Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Agent's Hot Sheet -- The New Paradigm

by Jim Cirile

All of us have certain expectations of the way the business works -- you write a spec, hopefully sell it for a lot of dough and launch your career. But there has been a paradigm shift, and you’d better know how Hollywood operates circa today if you plan on embarking on a writing career.

Got a mail last week from a friend of mine, a noted screenwriting teacher, in response to my column "The Speck Market", about the ever-shrinking spec marketplace:

“Jim, great column. But this causes a tough time teaching screenwriting. They all have dramas. And no one is buying dramas. No one is buying much of anything from new writers. Can't get an agent for them. Half of them are over 40 (or 50) -- it's too late for them, practically speaking, but what are you supposed to tell them?  They can't come in and write ‘Shrek V.’ They can't afford bestsellers to adapt or find a way to package stars into their new scripts. They don't have the rights to TV shows or past movies for remakes or sequels. They all come out naked. I feel as though we're teaching a theoretic, classical, dead art form.”

Yep, “Sad but True” isn’t just a Metallica song. The old paradigm is dead. Long live the new paradigm. What say we bring in the panel and get their take on the issues raised?

The first point: they all have dramas, and no one is buying dramas. Sadly, yes, the days of Hollywood making a fair amount of dramatic feature films are for all intents and purposes over. With a few notable exceptions, what would have probably been a dramatic film that got a theatrical release in the 1970s is now likely a Lifetime or Showtime film. “It also depends on who that client is,” says producer/manager Richard Arlook from the Arlook Group. “If it’s somebody established who’s got some real writing credits, then it’s not impossible to get them a job. But I would tell them (not to) write a spec drama unless they had an amazing relationship with some major actor/director; some kind of element going into it.” And if you don’t have any connex? “If you’re a baby writer obsessed with writing drama, then write a small one that could be done as a small under-$1 million movie that could maybe still get into Sundance or work on the festival circuit for you. But the old days of just being able to sell a well-written drama and then get open writing (assignment) work is, for the most part, over.”

And because of that, attracting feature reps is going to be that much harder. “The problem is, (launching a new dramatic feature writer is) just a lot of work,” says Magnet Management’s Jennie Frankel. “It’s going to be a labor of love. And when you’re looking at taking on a new client, you don’t want projects that are labors of love.” Why? Months and months of working a difficult project with a tiny chance of success versus a commercial one – which would you choose? She continues, “If (a writer has) this amazing drama and understands how the business works and there’s a really obvious piece of casting, then absolutely that would be someone you’d want to sign. But if they’re like, yeah, I’m a drama writer and that’s all I want to do -- (write) movies that aren’t going to get made anywhere -- then who really has the time?” There are plenty of things you can write that are just a simple sidestep away from drama -- for example, romantic drama, or drama with a certain genre element to it. You can have your cake and eat it, too, if you’re smart about it. “That’s the difference between the people who get it and don’t get it,” says Frankel. “I mean, if you look at ‘Twilight.’ ‘Twilight’ is really a drama, but it’s hung around vampires.” And don’t overlook the most obvious path of all for drama writers right now: TV.

The next point: no one is buying much of anything from new writers. Well, of course it's never easy out there in the spec market, especially during tough times, but the market has been responsive lately. But don't expect windfalls. Up until a few years ago, the way in for feature writers was clear -- write a great script, an agent or manager will sign you and blast your script out to the town, and then when the script sells, you’re off to the races. Even if it didn’t, you’d hopefully get a pile of general meetings, and if you’re cool and easy to work with, that could turn into writing assignments. While this still happens, there have been some changes. The first is that more often than not, the specs don’t sell -- they just become writing samples. You still get the meetings, but if you land a writing assignment off them, you’ll probably be hired for scale plus 10%, a far cry from what you’d have made if the spec had sold. And the second sea-change is agents and managers are seldom blasting scripts out to the town anymore. “I haven’t gone wide with a script since last July,” says ICM’s Ava Jamshidi. “I specifically target certain producers,” she says. “For the most part, I’m trying to find one producer for a project before showing it to buyers.” She’s pleased to note several recent sales were from baby writers... sort of. “A number of them are established writers in television, but they’ve never sold anything in features before. So they do have a body of work; it’s not the same thing as coming right out of film school. I’ve helped establish a fan base off of pilots and other things like that. We didn’t break the bank on (those deals,) but, you know, they’re big opportunities.”

The next point: the dread pirate Ageism. It’s true: Hollywood is a youth-oriented town. And we’ve all heard stories that after a certain age, you can’t get arrested in the biz. And yet many of the top working writers in film and TV are in their 40s and 50s. So does ageism even really exist? “It would be ridiculous for me to say that it doesn’t happen,” says manager A.B. Fischer from Shuman Co. “If they’re looking for the next up and coming writer, the 50 year old person is probably not that person. But with an incredible piece of writing, it doesn’t matter.” Jamshidi agrees, “Breaking in is challenging no matter who you are or what age you are. Ultimately, ageism will never exist when the talent is there. If somebody’s good, they’re good. It doesn’t matter how old you are.” Jamshidi adds, it’s less about age than it is about personality. “For me, the biggest thing is how they are in a room. If somebody’s awesome and dynamic and great in a room, then that’s almost as important as being a really good writer. Having a really good script gets you into the room, but if you can’t wow ‘em once you’re there, you’re never going to get the job.”

Arlook explains the real way ageism works: “Let’s say Writer ‘A’ graduates USC Film School at 21 years old. He writes a spec, and it sells; he gets a couple of assignments. By the time he’s 25, he’s a working writer. Everybody that he knows (are now) VPs at the studios or working for producers or producers themselves. He continues to work and tends to get hired by his contemporaries. So now it’s 20 years later. He’s in his mid 40s. Meanwhile, there are other guys in their mid 20s that went to film school being hired by their contemporaries. The reality of it is that once you get to be in your 40s in this business, you’re working on a really, really senior level. How many guys in their 40s are reading samples and stuff like that? You can call it ageism. To me, it’s like a circle of life.”

On a brighter note, Fischer asserts that TV in particular shows more promise for the above-30 set than features. “Showrunners are looking for writers to bring in a lot of life experience to a room with a lot of stories to tell. And a 24 year old that just graduated from the graduate program at USC doesn’t really have a lot of stories to tell.”

And the last point of the letter: writers can’t afford to option best-sellers to adapt. Nonsense. There are plenty of places to find source material. It needn’t be a current best-seller. “I’ve gotten rights to random books that we’ve sort of agreed, wow that’s a really interesting story,” says Fischer, “and we’ve gotten (them) for practically nothing because it’s old and no one’s really ever asked about them.” And don’t forget public domain, which means everything ever written up till about 100 years ago! “I would always advise updating a classic story,” says Fischer. “A live action version of ‘Cinderella’ just sold for seven figures this week. Shakespeare is another great example. There’s been a ton of projects set up based on updating Shakespeare plays.”

So fret not, intrepid readers. The paradigm may have changed, but Agent’s Hot Sheet will continue to be your beacon in the dark. Keep the faith!

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