HEATHER HALE is a film and television director, screenwriter and producer with over 60 hours of credits including writing the $5.5 million dollar Lifetime Original Movie The Courage to Love (2000) which starred Vanessa Williams, Stacy Keach, Gil Bellows and Diahann Carroll; directing, producing and co-writing the million dollar feature Absolute Killers (2011), producing the television talk show Lifestyle Magazine and writing a couple of PBS Edutainment series that both won Emmys.
Heather has written two entertainment industry books: Story$elling: How to Develop, Market and Pitch Film & TV Projects (2019, Michael Wiese Productions) and How to Work the Film & TV Markets: A Guide for Content Creators (2017, Focal Press/Routledge). She speaks all around the world on Film & TV topics. We spoke recently about her new book, what stories travel, and all of her favorite cinematic moments!
Order Heather's book here. Remember to visit her website which includes her 277 favorite films.
Dave Watson: Congratulations on a wonderful book. How did this come about?
Heather Hale: Thank you! When I wrote How to Work the Film & TV Markets, that was such an exhaustive book about how to prepare for and navigate the circuit of trade events and all the players you encounter on the market floors, there just wasn’t sufficient space to do justice to the development of all the marketing materials and the verbal pitch. They clearly deserved their whole own book. I’d never seen a book on pitch packages, series bibles, sizzle reels and rip-o-matics, yet everyone I knew was scrambling, hit or miss, to cobble together effective marketing materials. So, I researched and wrote the book we all needed.
DW: The book strikes me as balanced: crafting a story, a pitch, and then navigating the production landscape. Was this what you set out to do when you started writing?
HH: Thank you. I set out to detail the reality of selling stories in today’s marketplace. What’s expected of you, the pieces of the puzzle you should have at the ready in your arsenal and how to create those deliverables. And a theme emerged: the development, marketing and pitching processes criss-cross and overlap, back and forth, almost like a braided infinity loop. If you’re smart, StoryTelling and Story$elling inform one another in a beautiful, ongoing, self-adjusting dance.
DW: You discuss marketing components. Are these as vital as those of storytelling? Do they drive each other in marketing campaigns?
HH: Yes and no. The artist in me wants to say no. Of course not. But the producer in me knows that’s not the case. The best story will never be heard or get out there if its logline, verbal pitch or marketing materials don’t do it justice - and engage the interest of the prospect. It’s SO HARD to make a blip in the din that is this marketplace - both getting the interest of buyers and financiers - THEN the actual viewing public. The more crystal clear your marketing vision is, the easier it is for you to hand it off to people with greater resources to run with the ball in the direction you intended.
DW: Does pitching and marketing long form, such as TV series, differ much from that of a feature film? How?
HH: Yes and no. They both derive from character and plot, story and theme. But feature films are usually close-ended - but now we have endless franchises. And TV series are typically serial or procedural - but we increasingly have limited or close-ended series. Some projects could be executed in either format, but the heart - and art - of the pitch is the same: engage your listener (or reader) emotionally. Even with a TV series, you often pitch the pilot cause that’s their point of entry, even though you are selling the arc of the whole show.
DW: I heard recently that Pitchfest, formerly in L.A., is not happening any more, that people are marketing with short films shot on, say, a phone. Is this a new kind of marketing tool?
HH: There will always be pitch fests. In some fashion. Whether in-person on market floors, at writers’ conferences, film festivals, TV events, charity competitions or email and video pitches via online platforms.
Short films as trailers, proof of concept, sizzle or talent reels, rip-o-matics or animatics are not new strategies - we just have a plethora of new tools and technology available to us today. The barriers to entry are plummeting. Not to date myself but it’s painfully true: when I started out, the average screenwriter trying to break in could never even imagine affording a big film camera - much less all the lenses, celluloid film stock and editing equipment. Ignoring the learning curve, it was just too cost prohibitive.
Those barriers to entry have plummeted. We have the technology of the first rockets in our pockets now. All industries have been revolutionized by expressive and connective media technology. People break in in new ways every day. All the new streaming outlets and screening opportunities. A kid could literally animate something at home and get it global in a few hours. That’s mind boggling.
So, there’s no right or wrong way to do anything - do whatever works. Whatever you can.
DW: If people write a good enough story and characters, do you find the story sells itself?
HH: (Laughing) Don’t we all wish! Unfortunately, some of the best works never get discovered and plenty of marginal or unworthy projects get made. Partly as a result of the right outlets being inundated and the lucky few benefitting from relationships or privilege. If only we lived in a fair meritocracy. But that doesn’t exist. At least not in Hollywood. Or really anywhere in the world today. If you know where, let me know! Our house is on the market - we’re ready to move there!
DW: What’s next for you?
HH: I’m attached to direct a couple of features that are seeking financing and a few TV shows in development. A couple of options, shopping agreements - you know the drill. And I’m always writing, writing, writing more. One project is a really fun sitcom we’re updating in creative new ways for burgeoning new streaming mandates. Two are based on Dell paperback Westerns that could be either two seasons of an anthology or two distinct limited series. Of course, I consult, teach and speak a lot. I’m a writer-for-hire. My boyfriend and I are looking to build a small indie studio and are looking for opportunities to move to another state.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment?
HH: Oh wow! What a wonderful question! A million come to mind! (Laughing) If you want just one, I’d have to say the opera playing over the prison yard scene from my favorite movie, The Shawshank Redemption. If ever the uplifting power of hope and beauty have been personified on screen, it’s in that moment.
Clip: The Shawshank Redemption
There are also some runners up:
Pretty much the whole movie of Waking Ned Devine. Specific highlights that leap to mind are Michael's naked motorcycle ride to beat the lottery inspector getting to Ned Devine’s house and the telephone booth accident.
The unraveling scene in Shakespeare in Love.
The Ice sculpting scene in Groundhog Day.
Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise teaching Thelma (Geena Davis) in the hotel how to commit armed robbery on the bed with the blow dryer as his gun.
Huge Spoiler Alert: A final scene in Primal Fear.
The whole movies of The Prestige, Big Fish, The Greatest Showman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Beautiful Mind…I could go on and on!
Then there are my Favorite Lines of Dialogue:
Jodi Foster’s response to “How do you know?” in Sommersby: "I never loved him like I love you!” and in Contact: “You shoulda sent a poet!”
Andy Garcia’s answer to “Why didn’t you tell me?” In The Man From Elysian Fields.
The Last of the Mohicans: "Stay alive! I will find you!"
A final thought is my parents used to call me every week to get recommendations for what movies to see at the Cinema. When Netflix came out, I bought them a subscription and filled their queue with what I thought were going to be my top ten films. I “narrowed” it down to 281. If you’re interested, that list that desperately needs to be updated is still on my blog: https://heatherhale.com/277-favorite-films.
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.