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The Pitch Man - Robert Kosberg

I spoke by phone to the pitch man Robert Kosberg of moviepitch.com February 22, 2002.

Luke: "How has the pitching environment changed in the past year?"

Bob: "Each year has gotten progressively tougher. I started pitching ideas a lot in the 1980s. You could go to any studio, pitch an idea, and get a development deal easily. Then through the 1990s, it became tougher as the studios became more consolidated. Everyone knows the business has shrunk. Development, along with other divisions, has shrunk, so there's not as much money to gamble on pitching. Studios run in cycles. Every year you will find different studios who don't want to hear, let alone buy pitches. There are alone four or five studios to begin with to pitch to, then when one or two don't want to hear pitches, you're going to just a few buyers.

"What I do to negate that problem, I try to find partners they can't say no to. There are always powerful people in Hollywood. I was just on a conference call to Julia's Roberts company, for instance. If I get Julia Roberts company interested on a pitch, and then we go to her favorite studio, which is Joe Roth's Revolution, my odds go up tremendously. So even in a world where pitching is difficult, there's always another way to skin the cat. Teaming up with powerful entities, be it a star, a producer, a director or a writer, works. And you can pitch to production companies which have discretionary funds to buy ideas, hire a writer, develop a screenplay and then go to a studio."

Luke: "Contacts are even more valuable."

Bob: "Contacts are even more valuable. The more people you know, the more ammunition you can load up to make your pitch even stronger and fight against the odds."

Luke: "Is this tougher pitching environment related to Hollywood becoming increasingly corporate?"

Bob: "Yes. It is exactly related to that. When I started out pitching and it was a more freewheeling atmosphere, people weren't responsible to these corporate boards and the conservative nature of the boards which want studios to do sequels and brandname projects and not take chances on movies. You hear directors and writer and stars, want to make interesting films, complain about studios not wanting to take chances. The philosophy of studios not wanting to take chances filters down first from not wanting to make that kind of movie to we don't want to develop that kind of script to we don't want to buy that kind of idea. There's less development in general and that affects everybody. It's a hard business to be in."

Luke: "I've been struck how every producer I've met is nice and professional and educated and hard working. I thought there would be more cowboys like Scott Rudin."

Bob: "The wild world where there were all types of people functioning in Hollywood and you could meet a million different types has gone away. In a more conservative, more corporate world, it squeezes everybody into the same box. It's harder to be original, outrageous and different because everything is squeezed into a corporate image. Everyone knows how tough it is to make a living so everyone is playing a similar game. And if it is a difficult game, you better be good. You better be bright. You better be educated and have your stuff together. The people who are too speculative and superficial are probably going to fall by the wayside. They're not going to have much credibility and they're not going to get much done. The people that do get things done on a weekly basis... Making a living in Hollywood is so tough... That the people you talk to who are making a living will have similar characteristics. I find it in my travels also.

"How creative everyone is, is a different question to ask. The people who go to law school might be terrific in figuring out a good contract, but does that mean they are the right person for a position with creative power? I come from a creative background. I went to UCLA film school. I was strictly interested in stories and ideas and the creative side of movie-making. Not the physical, technical, editing, how to use a camera, how to be a line producer. I'm concerned that when I walk into a room to convince someone that I have a great story, and people listening on the other side of the desk, haven't come from that background. There is a contradiction that creative types have to face every day and that's why there's a lot of frustration."

Luke: "I think that in LA, many people in the production process don't know much about filmmaking."

Bob: "Square pegs in round holes. There are a lot of people who know a lot about filmmaking and they're not in the right place. And a lot of people on the creative side who find themselves in legal or agent positions. There are a lot of people scrambling for jobs and they're not always in the best place. Life isn't fair. The more independent maverick types really struggle because there is nobody out there who hears and understands and sympathizes with what they want to do. That's why the independent Sundance world is becoming as strong as it is. It's an outgrowth of how frustrating it is for most people, who used to be in the Hollywood system, to get their movies made. The two worlds overlap. Many of the movies that get nominated for Academy Awards, like Memento, feel like they are independent films."

Luke: "This past year, 2001, was not a good one for movies."

Bob: "If you knock down the amount of films that Hollywood makes, which had to happen because of budgets (average Hollywood picture costs $70 million), and you realize that the studios are conservative and want to make sequels, then you realize that the number of new and wonderful films is going to be smaller. That's why you have to look to the independent world to supplement."

Luke: "Few people will be able to survive and pay their bills working in the independent world."

