By Sonja O'Hara
In 2016, when I first came to ITVFest I had very realistic expectations. After playing my hour-long pilot DOOMSDAY (watch on Amazon Prime) at other webfests, I honestly just hoped that people would actually attend my screening. But it was my week in Vermont that ultimately caused a chain of events that would alter the rest of my life.
On the penultimate night of the fest, I got an email from festival head, Philip Gilpin.
“HBO wants to meet you," he said.
“When?” I gasped.
“Right now” he said.
I remember literally freezing in my tracks. I can’t tell you what those five words meant to me. If there’s anything I want in the world it’s to create and star on a “prestige drama,” and now I was being summoned by an actual gatekeeper from my dream network.
“They only want to meet with two shows. One of them is yours."
I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. The next thing I knew, I was face-to-face with maverick Kelly Edwards, HBO’s VP of Talent Development. I remember my head whirring, trying to appear put-together while also attempting to retain all of her practical gems I was being told about next steps for my series. My micro-budget drama which had been made completely outside of the system.
“Who represents your show?”
“Huh?” (I swear I’m typically quite articulate!)
“You need reps. Here’s my card. Have them follow up.”
...and just like that, she was gone. My no-nonsense industry fairy godmother.
The festival ended with DOOMSDAY going on to win both the BEST ACTRESS trophy, and even better, the final award of the night: BEST OF FEST. I felt like I floated all the way back to Brooklyn.
But that was also when the real work began. I was now HELLBENT on following Kelly’s advice by getting a literary agent to properly shop around my show. I needed to bang on all the doors.
You’re going to laugh, but that next morning, I legitimately called up [an unnamed huge agency] and asked to speak to their packaging department.
“You mean the MAIL ROOM?” The assistant's voice dripped with contempt. “No!” I tried to clarify. “I’ve had interest from a major network and I was told to notify-”
My grassroots efforts weren’t going to cut it. I spent the next few weeks asking all the other actors in my cast to pass our pilot along to their acting agents. Only for each to be told that if the project moved forward, it would most likely be re-cast with names. Another roadblock.
But with the confidence from my ITVFest win, I was hellbent on showing the rest of the world that my show was the real deal. I decided to go back to the drawing board and shoot the next installment. So back to the Catskills we went to film another no-frills episode about everyone’s favorite matriarchal cult!
Around that time, things were starting to slowly happen. My patient and loyal cast were traveling around the country to other festivals like we were a burlap-clad traveling circus. We were starting to get buzz, which lead to interest from a couple streaming platforms.
Suddenly, I was speaking with the wonderful folks at Vimeo about their potential interest in the show. Then, just like that, they announced in the Deadline that they were no longer going to be moving forward with their proposed streaming service. Onto the next!
Throughout this entire process I had been documenting my journey on social media. Besides releasing trailers for my show, I was doing my best to write candidly about the highs and the lows of the pitching process. From the close-calls (getting to the finals for the Sundance Labs & Austin Film Fest before getting cut!) to the devastation of finally landing a lucrative series deal, only to lose it when my production team didn’t have the legal paperwork in place to prove the chain-of-title. There was so much to learn!
Little did I know that these daily Facebook updates would lead to the break I was looking for.
By the following ITVFest, I was back in Vermont with a new hour-long episode in the line-up, and a literary manager to boot. Plus this year I was speaking on a panel called, "From Indie Series to Studio Offer."
On Day #2 of the fest, I got an unusual Facebook message in that weird “other” inbox. An assistant at one of the major Hollywood agencies had messaged me to say that her boss was “looking to add a female filmmaker to his roster” and that for some reason, my career updates kept on popping up on her feed. The shameless self-promotion was actually paying off.
I let this confidence boost propel me into the ITVFest networking parties with a new lease on life. It was there that I approached the Head Of Development at Adaptive Studios (HBO’s “Project Greenlight”) and introduced myself. Two weeks later I was in his LA office pitching my new series ASTRAL to his development team. Two months after that I was tearfully signing my very first development deal for a show I will be writing, directing, and acting in.
I ultimately used the leverage from my new deal/agent interest, to generate a bunch of other meetings. Suddenly, through a very targeted batch of emails, I was set to meet Gersh, Paradigm, UTA, APA, WME and CAA. It was like a domino effect.
Now would these unsolicited emails have paid off if I hadn’t had a body of work ready to send along to these people? Of course not. But luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I was finally ready.
I’m thrilled to say that this month I signed with William Morris Endeavor (as an actress, writer and director!) And you know who was one of the very first people to reach out to congratulate me? Kelly Edwards, the wonderful HBO exec who had rooted me on two years prior at ITVFest!
I think that the big takeaway here is that we need to be in it for the long haul. There are no shortcuts. It can be so easy to get discouraged and feel like it’s never going to happen. Or to wait for that break to come to you. But success doesn’t happen overnight and if you work at chipping away at your career every single day, it really begins to add up.
For me, this meant not only making the two episodes of the show that got me into the fest, but also shooting a feature film, a short and three other short digital pilots on almost non-existent budgets. It also took countless rejection, hundreds of ignored emails, designing infinite pitch decks, a lot of false starts and crappy auditions. But now that I’m here, I wouldn’t change it for anything.
So go out, make that DIY pilot and change the course of your career. I did it, and you can too!