Friday, October 2, 2009

Give Me a Pitch

You've heard about the writer of a movie screenplay getting the opportunity to "pitch" his idea to a studio "big shot". It might be a producer, it might be an assistant to a producer, it might be the studio vice president, the president of the studio or a guy in the mail room. It doesn't matter, whoever it is you'd better have a quick description of your project that gets your guys attention, FAST! Don't expect to get any face time if you start out by saying "my story can't be told in one sentence, it's much more complicated than that" or "let me tell you about some of the great characters first". No way dude, you've probably just blown it because your guy is already thinking about his next appointment and the clock is ticking. These guys get hit up every day with ideas for movies and they have a sixth sense for a "pooch". Granted there are a lot of "pooches" that got filmed but the pitch sounded good. The powers that be don't deliberately try to to make a rotten movie, except for anyone who ever approved a Rob Schneider project.

So imagine I'm the "big shot", the head of the mail room, and this is your big chance. Pitch it in here. It's your job as the "pitcher" to say something intriguing, funny or catchy in a short amount of time so that your guy actually looks at you and gives you a second minute of his over-committed, super valuable time. Since I've never given a pitch to a Hollywood big shot or anyone else for that matter I can only guess what some of the classics may have been: The Poseidon Adventure meets Romeo & Juliet = TITANIC, The Great Santini meets An Officer and a Gentleman = TOP GUN, Ozzie & Harriet meets Rocky = CINDERELLA MAN.

Or how about the screenplay I am working on: The Candidate meets Monster or American President meets American Psycho or Dave meets Hannibal = THE CANDIDATE'S WIFE. The scoop is is that a charismatic but hollow Presidential candidate in a loveless but highly publicized marriage is married to a brilliant chameleon-like serial killer with a spooky past. Childless and with no immediate family Isis Stroud, during the campaign, trolls the dark streets at night disguised as hooker who in this case is not a victim but is searching for them. As a Senator based in D.C. Jeremy Stroud is basically in love with his own terrific self and is clueless re his wife's occasional forays into murder. Isis' style becomes cramped with the increased personal protection during the campaign. Secret Service agent, Trent Jennings and reporter Colleen McCrohan separately become suspicious of THE CANDIDATE'S WIFE. After Colleen narrowly escapes an attempt on her life, by a disguised Isis, she meets agent Jennings who is the investigating officer because the attack occurred in D.C. within the Secret Service's jurisdiction. Comparing notes and dates of murdered men, late at night, in seedy D.C. neighborhoods with the future first lady's movements, Jennings and McCrohan close in on a serial killer who may be untouchable if Jeremy Stroud is elected President.

OK back to you and maybe you don't have idea for a "pitch"? How about a book you've read or something you've seen on the news or a movie you paid good money for that was a "pooch" but just begs to be redone because you just knew it would be a terrific flick. It's not your fault the director, screenwriter or actors messed it up? Right, I understand that a movie can't be totally faithful to a book but it can sure try to emulate the "spirit" of the book. It's obvious that the book was optioned as a movie because there was something special about it. There's no way a movie can cram in everything about the book that was special but it needs to include the best parts. At that point you have the dilemma of keeping the movie "faithful" to the book to appease all of the people who liked the book. But the real truth is that, in the long run, the movie has to stand on it's own merits to increase to box office and draw people who didn't read the book.

An example would be CATCH-22 the "one hit wonder" written by Joseph Heller about his experiences as a B-17 pilot during WW II. i.e. Twelve O'clock High meets The Wackiest Ship in the Army. The book was filled with weird characters and situations all influenced by the dilemma or Catch-22 of: "Getting out of flight duty because you are crazy isn't possible because you can't be crazy if you think you are." The movie was OK, a little long, but Alan Arkin's portrayal of a shell-shocked pilot was knowing and humorous. However, compared to the book which I had read as a fascinated high school student, influenced by the stories of my mother who served in the Red Cross during the War, the movie was a disappointment. I have no idea what the box-office for Catch-22 was in 1970 but when I saw it twenty years later I loved it! Which I guess means that when the influences of the book wear off a person is able to watch a movie based on it's own merits.

