By Rebecca Wood Barrett
"I have little hope this writer will complete another draft."
These were the parting words in a critique Id 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 didnt 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 Im 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 Ill 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. Ive turned crusty. Im 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" Ill 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."
Im floored. Id forgotten Id entered the contest, thinking at the time that I didnt have a hope. I laugh out loud in disbelief. Begin repeatedly muttering, "I dont believe it." Im 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 dont 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, "youre not going to believe this! Were going to Banff!" Im 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 Ill 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, Ill be going Banff Lite. I decide to chuck the rest of the expenses on my credit card, and sacrifice next seasons ski pass (seeing as I havent paid off last seasons ski pass yet). Its the kind of tough choice we artists have to make.
The following day I ask for a week off work. Ive had lots of jobs in Whistler where Id simply shrug and take off, yelling "damn the consequences!" But I happen to love my job, and Id like to keep it. Im a producer at Resort TV Network, and feel blessed to be working in "the industry". For nine months of the year, time off wouldnt 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. Its a double whammy. Not to mention that if were 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. Were 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 its 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.
Im 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 couldnt 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 its 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 whos 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 havent 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. Hes 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 wed 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; Ive always found driving to be conducive to stimulating the synapses I suspect its the feeling of physically going places that encourages the mind to do the same. Ten hours later we arrive in Banff. And were still talking.
On Sunday morning Robert and I attend The Great Canadian Pitch Fest, a precursor to the Banff Television Festival. Were participating as producers, and for the first time Im going to be on the other side of the pitch, since writers and other producers will be pitching their ideas to us . Roberts interested in meeting comedy and sci-fi writers for other projects he has on the go. Hopefully well also discover the dos and donts of pitching.
The "pitchers" are allowed five minutes. The first woman we meet is so nervous shes shaking. She rabbits on at a mile a minute. I feel like Im 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 were bombarded with hundreds of pitches. Theres no time to establish a relationship. Were 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 hes 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 were talking to someone else. "Youll love this one, its better than Star Wars!"
After five hours of five-minute speed pitches, our brains are mush. Weve collected a suitcase of material to read through; however, there are only two writers who appear to suit our needs. Clearly its very difficult to make an impression, and even tougher to make it last. Robert and I now have an inkling of what well be up against at Banff, and have developed an all-new respect for the broadcasters and producers well be pitching to over the next three days. Ive learned a few things about what not to do: insist the project is right for them after theyve told me its 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 Im going Banff Lite, I cant 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 Im 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 its because Im 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 lets talk mushroom docs later. Study the cards the following year, and youll look like a genius when you remember peoples names. Not that its 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 Im likely to blank on my husbands 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 youve 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, youve got a limited amount of time, and you cant 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 its accurate.
My strict vodka martini strategy serves me well, and by the time Tuesday rolls around Im feeling like a champion. Its 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 Im 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 theyre 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. Its 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, "theres 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. Were looking for development dollars to write a bible and two scripts. The meetings seem to go well, and one network executive says, "thats something wed be interested in." Still, the market for selling original Canadian content is extremely tough, since its cheaper for our national broadcasters to buy American programming. Well be going home to weeks of follow-up to try and take advantage of the relationship building we did. And although I know weve 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.