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We've been producing commercials and films for nearly a decade. Our portfolio ranges form small internet spots to the #1 commercial of Super Bowl XLV.



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Hot Off The Press

Pitch Anecdote #1 – Film Angels, San Francisco

Fail early.  Fail often.  Experience is worth more than anything, and failure can be even more valuable than success.

When we were just getting started, we were searching for anyone living and breathing to pitch our project to.  We got recommended by a friend to this group:  Film Angels They say that they’re “The world’s first professional Angel Investor group for independent film.”  Pretty sweet, right?  It’s based in the Bay Area, so there’s plenty of access to money.  It’s run by a guy named Thomas Trenker who is also the founder of the IIFF (International Institute for Film Financing).  They’ve got a huge group on LinkedIn, and you can get on the mailing list for their events in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.  If you’re just getting started and you live in these areas, you should check out one of the events.  That’s how Tess and I got our foot in the door to pitch to the Film Angels.

We travelled up to San Francisco on a spur-of-the-moment decision back in September 2008, specifically to get our business plan in the hands of Thomas Trenker.  It was a long way to go, but at the beginning you have to make bold actions or nothing will ever happen.  The IIFF meeting was interesting.  Thomas has a great presentation he does after all the other speakers which is specifically about movie profitability.  He’s a numbers guy, so he had like 25 slides on what the best movies to invest in are – all told from the perspective of an investor.  And, to our astonishment (not really, we did a lot of research), the #1 genre and budget-level movie he recommended investing in was exactly the movie we had.

We were so giddy that as soon as his presentation ended I raced up there with our business plan, handed it to him, and said “This is exactly what you just pitched.  Point by point, this is it.”  He scanned it and was instantly impressed with the package we had.  On the spot, he asked me if we could come pitch to the Film Angels.  BOOYAH!  Tess and I had to celebrate with a Ghirardelli Sundae.

Our pitch, however, didn’t happen until mid-December.  It was a long time, and we did pursue other things during that time, but this was the opportunity we were really looking forward to.  It was such a perfect fit, you know?  Here we had the exact kind of movie that the head of the Film Angles had said was the best investment to make!  We assumed that, if we nailed the pitch, he’d recommend the project and that’d get us moving.  Right?

Enter Mid-December in San Francisco.

The location for the pitch was this uber-chichi little place on the outskirts of downtown.  They didn’t have fireplaces there but had flatscreen televisions each showing a fire burning in a fireplace.  These were all over, even in the bathrooms.  They had retro couches like the spaceship furniture in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There was a bar where the owner of the joint poured us some wine and I talked to him about his second house in Tahoe and skiing in the winter while we waited for the pitch before us to finish.

The pitch room was a small little theater with stadium seating and lavish couches.  It really only sat about 10 people. The screen filled the entire width of the room so that when they turned our powerpoint presentation on we couldn’t stand to present without the projector blasting us in our eyes and having our shadows block the screen.

So Tess and I pitched the project to this small group of people.  Thomas Trenker wasn’t present.  We had pitched quite a bit before for a number of different projects at USC, so we knew how to prepare ourselves.  The key with a pitch is that you have to know your material by heart.  Not in a memorization way, but you honestly have to know everything, understand everything, and also know your presentation by heart.  If you memorize, guess what happens?  Your eyes move back and forth as you talk because you’re literally re-reading the text that you memorized.  And the moment you get distracted by just the tiniest bit, you’re screwed.   We had it down pretty good.

This preparation, however, is only useful when people listen.  Our audience at this pitch were all laying back in their stadium-seating sofas, wine in hand, and it was dark – definitely the worst conditions ever for a pitch.  You want a bright room where people are sitting up, alert, and haven’t had a few glasses of wine.  Tess and I recognized this early on, and it just got worse.

It really became clear to us that nobody was serious about anything.  About 2/3 of the way through the pitch these two drunken investors stumbled their way back into the room and interrupted us saying, “Who’s your cast?”   Get the hell out of here you ass hole! That’s what I wanted to say.  But I just said, “We don’t have anyone yet.”  We didn’t (that was one of our mistakes).  They then laughed and snickered private jokes for the rest of the pitch.  Incredibly rude, and in retrospect we should have said something.

