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08/13/2001 - DEVELOPMENT HELL, LEVEL 1
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My Fellow Writers,

If you read last week's column, you'll recall that I went into an important pitch unprepared, and kicked myself for it. Then warned you not to. Luckily, I've been in enough pitch meetings - and had a strong enough concept - to carry the day.

This week, I had the follow-up pitch meeting on the same project, with the same two executives. They're thinking about taking it to the studio, and they wanted to make sure that I had implemented their changes. I did so, and then went in, making sure that I didn't make the same mistake. I practiced the new pitch until I had it down cold, then went in and enthusiastically told it to the two executives. Who loved the new project.

Only they now didn't like the pitch. But not enough to pass on it of course. Worst thing was, they were goddamned right. They came up with a better way of pitching it right in the room. How embarrassing! (Okay, exciting, too, but I ended up kicking myself again with a 'why didn't I think of that!' thought.)

Allow me to change thoughts here: A veteran friend once told me that the REAL problems begin when executives say "yes," because what they're really saying "yes" to is "Yes, welcome to Development Hell." And since this project isn't even paying me until I get it set up, it's true Development Hell - it's free! Not only is there no guarantee of success or future payment, but it's taking days and weeks away from activities that might pay me sooner.

But guess what - it's the way of Hollywood. You write a killer idea. They ask you to change it. You do. They don't like it as much, so they ask you to change it again. But they don't say "no." No, they never do that - that would be too easy. That wouldn't torture you enough. That would allow you to go on with your life. They give you notes, and you do them.

After this process goes on long enough, many different things can happen: you either give up, they're fired, they lose interest, they take it to the next level and you start over with all new executives, or someone, somewhere, decides that they can give you some money for it - as soon as you change it a few dozen more times, of course.

You'd better love to collaborate in this business. Sure, have a vision for your project, but be open to ideas, and learn how to sort out the good from the bad. Know what the core idea is behind your project and make sure everything serves that. If it doesn't, then you'd better know how to express why it doesn't.

Now, these executives had shown me a better way in both meetings. By all measures (except, well, money, a deal, and any real commitment by the production company), we were in development on this project. I was ecstatically frustrated. Grimly pleased. And more than a little mad at myself for not making the project more unassailable when I constructed it. To put it simply, I should have seen both of those "development notes" coming. Hell, I was an executive for long enough to know better - I would have given myself the same notes. But I just thought that this time could be different because the project itself is so strong, and because these executives are both fans of mine. But, of course, those things don't matter. We must reach perfection on every step of every project, or it won't go to the next step.

So now I'm off to do just that. I know it's do-or-die time. If I don't deliver this time, I'll be so mired in development hell that it'll take a backhoe for me to drag these executives into a studio meeting.

Learn from what I've done this week. Deliver great material every time, or face the ever-soft "yes." Don't settle for anything less than the best possible version of your story - and a great way to convince others of its uniqueness and power.

Third time's a charm,

Grady

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