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Making a play for Hollywood

Boston University sends its film students to the heart of the movie industry.

December 16, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The plot thickened the minute the Massachusetts film students told the Hollywood experts their movie ideas.

Seven fledgling screenwriters from Boston University had spent months, even years, meticulously crafting the stories they hoped would help launch successful entertainment industry careers.

Now they were scattered around a recreation room at the Park La Brea apartment complex in the Fairfax district, nervously explaining story lines and character development to some of Hollywood's most successful film and TV writers.

The veterans were there to critique the newbies' stories and their salesmanship. Later, a second group -- producers with the clout to actually buy stories -- would listen to the student pitches.

"Pitch fests" are common in Hollywood, and they can be anxiety-inducing.

Commercially organized story-selling conferences attract wannabe screenwriters of all ages willing to pay hundreds of dollars for a 10-minute opportunity to hawk a movie proposal or script to studio types. Local schools that have cinema and television classes, including USC, stage them for graduate students.

But Boston is 2,600 miles from Hollywood. And Beantown's culture is far different from Tinseltown's.

Boston University tries to bridge both gaps by having film students spend a semester in Hollywood. The program costs students $20,000 each, including accommodations at Park La Brea, and mixes course work with entertainment industry internships. The 3 1/2 -month visits are capped with a university-organized pitch fest.

"They couldn't do this in Boston," said university writing instructor Brian Herskowitz, a longtime television writer (episodes of "Blossom" and "Tour of Duty") who recruited the event's panel of professionals.

Justin K. Rivers, a 22-year-old senior film major from Amsterdam, N.Y., said movie-making seems different on his side of the country.

"It's harder because being in Boston, we've been exposed to more of an East Coast mentality. Out here the films are a little more commercially oriented," he said. "When you get out here, you have to figure out how this town works."

Nearby, Nicole Adams, a Boston native and a graduate theater arts student, nodded in agreement. Like Rivers, she is on her first visit to Los Angeles.

"You have to get used to the people and the mentality out here. I love it and then I hate it. I hate the fast talking, the I-need-to-be-better-than-you attitude," said Adams, also 22.

Nonetheless, Hollywood is sprinkled with Boston University alumni, said Bill Linsman, a veteran commercial producer and director who oversees the school's West Coast program. They include Lauren Shuler Donner, producer of "X-Men" movies, "Mr. Mom" and "Free Willy"; Jason Alexander, a writer and director and an actor whose shows include "Seinfeld"; and Richard Gladstein, producer of "The Cider House Rules" and "Finding Neverland."

Soon it was story-pitching time. Rivers sat down in front of Allan Katz, a TV writer-producer whose work has included "Roseanne" and "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Adams took her place at the next table, where producer-writer Carla Kettner was waiting. Kettner's shows have included episodes of "Vanished" and "Strong Medicine."

Rivers, a science fiction fan, had three stories for Katz. One involved aliens and cowboys and one centered on a businessman using zombies to conquer a small upstate New York town. The third was what Rivers called a "fantasy adventure" revolving around a 13-year-old girl who unleashes a horde of creatures "locked in a parallel universe" from the attic of an old hotel in New York City.

The pitch was quick. Katz's response was gentle.

"Have you thought about what an audience is going to do if characters get eaten at the very beginning? What does that do to the tone of the film? I'm not making a judgment," Katz said diplomatically of the hotel story.

"You've got innocents who get killed.... I think for a family type of film, most people want things to work out to be OK."

Rivers nodded. "That's true. You want the happy ending."

At Kettner's table, Adams was outlining a complicated-sounding story focusing on an 11-year-old girl who is being raised in a subway and one day discovers "that she cannot sing."

Adams, herself a singer, had considered putting her pitch to music. But she decided that might be too radical, even in Hollywood.

She'd worked on the story for four years, Adams explained. Her lead character must sing in order to save her brother's life. The girl's effort to learn how to sing "opens painful memories" but ultimately helps lead her mother out of drug addiction, she said.

Kettner said the story needed more focus. She suggested beefing up the tension between the girl and her mother.

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