At some point a guy in the back who had two different types of scarfs wrapped around his neck corrected us when we were explaining our distribution strategy involved four-walling a theater to exhibit the film for distributors who had already expressed interest in the project.  “Four-walling is also called self distribution.”   He said it to make himself sound smart to the other people in the room.   Nevermind the fact that if he was listening to us he would have known that four-walling meant that we were renting a theater out (aka:  four-walling).  I actually don’t think anyone else in the room knew he was wrong anyway.

When we finished the pitch, there was an eerie stillness.  Just to break the awkwardness one lady asked us if we had presales in place, which is a ridiculous question based on the fact that we didn’t have any cast attached.  Even if we did, I know know that it wouldn’t have meant a damn thing.

As we walked out of the room, a few things were abudandtly clear to me.  First, these people had never seen Thomas Trenker’s presentation on movie profitability, and in fact probably knew next to nothing about movie profitability.  Second, they didn’t care about movie profitability because they weren’t going to invest in any movies.  This was a get-together.

Sadly, there was a single thing that probably would have made a difference.  Remember the guy who asked who the cast was?  He wanted to rub shoulders with celebrities, and tell his buddies he’s financing a movie starring so-and-so.  If we could have answered him with a legit name or two who were attached, the conversation might have been different.  Cast matters.

Here’s the irony though.  Good projects draw good talent.  How do you sign talent?  Money.  How do you get money?  Have talent or distribution.  How do you get distribution?  Have talent.  How do you sign talent?  Money.  How do you get money?  Have talent or distribution.  How do you get distribution?  Have talent.  How do you sign talent?  Money.  How do you get money?  Have talent or distribution.  How do you get distribution?  Have talent….

To this day, I don’t know a single project that’s been financed through this group – and that nearly was two years ago.  Spectator Investors.  Some of them have the money, others don’t.  I don’t believe Thomas Trenker has any financial position to invest in anything, and he just arranged this group because he wishes investors would invest.  But they want something that doesn’t exist, so they never invest.

Don’t misinterpret this as a complaint because, honestly, these guys don’t intend to be pulling your leg.  They just don’t realize what they’re doing, and often the people pitching to them don’t realize it either.  We were only half aware, and in retrospect there were plenty of elements we didn’t understand or know about during the pitch.

The key to this post is this:

Despite the depressing reality of this experience, I would recommend everyone go through it. How else will you learn?  How else will you know when you meet a legit investor?

This story does have a happy ending.   Film Angels offered us two pitches that night – the other was in Palo Alto (aka: the heart of Silicon Valley).   There we met a guy who didn’t have the money to invest, but has an unbelievable passion for movies and has become a great friend who has commited himself to helping get the film financed.

The Palo Alto pitch will be the subject of the next post on this topic.  See, out of darkness can come light!

Published: October 7, 2010

Disney Halloween Spoofs – It’s Alive – Ahhhh!

Hey All,

Come check out my Disney Living Halloween Spoofs up on YouTube.  Disney Living is launching a Costume Contest.  Check out the details below from their YouTube Channel (via Facebook, too).

Disney Halloween Spoof: Ghoulish Greeting #1

Let Disney Living trick and treat you to three scary movie spoofs and participate in our Halloween contest with your own video. More details below. Don’t get too scared…these videos are just frightfully funny e-greetings for you to send to your family and friends this Halloween season!

Disney Living invites YOU to create your own Ghoulish Greeting video and enter it in the “Happy Halloween from Disney Living Contest” for a chance to win one of five $100 Disney Store gift cards. All you have to do is videotape an original Halloween video greeting including this Disney Living Happy Halloween Graphic:


and at least one Disney character costume (store bought or homemade). Then post your video as a “video response” to one of these three Halloween Video Greetings.

See full contest rules here: CONTEST RULES and terms of use here: TERMS OF USE



Ghoulish Greetings Spot #1


Ghoulish Greetings Spot #2

Ghoulish Greetings Spot #3


Published: October 5, 2010

The Double-Edged Sword of New Ideas

It’s funny how new ideas arrive.  I don’t get them a lot.  Maybe a couple of really good ideas every year, but definitely not more than that.  As a writer, though, we always have to be in search for those new ideas, and willing to open our minds to and chase nearly every idea that comes along.   We must test whether or not it actually is an idea worth really thinking about.

