Tales from the trenches: Robert Eisele pitches ‘The Great Debaters’
by Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado
In August of 2013 we published our book about pitching, The Hollywood Pitching Bible. While the book was intended to offer solid advice about selling projects for film and television, along the way we also discovered how the pitching process can become a way to analyze and understand something more fundamental about the nature of a story – a way to decode the DNA of the idea itself – understand it, reverse-engineer it, perfect it. The response to the book has been fantastic and we got some great feedback from readers. Many asked that we amplify some of our ideas, and also include more real-world examples.
So for the second edition of the book, we asked creative professionals who have sold pitches for movies and television shows to tell us the story of their pitch. Each of these stories illustrated one (or more) of the points we made in the book. Hollywood Journal has graciously offered to publish some of these “tales from the trenches.”
– Doug & Ken
I have known Robert “Bob” Eisele professionally for longer than either of us will admit. He was the show-runner of the first series I ever sold as a producer and we’ve also worked together on several film projects since then. He is one of the finest dramatists working in Hollywood today and he has never shied away from challenging material. Bob infuses his pitches with so much passion and inspiration that he literally bludgeons the buyers into submission (and tears). Doug and I included his story in the chapter of The Hollywood Pitching Bible called The X-Factor, which deals with some of the intangible qualities of pitching.
– Ken Aguado
The project began when my old college friend, Jeff Porro, sent me an article from the African-American history magazine, American Legacy, entitled “The Great Debaters.”
The article summarized a triumphant period in the 1930s when a black college debate team – Wiley College of Marshall, Texas – became the first African-American school to debate white colleges and universities in the Deep South. Wiley College’s debaters remained undefeated for years, and even beat the national champs. For over a decade, Professor Melvin Tolson, the team’s coach, challenged racial segregation with the debate teams he trained. What a great subject for a powerful, inspirational film. I was hooked immediately.
Jeff and I decided to option the article and collaborate on the story. Since I was the professional screenwriter (Jeff is a speech writer in Washington, D.C.), we agreed I would write the script solo if we sold the idea. So I started developing the pitch.
The source material presented several challenges.
First of all, the article encompassed ten years of history, a focus too broad for a feature film pitch. So we researched the subject thoroughly, interviewed the few surviving members of the debate team, and identified a viable time frame.
We decided to focus our pitch on the 1935 season, the year Wiley beat the national champs. Every story needs a great villain and ours was Jim Crow – racial segregation itself. On a deeper level, the antagonist was the self-doubt that discrimination engendered, even in these gifted college students. While a story set at a black college in the 1930s might seem un-commercial, I knew there was a powerful theme here – the triumph of the human spirit. And the struggle of the underdog defying all odds has universal appeal. Inspirational dramas like The Great Debaters can get made in Hollywood if they’re done right, but they must be compelling and fully realized.
I also knew my pitch would appeal to producers with a social conscience – those looking for stories that portray African-Americans in a positive light. With that in mind, my agents advised us to pitch the idea to Harpo, Oprah Winfrey’s company. The creative execs at Harpo loved it, and soon we had a pitch meeting set at Miramax.
At the time, Miramax was owned by the Weinstein brothers – always known for their risk-taking with challenging subject matters. We pitched the story to the execs there and they bought it, paying me to write the script. Choosing the right buyer is as important as creating a good pitch.
When the Weinstein brothers left Miramax and formed The Weinstein Company, they took my screenplay with them. Soon after, Denzel Washington read the script, loved it, and decided to direct it. In 2007, The Great Debaters finally made it to the screen.
The movie was a 2008 Golden Globe Best Picture nominee and won numerous awards, among them the Writers Guild of America’s Paul Selvin Award, the Image Award for Best Picture, and the Producers Guild Stanley Kramer Award.
Click below to read a few additional “Tales…”:
Tales from the trenches: Paul Guay pitches ‘Liar Liar’
Tales from the trenches: Grady Hall pitches ‘Spartacus’
Tales from the trenches: John Gray pitches ‘Ghost Whisperer’
Tales from the trenches: Tony Gayton pitches ‘Hell on Wheels’