Monday, August 8, 2011

Guest Post: How I Spent my Summer Vacation, by Roxy

Roxy is a woman who needs no introduction.  As is the case with all such women, she'll get one, anyway.  You can find Roxy's main blog over at Effortless Anthropologie, and you can keep up with her personal stylings over on her Tumblr.  Roxy has been a force within the Anthro community, not only online but also through the events and get-togethers she organizes through her blog.  In short:  she's fabulous!  If you didn't think so before, I'm sure you'll think so now. . .

Back in the late 1990s, there was this TV show called "The Pretender." It was ostensibly about this really smart guy who escaped from a secret corporation doing evil research and used his smarts to help people, etc., but to me it was about this guy who with just a few personality and clothing tweaks could convincingly perform just about any job. Doctor, cop, truck driver, whatever. I loved it! The idea that if you set your mind to it you could be just about anything has resonated with me into adulthood. That isn't to say that I'm about to walk into a hospital cold turkey and become an ER doctor a la Frank Abignale, Jr., but it has encouraged me to stretch my skillset and reach for jobs, opportunities and goals that are maybe just beyond my grasp in hopes of pulling them in.

Which is to say that I'm a dreamer. My lifelong friends have grown accustomed to me every couple of years suddenly changing gears from wanting to be a rock star to a tech whiz to a blogger to whatever. It isn't the most mature of pursuits to change gears so often I admit. It has however led to some exhilirating adventures that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. And they're actually all based on one dream, which is writing. Writing music, writing code, writing words, writing writing writing! Someday I will find the right piece to complete the puzzle that is my passion for writing. Until then I am committed to trying out as many variations of the venture as possible.

My most recent attempt was born of logical foundations. I swear! Eager to keep my writing skills fresh, I enrolled in a writing certificate program at one of the local NYC universities. Originally the idea had been to focus on creative writing for fiction -- novels. I've had a story in my head since I was about 13 that's evolved and grown from an idea into a book, or series or books. At 27 I decided it was finally time to put it down on a paper.

A funny thing happened on the way to the publishing house though. Last year I was taking a story development class to learn about pacing, character development, and how to build an arc. The semester-long assignment was to take a novel that had no sequel and write the sequel. When a classmate told me they'd convinced the professor to let them write the next season of a TV show instead, I was intrigued. After some convincing the professor allowed me to do the same. I stuck to writing in novel style while lovingly crafting 13 "espisode" chapters for one of my can't-miss shows. Our class read all the stories and voted on our favorite. To my shock my story won. At the end of the semester, the professor pulled me aside to let me know his wife (who'd agreed to read the novel because she was familiar with the show and its characters) really loved the story. He recommended that I think about taking some TV writing classes to see if I liked it to develop those skills more.

Hmmm. The tiny gears in my head starting spinning, and through a series of cogs and spokes an idea was sparked. I realized that the original story idea I had in my head would work fine as a book, but how cool would it be to make it a TV show? I had ideas for multiple books, which could easily be translated into multiple seasons. After my consulting my friends -- who properly made fun of me for writing what amounted to fan fiction for that novel class -- they encouraged me to give it a go with TV classes. So the next semester I took a TV writing fundamentals class and loved it. This year I've taken a couple more classes, including a class on developing your own TV show. It's been a fun ride that has helped me strengthen my show's characters and some of the plotlines.

As my friends will tell you, when my mind is set on something I can't be stopped. I'm what you might call stubborn. Still, I wasn't really sure where this was leading. I was learning how to write for a TV show on the coast opposite from 80% of most show productions (and in the case of Vancouver, entirely the wrong country). With zero Hollywood connections, how would I ever get this idea in front of the right eyes?

Enter fate. Or luck. Or whatever you want to call it. This most recent semester my professor let me know about a conference in Hollywood where unknowns could pitch their ideas to select agencies and production studios. We weren't talking about small studios or unknown agencies -- we were talking Top 5 Agencies and studios you've heard of if you watch television. My professor was recommending me for one of the college's slots, which got me discounted admission to the conference. I was excited, but then disappointed. I doubted I could take the time off of work. When I looked at the dates I realized a friend of mine had asked me out to LA at the same time to help him unveil a website we'd built together. I could make them both happen in one trip. My disappointment turned back to excitement. And then sheer glee!

