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STYLE & CULTURE

That perfect pitch

Being a master of words on the page doesn't always make you a master of the spiel that'll sell your script. A former studio exec is helping writers, and other Hollywood creatives, bridge that gap.

October 02, 2005|Leslie Gornstein | Special to The Times

SITTING in a bright little one-room office in West Los Angeles, Converse sneakers twitching, baseball cap perched over a pair of furrowed eyebrows, a young filmmaker named Kelly Nyks stretches his two hands in front of him, grasping, literally, at air.

"Well ... ," he says.

Silence.

After pouring more than a year's worth of sweat and money into their most heartfelt project, Nyks and his partner, Jeff Beard, are facing their toughest challenge: describing just what their political documentary, "Split," is about. The exercise isn't academic; the two need money to complete their film, and unless they can say the right words to the right people, they might as well throw away what footage they have.

So they've turned to Stephanie Palmer, a former MGM development executive whose new business is all about the schmooze.

Her Los Angeles-based company, dubbed Good in a Room, aims to transform er-ing and um-ing writers, producers and other clients into eloquent pitchmen in a studio meeting -- if not exactly Tony Robbins firing up the Harvey Weinsteins and Scott Rudins of Hollywood, they at least can open their mouths and close a deal.

While such institutions as UCLA Extension offer similar courses -- "The Art of the Pitch" is among this quarter's offerings -- Palmer's one-on-one approach seems to be unique. She is quickly earning a reputation for turning babbling artists into quippy selling machines, and in its six months, Good in a Room -- industry slang describing someone with a gift for schmoozing -- is already profitable, Palmer says.

"There are websites [operated by] people who will analyze your screenplays. But this is the first time I've ever heard of someone helping you present your idea," says producer Rob Fried, who worked with Palmer on two projects when she was at MGM. "From the seller's standpoint, it's a competitive advantage."

During one recent meeting, after about 20 minutes of listening to Nyks and Beard pour out their goals and passions about their film, which explores the political divisions in this country, Palmer has plucked out a half-dozen key phrases and scribbled them down on brightly colored index cards -- cheat sheets for the writers: "Split down middle." "Journey is destination." "Between Michael Moore from left, O'Reilly on right."

Palmer has also managed to get two wordy documentarians talking in shorter, pithier sentences.

"How did the idea for this movie get started?" she asks the pair, her slim hand taking notes nonstop as she speaks.

"Over margaritas!" Beard says, laughing.

"Great!" Palmer says, her hand flying across a page. "Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh. More."

"Before we knew it we were talking to some of the biggest names in politics," Nyks says, his voice gaining in confidence. "Tucker Carlson, Jesse Jackson, Noam Chomsky ..."

Palmer puts down her pen.

"If that's all you'd said," she says, "I'd want to know more."

A key 30 seconds

IN show business, writers and up-and-coming producers can suffer from a lousy reputation. Unlike actors, who tend to ooze charisma, behind-the-scenes creative types often are labeled as lackluster, long-winded or unfocused. They frequently go into a meeting with potential buyers or financiers and, in the estimated 30 seconds they get to make a connection, stumble. The meeting may last an additional 15 polite minutes, but in most cases, for the up-and-comer, the pitch is dead.

Starting at $250, Palmer takes on any creative type hoping to make the most of those 30 terrifying seconds that can make or break a dream. She's even courting novelists looking to score an agent or a publishing deal. Private consultations can get steep -- $2,000 for a set of four sessions lasting an hour or more.

Most of her clients are already working writers, she says, people with a track record for selling a project or two. But they either still feel uncomfortable in meetings, or they've never really mastered the art of the pitch, of getting their concept across clearly and articulately with enough enthusiasm to get the studio suits on board.

"You would think that one creative type could talk easily to another creative type, but often not," Palmer says.

With her crisp suits and an office filled with warm portraits by Frida Kahlo and intimate black-and-white photography, Palmer, 30, comes off more like a therapist than a barking coach. She listens and listens, often for 15-minute stretches, just getting her clients to hone their ideas out loud.

Part cheerleader, part mentor, part hard-nosed consultant, Palmer extracts important words and phrases from her clients like gold from ore. What do you want people to say to each other when they leave the theater after seeing your film? What sets the film apart from others in the same genre?

"There is so much at stake for a writer or producer or director," Palmer says. "This is not $5 at stake. These people could buy a house or not, send their kid to college or not."

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