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Podcast – The Art of Pitching: Sheila Hanahan Taylor

The producer and founder of Practical Pictures on the art of pitching – what to do, what not to do – and how the Australian industry is different to the US.

Sheila Hanahan TaylorSheila Hanahan Taylor

This all comes off the back of Sheila’s visit to Australia where she conducted a series of workshops and a day-long Gender Matters: Brilliant Pitches forum in Sydney.

Sheila’s been involved on studio franchises including American Pie, Cats & Dogs and Final Destination and produced the Australian feature Oddball. The films she has worked on either as an executive or producer have grossed more than US $2 billion at the global box office.

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Audio Transcript

Caris Bizzaca [00:00:02] Welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. I'm Caris Bizzaca, a journalist with Screen Australia is online publication Screen News. On this episode, we'll be talking with Sheila Hanahan Taylor about the art of pitching, what to do, what not to do, and how the Australian system is different to the US. This all comes off the back of Sheila's visit to Australia, where she conducted a series of workshops and a day-long Gender Matters: Brilliant Pitches forum in Sydney, which was also streamed around the country. Sheila is a producer and founder of Practical Pitches, a production company specialising in studio projects with global appeal. Sheila has been involved on studio franchises including American Pie, Cats & Dogs and Final Destination, and she also produced the Australian feature Oddball. The films she has worked on, either as an executive or producer, have grossed more than US $2 billion at the global box office. Before we get into the chat, it's worth noting that at one point Sheila and I discuss what a showrunner is in the U.S. compared to Australia. I should clarify, there are some showrunners in Australian TV who work in the same way the US model is structured, and increasingly more. One recent example would be Ellie Beaumont and Drew Prophet with their SBS series Dead Lucky, but historically in Australia, television has been driven by producers, which is what Sheila is referring to. If you like this episode, please remember to rate and review us on iTunes and don't forget to subscribe. If you want to find not just our podcast episodes, but Screen Australia's video and written content too, visit screenaustralia.gov.au/screen-news. Now here's the chat with Sheila Hanahan Taylor. Sheila Hanahan Taylor, welcome to the Screen Australia podcast. First of all, could you tell me a bit about your background and your career and your role at the moment?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:01:56] So currently I'm a producer and a creative producer and I have a producing partner named Craig Perry, and we've had a company now for 20 years in November, it'll be 20 years.

Caris Bizzaca [00:02:06] Congratulations.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:02:06] We just had our 16th movie in theatres in the U.S. called Breaking In, which I think is coming here soon, with Gabrielle Union, and he and I have, again, been together for 20 years. Originally, I was his development executive and now he's my partner, not my life partner, but my business partner. Prior to that, I was one of those kids who actually grew up doing plays in the backyard and organising all the neighbour kids to help tell stories, and by the time I was probably seven or eight, I was doing commercials and I was selling people things like bubble gum and Kool-Aid type drinks, and I grew up in Michigan, which is where all the cars are made in America. I was always the happy cheerleader in the back of the station wagon or the minivan anyway. I grew up on set and really learned how things were made from a very early age and by the time I was at Uni, I was doing both sides of it. If I wasn't in the play, I worked on the play and I really loved it. By the time I got out of Uni, I had a terrific opportunity to work, there's a company in Chicago named Steppenwolf Theatre, which they're responsible for people like John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf and Gary Sinise and John Mahoney, who was the dad on Frasier forever. I had a chance to work for them and it was one of the best opportunities of my career, I learned a lot about high end professional theatre, but the time that I was there, the director, Garry Marshall, who had just finished doing Pretty Woman, came in to work on a play he had written. I got a chance to be Garry Marshall's writer's assistant, and I learned everything there was to learn about writing comedy from one of the old school guys. I mean, he was one of the original writers on all those Tonight Show type programs in the 60s and the 50s, he used to stand outside and trade jokes for corned beef sandwiches, things like that. I learned comedy writing from them. I learned a lot about, again, high end theatre and went back and finished my last little bit at Uni and he reached out and brought me out to Hollywood to be his writer's assistant, and that's really where it kicked off.

