March 6, 2023

Alumni Spotlight: Derek Garlington ‘20

By Olivia Kuhn

Derek Garlington is a multifaceted creative who received his MFA in Screenwriting in 2020. While at USC, he was president of The Black Graduate Student Network and African American Cinema Society. Since then, he's created the filmmaking collective Creatively Next Up and the card game Pitch it to Me. Beyond filmmaking, he has authored the novel, Souls of a Kindred Flame, which follows the mysterious spiritual journey of its protagonist. Derek's own spiritual journey has flourished as a yoga instructor, MMA champion and sound healer. His ultimate goal is to create stories that promote a mindful world in an entertaining manner. Derek joins us today to discuss his core values of community and collaboration and the journey of creating Pitch it to Me.

What first inspired you to pursue a career in storytelling? What mediums were of interest of you?

Fantasy YA novels and anime were my biggest inspirations as a kid. You could always find me with a book in my hand. Like a good 90s kid, I devoured the Harry Potter series, but my absolute favorite is the Pendragon series. If I could do one adaptation, that would be it. The vibrant characters and world building in anime enraptured my attention. I would take my favorite characters from each, writing fanfiction and going on my own adventures with them. I had imaginary friends for longer than I'd admit to my peers. 

Storytelling grew into a career pursuit during my junior year of undergrad at Hampton University. I was already in the journalism school, but reporting the news didn't really appeal to me. My favorite part was learning how to edit and stitch clips together. There isn't a film school at Hampton, but there was a Cinema Studies elective. There, I was first introduced to screenwriting.  After writing my first script and witnessing a table read, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to craft stories and see them come to life.

What experiences during your time at SCA taught you about community and collaboration?

Community was and continues to be the best part of SCA for me. While in school, I was president of the African American Cinema Society, which was started by John Singleton. Being able to continue his legacy and bring SCA students together for events and screenings was awesome. I graduated in 2020, so it's amazing to see the newer presidents keep the organization alive and to meet other past presidents out in the world. 

Within the screenwriting classrooms, we always read each other's work and gave notes. This is crucial when refining your story. A good collaborator is someone who keeps the writer's point of view in mind while offering suggestions. It's a part of the process I wasn't as familiar with, but truly appreciate. The screenplay is the finished product, but refining it with your peers is a beautiful journey. 

How did the idea for Pitch it to Me come about? As a storyteller, did you find there to be any creative voids that this game intends to fill?

The idea for Pitch it to Me was initially sparked by a classroom exercise in 2018. The exercise was scholarly, but I felt if I focused on the elements that brought me joy, it could become a fun game. With my birthday coming up, I wrote a bunch of story ideas on notecards and brought them to the bar for my celebration. We played a version of the game and it was amazingly fun. While at USC, I brought the game out a few more times, but didn't plan to go much further with it. Fast forward to January 2022: I told my friend Saleem about the game over lunch with no intentions of taking action. However, he thought it was brilliant and encouraged us to host a game night at Soho House which was an incredible success. We formalized the game and have been building the Pitch it to Me brand ever since. 

There is definitely a creative void this game fills. Having attended and hosted many networking events, I found most follow a similar format. Everyone may get a name tag, grab a drink and hope to meet somebody they creatively click with. Oftentimes people struggle with mingling or awkwardly stand to the side. When they do finally find someone they really vibe with creatively, they'll want to create together! However, setting up the coffee, finding the time, explaining your individual ideas, finding something to collaborate over... All of these steps can take weeks, months, even years to unfold in this busy town. If you bring Pitch it to Me to a networking event, you now have an activity that sparks creative conversation and collaboration in the moment! 

When developing the game, how did you take the aspects of community-building, comedy, and competition into account?

It's been really fun to develop this game in real time and strive to continuously improve it. By hosting events around this game, we've been able to grow our community. When people play this game together, they walk away with a unique story that only their team could come up with. It's common to find Pitch it to Me teams choosing to collaborate beyond the setting of the game because they hit it off so well. Comedy always finds its way into the gameplay. Teams are laughing while crafting their stories and finding commonality with their teammates. Once teams are up and pitching, it's inevitable that the judges will ask them a question they weren't fully prepared for. The improv to fill in the blanks of their pitch tends to be comical. In terms of competition, all the teams are vying for the top award, Best Pitch/Picture. Some folks are just in it for the fun and others are seriously crafting up a strong narrative in order to win. Like any good awards show, there's anticipation when announcing the winner. It's really fun to see people be on the edge of their seat waiting to see if their idea will receive accolades. 

