Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Twisted Confessions and Atramentous Musings of A "Broke" Writer (The Pitch)

There are seminal moments of particular paramountcy within a postulant writer’s journey. These moments can be as minuscule as a writer's initial purchase of Final Draft or as gargantuan as the first time we type the words “The End” after one hundred plus pages of laborious work on our first feature. The moments act as proverbial lighthouses that guide one securely through the otherwise turbulent seas known as a "writing career". Few “lighthouses” loom with more intimidation than the writer’s first professional pitch meeting. (A pitch meeting is when a writer meets with someone of relative importance in an attempt to sell their script.)

“A large part of being successful comes from knowing your strengths and weaknesses.” Not sure when/where, but I’m fairly certain I’ve heard that phrase uttered a time or two throughout my life. Although my next statement will be dripping with the unbridled hubris of a meth-fuel Kanye West competing at your local elementary talent show, I’ll write it anyway. I’m a damn good writer. I put "pen to paper" with the ease, brilliance, and similar consistency of Stephen Curry shooting a basketball. Yeah. I think I’m that good. The “writing” part of being a writer isn’t an easy task by any measure, but I’m very comfortable with that aspect of the job. The "business" part of being a writer is where the challenges arise for me. And one could reasonably argue that “pitching” is the most critical component within the business side of my chosen profession. So while I'm not lacking confidence in regards to my ability to compose words to form an amazing story, I’m substantially less proficient in the art of pitching that aforementioned amazing story.

My first pitch became a reality after I had the good fortune of having an encounter with a film producer while at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He isn’t one of those guys with an IMDB page that's littered with credits that no one outside the families of the cast and crew know. This producer has produced more than a few films you’ve heard of. None of which I will tell you. During our brief interaction he asked me one question outside the topic of Sundance. “What do you do?” To which I replied confidently and proudly, “I write.” “So what’s your script?” The only thing I said was the film’s genre. Literally nothing more. He raised an eyebrow, smiled, and gave me his card. I emailed him a week after I got back from Utah, his assistant replied, we set a date and time for a pitch meeting, and that was it.

Fast forward a few more weeks and the day finally came. After a stressful drive over to his offices in Santa Monica, and a few angst ridden minutes that felt like eons in the lobby, I was ushered into a spacious conference room for my pitch. I would love to tell you that was a roaring success. That I'm now a lot richer and that it was the Gettysburg Address of pitch meetings but... it wasn’t. However, it wasn’t a complete dumpster fire. In short, I probably could not have been the worst he's seen but I surely wasn't the best. As hard as I tried I don't feel like I gave an articulate account of the story. My story. You’d think the person who wrote the damn thing would be the one person that could accomplish that essential task. When the conversation was focused on my script, which was about half my time, I was nothing more than an agglomeration of nerves, mumbling words when asked simple questions about my story. Oddly enough, once things steered toward talking about myself, I was far more relaxed and spoke with much greater enthusiasm. Not sure if that speaks more to my inability to pitch or to my furtive narcissism.

Once we finish discussing everything I thanked the producer for his time, gave him a physical copy of my script, which he promised to read over the next few weeks, and that was that. Like seemingly everything a person does in their life, hindsight has offered me a myriad of different choices I should’ve made. In retrospect, I can admit that I was terribly unprepared. I spent most of my time before the meeting tightening and polishing my script until it was near perfect, instead of actually practicing my pitch. I should have drilled that pitch over and over until I could recite it backwards… upside-down… blindfolded... in Mandarin.

My second mistake was not having enough passion. Which I’ve been told is a HUGE part of pitching. Just having an overwhelming amount of passion and confidence in what you’re pitching can be the difference between success or failure. Now all have I left to bank on is my script and the hope that my writing is strong enough to sell my script because my pitch wasn’t. I can envision this opportunity ending in one of three ways. Realistic best case scenario, maybe the story isn’t right for his production company but the writing is cogent enough to warrant more opportunities to pitch other scripts to him. Worst case, my script’s in the trash and I’ll never talk to him again. Fantasy best case scenario, he options my script, makes my movie, I get rich, and develop an addiction to cocaine and Brazilian booty models. (That’s partly a joke. Which part… I won’t say.) 