After I recovered from nearly fainting, my late Spring was spent with my creative mind in overdrive. There was so much to do to prepare! I asked friends and classmates for referrals to Hollywood-types in NYC that I could speak with. I met several and asked for advice. I took notes. I read books. I joined networking groups. It's not like you can just walk into these studio meetings, pitch your idea, and immediately have them buy them if you're an unknown.

Could I really do it? Having the support of my friends meant a lot, but when I tossed the idea by my sister and she too was all for it it galvanized the idea for me. Any doubt I had was pushed out. I churned out 5 scripts for my show, including 20 revisions on my pilot. I wrote a treatment and a charcter guide and all the pieces I needed to properly present. I sought out help from my friends to read and give feedback on my scripts. I wrote 4 spec scripts, which are scripts for existing TV shows, in case anyone wanted to see evidence of my writing style tailored to someone else's idea. I wrote a pitch and practiced it. And refined it. And changed it. And presented it to a mirror. And presented it to my friends. All this while working a full-time job that I am very dedicated to. I hardly slept. It was three of the most worthwhile yet exhausting months I've spent.

Learning about the way Hollywood works was mindblowing. When I was ready to apply to the Writer's Guild, the preparatory reading material I was sent was hilarious. Where but Hollywood would you find a job description that has tips on how do things like pick up an executive producer's laundry, how to prepare for life in a windowless room (the writer's room) for 18 hours a day at times and how you should be ready to be a gopher for years before getting your shot. Still, as incredulous as I was it made me realize how competitive the industry is. People are willing to do whatever it takes because there are very few jobs in the industry and lots and lots of people who want to work within. Many of the books I read were written to persuade people not to even try working in Hollywood. I hope it worked -- on other people. For me, it was like if the chances are slim to none that means there's still a chance!

When it was time for the conference I felt ready, and incredibly nervous. I took the maximum number of Dramamine possible for the flight from JFK to LAX but I hardly slept. I was too full of adrenaline. I've been to the LA area before (mainly Hermosa Beach, Venice Beach, Santa Monica and San Diego). Hollywood is unlike anything I've ever experienced though. Now I understand all those wide-eyed tourists. I was one.

In that starry-eyed setting, a famous Hollywood hotel played host to our conference. Day 1 was all about learning: panels with executive producers (or showrunners as they're called these days), agents, producers, studios and bigwigs who talked about what they looked for in a new show. While the audience was probably about 75% scripted writers, the panels were about 60% unscripted-focused. Reality, game shows, education, etc. For those of us into scripted it was an ominous indicator -- with unscripted shows so inexpensive to produce, the hurdle to clear to get an expensive scripted show into production seemed more unsurmountable.

Of course if you think that stopped me (or any of the sripted attendees) you'd be wrong. On day 2 it was time to present our pitches. There was about 40 studios/agencies/producers in attendance, and we each got the chance to sit with 2 as part of the admission for 10 minutes each. It wasn't a long appointment (pitches are usually about 30-60 minutes) but for unknowns like me it was HUGE. What I didn't realize was that pitches were all in one big ballroom -- at your appointment time you just walked in, located the right table, and pitched to your appointment while around you 40 other people did the same. It was LOUD.

And like any good story, this one has a twist: there was the opportunity to get additional pitch appointments. With 40 companies in attendance and about 250 conference attendees, it was likely that someone would have a free time slot over the course of the day. Or maybe a pitch only lasted two minutes because the idea wasn't the right fit or the company didn't like it. That left 8 minutes for someone else to step in. To get the opportunity to a pinch-pitcher we kept the baseball references going by waiting in the bullpen. This was a line of attendees interested in pitching to additional companies. When a company was available a line manager called out the company's name, and you raised your hand if you were interested in pitching. The line manager would go down the line and the first person who was interested would get the pitch. Which of course meant being up front was important. For unscripted pitchers the success rate was much higher -- those pitches seemed to be a lot shorter thant the scripted pitches.

My first appointment was at 9 AM with an agency. I have to admit my nerves got the best of me. I rushed through my pitch, condensing 6 minutes of information into 2 and a half minutes of my New York fast-talking. Luckily, the agent was interested enough to ask a few questions. He made a suggestion that amounted to me totally changing my idea. I couldn't help laughing a bit at the idea of completely reworking my show, and he broke his tough guy demeanor to laugh along with me. "Just think about it," he said. He even gave me his contact info, which was a huge win! And then, at the 5 minute mark of our appointment, he announced we were done.