Bob: "Few people will be able to survive and pay their bills working in the movie business period. On the level that I work on, development and creating ideas and stories, you can't make a living in the independent world. I have to work with the studios. With a good idea or pitch, I don't even go to the independent companies because they don't have the development budgets to finance ideas into scripts. They don't have development budgets. They only buy screenplays. The movies they make are based on scripts they've found that they love that they might option and package to do foreign sales and the things they do to push their movies into existence. But they can't risk spending money to hire a writer to develop just an idea. Because what happens most of the time when you do that is you go through months of development hell and many of the scripts don't get made. And that expenditure would make most independent companies go broke. The only people who can afford to have development budgets are studios. I have to play the studio game."

Luke: "Did you see The Player?"

Bob: "I liked it. I didn't love it. I was entertained by it. They did a good job of poking fun at the silliness inherent in the world of pitching and selling ideas. It's true that most everyone who walks into a room [to pitch] sounds the same way and talks about Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis within 30 seconds."

Luke: "What movie would best describe what you do, particularly the pitching?"

Bob: "There hasn't been a movie aside from The Player that particularly looks at the world of pitching. Some of the smaller independent films like Swimming With Sharks, and State and Main (David Mamet film) a good inside look at the making of a movie."

Luke: "What about books and novels?"

Bob: "The book that everyone looks at in a love/hate way that is the most legendary story of anyone who comes to Hollywood is What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. Even though it was written as an indictment of the type of person who will step on anyone to get to the top, as Budd Schulberg points out, the irony is that people today look at it as the Bible for how you should behave. They don't realize that he wrote it as something you're supposed to be ashamed of. That's a sad comment on Hollywood. I read it in high school and as despicable as the character might have been, it was an exciting look at inside Hollywood.

"Hollywood is stimulating and fast paced. You have to be very aggressive to make it. Maybe Sammy Glick is way over the top, but the people I work with in Hollywood all have a little bit of Sammy in them. On the positive side, I mean. The side that won't take no for an answer. That won't give up when they're rejected. That will just find a way to persevere no matter what. That part of it is what makes the book so popular. Everyone sees in it a little bit of what they know deep down they will have to be to survive. Because every day, it's the Myth of Sisyphus. You feel like you are pushing a boulder up the hill and the boulder continues to fall back on you and crush you. And it is hard to get up every morning and say, 'I am going to push the boulder again today and I may only get one or two feet up the hill, and I am inevitably going to get crushed, and tomorrow I will do it again.' There are few people with the personality to deal with that day in and day out.

"The movie business, from a pitch point of view, demands that you have a personality that is resilient. When I take a pitch out, I know that I am going to be rejected 40 times. And then on the 41st time, I'm a genius, if I'm lucky. But on a lot of projects, I'm never a genius. I'm just rejected 40 times."

Luke: "What keeps you grounded?"

Bob: "Having a family. If you have a separate life away from Hollywood, that also helps. I also love what I do. If you're doing something that you've wanted to do since high school, that allows you to be grounded because it reminds you that that's what you wanted in the first place. If you're just succeeding on that level, you can be happy. If you have all kinds of wild and crazy dreams, and they're not coming true every day, you are going to be disappointed and you're not going to be very grounded."

Luke: "What does your wife think of the business?"

Bob: "She's amused by it. She finds it difficult to hear me talk about the rejections on a daily basis because she shares my enthusiasm for a given project. And she'll say, 'I can't wait to see that.' And I'll have to remind her that she may never see it. The business frequently does not reward things that deserve to be seen. I'm not saying that every idea I have deserves to be seen. But lots of people I know, including myself, have had terrific projects that, for various reasons, never see the light of day.

"The film magazines over the years have frequently run articles about the top ten screenplays never made. And you read them and they're brilliant. But for various economic reasons, they never happen and they become tarnished goods. Or they become too expensive to ever get out of turnaround from a studio. And they languish. And people wonder about this great script they heard about. And how come with Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise attached, it never got made. Shakespeare in Love languished for years at Universal.

"My wife is a good support system and she has the same overall philosophy that I do - you have to laugh. You have to be amused by it or you cry."

Luke: "Do you guys go to Hollywood parties together?"

Bob: "No, that's not part of our lives. I almost regret that I don't do a lot of that because a lot of business is done on the golf course or at the party. I tend to keep the two worlds separate. I don't go to a lot of breakfast, lunch or dinner meetings or after hours parties. I like to go to screenings because I love movies. Sometimes I look at friends who are doing well because of relationships they make in that network and I wish that I could do more of it, but then it would be 24 hours a day, seven days a week with no sleep."

Luke: "Remember the Bob Levi character in The Player who went to AA meetings because that's where the deals were."

Bob: "It's not a joke. The people I know who are looking for material find it everywhere from car washes to funerals to AA. There's no place so sacred that you wont hear someone talking about Hollywood. I was talking to someone yesterday who was followed into a restroom by someone who wanted to hand them a script. There are just those endless anecdotal stories about people who feel desperate and do desperate things.