I read a lot.  Partially because I know I need to, but I actually love learning and gaining insight into other storytellers’ minds.  I read the news a lot, and try to keep up on scientific developments – particularly in Physics and Astronomy (I’m just very interested in those subjects).  Recently however, I’ve been reading a 2400 page fantasy trilogy which has been a drag.  As with many fantasy books the concepts are great, the characters are great, but the author gets so carried away with the minutia of the world that he or she forgets to tell a gripping story.   But this is where my mind has been for the last month or so, except for the 15 hour book-on-tape marathon I had in which I listened to The Elegant Universe (all about String theory).

So yesterday, I climb onto the orbital trainer at the gym, and start my daily exercise routine.  Within a few moments, no more than a minute, a new idea had spawned in my brain.  For the next 1/2 hour while I was on the machine, I followed that spark of an idea and saw where it led me.  The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.  There are strong elements of every boy’s childhood in there, but with a fantastic sci-fi thriller angle, all set in a great location which I’ve never seen in a film before.  And the kicker – I tend to think BIG – and this is an incredibly small, contained idea that could be made for just a few hundred thousand dollars – if the production team was right.

So I pitched it to Tess, just the concept, and she dug it.  It’s now been a full day, and I still think it’s got a lot of potential.  “Where’s that double-edged sword you mentioned?  Isn’t this a good thing?”

Well… here it is.  Writing is hard.  And writing from a brand new idea is very hard.  So while it’s great to have some cool new idea that I can actually <em>see </em>specific moments in my head that are thrilling, that’s all I’ve got.  Will it blossom into a full and interesting story?  It can.  Will the idea be worthy of the time commitment it’ll take to develop and write?  I could.  But will it?

This is the double-edged sword of a new idea.  It’s a spark, but nothing more.  Taking it from a spark to a complete, satisfying story full of lifelike characters, twists and turns, and hopefully interesting new ideas… well… that is very hard.   And these sparks are dangerous.  Potentially very dangerous.   Here I am now with at least 4 other scripts at some stage of completion, which can all develop into great scripts, and I am drawn to write something new before finishing those.

As Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio say, “Your premise will make or break your script.”  That’s wonderful advice, but equally important is having the dedication and fortitude to actually finish what you start.  We are not writing ideas, and we are not writing premises.  We are writing complete, compelling, and satisfying stories!

Published: October 2, 2010

Write Movies Finalists – 25th International Writing Competition

Moving on up…

Terra Incognita made Finalist at the WriteMovies.com competition.  They actually have made some of their past winning scripts.  Good competition to participate in.  At least we now have an idea that our script can compete with international ideas.  Global market value, baby!

WriteMovies.com International Writing Competition #25

We received nearly 1000 screenplays, books, plays, short stories and articles from the following countries: USA, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Belgium, India, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, Greece, Nigeria, Georgia, Mexico, Japan, South Africa and The Cameroon.

The list can be seen at: CLICK HERE

Published: September 28, 2010

Terra Incognita – how the script came to be.

I should start out by saying “Terra Incognita” is a passion project.  Ironically, it’s not your typical, “I-have-a-personal-drama-story-I-have-to-tell” passion project.  It was my guilty pleasure of loving old time action-adventure high-concept fantasy films.

Anyone who knows me would classify me as a history nut.  For a time I thought I was going to make historical documentaries and even spent a good 5 years studying archaeology in pursuit of it.  But the narrative bug wouldn’t leave me alone, so I returned to the world of stories clearly influenced by my old field of study.

Terra Incognita was originally going to be my Thesis script from USC’s graduate program.  We wrote the synopsis, but something didn’t click.  We chose instead to develop something smaller scale, something new graduates could tackle in the Indie Market and raise funds for (A Touch of Magic). But high concept (and big budget) movies are in my blood, so I wrote it anyways.

LOTR aragorn's ring of barahir3

Adventurous, Awesome and God’s Gift to Women = Men like Aragorn

It is inspired by the memory of Men.  You know the type.  They burly, danger-seeking, tough as nails salty men who just don’t seem to exist any more.  It’s also inspired by the actual events of the discovery of Easter Island.  In fact, the original title was Rapa Nui: Land’s End – but man does that title suck.  I vaguely mentioned to Zack Luna, a Sales Rep from Kathy Morgan, Int’l that I was consider changing it to Terra Incognita – he said “now that, I can sell”.  I knew he was on to something.  A Good Title = a possible read.  All any aspiring writer could hope for, right?

