Three cheers for low-budget screenplays

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Back again from a whirlwind trip out to Burbank for a screenplay pitch fest. I had to share the funniest part about InkTip. Some 300 companies came to hear pitches — fabulous. They have great names — like Flying Wong Productions, Twisted Pictures and No Suck Comedy, Inc. It’s just that some of them ask for ridiculously low-budget features. For example, in this line you could pitch to three companies at once.

Wong, on many levels
Flying Wong, if you look closely, wants thrillers like Nolan’s Inception – with a $200,000 budget! That’s a dream worth stealing…just add another three zeroes when you wake up.

Another alternate reality at work this time was the age differential. Most working writers in Hollywood are around 30 years old. The average age of writers pitching scripts at InkTip? Their fathers. Or grandfathers. Maybe all the younger writers were on summer vacation from film school, but it made for lots of discussion about World War 2 films in the cattle lines.

no time to waste

Many of you cringed at the speed-dating format of the last pitch fest I blogged about, so how about a sequel? InkTip takes pay-to-pitch to a new level. You get the same five minutes of face time in a cavernous hotel ballroom but you pitch to three or four companies at once. Now I know what an American Idol audition must be like.

This format is actually better, once you get the eye contact dilemma down. If you can tell your script isn’t right for one exec (as in, they text while you talk or munch on candy the desperate writer before you left on their table) you just ignore them and find a face with alert eyes. I did miss the cowbell though. This time they just dimmed the lights at four minutes and thirty seconds into your pitch and had bouncers drag you away if the producers were still asking questions. Which happened to me several times. Which is a good sign, I guess. I had requests to read three of my four babies – even the drama I thought Hollywood had given up on.

In the end, that was the best part about InkTip. At my first pitch fest, last year,  I got the message that “Mask of the Innocent,” and “The Scarlet Registry” are too dark and gritty. Drama was a dirty word. But films like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River are breathing new life into production companies – or at least a new willingness to read scripts that aren’t “tent-pole” or “high-concept.” Three cheers for indie producers with big dreams! They end up making Oscar-nominated films and hopefully one day mine will be one of them.

Why Jokes Choke

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While I’m waiting to hear back from producers who requested to read my R-rated comedy “Free Corona,” I keep tweaking the screenplay. All writing is re-writing — I know this — I’m just not as sure when it comes to jokes.

I’m pretty confident most of the scenes in “Free Corona” are funny. Either that or the 14 people who staged a table read at my house are easily bribed. Full disclosure: there were gin and tonics; this is the Deep South. And I did promise everyone a dip in the creek when we got through. But here’s why I think the laughs were earned honestly: one joke completely choked.

Bruce Doneff – a PR exec who does Shakespeare on the side, was gamely reading the parts of four horny old retirees. At one point near the end of the second act, they try to shame a hapless maintenance man into admitting that he’s knocked up the girl, Corona, they all drool over. The dialog went like this:

Herb: It wasn’t me, that’s all I know.
(He pretends to stroke a bulging stomach.)
Herb: Big bee like mine would make a much bigger sting.

Bruce tried reading it one way, then another, using different pacing, until the whole room was rolling with laughter. The unintended kind that gives writers nightmares. He finally gave up.

“What the hell am I supposed to be saying here?” His glasses slid down his nose. I got the “honey this doesn’t work” look loud and clear.

I tried to explain. I really did hear this joke, out of the mouth of a Beaufort judge. Only it was in the 90s, and it was at a hot-tub party (no lie) and gossip had turned to how hugely pregnant a mutual friend looked.

The judge said, “Oh that’s nothing. You should have seen my wife when she was pregnant.” His wife was a little Southern belle, hard to picture hugely pregnant. So he clarified. “Guess it just goes to show. The bigger the stinger the bigger the bee sting.”

I still think that’s funny (I can’t speak for his now ex-wife) But where the joke died was in the re-write. I backed into it, got the timing tangled, basically butchered it by trying to steal it.
Hmmm…there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I’m just not sure if it’s for me or the judge.