Tuning the Pitch—Clark Humphrey

Sherri itched in the “presentation pantsuit” she only wore on special occasions like this. It had been one of the last ensembles she’d still kept from her previous life in local TV news.

This was to be the day of fruition for everything she’d done the past five years, when she invested all her wrongful-termination money into her own venture.

But it wasn’t just her freshly dry cleaned, and only marginally still-fitting, jacket making her feel discomfort.

Her business partner and videographer (and, thankfully, never her lover) Stan had just told her he’d lost the DVD-R of the edited pilot (lesson for the future: do not abandon such valuables on the hood of a car on a ferry boat).

She looked at him. He was all wide-eyed like a puppy dog begging for mercy. She made an instant decision. They would not argue. They would not talk about blame or apologies. They would improvise.

After all, this was no mere pitch meeting. This was the project that would take Sherristan Productions into the big time, or at least the slightly-less-small time.

Stan offered to call Cynth at the office in Winslow, and ask her to load the footage onto a cloud server, so they’d have at least something to show the reps. “We can still pull this off!” he told Sherri.

Sherri looked back with the silent, inscrutable stare she gave whenever she waited for an interviewee to tell her what she’d really wanted to hear. Only this time she wasn’t leading Stan on. She was pondering, calculating.

If this somehow worked, they could move up in this business. No longer simply providing location shooting services for other companies’ reality shows, but making their own series. Even if it was for one of the very obscure “three digit” cable channels, one Sherri’s local cable company didn’t even offer.

The series would be their figurative crack in the door. From there, they could land a series on one of the cable channels people have actually heard of. And from there, maybe she could finally make the “real” documentaries she’d wanted to make when she started the company.

But all that depended on the presentation.

And as Sherri pulled into the Seattle hotel valet parking entrance, Stan gave her some bad news. “Cynth sent the wrong footage.”

“What do you mean, the wrong footage?”

Stan kept his laptop open and in his hand as he got out of the car. “It’s the pilot, but it’s the rough cut.”

Sherri gave the car keys to the valet and got out of the car. “Which rough cut?”

Stan followed Sherri into the building, toward the elevators. “No narration. No music. No titles.”

“The main-title montage?”

“The sequence that took three weeks and almost half our budget? That proves we’re a full service production company, not just a location crew-for-hire?”

“Not there?”

“Not there.”

Sherri paused only a moment after pushing the elevator button before the doors opened. “So now what?”

Stan shoved his still-open laptop into Sherri’s arms just before the doors re-opened. “What I do is run around for a whiteboard and a Sharpie. What you do is greet the network people and stall for time.”

Which Sherri did, at a level of which she hadn’t known she was capable. She made all appropriate greeting small-talk to the two women and one man from the obscure three-digit cable channel. She smoothly kept up her small-talk as she plugged the laptop in to the presentation projector in the meeting room. When she saw the laptop’s wallpaper screen projected onto the room’s white wall, she turned to the topic at hand.

For years, she began, the TV industry has struggled to latch on to the power of the Internet and social media. The trick, she insisted, was not to lamely try to imitate the same shticks used by Facebook and Twitter, by blogs and chat rooms. But without the real-time spontaneity or the unpredictability or the sense of user empowerment—or the ever present danger of a discussion devolving into racism and profanity. These attempts have only led to small successes and large failures.

No, Sherri intoned, the answer has been under all our noses all this time.

Stan rushed into the room, awkwardly holding a Sharpie pen and a combined whiteboard-and-easel unit. As he set that up, Sherri continued as if this point of the spiel had been pre-scripted. At no point in all this did she ever mention, or apologize for, the lack of a fully-edited pilot video.

The Internet tells stories in its ways. TV tells stories in ITS ways. We tell stories about the Internet, but we use the storytelling strengths of TV.

