What a week it has been! The final days leading up to the Nashville Writers Conference were spent reviewing and trimming The Calling in anticipation of conference’s pitch session.
I received my ‘dance card’ for the pitch session that included Danny Manus (pitch coach), Mark Bomback (action screenwriter), Signe Olynyk (Great American Pitch Festival Co-Founder and horror screenwriter) and Chad Hayes (horror screenwriter). It’s a good thing I was prepping The Calling as I only received one action pitch, effectively taking Come Ups out of the picture. Chad Hayes and Mark Bomback were two of my selections, but the other two were selected by the conference. I still wasn’t sure what the value of pitching to screenwriters was (other than practice) and I had not heard back from the conference why the implied 10 pitches had been whittled back to a guarantee of three. Ultimately, we all got 4 pitches, but that was still far below what was promised when I and the other writers signed up.
Still, four was better than nothing and I set off for Nashville with two scripts that I was reasonably confident in, though I was unsure about the actual pitch itself. I have pitched in situations like this before but have never been comfortable with the process. I’m not sure how to sell a two-hour story in 5 minutes. How do you hook your pitchee, what are the moments of the story you want to hit or should you just outline the first act? Set it up and let them ask questions? Do you lead with the logline or just launch into the story?
I arrived Wednesday night but didn’t make it in time to attend the opening night party. Instead I checked into a hotel that more closely resembled a flophouse. I’m not sure where they got the pictures posted on this particular hotel’s website but to call them misleading would be an understatement of immense proportions. This came shortly after arguing with Hertz about my rental car.
Hertz didn’t have any more economy cars so they wanted to upgrade me to another level that was only $70 per day more than what I had already paid for. I wasn’t about to add another $210 to my bill so they finally agreed to give me a van at no extra charge. So yes, I was driving around Nashville in a multi-passenger van. Then they tried to upgrade my insurance to a premium package. I turned that down and was presented with a bill for $184. By turning down the premium package it meant I was automatically accepting the basic insurance package. The fact I had my own insurance mattered little to the agent. It took some more arguing before she finally agreed to take off the insurance charges completely. All in all, Hertz tried to charge me nearly $400 extra over and beyond what I had already paid for my rental car. This did not put me in the best mood for dealing with the issue of the pitch session.
After a restless night in the flophouse, I was really cranky when I arrived at the conference. Julie O’Hora was the director of the pitch session and she attempted to explain that more people had signed up to pitch than they had anticipated. After some grumbling on my part, Julie did offer another pitch, taking my total up to 5. This was close to the guarantee of 6 but only half of the implied 10. I was still unsure as to the benefit of pitching to other screenwriters, and Julie tried to explain about access and meeting people, but I was still unconvinced. To be honest, I was not the happiest of campers at that moment, and there was probably not a whole she could have said to assuage my concerns. To her credit, Julie checked in with me numerous times throughout the conference to make sure I was getting the most out of my attendance, something that would pay off immensely in the end, but I’ll get to that.
I attended a number of breakout sessions on both days of the conference and got to hear first hand accounts of fellow screenwriter’s adventures in the trenches. The panelists included the Hayes Brothers, Mark Bomback, Max Borenstein, Andrea Berloff, Jeb Stuart, Jacob Krueger and Keya Khayatian among others. I did a considerable amount of live tweeting from the breakout sessions, passing along tidbits of wisdom such as:
“If you’re willing to work, any idea can be a great idea.”
- Jacob Krueger
“If you’re not placing in the top 10% of contests, you have more work to do.”
- Maxx Timm
“Pitching is more about making a connection than making a sale.”
- Danny Manus
This last bit of advice came in handy with the pitch sessions and finally made me understand what Julie O’Hora was talking about when she mentioned access.
I also did several video updates on various breakout sessions, which you can find on The Screenwriter’s Journey Facebook page. If you haven’t seen them, I recommend you check them out.
The breakout sessions were packed with information, and there were more of them than I could attend. Unfortunately, I had to choose to miss several of them in order to attend others. But what I liked most about the conference was the fact that the panelists didn’t just disappear after their session. They stood around in the lobby of the theater where you could approach them and ask questions. They were there for the lunches, the happy hour and the after parties. They were involved in every aspect of the conference and were accessible. This is what Julie meant when she explained to me that the conference was all about gaining access to successful people in the industry. They could become contacts for you. You weren’t just networking with other writers looking to break into the business; you were connecting with people who had established careers.