I'm not a glass half-full guy but I can reflect on a few good things about this whole experience. Speaking to the assistant in the front, who was also a writer, I realized how rare this happening was. The assistant has been working with this producer for a couple of years, sits less than twenty feet from the guy Monday through Friday and still hasn’t been able to pitch anything himself. So when he learned that I got this meeting not by way of a manager or an agent, but from a random meeting at Sundance, he was shocked to say the least. Win, lose, or draw, I was able to secure an actual pitch meeting with a multi-millionaire producer with nothing more than the words “blaxploitation, kung-fu, revenge thriller.” That’s it. I didn’t even tell him what the story was. As I said earlier, I only gave the story’s genre. (The script is titled “The Telling Of The Untold Legend Of Sonny Whispers”. The title character takes his namesake from an alternative moniker of my older brother Shelton. And the title was a suggestion of my friend Al Green and no not THAT Al Green. Thanks fellas.) Maybe one day you’ll see Ol' Sonny Whispers in movie theaters. If you like, you can actually read it. Just leave me a comment saying so and I’ll happily email it to you.

Either way, I’m glad it’s over and I’m even more glad I did it. Just getting that meeting was an accomplishment. There are countless writers and directors in this town that would perform a variety of unspeakable sexual acts for a mere handshake and hello with that producer. I got thirty undivided minutes of this guy's time off the strength of my story's unique nature and the confidence I oozed when he asked what I did. If anything that's something and I learned a lot about the process of pitching. Mainly that I need to get better at it but I learned something. I HAVE to and WILL get better at it. The art of pitching that is. Because like I said, I’m a really, really great fucking writer and THERE will be a next time. And after it's over, I'll be here to write about it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

All That Glitters

Truth be told I put WAYYY too much energy and time into caring about this. Every year I think to myself, “I’m a struggling Black artist getting upset at rich White people winning awards that I thought other rich White people should have won. What the hell is wrong with me?” But you know what? I don’t care. This shit is important to me. I really love movies. Not only because it’s my chosen profession, but because I feel like it’s important that we chronicle this stuff. That we recognize the films that truly matter in a given year and award the people that made them. That we honor their hard-work. (And trust me people, don’t let the dresses, suits, and all that pomp fool you. THIS SHIT, film making, is hard W-O-R-K. And yes, it’s not building roads in the middle of winter but it’s tougher than it looks.) It’s a pimped out celebration of films, filmmakers, and just Hollywood itself. Nothing is quite like the Oscars and as always, there were a few twist and turns along the way.

Best Picture. Best Original Screenplay. Best Director. Best Cinematography. Not a bad haul at all as Birdman won most of the night’s top prizes. I honestly expect Birdman to split Best Picture and Best Director with Boyhood but that didn’t happen. I was VERY surprised that it took Best Original Screenplay given the roll that The Grand Budapest Hotel was on for most of the night. It’s not that I don’t like Birdman. In fact, up until about 3 weeks ago, I thought it was the best film of the year. Then I saw Boyhood and my mind changed. Boyhood was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had watching a film ever. There’s something so amazing about watching the little moments of people's life captured so perfectly while watching those people literally age before your eyes. It's brilliance comes from it's subtlety and simplistic yet complex nature. I mean the dialog in Boyhood is some of the most natural dialog ever put on screen. And just the logistics involved with making a film over 12 years is mind blowing! It's an undertaking unlike anything in the history of film and I figured that alone would carry it to a victory.

However, after sweeping all the guild awards, the writing was on the wall that the Best Picture race was all but Birdman’s to lose. To it's credit, it’s an amazing film. Visually unlike anything you’ll ever see, but I feel like it’s winning was just another example of Hollywood licking it’s own ass. If a film ABOUT filmmaking or film makers is HALF decent it has a shot. Just so happens that Birdman was actually really really fucking good. I just feel like Boyhood was better and the degree of difficulty making that film was way higher.