Caris Bizzaca [00:04:01] Great, and for anyone that's not aware, you also have a bit of a history with Australia.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:04:05] I do, so I just was doing the math. I feel like it's been about nine and a half years that I've been acting as either a consultant or a script editor or just a good friend to New South Wales and Screen Aus[tralia] and Film Vic[toria]. I produced Oddball, I had a great opportunity to really get to know Australian filmmaking by doing that, but yeah, I've been I've been kicking around a lot down under.

Caris Bizzaca [00:04:27] What brings you to Australia this time?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:04:29] About four or five months ago, Nerida Moore and I, we just conjured up a plan that it would be a really great opportunity to bring me here to help out and get people to be more versed in how the American television system works, since everyone is really focused, first of all, on television, it's the hot topic, but also just because I think more and more people are figuring out how to crack the US system. Why not have more Australians jump on over the pond and get there? It just seemed like a terrific day to do a big workshop here, and actually, I'm doing a three-city tour in order to get as many TV voices in the mix as possible.

Caris Bizzaca [00:05:05] Imogen Banks, who is a producer here in Australia and who has worked on things like Offspring and Puberty Blues, mentioned that she herself has some trouble pitching, so Nerida Moore, the senior development executive here at Screen Australia and some of the other people here at Screen Aus put together a Brilliant Pitches forum, which you were a part of recently, and we're hoping that you'll give us some of your top tips from that day.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:05:31] Great.

Caris Bizzaca [00:05:32] First of all, what is a pitch, and generally, who has to do pitches and who do they do pitches to?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:05:42] In the industry, pitching is one of the most vital elements to survival. To me, it's the only way as an artist, you can start turning your hobby into a career. Pitching can range from the two-minute version when you run into a friend that you hadn't seen in a long time and they ask what you're up to and you say, 'Oh, well, I'm working on a show. It's about this woman who does this, and every week we're going to watch her do that,' but it can also be as sophisticated and as in-depth as a 20 or 25 minute full-on, tell me everything about the characters and the world and the plot to an executive who's got money. The way of pitching, I think, is universal. The same rules apply whether you're in the UK or in the US or here, but we pitch a little bit differently in the U.S. in that really, for the most part, producers never pitch. Non-writing producers do not pitch, only writers pitch, because in our philosophy, the voice of the writers are the whole reason we're meeting with you. The way they see the world is what's going to land on the paper, not the producers’ way of seeing the world. Without a great writer, pitches don't really exist in US and more importantly these days, because it's a terrible 2018 marketplace, selling a movie pitch in the US has really died a very slow death. It's pretty much nonexistent unless you walk in with Brad Pitt or you walk in with J.J. Abrams and wow them with a needle in a haystack idea. Really, in today's universe, in the US, we just focus on terrific television pitches and then writing great movie scripts.

Caris Bizzaca [00:07:09] How long can a pitch go for? How long is the shortest type of pitch you could do? How long is the longest pitch?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:07:16] If I'm meeting with somebody professionally who's got money, I take two tacks. I usually do the short two-to-three-minute version and see if they're more intrigued or not. That's the more casual version. If I want to keep going, maybe I'm in there for a general meeting and they want to get a sense of my library or they want to get a sense of what's going on, and I'm speaking as if I were a writer because again, as a producer, I only do those kinds of pitches because then I would say, do you want to read the script? Or you should really meet the writer, and we could have a longer talk. If a writer’s in the equation, then if I'm asking somebody for money, I usually go in with a fully figured out idea, and depending on the company and depending on how they do business, I would expect a TV pitch, like a legit, credible TV pitch, to be somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes because the writer needs to go through how the idea came to be, why it's important to them, why they wake up every morning still thinking about it. Then they have to get into the world, they need to get into the arena, they need to get into who the lead character is and what's going on in their world that makes it worth it for us to tune in. Then they have to start breaking down the four or five people around that character. They need to start breaking down all the elements it would take to make a show interesting, the life-or-death stakes, what we're going to watch every week, is it somewhat repeatable every week. If it's a law or a crime or hospital show, it is fairly repeatable, but if we're watching a soapy show or an ensemble show, how is it going to be some version of a template that an audience will regularly seek out and be satisfied by? They have to walk through all of that, so it really is like 20 or 25 minutes to have a great television pitch in the US. It's really like 40 minutes when you get into all the small talk and all the follow up questions where the writer has even a more of a format to talk about why they love the idea.

