Since I met Libby Fischer Hellmann some years back, I seem to come across her everywhere. Not long ago, I was sitting in my living room, watching a mystery on my local PBS station when suddenly Libby appeared on screen, being interviewed about her books. She can be found on the radio, too. Libby is best-known for her Chicago mysteries, series novels, stand-alones and anthologies she has edited. I was especially drawn to her book SET THE NIGHT ON FIRE because of its connection to Chicago in the late 1960s, when I was a teenager. Today Libby shares her adventures pitching her books in Los Angeles – it’s a long way from Chicago, and the two thousand mile distance is the least of it.
A few weeks ago I flew to LA to participate in a film pitch conference. For those who don’t know, it’s kind of like speed-dating — you, an author or screenwriter – get five minutes with a production company rep to pitch your property, then you move on to the next. I had entered a “Book-to-Film” contest, which you can find here. Out of five hundred entries, my historical thriller, A Bitter Veil, was one of twelve semi-finalists. My reward was free admission to the pitch fest.
Most of the people who attended were screenwriters rather than published authors, which was good for me. I do have a film background – an MFA in film production from NYU (in another universe), but I’ve been seduced by the written work, and I have no interest in writing a screenplay. I keep thinking, “Hey, I wrote the book. Isn’t that enough?” And I know that even if I had written a screenplay that sold, other writers would be “revising” or “editing” it anyway, and the likelihood of it being anything like my book would become more remote with each version.
Still I’ve been told I write cinematically, and I write scenes like mini-films, complete with establishing shots, dolly shots and pans, and intercutting close-ups. So I figured, why not give it a shot?
Because I have so many books and stories published, I prepared a packet of information before I flew out. I selected three books to pitch, but I prepared loglines — the two sentence elevator pitch that the film world requires– for most of my work just in case.
So… how did it go? Well, it was um—interesting. I do have to say everyone, for the most part, was very nice. Except for the guy who told me how many characters there should be in one of my novels. Right, Mr. X. How many stories did you say you’d published?
But he was an aberration. Most of the production people who knew what they were doing lit up when I told them I didn’t want to write the screenplay. That I was simply interested in an option, and they could do whatever they wanted with it. Some reps , probably not all that senior, didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. But I’d expected that. I mean, whom do you send to a Saturday pitch session in the middle of August anyway?
About twenty company reps were present, but the way the sessions worked, I only made it to eleven. Which was okay by me.
But now for the humble part: I am used to speaking in public, and I used to teach executives how to do it. But pitching in 5 minutes? I wasn’t very good. In fact, during one pitch, I got so nervous my throat closed up, and my daughter, who thankfully was with me, had to pinch-hit. I have no idea why that happened, except that the format of the pitch was unfamiliar. I did get better, though, and by the end of the session, I could have done a few more.
The sponsors provided sugary donuts, cookies, and other pastries (no doubt to keep our energy flowing) and they also had lots of mints and TicTacs®, which was also appreciated.
I would say that out of the eleven pitches I made, six of the companies seemed to be very receptive, and five were “meh.” Then again, this WAS Hollywood and it’s really hard to tell what is real and what isn’t.
Suffice it to say this was a fun experience, once I got over my nerves, and I’d do it again just for the practice. And who knows? Maybe it will lead to something.
Chances are it won’t. I’ve been told that even snagging an option for a property only give you a ten percent chance of seeing the book on the screen. I was also told, by a Hollywood producer, that even projects that are “green-lighted” don’t always get produced. That, for various reasons, the project can falter at any time.
It’s a wonder that anything gets produced at all. And yet, hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?
THE INCIDENTAL SPY is a novella set in the early years of the Manhattan Project. The link above is for the paperback version. The ebook will be available in another month or so.
Young Lena Bentheim is forced to flee Nazi Germany for Chicago in 1935, leaving her family and boyfriend behind. After learning English, she eventually finds a new life as a secretary in the Physics Department of the University of Chicago. She meets and marries another German refugee scientist and has a child. Then tragedy strikes and Lena is forced to spy on the nuclear fission experiments at the U of Chicago.
What about you? Have you had an option to produce one of your novels? What happened?
On Wednesday, August 26, author JOAN KAYSE presents, “A Hero for Every Story.”
Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Eleven novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery writing community and has even won a few. More at http://libbyhellmann.com.
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