Terra Incognita, for the uninitiated, is the mythical southern land mass the Old World believed existed in the unexplored areas of the world.  It was supposed to balance out the globe and be home to all the legendary creatures of mythology (hey, they have to live somewhere, right?).  Old nautical maps have it scribbled in the corners.  Or as wikipedia calls it:

An urban legend claims that cartographers labelled such regions with “Here be dragons“. Although cartographers did claim that fantastic beasts (including large serpents) existed in remote corners of the world and depicted such as decoration on their maps, only one known surviving map, the Lenox Globe, in the collection of the New York Public Library,[1] actually says “Here be dragons” (using the Latin form “HIC SVNT DRACONES”).[2] However, ancient Roman and Medieval cartographers did use the phrase HIC SVNT LEONES (Here are lions) when denoting unknown territories on maps.

Alternatively, ‘terra incognita’ may also refer to the hypothesized continent Terra Australis Incognita (“The unknown land of the South”), as seen in the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum map by Abraham Ortelius (1570). 


Dating from ca. 1510, is the second or third oldest known terrestrial globe. It is housed by the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library.

The old school adventurers truly believed in its existence.  They scoured the globe looking for it.

What if they found something?

That is what inspired “Terra Incognita”.  The “what if”.  And the ability to say something about the ecological ruin of Easter Island.  It really is a lesson for our entire planet about resource conservation.


Tongariki Moai Heads – the largest carvings of the ancient world made with stone tools.


The script has done better in competitions than I could EVER have expected.  We just heard back today that we are FINALISTS in the WriteMoviesWriteMovies.com 25th International Writing Competition</a>.  We are travelling to Austin in October to meet with panelists at the Austin FF Conference.

I’ll be blogging about that experience soon!  Thanks for reading.

Published: September 28, 2010

Disney Living Halloween – It’s a Wrap!


We just wrapped production on 3 Disney Living web-mercials with Director Sebastian Davis.  I need to give a shout out to my fantastic crew who made the project not only visually stunning, but a smooth enjoyable time despite the record 110 degree heat wave in Los Angeles.

It turned out to be a Trojan reunion, with all of the Keys former USC film school grads.  Jay Visit and Raul B. Fernandez co-DP’ed the gig.  Susan Havens was on Locations.  Monica Surrena on Production Design. Michelle “you rock” Kramer is by far the best 1st AD I’ve worked with.  Paul Fonarev and David Lankton of Miso Sound were our tireless sound team.

I even met a new (and hopefully frequent) collaborator, in our stylist Myriam Arougheti.  She’s fantastic.  Hire her.

But mostly I need to shout out to Sebastian.  He’s a wonderful collaborator and fantastic director.  I knew it the moment we started casting and saw him working with the kids.  He’s a natural.  And the fact that he’s so darn level-headed makes working for him so much easier!  Thank you Sebastian for being such a great partner.

The spots recreate (satirically) classic Hollywood horror movie clips with a Disney flare.  Look for them all over the web during this Halloween holiday season.


Tess “tired, bruised, but loving it” Ortbals
Producer, Disney Living Halloween

Published: September 28, 2010

Why is Writing the Red Headed Step Child?


I’ll admit, I’m in new territory submitting my script in lieu of my finished films to competitions.  And as my feature action/adventure tale of swashbuckler hero-types ACTUALLY progresses in the competitions, I’m amazed at the perceived insignificance of it.  I truly think writers get the short end of the stick.

Yes – there are 100s of competitions out there that really don’t mean squat to an aspiring filmmaker.  The same is true of writing comps or film festivals.  However, there are a few that honestly open doors for new talent.  Here are the top 5 competitions my research has determined to mean anything.

#1 Nicholl’s Fellowship – Ran by the academy and open only to non-professional writers (you can’t earn your living writing to win this fellowship).  Even quarterfinalists get industry attention.  HOWEVER – they got 6404 script entries this year.  Wow.



#2 Austin Film Festival – 17 years and still running. This competition runs simultaneously with their large Screenwriting Conference.


The Sundance Writing Lab is pretty awesome, but so very very rare to get an invite.  Don’t waste your money on the $65-75 entry fees at the other “pro” competitions.  If you want Hollywood to come to you, my money is on Nicholl.

Published: September 20, 2010

Austin Heart of Film Screenplay SEMIFINALISTS!


