by Lucy Leitner
Continuing to make its tour of Pittsburgh college campuses, the Steeltown Film Factory landed at the George C. Rowland Theater at Point Park yesterday where the shrinking venue signified the cuts that would occur at the end of the program. While the six semi-finalists of the annual Screenwriting Contest pitched their short films to Hollywood luminaries with local ties, only three would advance to the finals at Carnegie Mellon next month—just don’t ask Carl Kurlander what date.
During these past two events, the audience (or me, as I really have no one else on whom to base the following statement) has grown attached to certain scripts and hopes to see their creators receive the $30,000 to bring their words to life. This weekend’s event served as not only a critique like last month’s Writer’s Pitch, but also as a means to assess the viability of making the short films for the average salary of an Easy Spirit Shoes employee. Judging these proceedings were some of the most entertaining individuals to swing a figurative gavel.
Peter Ackerman is the writer of the animated film Ice Age. When asked why the era is called the Ice Age, Ackerman responds, “Because of all the ice.” He also cast himself, along with his wife, in the glamorous roles of dung beetles. A graduate of Shadyside Academy, Ackerman moved to New York to pursue a career as an actor and began writing on the side. He became affiliated with Blue Sky Studios where Ice Age was conceived and created.
After practicing standup in Oakland during summers home from University of Southern California, North Side native Rusty Cundieff took off for LA with his eyes on acting. Though he was cast in such films as Hollywood Shuffle and School Daze, he started writing, but found it nearly impossible to get his script read.
“[In Hollywood] they’re afraid of writers,” Cundieff said from his seat on the stage. “They think writers are crazy and that they’re all going to sue.” So he and a friend printed letterheads for a fake company and claimed to be non-scary producers to put Cundieff’s script in the right hands. From there, he wrote, directed, and starred in Fear of a Black Hat, a Spinal Tap-type mockumentary satire of the hip hop industry, and directed both seasons of the brilliant, yet ultimately doomed Chapelle’s Show.
Chris Moore didn’t have dreams of Hollywood. The Maryland native came up through the wide world of sports production. While covering the ’86 World Series in Boston, Moore was assigned to chauffeur a couple of NBC execs because he was the only one tall enough to drive the rental car. The VP and P of NBC apparently enjoyed their scenic tour of such attractions as dog tracks and made Moore a PA. He moved to Los Angeles and got a job in a mail room at a production company where he started reading scripts, finding Lethal Weapon and My Girl in his first week. He then became an agent for screenwriters, but became jaded by the way that Hollywood perverted the original scripts that he loved, so he became a producer to gain control over projects from start to finish with the hope of maintaining the integrity of the artist’s original vision. Although he claims, “I have no skill and ability, but I’m a pretty good salesman,” he has produced Good Will Hunting, The Adjustment Bureau, and the American Pie movies that got released in theaters, i.e., not anything with Band Camp in the title. The sole panelist thus far who is not from this great city, Moore is currently in town to produce Promised Land.
Though each have rather disparate skills and experience, all of today’s judges are very funny, their personalities illustrating just how integral charisma, humor, and character can be to success in the film industry. Cundieff and Ackerman both emphasized throughout the event that their experience as professional actors helped them when pitching scripts and Ackerman even compared a pitch to an audition. Moore stressed the importance of preparation and putting yourself into the pitchee’s position. Cundieff urged potential pitchers not to argue with producers and the like, to say that you will take all their suggestions into consideration even if they insist that your New York apartment sitcom would really benefit from the addition of a cow. And, as Ackerman said, don’t throw up.
Luckily, none of the finalists hurled on stage, nor were they confrontational or ill prepared. Yulin Kuang took the stage first to pitch the budget of her short Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested, emphasizing her familiarity with the technical aspects of production and her foresight to take into account festival fees to promote the film. The Carnegie Mellon senior was clearly nervous as she rushed through her pitch, which was actually quite charming and served to humanize the rather prodigious young contestant. The three judges enjoyed the writing in the funny coming-of-age script, but cautioned that the success of the film hinges on casting the teenage lead and rehearsal time that Yulin omitted from her proposed budget.
Michael Rubino followed with a revamped (80-90% rewritten, as he said) version of Last Will and Laundromat that included more paranormal rules for his octogenarian ghost. He explained how his employment at a full-service ad agency gives him the connections to get technical help and tools for extremely cheap and his association with a Beaver County theater troupe will help him with casting and rehearsal space. Unfortunately, the ghostly character was again a point of contention as Moore, like Eric Gold last month, suggested that the specter distracted from the story.
Mason Radkoff, though the oldest contestant, has the least experience (zero, in fact) with film production. He met with composers and directors of photography to help him with the technical aspects of film production. Cundieff warned him of the dangers of hiring such experienced people to help with his first script, urging Mason to be vocal about his vision and not to let the DPs bully him.
Christopher Preksta, conversely, is undoubtedly the most experienced semi-finalist with his creation the micro-budgeted Mercury Men for the Syfy network and the online sitcom Pittsburgh Dad. His dialogue-less Echo Torch is arguably the most visually ambitious and he explained his vision for setting and his ability to create the necessary special effects digitally and cheaply. Moore emphasized Chris’s advantage as the lack of dialogue and elaborate visuals free him from depending on an actor to carry the movie, that he will be riding on purely on his skills as a filmmaker. Though each judge was clearly impressed with what Chris was able to convey with no dialogue, Ackerman suggested aging the protagonist to alleviate a bit of a problem with anachronism.
Nathan Hollabaugh exemplifies the pitch-as-an-audition phenomenon that Ackerman had mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, his comfort on stage came off as less appealing than Yulin’s clear nervousness. Though Nathan took the advice of last month’s panelists in adjusting the plot, his on-stage persona makes him seem like someone who would not. As an actor, Nathan has clear visions of his characters and was extremely detailed in how he plans to cast them, along with the locations that he described almost as characters themselves. While Cundieff enjoyed the thriller aspect of the script, Moore had an issue figuring out who to root for, ending up stating, “I’m just glad I don’t know any of these people.”
Tony Poremski and Scott Peters (who make a much more appealing Tony Scott) were the ideal combination of earnestness and charisma as they pitched the funny and light Escape from St. Quentin’s. The panelists were laughing when Tony and Scott described the “tsunami of kneelers” that their 10-year-old character must survive in his attempt to escape from church. While their budget comes in with basically no contingency cushion, they are well-aware of the challenge of hiring child actors, they have already cast the Penguins coach from Sudden Death as the priest. While Moore suggested a minor change to the plot, he was far less critical of Escape than any of the other scripts.
Thus, it was no surprise that Escape from St. Quentin’s was named a finalist, along with Echo Torch and Perils of Growing Up Flat Chested. The winner of the $30,000 prize will be announced May 12.