Stan scrawled the title on the whiteboard: A MEME TO REMEMBER. He then quickly scrawled storyboard-type drawings of the missing title sequence. Hands of various races and sexes typing, texting, mousing, and touch-screening. YouTube-like video screen windows (avoiding any sight of the YouTube logo) playing away, with an extreme close up of the time bar moving steadily to the right. CGI animation of the globe encircled by an increasing “web” of wires, microwave towers, and satellite dishes. Then the title, blinking like a neon sign with alternating words around the common letters MEM.

While Stan drew these many little drawings, Sherri kept explaining. These are the stories millions already know a little about. But not many know the whole stories, or the real stories. We’ll tell the stories behind the slogans, the catch phrases, the fads, the words and pictures that travel the world in an instant. We’ll investigate the origins, the people behind these online sensations. Some of them meant to become famous. Others had fame, or infamy, thrust upon them.

Then Sherri punched up the retrieved rough cut of the pilot episode. She repeated, as best she could remember, the narration for the strange tale of “Anthony Humboldt,” whose supposed “video suicide note” had caused such public alarm earlier that year. Sherri, Stan, and their part-time research assistant had pieced together their script mostly from already-known information—the real identity of the hoaxer, his varied explanations (ranging from “just a joke” to “trying to get web hits” to “getting back at school bullies everywhere”), his eventual plea bargain over trumped-up “fraud” charges (he hadn’t asked anyone for a cent for himself, only donations in “his” name to charities).

Most of this was re-enacted. Actors (including friends of Sherri and Stan) silently mimed the roles of the semi-fictional “Anthony” and of Internet uses who’d watched, and been alarmed by, the video.

They’d tracked him down and even got him to talk on camera, along with other figure close to his case.

The footage faded out with the now-adult “Humboldt” at home. Sherri then explained what would happen next on an actual series episode: an animated pre-break “bumper” graphic, accompanied by some fun fact written out on the screen (the origin of “All Your Base Are Belong To Us,” or the contents of the first e-mail ever sent).

Stan then joined Sherri in further pitching the show’s benefits. While based on timely trends and fads, the episodes would be crafted to be “evergreen,” rerunnable for potentially ever. To avoid stretching topics beyond viewers’ interest, each half hour could contain as many as five different true tales. The built-in notoriety of each episode topic meant easy publicity tie-ins. They already had enough potential topics for two 13-episode seasons.

The network people nodded, sipped their lattes, gave their we’ll-get-back-to-you formalities, and escorted Sherri and Stan, and their whiteboard and laptop, out of the room.

Sherri and Stan celebrated the pulling off of their minor miracle by downing several rounds in the hotel’s bar. That’s where they got the text from Cynth asking if they wanted her to post the edited pilot footage onto the cloud server because she’d just found it now.

That’s also where Stan, at least three drinks into the session, said something Sherri had theretofore refused to consider. “You know this whole project is bullshit, right?”

Sherri gave Stan her “inscrutable” stare again.

Stan continued. “It’s bullshit. It just is. It’s sure as fuck not gonna make a better world, get people to understand each other better, or expose any ugly truths that need exposing. It’s bottom-feeder reality TV. Just one notch above the shows about made-up ‘celebrities.’ You know I’m right.”

Sherri moved her head but kept her expression. Now staring into the depths of her wine glass, she pondered and calculated. Half a minute later, she spoke.

“Yes. You’re right. For once. Five years, trying to make ‘real’ documentaries, then just trying to survive, then trying to prove I could plop out formula ‘content’ as reliably as the big boys, for half price.”

Stan, reliably indiscreet (one of the things he WAS reliable about), gave her a sneering smile. “Look up: You might still get to do that. They could still buy the series!”

Three weeks later, the network people called. They were passing on the series, but wanted Sherri to do voice-over narration on other producers’ shows. They said she sounded authoritative yet impersonal; a rare combination in a female voice-over artist.

She took the gig. Survival, you know.

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About bbcstudiowrites

This blog is me archiving the BBC Studio Writers Workshop.

Posted on October 30, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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