Writers on the Storm IV yielded a pretty great top ten as well as three honorable mentions. We were pretty confident that our winning script, Kevin Madden's RIVETER, an alien invasion movie, would get a lot of play. We were less certain about a few others, which included a few period pieces, dramas and harder-to-market types of scripts. But when time came to send the scripts to our industry list, "Riveter" was the victim of timing -- a similar-themed movie had just tanked at the box office. (We're still working on it, however.) Honorable mention Paul Moxham's excellent basketball comedy VERTICALLY CHALLENGED got him signed with Muraviov Management, which is fantastic, but our top ten weren't getting a lot of traction.
Lo and behold, our pals at powerhouse agency United Talent (who read all 13 top ten plus honorable mentions) blew us away when they said they wanted to meet with the writer of SLEIGHT OF HAND -- an expensive WWII-era magic-themed adventure movie. They fell in love with the writing, the clever characterizations and smart action. In short order, they'd signed Writers on the Storm IV Runner-Up Jeremy Shipp. Shipp is now getting meetings all over town as well as writing on the new "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" animated series for Nickelodeon. Not bad, huh? And he's a super nice guy, too. Check out what he has to say and heed well his advice. Who knows -- maybe you'll be next!
Jim Cirile (JC): Hey, man! Thanks for taking the time. Tell us a little about your background.
JC: And how’d you get that gig?
JS: I think it was one of several places that I just walked into and handed in my resume. I had no idea what to do. This was after I had crewed on several films that I saw in Backstage West, little ads. I had cold-called all the studios, rather naively. I actually got to go onto Paramount a few days in and met with a lady who told me I should learn how to use Excel. But no actual leads. And then I worked at Film Tools for about five months. It was a retail job, very nice boss, good people – but it really got me no closer to working where I wanted to work, at the studios.
JC: Other than learning the tools that go into making a movie.
JS: That’s true. It was fun. Around that time, I got onto the Dreamworks Animation campus. There was a fellow Syracuse graduate, and my friend, also a Syracuse grad, somehow got a hold of him, and he invited us both to the campus, and we walked around. It looks so awesome – it’s the coolest campus in the world over in Glendale – fountains and manicured trees and free lunches. I submitted my resume and after a few interviews, they hired me as a P.A. (production assistant) on SINBAD, LEGEND OF THE SEVEN SEAS. And I won’t go through all that, but after awhile there I thought, you know, maybe I should write an animated movie. That was a very naïve thought because you don’t really just write animated movies, you come up with a pitch and you pitch them, and then they decide if they want to make them. I didn’t know that. So, I wrote an animation feature. I rewrote it a couple of times, and it turned out pretty well. I won a minor contest with it. I decided that I would put that in a query letter and send (it) out to agents.
JC: At this point, did you know that you had to run anything you wrote past the brass at DreamWorks?
JS: I did. I was pretty careful about that. Anything you come up with (while working) at DreamWorks you have to pitch them first, and they get first and last rights of refusal, which was fine with me. And I did pitch the story to them a few times, and they sent me back with a few notes, and heard the pitch a total of maybe three or four times. They were very helpful to me.
JC: So they were actually interested?
JS: They seemed like they were, but they ultimately passed on it, which was fine. Concurrently, I got my first animation agent via this query letter. I had fancy artwork on top of the query letter, which is a mark of amateurism, but I didn’t know that. It was artwork done by a fellow DreamWorks (animation artist). I conscripted him to work on it off-hours.
JC: It’s not amateurish if the artwork you’re presenting blows people away.
JS: This is true. So yes, it caught somebody’s eye, enough for them to want to read my script, which they did, and they liked it enough to sign me. And that was with this agent who was a great agent for about five years or so, and he gave me writing assignments, found me gigs to petition for/audition for. I started making my first bit of money writing. It was all for animation, that was his focus, and expertise.
JC: What was your first paying gig?
JS: It was for a company in the Netherlands, a half-hour Internet sitcom. I’m not sure what ever happened with that, but I got money for it. I was ecstatic.
