Wages of Fear

Hollywood Via Dolorosa leads to 'Pasadena'

You can’t take the 134 Freeway to get to this Pasadena.

That’s because we’re talking about that limbo-like place where you get sent when someone “passes” on your script, pitch or client without saying so directly. It is the place where everything is a “maybe” for too long.

The way to this other Pasadena is a more painful, circuitous route, snaking through studio offices, gestating in the minds of executives, and culminating finally in a muted version of “No, we don’t want to buy your idea.”

The alternative to this waffling, of course, is to say “no” right away. But who wants to offend?Hey, we’ve all been there. But with the holidays approaching, wouldn’t it be nice to have a cheat sheet to translate the messages these people are trying to send you — and spend that extra time gift shopping instead of waiting by the phone? That way, you’ll know your project is dead weeks before the junior flunky calls you with the bad news.

Here, then, are 10 standard “pass” lines that, in no particular order, might help you figure out where you really stand:

1) “It’s just too smart for the room.”

This is the biggest back-handed compliment you’ll ever be given, so be thankful when it comes along even if there’s no check attached. No, it doesn’t mean the exec didn’t understand the material. It just means his no-neck bosses will think he’s a flake if he admits he does.

And no, it’s not an invitation to “dumb it down”; that’ll just embarrass you both.

2) “You know, period pieces are really hard for this studio right now.”

Since when were they easy? This line is almost certain death, since it means the exec has no clue about history, or that you can’t get Mel to suit up and paint his face again. What’s the matter with you, anyway? Why don’t you write a nice teen slasher movie like the other kids?

3) “I liked it, I just didn’t love it.”

Hey, who does? Just buy it, OK? You might get a stay of execution here, since the exec is giving you a little sugar. But hurry.

4) “We already have something similar in development.”

This is a convenient all-purpose pass, even if you tried to sell them something as specific as Tuareg tribesmen going undercover as high school cheerleaders. The only thing you can do here is ask what the competing project is and hope to nail them when they fail to remember its title. Still doesn’t get you paid, though.

5) “Too big/ too small.”

The equivalent of a heat-seeking Exocet missile that will kill you no matter what you’re hawking. “If the idea you don’t like is a big movie, you tell them you’re looking for something small,” a producer says. “If it’s small, say you want something big.” Of course, if it’s right in the middle, that’s wrong, too, and “it doesn’t know what it is.” Sorry, not much wiggle room here. Go shopping.

6) “You know, what this needs is a piece of talent.”

You’re the sucker expected to provide that; they won’t go package it themselves. This is a variation on “actors will love this” or “this is all about the execution.” Straight translation: It’s too weak to stand on its own, and we don’t want to waste the energy trying to fix it.

7) “Really well told.”

Ouch. If you’ve pitched your heart out and get this classic line (usually delivered with a somber nod, like they’re already eulogizing your project), you’re so dead you may as well stay in the casket. Drive straight to the Smokehouse and have a martini. Have another. Don’t wait for the phone to ring.

8) “We’re not really buying romantic comedies right now.”

This pass is even more frustrating if the company you’re selling to has lots of soft-light, dreamy posters in its front office. Of course that’s what they’re buying, just not yours, apparently. Another version of this is having an exec with lots of explosions and car chases on his resume telling you, “I’m trying not to do action.” Unless you can change your entire pitch on the spot, move on.

9) “We’ll talk about this among ourselves.”

If you can remove the ice pick from your chest by yourself, go ahead. You’re getting no love from this office. The flip side is when they ask, “Who else have you taken this to?” or “What’s your quote?” which means you have a window of opportunity.

10) “There’s a movie in there somewhere.”

And they don’t want to go looking for it. Scram.

All of the above may be followed by the patronizing “Let’s keep trying” or “We’ll find something to do together,” which roughly means “I haven’t bought anything from you in years, so quit sending me stuff until it gets better.”

The joke here is that everyone in the game can smell a loser instantly.

“As soon as I walk into the room I know if I’m dead,” said one veteran producer who described the rest of the meeting as a waste of time. “I can tell from the body language.”

A mini-major mogul on the other side of the table agreed. “I had a meeting today where I knew within 45 seconds that it was a pass,” he said. “For the next 25 minutes I thought of a way to get out of the room.”

It’s the rare meeting when you get the cold water poured on you without hesitation, and most find it oddly bracing.

“Sometimes, it’s such a pass that it’s Altadena,” recalls one producer who has been trying for years to get a straight answer. “There was only one exec who ever passed on a project in the room, and she did it with such grace that it was OK,” he recalled.

I worked for someone who did that, too, but in that case, the writers got annoyed at the bluntness. It was almost as if they expected to be let down easy. So I guess you can’t win either way.

But at least you can duck the next time they throw you the car keys and tell you to drive to … well, you know where.