"I just got off the phone from a nice call. Disney has bought one of the projects that I submitted. You're catching me in a good mood today. I think the reasons it sold are: (A) I identified a commercial idea, and, (B), I brought the project to the right company. I got the right partners who added the right strength to the pitch."

Luke: "How many people do you talk to on a given day?"

Bob: "Anywhere from 50 to 200."

Luke: "Do you have a secretary and say, 'Roll calls'."

Bob: "That's a studio executive persona. I'm more casual."

Luke: "What does an average day look like for you?"

Bob: "I get up around 7AM and read three or four newspapers (LA Times, NY Times, and the trades). I flip the dial and see what is going on in radio and television. Being a media obsessed person, that is what I would do if I wasn't in Hollywood. I just enjoy learning. The old expression, 'Knowledge is power.' And it's also entertainment.

"I come in to the office and keep a television on. I'll listen to the radio. I'll have meetings with writers and other producers who are pitching me. I'll talk on the phone. Then I'll usually get in the car and drive to a studio or production company and do two or three of those kind of meetings where I will pitch some of my current material. I think that what I do best is pitch. And I may pitch 15 different ideas in a day to five different buyers. And interspersed with that, I will meet with writers on projects I've already sold.

"Now, I could just concentrate on pitching one project. But that's not my personality. I'm hyper. And the winds of Hollywood mean that if you spend all of your time on one project, it will cut your heart out when it doesn't get made. By having as many balls in the air as I do, I can watch them all rise and fall with a bemused eye. Because ultimately I don't know which projects will get made. That's in the hands of the gods. I don't know if another studio is going make a similar movie which will ruin my project. I read articles in the trades almost daily about a story that negates something I'm currently pitching."

Luke: "Is the deal the thing for you?"

Bob: "I love stories and ideas. It's terrific high trying to develop those and convince other people in the business that you're right and they should buy your idea. It's fun prospecting for those nuggets like a gold miner. I don't disappear after the deal, even though I put such an emphasis on finding ideas that I get put into a niche in Hollywood. I'm known as an idea guy and a pitching producer. So people assume that once I've pitched an idea and sold it, that I'm gone. That's far from the truth. Once you've sold an idea begins the hard work of finding a writer, meeting a writer, working with the writer on the script... I'm involved all the creative meetings that a producer would go on. What I am not involved in is the physical day to day making of a movie because that's not where my skill lies. Once they're on the set, that's not where I want to be. I want to be back at my desk finding the next project. All the development process before going on set, I'm totally involved in because that's where I get to protect the original vision. I'm the one who gets to raise his hand in a meeting and remind everybody that we're starting to veer too far away from the original concept because I'm the one who either found it or thought of it. I'm usually the one fighting to keep the integrity of the idea alive so we don't end up on Mars making a Western when it is supposed to be a romantic comedy set in New York."

Luke: "And casting?"

Bob: "Sure. Once a director gets hired, you're at his mercy. As everyone talks about, the director is really the king of Hollywood. If you have a good relationship with the director, he wants you involved in all those meetings. If I have a more distant relationship, then I am not involved."

Luke: "What are your favorite projects?"

Bob: "The first one is always your favorite. Commando was the first big project I sold. The movie was a huge success and I still receive a check every year. In The Mood [1987] was a movie I sold around the same time as Commando. My writing partner David Simon and I read an article about Sonny Wisecarver. And the one-line high concept is still good to this day - the 14-year old boy who was known as America's greatest lover.

From Imdb.com: "In 1944, Sonny made headlines nationwide due to his affairs with 2 older adult women. (ie. He was so irresistible, that he was a danger to women everywhere.) Eventually being taken to court by the local authorities. He was only 15."

Bob: "David and I flew to Las Vegas and bought the rights from Sonny Wisecarver. We came back to Los Angeles and sold the project. Then we wrote the script. I remember going to the movie theater in Orange County where it was being tested. And the lights went down and the curtain went up and my name was on the screen. That's the biggest thrill of all. You've gone through this entire process and suddenly an actual physical movie is up there on the screen. And you're realizing that that thing on the screen might not have been there if it hadn't been for you. And that's an amazing moment.

"More recently, the movie Twelve Monkeys [1995], starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, directed by Terry Gilliam... I couldn't have been luckier to have brought something into the Hollywood system. I got it to the producer Chuck Roven who had a great relationship with a top screenwriter David Peoples. The script attracted Gilliam, Willis and Pitt. And then seeing a final film come out that's considered a classic science fiction film that was commercially successful. That's as much sheer happiness as you can get.

"I had an idea called A Novel Life, which has still not been made. But I got to spend a week with Tom Stoppard developing the story. Tom Stoppard may be the most famous living playwright. And to have Tom Stoppard fly over from London and say to me that he was willing to work with me on my idea because he wished he'd thought of it himself... I couldn't be more flattered to have someone like that recognize that one of my ideas was worthy of his time. The fun of the process of working with bright stimulating interesting people keeps me excited every day. I just love stories. When someone tells me a good story, I want to see it get made."