Caris Bizzaca [00:08:57] At the Brilliant Pitches Forum, you talked about the importance of the first two minutes and the final three minutes. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:09:07] Yes, I think we've all learned hopefully through enough high school debate courses and listening to Dale Carnegie, How to Sell People, you really legitimately have two minutes when you first get in the room for them to size you up and figure out a lot about you, and especially in television, where you then later on need to have a writer's room, you need to be slamming through eight or 12 or 22 episodes, so they're sizing you up not only to see how you are professionally and if you're concise and clear with your ideas, but also, are you somebody they want to hang out with for what could be the next five or ten years. That two minutes couldn't be more of a first impressioned situation. Then more importantly, I break it down into two sections of two minutes like that, first two minutes is the great handshake, the eye contact, the quip about something interesting on their desk that caught their eye, any of those things to just connect with them so they realise you are somebody fun, that you will want to hang out. But then there's the two minutes when you start pitching and you've got those two minutes to declare up front with a big fat flagpole what your idea is and why it's really cool and a lot of people are going to want to watch it.

Caris Bizzaca [00:10:14] That's the moment to really grab, them.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:10:17] Yeah, and you really want to show in your passion and in your energy that you love it so much you can't believe no one else would love it, and also that you're such an expert on it that there's nobody else in the world who should write it but you. Then at the end, those last three minutes are the reverse engineer of that. You need to call back hopefully some quippy fun element of the early part of the meeting so that it sticks with them who you are. If you're able to get out of sales mode, get out of that job interview mode and joke again about that weird paperweight that they have, or the mutual friend you had that you all went to Uni with who's now crazy, anything you can do to help them remember who you are, and then also those last three minutes for me, before you get to the true wrap up is, I recommend every writer ever, even if you're doing the shortest pitch in the world, memorise the last little bit so that if the meeting starts to get slow, the room gets a little hot, you watch people's eyes glazing over, you can hop, skip right to that ending and get right into the idea that then they slay the dragon, storm the castle, grab the princess and we're out, and everyone feels like they heard the greatest pitch ever because you finished so strong. Those last three minutes really matter just in terms of storytelling and connecting with the executive one last time before you drift out of the room.

