In Hollywood, opportunities are hard to come by if you’re an outsider with few connections, made even more difficult if you live outside of L.A and don’t know your way around the industry…much less how to pitch a TV series or movie. Laurie Scheer, producer, development executive and former Vice President of Creative Programming for WE: Women’s Entertainment has agreed to give us advice on how to successfully pitch a movie or television series to a development executive or producer. She has worked in development for ABC, Viacom, Showtime, and AMC-Cablevision in addition to serving as a judge in many national and international screenwriting and writing competitions. She has been an instructor at Yale, UCLA, Northwestern, and American University. She is also the author of The Writer’s Advantage: a Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre and Creative Careers in Hollywood. I’m hoping Laurie will not only share some inside info, but dispel some commonly held myths about selling or pitching a script.
In Wisconsin, it is a balmy sixty degrees on a Tuesday afternoon at 3:15PM, and I have fifteen minutes to drive all the way from Middleton to Madison, WI. If you’re familiar with the area, Madison feels like the center of the Universe, and anywhere you want to go is about fifteen minutes away. But it’s rush hour. There’s also construction on the beltline and I’m nervous about making it on time. I arrive three minutes late and I need to set up. Thankfully, I’ve already called ahead and asked someone to set my laptop up and to open my audio program so I can record my conversation. At 3:35, I give Laurie a call. The voice on the other end of the line is welcoming and friendly. But there’s a natural sharpness to it that cautions me to not to waste her time. In a few weeks, the writing mentor and faculty associate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is getting ready for the Writer’s Institute, a writing conference scheduled to take place April 15 – April 17th 2016. So I get straight to the point. And yet, I’m chattering nervously. It’s not every day that I get have a conversation with someone who shares Laurie’s background, passion for writing and Hollywood experience.
(Note: This interview has been edited for brevity)
EH: Hi Laurie — It’s really nice to talk to you. I’m excited about this interview and I’m sure a lot of writers will be excited to read it. First of all, I was blown away when I saw your books, they are definitely on my to-read list. I think there’s a lot to learn about the process so I’m hoping I can pick your brain, learn more about what you’re doing as an author, and previously as vice president of programming for the WE Entertainment, and in your development work for some pretty major studios.
First, can you tell us a little about your book, The Writer’s Advantage: a Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre. What was your motivation for writing it and the kind of impact you hoped it will have?
LS: Thanks for asking, and yes… the motivation was because I worked with so many writers of all types; novelists and nonfiction writers, screenwriters and short story writers and I realized that a lot of them have what they think are good ideas, but they haven’t really researched or have taken a good look at their genre. What motivated me to write this is to help writers go through a process and to help them understand how to best present their idea. No idea is new, but if you don’t know the evolution of your genre, you’re writing romantic comedies, sci-fi, fantasy, memoirs, whatever it is that you’re writing… if you don’t know what’s happened before, it’s going to be a difficult pitch. So what I hope is that people will come away knowing how to present and defend their idea so that it sells…
Laurie goes on to explain the most important part of pitching a script to a Hollywood executive is the ability to defend your idea.
LS (Cont’d): So what I hope is that people will go through the process, the work section elements of the book that guide you through how to do the research and how to best put the spin on it so what might be an idea that has been done a million times can be done again with your special touch.
EH: In terms of defending your work, is this for example, in a meeting where they’re pitching a screenplay? So it’s a matter of being able to sell the work?
LS: Exactly. You give them your logline and the development executive, the producers, agents and all of the people who are working in these arenas, they know and have seen pretty much everything. So if they shoot something back and say “That sounds just like… ‘Fill in the blank’”, you better be able to know what they’re talking about and say “Oh, I understand and see what you’re saying but… here’s why my idea is different,” instead of saying, “I never heard of that.” If you say that, you’ve lost your pitch, I don’t care how good your idea is.
EH: Defending your work—is the primary theme here… Would you say that happens often in development meetings or pitch sessions? How often does that happen?
