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When little fish swim

A Whistler screenwriter pitches at the Banff Television Festival and celebrates the survival of O

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By Rebecca Wood Barrett

"I have little hope this writer will complete another draft."

These were the parting words in a critique I’d received from a screenplay funding agency. I seethed with anger, and, unable to retort against this personal attack, I swiftly sank into a foggy depression. The critique was my first, and I didn’t understand the difference between professional analysis and irresponsible, bitter criticism. I quit writing.

Three months later I read the report again and saw that some of the comments had merit. This was a turning point for me. My jellyfish skin had grown a little thicker. I picked up my pen and started scribbling once more. Now that I’m conscious of my knee-jerk reaction to criticism, I simply indulge in the moment, and then promptly get on with the work. I have a fantasy that one day I’ll meet that anonymous author and say, "Listen jackass, I wrote another 10 drafts of that screenplay. And I received development funding from another agency. Did you hear the film won Best Picture last year?" The first two parts have come true, and the last, well, you can call me an optimist.

It takes a healthy dose of both optimism and pessimism to be an artist. You have to be convinced you have talent. (Otherwise, why bother?) You must equally be convinced that your work is complete and utter crap. Your Optimism motivates you to keep slogging away, and your Pessimism makes you a supreme self-critic, ensuring your work will improve. Ping-ponging between O & P is like being on a roller coaster ride, with long, excruciating stretches of anticipation, sickening drops and the giddy joy of having survived. Last year I sent out 21 applications to various filmmaking grants, festivals, workshops and contests. I received 21 rejections. My P was thoroughly trouncing my O.

I fear my skin is now too thick. I’ve turned crusty. I’m a rhino and so I decide to quit filmmaking. Since one of my short stories was recently accepted for publication, I rethink my "true calling" – I’ll be a fiction writer instead. And then I download the e-mail. "Congratulations on a successful ‘New Players Pitch’ submission! Our selection jury has chosen your project ‘Wild Life’ to be pitched to an audience of programmers, financiers, and buyers at BANFF 2004."

I’m floored. I’d forgotten I’d entered the contest, thinking at the time that I didn’t have a hope. I laugh out loud in disbelief. Begin repeatedly muttering, "I don’t believe it." I’m going to the 2004 Banff Television Festival to pitch my half-hour comedy series Wild Life , in front of a ballroom full of people. People who buy television shows just like mine.

Perhaps the sweetest moment of being chosen is when you come to accept what has happened, the point at which you stop saying "I don’t believe it." My vision of a quiet summer spent writing my new novel goes cheerfully up in flames.

I call my producing partner, Robert Kaul, and shout at him, "you’re not going to believe this! We’re going to Banff!" I’m on fire. I have calls, e-mails and research to do. Promo materials, a three minute pitch, and a short video clip to design and prepare. With only a month to do all.

Then it hits me. How am I going to afford it? The festival price tag, food, accommodation and travel tallies up to a painful three grand. If I flog my ’86 Jetta I’ll still only have a third! I ring the festival, and the kind administrator takes pity. She grants me two days admission for free. Since the festival is three and a half days long, I’ll be going Banff Lite. I decide to chuck the rest of the expenses on my credit card, and sacrifice next season’s ski pass (seeing as I haven’t paid off last season’s ski pass yet). It’s the kind of tough choice we artists have to make.

The following day I ask for a week off work. I’ve had lots of jobs in Whistler where I’d simply shrug and take off, yelling "damn the consequences!" But I happen to love my job, and I’d like to keep it. I’m a producer at Resort TV Network, and feel blessed to be working in "the industry". For nine months of the year, time off wouldn’t be a problem, but this particular week lands smack dab in the middle of one of our busiest production periods. Quite coincidentally, my friend and co-worker, producer Angela Moore, is also chosen to pitch her point-of-view documentary at Banff. It’s a double whammy. Not to mention that if we’re successful pitching our projects at Banff, Resort TV could potentially lose two of their producers.

