WFilm founder, Scarlett Shepard, talks with Paola Andrea Ariza, a Colombian-American filmmaker and screenwriter, who has been writing and producing shorts for the past five years. Her work focuses on strong characters who struggle with questions of identity. Currently, she is working on VICTORIOSO: an hour-long drama that follows a young man’s journey to come into his own as a fighter, as his family watches their failed luchador enterprise turn into a cash cow at the hands of new hipsters owners.

Paola is also an Event Producer for ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest, held June 22 & 23 in Los Angeles. This event is where creatives can pitch their script to approximately 100 production companies, agents, managers, financiers, and other industry professionals seeking material to option and writers to hire, manage, and represent. Paola gives us some insight into the screenwriting process, craft, and pointers on how to pitch a script successfully to key influencers.

Scarlett: Tell us more about yourself?

Paola: I have a Masters in Film Production. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to work in film. I moved out to LA not knowing, and when I got here I realized I wanted to be a writer. That’s what I’ve been focused on for the last 5 years. Right now, there’s a big production company that is excited about one of my scripts. I’m also in the middle of rewrites of VICTORIOSO. I’m trying to turn it into the best version and continue to pitch it to networks.

Scarlett: Tell us more about this script?

Paola: The script is about a family that owns a Lucha Libre enterprise in a neighborhood here in LA. They’ve been working at it for 20 years, and they finally decide to hang up the towel. The family business hasn’t gone anywhere, so they were done. They sell it to some hipsters in the neighborhood, and it immediately starts turning a profit. They see their failed enterprise become a cash cow for the gentrifiers. This tears the family apart, and the oldest son who has been a costumer in the enterprise suddenly becomes the main fighter. All this time they realized they had this hidden gem, and they were using him in the wrong way. It’s about family; it’s about being brown in America and aspiring to be the American dream.

Scarlett: You co-created VICTORIOSO with Christian Fletcher. I think a lot of people don’t realize the time and artistry behind writing a script and getting it from mere idea to polished draft.

Paola:  We outlined the story a bit, and then we got busy. We put the script on the back burner a couple of times. I remember a time when I was working for a VR production studio. I was an assistant in film development helping them read through scripts and finding new projects. I was scheduled to speak at a panel on Latinos in the Media. They were talking specifically about how more diverse groups of people need to get in on tech on the ground floor as opposed to waiting for it to be big. I was talking about my experience and my work within the VR industry. I got to the event, and on the event agenda there’s a pitch session. It was very small – about a dozen or so executives – but it was executives that wanted Latino content. I thought “I’m going to go pitch VICTORIOSO,”  even though I didn’t have anything to show them and I wasn’t ready. The opportunity presented itself. I pitched it over and over to every executive and they all loved it. They were all like “let me read it” and I said “sure I’ll send it to you” even though we hadn’t even written it!  

Scarlett: You initially had an outline of the script?

Paola: It was a very weak outline. It wasn’t even a full page outline. It was just thoughts! But because it had been percolating in my head for so long, I felt confident pitching it. So I called Christian and told him I pitched the project and there are some executives who want to read the script, and we need to write it! He didn’t have the time, and was super busy, and I said “I’ll write it for us. Don’t even worry about it and we can figure it out later.” I wrote the pilot in 2-3 weeks. I sent it to the executives, and some of them offered great feedback, but it didn’t really go anywhere. And then at some point I lost my job in the VR company because they lost investment funding.

Scarlett: I’d like to share a personal experience. I recall years ago attending a pitching event in Los Angeles. I was so green and so nervous about pitching my script to an executive. I had never done it before and was shaking in my boots, but trying to remain composed. I signed up to pitch for a few sessions with production companies. I remember sitting at a small table and reading my pitch that I wrote on an index card. The executive compassionately said “Ok. I was in your shoes a year ago. Put down the index card and tell me why you wrote the script,” and once I put the index card down I opened up. I could talk about my script candidly with conviction, and he smiled and said “This is how you pitch it.” The next executive I pitched to at the event requested a copy of my script to read. How do you pitch successfully?

