Pitching a Movie Will Always Be Art, Never Science

In the 1992 film “The Player,” masterfully directed by the late Robert Altman, a movie studio executive suspected of being involved in a homicide listens to one pitch after another, dismissing several that sound like great ideas. In the third act of the film, the executive is clearly stressed by the direction the investigation has taken; he is not in a mood to sit through another pitch, but he is also being pressured to produce a blockbuster. Suddenly, in the midst of listening to a pitch that sounds both generic and convoluted, his eyes open wide because he is convinced that what he had just heard is exactly the box office hit that his studio needed to make.

Ever since the Golden Age of Hollywood, production companies and studios have attempted to figure out a scientific method to filmmaking. The need to make money, preferably lots of it, has not changed; nonetheless, there is no question that the film industry has become more efficient. When studios and production companies become hit movie factories, critics rush to accuse them of being formulaic, but this is something that will never apply to the process of listening to the right pitch and getting the inspiration of making it happen.

A production company co-founder may sit in his or her office for weeks reviewing pitches that simply do not click. These pitches may follow the proven “three act” format, and they may even be accompanied by a well-written script plus a business plan, but if the muse does not smile, or if the eureka moment does not happen, the proposal may end up getting shelved. In other cases, a producer may be sitting at home watching the news when suddenly a human interest story comes on and the idea for the next project materializes.

The moment when a producer feels that a pitch is exactly the next film that must be made cannot be explained by science. For all the discussion about film production companies being solely interested in making money, the truth is that evaluating a pitch and envisioning what it may become is still an art form that is highly dependent upon creativity. This is not to say that the producer’s “bingo” moment will automatically translate into a project worthy of being nominated to an Oscar; there is always the chance that the production may end up being a dud, or it may never make it to the filming stage, but we cannot quantify or formulate the thought process that prompts an impulse towards developing a project.

Getting back to “The Player,” Robert Altman saw it fit to throw a few jabs at the pitching process by recalling Steven Spielberg’s axiom about great ideas found within pitches that take less than 25 words to explain. What may work for Spielberg may not work for other producers because turning ideas into film productions is not science; it is an artistic endeavor that requires creativity and inspiration. At a time when data scientists are trying to develop artificial intelligence constructs that can write movie scripts, we should not forget that filmmaking will always be an art form.

Ellen Hollington

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