Posted by: hollyburgh | March 17, 2012

Steeltown Film Factory: The Writer’s Pitch

by Lucy Leitner

Note: Please excuse the lack of brevity. This post was influenced by Tolstoy.

In October of 2004, I found myself seated in an auditorium on Pitt’s campus, rather disoriented and bored. While talking to my friend Milo, Carl Kurlander approached me and told me something that is still true eight years and one poorly chosen master’sof journalism degree later.

“Lucy,” he said with the incredulous expression recently popularized by the dearly departed Dale on The Walking Dead. “You are the worst journalist ever.”

Yes, I had been dispatched from The Pitt News, ostensibly to write a recap of a screening on campus. Though Milo did bear quite the resemblance to John Belushi, that was not the Animal House cast member I was there to see.  I was supposed to interview Peter Reigert (the actor who had portrayed Boon) whom I failed to realize was standing mere yards from me.

This morning, seated in the back of another auditorium on Pitt’s campus, I was just as disoriented. But this time Carl was too busy running the show to remind me how spectacularly inept I am in the field of journalism.

And seated next to me today was not my friend Milo, but a stranger who was quick to turn to me and ask, “What brings you here today?”

He was hoping that I was someone more important, maybe a VIP like the three judges set to appear on the panel in the next hour to critique the semi-finalists of the Steeltown Film Factory’s third annual Screenwriting Competition. Or maybe he believed that I could somehow help finance the TV series he quickly told me he wrote. No matter what, he appeared disappointed that I was only there with my press pass in a blogging capacity.

And that’s what I realized had changed in Pittsburgh in the past few years—these events have now become a place to schmooze. Not everyone was here to learn about the Hollywood process, to witness industry professionals at work as they critique the 12-page short screenplays of twelve talented Pittsburghers.

Some people had ulterior motives.

It used to be that the closest thing we had to opportunists were yinzers wearing James Harrison jerseys on a game day when Number 92 was injured.

The moment that Pittsburgh changed to a place where people schmooze rather than drunkenly bump into one another could be traced back to a moment at Eat n’ Park when Pittsburgh native turned Hollywood manager and producer Eric Gold called Carl with the idea that he create an initiative to locate talent here. Carl, in his never-ending quest to get Hollywood to come to him, naturally jumped on the idea and thus, the Film Factory was born. Today, as the quarterfinalists of the Steeltown Film Factory’s third annual screenwriting contest get ready to pitch their scripts, Eric sits on the stage of the auditorium in the Frick Fine Arts Building, his idea having come to fruition.

Film Factory Writer's Pitch Panel

From left: Carl Kurlander, Eric Gold, Marcy Kaplan, Asher Garfinkel

To both educate and entertain, the attendees were first treated to the Pittsburgh premier of panelist Marcy Kaplan’s short film The Pre-Nup the story behind which exemplifies the screenwriter’s rather paradoxical situation in Hollywood. Though she wrote the character Marnie Lapper as a thinly disguised version of herself, her shower orgasm Herbal Essences commercial did not make her a big enough name for a studio to consider her for the lead. So, when she pitched the project to Universal, she wound up producing this project herself while allowing the studio to have its way with another script.

Refusing the relinquish control paid off. Marcy played Marnie while Bruce Altman (best know to me as the asshole step-father from Rookie of the Year) portrays Aaron Silver, a slightly less valuable version of Marcy’s husband and co-panelist, Eric Gold. Larry Miller’s hilarious turn as Marnie’s fast-talking attorney steals every scene in which he appears, while Alex Borstein of Family Guy and Mad TV fame rounds out the cast as Aaron’s attorney insistent on the necessity of her client’s issuance of the titular absurd 102-page pre-nup.

Marcy and Eric, along with professional screenplay reader (also of Pittsburgh heritage) Asher Garfinkel, introduced themselves with some humor and, in the case of the formers, some marital banter, the critiques commenced.

Film Factory Writer's Pitch Quarterfinalists

The Quarterfinalists

Nathan Hollabaugh’s Duplex, a suspenseful tale about a disturbed woman’s escalating stalking of a stranger, was mostly well received with the only blatant problem being the predictability of the ending. This, however, appeared an easy fix as Eric and Marcy gave explicit suggestions. Jarrett Fisher-Forester’s Bar Quixote may need a bit more work, as the panelists felt that the plot usurped the relatively flat characters in the story of a young romantic man’s (Ted Moseby, maybe?) imbibing of a magical mixed drink that transports him from the cynical modern bar scene to the days of knights and princesses.

