Letter from L.A. | Reports | Screenwriting

Letter from LA: Pitching a Script at Paramount

1 Jul , 1998  

Written by M.M. Goldstein | Posted by:

Ever dream of being able to pitch your script to the bigwigs at a major Hollywood studio? Well, read an account by former Massachusetts resident, M.M. Goldstein who actually did it!

A little backstory: About two weeks ago a major writer/director whom Howard W. Koch at Paramount had brought into a project we were developing dropped out to direct another picture, and Ruben, resourcefully volunteered us to do the job (write the treatment and script) instead. To which Koch had replied, "Get to work."

And so we did, constructing and reconstructing the stories Ruben had pitched to Koch earlier, and over the weekend, while Ruben was out of town on business, I wrote it up, and without further revision we faxed it to Howard. It was a 10 page treatment/proposal, one of my specialties, and it was good.

Howard’s response was immediate: this is a terrific story, he said. So let’s meet to discuss doing the script, responded Ruben. Tomorrow first thing, 10 am in his office, he says. We’re there.

* * *

Going into Howard W. Koch’s office at Paramount was a Twilight Zone-ish experience for me at first. I mean, I was pumped up enough by the natural adrenaline of a pitch (combined with the double macciato we’d had to further amp up for the meeting) but then to come out of the bright sun shining off the white stages on the lot, entering into the cottage-like decor of the renovated Ernst Lubitch building – then stepping into what felt like Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM, wood paneling up to the ceilings, subdued light, a soft ambiance of another era – it took me a moment to adjust, I’ll admit.

When we came in, Koch, who’s in his 80’s but is still sharper now than most people will ever be – you don’t produce/direct 45 movies at Paramount in 25 years by being chopped liver – greeted us warmly. He looked at us with sad eyes, wise eyes, as if he’s seen it all and then some, which I don’t doubt. As John Huston said in Chinatown, you get the face you deserve when you get older; Koch looks like a patriarch, which he is. He’s got three generations currently in the business, with more to come I suspect.

So when he opened the conversation by noting that Ruben was starting to look like, and become, what he’d wanted to be for 30 years – a studio producer, it was a warm, generous gesture that immediately set both of us at ease. He’s a true gentleman, which is why, I suspect, he’s lasted. Class tells.

But still in all, this was a pitch meeting, a negotiation, so I’m keeping my eyes open. I can tell he’s schmoozing Ruben, and points out the CLOUT hat sitting on his table, a hat Ruben gave him, a constant reminder in his office of Ruben’s presence on the lot, now and in the future.

"I met this guy for 20 minutes and I knew we were going to do a picture together," he’s saying, and I’m thinking that either he’s going to give us the keys to his office next, or… or what? Beware of the good meeting, my instincts whispered in my ear.

On the other hand, why not? The Merry Cloutmeisters were on something of a roll, so good things were possible. Conscientious readers will doubtless recall discussion of the CLOUT yacht some months ago, following Ruben’s trip to Paris to meet the head of DuFour. Well, we’d just heard some good news on that: The DuFour boat deal has now materialized into a full Proposal, "Project Hostka," (I kid you not) a set of plans for a 98-foot ocean-going $3 1/2 million catamaran, which will be built by DuFour, then sold to CLOUT – with DuFour guaranteeing not only the loan with the bank but also 26 weeks of charter income per year, more than enough to pay the note.

So, essentially, they’re giving us a boat, a whole and incredibly neat one, and all we have to do is attract interesting (and rich) people onto it to cruise in the Caribbean, or perhaps Cannes for the Festival – like that’s going to be so hard, right? Duh.

So he was pumped before the macciato, and soon dived right into the pitch, which, given that Koch already knew what we were selling, involved a little bit more than simply telling a story. We were selling a relationship, a business relationship to a man who’d forgotten more about this business than we’re likely to know for a while, so it had to be good.

Koch, Ruben knew, had said earlier he might be ready to retire. Picking up on that, Ruben said this is the project to go out on. Not retire with a whimper, but with a bang. With this project he could retire with honor – if he chooses to do so.

Koch turned to me with a sly smile and noted that Ruben was the best salesman he’d ever seen, which is saying something. "Where were you 30 years ago when I needed you, when I ran Paramount," he’s asking.