JC: Do you feel you're wired to be an animation guy, or was it primarily because you were at DreamWorks?
JS: I had always imagined myself writing and directing live action thrillers in the Spielberg vein, movies full of wonder, genre pictures, exciting action/adventure movies. I never really pictured myself as an animation writer. I only really started it as a lark, and soon, after a few years, I found myself – I saw my future and I was writing animation forever, and that’s not a terrible fate by any means, but I did have a passion, an interest in writing other types of movies as well. So I took it upon myself to write a live-action thriller, and that’s how SLEIGHT OF HAND came about.
JC: Now you've always been interested in magic, right?
JS: Yes, I went through a very intense magic phase when I was a kid. I did a couple of shows and all that. It fell away when I got more interested in making movies. Then about five years ago maybe, I bought a trick in a magic store up in Cambria, just for fun, and that reignited the old hobby. And I used that interest in the hobby to write a thriller. I found a story in my research about a magician in 1953, hired by the CIA to find sleight of hand ways of drugging people. I thought that was kind of a cool launch pad for a story, so I wrote one. I had taken a hiatus from DreamWorks. I finished out my contract – I had worked on KUNG FU PANDA for about four years as their editorial supervisor. I said no more for now, and I took a break for about a year and a half, and I worked on some scripts, and one of them was SLEIGHT OF HAND.
JC: What did you do for cash?
JS: I had saved up money. That was about six and a half years I worked for DreamWorks, and my wife and I were very frugal and we saved up a nice chunk of change.
JS: I don’t like to hand out my first drafts to too many people, so my wife read it, gave a few notes, and I rewrote it. I like to spend as much time with it as I can just making it the way I want before everyone tells me what’s wrong with it. (laughs) But after a certain point I know that I cannot achieve greatness on my own – I wish that I could say that I could, but I really can’t. Not to say that the script was potentially that great, but I definitely needed notes, I needed feedback. I found Coverage Ink on the web, and the price looked competitive to me, and I signed up for the dual feedback there, and I also applied concurrently to some other contests. I received two 'considers' from the coverage from Coverage Ink and was very encouraged. Unbeknownst to me, I was entered into the Writers on the Storm Contest because I received those two considers while the contest was running. I certainly wasn’t savvy enough to know that I was submitting to that contest, but I got in and was very happy to, because I received the notice that I was a quarterfinalist, a semifinalist, and finally I got your phone call and I had placed, so I was ecstatic.
JC: Right, Writers on the Storm entry is automatic with any submission to Coverage Ink while the contest is running. Okay, so what happened then?
JS: I had placed in a couple of other contests at the same time, so I was really starting to feel like there’s something to this, and people are kind of enjoying this. Part of my winnings was a big conference call from you, and you gave me a number of notes, and they were not easy notes. They were considerable notes, but hey, I needed them. And I was not discouraged to receive notes like that, especially if I agree with them. They’re exciting. So, I thought about them for awhile, and I rewrote the script based on the notes and I sent it in, and it was a few more months before you and your team were ready with the other scripts to submit them to where you were going to submit them. In the meantime, I worked on another script and started a UCLA writing class. I returned to DreamWorks because I ran out of money.
JC: They were cool with that?
JS: I was very careful not to burn bridges when I left. I tried to be very kind to them, they were so kind to me. And I really think the world of them, they’re such a great company. So I was back at Dreamworks, and time had passed, and you finally emailed out and you said, I’m going to be submitting to our connections as part of your winnings, so consider this date your deadline for polishes – I believe it was in early October – and I said, oh great. So I cracked open the script again, and because time had passed, I was able to really read my script with fresh eyes, and I instantly saw that there were a number of things wrong with it. I didn’t like how I had addressed your notes – it wasn’t that I didn’t like your notes, it was that I felt like I had addressed them in the wrong way, so I canned my rewrite and I started with the older draft and I did a completely new rewrite using your notes.
JC: You went back to the previous draft?
JS: I went back to the previous draft. I discarded what I had rewritten, but I took your notes, took the older draft and started anew, and came up with what I thought was a much better addressing of those notes. I handed to my wife; she really dug it, I really dug it. I was feeling good about it, and I sent that in.
