Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On the Right Track

What the hell is script tracking and why is it important in your life? You got questions, we got hamsters.

By Jim Cirile

"When you send out a spec, you're pushing a rock uphill anyway. But when the tracking boards (kick in), that rock gets a lot heavier." -- Manager/producer Graham Kaye

Try this on for size: you've just successfully landed your first agent, who is preparing to "go out wide" with your script in order to "introduce you to the town." The agent messengers your script to 35 or so creative executives, all of whom gladly read your script with no predisposition one way or another. Within a day or two, several companies have expressed interest, and your agent is gleefully assigning territories (coordinating which buyers the interested prodcos may present your script to.) You've got a decent chance that the script will sell.

Nice scenario, right?

Now, try this variation: your agent and/or manager are preparing to "go out wide" with your script to introduce you to the town. The agent puts out the word by calling the targeted companies' creative execs (also known as CE's.) The CE's spread the info via phone networking and "the boards;" before long, everyone in town knows your script is hitting the streets soon. Further, many companies who were not on the agent's "send" list see it on the boards and are calling him, begging for a copy. Suddenly, 50 companies are getting your script, not 35. Terrific!

The momentous day comes; your script goes out. Some producers tell their assistants to "drop everything and read this now." Within hours, your script is "covered," and feedback hits the tracking boards. Unfortunately, the first comments are not stellar. By afternoon, your opus has racked up a handful of passes. Over at BigSpecProdco, their CE tells her VP, who was planning on reading your script at home that night, that everybody's passing on it. Delighted to have some extra time that night with Sportscenter, VP doesn't take the script home, and instead tells his assistant to get it covered. By noon the next day, 75% of the companies have passed, which means, your heat has completely vaporized. Even though you're technically still alive, you're already dead.

Thus goeth tracking.

Just what is this mysterious thing called "tracking?" For production companies, it's a vital communications network; an immediate and effective way for them to exchange intelligence and keep up-to-date on the latest developments in the literary marketplace. And as illustrated in the above example, for agents, tracking can be both a useful tool for whipping up hype, and a dreaded obstacle.


Trackers are generally assistants and junior creative executives whose job descriptions specifically include keeping their ears to the ground for new literary material. This is accomplished by monitoring "tracking boards" -- private bulletin boards used by the industry -- and by heavy phone networking amongst their peers.

"The best way to think of it is like a big game of telephone," says Marc Platt Productions' Greg Lessans, who was known throughout the biz as an extraordinary tracker in his early tenure at the company, before handing off the reins to a younger exec. "It's the process of sharing information between a lot of different executives and companies. It's people talking to each other and saying, 'What are you reading? What should I be reading?, What's good, and what's not?' And all that information is shared both over the internet and over phone lines." ICM’s Emile Gladstone says, "Junior executives are very important to any writer's career. They will take more chances, they're more excitable; they still have to put feathers in their cap." Gladstone feels that utilizing the network of CE's is critical to building hype on a project, and for establishing a fan base for a new writer.

ICM's Nicole Clemens relates an instance where she used the tracking network to her favor: "There was this “LA Times” article that ran, and we did not control (it) at that moment in time, but we were in the process of controlling it. I put a writer on it who had a take, then immediately called up a couple of key tracking people and gave them the information. Literally within five minutes, the entire town knew that we controlled the article, and a desirable writer was attached. That triggered an offer from a studio, having not even heard the pitch. That's a perfect example of (using tracking to your advantage.) I needed to essentially mark my territory; it would have taken me four days to call everybody."

Quattro Media’s Jim Strader agrees that tracking can be a valuable tool for managers like himself. "We're setting up a movie based on a videogame called 'Toxic Grind.' And for kicks, on this one public board, I spammed the whole group about the project. And it's like 70 people. Most of them are industry, young people -- assistants, junior CE's -- who have their finger on up and comers, and people you should be aware of. You like to make sure these young people are supportive, so you can build a foundation. You try to get them excited. Well, I heard back from all these young assistants -- for three days, it was this constant flow of e-mails -- and even people who were not on this list, saying, 'so and so sent me this,' and they're listing all these writers and people I should know. That was very cool."


And now for the horror stories. Why is it that some people view the tracking system negatively? "Cockroaches," was the succinct description of trackers from one agent who asked not to be identified. Clemens fills us in: "It can kill you if your script gets out there and someone says, 'it sucks.' You're just screwed," she says. In fact, a few negative comments about the script can spread like wildfire, courtesy of the tracking boards. All that hype which is critical to selling your script vanishes, and some executives -- if they ever read the script at all -- may only do so begrudgingly. Strader tells us about an agent he knew who got sandbagged by bad coverage on a tracking board, which tainted the script before most of the production companies could even read it. "This (reader) hated it, trashed the shit out of it. Amazingly, (the agent) ended up selling it anyway. But I remember we talked about it, and it was this huge thorn in his ass. How the hell (was) he going to pull this one out, when publicly, on a board somewhere, there's this disastrous coverage for everyone to see?"

