Writing For Star Trek Part IX: How To Pitch (Part Two)By Joseph D. Di Lella
Posted at February 5, 2003 - 10:42 AM GMT
In Part Two, you will hear more inspirational tales from the Hart Building on the Paramount Studios lot. In this section, I've included several of my favorite stories from veteran Trek pitch artists, e-mail acquaintances, and my very own impromptu pitch session. A few will make you laugh, several others may force you to reach for a hanky. But that's the risk all of us take when one competes for fame and fortune with the big shots in Hollywood.
Remember, it's not always the attainment of the desired result that defines any personal and professional journey as a memorable event (i.e. it's not whether one wins or loses, but how one plays the game that counts). Take if from the pros; it's the very attitude you must have to be a successful pitch person in the field of American television in the 21st century.
Jack Trevino may not be a household name for Trek fans, but I bet you know his work. If you have a personal top ten list of your favorite DS9 stories, Jack's two entries probably come to mind. Quark as a Roswell alien? Dukat and Kira go about looking for the Gul's long lost, and presumed dead, daughter? Comedy. High drama. Nice work from a mere fan, don't you think?
How did Jack, and his writing partner, Toni Marberry, go about developing these two stories for their place in Trek history? In a special contribution to the Trek Nation, here is Mr. Trevino's story, in his own words...
It was about six weeks after we had our second Star Trek pitch session, when Rene Echevarria called to say we'd better sit down. He told us we wouldn't realize it till much later, just how lucky we were to sell not one, but two stories to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
At the time, Toni and I were trying to acquire an agent to represent us. After reading our script, an agent turned us down, citing it violated the Trek guidelines. I couldn't bring myself to give up on the story because I knew it had dramatic potential. So, I re-tooled it, omitting the part about Ziyal being Kira's sister. Instead, I focused on placing Dukat and Kira in a most difficult situation: Dukat having to ask Kira for help and Kira being forced to help him locate his daughter. A friend at work told me that when Dukat finally finds his daughter, he should kill her. I said, I couldn't do that. But after thinking about it, I told my co-worker there wasn't any reason why the audience couldn't be led into believing he's going to kill her.
'Little Green Men' came to me one night as I was working on a college assignment in my den. With the TV playing in the background, I heard the familiar Unsolved Mysteries theme music. On the show, there was a segment about the crash at Roswell, New Mexico, 1947. I listened as an older woman told a story of how her husband had flown dead aliens to an airbase, and how he later described the bodies to her. According to the wife, her husband told her the aliens were short, with big heads and sunken eyes. My mind immediately conjured up a Ferengi.
We pitched this premise on our first pitch, taken by Rene Echevarria. (I must take this opportunity to commend him for being highly professional and supportive. He provided nothing but positive and constructive assistance during that nervous session). We presented a story of Captain Picard and his crew pursuing four Feringi back to Earth in the mid-1900s. Unfortunately, the Ferengi ship crashes and the military recovers the wreckage and bodies. The task of removing all traces of this extraterrestrial existence falls upon Enterprise-D. Rene was intrigued, but passed on it, primarily due to the fact they were already doing a time travel episode. He said they limited time travel stories to one per season. However, Rene told us not to give up on our writing.
Afterwards, we re-tooled the Roswell Incident into a DS9 story, with Quark as an alien. Toni and I re-pitched the story again, five months later. As luck would have it, Rene Echevarria was the producer we found ourselves pitching to that night over the phone. He liked the idea more with Quark, saying he could see the Ferengi interrogated by the military under hot lights (the scene made the final cut of the episode). Later, Rene and company wanted us to include Rom and Nog in the storyline. I explained to Robert Wolfe, that according to legend, the Roswell aliens had all died in the crash. To that point, he responded: "This is television, and on television we can do whatever we want." Besides, since there were no alien bodies laying around to dispute our version, why not proceed as though this was the true version of what actually occurred? Toni and I quickly bought into Robert's notion. My partner and I had quite a bit of fun coming up with the full-blown story outline, always keeping in mind The Three Stooges as we went along.
Why did we succeed selling these two stories?
The main thing Toni and I tried to accomplish during our pitches was to try and get the producer/writer who took the pitch to buy into the story. One particular approach we always used was to take Star Trek personnel down certain roads. When they thought the story was going in one direction, believing they knew what was going to happen next, bam, we'd take them in an entirely different direction. It was extremely satisfying to hear Rene, or others, on the phone formulating scenes and tossing in their own ideas to our story as Toni and I were pitching.
Of course, at least once during each session, we must have heard, "we're already producing a story very similar to that one." That type of response never bothered us because we always believed in our talent and ability.