This was something different than I had experienced at other conferences where the big names disappeared as soon as their panel ended. Sure, it was nice to have a beer with Joe from Tulsa and talk about you respective screenplays, but it didn’t really advance your prospects. Meeting with the people at the Nashville Writers Conference did, and this led to the pitch session. By the time you sat down to do your pitch, you already had an opportunity to meet these people and form a connection. I probably should have done more networking in advance of the pitch session, but I wasn’t truly aware of the opportunity based on my previous experience at such conferences.
I began my pitches with Danny Manus. I pitched The Calling and about halfway through I knew I was getting long-winded and convoluted. Danny stopped me and gave me some advice on how to shorten the pitch to hit the main points, and, most importantly, he gave me a way to begin the pitch.
Next up was Mark Bomback (Insurgent, Wolverine and Live Free or Die Hard). This was my chance to pitch Come Ups. It didn’t go so well. I never really got to tell the story. Instead, we got weighed down in who should be cast in various roles. I was not prepared to offer suggestions as to casting and we got off on a tangent that led further away from the story. Let’s just say I did not make a connection with Mark. That’s not to say I didn’t learn from him, but if I had been pitching to a production company I would have blown it.
No matter, I was on to my next pitch and back to The Calling. I employed Danny Manus’ suggested opening an received some interest, but the story telling was still a little involved. A second strike, but now I was moving on to Chad Hayes (The Conjuring).
Though I had two less than successful pitches, I was feeling a little more comfortable with the process when I sat down with Chad. Again, I started with Danny Manus’ opening and launched into a shortened, highlight version of the story with an emphasis on imagery. It was a vastly different pitch than the one I gave Danny and it piqued Chad’s interest. He particularly liked the imagery and some of the backstory that set up events. He asked a couple of questions and then asked to see the script. A huge success! Chad Hayes asked to see my script, but he went even further. He suggested I talk with Daniela Garcia-Brcek, literary manager for Circle of Confusion, or Keya Khayatian, literary agent for UTA, regarding representation. This was more than I could have hoped for, unfortunately, neither of those individuals were on my pitch card. This is where access comes into play. Following the pitch session was a happy hour followed by the closing night party. Since the panelists hung out, I would have an opportunity to approach them.
With extreme giddiness, I went to my fifth and final pitch only to discover the pitchee was a no show due to work issues. So, I ended up with only my four original pitches. No matter, I had one script request under my belt plus a recommendation to meet with an agent or a manager or both. I sought out Julie O’Hora and told her that Chad Hayes had recommended I speak with Daniela or Keya. Julie promptly found Daniela and introduced us. I did an impromptu pitch with Daniela, and she too requested a script. That’s two home runs for The Calling, a script I brought as a backup.
Of course, getting a request for a submission is one thing, having anything come of it is another matter entirely. It would be great if one or the other called and said they loved the script, let’s do something with it. The chances of that happening are minimal. They may not like it or could have something similar in the works or any number of other reasons could prevent the script from moving forward. The takeaway here is the Nashville Writers Conference provided unprecedented access to industry professionals. It allowed newcomers to make contact and network with established professionals. You weren’t dealing with interns or low-level assistants but actual insiders with power. This is what Julie had tried to explain in our first meeting, but I was too cranky to truly hear what she was saying. I wish I had understood the kind of access we were to be granted earlier on; I may have approached the conference a little differently.
Overall, I was very impressed with the Nashville Writers Conference and met a lot of truly wonderful people, both beginners and seasoned professionals. I got a lot out of the breakout sessions and, of course, getting script requests is just icing on the cake.
One last note, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention meeting Ken Miyamoto who writes the screenwriting blog on Screencraft.org. Ken was an awesome guy with some great stories to tell over a couple of beers. If you haven’t checked out his blog, do so. He’s got great advice for beginners. You can check him out at https://screencraft.org/screenwriting/.
Was the Nashville Writers Conference worth attending? Absolutely. Would I go again? Most definitely. But first, I ‘ve got a screenplay to review before sending it off.