What events have you held in support of the game?

We created the prototype of Pitch it to Me in March of 2022 and hosted our first event that same month at Soho House. Over 70 people showed up! The whole event blew my expectations out of the water. We knew we had a hit and continued to host more. Game nights have also been held at The Gathering Spot, The Heart Department, I.F.B. Studios Film Festival and Ghetto Film School just to name a few. This year, we aim to extend to corporate retreats, film festivals and schools—with USC in mind, of course. We will continue to host at social venues like Soho House as well. 

What has been the most fulfilling part of creating Pitch It To Me and sharing it with your community? 

There have been so many fulfilling parts of creating and sharing Pitch it to Me. Once the stage is set at a game night, I really enjoy walking around the room and listening in as groups formulate their ideas. The energy is electric, there's laughter and "Aha" moments as their creativity bounces off each other. There are some people who don't consider themselves creative, yet as they play this game, ideas pour out of them. I love seeing them recognize their own brilliance. 

Have you found the game to help you in your writing? Have any of the ideas you’ve come up with in the game turned into anything?

Pitch it to Me has definitely helped me in my writing. There's so many ideas floating around my head and I've let a lot of them go onto the cards. Allowing them to freely float in the public has given them life beyond what my bandwidth could do! I don't claim ownership over these ideas so seeing them expressed in someone else's pitches helps me make room for new ideas I want to build on my own. Also, for general brainstorming it's amazing. I've surprised myself with some interesting scenarios that have been formulated by combining the Pitch it to Me prompts. 

There are several pitches I've heard from the game that have really stuck with me. I want to see them come to life! During the pandemic, I hosted a weekly collective zoom meeting called Creatively Next Up. In some ways it was the prototype to the Pitch it to Me community. Out of Creatively Next Up, we penned a feature script and an award-winning short film. 

We're currently building a pipeline for Pitch it to Me so great pitches can be easily translated into their next stage. Stay tuned! 

As a writer, are mindfulness and spirituality important to you?

Mindfulness and spirituality are critically important as a writer, especially within the Film/TV industry. You must have a strong foundation to stay connected to your storytelling voice. When everyone is telling you who they think you are (or should be), meditation and other mindful practices will help you stay grounded, staying in touch with your inner voice and not losing sight of who you truly are. Film/TV is a long game. If you don't take breathers, you will wear out and grind down to dust. A writer must have ways to rejuvenate and fill their own cup. While vacations, retail therapy, food and hobbies are viable options, a spiritual connection and mindful tools are always readily available, free, and with consistency they help keep things level even through the highs and lows. Breathwork, yoga, meditation, sound healing, and martial arts are some of the practices I utilize regularly. 

What’s next for you?

I'll continue to promote Pitch it to Me and have it grow as a staple within homes and the film industry. Beyond that, I'm looking to direct my next short film about meditation and land myself in a TV Writers Room. I'm also looking for like-minded representation. 

Is there any advice you would offer to recent graduates like yourself, as well as to aspiring storytellers?

Enjoy the journey and capitalize on the now. Oftentimes we can get so caught up in getting to our future, we miss the opportunities that are available today. This industry will bring the highest highs and the lowest lows. Have gratitude for the lessons and feelings that arise from both ends of the spectrum but don't get swept away by them. It's exhausting to be at the emotional whim of others' validation. Enjoy your industry wins and also have ways to validate and uplift yourself. Maintain and build authentic relationships. You'll be just fine :)

More About Pitch it to Me:

Pitch it to Me is a storytelling card game created by Derek Garlington. Players merge the creative prompts on the cards to craft a compelling story and then refine it into a movie/tv pitch. These storytellers perform their film/tv pitch to the “executive judges” that decide who wins the prestigious awards, like best Pitch/Picture. 

This engaging process forms friendships, brings laughter and provokes competitive creativity. Whether it’s played by professional filmmakers or a class of high schoolers, unforgettable bonds will be formed. Everyone should have the chance to flex their creative muscles. 

For a quick comparison think of Cards Against Humanity for creatives with the conversational depth of We’re Not Really Strangers. 

Learn More about Pitch it to me @ pitchittomegame.com.