Caris Bizzaca [00:11:32] In terms of some of the key things you should do in a pitch, do you have a list of things that you think everyone should do in a pitch?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:11:42] Well, it's interesting. I think every pitch is its own prescription, for starters, so I don't have as much of a list of what you should do other than what I would say are good public speaking rules. I do think that you need to know a lot of things in your head about your idea so that you can hit the elements that you find are important. I usually refer to it as being a tour guide, meaning if you were going to New York City and your friend were going to New York City and you started asking people of all the things they should go see, I'd say a lot of people are going to tell you to go see the Statue of Liberty, and a lot of people are probably going to say, don't miss Central Park, but after that, everyone's list gets a little bit specialised. That specialised list is your version of your show, of your world, of your character, so you need in your pitch really to emphasise the uniqueness of your point of view of how you're going to crack that. To me, that's almost more important than the to dos in a pitch, but if I was quickly running down, to me, it's the obvious stuff so maybe I don't think of it as a list, but it's more like you must obviously know the great title, you need to understand what your theme is, you have to be ready to talk about how you see the world that they're in. Do you find it a fun world, do you find it a depressing world? What's the argument you're making about the situation? You want watchers to tune in and see or pay money to go to theatres and watch? I usually need to know a little bit about my main character, I want to understand not only how they see the world, but how they believe the world sees them and also how the world actually sees them, so there's usually three levels to our existence because that core belief system, how they see the world, how the world sees them and what they think the world sees of them really informs every choice we make in life and how we do decisions. Are you a fearful person generally? Are you a confident person, generally? Stories come from that, always, so I really love to have a handle on that, especially because one of the biggest cardinal rules of television is why are we starting here? Why is this first episode happening? Is it something that has changed in that main character's life? Is it something that's changed in the world? That's important, but you have to follow it up with and how do they react to that situation? Then suddenly you have conflict and you have this issue. One of my favourite, favourite examples is actually Downton Abbey, because all it takes is that letter saying that the Titanic sunk. Every single person on that show is affected differently, every single one, based on where they fit into the equation. It's one of the strongest openings in terms of the ripple effect. One piece of news literally dictates a huge cosmic shift in those first 45 minutes.

Caris Bizzaca [00:14:15] So it's not so much what happens, but how the characters react to that?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:14:19] Exactly, and how it impacts them going forward. In that case, it was such a great marriage of, the central question of that show is how will old England survive in a modern era as things are changing around them? That's the unanswerable question that's going to drive our interest in the show and also provide hours and hours of entertainment. Throw in the Titanic bombshell, which marries exactly to that, how modern can you get? A ship went down. Those ships weren't even travelling that way before, and more importantly, it came via telegraph. That's also a modern element, and within that little drop, suddenly marriage protocol changed, butler protocol changed, maid protocol change, inheritance rules were being questioned. It was a giant spider web triggered by that.

Caris Bizzaca [00:15:06] Is there also an element once you have something like that and the characters react, then you're going to get an audience’s emotional buy-in and you have to say that in the pitch, why are people going to care about this?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:15:19] Absolutely, so if you've done an excellent job laying out how the character sees the world, how the world sees them and what they think the world sees of them, like maybe we see some character and think they're interesting and dynamic, but they think they're fat and boring, then throw a situation at them, suddenly the audience is like, oh, no, I want to see how she's going to navigate this. That is what you then tell your friend the next day, they should watch the show and then two days later, you're both tuning in together because you're now hooked. That emotional buy-in stems from who is this character? How are they reacting to things and how does the world see them versus how they think the world sees them? to me, that's the most delicious part about TV. I was just watching a show yesterday and I have a niece who's 21, and I'm a lot older than that and I'm texting her because I'm positive there's a character in that show she will love, and I woke up to a text, 'OMG, can't wait, need more', and that's-- talk about an emotional buy in, right? I'm able to watch shows and figure out what characters are going to connect with people in my lives. Now we've [got] talking points with people. That's pretty great.

Caris Bizzaca [00:16:19] In terms of things that people should keep in mind that they shouldn't do, do you have any advice on that?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:16:25] That's a giant list. I can give you more information on what you need to do when you pitch. I guess I don't call it a go to list, but it's just what you need to be mindful of as you're crafting a pitch and then we can talk about what's bad idea if you want to do that, because I have a huge giant list of not to do. Also, you should think about when you're crafting an idea whether it's a feature or TV show, what your voice is bringing to the equation. I mean, we really, really spend so much time looking for the perfect writer for the idea, or if they walk in with the idea, are they the best, absolute best person to tell this? You need to be ready if you're a writer or even a producer, to be brutally honest with what's going on in your life so that you can put as much out there on the page as possible, and that's one of the biggest questions you have to ask yourself as you start to get into the arts. A true artist has got to be willing to bare their soul and sometimes it's really scary and sometimes there's projects that come our way that I know are really deep and cutting close to what are real issues and baggage are, and we've to decide as a company, are we ready to open that door or not? If I am listening for a pitch, I want somebody who is also going to provide context for my material. There's a lot of jokes out there about whether or not you should say a movie title that's close to yours or a show title that's close to yours and so my recommendation is you should name one, not two, two gets super confusing. You can't say that it's The Sopranos meets Bring It On. It's a disaster, throws your audiences into all sorts of weird places, but if you want to name one and name why your idea is the twist on that. That, to me, is more interesting and it kind of highlights the hook.