JC: Awesome. Not everyone took the time to do that -- really crank to make sure the script was as good as they could get it by the deadline.
JS: I’ve heard several times that the last ten percent of any project is the hardest, to get that final ten percent, and it’s consistently where people seem to give up.
JC: Much though I loved this script, i figured it would be a tough sell. Period piece, big budget, and there have been a bunch of magic-themed period pieces both made and in development.
JS: I know. Expensive period piece. And I’m an unknown writer – I don’t have credits. But one of the people who did want to read it was UTA's Emerson Davis, and he wanted to meet with me. I was so excited. I was also very nervous because I had just signed a new two-year contract with my existing agent and so I was worried about that, but I of course wanted to take the meeting anyway. I met with Emerson, Julien Thuan and Ben Jacobson, and they were extraordinarily nice to me. They asked if I would like you to come over (to UTA). On January third of this year I had the talk with my agent and he took it very well. He said, you know what, if UTA would like to be with you, go ahead, give it a shot. He wished me the best of luck. I’m still on very good terms with him. I’m working at TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES for Nickelodeon right now as a staff writer. That is something that he got me, and I couldn’t be happier with this day job, and it’s just a wonderful, wonderful gig.
JC: That's awesome. So what's going on with SLEIGHT OF HAND now?
JS: I’m taking lots of "generals" -- that's meet n' greet meetings, the bottled water tour, as they say, although it’s the tap water tour now, because everyone’s gone green. They tell you they like your script, and they tell you what they’re looking for, and if it happens to align with your interests, you can try to pursue that. I’ve had a great time so far, I’ve got about eight more meetings on the horizon that Emerson has set up for me. I don’t want to piss off my new employers here by taking too many meetings, so I’m trying to be as transparent as possible at every stage, every step here.
JC: Staff gig on an animated show is pretty amazing. But you're also working on a new feature spec, right?
JS: I’m working on an adventure spec in my off hours when I’m not trying to break eternal stories with my employers. I’m very excited to get that off the ground. Actually, it took me a little bit of doing to try and figure out my genre. I’m doing animation as my day job, but the type of scripts I’m putting out into the market, SLEIGHT OF HAND was an adventure/spy thriller, and I had my sights set on a comedy next. It’s hard when you’re in a room and you’re in there for a thriller and you say you’ve been working on a comedy and their eyes kind of glaze. So I had written a comedy and I did submit that to Coverage Ink as well, and I got two passes on it. Those two passes were well earned and deserved, I believe. It was not my strongest effort. A very similar story was recently purchased by Summit, so I took that as a sign to set that project aside and try to, at least in the short term, keep my specs within a particular area – adventure/thriller, I’ll try to be that guy for a while.
JC: Yeah, you definitely have to pigeonhole yourself when you're starting out. The good news is there's plenty of room for comedy within the adventure/thriller genre.
JS: Absolutely. Someone said that your first half of your career you should spend trying to put yourself into a box, and the last half, to get it out of it.
JC: Right on. Thanks for taking the time, Jeremy. Sounds like things are really exploding for you now. Any words of advice for folks who hope to be the next Jeremy Shipp?
JS: The next Jeremy Shipp? (laughs) Really, just keep rewriting. One rewrite, two rewrites, three rewrites are not enough. You have to keep going. Print it out on paper, dual side if you want to save the trees, and read it, write on it, set it aside, and then bring it out, do it again, and just keep doing it, because that last ten percent is just so important, and I think many people decide to let their script go at that stage and it’s not going to help.
JC: Right. What do you think would have happened if we'd sent your earlier draft to UTA?
JS: We would not be having this conversation, that’s for sure. I’ve rewritten the script, and it was good enough to get me into UTA. But I know people are not buying it. It requires even more work, I’m sure. And if someone does decide to buy it, I’m sure they’ll give me more notes. It never ends. And we as writers need to be okay with that and embrace it. The last thing is, don't overlook a great contest for what it can do for you. Whoever says that contests get you nowhere should be shot. You got me signed to UTA!