If Birdman did earn any of my sympathy it was when Michael Keaton lost Best Actor to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne is a much much younger actor and has years of getting nominated ahead of him. This really felt like Keaton’s last and only shot at winning. Keaton really is about 50% of why Birdman is so great, with 30% being Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work and the remaining 20% being a collection of strong supporting performances. In truth I haven’t seen Redmayne’s performance, but given his unbridled joy after winning he wasn’t  expecting himself to win so why should I have?

JK Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and Julianne Moore were pretty much locks in their respective acting categories. No surprises at all. Save for Arquette’s bad ass acceptance speak calling out for equal rights and equal pay for women in the workforce. You Go Girl!  I’ve always thought, if you got the stage, USE the stage. Graham Moore’s “Stay Weird. Stay Different” speech is sure to be talked about as well, but I’m Black, so by default, I have to say Common and John Legend gave the best speeches of the night. Besides, Neil Patrick Harris said it himself. Oscar MVPs.

Speaking of Neil Patrick Harris, can we just make it a law that dude host all the awards shows? He can do it all. Sing, dance, riff. Honestly, that was the best opening to the Oscars I’ve ever seen. I thought NPH was even better than Ellen, who wasn’t bad at all last year. Hmm. What were the odds that a gay award winning theater actor would be great at hosting a live stage event with musical numbers, multiple costume changes, and pre made gags/jokes?

There were a ton of other little nuggets from the night as well. Like how the hell did they pull of that "NPH predicts the show bit?" Jennifer Hudson being so good at singing that it reminded us that she won an Oscar for it (singing). That Glory performance being amazing and then somehow being topped by Lady Gaga. And so much more I’m forgetting so forgive me if I forgot something you liked. It was a pretty damn good show if you ask me. Congratulations to all the winners. Better luck next time to the nominees. God willing, and I get a break or two, I won’t be writing about this crap next year. Instead I’ll be getting wasted with Kevin Hart at the Vanity Fair 2016 Oscars Party in celebration of his Best Actor award in MY Oscar winning screenplay about a Black, gay Jewish actor performing one man shows during slavery titled Shuck N' Jive. Book it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

10 for 40

Saturday Night Live has been on the air longer than I’ve been alive. About 12 years longer if we’re getting technical. I don’t know what life is like without SNL and I kinda envy people older than me for that time in the world before it existed. And trust me when I say, as a Black man, wanting to go BACK in time is not a feeling that we often have. Pre-SNL TV and seeing Muhammad Ali in his prime are the ONLY reasons to go past 1980 in my book. You get a better sense of TWO things that only time can give you.

One, what TV was like before SNL and the impact it had. I bet it had to be so amazing watching SNL those first few years. Given the fact that we have things like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube and about 3,000 other channels on cable TV, today SNL seems like everything else. But in 1975, when we had about 5 channels, it had to be really shocking to see SNL back then. So fresh, so new, so different. At my age, 28, SNL is just SNL at this point. But for those old enough to remember TV before SNL, it had to be akin to watching a controlled car wreck of comedy unlike anything else at the time. 

The second thing that would be great about being older would be having a total understanding of ALL the jokes. So much of SNL's humor comes from it's topical and current world pop culture/political satire. I’m a SNL freak and a political history buff so I got an abnormal amount of the jokes, but a few things still went over my head. (I can only imagine what a novice felt like watching SNL 40.) Their were a few older faces and bits that got a cheer or laugh that I didn’t get. (IE the King Tutt musical bit, Bass-O-Matic, and the context of the Jaws Love Song.) Those moments are where anyone that was over 50 enjoyed the show at a level I could never truly understand. Tomorrow you all go back to being old bastards at the edge of death, but on February 15, 2015, I was genuinely jealous of you old farts. Anyway, in honor of SNL 40 here are MY 10 favorite moments.

10: Miley Cyrus Rocks!

Seeing Miley Cyrus not dressed like a crazy person or a transexual prostitute is kinda like seeing Keith Richards sober. It doesn’t happen often and each time it does, we should really cherish that moment. (Note: Keith Richards is totally going to outlive us all. Including roaches.) The only skin I saw on Ms. Cyrus was her face and hands. It was a refreshing change of pace seeing her FULLY clothed. Without the distraction of her ass hanging out, I finally noticed that she’s actually a VERY, VERY good singer and live performer.

