Melby's Blog

Doing my best to reflect on the goings on around me.

Workin' on the backlot

I moved to Los Angels from Minneapolis about two years ago, and for the last year, I've been interning on the Universal Studios backlot - reading scripts and working on digital media for The De Laurentiis Company (DLC).  They’re the folks behind the television show - ‘Hannibal' among many other things - and one of my jobs is to pre-screen projects that they may consider for future production.  This is an aspect of the industry I was never exposed to while working and living in Minnesota - especially on the multi-million-dollar scale. If I’m being honest, prior to moving to Los Angeles, I had held a negative image of the big Hollywood machine - believing it crushed creativity with every step.  After having spent some time working in Alfred Hitchcock's bungalow - arguably in the heart of that machine - I've gotta say, I’ve had something of a revolution of thought.

The De Laurentiis Company gets at least 3-5 scripts a week, ranging from book adaptations to television pilots. Most of them are actually pretty bad - surprisingly bad - hardly worth the time spent reading them. A benefit, even when reading the bad scripts, however, is that I get increasingly good at spotting the most important aspects of storytelling.  Additionally, every three months, we do a little mock-pitch - where we get the opportunity to sit in front of the execs and pitch our ideas.  If you don’t have a project of your own, a longline is given to you and you get to just practice the pitch itself - which, I’ve learned, is a real art form.  A few times now, I’ve proudly marched into the conference room believing I've got the next hit TV series, maybe feature film. 

Then, however, there you are sitting with the execs, and they’re picking apart the idea piece-by-piece.  They rocket-fire questions at you: ‘who is the hero?’, ‘why should we care?’, ‘who is the market?’.  Should you not know the answer - or should your answer not be good enough - you realize really quickly, this is much harder than you think.  Laid bare and subject to scrutiny, you often learn your idea is probably actually not good enough.

In my time at DLC, I've learned the real importance of the vetting of a story by industry professionals. Those of us who have experienced life outside the ‘Hollywood Machine’ and especially those of us who, frankly, would like a way in - we are quick to demonize big Hollywood producers, and movie studios.  Once seeing the inner-workings, however, you see how fickle the market (you and me) really are, and how much money it takes to bring a film from script to screen.  This vetting is necessary - it is important for a script to go through the gauntlet in part because of the money, the time, the ego, the space it will occupy.  

I directed a feature film a few years ago - ‘Bahamian Son’ with Soul Tools. It’s a project for which I am very proud, but the script never underwent this process.  I wonder how we would have benefited from some industry producers scrutinizing the script? Would we ultimately had a better story because we went through a tough process of tearing it all down and having to build it again?

Hollywood has a serious issue with diversity across the board -  from cast, to producers, to the studio executives. But the market (you and me again) IS speaking and Hollywood IS listening. The issue is we still have the old guard - old and white, frankly - alive, steering the ship. All that being said, we can't throw out the Hollywood studio system because it has created this industry, and the jobs that come along with it.  As good as a low-budget independent film may seem, the fact is that very few crew members are paid - which when coupled with the time required, is ultimately unfair, especially to professionals.  Also, a bulk of your creative time is suddenly spent trying to find the resources to make it all work - and you quickly realize it’s a lose-lose game. 

Trust me, this isn’t total cynicism - I don't want to lose the spirit of independent film.  I think we can all agree that we DON’T need another movie about Robert Dinero trying to get a new ‘lease on life’ in his golden years - but we DO need big movies with real budgets that pay people real money on which they can make a living.

So the question remains: how do we find the balance of big money for real stories?  How do we get those stories from real people - especially those whose unique perspectives have been excluded?  Can the film industry represent those stories without some old-guard caricature of their culture? I don't know the answer to these questions - but in my time at The De Laurentiis Company, and moving around the heart of the Machine - I can say that the right people are asking the questions.  And that’s a good start.