Another example of translating a book to a movie is THE DAY OF THE JACKAL which was a terrific book and an excellent movie! A great leading man (Edward Fox) as the Jackal and long (2 hours and 21 minutes) but compelling! I know De Gaulle doesn't get assassinated but this guy sure has a shot at it! How could both mediums be such high quality? Frederick Forsyth the book's author, who had a history of international connections, kept the action moving and coolly hid the identity and the origins of the charismatic assassin while switching to the brilliant but plodding French chief detective and his dogged pursuit of the Jackal. Fred Zinnemann, the seasoned director, had a well-deserved international reputation for directing such diverse classics as: THE SEVENTH CROSS, THE MEN, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY AND OKLAHOMA orchestrated a superb cast of actors you recognize, but whose names you can't quite remember, back and forth across Europe.

How about a terrific book that should have been a great movie that turned into a "pooch". Try this: Wall Street meets To Kill a Mockingbird. Sounds good, right? How about this satire on corporate greed contrasted with a trial of a "fat cat" being prosecuted for a hit and run injury of a black man turned into a St. Bernard sized pooch called BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES. Miscast (should have been William Hurt instead of Tom Hanks) and misdirected by trashy murder mystery specialist Brian DePalma (should have been helmed by Sidney Lumet, he wasn't busy) BONFIRE is a bloated exercise in ego driven desires designed to make a film statement that was already said with verve and humor in the best-selling novel.

Then there's the authors who've but pumping out good stuff for years but where are the movies? Lee Child and his Jack Reacher series begs to be translated to film. A big, tough, former military policeman with an instinct to defend the little guy or gal against forces he can't combat. Hollywood might have trouble casting Reacher since most of the current bankable stars are a tad wimpy and Tom Selleck, who would be perfect, might be too old. Also how about Michael Connelly and his Harry Bosch series about a L.A. police detective with a knack for solving complicated crimes. Hollywood may not "get it" because of the book's lack of violence and Bosch's reserved personality. Finally, Robert Crais' Elvis Cole series about a wise-cracking L.A. private detective who is VERY smart and along with his partner, the enagmatic Joe Pike, solve crimes, defend the weak and usually don't get paid.

Yah, I know, none of these guys are "politically correct" enough with the proper recipe for a "buddy" and Hollywood is probably worried about the dough it would cost to "pony" up for the film rights when some screenwriter can make up a story for just the cost of the screenplay. Plus the industry is always underestimating the audience's intelligence and usually ends up substituting characters you care about, compelling story and snappy dialogue for special effects, a phony love interest and a story that has more plot holes in it than a wedge of swiss cheese.

Don't worry I "get" the studio thing and budgets and the new "hot" director fresh from his triumphantly cool TV commercial or rock and roll video but what about the networks? Can't they develop new talent with "The Movie of the Week" by keeping the movies tight using a low budget but keep the soul of the book with an interesting script and no special effects. Don't tell me it can't be done, look at Tom Selleck and his Jesse Stone movies. Straight from Robert B. Parker. Clean, kept the soul of the books, no-name actors, tight like a short story.

Heck I don't know, I'm not in the business, maybe it takes a "name" actor to get it done? Or is it all being done on cable with Showtime and HBO or "B" movies that go straight to video? I guess I shouldn't expect too much considering my favorite gumshoe, Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald's "knight in slightly tarnished armor" who found missing things for people, only made it to the big screen once. Staring the unsung and highly underrated Australian actor, Rod Taylor, DARKER THAN AMBER followed McGee and his attempts to protect a young woman who had fallen in with a bad crowd. Displaying a heavy dose of blarney combined with barely concealed menace Taylor fit McGee perfectly. When he needed Taylor could turn on the charm or turn on the power; he was comfortable and believable using both.

So do you "get" what I'm offering? Right not much, but give it a shot; give me a pitch. How about Bonny and Clyde meet Ghostbusters? or Fight Club meets The Sting? or Thelma and Louise meet In Cold Blood? You get it. Go ahead right down the middle, I'm waiting behind home plate.