There are lots of sites and services that charge writers or filmmakers for the opportunity to “pitch” their projects. And there are just as many filmmakers and writers who decry the practice as an outright scam focused on simply taking the money of starry-eyed newbies with no intention of ever really making their movie (see the recent Nehst Studios post).
Sometimes those same writers and filmmakers pay for pitch sessions as adjuncts to seminars, festivals and etc, like the Great American Pitchfest. Unknown writers put out hundreds of dollars, maybe a couple thousand when you include travel lodging and food, to go to the Pitchfest in LA. They get to pitch their unknown project(s) to a bunch of “producers”, some of whom are legit, some of whom possibly are not, none of whom have ever heard of said writer, or have ever shown any interest in his work. They only agree to hear his pitch because he PAID. And many such writers seem to think this is a great opportunity, completely legitimate, money well spent, an investment in their careers, etc.
I still don’t understand why some folks insist that a Pitchfest makes sense, but when ONE producer or website makes the same offer, it’s a scam. It may be a scam, if that particular producer is a thief. But why is it by definition a “scam”, when a Pitchfest is a legitimate “opportunity”?
I’d love to hear examples and experiences about Pitchfest-esque events, individual producers/agents/managers who charge for pitch sessions, and online sites that charge to connect you with pitching opportunities.
In 1991 Producer Larry Meistrich launched The Shooting Gallery on the momentum of Laws Of Gravity, stumbled along for the next few years with a slate of art house films, caught lightning in a bottle with Sling Blade… and then the train ground to a painful stop in 2001.
From 2001 The Village Voice:
On the seventh floor of 609 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, a movie poster of You Can Count On Me lies on the floor. Chairs, desks, and office supplies are strewn about as if a hurricane had blown through the building. Two guys in jeans and T-shirts edge through the clutter, wheeling a cabinet toward the elevator. When asked if they’re working for the Shooting Gallery, the 10-year-old entertainment production company that operated here until late June, one of them replies, “We’re not getting paid; we’re just picking some stuff up for Larry.” (…more)
More recently, Meistrich has launched his new Nehst Studios (pronounces “Next”). The studio was announcing back in 2007 on various filmmaking boards that it had funding for a slate of new films ranging from 2MM to 50MM “to shoot within the next two years”. In addition they spun off two other services, PitchNehst.com (where you can pay $10 to pitch to Larry) and Screentest.biz, where actors can pay to upload photos and videos in the hopes of being cast in a project. Screentest.biz assures it will only allow funded, greenlit projects to access actors’ profiles. (Interestingly, the only TV project listed is Nehst’s own Dribble Kick Throw, which it first announced casting for in 2007. On Screentest.biz, the project lists a 2008 release date.)
The only two projects listed to date on the Nehst site are 2008’s Running The Sahara and the upcoming Article 32, both quiet documentaries. Not exactly the slate of multi-million dollar blockbusters Nehst seemed to be promising.
Larry and Nehst have been met with rabid cynicism from many indie and wannabe filmmakers, who view the charging of fees for the opportunity to pitch as simple scammism. Larry’s been called a “friggen parasite … [who is] not into making movies, but instead … into getting the money out of everyone’s wallet” by filmmakers who resent the pay to pitch concept.
I have been more tempered in my response, saying that to me he seems like a guy who’s using some admittedly kind of crass methods to develop his studio, but whose pedigree is legitimate… and that I’d rather find ways to work with people who are in a position to be valuable to me than call them names and question their ethics. Although I’ve never paid to pitch myself, I wonder why some pay-to-pitch formats are acceptable and some are not. [more on that here]
Recently, Nehst has been reamed by bloggers for their questionable methods and motives in pursuing tax incentives, grants and a convention center in Ohio. Says James Renner of ClevelandIndependent.com:
It sure sounded cool, didn’t it?
Last year, the Plain Dealer trumpeted the arrival of “Nehst Studios” to Cleveland. Star-struck North-Coasters wondered when we might begin seeing Tom Hanks strolling through Public Square. Nehst Studios. You know, like Paramount Studios. Warner Bros. Studios.
They promised jobs. They promised to bring in $125 million a year in new business; show business. In a region where $5 and a sandwich buys you a home these days, that sounded swell. We wanted to believe.
But we knew it couldn’t be true, didn’t we? We’re from NE Ohio, after all. Disappointment is our reliable friend.
Well, yeah, turns out our hunch was right.
Nehst is as much a studio as my dick is a muffin. Their CEO is a renowned swindler. Their principal investor? Bernie Madoff’s family. Yes. That Bernie Madoff. Their good friend: Al Ratner. Yes. That Al Ratner.
And when they tried to swindle $300,000 from Ohio taxpayers, the only public servant asking questions was handed a pink slip.
What’s going on? And why did Frank Jackson just give them the Convention Center?
So Nehst’s principle investor is Andrew Madoff, the son of Bernard Madoff, who is serving a 150-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. Not exactly the pedigree one looks for in a startup business ostensibly managing tens of millions of dollars.
I’m still not drawing any premature conclusions, as I’m a firm supporter of Due Process (and I’m sure to be vilified by one or two Meistrich hating filmmakers who will conclude I want Larry to steal their money because of it). Nobody’s been found guilty of anything, disgruntled employees sue their ex-bosses all the time, pay-to-pitch hasn’t been proven to be a “scam”, lots of websites charge actors to post their pictures, and movies/tv shows/web series all can take years and years to get through production if they make it through at all. And lots of people get funding, lose funding, and get it back again. That’s Hollywood.
But I find this whole slow spiral fascinating, having lived through the dotcom bubble (which The Shooting Gallery certainly emulated), being a fan of Meistrich’s best credit (Sling Blade) and doing my level best to understand what’s legitimate and what’s not as I try so desperately to trip over the threshold of the secret door into Hollywood myself.
Maybe Nehst Studios (and its subsidiaries) are a scam designed to milk wannabe filmmakers, actors and writers, as well as taxpayers, out of their hard earned money by selling pie-in-the-sky Hollywood dreams. Or maybe they’re just really shitty business people who’ve chosen two bad historical moments (the crashes of 01 and 08/9) to try to launch one of the hardest kinds of businesses there is to launch, and are misunderstood by bitter Hollywood-hating uber-indies and average Joe’s who don’t understand how volatile (financially and professionally) the industry is.
Sure, superheroes are all over the silver screen. And that’s great for the comics publishers (who get to license the rights to their IP) and great for producers and studios (cuz it’s easier to sell a movie that’s based on an existing brand). But it sucks for the spec screenwriter who doesn’t have said rights (and thus would be wasting his/her time writing an adaptation of, say, The Tick) and still wants to write a superhero movie.
So what’s a spec screenwriter who wants to put their stamp on the superhero genre to do?
Faeries has now advanced to the finals, baby! Looks like we’ll be heading down to Hollywood again next month, to attend the fest. We will, of course, keep you all posted on the final results, about the trip, and about the fest itself.