In the October 1997 GQ, Peter Bart wrote that Kosberg "vastly prefers pitching stories to making movies. ...Kosberg is interested in the pitch, not the picture - when the movie goes into production, he knows better than to insert himself into the process."

In his book HIGH CONCEPT, Charles Fleming wrote: "The pitchman extraordinaire, producer Robert Kosberg, once walked into the offices at New Line Cinema armed with nothing more than a poster of a snarling dog. His pitch: "Genetic experiments on guard dogs go wrong. It's Jaws with paws!" Kosberg unveiled his poster and said, "It's Man's Best Friend!" According to Kosberg, New Line executives couldn't get to their checkbooks fast enough." (pg. 29)

Luke to Bob: "I've never done this with any producer. But may I pitch you an idea?"

Bob: "Sure. The last person who did this, I sold their project, with their permission, to Meg Ryan. Be careful what you wish for."

Luke: "Son of Christian evangelist converts to Orthodox Judaism writes a book on the pornography industry, exposes an HIV outbreak, saving lives, and as recompense gets thrown out of all the Orthodox shuls in his neighborhood."

Bob: "Number one it's smart. It's about issues and those are tougher to sell as issues because people are afraid that you'll never be able to get a script by most writers that will properly execute the level that that kind of subject matter inherently demands. Most studio executives don't want to go towards religion, philosophy, and certainly if you throw in something like AIDS, you're in a lot of red flags. Subject matter areas that are difficult. I tend to pitch things that are much simpler and probably more trivial. The opposite of that would be, a man meets a girl and she turns out to be a mermaid. Something as silly as a man meets a fish [1984's Splash] not only ended up a huge success but made the careers of Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks. And a cultural phenomenon. Your kind of movie would never see the light of day unless it was written by Paddy Chayefsky. So I would never take on something like yours because it is too difficult. And the niche market that would try to do your movie is so small and narrow...

"It is so difficult pitching commercial high concept ideas... But if I had to pitch your idea, I'd kill myself. I wouldn't even get up in the morning. The person who's going to sell that idea for you is someone who's as passionate about it as you are and decides that it is going to be a passion project. They know it is not traditionally commercial. They're going to beat down every door of people with similar interests to sell that project."

Fred writes: Interestingly enough, last night I saw the movie 8 mm, in which Nicolas Cage plays a detective trying to figure out who made a snuff movie showing a girl getting killed. Cage enters the tawdry world of S&M film makers, and becomes increasingly disturbed at the sick characters he encounters. It's a bit over-the-top, and I suspect out of touch with reality.

So let's see if we can work over the LF story to make it into something sellable. Mild mannered Luke Ford, respectable journalist (now here's a touch of fiction), decides to write on the field of porn. As he gets into it deeper and deeper, he becomes more and more disturbed at the psychological pathologies he encounters--the bimbos with negative self-esteem, the border-line crazies, drug users, etc. Luke originally makes all of his contacts via the net, but he gets drawn into this seductive and morbidly fascinating netherworld of creeps, until he finally asks himself--is this cheapening my soul? Is this diminishing my humanity?

Finally, Luke exposes a scandel, saves lovely Kendra (or some such individual) from an encounter with an aids-infected actor in a perverted sex scene. In gratitude, she gives up her life among the low-lives, stops turning tricks, and lives with Luke forever after, giving him ... every night.

Or if we don't like that one, Luke encounters a fatal-attraction-like lunatic who begins to stalk Luke. Luke must take on a fake identity and flee Los Angeles to escape the clutches of the chain-saw wielding woman. We could make this into a slasher film, but instead of the hockey-mask wearing Jason, we have a woman chasing Luke around. And she can return for half a dozen sequels, too.

O.K., if the group doesn't like that ending, in the middle of the film, Luke is exposed to gamma rays, giving him super powers, and the ability to see through people's clothes.... Nah, let's stick with one of these story lines.

BTW, regarding who gets to play whom, Larry Flint gets to play the rabbi, Tom Cruise gets to play Chaim Amalek, Arnold Schwartzenneger (sp?) gets to play Luke, Rumdar, you get to play one of Kendra's tricks. There. That's much better than the earlier plot that Luke made up.

Khunrum writes: I like it. I think it would be a great date movie. A chick flic as it were. All members of the advisory committee will attend the premier........Luke, have you given any thought to who would play you? Brad Pitt perhaps? How about Jon Lovitz for the Amalek role? AND Can I please have the part of Rabbi ...?? Thanks buddy..Don't give up on this idea. It has potential. in the meantime keep living life so the story will get better.