9: Jaws Love Song

While I didn’t quite get the context of the joke, I did enjoy Bill Murray’s hilarious ode to what is arguably Steven Spielberg’s magna opus, Jaws. It’s a bit I’m guessing he’s done before about other popular movies, but given I didn’t see a moment of Murray in his prime on SNL, I didn’t understand the reason for the bit. But the song's lyrics were very funny, Murray was a riot, and he got one of two bleeps for the night.

8: Betty White and Bradley Cooper Go For Broke

The Californians sketch is one that I’ve never cared for. I've always thought it’s just a bunch of writers from New York creating what they feel is a humorous representation of the people from SoCal. Maybe it's because I’m not in those circles, but I’ve never ran into anyone in my 3 years here (I live in LA) that talks remotely like that. SNL 40 offered a version of the sketch with the usual players and a few added A-Listers for punch, Bradley Cooper and Betty White being two of them. And when the bit revealed the two as "secret lovers", what I, and I’m sure the rest of America, expected to be a pantomimed smooch turned into full on tonsil hockey between a 93 year old woman and a man 53 years her junior.

7: Steve Martin "Hosts" Monologue

I've come to understand that Steve Martin is one of those guys, like Billy Crystal and Mel Brooks, that will always be funny. Literally always. You can just tell that some guys are always going to have that fastball. I wouldn’t be surprised if the man’s funeral is funny. He’s a stand-up legend and after just a few minutes you can tell why he was given the first slot after the first commercial break. That man was born to make people laugh and he did that in heavy doses during his time on SNL 40.

6: Melissa McCarthy Channels Chris Farley

The Matt Foley sketch is one of the greatest sketches in SNL history. It’s simply brilliant. I'm telling you Chris Farley will be remember by fucking aliens for that sketch. But given the part/fact that Chris is ah… you know, dead, I didn’t expect to see the sketch in any other form besides a video clip. I mean it’s SNL 40, so yeah we all knew they were showing it. But Melissa McCarthy, in the “stars doing their favorite characters” bit during Weekend Update perfectly played up the late comedian’s most beloved character. Besides having Farley's look down perfectly, the bit was complete with all the physical humor from the original including McCarthy crashing through the Update desk, which I didn’t see coming. Bravo! Chris was somewhere laughing his ass off.

5: Seinfeld Takes Questions

He’s Jerry Fucking Seinfeld. Like Martin, this is what he does. Seinfeld did a bit where he took questions from the audience. A particular exchange with him and John Goodman was laugh-out-loud funny, along with a back and forth with Seinfeld show co-creator, Larry David. You can see why the guy is so respected and loved.

4: Jason Sudeikis Makes the Left Shark Look Normal

The “What’s Up With That” musical sketch featuring Kenan Thompson as an overzealous soul singer turned political pundit has always been one of my favorites on SNL. I wasn’t sure if I was going to see it, but during a brilliant musical themed bit, they broke Thompson lose. It’s the same song as always and in the background you can see a red tracksuit/b-boy clad Sudeikis losing his fucking mind. He’s provided background dancing for the skit for as long as I can remember but tonight he was especially funny. And given America's recent love of crazy attention hogging background dancers, I'm sure the rest of the viewing public got a kick out of Sudeikis as well.

3: Eddie Murphy Comes Home

It’s going to be very easy to bang on Eddie Murphy after this one. He was back on SNL for the first time since before I was born, 1984, and he was about as funny as a cancer patient fresh in remission battling AIDS. He didn’t do a single bit or character but the moment for me served as a much needed history lesson for the world. There would be no SNL without Eddie Murphy. There was a point in time when he was easily the funniest human on the planet. And along with Michael Jackson in the 1980’s one of the most famous people on the planet as well. Think about all the people there last night and remember this. Murphy was the ONLY one that got a standing ovation. There's a reason for that.

