April 20, 2017
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Hollywood Fertilizes Napa
by Paul Martin
Connie Nielson, the Danish beauty famous for her “Princess Lucilla” in the Oscar-winning “Gladiator” (2000), speaks about juggling her career and four kids. Photo: P. Martin
The sun was shining on the first annual Northern California Screenwriters and Filmmakers Expo, held at the Silverado Resort on a lovely spring weekend at the end of March. Anne Jordan, its director, had assembled an incredible cast of speakers, both locally and from LA, to inaugurate what will surely become an annual go-to event for Bay Area actors, writers, and filmmakers. She also procured some great local sponsors, including the ever-ready Oakland Film Commission, and the grand old Reel Directory - even national sponsors like Horizon Airlines and Budget Car Rentals - which ensured the event would be a first-class ride the entire way.
Festivities kicked off with a howdy from Jill Techel, Napa's mayor. The atmosphere was thick with anticipation among consummate professionals as well as aspiring students as they conspired to sell the next blockbuster film, land an agent, or jump-start a career. To that end, seminars and instruction took place all day Friday and Saturday and culminated in a "pitchfest" on Sunday.
Veteran local actor Jeffrey Weissman ("Back to the Future II" and "III," "Pale Rider") presented practical advice for dealing with crews and directors. Toni Suttie (from Integrity Casting) enlightened them on the fine art of first getting the interview and then landing the part. European transplant Connie Nielson ("Gladiator," "Devil's Advocate") spoke about the trials and tribulations of major motion picture acting - yes, there are some - from the difficulty of living outside Hollywood to trying to balance a career and four children. Shortly before Nielson's departure to Africa to start her next feature, she was addressing a room full of writers about script elements needed to attract A-list actors. "It's all about the character," said Ms. Nielsen, "if I read one more script where a strong female character has to call someone "you bastard..."
"Independent theatrical distribution is not for the faint of heart," noted "Bottle Shock" producers Marc and Brenda Lhormer, who shot their well regarded feature in Sonoma. "We didn't even secure distribution after our 2008 premiere at Sundance, so we had no choice but to distribute our own film." Indeed, they shared secrets about what really happens in the politics and everyday workings of the set, with insider revelations of who really has the power on set and how they attain it.
"We had the good fortune to have very hands-on investors who were with us every step of the way from script to screen. The flip side of this is that you aren't in complete control of every creative and business decision." The Lhormers left attendees with this advice: "Build your audience before you even start shooting. Create buzz, interest in, and awareness for your movie from the very beginning of the process of making an independent film."
Bobby Moresco (Academy Award Winner: "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby") headlined the writer's table, and true to form spoke at length on the necessity of perseverance and prep. Indeed, he entertained the audience of over a hundred Hollywood hopefuls with stories and quips from the trenches and what it takes to get a difficult project like "Crash" from concept through production to completion. "You cannot depend on someone to give you the job. You have to take control," was Moresco's credo.
"Coming from a two-time Oscar winner, who was turned down by every studio," said Lorraine Flett, producer from Nothing Scared Productions, in response to Moresco's pep talk. "That was very inspirational for me as a screenwriter and independent filmmaker."
One of the most energetic presenters, Barbara Bitela of the Silver-Bitela Talent Agency, added a dizzying amount of advice on how to land an agent, what they look for, and how to find representation: "No clichés! Get coverage! Less is more!" "Get those action verbs working for you!" she hollered at one point. She also described the "Save the Cat" screen writing formula called the beat sheet ("Save the Cat" is an series of editing books postulating various laws like the "seven immutable laws of screenplay physics.")
"It's all about the structure." Barbara encouraged the crowd to work harder and smarter in order to make the grade into the professional ranks, punctuating all her remarks with a demanding, "Let me hear you say yes!"
To get ready for Sunday's "pitchfest," where you need all the intervention you can get, divine or otherwise, multiple film-writing experts delved into a detailed analysis of the pitch. James Dalessandro ("1906," see CS Dec09), summed it up in the four short words: who, what, where and how. "Keep it short, simple, and carry a big plot," he opined in his pugalist, street-smart, manner. He and Victoria Wisdom (Hollywood uber-agent and producer), took actual pitches from the audience, fine-tuned them, and prepared them for the next morning's endeavor.
Audience members like Anjelica Morgan stood and pitched her film "My Life in Mary Janes." Her first attempt in front of Mr. Dalessandro was challenging. But after some massaging and coaching, she tried it again in front of Ms. Wisdom's class and got a solid vote of approval from the audience.
On Sunday, over a hundred and fifty actors and writers from the previous two days joined together for the all important "pitchfest," presenting oneself or one's project to industry experts in an intimate, one-on-one atmosphere. Barbara Bitela once again brought her expertise to the floor, answering questions with specific advice on what and how to present to these casting directors and development executives: "Don't be nervous, they need you as much as you need them," and "Don't give them a reason to tell you no," and finally, "Be excited, get them excited."
Expo Students Practice: The pitch is where the rubber – the idea – meets the road – the money. Photo: P. Martin
With headshots, one sheets and Barbara's advice in hand, the group queued up, choosing which company would most likely advance their career. Actors jostled to be first in line to see Toni Suttie of Toni Suttie Casting (who would go on to cast four very fortunate actors in future projects), while writers grabbed a place in line to see the desirable big hitters like DreamWorks, Warner Bros., and Lionsgate.
The first individuals were then brought into an adjoining room filled with these industry reps. Major Hollywood agents from CAA [Creative Artists Agency) sat across from actors and writers who, until this morning, could only dream about getting their headshots and scripts in front such a prestigious agency. Indeed, one writer actually made the grade and found representation with CAA.
On the production company side, other Hollywood big hitters like Lawrence Bender Productions/A Band Apart (Quentin Tarantino's company) sat at tables alongside television studios HBO, Lifetime, and the Syfy Channel. Each hopeful, with script idea, one sheet, and business card in hand, crammed what they could into the allowable five minutes to convince the agent or representative that their project was the next breakout film.
Gino Caputi, writer/director and member of the Directors Guild of America gave it his best shot. "I felt confident when I pitched. There was a friendly but 'definitely not interested' response from Lionsgate, but a seemingly positive initial response from the production company A Band Apart."
From thrillers to comedies, from romance to tales of the undead, writers and filmmakers pitched the stories they had burning inside. Five minutes was all you got to sell the dream of a lifetime, then back to the banquet room to queue up for another opportunity with a different company.
Because of NCS expo, people were able to get their ideas and faces in front of anywhere from three to eight different companies, all on one Sunday afternoon. The noteworthy results include: four writers picked up by a literary agent; one script sold to Silver Heart Productions; multiple actors were hired to work in commercials and movies; and, last but not least, over a dozen scripts were requested for reading by major studios.
Gino Caputi finished the weekend by saying, "The best thing I did was attend all three days of the seminar and work out the kinks in my pitches, giving me the confidence to know what I wanted to say and believe what I was saying when it was time to sit with the reps. Overall, a good, positive, experience that took away some of the mystery of it all."
And so the fate of these events shall soon be determined. A development deal? A part in a movie? Something to be shot in the Bay Area? At any rate, the seeds have been planted. And, like each new spring, we will wait anxiously for next March when this amazing event will take place again.
Posted on May 10, 2010 - 07:42 PM