Assistants pitching ideas throws biz a curve

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Last month, Ben Dey, an assistant working in the mailroom at CAA, leaped several rungs on the Hollywood ladder by successfully pitching an idea for a comedy to producer Brian Grazer. The sale came about because the Imagine Entertainment executive visits CAA once a year for a lunchtime meeting in which he entertains assistants' pitches.

Throughout the industry, Dey's fellow assistants responded with cheers, as one of their own managed to grab the brass ring. But in some places, eyebrows were raised. It was almost as if "Entourage's" Ari Gold had suddenly allowed his assistant, Lloyd, to ignore the phones so that he could be free to toss a screenplay idea or two to Ari's client Vincent Chase -- not something Ari would ever do.

At a number of agencies, employees are wondering why Grazer doesn't come to them for pitches or why their workplace doesn't have anything like the CAA program. Still other agencies question the wisdom of letting assistants pitch to producers and studios, in effect allowing call rollers and mailroom clerks to compete with its writer clients.

"We're not having our trainees pitch Judd Apatow; we're preparing them to represent Judd Apatow the best way possible in the future," said UTA partner Andrew Cannava, who heads that agency's trainee program, which was started by partner Jeremy Zimmer.

UTA's program resembles most of the agency programs, where the focus is on molding the perfect agent and not encouraging the inner screenwriter.

That is not the case at CAA. The Century City agency has been running an unpublicized program for several years in which clients come in for a lunchtime confab, organized by head of lit Jon Levin and agent Chris Lawson. In addition to Grazer, others Hollywood figures known to have solicited assistant pitches include Hilary Swank, William H. Macy, Rob Schneider and producer Michael Fleiss. CAA declined comment about its trainee pitch program.

Those who have participated in the round table describe it as somewhat daunting and unpredictable.

"You'll be sitting at this big table with the client, you'll have a bite of chicken cacciatore and (Levin) will go, 'OK, you're next,' " one former assistant said.

The program is designed to get the assistants thinking fast on their feet so they won't be afraid to throw out ideas that might be shot down. Ideally, it also generates projects for clients, as was the case when Grazer bought Dey's pitch, "Coma Boy," and writer Kim Barker was brought in to handle the screenplay.

It is rare that an idea actually takes flight like that, though those with knowledge of the program said that "My Best Friend's Wedding" also came out of a lunchtime pitch session.Because no one ever really knows where the next big idea might come from, there are those who consider it smart business to dip into the assistants pool.

"There's a whole bunch of ideas that are untapped," said one agent whose firm does not have such a program.

Added another agency source: "That makes sense. But if trainees are in competition with clients, that's really stupid."

WMA is another agency where assistants have pitched to clients -- at an annual event called Pitchfest. Designed to get trainees more involved with clients, it allows them to practice pitching ideas to talent.

Last year, WMA assistants pitched to writer-producers Jay Lavender and Jeremy Garelick. This year, they aimed their ideas at Ice Cube's CubeVision, which responded to two ideas that are now in development. With the rising popularity of Pitchfest, the WMA trainee committee is hoping to make it a twice-yearly event.

Endeavor, ICM and Paradigm do not let assistants pitch their A-list producing and talent clients.

Ian Greenstein, who heads Paradigm's trainee program, said his batch of about six assistants are not looking to be writers. "It's very important to us that they be focused on becoming agents," he said. "They have the complete support and involvement from every single agent in the company, and we see them as the future stars of Paradigm."

Formal pitch sessions aside, many agencies, production companies and studios do have weekly lunches for their assistants where producers, writers and execs speak. Some agencies host seminars about pitching and negotiating. ICM, in the middle of revamping its trainee program, even pays dues to certain professional organizations on behalf of its trainees.

Outside the agency world, there are other companies that encourage employees to come forward with ideas. The practice is especially popular within the animation studios.

Disney Feature Animation used to have an idea generator called "The Gong Show," at which any member of the department could have three to five minutes to put forth an idea directly before top execs. The first "Gong Show" was held in 1985 under the auspices of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and out of the tradition came "Oliver," "Little Mermaid" (which originally was shot down) and "Treasure Planet." "Pocahontas" also originated from a "Gong Show" meeting. The program was shelved about four years ago.

Disney now has a "shorts" club where anyone from a secretary to the highest management exec can access a computer and make a five-minute cartoon in off-hours. Disney-owned Pixar Animation Studios encourages its employees to take filmmaking classes on how to make short films.

Sony Pictures Animation also takes regular pitches from staff, including assistants.

Elsewhere, individual producers and execs often encourage assistants to toss ideas their way. But that doesn't mean assistants are always ready to put themselves on the line.

"It's a good idea (to pitch), but it depends on the relationship," one studio assistant said. "You don't want to be shot down and be known as the bad-idea guy. It's already a high-stress relationship, and you don't want to unnecessarily add more fuel to that fire."
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