And I’m thinking: there’s a "but" coming up, I can feel it… But as Momser Gonifian taught me years ago, the sale begins after they say no, and until then, you’re not even in the negotiation.

He loves the project, it’s terrific, he’s telling us, it’s about him, he’d love for us to write it, but…

But getting a writing deal out of Paramount is a major problem. He showed us a stack of coverages from major agencies, maybe 40 or 50 of them, neatly filed in his wastebasket. That’s how far those completed scripts went; can you imagine the difficulty in selling a pitch. All they want now is partners; it’s all changed, not the way it used to be. In the old days, they loved movies; now it’s all lawyers and deals and business.

True, but still, we need to eat. Let me tell you how it works here, he countered, starting to enjoy the negotiation (as was Ruben; me, I’d rather have root canal) – there’s this woman whose job it is to say no, and you present her a project, and she says no. To everybody. Even me.

So Ruben says he knows this lady well. She works at every studio in town, and he’d met her at all of them. But Ruben didn’t come from Israel to a morning meeting in Howard W. Koch’s office, the office from which he formally was head of production of the entire studio, to be told no by this lady, or anybody else.

Yes, her job is to say no, to everybody, so don’t go to her. You’re Howard W. Koch. You believe in this project, you don’t give it to her. You go above her. You go to Sherry Lansing, and if that doesn’t work, you go to Sumner Redstone, the head of Viacom.

Do you know Sherry, he asks with a grin, enjoying Ruben’s act immensely. Not yet, says Ruben – but I have met Sumner (which was true – Gil the Cloutmeister had introduced him at the Star Trek Adventure opening in Las Vegas.)

Koch sat back and thought for a moment, and even I knew that this was the moment to keep quiet and let the challenge sink in.

He’d gotten the message. Win, lose, or draw, we were for real. We’re going to do this thing, somehow and somewhere, no matter what. That’s what we were selling. The Energy. Our passion for the project

He sat for a moment, warming himself in the confident glow we were projecting, enjoying the pressure we were putting on him – we could have walked through brick walls if that’s what it took to make this happen – and said, give me until Monday.

Well. He had it. Hey, take all the time you need. Monday was four business days away. It might take that long to reach whomever he was going to reach who wasn’t the lady who says no to everything. Or to decide not to. But whatever, he was thinking about it.

There are only two answers in pitch meetings like this, I’ve learned, no and maybe. So this was a maybe, which, like half a boat, is good but not quite enough. But it’s a start, and you can’t get anywhere without starting somewhere, or so I’ve learned.

On our way out of the meeting he recalled another pitch he’d gotten a while ago. It was three young guys, two brothers and a friend, and they’d pitched him this absolutely insane project that was so funny his secretary couldn’t stop herself from laughing as they went through it. The guys were the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahms, and the project was Airplane, and the rest was history with two or three successful sequels, which is like a license to print money for a studio.

I liked that story, and he didn’t tell it for no reason, at that time and place. In any event, we’d done our job and now it was up to him to do his, so we left him in his paneled office, and walked around the Paramount lot, just sizing it up. We ate lunch in the commissary, where Ruben picked out our table-to-be, and between the gazpacho and the creme broule with a celebratory macciato, we had a wonderful meal, and felt for the moment like that most elusive of quantities in this town, successes.

* * *

But still, there was the waiting, and one of Ruben’s favorite ways to pass time constructively and tastefully, to cogitate in style, to help him identify and locate that which is missing in his life, for example, is to go to the Beverly Hills Hotel and sit by the pool for a long lunch.

The atmosphere is so old Hollywood it is comforting and calming, a respite from the struggle. This grand hotel is a reminder of the days when they really did have careers. What you get is a living, said Lillian Gish, but what you give is a life. In those days, you could and did, and were grateful for the privilege. Today, you get what you get and get out, if you can.

Anyway, it’s a weekday morning, and the place is dead. Nobody was in the pool, and around it were just a few people, one of whom caught his eye.

She was in her early to mid twenties, blonde, olive skin, blue eyes, simply and absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. I don’t even fantasize about women like that anymore; my heart can’t stand it.

And she sits down at a table right in front of Ruben, blocking his view to the pool, not that he minded. She orders angel hair pasta, with a champagne chaser. Not a mimosa, but champagne straight up, Cristal, good stuff.

