An Interview with former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer
Sure you’re the next Kaufman, but how do you look across the table from a major studio executive?
Stephanie Palmer spent years as that executive for MGM, watching hundreds of writers get so far only to screw it up in the room. So she wrote a book.
Good in a Room has become a business and film school standard and is chock full of tips & tricks for us surly scribes. For while it all starts with the screenplay, it certainly doesn’t end there. Hollywood’s a business, baby.
I was fortunate to get to ask Stephanie a few questions about pitching a screenplay. Her answers are invaluable, and range from some of her favorite helpful links to a man in a diaper with a samurai sword. Seriously. Read on…
1. When should writers start thinking about the pitch? Should it be before they even start writing?
Thinking about the pitch is really thinking about how you can express the core idea clearly and concisely.
I think writers should be pitching and testing their ideas from the very beginning. Especially if your goal is to sell your work (either this screenplay or a future one), thinking about how you will be able to pitch the idea is essential.
This is one tactic that I've found most professional writers do, but most aspiring writers do not. It's scary to put your idea out into the world and get feedback -- but it's also the best and fastest way to see if you have what you think you have.
Here is my strategy for writing a screenplay that you can sell (Hint: it includes starting with the pitch).
1b. So can tackling the pitch early help expose story weaknesses / make the story better?
Yes, exactly. In my experience, if someone has trouble pitching a screenplay, it almost always is because there is a flaw in the story.
Wouldn't you rather discover this early so you can fix it and not waste weeks, months or years working on something that is fundamentally flawed?
2. Why do screenwriters need to be good in a room? Are we selling ourselves or our scripts?
Unlike being a novelist, where the writer typically can complete the work without too much interaction with others, film and TV are collaborative mediums. In film and TV, writers will frequently be working with others.
The most important skill to be a film and TV writer is to be able to write well, but the second most important skill is to be able to present your ideas effectively (to be "good in a room").
When an executive purchases a project, they aren't just buying a script and then won't ever see you again. They are hiring you for a job. Just like most "regular" jobs, you need to get along with your coworkers, add value to the creative process, and work within the company politics that are present in most organizations.
Agents and managers are brokers and so while they can be very important in helping to get a meeting so you can get a job, they aren't the person doing the actual selling -- you are. Representatives are facilitators, advisors and negotiators, but they aren't in the room with you at the initial meeting or day-to-day on the job. You are the one selling yourself and demonstrating why the executive should hire you rather than someone else. This is understandably intimidating for many creative people, but those who are excellent in the room are much more successful than those who are not.
3. What was the greatest/craziest/most memorable pitch you ever saw?
There were many memorable pitches - although the ones that I remember the best were not the best pitches.
There was a guy who used marionettes, a team of dancers, a man in a diaper wielding a large Samurai sword and a team of writers who acted out the scenes with sock puppets while Mark Harmon delivered the pitch from an audio recording.
4. Is it true that execs want to hear something that they've heard before?
There is truth to the idea that people are looking for projects that are similar, but different.
If the exec, company, and marketing department have had a hit movie in a particular genre, they are going to want to find a project that is similar because they have a precedent of success and that makes it much easier to get that project greenlit over something that doesn't have a precedent to show that it could work.
5. Can you talk about your role at MGM?
My job was to find projects to purchase and produce. This meant reading many screenplays and meeting with lots of writers hearing pitches. I also supervised the Story Department. This is the team of union story analysts who read all of the submissions to MGM.
6. How well do studio execs understand the craft of screenwriting? Who are these well paid, suited people who we pitch to and what do they really want?
Most development executives attended a top film school (though not all) and have worked at a major agency and a few major production companies before becoming studio executives.
They are generally highly educated, extremely hard-working people who love movies.
I know this may seem hard to believe based on the types of movies that are released, but that is a separate issue.
In my opinion, here's the real reason Hollywood makes bad movies: Blake Snyder And The Reason Hollywood Makes Bad Movies
What are execs looking for? They are looking for the kind of amazing project that will make THEIR career. It can happen very quickly with the right project and the right circumstances.
Here's an example of how producer Mason Novick helped discover Diablo Cody and Juno (and got nominated for an Oscar): Diablo Cody: From Ex-Stripper to A-Lister | EW.com
7. Do I need to have a slate of projects that I'm ready to pitch? Will that help me?
The best scenario is if you have 2-3 polished screenplays in the same genre.
This is because the best time to sell your second project is immediately after you sell your first (and will typically sell for more money). Reps like to see a deep slate because it directly translates to profit potential.
8. Should my screenplay have a Twitter profile? 🙂
Your script shouldn't, but you should.
For more from Stephanie, be sure to sign up for her daily newsletter at goodinaroom.com.
You can leave more questions and comments for Stephanie, myself, and the rest of the ScreenCraft team below.
How many of you have already thought about your pitch?