The company agrees to give Angela and I the time off. We’re both surprised and overwhelmed when they offer to sponsor us by paying for our accommodation, our biggest expense. Their generous support launches my O to stratospheric levels, the highest it’s been in over a year. Not to be outdone, my two most rabid fans (mum and dad) chip in for the plane ticket. Surely, this was meant to be. I switch my true calling back to… filmmaker.

I’m an incredible wimp when it comes to meeting people, including making ordinary phone calls. The embarrassing truth is that when I was a teen, I couldn’t even call my hairdresser to book an appointment. I begged my mother to call, and she did. Possibly she was more disgusted with my growing resemblance to Cousin It than my shameful inability to use the most basic instrument of twentieth-century technology. When I finally left home for film school I was forced to overcome my irrational fear. But every now and then it crops up again.

What should be a straightforward task of e-mailing the broadcasters I need to meet, becomes an agonizing exercise. I dither over my e-mails, writing and rewriting, trying to sound upbeat, professional and creative, but not too wordy.

One of the brilliant things about Banff is that it’s completely inclusive. As an emerging producer, I have as much right to meet the heads of national and international broadcasters as the award-winning producer who’s worked for 20 years. After several days of dickering I muster up my courage to hit the Send button. The next day, I receive replies, short and sweet. I have appointments to meet with the commissioning editors from the CBC, CTV, Global, The Comedy Network and W Network.

In the end I decide to drive to Banff with my producer. Since he lives in Vancouver we haven’t had much time to prepare our project together. I figure a road trip will be an efficient way to conduct a 10-hour project meeting as well as put our relationship to the test.

I first met Robert two years ago at the first 72 Hour Filmmaker Showdown in Whistler during the Telus World Ski and Snowboard Festival. I was making a film with Lisa Fernandez called Mating Rituals of the Whistler Mountain Cougar , and he was producing a documentary about the filmmaking contestants. Over that intense, emotional and hilarious 72 hours, we had the chance to observe each other working in extreme production conditions. I knew he was upbeat, a clear thinker and a cool cat under pressure. He’s more of an O than a P.

When I later decided to develop a half hour comedy series, Wild Life , based loosely on the short film, I realized I had to find a producer. My heart was in the writing: I needed someone to make the phone calls. One of the critical questions to ask when choosing a producing partner is: do I want to go through hell with this person for a very long time? I remembered Robert, and thought we’d get along rather well in hell.

We hit the road at dawn on a Saturday morning. The winding highway snakes through the mountains, inspiring us to bounce our ideas back and forth; I’ve always found driving to be conducive to stimulating the synapses – I suspect it’s the feeling of physically going places that encourages the mind to do the same. Ten hours later we arrive in Banff. And we’re still talking.

On Sunday morning Robert and I attend The Great Canadian Pitch Fest, a precursor to the Banff Television Festival. We’re participating as producers, and for the first time I’m going to be on the other side of the pitch, since writers and other producers will be pitching their ideas to us . Robert’s interested in meeting comedy and sci-fi writers for other projects he has on the go. Hopefully we’ll also discover the do’s and don’ts of pitching.

The "pitchers" are allowed five minutes. The first woman we meet is so nervous she’s shaking. She rabbits on at a mile a minute. I feel like I’m being peppered with a verbal BB gun. The bell rings. She leaps to her feet like a prize fighter and marches off. Over the next five hours we’re bombarded with hundreds of pitches. There’s no time to establish a relationship. We’re forced to make decisions on sketch outlines. We witness the gamut of pitchers, from complete newbies to established professionals. One overly bright-eyed fellow smells as though he’s imbibed in a liberal dose of liquid courage. Later in the afternoon, he changes tactics to a drive-by method – shouting his logline as he strolls past while we’re talking to someone else. "You’ll love this one, it’s better than Star Wars!"

