Are TV specs are the new feature specs? More than ever, baby writers need to be all things to all people. Our panel of top Hollywood reps shows you how.
by Jim Cirile
ADAM PERRY, APA
RICHARD ARLOOK, THE ARLOOK GROUP
JAKE WAGNER, BENDERSPINK
Hollywood is making less fricking movies than ever. This creates a ripple effect affecting pretty much everything -- less scripts being sold means less opportunities to break in, which even means less interest on the part of agents, managers and development executives for reading spec material, and on and on. Ugh. Taking up the slack has been TV, which has been boomtown lately. As a result, some reps like Jake Wagner from Benderspink, long-known for setting up feature specs, have shifted focus towards TV (hence the whole ”paradigm shift” thing. With me? Good.)
|Richard Arlook, Arlook Group|
Can a writer still break in with “just” a killer feature spec? “We target clients that can do more than one thing,” says APA feature lit agent Adam Perry. "Obviously, I hear legends of the days 10 or 15 years ago where you’d go out with a (feature), and almost every other spec sold for a high price. Now it’s more that the people we target, A, we think they can play in the studio feature game, and B, they can be attractive to the TV market as well.” Jake Wagner says he still encourages his clients to write spec features. “Hopefully, we’ll sell it, but if we don’t, hopefully it serves as a sample to break them into TV. I’m finding a lot of new people I’m signing are off of original spec pilots. For original ideas, (the place to go is) TV.” Arlook Group’s Richard Arlook puts it like this: “If you’re a typical motion picture lit agent, who used to rely on selling specs, you have no choice but to seek alternative revenue streams. If you’re still in this business 5 or 10 years later, the only way you’re surviving is because you’ve become entrepreneurial within that agency. You’ve learned to pursue reality stuff, television, packaging, all of those things any smart representative would be doing.”
Says Perry, “I’m on the feature side, so obviously (a writer has) to have a good feature or I’m not really interested. But we really beat home in the meetings, and when we’re putting a team together to go sign someone, that we hope you have TV aspirations.” And if you don’t, he says, well, buccaneers, you’d best start. “There are lots of networks now, and all these new places popping up – Crackle, Hulu, Yahoo!, all these new channels – are looking for studio writers or just big feature writers in general. They (often) have big show ideas that we can develop and sell to a network or to one of the cool cable channels. At least at our agency, it’s very important that the feature agents are always talking to the TV agents and vice-versa. So without saying it’s essential, it’s definitely more than 50/50 – I’d say 80/20 – that we want people who can do both.”
So this means you should probably have a good feature sample AND a good TV pilot sample before you go rep hunting. Aw, come on, it’s not so bad. 1-hour TV pilot scripts are half the length of features. Piece of cake. Well, except for plotting out the full multi-season arc and all the character bios and show bible and so forth… hrm. Damn.
Well, if you’re just not feeling the TV side, fear not. There are other paths yet. Says Perry, “The one good thing about the studios making less movies is that there are more non-studio financiers popping up. There are new opportunities every day for writers to set up some projects. Some of these places will make the projects that the studios won’t make any more.” Indeed, earlier this year, Perry set up Alexis Jolly's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the Mr. Rogers biopic, at Treehouse Pictures. “That movie has no place in the studio system,” says Perry. “But for $10 million with the right actor and right director, they can get hopefully good domestic results out of the Fred Rogers story.” Adds Arlook, “There’s always a new kid in town. Somebody comes in with a development fund and 5,000 agents descend upon them. Maybe you get lucky, maybe you don’t. They’re not necessarily gonna pay you a big quote anyways. But maybe it can keep things going or open a door.”
And on the feature side, don’t underestimate the power of the Black List. Even if a script doesn’t sell, getting on there can launch or revive a career. Says Arlook, “I represent (a writer) who’s been around forever, 30 years or so. He’s had some success, some not-so-success, but he’s always kind of made a living.” Eight years ago that writer’s studio movie opened but underperformed. Soon he was forced to take jobs well below his quote just to keep the lights on. “Finally he got an opportunity based on his (studio) script two years ago to do a discretionary fund project,” says Arlook, “and literally got paid (half his quote) to write the script. He took it because he liked it and thought he could do a good job. Well, he wrote a great, great script. It ended up on the Black List. (An A-list actor) loved it and committed to it, and now it’s getting made and he’s getting big assignment work at the studios again and making well beyond what his quote was at the time. What I’m saying is you can turn around. I still believe that if you’re in Peoria right now or wherever you are and you write that brilliant script… the cream always rises.”
The key, says Perry, is “write something that is unique. Then (when you) give it to someone, the topic’s going to be so cool and so interesting that they’re going to want to pass it to their friends. And amongst those Hollywood execs, it goes viral. That’s how you land on the Black List. That’s how you sneak a sale in there early. So write about something one, that you’re passionate about, and two, that you think has the possibility to raise a lot of eyebrows. Whether it be someone’s biopic that people are fascinated with like Rodham, from last year -- for a young writer to tell a true story and tell it in a unique way, I think it opens a lot of eyes. And by the way, the Rodham script (by Young Il Kim) was discovered by our own Richard Arlook. “That was off a query letter,” Arlook marvels. “That was a one in a million, but it was a query letter. There was something in that query that struck my fancy. I forwarded it to (Jason Hong) and I said, “This sounds interesting. Read it. And he read it and he said this is really good. So I read it and I said, ‘Shit, it is really good.’ Look where that guy is.” Rodham is currently fast-tracked with James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) attached to direct.
So whether you’re working on a TV pilot or a feature spec, remember to bring the uniqueness, bring the voice. It has to be different enough to stand out from the pack. Competency is no longer good enough. Safeties off, boys and girls! Go get ‘em.
Jim Cirile is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles and the owner of leading discount screenplay analysis/development service coverageink.com as well as Coverage Ink Films. His latest movie is the animated horror feature Malevolent. His previous AHS columns written over the course of a decade for Creative Screenwriting magazine are available as an e-book: Agent’s Hot Sheet – Ten Years of Screenwriting Wisdom from Hollywood’s Top Reps.