Something we learned early on during our first pitch sessions was that we tried to present the producers with too many details. Obviously, we had read the information packet that said we should keep it down to the beginning, middle and end, but felt compelled to expand the story anyway. Well, we soon discovered that in most instances, less was better. We found the producers liked to visualize the story as they initially heard it and by presenting too much detail, it clearly interfered with them accepting it (other than in the manner in which we had pitched it). So we started hacking away at the stories, cutting them down from five pages to one. However, if they asked for additional details, we always had notes ready as expansion material. So, if I can pass on advice to anyone lucky enough to pitch to Enterprise, it would be to keep it as simple and to the point as possible.
Although Paramount bought three of our stories (one that never made it to air), Toni and I felt we could have sold more stories to Star Trek if we had the chance to push characters in different directions. For example, we pitched one story to Voyager staffers called 'Visit to a Small Planet.' In this story, the crew arrives at a world where the entire population has been observing their life on Voyager (through ship log entries) for the previous three years. When the away team beams down, they discover everyone, and I mean everyone, is dressed like members of the crew. Of course, there are a limited number of people dressed as Neelix, as he was the least popular Voyager crew person. For Toni and I, this story represented a perfect way for the crew to truly see themselves in a different light -- as they were perceived by others (alien populations, which really represented Star Trek fans).
In this pitch, we told the producer the story represented a wonderful opportunity to make a few observations about Us, the fans. The producer responded, "Star Trek fans would never accept the show having fun at their expense." For that, I countered, saying, "Fans would love it, as long as the fun poked at them was light-hearted and not cruel." In fact, I suggested the studio could have an open casting call for fans (dressed up as Voyager's crew for a scene depicting members of the planet's population) to be in the episode. Still, the powers that be passed on it. Two years later, a movie called 'Galaxy Quest' came out and it was a huge success. And no, neither Toni, I, nor Paramount made money from that project.
Over the six years we pitched to Star Trek, we must have suggested close to eighty stories. There were many times we were told they were passing on the story. There were many times we were told they were taking the story to the writers' weekly meeting. And there were three times we were told they were buying the story. But during those years of heartbreak and triumph, there's one thing we never did: give up. Toni and I reminded each other that if you have good ideas there's got to be someone out there that will recognize them and sooner or later. Hard work will be rewarded.
Due to the sale of these two episodes, we were invited to visit the sets of DS9 and Voyager during one of our pitch sessions. (No, they didn't pay for our trip, but no way were we going to miss out on seeing the place where it all comes together). We had a great time, but that's another story.
Toni and I will always be thankful for the recognition we gained, and the small contribution we made, to the world of Star Trek. And, if Enterprise ever opens its doors to outside writers - we'll be first in line to pitch to its writing staff.
In May of 2000, Mike Sussman (currently co-producer on Enterprise) posted an article on the Internet, entitled: 'The Genesis of Unimatrix Zero, or How to Sell a Whiz-Bang, High Concept, Two-part Cliffhanger to Star Trek (and get all the chicks)'. At his web site, Mike recalled his efforts to land a spec. script in the hands of Rick Berman and detailed his efforts to get a pitch session. It is also a nice summary of just how much his life changed after he moved to LA in search of becoming a television writer.
Though Mike's website is down, Christian posted a summary of Mike's entire report on TrekToday. Having had little success reaching Mike through e-mail (as he nearly made it down to sit in on my Star Trek writing panel for the San Diego Comic Con 2000), I dare not scan his entire article into my text now, considering legal repercussions. The best I can do is to refer you to Christian's site and let you take it from there.
To briefly summarize, Mike used the concept of the Internet as an analogy to the Borg inter-linked subconscious. In 'Unimatrix Zero,' the writer uses this Borg-internet notion as a secret communication lair for refugee drones who live out their lives as the people they were before assimilation. The blending of modern technology with individuals fighting for their personal freedom against tremendous odds is just the type of high concept drama Star Trek loves. In fact, they loved it so much, Mike moved right on in as staff writer, then to co-producer for Enterprise, all in the matter of three years.
Is it possible to be invited to pitch Trek...without even asking?
Jamahl Epsicokhan, who runs his own Trek site called Star Trek: Hypertext, is such a person. 'Jammer,' as his friends call him, is widely respected as an episode reviewer in the Star Trek web universe. In fact, Google has recently rated his site #1 for Trek reviews. From his status as a critic, Joe Menosky (Trek writer-producer) contacted Jammer one day, through e-mail, to compliment his work. Several months later, Jammer got the 'big' call from Joe to try his luck pitching for Voyager.
Jammer is a bit busy these days recovering from a busy holiday season (plus working his 8-5 shift) to write a write a long essay for us -- but that's no problem. Instead, he recommended that I should refer you to his web site to review his journal entries for his dramatic undertaking from critic to pitch artist. And if you don't think leaving Illinois for Hollywood, California, isn't a culture shock, think again. Transforming from Borg back to human isn't nearly as traumatic -- just ask Seven of Nine.