Ruben smiles at her, and she smiles back. She eats slowly, knowing his eyes were never straying from her, sipping her champagne beautifully, like a real pro. The sun played with the beautiful blond curls of her hair, surrounding her face in a golden glow.

Almost an hour goes by, four glasses of Cristal downed without a blip or tremor, a few more exchanges of smiles. Finally, Ruben gets up to go to the head, did his business, and as he was about to wash his hands, she walks in. A ballsy opening, indeed.

"Excuse me, do you know where the women’s bathroom is," she asks. "This is the Men’s room," he replies, somewhat taken aback, "But if you need to go I’ll watch the door." Then through the open door he noticed the sign "Women’s Dressing Room" across the courtyard. He points it out to her, and she looks, noting that she was from Canada, and didn’t understand the sign. Well, I’m Ruben, and I’m not from Canada, but if you like we can sit down and talk after you’ve taken care of your business.

So they meet at his table, where Ruben notes, with only mild exaggeration, that she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. This fazes her not in the least; she was clearly used to such comments. She’s been staying in one of the bungalows at the Hotel since Friday, treating a friend from Kentucky to a 21st birthday present, and going back to Vancouver the next day, but would very much like, before she left, to eat in a good restaurant, shoot some pool, and to dance – in that order. I would be delighted to accommodate your wishes, says Ruben, if you will permit me. I’d love it, she said.

They paid their separate bills, and walked to her bungalow. As soon as they arrived, she got on the phone and ordered a bottle of Cristal; the five glasses at lunch were clearly just an appetizer. Ruben called Ago’s and made a reservation for dinner. How should we get there? she asked. Ruben volunteered to drive her in Clout 1, the Mercedes 300SD, but she said they’d both be drinking, she’d order a limo, and take care of all the expenses; the night was on her. Who was he to argue?

Soon after, the stretch limo arrived to take them, with a bottle of Cristal inside to add to the two they’d consumed while waiting, along with her five glasses at lunch. (She even called on the car phone to have the Hotel have another bottle waiting for her in the bungalow when she came back. Clearly, she was in training – but for what, one wonders?)

At Ago they had a wonderful dinner, more Cristal (never mix, never worry, I suppose,) went to a billiard club in Brentwood, where she played well, then to the Viper Room (Johnny Depp’s hangout) and danced through the night. She moved like liquid silk.

On the way back to the Hotel, Ruben asks her if she has plans for the upcoming Saturday. She was free, and Ruben invited her back down to join him at a charity party on the Paramount lot. She said she’d let him know later in the week, and took his phone number.

On Wednesday, she calls, leaves a message that she’ll be at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Friday, and for Ruben to call and meet her there on Saturday for lunch by the pool, which he did. Her friend was with her, but he was sleeping off the night’s oblations in the Hotel room.

And again it was a chauffeured limo, this time the 1957 white Rolls Royce used in the movie Arthur, with the obligatory Cristal, in which they arrived on the Paramount lot to see a screening of a restored Saturday Night Fever, and a night of 70’s disco dancing, then a return to the Hotel, where he bade her good night – and has not heard from her since.

* * *

Like a vision, Layla – that was her name – appeared in his life, and then disappeared, leaving Ruben to wonder who exactly would want to stay in his life?

Yes Layla was a happy fantasy that actually happened. But what now? The morning after he’s waking alone, and is left to wonder who could be there with him, now. As self-absorbed, as hugely self-centered as he is, consciously and deliberately so, is he really open to a relationship in the normal sense of the term? A fantasy, a fashion accessory, yes. But who could enter into and share his life now, beside me, who shares the goals and visions and dreams, who shares the work and rewards?

I, who am ending a long term marriage, full with work and love and rage and despair, and wonderful children that made it all worthwhile, I will find someone to share my life, because I cannot help but be open to it. But Ruben, obsessed in a way that makes my obsessions pale in comparison, who is up to that job? I wonder, and more to the point, so does he.

But for the moment, it’s work, not love, half a boat, so to speak, but someplace to start. In this case, it’s the Paramount lot for starters; the negotiations ended in a win-win scenario, which is the only way they could have.

Yes, we’re going to write the script on our own, but Paramount, through Howard’s auspices, will be giving an office to do it in. He’d already promised it, and now it was definite. A room of our own, a CLOUT office on the hottest lot in town, this the year of the Titanic as well as the CLOUT yacht. Stay tuned, this could get interesting.