So I had received my rejection letter from AFF on my birthday, no less – telling me that we made it to the 2nd round of the Drama competition with Terra Incognita.  I was so bummed.  I really thought that script was perfect for this competition.  They even had a special section for:


Perfect, huh?  Well, I guess so…

Because a few days later I got a call from Matt Dy from Austin telling me I was one of 8 Sci-Fi scripts selected for the Semi-Finals!  Apparently my action-adventure mythology script didn’t cut it in the drama section.  Thank God for the special genre category!

The Semis list is on the web “Here

We find out about Finalists at the end of the month.  I just booked our Producer’s Passes.  Can’t wait for the parties!  Woo Hoo!

Published: September 13, 2010

The Start Of Something That Should Have Started 18 Months Ago

Unfortunately, we are starting this blog about a year and half late.  Oh I’m sure there is a stack of ridiculous experiences ahead of us that will be great fun to read, but there are plenty that I wish we’d have catalogued before now.  But since we have to start somewhere, I will begin by retelling the story where I got the first inkling that we should be recording all this down somewhere:
<blockquote>Back in March of 2009, when we were just beginning the epic journey of learning how to get a film financed, we had a pitch trip to Silicon Valley for our feature <strong>A Touch of Magic. </strong>This is a comedy/fantasy film for families whose main characters are a Magician who doesn’t believe in magic, and a 10-year old girl with real magical powers.

The first scheduled pitch meeting was at the home of the soon-to-be-ex-wife of a billionaire (who would be a billionaire herself after the divorce).  She is a big movie fan, is heavily involved in Cinequest, and definitely has an apetite for getting involved in the film industry.  And most importantly, she has an 11 year-old daughter who loves fantasy movies.  Perfect fit, right?  No-brainer right?

All decked out in our pitch clothes that say “we’re creative but we’re know business,” we knocked on her door at the exact minute scheduled…  15 minutes later, nobody had answered the door.  5 minutes later, with our car engine running and my foot an inch away from the gas pedal which would get us the hell out of this demeaning experience, a black mercedes SUV pulled into the driveway.  She piled out with her 11-year old, and looked at us as if we were robbers casing the place.

So… we got out, introduced ourselves, and discovered fairly quickly that she had completely forgotten about us (which tells you how interested she actually was).  She loves movies, especially family-oriented fantasy movies.  What a coincidence!  That’s what we had!

“Is it a 3D movie?  That’s what everyone wants to see now, you know!”

… uh, this is a $2.5M film… “That’s true, but we also think people are really more interested in seeing good movies with a lot of fantasy and imagination.”

“My daughter can’t get enough of that stuff.”  – this is where her daughter, who was very outspoken about her opinions of fantasy, intervened and began to tell me the story of the latest book she was reading, which she can’t wait to see as a movie.  I made the mistake of saying “Oh man, I think you’d love our story!”

“Can she read the script?  She loves Harry Potter and Twilight.  And she’s a really good judge.”

….uh.. she’s eleven… and it’s a script, not a book… or even a movie…  “Why sure she can! We’d love to hear what she thinks!”

5 minutes later, we were back in the car.  We had just pitched a billionaire while standing on the street in front of her house, who had forgotten she agreed to meet with us, who had absolutely no knowledge about the movie business, and who, it now appeared, would judge the film based on whether her 11 year old liked the script.</blockquote>
It was on the drive back to the hotel, after a few hours of laughter and consolation between each other, that I said, “We should be documenting this.  Seriously, damnit!  We should get a camera and make a documentary about our experiences learning how to get a film financed!”  You can see how well we followed up on that idea.

By the way, apparently the day after we met them they left on a vacation to Cabo for… a month.  We didn’t try to make contact.

Published: September 10, 2010

Brandon Sanderson Interview

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 2.56.15 PM

An interview with Brandon Sanderson, author of New York Times Bestseller “The Gathering Storm,” which is book 12 of the late Robert Jordan’s fantasy series “The Wheel of Time.” Topics covered range from how he got his start, his current place and role in the fantasy genre, and specifics about the Wheel of Time series, which Sanderson is finishing.

This film was produced pro-bono by Mythmakers Entertainment by Tess Ortbals, Patrick Knipe, JR Burningham, and Paul Fonarev.

Brandon Sanderson Interview from JR Burningham on Vimeo.

Published: January 31, 2010