What exactly did Jammer do to prepare for his pitch session? Did he ever track down Tim Lynch (renowned Trek critic) in LA? What happened when Jammer bumped into Brannon Braga? Did he really sit in Captain Janeway's chair? And finally, did success in Hollywood change the man we affectionately call Jammer? Find out here. It's a fun read.
In early February of 2000, on my way up to Los Angeles to see Paramount Studios and to speak with Bryan Fuller (an informal interview concerning a WGA internship for Trek), Jimmy Diggs, Elsbeth and I talked about the upcoming pitch session. I had already submitted my spec. script and thought I'd wait my turn on a pitch rotation list on which Jimmy had entered my name a few months earlier. This was Jimmy's time to shine. Still, I never thought this would be a crash course for me in Star Trek: Pitching 101, as we made our way through heavy traffic on Highway 15 North that morning. Briefly, my story goes as follows...
"Oh, no," Jimmy said in a stoic manner as he rummaged through his small duffel bag. Though he was calm, Jimmy was in trouble. "I can't find my pitch notes." An hour from his home, we were not about to turn the car around. Luckily for him, he and I had gone over the notes the night before. Though I could only remember a few, I helped him reassemble several before I made my pitch to him.
"You know, I have a few ideas of my own, Jimmy," I said confidently. "Let's hear 'em. You can't have too many."
To cut a long, impromptu pitch session short, Jimmy took a story idea I had about the Doctor, another from Elsbeth, and a joint pitch he and I made up using the Neelix character. After his meeting, Jimmy told me that they liked my story, and the one he and I created. At the time, staff writer Robert Doherty promised to take our ideas to the next staff meeting. Thus, I achieved a small goal: a Trek writer actually liked my original idea -- and took it to the next level. Though Jimmy and I never sold an episode together, I still feel a bit of pride over that day.
Quiz time. There's only one actor who has appeared in all five Star Trek series. Any guesses? No, not Majel Roddenberry (she is not the computer voice for Enterprise). Not Vaughn Armstrong either, who has played more than ten different characters. And it isn't James Doohan, who has 'voiced' over sixty characters in the original and animated series.
The answer? His name is Joseph Ruskin. He played Galt, commander of the slaves in TOS's 'Gamesters of Triskelion,' a Son'a officer in TNG's 'Star Trek: Insurrection,' the Klingon Tumek in DS9's 'House of Quark' and 'Looking for par'Mach in All the Wrong Places,' a Cardassian agent in 'Improbable Cause,' Tuvok's Vulcan master in Voyager's 'Gravity,' and a Suliban doctor in Enterprise's 'Broken Bow.' The first and only actor to guest star in all five shows. That's a pretty special recognition. That feat alone shows endurance, professionalism, and expertise in the field of acting.
Now, can any of you name the freelancer who's pitched to the most Trek series? You won't find his name in an episode credits list; certainly not in a Trek encyclopedia. His name is Steve Fratt. He epitomizes what every aspiring Trek writer is: dedicated to the Roddenberry legacy, no matter the lack of fame, glory or recognition from the television industry or the million-plus fan base worldwide. Steve looks forward to his first sale, and hopes, after how close he's come a few times, that his time is near after six-plus years of futility. "But it has been an unbelievable experience to this point, and has made me a much better writer and communicator," Steve says.
Steve has been a pitch artist for TNG, DS9, Voyager, and now, Enterprise. Though he hasn't sold anything yet, he keeps going back for more. "Every time I go to that building (the Hart Building on the Paramount lot) I still get a tingle all over from the respect I have for people in the building. I wish I were one of them [giggles]. I marvel at the office Gene Roddenberry used to occupy." What motivates this man? Why does he even bother going back to the studio complex, after seventeen unsuccessful tries? It's simple question, really. "I'm not going to stop until I sell." He pauses. "And they keep inviting me back," Steve says. It must be a good omen of things to come.
Steve had almost given up his goal until, by accident, he met Brannon Braga at a dinner party in late August. "It was a chance occurrence, really. I introduced myself to him and immediately let him know, in addition to how much of a fan I am of the show, that I'm the guy that's pitched three series, never sold a story, but keeps getting asked back for more. He told he'd like to sit in on one of my pitches, but that hasn't happened yet. He's an amazingly busy man." Thus, the mad odyssey continued. But a recent pitch with co-executive producer of Enterprise, Chris Black, looks encouraging.
In his latest Enterprise pitch session, Steve presented five story outlines (he brought in fourteen), and the session lasted about forty five minutes. According to Steve, Chris seemed unimpressed. When Chris looked at his watch and told Steve he had time for one more pitch, the pitch artist sat there for a moment and calculated an idea that had been roaming around in his head for about the last week. Even though it wasn't written on paper or fleshed out as well as all his pitches typically are, he decided to "spit it out" as his last story of the day.