LS: I’d say it happens a lot, and in fact more and more when I work with individuals now and they will pitch something to me—I’m not saying I know everything, it’s impossible for anyone to know everything, but I can probably draw up two or three other similar projects and say “all right, I see you have a main character that’s similar to the main character in—whatever it is, but why is yours different? I think it happens in development meetings and development departments all the time.
EH: So this book will help people learn how to have an answer when someone—I’m not saying they’re being shot down, but if someone has a reason why they shouldn’t [produce the work], you need to have a reason why they should. “Hey, look, this is why this movie will work, a [movie like this one] was a hit a year ago and this one embodies similar themes?
LS: Right. Right. Exactly. But it’s also when people come to me and they say “I have an idea for a TV series or a movie franchise and it’s about five to seven people who have just graduated from college and they’re living in a big city. Fill in the city, Boston, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, London. Fill it in. It doesn’t matter. That’s not an idea. That’s been done a gazillion times starting with Seinfeld and Friends, the New Girl, Broad City, Girls, etc. Even (–How I Met Your Mother?) Right, and that series the Big Bang Theory. All of those are the same show, but there’s something different about each one. If someone pitches that idea to me, and someone will inevitably pitch that idea, they will even spend time putting together a reel that is shot showing these people at work or in their apartments that they’re sharing, and I go that’s fine—but what’s your story? What’s your theme? Those are a few shots of some people living in a big urban city? What’s the story? And they have no idea. And that’s what I’m saying—don’t do that. I understand the enthusiasm, and that’s great. You want more as a writer to share the experiences of your jobs and your love lives and your travels and all of that, but how is it different from the six or seven shows we just mentioned? It’s got to be different and you have to know how to position yourself to sell your idea.
EH: Excellent advice. So in putting that package together they should have their bible, which is the 16 episode outline. Is there anything else that should go into that package that most people don’t think about?
LS: As much as possible, create the world that you’re creating. One of the best examples is the show Freaks and Geeks. It’s old now but it is still a great example of a bible—and you can find it online. It tells us the music those kids are listening to as they’re going in between classes. I want to see complete worlds developed, the characters developed down to what they wear, what their interests are—everything in addition to the episode breakdown and the pilot. The entire world needs to be developed. Many people think I’m crazy but you’re gonna get to the point where you’re writing the 6th episode of the third season and if you haven’t developed the characters you won’t have anything to write. I guarantee you.
EH: I’ve heard writers say don’t tell producers or development execs about the type of music –that you’re infringing on the artist’s copyright if you even mention the name of a song in your script. They say all of those things are wrong—that you should leave that to the director? How true is that? This will be our first myth-buster.
LS: When you’re creating a television series you’re the creator, you’re the show runner. It doesn’t mean that once they start shooting you’re going to have a budget to pay for a Springsteen or a Kanye [song]. You may not have the budget. But you need to tell me the energy…is it the Red Hot Chili Peppers? You need to tell me what these people are listening to, and if we can’t get the rights to that we’ll find some music or we’ll pay someone to make music that’s similar. So I disagree 100%. Write as much as you can within your bible to tell us what it’s all about. When it gets to production we’ll worry about when the budget is in place.
EH: So in the bible there should be a beginning, middle, and end in the summary of what happens in each episode. How much information should go into that outline? Other than what you mentioned, how much detail should the writer include, in terms of what characters are wearing what they look like, or any other detail when writing a summary for each episode?
LS: In a basic bible you want to show in your twelve or sixteen episodes, and how your theme is moving through each season. So your first season, your second season, and third seasons you want to show what’s happening. You don’t have a lot of time, you only need to tell us storyline A, B, and C in each one of the twelve or sixteen episodes and I would say one sentence each. Don’t go into much detail when you’re just doing the episode breakdown. Later on when you’re developing each episode, sure, you’re gonna go into a lot of detail.
