Get Back in the Room

Get Back in the Room

“You’re gonna do what?” I asked, nearly dumbstruck.

“Zoom,” he said.

“The pitch?” I confirmed. “To the network?”

“That’s how they want to hear it.”

“Bad move,” I instantly replied, sounding all kneejerk and know-it-all.

“I don’t mind it,” my young friend shrugged.

“You should. The pitch is too good,” I insisted. “You gotta get in the room with them.”

It didn’t make sense to me. As well it might not make sense to you, having come of writing age during the touchless pandemic and this aftermath of everything virtual all the time. Then again, if Zoom meetings are all you know, pairing it with the visual panache of pitch decks after you got through the door with an emailed one-liner, this might sound alien.

But the sooner the better, writers must wean themselves off the Zoom and get back in the rooms.

A quick primer. We are storytellers before we are writers. The written word is merely our preferred conduit to express the tales we wish to tell. Given our druthers, we’d rather seal ourselves inside a box, produce our work, spit it out through a printer or a .pdf file and get paid. If it weren’t for how the buyers want to play the game, we might have had our way.

Buyers, you see, don’t have the time to read every spec screenplay or manuscript. They want to hear you tell it before saying yes or no—or even maybe, whereupon they’d like to impart their thoughts, ideas, good or bad, and which movie star or director they’d like to be in business with. This cabal of quantifiers (executives and producers) as I like to call them want to reduce your story to a calculus that either fits or fails some marketing scheme known only to them and their overlords.

Sounds daunting? Believe me, it is.

But here’s the secret superpower writers possess to unlocking the bank vault. We’re human. And so are the quantifiers. And as much as they’d like to turn you and your pitch into a metric, their primal self wants to like you and you to like them. That’s the unwritten social compact known as nature.

It begins with a handshake. Eye contact. Smiles. A little small talk, often boiling down to shared references. People being people, seeking the communal warmth of a positive social interaction. This is all before you start your presentation. All that is missing are the cocktails. So, try as they might to reduce your pitch to a cold number, they are left with a feeling. They liked you. They laughed at the funny parts. They enjoyed the meeting and imagined having more. Even more importantly, they were moved. Which, in the end, is the ultimate result.

They were moved. Thus the audience will be. And that’s a far simpler math than they intended to employ.

Enter COVID-19, where we shut ourselves in without shuttering our business. Of course, because Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms were already in existence, it seemed everybody became an instant expert at setting up appointments from our safe spaces. The pre-pitch social intercourse was mostly resigned to pandemic chatter as well the apologies for the strange discomfort of connecting screen to screen instead of face to face. It was very much less than optimal but considering the circumstance, it would have to do until vaccines and the deadly veil of the virus was lifted.

Mind you, I’m not here to defend or decry. For some, the crisis is over, and for others, it is not. Therefore, Zoom, if you must. But know that you’re doing so at your own professional peril. There is little chance of the seller and buyer connecting beyond the numbers, be it how they measure you or the digital bytes that engineer the meeting technology.

Don’t believe me? How about I break it down even more.

Experts claim that the percentage of our non-verbal communication lands anywhere between 70 and 93 percent. That is to say, the majority of what we send and receive during in-person meetings can be reduced to body language, positioning, movement, the spaces we put between each other, the modulation of our voices, and eye contact.

Now, you’d think eye contact wouldn’t be lost in Zoom. After all, we’re face to face on our screens. But we’re not near close to eye to eye. Our screen is not the camera lens, be it on our phone or tablet or computer screen. It’s off kilter. You might be looking at them, but they aren’t looking at you, or it’s the other way around. And how often are we self-consciously glancing at the little box with our own picture in it? Are you in the meeting with multiple people? Are they in Brady Bunch boxes or is your preferred setting on the app picturing the person now speaking? It’s awkward. There’s no cross talk or the natural interruptions that come when passions overtake.

And isn’t that what we’re aiming for? Passion? Emotion?

If there ever was a circumstance to make it easier for the quantifier to put a number on you—or to sum up your story and the telling of it to a definite “no”—it is in these virtual sessions.

