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Emerson LA’s PitchFest: Much More Than 90 Seconds

My mind was on autopilot and that’s all I could really tell you.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t do many things in 90 seconds. Maybe I can brush my teeth or come up with a savvy tweet, but I’ve never had to pitch an idea within that time frame. At the fourth annual Emerson Los Angeles PitchFest competition on November 16, I had to do just that.

Fortunately, I had one of my best friends, suitemates, and writing partner, John McCabe ’17, by my side. The event featured six other students and eight alumni who pitched their screenplays, TV pilots, and web series, but only three were chosen to receive awards from Final Draft, the Writers Guild Foundation, and Michael Wiese Productions.

From left: Collette Legault ’99, Jordan Gustafson '17, Haley Thompson ’17, Mike Barker, Holly Bario '89, Gabi Conti '09, and Keto Shimizu '07. 

John and I had rehearsed our pitch hundreds of times. We talked about our idea for Party Show, a web series about a party and the two guys planning it, every single day for over a month. We attended a coaching session featuring alumni Aimee Rivera ’07, Kenchy Ragsdale ’00, and faculty member Weiko Lin. John and I felt ready, but then we had to actually do it. In front of a panel of three judges and a full house at the Bill Bordy Media Conference Center, we had to convince people we were funny.

We pitched our ideas to Holly Bario ’89, president of production at Amblin Partners; Mike Barker, co-creator of American Dad; and Keto Shimizu ’07, co-executive producer on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, giving us a good reason to be nervous. The event began with a panel discussion on the art of pitching moderated by writer and comedian Gabi Conti ’09. The judges shared anecdotes about their experiences in the industry while giving participants advice on how to pitch and talk to producers.

“It’s kind of like a first date,” said Bario. “You have to tell us why you write, what you write, and what you’re passionate about.”

Me, Tommaso Di Blasi '18, listening to feedback from the PitchFest judges with my friend, suitemate, and writing partner John McCabe ’17. 

As the second-to-last pitchers, John and I found ourselves fidgeting more and more out of pure trepidation. When it was finally our turn to go, we looked at one another and stood up in unison. Everything after that is a blur. Suddenly, Conti was announcing the winners.

Haley Thompson ’17, winner of the Audience Favorite Award, pitched a biopic screenplay titled The Lobotomist about Dr. Walter Freeman II, the man known as the father of the lobotomy. Thompson has been working on her idea for over a year and is in the midst of writing the first draft. The judges admired her ability to humanize the doctor, someone Thompson describes as “another cis white man who did horrible things.”

“In all seriousness, his story is really interesting,” said Thompson. “There are all these elements I get to explore as a woman writer, like misogyny and pure ableism.”

Collette Legault ’99 won the Alumni Award for her pitch Heavy, a TV drama based on real life events. The project started as a novel, which Legault has rewritten eight times over the past 10 years. Last year, she was inspired to turn it into a TV series because of police brutality in the US.

Collette Legault ’99 listens to the judges after delivering her pitch. 

This is how she began her pitch: “In college, I met Eric. He described his childhood as, ‘Fat Albert meets half The Brady Bunch, except the Bunch is on welfare, lives in a Puerto Rican neighborhood, and Mrs. Brady is high most of the time,’” said Legault. “When I asked how he survived he said, ‘Because of one man: Heavy.’”

Legault wants this story to be about triumph over adversity and she hopes to see Heavy on Hulu or Netflix one day.

There was only one more prize left to give, the Student Award. As I said, I don’t remember much, but John thought we might have a chance. He told me that people laughed at our jokes and he seemed to think the judges liked our pitch. Then the announcement came. 

John and I didn’t win, but it was the best worst-case scenario. My other best friend, suitemate, and artistic collaborator Jordan Gustafson ’17 won for pitching a science-fiction screenplay titled Wasteland. He was shocked when he heard Conti call out his name because he didn’t think he delivered his pitch well enough.

Jordan Gustafson ’17 delivers his pitch during the fourth annual Emerson LA PitchFest competition. 

“I felt pure fear and a little bit of adrenaline delivering my pitch. This was the first time sharing my idea in front of someone I admired,” Jordan said, referring to Bario, who works for the company owned by Steven Spielberg, his favorite director.

Wasteland has been his passion project for nearly a year. It’s a story about a young boy who joins a group of rambunctious teenagers on a cross-country journey across a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Jordan has an innate admiration for coming-of-age stories and I am extremely proud of him for telling his own.

John and I know that Jordan has heard our pitch an exorbitant amount of times because living right next door to us really gives him no choice. Surprisingly, we had never heard his before the competition, but we do know that Wasteland is extremely personal to him. He said that PitchFest taught him a lot about his own story and what he really wants it to say. For Jordan, this competition was not about winning or losing, it was about community.

Jordan Gustafson '17 sits at his desk in his room at Emerson LA. His suitemates include Tommaso Di Blasi '18, John McCabe '17, Felice Magistrali '18, and Javier Rodriguez '18. 

“There’s this perception that Emerson is ultra competitive, but, in the end, we are all making our own personal art and working toward our goals,” said Jordan. “It was so cool to see people I cared about up there doing exactly that. That was the best part.”

Even though my mind was on autopilot for a majority of this competition, I will never forget the love and support of my four suitemates and best friends. I’m looking forward to seeing everyone’s ideas come to life.

Me, Tommaso Di Blasi '18, hugging Jordan Gustafson '17 along with the rest of my suitemates. 

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