"Frankly, I wish (tracking) would go away," muses producer/manager Graham Kaye. "That's the honest-to-God truth. What you're usually dealing with are people that don't have the experience, or are not qualified at the level that (agents and executives are.) And so for them to throw out their random opinion, or to repeat negative coverage that maybe one studio gave -- although another one may think it's great -- can be disastrous. Then all of a sudden you get responses from people saying, 'I heard it was a pass,' or, 'I heard it wasn't good,' and (they) don't take the time to read it. When you send out a spec, you're pushing a rock uphill anyway. But when the tracking boards (kick in), that rock gets a lot heavier."

But Lessans feels that the only real way to formulate an opinion on a piece of material is to read it yourself. "A valid argument can be made that anything that impedes that buzz and momentum could be hurting that script's chances of selling," Lessans observes. "But I would argue that that has never happened to a truly good script. Good material rises to the top. It doesn't matter if I read on a board somewhere that so-and-so's script was terrible, I'm going to give it a read myself, and so are other people, and if it's worthwhile, it'll eventually overcome (the negative feedback) that some shmoe put up on a board. If it's not, then that (reader or CE) who may have been having a bad day, who may have been vindictive, is probably on some level speaking the truth. And that's why I think that a lot of times people may use tracking as some kind of scapegoat. (They say,) 'My script didn't sell because so-and-so bad mouthed it on a board,' or what-not, but in the end, your script didn't sell because of the quality of the script," Lessans notes.

But just like a game of Telephone, Lessans cautions that any information you acquire through tracking can be inaccurate. "By the time a piece of information reaches me, it may have passed through ten different executives at ten different companies, who wrote it down wrong, who got the writer wrong a lot of times you'll hear about something through tracking and it's not even real. Tracking is the least reliable source of information in this town. Even the stuff that comes over the internet, for better or worse, is mostly orally transferred, and everybody gets the facts wrong. The only way to get accurate information is to call the agent and say, 'Is this real?'"


One odd aspect of the tracking process is that companies who are essentially competing against each other are sharing critical intelligence. "Which is generally why the best material doesn't track," says Lessans. "If an agent calls me up and says, 'I have a fantastic piece of material, don't tell anybody about it,' well, I'm not going to tell anybody about it! Why would I? I'm going to read it, I'm not going to share."

"Knowing who shares tracking is important," says Gladstone, "'cause you don't tell one person something, and tell another person something else. You try to find out who's on which board... you do a lot of recon," he says. Lessans elaborates, "Generally on each board you may have one or two companies at each studio. The idea being, you don't want to be on the same board as your competition." Strader adds, "The people that track, for example at Davis (Entertainment), they're tracking for a specific exec, as opposed to tracking for everybody. Everybody competes side by side for stuff, and they don't really work together. It's very fiefdom-like." So then why is information shared at all? Strader postulates, "People stay in jobs 6 months to a year and a half. Generally, there's not a lot of upward mobility in a lot of these companies. You have to move laterally to move up. So at the end of the day, the only thing CE's really have is the support of their peers, and it's those peers that are going to help them get their next job. Really, it's cultivating a close circle of people who are willing to work with you in the future."


"Tracking is one of the more overrated systems in this town," says Lessans. "I'm just not sure that it ultimately either helps or hurts the material. I get calls very often from agents, asking me to track their scripts, because it brings a lot of attention... For example, after I've passed on a script, an agent may say, 'Please don't track your opinion, don't tell other people what you thought of the script.' That's something I respect, because what they don't want is for me to tell a friend I
didn't like it, and for my friend to not give it a serious read. I understand that." But Lessans -- leading by example -- isn't swayed by someone else's opinion, one way or another. "This is a town where the most valuable thing anybody has is their own personal opinion. So, I think the effective executives out there are going to read it anyway. That's why I say that tracking is over-rated. Doesn't matter what my friend says. I'm going to read it and decide for myself."

Graham Kaye is glad there are stand-up execs like Lessans out there, but knows that there are a few who are not. "In a business that's so incredibly creative, we wish that more people would form their own opinion. I mean, a perfect example is 'Forrest Gump,' which took ten years (to get set up.) Or 'Splash,' which nobody would buy because Brian Grazer didn't have a name yet. (But) it's an agent and a manager's
job to select executives who have their own voice, and really will read the material, and they have a track record (which shows) they won't listen to anybody's opinion but their own."

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