To often we clown his shitty choices in movies, his flops of the past few years and forget just how funny, daring, and brilliant this man was. I knew he did Beverly Hills Cop, Trading Places, and 48 Hours while on the show, but HOSTING SNL as a fucking cast member?! Can you imagine ANYONE on the show now, or anyone else while they were on the show, being big enough to do THAT?! Hellllll nooooo. (Will Ferrell wasn't a movie star while he was on SNL so you can't say him.) Murphy is a living comedy genius. Sure he wasn’t all that funny during his return but so what? I’m glad I got to see him on that stage and have THAT moment. He deserved it. He’s the one cast member that’s always seemed BIGGER than the show and I’d love to think this could be the groundwork for him to come back and host the show. 

2: Audition Tapes

The coolest moment of the night for me was something I thought I’d NEVER see. The SNL audition tapes are something of legend in the film/TV business. You’ve heard the stories about certain people’s (audition tapes) and how great they were. The stories about how TERRIBLE someone that’s famous now was during their audition. It was so cool seeing everyone so young, fresh faced, and bright eyed. They were all full of so much life and energy. It’s a moment that changed all of their lives and it's something they ALL had to do. You could tell that some just had it from the moment they opened their mouths. Like Will Ferrell. Some were raw, but had promise. Like Seth Meyers. And some had no chance in hell to get onto the show. Like Kevin Hart.

1: Celebrity Jeopardy

Ultimately, SNL is a comedy sketch show, so while the previous two moments weren’t particularly funny, I felt like the top moment of SNL 40 had to be the funniest sketch. I'll start by telling you that Celebrity Jeopardy has always been the funniest thing on SNL to me. Will Ferrell plays an overmatched/frustrated Alex Trebeck trying to maintain order and sanity during a game of jeopardy with dimwitted celebrities. With Darrell Hammond’s over-the-top wild-man parody of Sean Connery serving as his main adversary. SNL 40 even brought back Norm MacDonald’s gum-chewing maverick Burt Reynolds. Along with a pitch perfect Jim Carrey as Matthew McConaughey, the sketch proved it still has tons of life and offered up the night’s best laughs.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sundance '15: 10 Things I Learned and 5 Great Films I Saw


By all reasonable measures, and from what I’ve personally observed, between the snow and the people, Park City, Utah is the whitest place in America. It’s a quaint little ski town nestled in the frost covered peaks of Northern Utah, some 25 miles or so outside of Salt Lake City. Park City is a place with so many rich white people that the city's public transit system is 100% free. Because God knows poor black and brown folks in the inner cities couldn’t benefit from that at all. That’s just what rich white people on vacation need. Free public transportation.

Park City is the kind of place I could totally hate. Or at least be very envious/jealous of because it’s a place that offers things and experiences most people will never enjoy. A place black folks can only dream of or see in movies. (Irony.) It’s a winter wonderland where America’s elite come to play. But once a year, in the last week of January, Park City is transformed. Reimagined as a place where the little guys can rule the day. A place where dreams can suddenly come true. A place where lives can change overnight. A place that can lift people from total obscurity to unbelievable superstardom. For two weeks, Park City is home to the Sundance Film Festival. One of the most recognizable and prestigious independent film festivals on the planet.

Over the course of two weeks, I slowly fell in love with Park City. Or least this far more palatable version of Park City. It's a filmmaker's wet dream on steroids. It’s a kin to Comic Con or something only the people are pretty, tan, and they don't smell like basement and Doritos. Everywhere you go people are discussing films. Ones they’ve seen. Ones they want to see. Ones they love. Ones they’ve loathed. Throughout the city every conversation is peppered with some form of “Have you heard anything about Movie X?” or "Oh you saw Movie Y, what did you think?" The experience is one that somewhat confirms your love for something that at times you feel like is silly or stupid. Sundance is a validation for the love of film. Sure you all love different films and have different taste, but the overall theme remains the same. We all love movies! As a film festival novice, I’m here to share the 10 things I learned and my top five films I saw during my time at Sundance 2015. Note: This order doesn’t mean anything. The 10th thing is no greater or worse than the 1st.