Wait, what? I paid a lot of money to come out here for 20 minutes worth of time, and you're cutting out 5 minutes of that precious time??!? Yet there was nothing I could do. We thanked each other and I got up and left the ballroom. The appointment had been a success, but I wish it had gone better still. I suppose there was one advantage -- I got right into the bullpen line which was very short at that point. I was 3rd in line. Unfortunately for me the 2 people in front of me were waiting for the same companies I was. So I went from hoping to hear those companies' names once to hoping to hear them thrice. Eep!

My next pitch appointment was at noon. As the minutes ticked by I watched people nervously wait their turn to go into the ballroom to pitch; come out alternately dejected or excited. I shared victories with friends I'd made along the way and comisserated with people who, like me, wish their appointments had gone a bit better. All the while I kept one eye on the line manager, hoping to see the company names I wanted forming on his lips.

Finally at 11 AM one of the companies I wanted got called. The first lady in line grabbed the appointment of course, but it meant I was one step closer. I was now second in line. At 11:15, the other company I wanted was called. This moved me into first!!! But with my other appointment at noon, I had only one more bullpen opportunity before I'd have to step out of the bullpen and into line for my real appointment.

At 11:30, my companies were not called. I'd lost my chance.

So I went to my second appointment, which was one for the highlight reel. This Top 5 agency had sent two representatives who'd perfected their poker faces. I delivered my pitch much better the second time around, getting across what I wanted to in about 6 minutes. It was like pitching to two statues. I smiled and laughed at parts and those two gentlemen just sat across the way, staring emptily at me. I'd been prepared for this by a pitch coach (yes they really have those) but wow, it was disarming in real life. When I was done I expected to get dismissed. But they asked a question. And then another. And then another. Promising after all!

Until, that is, one of the agents pointed out that there was a show in development set in the same industry as mine. He was trying to make the kiss of death comparison -- that my show was too much like that one -- but I was able to diffuse it by illustrating some differences. I had to think on my feet but I thought I did well. They nodded at each other and thanked me. I gave them my card and left the appointment with only about 10 seconds to spare.

Was that really going to be it?? When things go my way they usually really go my way! I had been hoping for one of my appointments to be dying over the idea, insisting we speak more before I left town. Instead I got to give out three cards and had one email address. Not exactly the results I was looking for.

It wasn't all bad news though -- the bullpen line had cleared from about 70 people down to 15 while most of the attendees went to lunch. I hopped right back in, hoping one of my companies would somehow have enough free appointments to see me. The pitch day ended at 3. When it got to be 1:30, a bit of dejection started creeping in.

Then a miraculous thing happened: my friend the line manager called out one of the studios I desperately wanted to pitch to. And NO ONE in front of me wanted it. They'd all either already seen that studio or were looking to pitch unscripted. So I got it! I nearly fainted right there. I rushed in. After eagerly introducing myself and making some small talk I jumped into my pitch. By then I had it down pat. This guy actually nodded while I was pitching, even taking a couple of notes along the way. He asked lots of great questions that showed he got my idea. All too quickly our time was up, but he kept chatting with me anyway. He asked me for my card and then let me know that he was interested!! He was going to kick it up the chain and if they were interested they'd get in touch with me. I nearly died. Also, the lady in charge of ushering us in and out of the room and keeping things on time was nearly on top of me by that point, ready to knock me out.

I escaped from the room, doing a Rocky-style fists in the air jog on the way out. It felt GOOD. The trip was now worth it.

It's been a few weeks now, and I'm back in New York working on more scripts. I've started looking for a manager and even talked to a few agents. I haven't heard back from anyone at the conference, though I didn't really expect to. The fact that I now have professional pitches under my wings makes me feel great.

And so that's how I've spent my summer vacation. You might think I'm crazy and that's OK. I realize this dream is a longshot (like the longest of longshots), but that means there's still a chance. If the idea is good enough you'd be surprised how far that can take you. My day job is just like being an executive producer, as I told the people I pitched to. I manage staff, budgets, and oversee complex projects for demanding clients on a daily basis. Skills I'm sure I could translate to Hollywood. Oh sure it might be a bit of a reach. But all I need is a chance. I've found that when I set my mind on something, I can be just about anything.

(If you know anyone in the TV business, from writer to assistant to studio staff to agent to manager to whoever, on either coast, I'd love an introduction! Email me to chat more. And thanks to JG for letting me share this epic tale!)

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