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The Pitch Guy

Some people carve out a career writing screenplays. Others get rich bringing them to life onscreen. Then there’s Robert Kosberg. His specialty? Ideas

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

David, a screenwriter, got a call from his agent. “Congratulations,” she said. “I guess you’ve made it. You finally hit a Kosberg.”

There was a pause. When he realized she was waiting for his response, David said the only words he could think of: “What’s a Kosberg?” “Oh, my God,” said the agent. “You’ve never heard of Kosberg? You don’t know Bob Kosberg?”

In the byzantine byways of Hollywood, there may be some at the very top or very bottom who have never heard of Kosberg. In between, though, almost everyone knows or knows of Robert Kosberg, the man who has probably sold more one-sentence pitches to the entertainment industry than anyone in the history of movies or TV.

“I am the pitch king,” says Bob Kosberg with a satisfied grin. “The king of pitch. It’s a faculty. I know how to find a story, summarize it succinctly, and tell it entertainingly. I can do it in one sentence.” He leans forward, his manner intimate, excited: “Turns out, the Wicked Witch didn’t melt. She’s been in Munchkin jail, she’s extremely pissed off, and now she’s coming to New York to get her slippers back.”

His narrow brown eyes scan my face. I don’t know what my expression is, some combination of “That’s two sentences” and “I don’t want to see that movie.” But Kosberg is not deterred. He leans back and folds his arms. “You have to have a certain kind of ego to step into their offices and tell them your stories,” he continues. “I do it with confidence. I know if they don’t like one of my stories, there’s a good chance I’ll sell it elsewhere. I know my ideas are good because I’ve sold so many of them…. I could pitch an idea that people don’t like 25 times, but on the 26th try—I’m a genius. It’s all about perseverance.”

Though a member of the Writers Guild, Kosberg learned long ago he had no desire to write scripts. If a project he touches should make it to the screen, Kosberg will take a producer or executive producer credit as well as a second, much larger fee (the first comes when he sells the idea to a producing entity). But he’s not the kind of producer who shows up on set every day to defend the bottom line. He has mastered one art: finding a story that, by its nature, will decrease its odds of crashing into a stone wall—the likely fate of any project on the sadistic slalom known as development. Kosberg’s specialty helps him in these tight-money days, when few buyers are willing to hear pitches (a written script represents less risk). In his devotion to the “high-concept” idea, he has eliminated, at least for himself, the troublesome gully between art and commodity. Let others fret the gap; Kosberg is cheerfully unambivalent.

Kosberg’s résumé on IMDb, which only picks up projects that have been mentioned in the trades, doesn’t convey his unique place in the Industry. It shows nine movies in development (meaning they’ve been sold to a producing entity) and one in preproduction—The Hardy Men, in which those clean-cut teenage detectives have grown up to be slackers. Their best years behind them, the brothers probably wear stubble and argue over which one got farther with Nancy Drew way back when. The film, which has been kicking around for several years, has attached to it Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller, five words that make Kosberg’s eyes sparkle. In terms of finished work, he is credited as producer or executive producer of 14 TV movies and theatrically released films, none of them particularly memorable save for 1995’s 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam’s remake of the French short La Jetée).

Kosberg’s most recent baby is the 2009 feature My One and Only. He conceived the movie in the 1990s when, while developing features for Merv Griffin Entertainment, Kosberg met George Hamilton. As a boy Hamilton had accompanied his mother on a road trip to find a wealthy husband, a story that Kosberg liked because it was both true and high concept. “When those two things go together, you usually have a film,” he says. He thought the role of the mother could attract a top star; at the time Annette Bening expressed interest. More than a decade later the film was made with Renée Zellweger. Kosberg is, as he claims, a patient man.