EH: Thank you so much. Moving on from that, your book Creative Careers in Hollywood is an absolute must-read for screenwriters or just about anyone interested in working in the film industry. It is the quintessential read for anyone fascinated by the industry. Your dedication reads “to every kid who has ever wanted to work in the movies, this book is for you”. It’s like you took your experiences, from the various jobs you had and what you learned along the way and put this in the book for people to read. What drove you to write this book and to get that information out there? Was it just to show people, there is a way into the industry? That [making it into the industry] you have to start at the bottom and work your way up the hierarchy?
LS: That book is really out of date now but when I did write it, it was a way to show how Hollywood turns the camera on itself, throughout the decades and throughout the history of Hollywood. If you watch a movie like Sunset Boulevard, not much has changed for writers since 1950. So what I was trying to illustrate was you can watch Sunset Boulevard. Bill Holden is the quintessential writer and he’s not getting a lot of respect, he’s down on his luck. It’s really not that different throughout the ages and even today. Writers are treated very very low on the totem pole and not very well yet no one can produce anything without a writer’s work. So I was showing how Hollywood turns its lens on itself and how if you’re interested in being a director, watch those types of movies. If you’re interested in being an actress, watch those movies and you’ll have an idea of how others have worked in the industry.
EH: What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned…working in the industry?
LH: I’d like to think about that one… just off the top of my head—writers don’t always have a huge opinion of themselves. They’re procrastinators, they never sure when their work is done. Absolutely not all writers but a good majority of writers. I can tell you what I’ve learned is, I’ve seen the worst stuff get made. We’ve all seen that because you can see what’s on TV right now and you can see what’s in the movies. Stuff gets made. It’s not necessarily the best but somehow it gets made. So when I work with someone you will never hear the words, ‘this will not get produced,’ because everything has the opportunity to get produced. So what I’ve learned is there’s an audience for just about everything. There’s money, there’s finance, there’s a producer, there’s a way to get things made as long as you are determined to make sure that happens.
EH: This actually answers a question I planned to ask a little bit later. Is it easier for a writer to produce his or her own work?
LS: Well today it is. Yes it’s much easier now. If you put together your own web series, if you put together your own indie film…it’s much easier to do that because you’ve got everything as far as what you need for editing and music on your computer. And cameras are much more affordable than they were at one point in time. I think it’s much easier. If you know how to do that then go ahead and shoot a reel, shoot a silver reel, shoot a web series, shoot a short film, show us what you can do or what you’re thinking and that will help us see what your talent is so that there is even more money to make a longer, or more substantial piece from a web series, to a television series, to something on Netflix or a film. I guess it’s easier today to do that. And you don’t have to pitch it. You can just post it. It’s up to you on social media to get the word out.
EH: it’s a matter of marketing or having some good marketing behind you.
LS: Right. And again, you can post anything you just have to make sure everybody knows it’s there. That’s the other component to help it get seen.
EH: When pitching a movie and you have a spec script, are camera directions ever okay in a spec script?
LS: Only if you’re going to shoot. If you are the person who is going to shoot it—yes, in which case or in most cases anyone that you’re presenting a script to would be financers or someone is going to give you the money to shoot the production, in that case you shouldn’t have camera angles in that script.
EH: So just avoid them at all costs or as much as you can?
LS: If you’re not shooting it, avoid it at all costs.
EH: How often do writers pitch to you?
LS: I work with writers all the time. I’m constantly working with writers. I also work with Women in Film and Video, I do a lot of their conferences where I’ll listen to pitches and give feedback. I’ve been at Scriptfest, I’ve been at Virtual Pitchfest, those kinds of things…I’ll listen to pitches and give people feedback. Even here in Madison I run a writer’s conference where I’m actually doing a huge pitch presentation as part of the conference to help people put their pitches together.
EH: How important is formatting? Have you ever looked at a great story and tossed it because of grammatical or formatting mistakes?
