Where killer ideas go to die

At Hollywood's Pitchmart, you get two minutes to sell a producer on your best movie concept

Popular Culture

November 21, 1999|By Jeffrey Gettleman | Jeffrey Gettleman,Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD -- Ever since that night at a local bar two years ago when the idea sprang forth from the forest of Bud long necks like a message from above, Steven Loeb has been determined to make a comedy about a town full of serial killers.

A week ago Saturday, he had 120 seconds to deliver his pitch.

"OK, there's this small logging town in Oregon with a big problem," Loeb began, a smile sneaking across his face.

The movie producer sitting across from him nodded.

"Helen kills short people, Alton kills redheads and Matt targets loggers," Loeb explained. "One day in comes Erin, a short, red-headed logger."

The producer cracked a grin.

"They all want to kill her, and it's up to Erin to use her brains -- and a little sex appeal -- to bring the killers to justice," Loeb said. "Like it?"

"Sounds funny," said the producer, Chris Emerson of Jump-rope Productions. "What's the title again?"

"Can't Stop Killing."

Twice a year there's an event in Burbank at which people float script ideas such as "Can't Stop Killing" in the faint hope that some producer will throw thousands of dollars at them to turn the concepts into movies. The event is called Pitchmart, and it's essentially a swap meet for scriptwriters and movie producers to shop around movie ideas.

At a recent Pitchmart, while Loeb, a 34-year-old professional puppeteer, talked serial killers, 50 other writers sat around the room at tables spinning tales of horror and intrigue, romance and adventure, using neatly clipped sound bites in an effort to get producers jazzed about their scripts. The art of the pitch, it seems, is one part idea, one part delivery and about 10 parts chutzpah.

"I'll sell you in one sentence," promised scriptwriter and children's author Maria James. "Supermommy: devoted wife, mother of three, a superhero who can finally change a diaper." The chance to ink that one juicy deal, to create the next "Blair Witch Project," attracted all types to spend $75 to participate in the all-day Pitchmart. Actors, writers, a beer brewer, a chemist, moms, retirees and models waited in lines, chatting nervously, for an opportunity to spend two minutes with a producer.

Over the last six years alone, more than 80 projects pitched at Pitchmart have been optioned by producers, said Ken Rotcop, the screenwriter and writing teacher who started the event 13 years ago. Nine Pitchmart scripts have been made into movies, Rotcop said, and most went directly to video.

No deals are actually struck at Pitchmart. The best that can happen is that a producer will ask a writer to mail in his or her script.

Many scriptwriters spoke of big stars and big budgets -- tossing out figures like "five to 25," without mentioning they were talking millions.

But in reality, Pitchmart is more of a B-movie or made-for-TV scene. Most of the 20-odd producers crammed into a back room at a local restaurant worked for small companies looking for low-budget projects, except for a pair of representatives from Fox TV and UPN. And most script ideas seemed best suited for the small screen, like "Supermommy"; "Here There Be Unicorns," an idea about a doomed unicorn colony; and "10 Perfect Fingers," a story about infant organ donation.

Rotcop said the keys to selling a movie idea are humor, energy and, most important, brevity. "After more than 30 seconds, all you can do is screw it up," he said.

Rejection was plastered all over the padded booths and dark walls of the local restaurant. Some producers cut screenwriters off mid-pitch with a variation of the "It's not right for us" line. Every year talented writers in his workshops quit, Rotcop said, because they can't stand to hear "No thanks" anymore.

But not Loeb.

The first producer he talked to was receptive and left Loeb with the impression that he may be in touch. Loeb didn't fare as well with the others.

One producer said she wasn't interested in his town-of-murderers concept, so the undaunted puppeteer launched straight into a pitch for "27 Words or Less," a boy-meets-girl romantic comedy based on Loeb's real-life experience trying to find a date through personal ads.

"Yeah, I've gotten a lot of 'We really like it but ...' in my life," said Loeb, who has been to 10 Pitchmarts without selling one script. "But you know what? I'm a performer, and delivering a pitch, even if they don't bite, is pretty fun."

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