Caris Bizzaca [00:18:00] Well, isn't that what Ridley Scott did with Alien - Jaws in space?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:18:03] Jaws in space is the benchmark of what you want to say. Jaws in space tells you everything you need to know. It says it's going to be big; it's going to be scary; it's going to be loud. The setting is clear, the intensity, the stakes are clear. How beautiful is that? Three words and we've hit all the big questions that an executive needs to have answered. It's terrific. For TV, we like people to come in and talk a lot about their personal connection and why this story is important to them. We want to know, again, the arena and the world and the character. Knowing what the genre is, is vital and that's something you should really practice with your friends because you can't come in and say it's a Sci Fi Romantic Comedy Mystery, it just makes people's heads explode. You've got to streamline that idea, make it as beautiful and as delicious, and if you have a few elements, remember, there's an atmosphere or world which is totally different than the math on how it unfolds. Mystery is like math, but it could be a funny Mystery, could be sad Mystery, so you have to keep it separated in terms of tone, which is a happy, sad, scary, dangerous feeling versus the math is a Romantic Comedy. Are we working to get people together or is it just a romance? Is it dramatically getting people together? That's tone. Then we obviously want to know in TV, we want to know the simple stuff. Is it a half hour, is it an hour long? Is it a procedural, is it something that every episode is going to be the crime of the week or a case of the week or just a problem of the week? Do they get fired at the beginning and by the end figure out a new job, whatever that is? But then we also want to know if it's going to be serialised. We want to have a sense of, wow, is it going to run the length of that year, that whole season? Is going to run the length of the entire show. Is there a bigger idea that's keeping us engaged on a longer level? Then we also worry about, honestly, in today's market because of bingeing, you can't really get away with closed ended episodes, fully closed because it's super boring. I don't want to watch eight in a row of something that was fairly predictable, fairly easy to digest, so now most smart show runners have figured out a way to weave in a bit of serialisation. Even though it's somewhat of a closed case of the week or mystery of the week, there's at least enough there that you're not going to be bored and you'll tune in and watch four in a row or six in a row.

Caris Bizzaca [00:20:09] There's still an arc.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:20:10] There's a bigger hybrid arc that's carrying us through, so it's not really episodic and not really serialised, not really a hybrid-hybrid in the true sense, like The Good Wife is a great example of a true hybrid, because usually the case every week, but there's big stories going on and then there's the weird handoff ones that are a little bit of a carryover every week, but they mostly wrap it up.

Caris Bizzaca [00:20:29] Yeah, so that was some of the dos.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:20:31] Yeah, some of the dos. We also love if you can be really smart about your title, and sometimes I don't tell writers to even think about a title, because if they do, they will honestly spend days working on that and not working on the characters or the first episode. We try to leave it as a background thought in process, but if you can come up with a title that's got a little bit of an ironic element to it or a true double meaning, Grey's Anatomy is a terrific one because she was actually Meredith Grey and she was a hospital person, so that's anatomy, but it was really about truly the inner workings of Meredith Grey. It was a beautiful double entendre on every level, not sexual, and then the Good Wife just begs that question. Who is that person who would stand next to that politician? We've all wondered who she is. Is she the good wife? It just provided great opportunity to really brand the show right out of the gate. Titles to us are really important and it's worth spending time on, but don't use it as a distraction when you're trying to do your real actual work. For us, we really love getting a sense of what the opening episode is or what the general movie is, but I'm a big fan of doing more of a set up and not really going through all the beats unless it feels like the executive is expecting to hear all the beats. I'm more of a 'what is the idea' as opposed to what is the story. I think it's way more important for an executive who's trying to decide if they want to make a political move and go upstairs and ask for money to get this thing made, that they understand that there's a bigger opportunity because the world is so dynamic and these characters are so engaging, and there's an arena here that's been really cleanly laid out so I know what my playing field is so I already know there's one hundred episodes and what the first episode is sort of important but not vital because as a team we're going to craft this giant amazing version of what the series is going to be. I usually do a bit of a set up with the show and don't get into the full story of the pilot or the first episode. In features, you have to mostly pitch the whole thing these days. Again, even if you do walk in with somebody famous and amazing like J.J. Abrams, they need to know the entire movie because the movie industry has gotten tired of buying air. They just don't want to buy intellectual property. They want to buy concrete ideas that are fleshed out and developed, and they don't want to pay for any of that, which is why they usually want a script. TV, they're still good with buying air.

