The Great American Pitchfest Interview                            (reprinted by permission from Bob Schultz)

By Jim Cirile

We sat down recently with Signe Olynyk and Bob Schultz, partners in the Great American and Great Canadian Pitchfest, arguably the Rolls Royce of pitch festivals. The next Pitchfest rolls into the Universal City Sheraton in Los Angeles the weekend of June 22nd. Over 70 companies are slated to attend. And unlike other pitch fests that limit you to 4 or 5 meetings, with Great American Pitchfest, the average is 12-20 meetings, sometimes more! If you’ve got material you’ve honed to perfection (you have honed it to perfection, haven’t you?) and are now ready to approach the industry, there is no better, stronger, faster way to meet a whole room full of industry than the Great American Pitchfest.

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Jim Cirile: Hi, guys. Tell us how this ball got rolling.

Bob Schultz: It was all Signe’s brainchild. She had already done one in Canada.

Signe Olynyk:  It was really borne out of frustration. I went to other pitch fests, and I attended as a participant.
 
JC:  So you’re a writer also.

SO: Yeah, I’m a writer and a producer.   I've sat on both sides of the table.  I've attended as a participant looking for companies to coproduce with, or option my scripts to.  And I've also sat on the other side of the table looking for material and writers to work with.

BS: All of us who are involved with putting on the Pitchfest are writers. We pride ourselves on being by writers, for writers.

SO: We tell people this isn’t our Pitchfest, it’s everyone’s Pitchfest. We’re writers. We developed an event-well, for ourselves, really. We were trying to find something that helped writers and producers connect in a way that we didn’t feel was being done.

JC: I’m a long-time veteran of a lot of pitch fests, and I’ve made a lot of good long-time industry contacts from them. Some people you sit with are a waste of time, but others, you really can make a connection. What weren’t you seeing from those other pitch fests that you wanted to bring to the Great American and Great Canadian Pitchfests?

SO:  Well, let me give you some background on how this thing started. I was at the Screenwriting Expo the first year as a participant. I think the Expo is one of the best events out there for screenwriters, a fantastic event-if you’re a screenwriter, you’ve got to go.

JC: Plug, plug, plug. Go ahead.

SO: (laughs) I have no affiliation with the Expo.

JC: I do. It’s okay.

SO: Anyway, I really admire that whole event, but what I had a problem with was their pitch fest. I attended as a participant, and I stood in line that first year from 5:00 in the morning till 2:00 in the afternoon. You’re dressed up, you’re wearing your heels-well, maybe just me and Bob…

BS: Hey!   You promised not to tell!

JC: Hopefully not matching.

SO: I was so frustrated by  that experience.  Or the 'having to be at your computer at a certain time and date to sign up for the meetings you want'.  The idea of a pitchfest is a great idea, but there had to be a better way. 

JC: So how is yours different?

SO:  The biggest difference is with our event, you don’t get a scheduled time. You don’t have to wait online to book your time. What we do is we have 70 to 100 companies in one room, spread throughout so there is privacy between tables . In the hallway outside, we have 70-100 corresponding lines. So let’s say you want to meet with Disney at table 30, you would get  into   line 30, and you would also turn to page 30 in your booklet, where you’d read a full profile about that company  -  their credits, what they’re looking for, the stars they have relationships with .  Really specific information.

BS: If you check out our web site (www.pitchfest.com), all the profiles from previous Pitchfests are up there.

SO: What you won’t find online is the contact information. You have to register to get the contact info for the executives.

JC: So how do you prevent somebody from taking 45 minutes once they sit down and grab somebody’s ear?

SO: We do have a general time, which is 5 minutes. But if that executive wants more time with you, all we do is hold the line. The execs can take as long as they want.

BS: We found that our participants, instead of being frustrated because they’re delayed, everyone’s really excited, because it means someone has generated interest, and everyone’s sort of rooting for each other.   I've never experienced anything like our event before.  It's such a positive, encouraging, energetic environment.  Everyone seems to be having a good time, and I think that's partly why it's such a successful event.  The Execs feel that way too, and seem to be more receptive to new writers and their material because of that positive atmosphere.

SO: Plus writers are meeting on the lines, saying, “I just met with that company. What are they like? What are they looking for?” So they’re sharing a lot of  information . We’ve had a lot of long-term relationships that have developed as a result. 

JC:  It also means a writer is not necessarily limited to only, say, four meetings.

SO:  Most of our participants get 12 to 20. There are some people who meet with every company there. I’m not kidding. They just keep getting in line.  And the lines are never very long because for every six people who attend, we invite another company.

