Summit ’15: Ex-con pitch wins Summit Showdown

Laura Gamse (pictured), a runner-up from last year's Realscreen Summit pitch competition who went on to land a series on National Geographic Channel, claimed victory at the 2015 Summit Showdown with Hustler's Den.
January 29, 2015

A runner-up from last year’s Realscreen Summit pitch competition who went on to land a series on National Geographic Channel claimed victory at the 2015 Summit Showdown (formerly known as So You Think You Can Pitch?).

Laura Gamse (pictured) of Arlington, Virginia-based indie Daydream Reels bested three other hopefuls on Thursday (January 29) with Hustler’s Den, a competition series about ex-cons who parlay jailhouse business acumen into entrepreneurial endeavors following their release from prison.

Last year, Gamse stood on the same stage as a first-time Realscreen Summit attendee and pitched The Misfit Economy, which examined various aspects of the black market economy.

Although she did not win, she managed to get a reel to Nat Geo research exec Brad Dancer, who passed it on to the Los Angeles office. The network eventually ordered six 60-minute episodes and is currently airing the show on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. under the title Underworld Inc.

Summit Showdown was hosted by reality star-turned-producer Jack Osbourne for the second consecutive year. The four execs that sat on the judging panel were Ross Babbit, senior VP of programming and development for Travel Channel; Paul Hardy, VP of reality programming at Lifetime; Alan Eyres, senior VP of programming and development at National Geographic Channels, and Marissa Ronca, senior VP of development and original programming at TruTV.

To win them over, Gamse played a slickly edited and shot reel, and noted that while scripted prison series such as Orange is the New Black are en vogue, there are not many shows about stories that focus on life after a convict’s release.

To illustrate her point that “vision, strategy [and] perseverance” are key qualities in both street hustling and entrepreneurship, she ended the pitch by quoting Jay-Z’s verse from the Kanye West song “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)”: “I sold kilos of coke, I’m guessin’ I can sell CDs/I’m not a businessman I’m a business, man/let me handle my business, damn.”

The praise from the judges was near-universal, though some liked it more than others. Gamse also held up well under scrutiny.

Babbit was first to praise the pitch, noting that the idea “has heart, authenticity, great characters. You know how to put together a tape.” Hardy was more skeptical and worried a show about men who have been convicted of crimes being rewarded would be a tough sell. “You’ll have to work harder,” he cautioned. “It’s going to be a battle to get viewers to watch a TV show about something really bad.”

“We’re consciously stepping into this controversial space,” she replied.

Eyres called her pitch the “pace setter” for the rest of the pitchers, but questioned whether some of the men might be tempted back into a life of crime. “If they have an opportunity to take a step up in life to pay the bills and feed their families, they would do that,” she countered. “They’ve been put in a box for the past decade.”

Ronca felt the characters were strong enough to transcend the familiar redemption narrative at the core of Hustler’s Den, and suggested Gamse ensure she keep diversity top of mind when casting.

In an interview with realscreen following her win, Gamse said she had considered many of the judging panel’s questions while developing the project. She finished the reel for Hustler’s Den last February and has been pitching it since.

“We tend to think of American audiences as not accepting of those who have made a mistake in their lives,” she said. “You see the anti-hero narrative all the time in the movies and fictional television but to bring it to non-fiction television is something we all have to wrap our minds around. It’s absolutely happening and it’s going to continue to happen, but it’s a step that we have to take. Maybe some commissioners are worried about taking that step. It’s a tiny bit of a leap of faith.”

Gamse’s prize haul included custom music courtesy of sponsor Vanacore Music, a pass to the 2016 Realscreen Summit, and an iPad Mini. She is also in the process of lining up meetings with commissioners who reached out following her win.

Meanwhile, the other pitchers fared well but failed to come close to the bar set by Gamse – or her 30-point score.

Dugald Maudsley from Toronto-based Infield Fly Productions pitched Operation Resurrection, an archeological investigation show that uses an array of tech innovations, such as a 3D virtual reality chamber, to determine how centuries-old violent deaths took place.

Hardy suggested the pitch should play up the cast of investigators more than the tech, while Eyres worried the idea lacked a twist to differentiate from similar shows, namely the PBS series Secrets of the Dead. “My concern is I had a sense of déjà vu,” he said.

Dylan K. Petley from Vancouver’s Gun Lake Pictures pitched a political competition format I Want Your Vote that mashes up elements of Suvivor with American Idol. Contestants must compete to become the president of a made-up country, as well as $1 million and the chance to live in a mansion for a year.

The humorous and fast-paced pitch won over the crowd with a dizzying amount of format details – such as challenges requiring contestants to sing a national anthem and cook a national dish. The judges praised the energy behind the pitch but wanted more clarity around various aspects of the format. “Real-life politics are already quite entertaining,” added Hardy. “A reality show might feel slightly less than the real word.”

Finally, Robert Salvestrin from Paris-based distributor Lucky You and sister prodco Bonne Pioche pitched For A Few Degrees Less, a feature-length documentary that will use embeddable cameras to follow economist and senior UN advisor Jeffrey Sachs as he prepares for the next round of global climate change talks in Paris this fall.

Savlestrin has six European broadcasters on board, including Arte in France, but is looking to round out the US$900,000 budget with American financing. Sachs recorded a special message for the Summit Showdown judges, but it was not enough to persuade the panel, who said he should have included a reel that showed his approach to visual storytelling.

Eyres compared the pitch to Old Hollywood Stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “One provided the class, the other provided the sex,” he observed. “You have the class, but what you’re missing is the sex.”

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