"It took about twenty seconds, but wouldn't you know it, that's the one that Chris really liked. We went back and forth with it for about fifteen to twenty minutes. I think he was intrigued with the idea of really getting under T'Pol's skin in my story and we talked about the possible ways to do that with a problem she was going to have. I was very confident the idea had merit even though it wasn't the normal one that takes me three weeks to prepare just right. So, ultimately, Chris mentioned he would take my story to the next writer's meeting with Brannon and call me back within two weeks."
Though Steve never did receive the 'big call' starting with the word "SOLD," he's still fighting for what he believes to be his date with destiny. "I have two other guys I'm working with, people who have sold to Star Trek before. I'm prepping more ideas and hope to be in there pitching again within the next three to four months." Thus Steve will return once more to the Paramount lot for another visit to his life long partner, Star Trek.
Perhaps that is what gives Steve the motivation to continue his quest. Being part of something grand is what gives meaning to a too often dreary existence. As an academician, I felt the same way, every first day of summer instruction at Stanford University. For five years, I'd walk up the palm-tree-lined main road, stroll through the corridors of the majestic buildings in the main quad, and pass the old, beautiful church in the courtyard on my way to the Linguistics Department/English for Foreign Students office. In a small, but significant way, I, too, had reached my ultimate goal: teaching at one of the most prestigious colleges in America.
Though I never achieved a tenure position, it didn't phase me. I was just glad to live my dream. In a sense, it was like guest appearing in a Star Trek series. Though I don't know Joseph Ruskin, he may have felt a similar gleeful emotion every time he was asked back to Trek. For Steve, regardless of a sale, he's excited on every trip to Paramount Studios. Striving and reaching a goal, even if it appears to be a small one to others, is what makes life worth living, don't you agree?
At the moment, I am preparing for a few upcoming pitch sessions in the L.A. scene, one involving Enterprise. By writing these articles, and reading many others over the past few months (I highly recommend 'Wilcox on Landing Enterprise Job'), I am better prepared to make a sale today than I was several years ago. But, will one of my ideas, or one of my partners, reverberate in the ears of Brannon, Chris, Mike, et al., to the tune of, "Great -- we'll take it to the next meeting?" Keep your fingers crossed.
After reading this series of articles, can you say you've become a better attuned to what it takes to become Trek writer and pitch person? I hope so. I can honestly say I am a better Star Trek writer today than when I wrote my first book proposal in 1997. Why? I've spoken to the greats, read about the legends, learned the networking process, and spent many an hour re-writing short stories, books, pitches, beat sheets, etc.
Will I sell something Trek related soon? I better. Next month's rent is due soon. If not, I have plenty of other ideas where those came from...
Special thanks to Mr. Dianis Kiperts for video taping our first Star Trek panel (2000 San Diego Comic Con); Mr. Charles Bigsby for doing the same (at the 2002 convention). Several of the first-hand stories used in these articles came directly from reviewing these taped sessions.
A debt of gratitude also goes out to Mr. Diggs, Dr. Kloor, Mr. Trevino, and Mr. Fratt for their permission to use their stories in this series of articles. Mr. Charles Skaggs also provided invaluable direction to me concerning 'writing nit-pick guidelines' demanded by 'Star Trek: Strange New Worlds' (Simon and Schuster). Thanks too, Charles, for editing my submissions.
To Ms. D.C. Fontana -- I'm so glad Gene Roddenberry enlisted your help (as office manager, script supervisor, writer and confidant) to accompany him along a journey to the stars. You're a wonderful lady and mentor to many hopeful screenwriters in the industry today.
Regarding Christian and TrekToday: thank you for allowing me the space in your website to discuss these issues. If I have encouraged even one person to write (no matter the genre), then the time put into these articles was well worth the effort.
And a special greeting to all of you out there who responded positively to me over e-mail. Please keep me informed on your progress. Continue to write, read, and network. You'll be surprised at what persistence can do for your career.
Though Star Trek is not the only science fiction genre out there today, it certainly has entertained me over the years. From Captain Kirk to Captain Archer, the Trek stories have provided an escape for me from the common problems of life, beginning in high school, through college and well into my adulthood. Many thanks to all you writers out there who have added a little laughter and joy into my days here on mother Earth.
Hope to see many of you readers out in San Diego, California, for the Comic Con in July, 2003. Look at their web site for specific times and dates of our panel. I just might have a few surprise guests, a new book, and prizes for the best pitches presented to our panel this summer.
Joseph D. Di Lella is a freelance writer and panelist at the San Diego Comic Con. He can be reached via this page at AllExperts.com.