Twenty aspiring writers and filmmakers gathered at the 5th annual Napa Valley Film Festival to pitch their ideas to some of Hollywood’s most powerful and influential executives and producers.
While other NVFF participants explored Napa Valley, watched one or more of the 125 presented films, enjoyed exceptional food, world-class wine and the beautiful and near-perfect autumnal weather, a select-group of aspiring writers and filmmakers spent the week honing their pitches. Each contestant had been chosen from hundreds of applicants to present his or her ideas to some of Hollywood’s heavyweights, including David Glasser, COO of the Weinstein Co. and David Greenbaum, executive vice president of production for Fox Searchlight Pictures.
All of the contestants had one thing on their minds: find a partner to help support their projects to the next level.
Previous winners have gone on to see their pitches become reality, including Iana Simeonov and Michael Winokur, who shared one of the awards in 2013 and went on to make an award-winning short film, “Selling Rosario,” that won both the Jury Prize and Audience Award at the NVFF 2014.
“To have access to key decision-makers without going to Los Angeles is amazing, but it’s also pretty intense,” said screenwriter Sharon McKenna, one of this year’s selected contestants. “I mean normally I’ve had at least a half-hour to pitch, but here we only get three minutes. Regardless, I’m really looking forward to the process, meeting other writers and getting feedback on my project.”
A writer based in San Francisco, McKenna based her pitch on her first book, “Sex and the Single Mom,” which was released in 2006.
Just being included would be challenge enough. But to win the contestants must pass even more hurdles before one lucky winner is eventually selected in what is referred to by the NVFF as “The Final Smackdown.” Before the smackdown contestants were provided an opportunity to refine their pitches in front of industry veterans Scott Manville and Peter Belsito in a pitch “boot camp” held last Thursday.
“This boot camp provides an opportunity to refine your pitches,” said Manville to the 20 contestants before they took the stage. “But unfortunately only 10 of you will continue on from here to the final round. Even so, everyone here should congratulate themselves — it is a real accomplishment to have gotten this far.”
Manville has been involved with the NVFF for the last three years and is the owner of Manville Media Ventures Inc. He is known in the film industry as both a producer and master pitch writer.
Each of the boot-camp pitchers were given two minutes to sell their story. Afterward the participants were critiqued and given constructive feedback on what worked and what didn’t.
Before the contestants presented, Belsito, founding member of the Independent Film Project and guest blogger on Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and IndieWire, provided advice.
“What we need to hear is a beginning, middle and end of the story you’re pitching,” he said. “Tell us what the payoff is and why we should care — these are serious business decisions you are asking someone to make. Pitching is a business skill. You want to get something out of the person across the table: Maybe you want them to read your script or write a check, maybe it’s to provide access to a hot new director or star. But whatever it is, give them a reason for them to want to learn more.”
Contestant Ken Schneider, a documentary producer from the Bay Area, presented his pitch to follow the life of a Cuban hip-hop artist. While Paul Martin, a Sonoma filmmaker presented a comedy about a woman forced to rob a bank so that she might go to jail and receive life-saving healthcare. McKenna presented her “Sex and the Single Mom” as a comedy series. Others presented dramas, full-length movies and even a couple of potential new reality shows.
After the boot camp, the two judges conferred and then read off the names of those who would be continuing on. McKenna, Martin and Schneider were all on the list.
“I thought my pitch went well, but there were some other really, really good people that were pitching and some really good stories,” said Martin. “My concern is not my pitch, my concern is that they’ll like another story better than mine.”
Martin would have to wait to find out. The final round wasn’t to be held until Sunday.
As the days passed the tension grew, with most of the participants concentrating on refining their pitches.
“This is a special event every year, and Brenda and Marc have provided a real opportunity for all these writers, but every year it seems to just get better and better,” said Manville Saturday night during one of the many NVFF parties that were being held around the valley.
Manville was referring to Brenda and Marc Lhormer who co-founded the NVFF five years earlier. Beyond the Lhormers’ involvement with the festival and helping would-be writers find their voice, they produced the widely acclaimed wine-country-based film “Bottle Shock” in 2008.
When Sunday morning arrived the 10 finalists gathered along with the judges at City Winery in downtown Napa. Unlike at the pitch boot camp, audience members were allowed to watch “The Final Smackdown.” Included in the audience were a few of the contestants who didn’t make it through the boot camp.
“I got great feedback, but my story didn’t make it to the top 10,” said Shundria Reed. “But I’m here today to support my other new friends and colleagues who did make it.”
Six judges took the stage and called the contestants one at a time. The audience watched in rapt attention as each participant was called up to give a three-minute summary of his or her story. Since the boot camp it was clear that the pitchers had worked hard on their pitches, using the feedback and guidance to refine each of them into concise, often dramatic and emotionally charged summaries of why their stories should be chosen.
The crowd clapped enthusiastically, hooting and whistling for a few of their favorites, while the judges responded with brief, often encouraging comments after each presentation. Yet most remained stoned-faced and serious, making it clear that, as Belsito had predicted, this was a serious business decision.
After the final contestants had given their best, the judges retired to make their final decision.
“I feel good about what I did, but I might do a few things differently,” said McKenna as she waited with the others for the final decision. “We’ll just see what happens.”
The crowd grew quiet as the judges took their seats.
“You should all be encouraged by the response that you’ve all received here today,” said David Greenbaum, executive vice president at Fox Searchlight. “If you are finding joy discovering stories then that is often the greatest reward. However, we all responded to one pitch in particular that was timely and we’re all excited to learn more about it.”
He paused and the entire audience waited quietly, the contestants seemingly holding their breath.
“Without further ado,” said Greenbaum, “the winner is Ken Schneider for his documentary set in Cuba, ‘The Factory.’”
The crowd clapped, with many of the other pitch participants clapping loudest.
“The judges were excited about a lot of the projects here today, but in the end we had to pick only one,” said Manville after the event. “I think that Schneider’s project is going to find legs and get some traction. It has the right ingredients and components,” he said, shaking his head in near disbelief. “Every year it just gets better and better.”
“I’m really glad for Ken,” McKenna said as she readied to leave. “I loved his idea, and Cuba is timely.” She paused for a moment as a big smile grew on her face. “I think I did pretty well, too, and I am going to keep pursuing this and I’ll keep writing. I’m going to sell this at some point,” she said with a grin.