinating was this person’s objection to writers attending pitchfests having hope, as if hope was a bad thing? Allow me to paraphrase a side discussion I had with one of the pro writers in my network: The writers who attend pitchfests are not children. They are educated adults who are capable of managing expectations and understanding a pitchfest script request does not guarantee a Studio Development Deal. The events are structured around an educational environment that allows people who live in and outside of L.A. to have a one-day pass inside the gates. What you make of that day is up to you… and up to the quality of your writing.

Fact: If you show up unprepared, with no one sheets, with no prepared pitch, with no logline or high-concept idea, then it wouldn’t matter how many people you pitch, you won’t get requests for reads. If you show up with all of those things, get requests and then email a half-baked script to them, you’ll get a pass. Hope can only go so far. After hope, you need the work to back it up.

Bonus Fact: The reason you don’t see high numbers of films being produced from pitching events is not because the pitching events are scams. It is because most of the people attending them are newer writers without the chops to make it, either in the persona they present while pitching or in writing. But by attending and getting feedback on your pitching and on your writing, you will improve. I know I did. The first pitching event I went to changed my entire perspective of the business side of the industry and the craft. I went too soon. I was green. The fact that I “failed” at getting a sale wasn’t because I was at a pitching event. It was because my script sucked. (See Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter.)

But overall, I did not “fail.” Why?

Because each event I attended, I became better. Stronger, both in pitching and in my writing. So much so that since then, I’ve had meetings with presidents of major production companies and didn’t even flinch while sitting in their offices in my jeans and flip flops, talking craft and my ideas.

Let’s face it, writers are not born with the gift a gab. Many of us would prefer hiding in our caves, writing in our pajamas, and having an agent to do all the networking. But that ain’t gonna happen.

Writing is your business. YOUR business. Part of business is meeting people. Every major company and industry has conferences and events to attend for networking and learning. Screenwriting is no different.

One last note on hope: Right now, as I fly to L.A., I’m on a plane full of people excited to hit Las Vegas… and full of hope. They hope to hit the jackpot, just as writers hope the same. Will they come home broke? Maybe. But some will come home winners. Not necessarily because their wallets are bulging with money. But because they rolled the dice and took the ride of chance.

They lived. They went after what they wanted. What they hoped for.

To me, that’s priceless.

When the screenwriters of any pitching event fly home, they may have less money in their wallets too, but they’ll be full of hope… and business cards to help them build a future, successful career.

So yeah, I respectfully agree to disagree.

More articles by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

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