Neal Israel, who wrote Police Academy, was working at Disney years ago when he first met the young Kosberg on the studio lot. “He’s very entertaining, completely infectious,” Israel says. They had lunch. “He pitched me 30 ideas in 60 minutes, a smorgasbord of pitches. It’s really like he’s pitching posters.” Over the years Kosberg and Israel developed five projects together, two of which became TV movies. “Bob absolutely loves what he does. Anyone can look at a newspaper and find five or six movie ideas. For most people the question would then be, ‘Is this a movie I would want to do?’ Kosberg wants to do them all.”

I first meet Kosberg for drinks in the plush upper lobby at L’Ermitage hotel, an unofficial office for many showbiz folk. Due to a parking issue, I am 12 minutes late, and he is waiting. Kosberg rises from his chair, accepting my handshake and apology, but he tells me he makes it a point to always be on time. Long-legged and lanky, he looks like Ted Danson with brown hair and a small mouth. His age we will not discuss, as agreed, but he appears to be a healthy fiftysomething. He wears a pressed button-down cotton shirt untucked over jeans, black suede loafers, and socks—pretty much his uniform. He projects a sincere good nature but also a hyperwatchfulness; he’s on the lookout for anything he can verbally control or influence.

“I wouldn’t mind if in the article you mention that I’ve sold projects to all of the major studios,” he says, eyeing my notepad, in the first of several directives. He’s taking me through the projects he has in development. Sherlock’s Secretary. Staycation. Santa Paws. The titles are self-explanatory, another sign of the Kosberg brand: The easier to explain, the easier to sell.

Like most men in the business, Kosberg enjoys dissecting his career and can do so for long periods without interruption. He cannot, however, muster the energy to discuss the rest of his life, at least with a journalist. I know he is married, and I try to draw him out about his family life. He grew up in Arcadia, and he remembers himself summing up movie plots for the other kids. He met his wife, Susan, at UCLA’s film school and fondly recalls that she distinguished herself by agreeing to go with him to every movie he wanted to see. I ask if there are children. “Yes, she has a son,” he says. His stepchild? “No, we have a son. I have a son. He’s my son,” says Kosberg. After a pause, I ask if he has any hobbies. “My career is my hobby. I do it all the time,” he says. Does that bother his wife? He thinks for a moment before replying, in the waggish tone of a man who has come to terms with his own faults, “She might wish I were more well rounded.”

The Pitch Guy or Idea Man has been around since Mack Sennett, that great pioneer of silent film comedy. Sennett rarely bought stories from books or magazines as other producers were doing. He and a writer, usually Vernon Smith, kicked around a plotline, and then when “a yarn was good enough,” Sennett wrote in his autobiography, they sent it to the gag room, where writers would sweat out a script on deadline. For Sennett the story was simply a vehicle for the sheer personality and charm of Mabel Normand and other Sennett stars, including, briefly, Charlie Chaplin. Mack Sennett produced movies fast, and he kept them short.

Kosberg stepped into the role of Pitch Guy almost by instinct. He was working as a producer’s assistant, flipping through the Los Angeles Times when he came upon a “Where Are They Now?” piece on a teenage boy who, in the 1940s, became known as “America’s greatest lover.” Ellsworth “Sonny Boy” Wisecarver, aka “the Woo Woo Kid,” ran away from home with an unmarried mother of two when he was 14. Wisecarver made tabloid headlines a couple of years later after he ran off with yet another older woman. As the young Kosberg read this, a giant bulb lit up over his head. He was going to find Sonny Wisecarver, and he was going to buy his story.

Hiring a private detective, Kosberg and his writing partner at the time, David Simon (not the one from The Wire), discovered Wisecarver working as a tour bus driver in Las Vegas. The fledgling producers went to see him. Wisecarver had a new young wife (“Sonny was now almost 60, but his women stayed the same age,” notes Kosberg). While she made them fresh lemonade, Kosberg offered Wisecarver an initial $500 for a six-month option on the rights to his story. America’s greatest lover accepted. Kosberg sold the project to Lorimar. It became In the Mood, a 1987 movie starring Patrick Dempsey and Beverly D’Angelo. A career was born.