Caris Bizzaca [00:22:46] When you say buying air, it's buying the idea rather than the script?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:22:49] The idea, exactly. They're just good with air, but again, in America they can buy air because the only people who are pitching television are really seasoned veterans. They've been at it a very long time, so their track record's solid, their ability to deliver a pretty good script is right there. It really becomes about, sure, sometimes the scripts come in badly. We can't all have hits all the time. Somebody has a whiff every once in a while, but when you're a TV executive and you get 50 drafts in, I'd say 35 are pretty good because you're only working with people who have been writing for television 10, 12, 15 years. The quality is going to be there. The idea and what they're going to actually finance to go to pilot or go to series boils down to big corporate things that are way above my pay grade, and it is less about 'is the script good or bad' and more about 'how does this idea, this world, this arena, fit into our master mandate as to what we want to put on the air?'

Caris Bizzaca [00:23:41] Because you said the people that are generally doing pitches in the US to TV executives are people who have been working in the industry for 10 years or so, they're at that kind of show runner level. Show runner potentially has a different meaning in Australia to what it does in the US. Could you define what a show runner is in the US and how long it takes to get to that stage?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:24:03] In the US, our definition of showrunner is what you hear would probably call like a senior writer/producer who's also a line producer, and that is what I think escapes most people that are not in the US. My friends who have worked in the US, you start usually as what is a staff writer. That's the baby writer in the room, who's learning more than they are writing, and then you work your way, you actually start really as like a writer's room assistant doing notes. Then you graduate to actually staff writing, which means you might get to write on an episode with a senior writer in the room guiding you. Then after that, there's story editor, which is a slightly more advanced staff writer. You might be in a position as a story editor to write an episode all by yourself, maybe two. If it's a big 22 season episode, they probably will make a contract with you to do one, if not two. Then once you get past that story editor level, now you get into that great, really strong backbone of what a writer's room is, where you have a consulting producer or a supervising producer. These are all people who've already been making a living in TV for somewhere between six and 10 years, who just are fantastic writers, who can handle two or three episodes out of a 22 season all by themselves.

Caris Bizzaca [00:25:09] That's sometimes people who don't want to be show writers, staying in that level.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:25:13] Correct, they just stay that level forever. They're happy to help the baby staff writers get that episode under their belt, all that good stuff. Now of that pool of co-producers and supervising producers, and those are all writers. They just get a producer title because that's how it has worked in TV. Someone in that machine at some point will want to go for the big gold, brass, gold ring and be the showrunner on an idea they have going forward. In our universe, the showrunner picks up the pace. They do all the episode overseeing, they break the entire season in the room, they help guide every single person's beat sheet and outline and sometimes come in and polish the writing as the episode drafts come in. On top of that, because they are the showrunner and they are the vision for the show and the voice of what the character is and how they see the world and whatnot, they are the one, the person who is filtering notes back from the studio and the network and deciding which notes are valid and which notes are not valid. They are the ones working with physical production to evaluate all the financial choices and all the logistics of getting that thing shot in seven or eight days and then on the air two weeks later. A showrunner has to take on the burden of delivering every single week 44 or 22 minutes of amazing on time, on budget, smartly written, engaging television. Many writers I know are way happier living in the supervising and co-producing universe because they just don't want to deal with getting the trains running on time. Other people I know love it. They are excited to run from a casting session to a location scout to rewriting a monologue, and they're good with it. But it takes a very, very special beast to really legitimately be a showrunner and most young writers, even in the US, they think show runner just means 'I'm awesome, it's my amazing story and I should be in charge of telling it,' and it's like, really? Do you actually understand what it takes to tell a show consistently and evenly and keeping that blueprint the same every single week so the audience doesn't disappear? It takes a lot of years as a writer to understand that math.

