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Where amateurs perfect their pitch

In an act of self-imposed 'community service,' two ICM executives conduct free sessions to advise and mold would-be screenwriters.

December 17, 2002|Dana Calvo | Times Staff Writer

As executive story editor for the huge talent agency ICM, Christopher Lockhart reads 1,000 scripts a year for a stable of stars like Mel Gibson and Denzel Washington. The agency's senior story analyst, Jack d'Annibale, combs through material for A-listers who include Cameron Diaz and Jodie Foster.

But the duo has been spending Saturdays this fall with a bunch of nobodies at the Beverly Hills Public Library, performing what they describe as their own version of "community service," a phrase not commonly uttered in the same sentence as the words "Hollywood executive."

The earnest scriptwriters come to the second-floor room of the library from as far away as the Bay Area. They range in age from 25 to 80, and they show up wearing high heels or bare feet or Hawaiian shirts.

On a recent Saturday, the last in a series of sessions before the workshops resume in the spring, participants had two minutes each to pitch their script to a panel of four movie executives. (Lockhart and D'Annibale admit they roped in the industry-weary panel by promising a rare, unfiltered view of the world outside Tinseltown's bubble.)

Soon the concepts were flying high.

"It's 'Stand by Me' meets 'Deliverance' in a Mexican whorehouse," offered Johnny Will Young.

"Picture 'A League of Their Own' meets 'Yentl,' " said Steve Mazzucchi.

" 'The Omen' meets 'Frequency,' " proposed Raymond Boncato.

" 'The Odd Couple' in a 'Fargo' setting," pitched Fay Hall.

" 'Schindler's List' and 'Cider House Rules,' set in China in 1980," said Jin Young.

"It's 'Working Girl' meets 'Big,' but in reverse," suggested Carol Schlanger.

"This is 'Indiana Jones' for nerds," said Brian Diamond.

Theoretically, there is a chance that these workshops will enable Lockhart, 39, and D'Annibale, 30, to discover fresh talent in a region teeming with an estimated 100,000 published and aspiring screenwriters (many of them veterans of Hollywood's thriving seminar scene).

But Lockhart and D'Annibale insist their Saturday outreach is not a cover for extracurricular recruiting; their boss, ICM head Jeff Berg, didn't even know they had launched the workshop.

And in fact, on this Saturday in November the gathering felt more like an extension class than a hothouse for Hollywood's Next Big Thing.

The room was bare except for chairs, one table with two packages of store-bought cookies and a digital camera on a tripod that Lockhart's wife was using to shoot the pitches so he and D'Annibale could review them before e-mailing each participant a critique.

Some found it daunting to stand up in front of talent executives who ordinarily wouldn't take their phone calls. Renee Cooper paused before beginning her pitch. She handed one of the judges a slip of paper with a name and a number written on it.

"If this kills me," she said, gesturing to the stage, "please, call my brother."

Three finalists were chosen by the judges, and then the class ("American Idol"-style) voted for their favorite -- a 45-year-old receptionist named Erica Clethen. Wearing an oversized cotton sweater and faded jeans with a heart-shaped patch sewn onto the left knee, she succinctly pitched a comedy about an ambitious studio musician who fakes his own death so that he can achieve "posthumous" fame by touring the country imitating himself.

"The odds are that I'm not supposed to meet people like Chris and Jack," she said afterward, half giddy, half flustered. "I'm not so sure the script is all that great, but I think it's a great story idea. I've been practicing my Emmy Award speech since I was a kid -- Emmy, not Oscar. My heart is in TV."

Clethen's reward: a story meeting over dinner in Beverly Hills with D'Annibale and Lockhart. The downside, they joked, is that they're going to Souplantation.

On this Saturday, Lockhart and D'Annibale also raffled off two prizes: an in-person story meeting and a phone call with D'Annibale. (Don't scoff: In the world of Hollywood wannabes, a few minutes with a story reader at ICM -- whether it's on the phone, at a party, in the ATM line -- is a windfall of luck, promise and karma.)

In between pitches and raffles, Lockhart, who is tall and lanky with a New York lilt that sounds something like Regis Philbin, enthusiastically offered advice.

"Boil it down! Boil it down!" he urged.

"Don't describe your script. Pitch it," said D'Annibale.

Earlier this month, the two men lamented the high-priced workshops that seem to promise a formula for success. (A writer himself, D'Annibale has a manager and aspirations of writing his own great screenplay.)

"There are a lot of people who hold workshops and charge $500 and don't know what they're talking about," Lockhart said.

Lockhart and D'Annibale plan to hold a second free set of workshops beginning in March, although they're currently rooting around town for a new space since the Beverly Hills Public Library may not be available to them. Lockhart promises he won't begin charging admission, despite peer pressure to the contrary.

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