Kosberg went on to land producing-writing deals at Disney, Universal, Sony, and Warner Bros. These days he runs the feature film division of Nash Entertainment, started by Bruce Nash (“If you can put in the words ‘highly successful reality producer,’ ” Kosberg says when he mentions his boss to me). He has sold Nash feature ideas to Revolution Films and to Scott Stuber’s production company at Universal. “You can say the status of both projects is that they are currently being packaged—that we’re looking for actors and a director,” he tells me. Kosberg speaks quickly and often. When he is in a pitch meeting with an executive, his eyes hungrily watch his prey, rushing to defend or even alter his story if he sees something in the executive’s face that strikes him as inattention. Kosberg does not like silences. As soon as he finishes one pitch, he is on to the next. He says he doesn’t want to waste a second of anyone’s time; he also has a fear of being boring.

On a recent Monday morning he sits down in his Sunset Gower Studios office with a “gold mine of ideas,” the Sunday New York Times. “You have to warn yourself against turning the pages too quickly,” he says, “of passing an idea by because it’s mundane or too familiar.” He peruses the front of the A section. At the bottom right is a photo of a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln in a stovepipe hat. The picture links to an inside story about an upcoming Tea Party rally, but Kosberg does not need to turn the page. “See, right away I’m wondering about guys who dress up like historical characters,” he says, smacking the paper with his hand. “They maybe live in a theme village. Now I’m thinking about a criminal dressed up as George Washington. He’s hiding from the mob, but he’s broke so he starts stealing from tourists. He’s dressed like Washington, so in the end he’s going to learn the value of honesty.” I nod, impressed. And Kosberg hasn’t fully warmed up.

In another section he spots a headline that claims the belief in reincarnation is gaining acceptance. “OK, so you’ve got a doctor who hypnotizes people to remember their past lives,” he says, picking up speed. “What if, under hypnosis, my patient tells me he worked with Al Capone? What if I think I can find out where Al Capone hid the money?” Kosberg’s already turning the page. Next he stops at an inside article about the pervasiveness of divorce. This reminds him of a friend who has a house in Venice, in which he lets several of his divorced pals live. “That could be a great movie: a halfway house for divorcés.” He puts down the paper and relates an urban myth he heard at a dinner party—that some women go to funerals in order to get a head start on dating the new widower. “But,” Kosberg asks, delighted with the coming twist, “what if the widower is a guy who killed his wife?” I check my watch. That’s four pitches in 20 minutes.

Kosberg is the cowriter of two books and a CD on how to sell pitches. People send him clippings and ideas, too. He tells me about a woman in Ozark, Arkansas, who read a Parade magazine item about a man living in the Statue of Liberty. Thinking this might make a good film, she mailed the piece to Kosberg. He loved the notion—“It’s something no one’s heard of before”—and he ended up selling the story, Keeper of the Flame, to Universal, netting the woman $10,000 (she’ll get more if the movie is made). “That’s what’s so exciting about this business,” says Kosberg, his characteristic optimism bordering now on that of a motivational speaker. “This woman made thousands of dollars by xeroxing an article. Her idea was good because she’s an outsider and not copying what everyone else is doing.”

A still undiscovered mentee of Kosberg’s is a guy named Bill Nelson, a steel parts salesman in Tampa. As a young man Nelson dreamed of being a writer. He put aside his novel when his wife became pregnant with twins. But he kept coming up with stories, several a day. Nelson searched the Internet to see if there was such a thing as a story buyer; in about ten seconds he stumbled upon moviepitch.com, Kosberg’s Web site. Not expecting much in response, Nelson sent off some of his ideas. In a few days he received a phone call from Kosberg. “He asks me to elaborate,” says Nelson, who estimates that he has gone on to send Kosberg more than 2,000 ideas in the past six years. “He’s expressed interest in about 30 of them. I might give him an idea, and three years later he calls to tell me he pitched it. One of my pitches went all the way to the head of Disney,” he says. Though they haven’t sold anything yet, Nelson obviously respects Kosberg. “He doesn’t make promises, and he’s told me nothing that’s not turned out to be true,” says Nelson. He plans to continue sending Kosberg his pitches.