Caris Bizzaca [00:27:04] Just on the difference between a show runner in the U.S. and Australia, what are some of the differences that you notice between the US and Australia in terms of whether it's the characters that we're writing or the way we pitch or just attitude? What are some of the big differences?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:27:21] I was really lucky since I shot Oddball here, I really did get about four months of solid Australian scripted television, so I'd like to think I have a teeny bit more of a handle on it than other people do. Some of the shows I've stuck with, even though I'm over in the U.S. and whatnot, so I would say from the research I've done on a business level, I think one of the most incredibly different things is that producers here pitch. Non-writing producers pitch and, in the US, I'm not joking, like non-writing producers are like a flea in the room causing a problem because all they're doing is taking money out of someone's pay cheque who's actually writing the show. In America, the only time there's a non-writing producer in the room is if they control the idea. They found the book, they found the real-life person, they were the ones who optioned the magazine article, they've added value by controlling the intellectual property. If there was any other situation, the networks like, excuse me, why are you here? We don't need you, we have the person over here who does all of that and they are also writing it, so go away. In the US, it's fascinating to me to see that in the Australian market that a producer-producer is not a writer is actually pitching and the one who's supposed to carry the ball, it's shocking to me. Second, the thing that I think is most different is we lean heavily on using writing samples as a way to stand out in the crowd and have a terrific voice and have a cool idea and have an approach to writing a story that will help an executive see yours in a stack of 40 scripts. I would say most decisions are not made in TV or features without a great writing sample getting you in the room as a writer. Later, as the show takes off and their staffing, it's all based on your writing sample first and then you get the meeting. Here it seems like it's a lot more relationship driven and it's a lot more about, oh, well, you already did a show with us, we're really comfortable with you, let's bring you all back in. Don't get me wrong, in the US, that's happening every day, too, because it's a very lucrative business, so they're going to back all the horses that have already delivered. There's no debate. But there's, I think generally a quest to find newer voices because we've like 400 shows on the air, and that only comes in the way of writing samples. From what I can tell, that doesn't really exist here on the same level. I mean, I have friends who are very famous, who are very good writers, who essentially are on a show that's probably in its fourth or fifth season and it's waning and the agents first call is 'you need a new sample, I've got to kick you off again. Let's get you out into the world. Get me something new and I'm giving you two months to do it.' It's not even one of those like, oh, just the rookies use a writing sample. I'm talking major players. You've got to just continually reinvent yourself. It's a bigger industry, we've a lot more executives, we've got a lot of new executives. We need assistants who are reading to champion you and go in and beg their boss to meet somebody. You just continually got to rebrand, freshen up, get that haircut. You got to do it.

Caris Bizzaca [00:30:00] Do you have a tough three don'ts?

