Ben Cahan has been part of the entertainment industry for years, but not in any of the typical roles we've come to associate with show business. Ben is the pioneering computer programmer who created and co-founded Final Draft screenwriting software. After leaving Final Draft, Ben decided to put on his pioneer hat yet again. His latest venture is the new online screenwriting community called Talentville, which is sort of like Trigger Street, InkTip, Zoetrope and Project: Greenlight all mashed together and topped with a shimmering bow of screenwritery goodness. We got a chance to talk to him about his ambitious plans.
Interview by Jim Cirile
Jim Cirile (JC): Thanks for chatting with us, Ben. What was the genesis of Final Draft? Did you look at what was out there and say, eh, we can do better?
Ben Cahan (BC): Before Final Draft, I wrote production software -- budgeting and scheduling software. People came to me and said, “We’re not happy with the screenwriting software out there.” Everybody wanted something better, and the tools [were] just becoming available to really integrate a word processor, and then add the intelligence to do screenwriting, all in one package. The genesis was customers.
JC: And it did become the predominant screenwriting software.
BC: It did. There was Scriptware, there was Script Thing, which I think turned into Movie Magic Screenwriter. There were a number of other products, and we squished them all. And I’m happy about that. There’s no reason, as a businessman, to not want to be number one.
JC: You are no longer part of the company, correct? You and [co-founder] Marc [Madnick] parted ways amiably?
|Talentville founder Ben Cahan|
BC: Absolutely, we’re still very good friends. Friends and business partners are a strange combination – the mix is not as easy as one might think. We started as friends. I sold out to him in 2003/2004, so it’s been a while now. After that, I did some traveling, some outdoor adventuring, and ultimately, when I decided I wanted to actually do something again, I started reading screenplays. Many will laugh at that – the idea that I thought I could be a production executive and producer, being a software creator. Creating software for writing screenplays is not the same as producing movies. Over a six-month period, four to five years ago, maybe a little bit longer, I read about 2,000 scripts. But even though I found a few good scripts, it was too much time – it was six months to read 2,000 scripts, to find ten I liked. I realized that needed work.
JC: Sure, you need a filter.
BC: I said, there has to be a better way. I did some investigation of what resources are out there – how can this process be done better. Having interns, sitting downstairs reading, that’s still one opinion. But you can automate the process to create a system that really can find, through crowd-sourcing -- a word I’ve come to love -- stuff that at least makes it to a certain point. The goal is not necessarily for the open community to pick the next movie that’s going to be made. Even [at] Project Greenlight, which was a great idea but a failed experiment, the real producer got involved and read the top scripts to decide. But if you have a thousand scripts, six hundred of those, from totally amateur writers, are going to have grammatical problems, they’re going to have no structure, no story, no plot, poor characterizations, bad dialogue – and that’s just because writing does take some skill. So, start with a thousand. Six hundred can go away right away by anybody reading them -- anybody that even understands anything about screenwriting. (Then) you have to have a multi-level review system where people that are more experienced get involved, and that’s the kind of thing that I wanted to create.
|Talentville's Main Street|
JC: Yeah, it would be great if there were a site that does what the Hollywood system does, without being the Hollywood system.
BC: There are enough scripts out there that no company could hire enough readers to read all of them. So the idea is - get the public involved. That’s the secret. And I will tell you why it works, by the way. It works for the same reason that Amazon.com’s book reviews work. If a book has a hundred reviews on Amazon and three stars, I will almost guarantee you it’s a three-star book. If a book has a hundred reviews and it’s five stars, I guarantee you, they’ll love it. It just works, because people aren’t stupid, because people know what a good story is.
Being altruistic is not a business, so my goal was to get people in the industry involved -- getting managers, agents, producers, to be looking at these top scripts. The only site, or the only company that actually does send out active things to producers is InkTip. My issue with InkTip is that they don’t have any quality control. I don’t want to cut down Jerrol LeBaron and InkTip, but the point is that if you can have that access, and you can also tell people that it’s good, how much more valuable would that be to an agent or manager or producer whose time is valuable?
JC: Sounds good to me. So Talentville is trying to offer the best elements of other sites and then some.
BC: I want to do everything. Yeah, there [are] elements of InkTip, there [are] elements of Trigger Street, there [are] elements of Zoetrope, there [are] even elements of Amazon Studios. But Zoetrope and Trigger Street and Amazon, they don’t invite the industry. They don’t say, listen, you’re a producer, we’ll give you a protected membership. InkTip does, but InkTip doesn’t have the quality control, which is key. Trigger Street has the quality control, but no industry people looking. Maybe some people do, but they have to use an alias, because otherwise – can you imagine if (a big-shot producer) logs on (under his own name), guess how many queries he’s going to get? My industry people, I want them invited, I want them there, I want them looking, but they are completely protected. You have a way for writers to get some rewards, get noticed, see where they stand, and you give the industry people the quality control so they don’t waste their time.
JC: How does the cream rise? What is the process?
BC: You have to get in the (on-site script) Library and then you have to do some work. You’ve got to do some reviews of other people’s work. You earn "Talent Dollars," and then you spend those to buy reviews for your script. And when you get a certain number of reviews coming in, then you get a site score based upon a number of categories -- character, dialogue, overall concept, that kind of thing. So you get to see what areas you’re strong in. And if your script is strong enough, you can make one of our weekly Top Ten charts, or be a finalist in our script of the month competition. The current prize for that is simple – free coverage from Scriptapalooza. But ultimately, as time goes along and we sign up more agents and managers and producers, the idea is that these charts [will] be the Billboard Top 100 or the Black List of the common script. Then, even if industry people only log on just to check the chart this week, people are getting looked at. And if people get looked at, then people get contacted.
JC: And it's free to sign up?
BC: For the moment the site is completely free, both for industry people and for writers. There are going to be limitations to the memberships when we get everything finished, that we want to get.
JC: Wow, sounds like a great opportunity.
BC: Especially now – when there ten thousand scripts it will be much harder to win, just like when Amazon first launched their studios it was relatively easy to qualify for one of their prizes. But as sites mature and as more product is there – yes, now is the time, we are just starting our competitions and we have about five hundred scripts in the library total. When there are five thousand, the competition will be stiffer than it is now.
JC: So are you still planning on producing?
BC: I don’t want to compete with the people in the industry that I’m trying to attract. However, I would like to find management companies or agencies who are willing to give a contract or representation for a certain period of time to our top people. And that would be a great prize because one of the toughest things is getting in the door of these companies. Everyone loves cash, but people want to see their story on the screen or on TV. That’s the goal. The cash will come. We’re hoping to get Coverage Ink involved in this process.
JC: You bet, Ben. We've already posted a few articles in Talentville University.
BC: I’d like to thank you, Jim, for taking the time out to have a chat about Talentville.
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