That is Kosberg’s Hollywood—a Frank Capra kind of place where Everyman is welcome to participate. He is the antithesis of the smug studio executive who likes to pretend that he has special knowledge of what the hordes will pay to see. “He is willing to scour the world for people who don’t otherwise have access to Hollywood,” says Jessica Green, a development executive for producer Eric Gold (In Living Color, Scary Movie). “I don’t know anyone else who does that.” What’s more, she says, “he is adept at finding people to partner with, and he keeps on getting in doors with his pitches.”

Kosberg’s ambition is not overweening. He does not plot to rule the world. He’s content to stay on the happy middle ground he has carved out for himself, but he knows that most of his work has been ephemeral at best. When he talks about two of his favorite high-concept films, Shakespeare in Love and Tootsie, there’s a mix of admiration and yearning in his voice. “The hero becomes a better man by dressing as a woman,” he says, describing the plot as if it were his own. “What would happen if Shakespeare had writer’s block?” Should one of his ideas go through the maze and come out a delightful, fully realized confection, then life would exceed all expectations.


*****

As part of his “many irons in the fire” strategy, Kosberg often meets with writers to kick around plotlines. He recently hosted Mark C. Miller, a comedian and writer, at his office. The meeting starts, as meetings often do, with the swapping of war stories. The men laugh about the seemingly ever-decreasing age of movie executives—“fetuses in suits,” says Kosberg, quoting the late Larry Gelbart, who cowrote Tootsie. Finally Miller and Kosberg sit down to see if there’s anything they might develop together.

Miller: What two words strike fear into the hearts of every American?

Kosberg (big, encouraging smile): What?

Miller: Jury duty!

Kosberg’s smile loses wattage.

Miller: It’s 12 Angry Men as a comedy.

Kosberg: Difficult. A jury is not necessarily funny…

Miller doesn’t feel the love. He moves on.

Miller: What six words strike fear into every kid’s heart?

Kosberg (encouraging smile): What?

Miller: “Wait till your father gets home!”

Kosberg (picking up the ball): The mother says it to him. The kid spends the second act trying to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Miller: The kid gets in trouble right after his father goes off to work. The mother says it. The kid takes a bus into downtown Chicago, where his dad works, to make sure his father doesn’t get home.

Kosberg (sad): But the kid can’t do anything really mean. The first question the studios always ask is, “What makes your character sympathetic?”

Miller (moving on): A guy is the first male at Vassar, and he still can’t get laid.

Pretty soon Miller is up to eight words that strike fear in the heart of someone: “Wait until you have kids of your own.” This is a bone with meat on it. Within five minutes the men have sketched out a scenario: A mom is annoyed with her slacker son. The kid and his mother say the magic words at the same time (“You need that simultaneity for voodoo to happen,” notes Kosberg). When the kid wakes up, he’s an adult. He looks out the window, sees a swimming pool and a hot wife, and he thinks he has it made. The first words his wife utters are “Don’t forget—you’re watching the kids this weekend.” Thrown into fatherhood, he will try a looser style of parenting than he has known, then a stricter one until he finds the right balance. He inevitably is returned back to his own life, better and more forgiving. “It’s Big meets Groundhog Day,” says Kosberg. “The studios don’t want to hear something that is 100 percent original. Everything has to be wrapped in the familiar.”