1: You CAN’T See Em' All

There is no fucking way to see every film. The sheer number of narrative films, documentary films, short films, art/experimental films, animated films etc, etc is overwhelming. So don’t go into it thinking you’re going to see everything because you wouldn't/can’t.

2: You WILL See A Horrible Film

It’s Sundance. This film festival has being the launching pad for some of film's greatest talent in front and behind the camera. In fact, last year's Grand Jury and Audience Award winning film Whiplash is nominated for multiple Oscars including Best Picture. Great films clearly come out of the festival but that doesn’t mean you won't see something B-A-D, bad. Just be ready to hate something.


3: Make A Plan

This one piggy backs off number one. Since you can’t see it all, at least make a list of films you'd like to  try to see. Game plan at least 10 films you want to see, rank them from most desired to ones you could live without seeing. But…


4: Be Flexible

Over the course of Sundance, films will either gain or lose buzz. You’re only going off of four factors when deciding what films to see. The description of the film. The performers in the film. The filmmakers behind the film. And the buzz. Something you could have really wanted to see could turn out to be complete shit via a couple days of word of mouth. The buzz of the festival can lift or sink a film. Speaking of…

5: Trust The Buzz

For the love of God trust the buzz! If you’re in a room with 100 and 99 people don’t like one guy, something isn’t wrong with 99 people. Ask questions. Let people be your guinea pigs. Don’t get so entrenched to see something that you'd ignore what people are telling you. If the buzz is overwhelming, good or bad, just trust that it’s correct and act accordingly. If it’s mixed, just go see for yourself.


6: You WILL Regret Things

You’re going to skip out on something you should have seen. You’re going to see something you don’t like. It will happen. And yes, you’ll be upset with yourself. That's fine. Remembering number one, you should expect this to happen at least once or twice.

7: Lines, Lines, Lines

Like Six Flags in the middle of the summer, most of your time at Sundance will be spent waiting in lines. Waiting in lines for the movies. Waiting in lines for the bathroom. Waiting in lines for concessions. The one saving grace unlike Six Flags, where you wait hour for a one to two minute thrill, you get to see a two hour movie.

 8: Sleep Is Optional

Since Sundance is all lines, you need to be at places really early to secure a spot inside the theater. Films play as early as 8AM which means you need to be up and ready to arrive at least one hour before the showtime. Films play as late as 11:45PM which means you could be getting out of a film at 2AM or later. Plus travel time. Sure most venues are in Park City, but some are as far as Sundance Mountain Resort and Salt Lake City. So if you want to see movies, just know you’re not going to be sleep much at all.

9: See The Docs

When you think Sundance, it’s so easy to get caught up in watching the narrative films, but don’t get all wrapped up the hype of the stars and traditional storytelling. There are so many interesting people and subjects that are explored by brilliant documentary filmmakers. I’ve learned that docs are usually a safer bet because most can’t lean on a star. They almost HAVE to be good or they can’t be made.

10: Have Fun

This one is simple. Watch movies. Talk to people and share your thoughts. Have a few drinks and create memories.  Just have fun. (Confession: I came up with the idea for the “10 Things I Learned" and couldn't think of ten so this one is kind of a cop out. I was already committed to “10” so yeah, get over it.)

Top Five Films I SAW

1: The End of The Tour (Jason Segel gave the best performance of the festival in my opinion. Like early Oscar-worthy. Never has 140 minutes of two guys talking been so damn good.)

2: The Bronze (I haven’t laughed that hard at a film in YEARS. It’s like first Hangover funny. Also, Greatest. Sex. Scene. EVER.)

3. Dope (Very funny. Super sharp dialog. And the three leads are perfect. Shameik Moore is about to become VERY VERY famous. Buy the stock while it’s low.)

4. Z For Zachariah (Quiet, but very fascinating character study of jealousy, loneliness, and dueling desire of two men. It’s smarter than just being a story of a good guy and bad guy which it could have been.)

5. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (The most talked about film of Sundance ’15. Also the Jury and Audience Award winner. Also sold for $12M. It’s a total love letter to filmmaking and doesn’t go into the typical troupes of the "teen coming-of-age" genre. )