After five hours of five-minute speed pitches, our brains are mush. We’ve collected a suitcase of material to read through; however, there are only two writers who appear to suit our needs. Clearly it’s very difficult to make an impression, and even tougher to make it last. Robert and I now have an inkling of what we’ll be up against at Banff, and have developed an all-new respect for the broadcasters and producers we’ll be pitching to over the next three days. I’ve learned a few things about what not to do: insist the project is right for them after they’ve told me it’s not; wear a panicked grimace on my face; and smell like the inside of a beer can after two days in the sun.

In the evening, Robert heads off to the Banff opening ceremonies. Since I’m going Banff Lite, I can’t afford to attend the "official parties". The previous year I attended my first Banff on a CTV Fellowship (all expenses paid) and sadly, I know all too well the frivolity I’m missing. Feeling like the princess banned from the ball, I drag my sorry butt over to "The Irish Pub" – the unofficial Banff party destination. Last year I knew three people. This year I recognize half the pub. Perhaps it’s because I’m doing laps of the bar and keep running into the same three people.

Banff 2004 officially begins with a double Crantini and my first exchanged business card. One trick to a successful Banff is to write a brief "telling detail" describing your new contact on the back of his of her business card. Wide-eyed blondie – mentioned you liked her pants in the pub bathroom – let’s talk mushroom docs later. Study the cards the following year, and you’ll look like a genius when you remember people’s names. Not that it’s helped me any. My "name memory" can be astoundingly good, or astonishingly horrendous. For example, Michael Maitland is bowled over when I remember him from a film we worked on six years ago – but I’m likely to blank on my husband’s name an hour later.

One of the key elements to success in Banff is to know your limits, and then to exceed them. Think of yourself as an elite athlete, striving to break personal bests and Olympic records. Know how late you can stay up and still put a two-sentence synopsis together without drooling during your eight O-clock breakfast meeting with the National Film Board. Know whether draft beer, house red, or martinis (or any combination of) will induce the Hangover Of No Return. Because you’ve got meetings with the Comedy Network, and although the barf joke made for hysterical late-night programming, the live re-enactment in the Delegates Lounge might not be such a stellar idea. The point is, you’ve got a limited amount of time, and you can’t underestimate the opportunity to make contacts during the booze and flooze. Some of the best advice I get all week comes from other producers I meet at the Irish Pub. I trust it’s accurate.

My strict vodka martini strategy serves me well, and by the time Tuesday rolls around I’m feeling like a champion. It’s our big day. Pitch Day. Robert and I have exactly three minutes to pitch our comedy series to an audience of broadcasters and producers. Six teams pitch prior to us; I completely blank them out. I hear my name over the loudspeaker and I launch out of my seat. Suddenly I’m conscious of my walk. It has to be passionate. Funny. Sexy. My walk has to be the embodiment of our series. I reach the podium. The ballroom is cavernous, and I can see the entire audience because they’re lit with stage lights. My heart whumps in my chest. My smile is plastered on. A panicked grimace. Over the loudspeaker, a voice booms, "Your time begins NOW." Behind us, a large clock, one of those old-school number flippers, ticks off the seconds. Robert begins our pitch. The lights are killing me. It’s a migraine. It could be a hangover. Please let it be a hangover. I see Robert gazing at me expectantly and then the right words miraculously spill out of my mouth. We bat our pitch back and forth. Right after my line, "there’s lots of sex," Robert delivers a fabulously pregnant pause, and the audience cracks up. At the end of our clip, they laugh at the punch line.

After the pitch Robert and I barely have time to catch our breath before we rush into a slew of meetings with the broadcasters. We’re looking for development dollars to write a bible and two scripts. The meetings seem to go well, and one network executive says, "that’s something we’d be interested in." Still, the market for selling original Canadian content is extremely tough, since it’s cheaper for our national broadcasters to buy American programming. We’ll be going home to weeks of follow-up to try and take advantage of the relationship building we did. And although I know we’ve got a ridiculously slim chance of securing a deal, I can honestly say I had a whale of a time trying.

That night we celebrate at the Irish Pub. When a Spirit of the West song blasts over the bar we break into a martini-fuelled jig and I bust two bra straps. We are celebrating the survival of O.

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