Get past all the cleverness, or corniness, of a Kosbergian plot and you have a clear concept that people can latch onto. In the old days—as in, say, three years ago, when movies were easier to finance—Kosberg would go directly to the studio. These days, he says, “I spend a lot of time doing what agents and managers do,” which means he searches for a well-known actor, writer, or director willing to attach him- or herself to an idea. No real commitment is required at this stage. Next he’ll take the package to a production company, preferably one that is contracted with a studio to bring in a certain number of projects per year (which increases the odds that a studio will finance it). “I’m still doing what I always did,” he says. “I walk into a room and sell air. It’s the order of the buyers that has changed.” More than a salesman, Kosberg sees himself as a pragmatist, a person whose ideas are tailor-made to help studios boost foreign sales and help marketers sell the film to audiences. “Artists are often put in the position of begging the money people to understand their art,” says Kosberg with perhaps a touch of faux sympathy. “When there was more money, studios were willing to gamble, and that gave creative people leverage. Now the business people have the leverage. There’s a natural wall between money and creative, always has been. I bridge that wall.”

The people who produce the ultimate marketing tool—the trailer—appreciate the value of what Kosberg brings to the table. Neal Israel’s brother, Bob Israel, cofounded Aspect Ratio, one of Hollywood’s largest movie-trailer companies, and ran it for almost three decades. “The reality is that the studios look for movies that can be reduced to a 30-second TV spot,” he says. “From their point of view, what Kosberg does helps them minimize risk, and that is what they care about most.”

Not surprisingly, writers tend to be less sanguine about the Kosberg of it all. Many see him as a collaborator, a part of the Hollywood machine that undervalues an author’s skill and crushes his or her sensibility. “Kosberg’s got a bag of ideas, most of them bad, and once in a while there’s a good one,” says Jeff Lowell, who produced the sitcoms Spin City and Just Shoot Me. “He doles out too many at a time, in my opinion. I think one idea pitched passionately is the best call.” Seth Greenland, novelist and Big Love writer, concurs. He remembers meeting Kosberg for breakfast about 20 years ago. “He was pitching like a crazy man,” he says. “I couldn’t keep up with him. His ideas were all like, What if the cat exchanges brains with the mailman?” For Greenland, Kosberg is too eager to aid and abet the studio mentality. “His brain is hardwired to the multiplex,” he says. “He makes it easier for the people who see movies as shiny pieces of foil to be dangled in front of an audience of monkeys.”

If writers can have contempt for Kosberg, he is able to return the favor. “I feel sorry for people who labor a year over a script and then can’t sell it,” he says, not looking terribly sorry. “Sometimes a writer will tell me an idea he’s working on, and I’ll think, ‘You’re spending a year on that idea? Without even sounding it out, finding out what its flaws are?’ My approach is volume, volume, volume. You can pitch dozens of projects in a week, and you can only write a script a year.”

This is a message Kosberg conveys on the lecture circuit, where his convivial manner plays well. On a recent evening in a second-floor office off Melrose, he is speaking to a group of mostly young, aspiring screenwriters who belong to Harvardwood, an organization for Harvard University alumni interested in media. For the first time I notice a touch of weariness in Kosberg. Perhaps it’s all those fresh faces ready to conquer his world, or perhaps it’s the lateness of the hour. Kosberg regales his audience with advice-laced war stories for 70 minutes, then he invites them to share their pitches. A man in his early twenties raises his hand. “What if there was a guy who has to teach his parents to get over their addiction to video games?” Kosberg does not have to think about it. “Not big enough,” he says. “If you could broaden it.” The two men stare at each other, and Kosberg continues. “Maybe the parents, because they’ve lost their jobs, have to move in with their kid. This will raise all kinds of issues. The video game should be a small part of it.” The pitcher nods. It’s hard to tell whether he knows his idea has been improved about 300 percent. Or whether, for him, there will be a studio executive left who wants to hear a pitch. “No young people are doing today what I do,” Kosberg says later, cheerful as always. “We are in the dark days of my subculture. As for me, I will go down fighting with my last good pitch.”                         

Laurie Winer is a contributing writer for Los Angeles. Her last piece for the magazine was about Pizzeria Mozza.