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Hitting Producers With the Big Pitch

January 03, 1988|CHRIS HODENFIELD

Three women, all TV producers, were sitting around topping untoppable stories. They were thinking of those times when they got hit with a Big Pitch. Movie people know that the Big Pitch could come at any time of the day--from a cab driver, a landlord, even from one's psychiatrist.

The women had heard them all. One woman, an Emmy-winning producer, said nothing could really be worse than the time she was at her dentist's office. After the doctor had stuffed her mouth with hoses and appliances, he hit her with a screenplay idea.

Her friend got pitched in even more vulnerable circumstances--at her gynecologist's office during the examination!

Brenda Wilson, producer at Hickox-Daniel Productions, the one with dentist story, admitted that was the topper. But later she remembered the time that she was approached by a would-be writer at her father's funeral service. "In Spokane, Wash., of all places," she recalled with a sense of wonder. "I guess you're not safe anywhere."

"But development people and producers are at fault for that, too," she added with a laugh. "You set yourself up for that. Every place you look, you look for a story. A car crashes and you think there's a story in it. 'Who has the rights?' We're kinda vultures about it ourselves. The people pitching us are innocent. They're just fulfilling our sick needs, you know."

The need for a hot movie idea is a need that burns all over town. In the movie-factory heyday between 1925-46, when studios cranked out 50 movies a year apiece, much of the idea work was done by a staff out in the writer's stable. The unattached writer had only a limited number of offices to sell a script. The move to independent production offices began in the late '40s, and today every director, teen-age star, lawyer, fired studio boss and fatcat music-biz honcho has his own movie production company.

Now there are hundreds of people overseeing the flow of movie ideas, and a writer might have to peddle his story to dozens of parties.

Don Simpson, who with Jerry Bruckheimer produced "Beverly Hills Cop" I and II and "Top Gun," noted, "It is not only an important part of the process, it's a critical part. The process begins and ends with a story."

The pitch might never include the goofy intangible that actually makes a good picture. The process begins and ends with a story."

The pitch might never include the goofy intangible that actually makes a good picture. The premise behind the hit "Stakeout" might have been as brief as: "A plainclothes cop falls in love with the woman he's shadowing." The secret ingredient was, "It's Richard Dreyfuss being charming as hell in an involving situation." A writer cannot sell that. But he can sell an idea, and in today's movie industry, he has to sell it with a vengeance.

"With studios turning out only 10 or 12 pictures apiece now, it has become a free-for-all," said I.A.L. Diamond, who started as a contract writer and went on to glory with Billy Wilder on "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment." "It was not so cutthroat in those days."

Since all the plots known to human experience probably have been filmed already, the plotmongers speak in their own shorthand. What the pitcher wants to spring on the potential producer is the situation. Screenwriter William Goldman ("All the President's Men," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Princess Bride") once posited that, in the zany movie biz, Nobody Knows Anything. To that can be added a footnote on the those who harvest the plots: Everybody Knows Everything.

This is just what would happen in an industry that has been mercilessly cannibalizes itself. Many people in power believe that a plot ought to be understood in a moment.

"There's no question that having to reduce a movie to three sentences has affected the kind of movies that get made," warns writer Ron Shelton ("Under Fire," "The Best of Times"). "I like movies you can't reduce to three sentences. Try to reduce 'The Wild Bunch' to three sentences. Try to reduce 'My Beautiful Laundrette' to three sentences. I can't even reduce it to 50 sentences. It took 120 pages to tell whatever that story was."

In the TV-charged generation that arose in the late-'70s, there appeared a method of peddling movie ideas in an abbreviated format that somehow got to be called High Concept. There is nothing elevated about the scheme, really. The object is not to make stories intriguing but to simplify them and make them familiar. To what purpose? Salesmanship.

For most Hollywood writers now, the hardest plot of all to crack is how to push a screenply idea past the first few rooms of a vast and stupefying maze.

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