I attended the Austin Film Festival this past weekend. My screenplay of Pennies from Burger Heaven made it to the second round of the AFF contest, with over 9,100 entries (read that post here: From Novel to Screenplay). It’s a huge honor, which granted me admission to special workshops and panels just for those who placed in the competition. Incredible!
I also entered the AFF pitch competition where I gave a 90-second pitch about Pennies to judges. I’ll tell you up front, I did not achieve my goal to make it to the finals again (I did that in 2005), but please don’t stop reading.
This post isn’t about writing. It’s about …
Living your life, the one playing out before you this very moment, amid the good, the bad, and the ugly that may be happening right now. Whether you’re a writer, a reader, or both – that skill is paramount to happiness.
The Austin Film Festival is a full week of amazing movies (classics and newcomers alike), while the conference is three-and-a-half, jam-packed days during that time. Hollywood directors, agents, producers, writers as our presenters. Jason Segal of How I Met Your Mother led a session. It’s impossible to attend everything. It’s so fun. It’s so exhausting.
Any conference goer can attend pitch sessions, but only those who signed up and paid $20 can take part. The 100 slots fill up fast, but they also have a waiting list for no-shows and if there’s extra time during each session. I want to compare my two pitch experiences.
Back then, I don’t even recall which day I pitched. You signed up for a session, but didn’t know your judges beforehand. That year, we met in a large theater with the two judges sat on a lighted stage, while everyone else stayed in the dimly lit auditorium.
There was no formal pitching order. They asked for volunteers each time. “Who wants to kick this off first?”
The theatre fell silent. I raised my hand. “I’ll go.”
People thought I was so brave. I wasn’t. I just wanted to be done with it.
The two judges were comedy writers. They were both funny and nice. We all relaxed and cheered each other on, but I still worried. I was pitching a ‘dramedy’ feature film (part drama, part comedy), called Beyond East & West.
My legs shook so hard inside my jeans. After I finished, one judge said, “Wow!”
“Yeah.” The other agreed.
They asked me a few questions, then that was that. I felt good. At the end of the session, they announced I was one of the two finalists!
That Saturday night, I was told I would go first of the 20 finalists. NO! Going first is the kiss of death because the judges aren’t warmed up yet. I did well talking into that blinding spotlight, but still wasn’t in the top three. I don’t even remember who won.
Here’s the most important part: Afterwards, I fell into despair for months, drowning in a shameful sea of not good enough. I knew my self-loathing was both extreme and irrational, but couldn’t stop myself. It was brutal. I don’t even recall what I did to make it better, but clearly I did because I signed up for the torture again …
This time, I saw all pitch judges online beforehand, so I chose the best pair for Pennies (a dramedy). I received an email the week before that my judges had been replaced with two comedy writers, but all the sessions were full. No switching. I didn’t worry since comedians sent me to the finals last time.
Walking through the doors that day, I saw a small classroom with about 40 chairs inside. Much cozier. They told me I was #3 in line. Yes!
I gave a great pitch. Yes, my legs trembled beneath my jeans again, but I didn’t forget my words, or stumble. Honestly, I don’t remember much, but I recall that audience seemed connected to my story.
Afterwards, the first judge asked, “Ummmm, why Burger Heaven?”
Oops. I forgot to explain that point, but it wasn’t central to the character’s growth, so I didn’t include it. Mistake.
The other judge said I presented well, asked a few clarifying questions, then I sat down. Several people whispered, “Good job,” but at the end of our 75 minutes, my name wasn’t called. The two finalists had pitched TV sitcoms.
No! I thought I’d make it back to the finals since I’d done it before. I couldn’t blame the judges, comedians sent me to the finals in 2005.
Fortunately, I left straight from there to have lunch with one of my college roommates whom I adore. As we walked down the street, we passed a man in an AFF volunteer T-shirt.
“Hey,” he yelled. We turned around. “You did a really good job back there.”
He must’ve worked my session. Yes! It wasn’t my imagination. I had done well. That man saved from torturing myself for the next several months.
Lesson: Compliments are free. When given sincerely, our words have the power to change someone’s day.
There were two afternoon sessions that day, with endless choices of what to attend. I went to one, then left. I drove straight to Book People, a huge, two-story, independent bookstore form some TLC. Pennies sat on one of the front display tables, so that made me feel better. I went straight to the café, ordered an almond milk chai latte and a chocolate chip cookie, then journaled like mad. I whined, I moaned, I groaned. I stayed two-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t 100% when I left, but felt better.
The next morning, I awoke refreshed. Another good sign. My breakthrough came at 9 am Saturday when I attended How to Turn Failures into Successes. I have so much to share about this (not just about writing) that my next post will be all about this session, but suffice it to say that the four writers (the TV show Empire, the movies The Hulk, National Treasure and Charlie’s Angels) had amazing wisdom. Stay tuned.
The answer for when you fail?
Keep going. Whether it’s writing, publishing, or life, the answer is to go back to your why? Why do you love . If you love it enough, you’ll keep trying. Again and again.
I floated from that workshop with my spirit renewed. I’d already planned to eat lunch with a childhood friend, then met another for coffee. By the end of the day, my Marcy mojo was back!
2016 Pitch Finals
That Saturday night, the room was packed. We watched 20 varied pitches: comedies, dramedies, bio-pics (biography movies), pure dramas. Fiction and nonfiction; TV shows and feature films alike. Some folks did better than others, but I admire everyone’s effort.
The AFF gave prizes for first, second and third place. Remember, the two people who beat me out to go to the finals? He won the entire competition with first place. She won third place, and apparently won it all last year.
I got beat by the best of the very best. I can 100% live with that.
It’s about Kindness, Man
Sometimes, we give it our all, yet, we still come up short. That’s hard because so many of us are taught — you work hard and it’ll pay off. Sometimes, you work hard, yet … the marriage ends, you don’t get that coveted promotion or the agency offers representation to another.
Probably the best thing about this pitch-competition experience compared to 2005 was how I responded to my so-called failure. I was 39 in 2005. Now, I’m 50. That’s just 11 years, but feels longer since I’ve touched over three decades since then.
It’s been a gift to see how much kinder I am to myself this time (a painful one, but a gift, nevertheless). On paper, it looks like 2005 was a bigger success, but I’m happier now. My family and friends are amazing. I’ve achieved my goal as a published novelist. Pennies is very well received and I’m hard at work on the sequel. I wrote a second-rounder in the AFF screenplay competition, and participated in their pitch competition, to boot.
Bonus, I like me so much more than I did back then. No self-loathing necessary.
I hope the same is true for you. If not, work on changing those critical voices inside your head. You’re the only one with you 24/7. You’re worth the effort.