Development Executive Christina Sibul: Hollywood “Flyy Girl” With 20 Successful Years Under Her Belt on How to Pitch an Idea
•From Novel to Academy: How Sibul helped turn Sideways into an Oscar-winning hit
•Development Exec talks helping Paul Giamatti, who disliked auditioned on tape, land breakout role in Sidways
•Whether your project is TV, film, drama, or comedy, Sibul shares the secrets to a winning pitch
•Film festivals versus ‘going viral’: career advice on the things you should be doing to establish your career
•Hollywood development programs that maximize your creative exposure and help leverage credibility
“This is the thing about the film industry, there is never one right way to do anything. The people that break the rules tend to get ahead. You kind of have to be the rule breaker and the disruptor and you can’t be the rule follower because it’s just going to get frustrating.” –Christina Sibul
These are words from Production and Development Executive Christina Sibul, a mercenary gun-for-hire who can take a film from caterpillar to butterfly. Christina has been responsible for some of the best films of the last 20 years, including the 2004 Academy Award winning film Sideways, a project that took eight years of tirelessly work, including Christina fighting for Paul Giamatti to be the lead. Christina had read the novel that the film is based on, and as she turned page after page, the only voice she could hear reading the prose was that of Giamatti.
It’s that type of intuitive creative spirit – and genius – that has made Christina, a Yale School of Drama graduate (and Teaching Fellow honoree) and Adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, the ultimate “mommy mogul” when it comes to the “conceiving” of a major motion picture and delivering a memorable and moving experience for audiences.
Christina also previously served as Production Executive on House of Sand and Fog, Thirteen, and 40 Days and 40 Nights and also honed her talents for spotting talent as a Casting Director for Elissa Myers, a Literary Producer at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Additionally, Christina worked as a Literary Manager at Women’s Project and Productions, the country’s oldest and largest company dedicated to producing and promoting theater created by women.
From finding the perfect screenplay and attaching the right talent to maximizing a film’s potential through every avenue possible, this creative producer cares about more than just the bottom line. Christina’s first instinct it to ask herself: Why should a film be made?
While most of our articles and interviews are based on advice regarding how to get in the industry from creatives who have ran the race as actors, writers, producers, composers, etc., the words of wisdom in this piece come directly from one of Hollywood’s gatekeepers. This is seasoned, expert advice on how to navigate the uneasy waters of the film business from the inside out.
As an added bonus, Christina gives us exclusive, inside scoop on the film adaptation of the popular Omar Tyree novel Flyy Girl.
The film is produced by Effie Brown. Flyy Girl, which stars Sanaa Lathan (who also serves as one of the film’s Executive Producers), is a coming of age tale of a young woman steeped in the fast-moving and explosive world of gratuitous sex and violence set against the backdrop of the 80s hip hop era.
This is just a small preview of what Christina had to say, so here’s our full conversation that will hopefully help turn you into a ‘rule-breaker’ and deal-maker in Hollywood.
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Q&A: HOW TO PITCH AN IDEA WITH CHRISTINA SIBUL:
RB: You have been credited for everything from Casting Associate to Production Consultant, but how would you personally describe your role in the industry when it comes to how to pitch an idea?
CS: I am a career production and Development Executive. I tend to do that as both a full time employee and as a Consultant. I’ve been production company based for most of my life, so my joke is that I’ve produced a lot of movies for other producers, and that’s what I do as a Production and Development Executive. I put the films together and oversee the development and production process for bigger producers or a production entity. My main account was working in development at Codeblack over at Lionsgate. If they had a book or script that they were interested in, I would oversee the development process. I also work with a lot of independent writers and filmmakers. Being a parent, I’m like a gun for hire. Codeblack was a huge gift to me because Lionsgate allowed me to work from home for the most part, and I would just go in for meetings and pitches.
If they have a book or script that they’re interested in, I’ll put together the production process. I also work with a lot of independent writers and filmmakers. Being a parent, I’m like a gun for hire. Codeblack has been a huge gift to me because Lionsgate allows me to work from home for the most part, and I just go in for meetings and pitches.
RB: So is it safe to say you are the “Mom” on these projects?
CS: Yes, exactly. That’s my point of view on producing. You’re trying to make sure that everyone plays well together and that your project is growing up to be the best human it possibly can be. Yeah, you sort of “Mom” it into existence.
RB: You worked on the Oscar winning film Sideways. The film is based on the novel written by Rex Pickett, how important was ‘staying true’ to the novel?
