By Daryl Paranada
Emerson Los Angeles held its seventh annual PitchFest competition, co-sponsored by Final Draft and the International Screenwriters Association (ISA), virtually for the first time on November 19. Fourteen students and alumni gave 90-second pitches of their TV pilots, screenplays, and digital series to a panel of alumni judges. Around 100 people attended the event.
Judges included Kelly Edwards, MFA ’20, a writer and producer at Iron Scotty Productions; Dina Hillier ’00, head of development at Counterbalance Entertainment; Thomas Pettinelli ’13, director of development and a producer at Branded Pictures Entertainment; and Jordan VanDina ’10, writer/producer at Warner Brothers.
Winners of the event were Finn Wagstaff ’21 for outstanding student pitch; Mary Frances Noser ’18 for outstanding alumni pitch; Jessie Carlson ’20 for outstanding runner-up pitch; and Haley Thompson ’18 for audience favorite.
“It was definitely a nerve-racking experience, but I felt super lucky to be able to participate,” said Wagstaff, who pitched a biopic about a timid gay boy who hitches a ride to superstardom with the help of his drag persona. “I’ve been working super hard on this script and this pitch, and winning is not only validating for me, but for everyone out there who wants to write their own gay-ass movie.”
Before the competition, faculty member Andy Miara moderated a panel with the judges to solicit their advice on pitching.
Hillier offered tips on making a television pitch, saying that pitchers should be able to answer questions such as, “Why are you the one telling this story?” and “Why now?” With pitching taking place virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, Hillier said one change to the way pitches are made is including a visual element.
“Where it’s appropriate, include slideshows or a sizzle reel to make the tone come through,” said Hillier. “You want to come across as energetic and dynamic.”
Pettinelli said a personal connection to the content being pitched is always going to be appreciated. He offered advice on pitching a movie feature.
“You want to talk about the theme and the journey. That’s the connective tissue for TV or feature pitching,” said Pettinelli. “Who are the characters, what is this journey we are going on, what are some of the big set pieces along the way, and what are we gonna take away?”
Edwards, who worked as senior vice president of talent development at HBO for seven years before transitioning to writing and producing full-time, brought her unique perspective as someone on the executive side who frequently listened to pitches.
“A lot of people make the mistake that they have to sell that thing. You might not sell the idea,” said Edwards. “It’s about being asked back. An idea is an idea. It’s about being in a business with you. It’s about whether they like you enough to want to work with you.”
VanDina is working with Hillier through Counterbalance Entertainment. Executives at Counterbalance had known VanDina for a while, were aware of what he could do, and wanted to work with him. When the perfect idea popped up, they got VanDina on Zoom to make their pitch. When asked about what advice he’d give about pitching, VanDina said to be confident.
“It’s about proving that I know how to write this. I have a million ideas. I’m the one. No one else is gonna make the show,” said VanDina. “If you can prove that, then they have to say yes.”
Among the pitches made during the competition were an animated TV show about a half-elf, a comedy screenplay set in a theme park, and four different takes on the Western genre. A thriller set in 1941 Leningrad, in which a young woman must plot her escape from Nazi forces, won Thompson the Audience Favorite Award.
“PitchFest has long been one of my favorite Emerson activities. I’ve participated three times (once as a student and twice as an alumna), and feel that it’s an invigorating experience to hear from industry professionals in this kind of setting as a student or recent graduate just starting out. I love that it’s modeled after Austin Film Fest’s competition,” said Thompson, who also won the audience favorite award back in 2017. “It’s so affirming to know that the people in attendance were intrigued by my story this year as well. I’m looking forward to developing it even further!”
Retired faculty member Jim Macak, who spearheaded the first PitchFest event, helped moderate this year’s competition. He also assisted pitchers in practicing virtually a week before the event. Macak worked with Emerson LA staff to ensure that the event’s transition to an online format would run smoothly.
Prizes for the winners include Final Draft software and free annual ISA Connect memberships. Both Final Draft and ISA also generously offered discounts for all Emersonians until the end of the year.
Noser won for a fantasy drama pitch, which Hillier said left her “wanting to hear more.” Noser attended PitchFest in November 2019 as an audience member. She already had an idea for her pitch at that point, but it was in a rough development phase.
“This is my favorite networking/educational event I have attended since moving out here,” said Noser, who teaches a pod Kindergarten class and writes at night and on the weekends. “The panel is always really informative and I love hearing the creativity of my fellow [Emersonians]. Being on Zoom this year was a bit strange, but what presentation isn’t strange on Zoom these days? I am looking forward to getting back to presenting in large rooms, as the actor in me loves to present for people in a room.”
Carlson won for her adult animated show pitch centered on washed-up rock stars.
“It’s pretty nerve-racking putting yourself out there and presenting something you’re very attached to for people to judge,” said Carlson, who hopes to become a writer/producer one day. “At the same time, it’s an equally thrilling and fun experience to share with everyone. I’m honestly so shocked and honored to have gotten runner-up, especially with all the insanely creative and engaging pitches that were given.”
Wagstaff appreciated hearing feedback from each of the judges and getting to hear everyone else’s pitches.
“It’s always been a fear of mine that my work is too ‘out there’ and getting this recognition and validation was, to be frank, awesome,” he said.