By Rich Figel
As producer of the Career Changers TV show, I've been following the startup movement the past four years, which has mainly been driven by high tech applications for computers and mobile devices. First, there were incubators to help nascent companies develop their business plan. Then accelerators sprouted up around the country that offered seed money, office space and mentoring, in exchange for equity in startups they hand-picked (usually a 5 to 10 percent stake). Events such as Startup Weekend brought together like-minded entrepreneurs who would pitch their ideas to actual venture capitalists, angel investors and business consultants.
While filming segments on Blue Startups and Henk Rogers of Tetris empire fame, I saw similarities to what writers and filmmakers must go through to sell their TV or movie projects to producers. Many of the same principles apply, like the attention-getting premise or "elevator pitch" that succinctly sets up the concept and the synopsis that spells out what makes this project different or better than similar ideas. But in the TV and movie biz, the script was pretty much the entire franchise plan for the writer. Tech startups live or die based on "proof of concept" and demonstrations of their new product, service or app.
However, with the explosion of multimedia options -- or "transmedia" -- writers and filmmakers suddenly had plenty of other means to get their projects noticed in Hollywood: short films shot on high def video cameras, movie trailer style pitches for unproduced projects, YouTube, webisodes that can transition to mainstream TV, crowdfunding sites, etc. So it was only a matter of time before there were accelerators specifically created to nurture entertainment franchises. We now have one in Kona called Global Virtual Studio Transmedia, which had its first accelerator cohort last year. I learned about it after the application deadline had passed, but was invited to pitch a project for their GVS Boardroom panel event on Feb. 27.
I've been writing scripts for a long time, and had some minor success. Yet I haven't been able to get over the hump. I've often felt the missing ingredient was that to sell my scripts, you had to "see" it because they were written for the big screen and incorporated spectacular visual images -- such as locations in Hawaii related to the legends of the Menehune. Anyhow, I decided to submit a proposal for a franchise based on my feature screenplay, "Stinky Feet and the Secret of Menehune Gulch."
Since I had gotten good responses to prior email pitches I wrote for that script, I adapted my e-queries for the GVS submission and fleshed it out with images of Kauai's lush valleys, dramatic cliffs, underground lava tubes, and what might pass for a Menehune village. The GVS accelerator offers $50K over a six month period to each of the six teams they will select for the next cohort in the fall, which is a very nice incentive for fledgling screenwriters and filmmakers. In exchange for providing funding, facilities in their Kona studio, plus mentors with lots of experience and Hollywood connections, the project creator gives 10 percent equity in the franchise to GVS... which is a strong incentive for GVS to make it work too.
Backing this accelerator, is the State Dept. of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, which also has a major stake in seeing winners emerge from the program. Two of the top DBED&T officials -- Georja Skinner and Karl Fooks -- are taking a hands on approach, as I found out when I was selected as one of the eight presenters. Although our pitches were NOT being judged as part of the application process for the next cohort, we were told the feedback should be used to hone our franchise concepts to address questions that would be brought up by the specially-assembled panel. Besides Georja and Karl, there was a former Disney and Pepsico exec, a former marketing exec for Sony Pictures, and people with major movie experience sitting in the audience of about 50 people.
To say I was nervous is a bit of an understatement. I hate speaking in front of groups, and have never been comfortable pitching my TV or movie projects to industry people. But I felt confident in my Menehune concept, and I thought the Power Point I put together right before the event was good.
There was just one problem. When the presenters were gathered to do our run-through, we had to use their system to show whatever media we had. Instead of a laptop with the Presenter's View mode for my Power Point slides (which includes "Notes" at bottom you can use as a cheat sheet) all I had was a keyboard and a big monitor screen slightly behind me on my right side. They gave me a clicker to advance the slides... which had a slight delay. I had printed out my "Notes" text to consult, i.e. read from, if I got nervous and forgot the scripted lines. On top of that, we were limited to exactly five minutes for our spiels, and there was a GVS staffer to my left holding a digital clock.
So I'm trying to remember my lines, checking my printed-out notes, glancing back at the slide on the screen to my right -- crap, that's not the right slide! -- looking back at the clock ticking down to my left, clicking the clicker back a slide, then another... and I realize I'm not even halfway through before my time is up. This is why I hate public speaking. I could feel the pity from the other presenters. All of them did their run-throughs in one shot with not much problem. Me, I was asked to stay behind and do it again. Ugh. How embarrassing.
The second run-through was slightly better after I switched to using the keyboard to advance my slides. It was still running long though, so I knew I had to ditch the scripted "Notes" text and refer directly to the outline or visual images on my Power Point slides when we did it in front of a live audience -- and cameras. Which is another thing that gives me stage fright.
Minutes before show time, I considered bailing. Rather than stand in front of a crowded room and make a sputtering fool of myself, I could just say I felt sick and wouldn't be doing my presentation. The other seven projects were very impressive, and those people had better credentials than me -- or so I told myself. "Stinky Feet"? What was I thinking! Yet part of me knew years of rejections, failures, and even ridicule as a kid, had prepared me for this moment. I started off a little shaky, relying too much on reading my notes. Then when I had to refer back to my outlined thoughts on the screen behind me, I loosened up and got through it okay.
The panel then spent 12 minutes asking questions and commenting on my pitch. The former Disney exec immediately said he had never heard about Menehune, and was so fascinated by the myths that he felt it could be a TV series. The former Sony Pictures guy said he loved the concept. After I explained why the lead kid character is nicknamed "Stinky Feet" by a local bully, I confessed that it got left out because I was terrible at pitching. "I disagree," the Sony guy interjected. "When you stopped reading your notes, your passion and knowledge of your subject really came through!"
Later, Big Island Film Commissioner Ilihia Gionson and his significant other came up to me. He said he really liked my Menehune project even though it's set on Kauai. She said she voted for mine as her favorite of the eight presentations (I didn't win that vote -- a martial arts movie project by a Big Island filmmaker got the audience choice award). But there was one more twist after I returned home to the other Kailua...
The next day, I got an email that said, "Great Pitch!" in the subject line. In my Power Point, I included my email address on the last slide that said, "Pau." You never know, right? It turned out an audience member with contacts in the movie and TV business loved my concept and disagreed with panelists who said it should be a $10 million dollar movie, not the $100 million budget I guess-timated. She wrote that I should stick to my vision of a big movie about little people, and not make it a smaller project just to fit the accelerator's business model. They know it's almost impossible to sell a $100 million project even if I was able to use the accelerator to create a dynamite movie trailer or short film to promote it. But a $10 million film is something they could realistically help set up, and their 10 percent stake would pay dividends.
I want to believe this person who contacted me has the connections that can move my Menehune project forward as a big budget film. If not though, I'd be happy to see it made even if we have to dress up little people like Polynesian Munchkins instead of the expensive CGI "Lord of the Rings" type dwarves, trolls and elves I originally pictured for my Menehune village scenes. And maybe that's the best thing about the GVS Transmedia accelerator... it gives writers like me a chance to dream of seeing our work be brought to life, even if it's not exactly what we hoped for.