Paola: I think the first thing is that I always memorize my loglines. That doesn’t mean word for word. Anytime I’m creating scenes, I’m thinking “what is the story I’m trying to tell,” and that’s my logline. What is the struggle, and what is the thing that will hook people week after week. Throughout my process I know that really well, so when it’s time to pitch I already know it. I don’t need to have it written down, and if I run into someone in an elevator I can pitch it. The other thing is the personal connection. Talk about something on a personal level – like for me it’s what it means to be a brown immigrant trying to achieve the white American dream. Really knowing your themes and what you’re creating, and then establish that personal connection. I hope everyone has a personal connection to what they are writing; otherwise why are you writing it?

Scarlett: Yeah because it’s an investment of your time. It’s certainly not for a paycheck because most screenwriters aren’t getting paid to write it. For me you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. I volunteered at a book conference a few months ago in San Francisco. I was standing by all of the writers that signed up to pitch their books to all of these agents. I can’t tell you how many people I saw with a piece of paper reading their pitch to agents. When you’re pitching you want to make eye contact and tell just enough to entice a studio exec to read more, and request to read your script. It’s an art for sure!

Paola: I think what people forget is that if you’re looking down at a piece of paper and not making eye contact, then the person in front of you can’t really sense your enthusiasm or passion for the story. You really need that to sell. If you’re pitching a comedy idea, then you need to be funny and engaging. If you’re pitching a horror then you need to be suspenseful.

Scarlett: I agree. I’m glad that I can share my experience in pitching with people so they can avoid making the same mistake. You’re an event producer at ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest, held from June 22 & 23 in Los Angeles. Tell us more about this amazing event?

Paola: I’ve been a part of ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest for 3 or 4 years. I started off as a volunteer, and soon after I joined the team. There’s seminars, classes, bootcamps – everything that happens at the ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest is meant to prepare you for pitching. We have panel discussions and talks with Academy Award-winning screenwriters. ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest is meant to either give you the tools and technique that you need to be a better pitcher, or to inspire you and help you along your career path. Throughout the years being involved with the event, I’ve made friends and even started a brunch-writing group. Every two weeks, we have brunch together and we give each other support and notes on our scripts.

Scarlett: This event is giving people the opportunity to pitch their scripts to production companies, agents, financiers, and industry professionals seeking material to option, as well as looking for writers to hire, manage, and represent. How can we maximize our time and get the most out of the event?

Paola: They give you an executive directory book on the first day of the event and the directory has the production companies and financers contact information, credit list, and what kind of projects and genres they are looking for. What I’ve done in the past is read through each page of the executive directory and identify and make a note of the production companies that are a match for my script. I’ll sign up to pitch to them or attend the events and panels where they’ll be speaking at. I suggest really preparing and using the tools that are given to you.

Scarlett: I like that because you can give yourself a roadmap, and align your script with the right people so you aren’t wasting time.

Paolo: Also, don’t miss out on the networking happy hour at the end of the event. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, I’m so tired. I pitched all day, I’m going home.” They forget that a lot of the execs will stick around and have a beer. It’s also a great opportunity to network with other writers.

Scarlett: Thank you for sharing this event with us. I can’t wait to see how your project unfolds. I know it’ll probably be on TV. I’ll be watching it on Netflix or Hulu or one of those giants.

Paolo: Can I add to bit advice to writers? Figure out what’s important to you. For me I figured out I was ethnocentric: the representation of Latinos in media is my thing, so figuring that out meant that I needed to find other people like me. What that has done for me is that I’ve joined online forums with other Latino writers. I go to a lot of Latino writer panels. Feminism is really important to me, so I joined a writing group called Chicks with Scripts. There are so many groups that I’m a part of that are specifically geared toward the things that I’m interested in, which is diversity, feminism, and Latinos. So figuring out what your thing is, and connecting with like minded individuals can really help you connect in a more meaningful way, and will elevate the caliber of your work.

Scarlett: Great advice! Finding your support system, having a way to elevate your voice, and to support other creatives is super important!

So for all the screenwriters out there or folks that want to learn how to pitch and network with other writers and studio executives don’t miss this year’s ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest, held from June 22 & 23, in Los Angeles.

ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest is also giving our readers and the WFilm community 10% off admission. Use discount code WFilm10 at www.ScriptFest/The Great American PitchFest.com. Buy your tickets soon because they will sell out!

Check out the full schedule here: http://scriptfest.com/home/schedule