LS: Absolutely. Absolutely. If you can’t get that right, then already I can tell, why am I working with this person? Especially with spellcheck, and especially with Final Draft, and some of the other software programs, you have no excuse. In the past sure, that wasn’t available…but now it is. If I get a script that’s just nuts, the margins are off, everything is weird, I can tell they weren’t using any software, it already tells me something about this person. One of the big giveaways are the brads. The three holes…there are only two brads at the top and at the bottom. If there is a brad in the middle hole I’m one of those executives who will just send it back. Right away—that is not proper format.
EH: When judging a screenwriting competition is there a genre or type of story that wins the most [competitions]?
LS: That’s a good a good question because many of them are for different reasons. I judge an international screenwriting [competition], and it’s different from a domestic screenwriting [competition]. Each one has a specific reason why they’re looking at particular scripts. In most and in all cases, the scripts that tell a story. I know that sounds really trite but we really need a beginning, middle, and end. We really need to have your characters on page one, they’re different on page 110 than they are on page one. The story has to say something so no matter when or what I’m looking at a script for, the bottom line is that there has to be a story.
EH: Thank you so much for the interview, I got much much more than I expected and some very surprising and insightful answers. I think one of the answers that surprised me the most is—and I’ll admit I was wrong about this… I always thought that if a person had a few grammatical errors, the script wouldn’t get tossed if it’s a great story. But in reality it does speak volumes about that writer’s professionalism, and whether writers are taking the time to know their craft and making sure they understand the mechanics of writing.
LS: Right. If people are following your information and other outlets out there, that’s the other thing, there’s no excuse—there are many outlets out there, [and] good people like yourself that are sharing this, that you can follow.
EH: How important is having an agent to pitch your script [for you]?
Well it’s going to be very difficult for you to get past the some of the big studios and networks. This is why I go back to ‘shoot your own stuff’ to get it out there by social media, and those development execs will contact you. There are people at every agency who do nothing but comb Youtube, Vimeo…Snapchat, etc. If they see something they like they will contact you. And at that point in order to move forward they’ll probably attach an agent to you. It’s no longer where you have to go and get the agent. You can, but it’s going to be very difficult. It’s really much better now to produce your own work and have them come to you.
EH: I have a question about your work at UW. What led you to the University of Wisconsin? Was it that you relocated or that you just enjoy the teaching aspect of this as well?
LS: Yes, I really enjoy teaching, it’s definitely my path. When UW offered me an opportunity to be here full time and to develop this writer’s conference which is coming up in a couple of weeks, I have established this as one of the biggest writing conferences in the country and that was a great goal of mine. It’s something I really enjoy doing because, writers will come to this conference, I have about 400 people at this point that’ll be here for four days, and during those four days they will get a lot of information. A lot of information, just basic information about craft, about marketing, we have an opportunity to pitch to agents. I put all of that together so it’s a nice marriage of my bringing people I know from the industry to the Midwest so people here who don’t always want to move to the coast can have an opportunity to work with speakers, meet with agents, and continue to develop their work because it’s possible to sell and to be discovered and to continue to promote your work. You don’t have to be in New York or L.A. You can if you want, but you don’t have to be. You can be very successful anywhere on the planet.
EH: Thank you, I am just so excited to talk to you, this has been a pleasure. I apologize if I’ve been all over the place with some of my questions, so I’ll make this the last one.
LS: That’s okay.
EH: The Writer’s Conference is for people who are writing novels? Book authors and writers in general?
LS: This year it is. But in the past we’ve had screenwriting and will probably have it again next year. We do have one agent who is going to be listening to script ideas this year. But that’s only because he is also listening to literary. If you would have contacted me in the past two years we had huge, fantastic screenwriting resources and we’ll have it again.*
The Writer’s Conference takes place every year in March or April at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The 2016 conference will take place at the Madison Concourse April 15, 2016 to April 17, 2016. You can learn more about the Writer’s Conference at University of Wisconsin-Madison here:
Profile: Laurie Scheer
List of instructors presenting at the 2016 Writer’s Conference:
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Related articles: http://screenwritersdaily.com/2013/03/05/archives6/ (How to pitch a cartoon)
— E. Hughes