'Cloggers' creator dances up a pitch

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Can an unknown actress-turned-writer dance her way to stardom?

That was the dream Julia Fowler harbored last week, standing on the roof of a parking structure on the edge of Beverly Hills with a view of the Hollywood sign.

As she prepared with a series of quick stretches for what would be an unorthodox pitch session, several casually dressed executives gathered in front of a makeshift black floor measuring 20 feet by 14 feet.

Fowler watched as one of her three producers began her introductory spiel. Five years of struggling as an actress had led Fowler to this, a weeklong series of pitch meetings designed to win her — a la Sylvester Stallone and "Rocky," Billy Bob Thornton and "Sling Blade," Nia Vardalos and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" — the lead role in a movie that she had written.

"This'll be memorable, if nothing else," whispered one seen-it-all exec. (The company where this particular version of the pitch took place declined to be named.)

Fowler stepped forward onto the unconventional dance floor, and she and a group of costumed dancers exploded into stomping and hopping. The floor of the structure vibrated as if an earthquake were hitting the city. First, the execs' jaws dropped, and then they broke into smiles.

"Possum Trot Cloggers" is the name of the project for which Fowler hoped to drum up interest. A romantic comedy set in the world of competitive clogging, it has Howard Deutch attached to direct with "North Country" executive producer Helen Bartlett, "Flyboys" director Tony Bill and TV movie producer Diane Sokolow all on board to produce.

The project was under option to New Line Cinema, which, after deciding not to go forward with the project, let the producers seek a new home for it. The producers and director — who believed in their writer-star even before she aced a screen test at New Line — strategized with their agents at ICM on how best to sell a project about a world mostly unknown to those west of Highland Avenue. The result was a 30-minute pitch that included several dance numbers both traditional (set to bluegrass music) and contemporary (set to hip-hop).

The presentation rested mostly in the hands of Fowler, who hails from South Carolina, with clogging part of her background. After a stint in New York as an actress-dancer — she appeared in a Broadway production of "Annie Get Your Gun" — the performer moved to Los Angeles in 2000. But after a string of minuscule television parts — a waitress on "Titus," an instructor on "Jake in Progress" — she wasn't getting anywhere.

"I'm the person who tests for shows, but I'm always the bridesmaid and never the bride," Fowler said after the presentation. "I tested for 'The Class.' I'm the person who is one of three or four girls for everything. And I'm just not the girl who breaks through."

On those gloomier days, she blamed herself. "A lot of times I think it has to do with my Southern accent," she said. "I have a unique voice. And it's not necessarily reflective of N.Y. or L.A., and that's where you get jobs. I represent red-state America."

But, she figured, why not turn that potential weakness into a strength? So she sat down to write herself a starring role.

Fowler, Deutch, the producers and the dancers hit a number of production companies and studios last week, sometimes pitching three times a day. They visited Fox Searchlight, Lionsgate, Picturehouse, Columbia Pictures, Walden Media, Gold Circle Films, MTV, Miramax, Groundswell Prods. and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment. They performed in boardrooms, lobbies, vestibules, even an art gallery. Dancers changed in cramped bathrooms and stairwells.

At the Columbia meeting, said Deutch, the pitch proved something of a siren song, attracting a circle of curious execs from neighboring offices. "All they are used to is conference calls and budgets," he said. "It was funny and amazing to see all these people there."

In the case of "Cloggers," the producers and agents felt that because very few Hollywood people were familiar with clogging, a presentation was the best way to go.

"Sometimes people think the dancers wear wooden shoes," Sokolow said. Added Bartlett, "This is to give the script context — so when they get to the part in the script where it says, 'They dance,' people have an idea what we're talking about." With this particular pitch, he said, "the power of the beat is so mesmerizing, and it grabs them."

Getting attention in Hollywood sometimes requires out-of-the-box thinking, and the recent past has seen several notable examples. In June 2005, Microsoft had its "Halo" script delivered by a small army of armored-suited characters from the video game. In the spring, execs received an elaborate bouquet of flowers worth hundreds if not thousands of dollars for "The Florist," a pitch from Ashton Kutcher and producing partner Jason Goldberg. The project landed at Columbia after heated bids. The script for "Willard" — a remake about a special and murderous rat, which would later become a New Line movie starring Crispin Glover — was sent out with a live rat in a cage.

With the presentation done, the execs were given the script to "Cloggers." Some asked Fowler and Deutch questions about budget — they anticipate working in the $12 million-$15 million range and shooting in South Carolina — and casting.

As a break from the routine of a conventional pitch meeting, the gambit was a hit. "If (the dancing) was on a DVD, I'd just pop it in and watch it while I was doing other things, like sending e-mails or reading," one executive said. "Oh yeah," his colleague agreed. "This was much better. This was cool." But all the executives acknowledged that, despite how excited they may have been, there was no guarantee of a sale. Ideally, the filmmakers would like to close a deal before the holidays.

Fowler may have gone out there a-clogging, but would she come back a star? She's waiting for that answer.
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