THE FIRST DEAL… AND BEYOND
At last! You’ve polished your masterpiece into a brilliant gem of spec-scripty goodness, and you’ve scored yourself a representative. Now can you keep that ball rolling?
By Jim Cirile
The Arlook Group
International Creative Management
The Shuman Company
International Creative Management
United Talent Agency
I’ve done a lot of columns about breaking in since I took over this column years ago. This time out, let’s assume that after years of honing your craft, studying the business and banging away at the 12’-thick electrified wrought iron portcullis separating you from Hollywood, you’ve finally scored representation and have a spec script going out. Sweet!
We all know that connections are everything in Hollywood, so I was very curious to know if a new (or “baby”) writer’s spec would be taken as seriously as if that same script had been written by a name writer. UTA’s Julien Thuan actually thinks it’s easier to get a buyer to make an offer on a newcomer, “because there’s less development money. Anytime someone can find a great script with a perceived lower price point, they get very excited,” he says. “It reduces the thought process to the quality of the material.” And ICM agent Emile Gladstone believes a new writer’s spec has as good a shot as an established one’s. “A recognizable name may get your script read faster, but if you have your event movie that everybody’s looking for right now, people will respond,” says Gladstone. Manager Jake Wagner from FilmEngine adds, “Of course, people will read a David Benioff (Troy, Wolverine) script the day they get it, whereas they may sit on a new writer’s for a week or so. But at the end of the day, it’s about what’s on the page.”
Thuan also tips the odds by craftily turning unknown writers into known quantities. “Ideally, you’ve introduced the writer in some way,” he says,” whether it’s because they had another writing sample, or you’ve found some way to frame it so that the potential buyers have a familiarity or understanding of that writer as a person. They tend to get more invested and loosen up a little bit in their faith in the writer’s ability to execute. Suddenly they have a relationship with the writer, or an awareness of the writer, beyond just what’s on the page.” Viola -- instant connection!
Suppose a buyer is circling. How do our panelists get them to pony up an offer? Wagner says there are two ways to play the game: straight-shooter or smoke-and-mirrors. “You don’t want to burn a buyer,” cautions Wagner. “If we’ve got someone interested, instead of (saying), ‘Oh, we’re going to take it (to another buyer) instead,’ we’ll give them that fair shot. We’ll try the best we can to make that deal work. Everybody knows the hype game anyway. It’s almost old-school.” The Arlook Group’s Richard Arlook agrees that misleading a buyer into thinking another company is interested is self-destructive. “Everything is about leverage," he says. “But if it’s not there, I never try to say that somebody is interested when they’re not. It backfires, and you look like an idiot.” So how does Arlook get that buyer to make an offer when there’s no leverage? “If it’s a studio, you go to them and say, ‘Listen, we’ll make it cheap.’”
ICM’s Nicole Clemens notes, “Even without leverage, if you can create some heat, and if the producers appreciate the idea, (you can get the price up,)” she says. “It depends on what you have to work with. For example, if they want to buy it because another studio is developing a pitch with a similar idea, but this script is pretty close to going, you can drive the price higher on that. We can fan the flames, but if you have no actual leverage, (you may be out of luck.)” Wagner agrees, “With a baby writer, we just hope for a scale deal, or scale plus 10% -- get some money in their bank account, get some meetings, hopefully book some assignments off that spec.”
And then hopefully you'll find yourself taking a lot of meetings. Yes, that means you will have to go out and interact with people. I know some of us wish we could hole up in our little caves, stalagmites dripping on our heads as we type in dark hermitage. If that’s the case, “you should be a playwright, or you should be a novelist,” says Gladstone. “Hollywood is a collaborative industry.” Which brings us to probably the most important lesson of this column: it is paramount you learn to be “good in a room.” All of our panelists agree that being personable and ebullient in meetings is critical to having any sort of sustained career. “You have to be extraordinarily talented to (get by with being) very quiet and uncommunicative,” continues Gladstone, who goes so far as to send his writer clients to acting class. “(Executives) are bored. They have A.D.D. I’m not saying drink 20 cappuccinos and be psychotic, but you have to be big in a room.” Wagner adds, “It’s an interview to see if they want to work with you. If an exec brings you in on an assignment or takes out a pitch with you, you’re in their life for maybe the next six months to a year, or more if the movie gets green-lit.”
Arlook reminds everyone to research whom you’re meeting with. “There are some people that if you go in there and you’re all hyper, that’s a turnoff. Everybody’s got a different personality. What are their likes and dislikes? That’s your job to do your research.” And find out the producer’s slate, too. “If you know they have a big sci-fi assignment,” says Gladstone, ”you can say, ‘I really love sci-fi movies’ and list three movies similar to the assignment they have. They’ll say, ‘Oh! Well, we have this assignment…’ It’s not just enough to be a talented writer. You have to lead the conversation.”
Okay, so say you land that first sale. Nice work! Now how do you keep it going? First things first: expect to rewrite your script. “I think the mistake a lot of (agents) make,” says Clemens, “is that a client sells a script, and they send him out on the parade float -- but at a certain point, (the client) needs to nail that rewrite. Better to not be too focused on, ‘Okay, what’s my next thing?’” Clemens cautions that delivering on the rewrite is a crucial demonstration of the writer's ability to take notes and deliver, and she recommends not saturating the client with work too early. “You have to be careful not to overload yourself. I’ve had this happen -- (the client’s) so green, they’re right out of college, they sell their first script and they’re taking all these assignments. And then they neglect their rewrite, or they get overwhelmed in the process. Next thing you know, they’re tanking.” Gladstone notes that a big part of his job is playing traffic cop, making sure his clients don’t overextend themselves. “It’s very hard to deliver on three jobs simultaneously, and you don’t want to make people wait. They hire you to do a job; they expect you to do it now. You don’t want to take the job until you’re on the downhill slope of whatever other job you’re on.”
Lastly, we asked our panelists for advice they’d give potential new clients. Gladstone feels that most importantly, a client should be respectful of the agent’s time. “They’re not your shrink. Don’t call them up with your personal problems. Time is my commodity. Time is (the writer’s) commodity, too.” Gladstone also advises that a writer should ask the rep a lot of questions and not be railroaded. “If they say, ‘I want to you to these three producers with this project,’ (ask) ‘Why these three? I’d like to know.’ I’m not saying challenge them, but if you don’t understand something, ask questions.” Thuan feels that the agent and the client both need to be clear about their expectations up front. “The agent has to work really, really hard to break a new writer,” says Thuan. “But it’s also about passion. Anytime that I’ve been successful in introducing a writer, some of the reason why people read the writer in the first place, or read it in the right frame of mind, is because I’m passionate about the writer. Too often I think the word ‘flyer’ is used, and I think it’s accurate. Agents will take on a client thinking, ‘Oh, this script might sell. We’ll put him on the list.’ Frankly, you have to hold your agent to a high standard of taste and know that things your agent sends out are read seriously.” Arlook concludes, “Until they start really generating a lot of money, their expectations should be that as long as the agent is honest with them and trying to sell their sell their scripts, they should make an effort not to be a pain in the ass,” he laughs.
Reprinted courtesy of Creative Screenwriting magazine.
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