Michael Rubino’s Last Will and Laundromat probably received the most drastic criticism, as both Asher and Eric recommended cutting one of the focal characters, the ghost of a deceased navy vet who haunts his granddaughter that the judges felt would be more effective as an less literal presence. Robert Podurgiel’s Studio 7 Wrestling required less character reworking and more development of a shrill, wrestling-obsessed grandmother that Marcy loved, but Eric found a bit one-dimensional. The criticism of Mason Radkoff’s Beginning Chemistry struck a similar note, as the judges felt a disconnect between the worlds that the two characters Jack, a tough but shy construction worker, and Abner, a bullied nine-year-old, inhabit.

Though the judges mostly praised David Safin’s The Birthday Present (“You managed to write a Seinfeld episode in 12 pages,” Asher remarked), they also felt that characters, particularly the quirky girl who inexplicably gives her boyfriend’s brother a teddy bear for his birthday, needed a bit more development.

Conversely, Marcy loved the protagonist in Jamie McGovern’s Applejack, a pseudo horror story about a stay-at-home mom projecting her fears and anxieties onto an unwanted mouse (like a less crystal methy version of the fly episode of Breaking Bad), so much so that Carl joked that Jamie get in touch with Marcy’s agent. Yulin Kuang received unanimously positive praise for the protagonist of Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested, a funny story of a teenager’s realistic and relentless pursuit of her lab partner. Though a Carnegie Mellon senior, Yulin is already a veteran of the screenwriting contest (a finalist last year) with what Eric describes as a TV series pilot on her hands.

Megan Morrison skewed even younger with Blue Teddy and Green Teddy Get Remarried that shows how a seven-year-old projects her parents’ and grandparents’ marital struggles onto her toys that proved to be a rather divisive script in the Gold-Kaplan household. While not exclusively geared towards kids in the manner that Megan’s submission appeared to be, childhood friends Scott Peters and Anthony Poremski’s Escape from St. Quentin’s uses escape and prison break movie tropes to tell the story of a boy’s attempts to flee Sunday mass.  Though the judges favorably compared the story to Home Alone, the criticized the relative lack of stakes, leading to Carl’s addition of some pertinent advice that stakes aren’t necessarily always life or death circumstances, but they have to feel that way to the characters.

Evan Mull’s Marcellus Morgan was ostensibly a critique of the greed of shale drilling companies that used an old west motif, but Eric thought it suffered from misplaced focus and both Asher and Marcy found emotional investment in the characters difficult. Praise was far more forthcoming for Pittsburgh Dad co-creator Christopher Preksta’s Echo Torch, arguably the most ambitious script of this year’s quarterfinals. Described by Marcy as the most visually exciting of the group, Christopher’s script is the story of a photographer who uses a ghost-illuminating light bulb to track down the spirit of his deceased wife. The judges were particularly impressed with the conveyance of character and emotion even though the script did not contain a single line of dialogue.

Carl and the judges lauded the higher quality of scripts submitted in this, the competition’s third year as further proof of the need to cultivate the talent of the Pittsburgh region. Aside from learning that it is possible to FedEx Mineo’s pizza to Los Angeles, the audience of appreciators, aspiring writers, and networkers alike heard first-hand accounts of how the germ of an idea can turn into a multi-million dollar movie. When Eric presented Marcy with the 102 pages of legal absurdity that was the pre-nup, Marcy took notes.

“I kept thinking this doesn’t happen to people and it’s really unique,” she said of the screenplay that gave her a passion for writing.

Eric told anecdotal accounts of his work with a young Keenan Ivory Wayans who, after being denied much of the credit for Hollywood Shuffle that he produced with Robert Townsend, came to a meeting with a plethora of ideas for screenplays, one of which became I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.

“You’ve always gotta have that other script,” Carl added.

The members of the panel also stressed the importance of rewrites and never getting too attached to a script in its first incarnation. Carl cited Pittsburgh’s devoted work ethic as a reason why so many born in the ‘Burgh have succeeded in Hollywood.

They also stressed the importance of commerciality, particularly in the current risk-free climate where the major movies are so often merely riding the coattails of a successful book or existing film.

From their specific accounts of experiences in Hollywood to the critiques of the short scripts, the panel members provided information that can be of use to the aspiring writer who wants to learn how to effectively craft a story and the schmoozer who came today to seek investors.

I just don’t remember the latter being around when I was practicing bad collegiate journalism eight years ago.

And maybe that’s a good thing. At least the opportunists are staying here, realizing that they do have a shot in the room where I used to fall asleep during art history classes. In less than a decade since the Film Factory’s Eat n’ Park conception, the people to know are now coming to Pittsburgh. And I guess, from now on, we may have to schmooze. It’s the price you pay for getting the Batmobile.

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