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:30:02] Yes, I do. First of all, the other thing that's different in the Australian and the US market is in general, Australians are worried about being too loud and too obnoxious. It's the whole tall poppy thing, but on steroids, when you get into the arts, it's really scary for everybody. To me, I would stop worrying about it being obnoxious or too forward, to me, it's just about saying 'I just have the coolest idea in the world and I can't wait to share this with you, and I'm so excited, you're going to be excited with me. Come on for the ride.' It's less about being obnoxious and sales-y and sticky and it's more about 'this is the coolest party, please come with me.' I would really encourage people to stop with the whole 'I haven't really practiced, this is really just a small idea,' all that apologising honestly sets anybody with money off. There are people in line behind you who are earning it in a much more ambitious way, still not sales-y sticky or obnoxiously, but just show that they're ready to play.

Caris Bizzaca [00:30:56] Yeah, they want the reassurance that you have the confidence in the idea.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:30:59] Yeah, I don't understand why you set a meeting and then go in and go 'I don't really know, and I haven't practiced all that much and some other people think this is kind of a movie that may or may not really be worth it, but I think it's something.' What is that? I don't understand it at all, so that's a huge top. Then I would say, please, I understand most projects have a history. I understand they many of them have a track record, but if I start hearing about too many cool people who were at one point attached or had interest in it, all it starts me thinking is, but they're not attached or interested anymore, why, this is an issue. Whether it's because they found the flaw in the DNA of the project or you proved to be kind of a kook, or they've realised the marketplace has shifted, but knowing more of the family tree of your script is not an ideal thing. I would leave it as 'a lot of people really love it, we just haven't figured out a way to get it made, but maybe you're the one' and just leave it at that. The other thing that throws me off is talking about the fact that you've been working on it for a really long time. I think that's married to who's been involved with it. It also concerns me if you spent 10 years lugging it around and believe me, I have scripts I've spent 10 years lugging it around. I don't really bring it up. All I bring it up is how much I love it and how relevant it is in 2018. It's a producer's job to keep ideas alive, so I'm not saying you should bury stuff if it's old because I've dusted things off. But I would just say that a buyer wants to think something's hot, fresh, new, special, shiny and the more you remind them it's been sitting in a suitcase somewhere, the less sexy it is. That's a huge part of it. I have a huge other list, the last one I would say, if it was really nailing it down, is trying to subvert the system. It's really hard for artists to succumb to structure or to succumb to a marketing hook or to succumb to something that, in their artistic view is selling out. I have to look at it a different way. It's a really noisy market, and if you're very famous, you can subvert things and you can switch them around and you can play with it, but if you're really trying to get a foothold in this marketplace, you need to give us the whole 'it's the same, but different.' I want to see something that shows you're competent, that shows you understand the genre that you're writing for, that tells me that you're really clear on what the audience is going to look for and seek out, and you've got it and you know it and you're bringing it. Then I want to know that you're in a place that you're flexible enough that you can switch and modify it as people get involved, as actors come into play, as managers and financiers come in. If you're having trouble because you're trying to be different, so different and so subversive, then you're just an auteur and that's great, but that's a hobby, not a career. I just really try to encourage young filmmakers to play by the rules for a while. It's not as painful as it seems, and you could look at something as teeny and as intimate as something like Lady Bird and realise at first it seems so subversive and she really shook it up and she did this teeny little movie and then take a step back and go, wow, there's absolutely three acts in that. There's a goal, there's a plan, there's an obstacle, there's escalating drama. There's a full act to crash and burn. She played with the sandbox and that's why that movie travelled as well as it did.

Caris Bizzaca [00:34:04] Fantastic. Well, thanks, Sheila, for coming in and being part of the Screen Australia podcast.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor [00:34:09] It was a great time, I'm so lucky to be here, so thank you.

Caris Bizzaca [00:34:14] That was producer Sheila Hanahan Taylor, and a massive thanks to her for taking the time to chat all things pitching with us. For other podcasts, video interviews and feature articles, visit Screen Australia's online publication Screen News or make it easy for yourself by subscribing to our newsletter, our YouTube channel and to this podcast on iTunes or your favourite podcasting app. If you liked this episode, please feel free to share and don't forget to leave us a rating and review on iTunes. Thanks for listening.