Film: Young persons guide to pitching

The ins and outs of a trip to the US with the First Film Foundation. By Hannah Lewis and Morag McKinnon
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The Independent Culture
AFTER SPENDING a number of years intermittently film-making and signing on in Britain, we find ourselves sitting in Mel's Diner on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and wondering how we got here.

This is week two of our whistle-stop American tour and we still look like rabbits caught in the headlights as we gaze at a landscape of billboards, Cadillacs and palms.

Both 28, we met at Edinburgh College of Art and have made three short films together - our third, Home, (scripted by our flatmate, Colin McLaren) recently won a Bafta short-film award. We have come to America through an organisation called the First Film Foundation, whose aim is to promote British talent and help film-makers get their first feature films off the ground.

This year, the First Film Foundation has brought seven short films, along with their directors, producers and one director of photography, who have the chance to meet representatives from film companies in the US. The work is showcased through screenings in New York and LA, after which meetings are set up to enable us to pitch projects we have in development.

It's worked well in the past, with Jim Gillespie going on to make I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Lynne Ramsay and Sara Sugarman having just completed their first feature films (Ramsay's Ratcatcher was a big hit at Cannes and Sugarman's Mad Cows, starring Anna Friel, is released this October).

America has developed a culture of convenience - of automatic cars, credit cards, and a button on our hotel phone which said "whatever, whenever", which we dared not press for fear of the excesses it might have provoked. This culture is in strong contrast to the film that brought us here. Home is a modest, unglamorous affair following the life of a housing officer. We had no idea how it would go down, whether it would transcend the cultural boundaries.

In fact, we were astounded by the openness of the US companies, who were more than happy to see us and hear about projects. The optimism in the US makes you feel anything is possible if you make the effort, whereas in Britain there is an overriding cynicism. Even though we have made numerous short films in the past, only since we won the Bafta does it seem that UK companies are willing to see us to talk about future projects.

The screenings themselves were quite a nerve-wracking experience, knowing that up to 200 of the most influential representatives of major US companies were judging your work. Sometimes we had up to five meetings a day, which - when they last over an hour - can be quite exhausting, coupled with the hazards of driving around an alien city.

Companies seem to enjoy labelling you. One film involved a fat person so it became The Fat Film. Ours was The Donkey Film (for reasons that will become clear when it's shown on Channel 4 next year).

For some reason it's also easier to pitch here than in England. Maybe it's because no one knows you, so it doesn't matter if you make a fool of yourself.

Stock phrases are an essential part of any meeting in America, beginning with: "I'd just like to say I really loved your film," which is initially very flattering but very soon becomes meaningless unless backed up with some insightful comments about your work.

This is when you know you've met someone with the same sensibilities and could be people you know you'd want to "get on your train" as it was put to us in New York. The stock phrases kept on flowing as the meetings progressed, with such classics as "I hear you" which seemed to imply that they understood, "Don't go there" as a humorous aside and "That's so funny" when no laughter was warranted for our lame attempts at humour.

Our favourite company was Spike Lee's 40 Acres and A Mule - they were really young and relaxed. The day after the pitch they phoned our agent and asked to see our other scripts. We've also met filmmakers on the scheme with whom we've formed good and useful friendships. Nick Love, for example, (whose film Love Story stars Patsy Palmer from EastEnders) has asked if we'd like to direct a film based on a book he wants to adapt.

And what of the future? The idea of a house in the Hollywood hills is alluring, as is the chance to make films. It's certainly a better option than endless cold nights in front of the two-bar fire talking about making films.

We did meet one British director, though, who'd been wined and dined in Hollywood, only to find, once he settled permanently, that the magic wore off and nobody bothered to talk to him. We are also aware of the fine calibre of British film-making. Indeed it may be because it's more difficult to get films made here that the standards, out of necessity, must be higher.

All said, it's true that each culture has something to learn from the other, but the one thing we hope to maintain is that sense of optimism.We found a piece of graffiti in New York which summed it up: "The infinite is possible because it exists as a possibility every day, every second. Life is easy if easy if I'm positive, it sucks if I say so". Kind of different from "Nobby from Croydon woz ere".