In other words, easier for them, harder for you. Its bloodless. Cold.

Next advice. And it’s something about easy. Easy is not always best. Easy doesn’t make for good stories. Easy breeds laziness in both writers and executives.

Competition wise, making it as a professional writer is a Hitchcock fight to come out on top amidst a murder of murderous crows. It’s a Darwinian contest of you versus the fittest, already established writers who want the gig more than you. Which begs the question; why would you put yourself at a disadvantage if you knew your chance of selling your pitch was further diminished because the buyer/studio/producer/publisher insisted on taking the meeting via Zoom?

OK. You’re a newbie—aka a baby writer. I’ve been there and done that. Sometimes the best shot is a half-court Hail Mary. Therefore, take aim and let it fly. Luck is a definite component in success. Be ready for it if that’s what happens. As well, try as you might, your only chance at a meeting of any kind is something less than optimal.

I recall a remake I had a strong take on. The studio was Dimension Films and the producer was Bob Weinstein. And yes, he was Harvey Weinstein’s partner and younger brother.

Zoom didn’t yet exist. And I was told by my agent that Bob would only do pitches over the phone because he was in New York, and I was in Los Angeles. I asked if I could do the meeting when Bob was in Los Angeles. As it turned out, Bob wasn’t going to be in L.A. for weeks and they wanted to get development on the remake under way. My only choices were to fly to New York, make my pitch blind and over a telephone line, or step away altogether. I had too much already invested, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to roundtrip to New York and back just for a pitch. Thus, I buckled up and did my best to bring the story to life via wire alone.

Like I said. Sometimes your options are limited to one—do it virtual or forget it altogether. I say that’s fine, but only after you’ve done your darndest to level the playing field.

“The pitch is going to be virtual,” says your representative.

“Can you please ask if there’s any circumstance where I can do it in person?” you reply. “I’m happy to do it entirely at their convenience. Name the day and the time. Or if they’re concerned about the virus, maybe somewhere outside over coffee. Trust me. I’m better in person.”

“They expect you to supply a pitch deck,” adds your representative.

“If they really want a pitch deck, I can bring it to an in-person meeting and answer all the questions they might have,” you reply. “They’re taking the meeting with me because they liked my one-liner. Just would like to put my best foot forward. As my rep, I hope you want me to put my best foot forward.”

Note: Based on your agent/manager’s reply, you may need to remind yourself that they work for you. How to impart a reminder to them is an art form that I’ll leave up to you, or save for another Pipeline installment.

A brief word about pitch decks. This is another cheat for unimaginative executives who need some form of organized visuals to assist them in putting a numerical figure to your presentation. If they insist, I suggest you create a deck that inspires them to ask curious questions. This is opposed to clarifying questions, which are certain to happen as well. Curious questions are those asked because you have stirred up possibilities in their minds. Have answers. Because if you’ve engaged them in creative conversations about your project, you just might have a hook in them.

Lastly, there’s the issue of your zip code. Much of my advice centers on you—the writer—being available should you convince a buyer to get in the room with you. What Zoom and other virtual platforms have afforded is a sliver of a toenail in a door that was unavailable to you before tech allowed writers to reside far outside the business centers of Los Angeles and New York City. Bully for that. Just know that if you are adept enough to survive the virtual gauntlet, there will likely be further meetings where you will be expected to appear in person, further testing your on-the-spot acumen for stitching up story.

Ask any showrunner who is not a germaphobe. A virtual writer’s room sucks because there’s little room for those thirty-second, after-thought meetings where you stand in your boss’ or colleague’s doorway and share ideas that don’t necessarily bubble up in a crowd.

Remember my young friend? The one with the dilemma at the start of this post? He’s currently gathering his team and giving it his all to make sure their golden pitch is an in-person meet. If it happens, their chances at a sale and a series order are that much greater.

*Feature photo by Maurício Mascaro (Pexels)

Doug Richardson is a screenwriter and author whose work includes Bad Boys, Die Hard 2, and Hostage, nine novels and countless blogs. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
More posts by Doug Richardson.
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