CS: I’ve done a lot of adaptations from book to film. In my mind, Sideways – the film – stays incredibly true to the spirit of the book. The film utilizes the same structure of the book, so the book itself was a really good template for a film. I’ve had other books that were more resistant. When we work from an IP [intellectual property] or a book, we really have to think about whom the book’s audience is, and we try to serve that audience. In the case of Sideways, it was an unpublished book, so we didn’t have to serve an audience.
RB: How did you get into the film industry and at what point in your career did Sideways enter the picture?
CS: A lot of my contacts, in terms of going forward in the industry, came from going to graduate school. I started working in New York as a Casting Director and that’s why I have credits as a Casting Associate. I was doing a lot of regional theatre casting on and off Broadway and some independent film.
Everything I was doing could easily translate to the film industry, finding writers, casting, drawing in an audience, and building projects. I moved to LA on a whim, and I honestly stumbled into my first development job with Michael London, he’s a producer whose company is now Groundswell Productions. I started in right away, and the first project I ever touched was a book called Sideways. Michael had me read the first few chapters of it, and I started doing a casting list for the two leads, and this was probably eight years before the movie started shooting.
What I love about the casting list for the two leads is that the people we eventually casted were on those lists. I remember putting Paul Giamatti on the list and telling Michael, “you don’t know this guy yet, but I went to graduate school with him, and he’s phenomenally talented and when I read the book, it was Paul’s voice reading it to me in my head”.
I told Alexander Payne (the Writer/Director) the same story when we got to casting. Alexander didn’t want to go to New York to meet Paul; Paul didn’t want to come out to LA to meet Alexander, and he didn’t want to put himself on tape because he had never successfully auditioned on tape before. I was nine months pregnant at the time and hormonal, and I remember crying to Alexander about the whole situation and telling him that Paul was his ‘Miles’; and he was the one I heard in my head the whole time. Alexander finally said, “ok, I’m going to go to New York, and I’m going to meet this ‘Giamatti’ character just to shut this pregnant woman up.” [Giamatti’s performance in Sideways won him Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and received a nomination for the Golden Globes and Academy Awards.]
I started with Michael London a long time ago; he’s a really great producer and we think really similarly about stories, so it taught me a lot about the film industry, while working for him. I was taking a chance, because he was an independent producer without a deal, I would go to his house everyday to work, and I didn’t know if I was going to have a steady paycheck, but the projects were really good. The work that we did together was really good, and that got me started in a really ‘real’ way.
RB: Did you originally want to be on the creative side, or was being an Executive – and pitching an idea or being pitched to – always the goal?
CS: Producing is entirely creative. It’s sort of like being a psychologist for a project: You listen to the filmmaker; you listen to the project; you try to figure out exactly where it should go and what it wants to be. That’s the part of the process that I really respond to: The creative development.
RB: What do you think is more beneficial, going to school to be in the film industry or jumping on sets and getting real world experience?
CS: It depends on what you want to do, and you have to remember that we have long lives. You don’t have to make a decision at 18. I think there’s a huge validity to just going out and living life. If you’re going to be a creative filmmaker, like a writer or director, you need experience and understanding about people and the world. You need to go out and live and make mistakes, work in other industries, and figure out how to get along with people.
I’m not an advocate of ‘set’ or school, I’m an advocate of life. Sometimes school will give you a chance to live a little bit more, or sometimes being on set will give you an opportunity to live a little bit more. Just be open, because you can always go back to school, and you can always go back to being on set.
RB: In mastering how to pitch an idea, this has become a huge part for any Writer or Director who wants to get their films made. Can you share with us what goes into a knockout pitch – from your side of the table?
CS: What goes into a great pitch is realizing that you’re always going be the person that is the most enthusiastic about your project. You’ve got to will it into existence, so the purpose of the pitch is to convince the rest of the room that your project is as compelling and amazing and world changing as you believe it to be.
Every pitch is essentially an argument that you put out in front of people of why this piece will work, and why it’s important. I believe a lot in this idea that there has to be a “why” behind the stories that we tell; there has to be a reason for it. It doesn’t have to be high art, but I do believe there has to be a reason behind why we tell the stories that we do.
For me, what sets up a really great pitch is to come at it with that personal love and fierceness. When you’re in the room, you’re not just selling your project; you’re selling your own passion, ability, and organization. No matter what you have to sell, the idea is that ” I can do this, I can get this done”. If you’re pitching a comedy, there better be laughs in the room; if I’m pitching a drama, I want to get you to cry. A pitch has as much to do with how you present yourself in the room as your project.
You have to be engaging, winning, and have a sense of confidence and ability. Show that and have a level of personal investment.
RB: How long is too long for a pitch?
CS: I believe that you can outline any story in less than ten minutes. In general you get about a half an hour in the room, and that’s going to be eaten up by chitchat, and you want to leave time for questions.