BS: At the beginning of the day, we have a lot of people who are rushing, because they are accustomed to rushing (at other pitch fests). So in the beginning it’s rush, rush, rush, and then after lunch and by the end of the day, we have people sitting down and saying, “You know what? I’m done, and there’s still half the day left.” They’re satisfied to the point of exhaustion. And I feel like that’s why we’ve had a lot of success getting return customers and production companies, too, because they get bang for their buck. The 20 pitch number that we throw around is not one of these extremely rare occasion things. It happens quite frequently.

JC: So tell us about some success stories that have come from all of this.

SO: We’ve got about 30 success stories-actually it’s higher than that, and these are just the ones we know of. We really rely on our executives  and our participants to tell us. We’ve got over 30 confirmed success stories, and that’s where participants have had their screenplay optioned, or signed with agents or managers, or been hired for writing assignments.

BS: My first option, my first representation, my first internship, my first writing assignment for actual money, all came from the Great American/Great Canadian Pitchfests. I started as a volunteer and participant, then stuck with it because it’s an event I can really believe in.

SO: Most of the volunteers we have become a big part of our team, because they see (the benefits.) Lorene Lacey, same thing-she found an agent out of it.

BS: I’m going to be in LA next week doing some scene work on a film, and I met them through the Pitchfest.

JC: A lot of times companies will send the lowest guy on the totem pole-the plant guy, for instance-to pitch fests see if there’s anything out there, but these people aren’t really decision makers. I know that frustrates some writers. But on the flip side, eventually those guys will work their way up, and this is a chance to get in on the ground floor.

SO: We get a mix. We get studio execs who attend. Some of our best support has come from one of the execs at Fox.

BS: Also Imagine Entertainment (Ron Howard's Company) has been a fantastic supporter.  They even came to Canada for the Great Canadian PitchFest, and they were absolutely wonderful about reading the scripts they requested and getting back to participants.  We work really hard to use our connections to find the best companies and the best people who are seriously looking for material to option, and writers to hire. We also get actors and their production companies, so we get someone who’s one person removed from the celebrity.

SO: I work really hard at making sure the people we have are credible. I also produce, so  a lot of the companies that attend are contacts I've developed a relationship with . I go to all the markets-NATPE, MIPCOM, Cannes, and I meet these people and work really hard at establishing my relationships with these production companies and agencies.   I also read a lot of scripts, so I am in contact with a lot of agents and managers. 

BS: We also offer classes on pitching, so we’ve built a reputation with the decision makers so they know that a large percentage of the pitches they’re going to get are (not going to waste their time.) And we treat them like VIPs across the board. It gives us credibility. I feel like we do a really good job of getting decision makers at those tables who can actually make decisions. The people are pitching to someone who can seriously affect their careers.

SO: I think we’re the only pitch fest that does this-we ask the writers who attend to tell us who they want to meet with, and we invite those companies. So if you want the producers of “Crash,” or "Little Miss Sunshine", for example - we go after them. We can’t promise, but we do our best to get them there.

JC: Thanks putting on a top-flight event. Do you have any parting advice for writers who are going to attend the Pitchfest? Other than being a good writer.

BS: You can never be too prepared. Although you said aside from being a good writer, that’s critical. But just as critical is selling yourself. You need to know your story. I know a lot of people are nervous. They feel like they’re putting on a performance when they’re doing their pitch. But when you only have five minutes, it’s more about having a good conversation and being yourself.

SO: Building a relationship.

BS: Yeah. Writers need to know their story well, be comfortable talking about their story, be able to answer questions and have fun. When you’re facing someone who could change your career forever, it’s hard to just kick back and relax, but all things being equal, if the executive has the opportunity to go with a project where they have a good rapport with the writer, they’re going (to hire that person instead of someone they’re uncomfortable with.) So just be yourself and have a good time. If you have five minutes with somebody, and after 15 seconds they say pass, that doesn’t mean the relationship has to end. If you have a good rapport, somewhere down the line you could just pick up the phone and call this guy because you’ve established a good relationship earlier.

SO: People like to work with people they like. I’m about supporting writers. I say go to every event you can, even our competitors’, because you never know when you might meet someone who can help your career.

BS: And I say buy as many tickets as possible for our event.

SO: (laughs) I know I’m totally biased, but our event really is the best one out there. We’ve made it that way. I’ve sat on both sides of the table. I know the frustrations I felt when I went to pitch fests as a producer, and you have to fight to get your parking covered or get some coffee or water, or they don’t tell you the right room to go to. It’s communication and organization, and those are things we’re really good at. We really try to make this rewarding for everyone.
Interview with Bob Schultz, Exec. Dir., Great American/Canadian Pitchfests
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