A TV show is going to take a lot longer to pitch as opposed to a feature film.
If it’s a comedy, there is no reason the pitch should go over 15 minutes, after that it stops being funny. Dramas take a little longer, but still 15 minutes is what you want to shoot for. The reality is that we have increasingly short attention spans.
RB: You’ve probably seen thousands of scripts that have never see the light of day. In your opinion, what’s the #1 reason that a screenplay doesn’t make it to production? Does it circle back to not properly pitching an idea?
CS: Marketing. We are increasingly driven by the idea of what sells in terms of larger filmmaking. I think this is actually a great moment for independent film because there is a lot more room for smaller, specialized markets. [Click here to read more about the rise of independent films.]
A lot of times, movies don’t make it because scripts become out of scale with how we can market them. I think good scripts don’t make it because there’s not enough passion behind the work. Sometimes the scripts are just bad; I think that’s because there wasn’t enough care before they had gone out.
You have to realize that you only get one read from people and you have to respect that. We’re not going to read it a second time, even if you’ve done a rewrite. If it didn’t work the first time, you’ve probably blew your chance. [Click here for common screenwriting mistakes.]
Before you send something out, have a circle of readers that can give you honest feedback; make sure it’s been totally proofread with no spelling errors or stupid mistakes; and make sure you’ve got a good, tight story that you believe in. Sometimes, I think we get in a rush to send our scripts out because we want our voice to be heard, but we’re not being efficient like that. We have to hone what we’re doing before we send it to the rest of the world.
RB: What’s the best scenario for a young director right now, winning a film festival, or going viral?
CS: Either one could be an incredibly good path to success. If you’re a comedic filmmaker and you focus more on short form comedy, you’ll probably be more successful if you go viral.
By the way, before you put a short film out there, you should always have what you want ‘to do next’ ready and in hand. If you put a short film out, and it takes flight, it should create the argument for you as a Director for that next long form piece.
If you’re a dramatic filmmaker, a festival will help you a lot more. You have to know what kind of filmmaker you want to be.
RB: You’re a Development Executive on the upcoming film Flyy Girl, which is based on an Omar Tyree novel. That book has a big fan base. How close do you expect the film to be to that book?
CS: It’s been three years of my life. We deeply want to serve the fan base of the Omar Tyree trilogy; we want to do all three of the books. I love the book Flyy Girl, it has a level of depth and resonance with this idea of a girl growing up in north Philly and surviving her own childhood. It tells a perspective of black life that we don’t always see. We always see rich or poor, but we never see normal.
We deeply want to embrace the fans of the book, because that is an army, and we want that army on our side. Effie Brown is producing it, and she is amazing and has been fighting really hard to get the book heard in terms of really understanding what the book has to say.
RB: Will the film be shot on location in Philly?
CS: I hope so. We talked about that a couple of times, and Effie and I both want that. The neighborhoods look the same. We’re still trying to solve the puzzle but we’re getting there.
RB: How do aspiring Writers or Directors get on the radar of someone like you, when it comes to putting a film together and they’re ready to ask themselves the question: How pitch an idea that, in turn, becomes sellable?
CS: Buy a piece of work that popped, or some agency or management. A lot of times it’s a commercial, a short film, something that’s at the top of a YouTube feed.
Another way is an introduction. Someone will ask me to check out a new filmmaker’s work. As a Director or Writer, you have to keep working. If I meet you at a coffee shop, and you say you’re a Director, you better have a site with work or be able to send me something.
I also believe in the talent development programs, like AFI’s Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women, Film Independent Program, and Sundance labs. Programs like that give you exposure and give you credibility.
In the industry we’re always looking for projects that other people have put their stamp of approval on. You have to keep shaking the tree, if you get into a film festival, go and network. You are in control of your own destiny.
RB: Is passion the only way for original ideas to become major motion pictures?
CS: This is the thing about the film Industry: There is never one right way to do anything. The people that break the rules tend to get ahead. You kind of have to be the rule-breaker and the disruptor, and you can’t be the “rule follower”, because it’s just going to get frustrating. There’s no rule, just make sure whatever you’re pitching is good and you believe in it. Once that happens, every possibility is available.
It’s easy to think that producers want to steal our ideas as Writers and Directors, and turn them into shells of themselves that only serve as moneymakers, but Christina Sibul dismisses the fears that many young, Hollywood hopefuls can tend to sometimes have.
Every project needs a tireless, fearless leader who understands its wants and needs as if it were an infant child ready to stand on its own two legs that carry with it a limitless, self-assured potential.
A gimmick, a marketing strategy, or a special Hollywood connection isn’t the path to clear-cut, real success… it’s passion, passion always wins.