Thursday, September 27, 2012

Real World Networking

Six people have contacted me so far this week either asking for business help or proposing a business venture. The requests have ranged from giving advice to a friend’s kid to asking for help finding investors for an independent feature to a proposal to collaborate on a spec script.

Most of these requests came from people I consider friends and I certainly don’t mind them asking. But you can probably imagine that I have to turn the majority of them down. If I said yes to every proposal it would be like taking on two new full time jobs every week, and I have my own projects to do! (The thing that does annoy me is when someone tries to make me responsible for their happiness or career – “If you don’t help me I’ll have to give up my dream project!” It doesn’t work. I want to run from those situations.)

I also had two interesting lunches recently that got me thinking about networking. I’m going to leave out the names and change a few identifying details so I don’t upset anyone.

First, I went to lunch with a friend I met seven or eight years ago when we both joined the same writers group. The writers group didn’t last long, but we stayed friends and both of our careers have progressed considerably since then. My friend has an office on a studio lot, which is where I met him for lunch.

While we were eating, I told him about a project I was working on that I would be taking to producers soon. It just so happened that a producer he’s worked with was looking for that kind of material – and had an office on the same lot. So we walked over and he introduced me. Just a quick introduction, but a first point of contact. Then, on the way back to the parking lot, I ran into a successful director I’d become acquainted with socially a while back but haven’t spoken to in at least two years. We spent a few minutes catching up. That’s some pretty good networking considering my only agenda was to have lunch with my friend!

The second lunch was with three former students. One had gotten a job at a small production company after school and then brought the other two into the company. Their careers are off and running.

All of this demonstrates how networking happens in the real world. And here are three lessons I would take away from it:

1. Your best networking is sideways. In other words, your opportunities will mostly come from people at your level. When I first met my writer friend with the office on the lot we were both still early in our careers. And my former students got their breaks from each other, not by schmoozing Hollywood bigwigs. Don’t think of networking as cultivating power players who can do you favors, think of it as building a community of people who can help and support each other. And plan on giving at least as much as you’ll get.

2. Location, location, location. You’re probably not going to run into producers and directors if you go to lunch with a friend in Cleveland. All of the significant agencies are based in L.A. All studio feature development happens in L.A. All network TV development and most cable development happens in L.A. So it helps to live in L.A. New York is okay too – there’s a big indie film community, some cable development, and some of the bigger agencies have branches there. A few other places have small indie film communities – if you want to make ultra-low-budget, personal films then Austin, Texas isn’t a bad place to be. But the bottom line: you’ve got to go where the action is.

By the way – it’s not enough to move to L.A. if all you’re going to do is sit in your room writing. You also have to do things like join screenwriting groups and organizations and take classes and attend seminars. You’ve got to hang out where your fellow filmmakers hang out.

3. Genuine networking often takes time to pay off. People are always talking about what you should do if you happen to get in an elevator with Steven Spielberg. My advice: don’t pitch him your film. I’ve never heard of anybody selling anything this way. If I’ve gotten six requests for help this week I can only imagine how many Mr. Spielberg’s gotten. His defenses will be way, way up. Genuine networking is about building real relationships with people in the business that you actually like. If you do that, then when they see an opportunity to help you, they will. But it might be years from now. That’s okay, you’re in it for the long haul, right? You better be, because overnight success is a myth.


Only one week left to become a backer of my short film on Kickstarter!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Agents and Managers – What’s the Difference?

Most aspiring screenwriters are heavily focused on getting an agent. Most, in fact, focus too much on this when they really should be concentrating on becoming better writers and getting to know people in the business, but that’s another post. Traditionally, getting an agent has been considered the first step in becoming a professional screenwriter.

But over the last fifteen years or so, a somewhat new type of representation has become commonplace: the manager. Many pros these days have both. (Currently I only have an agent but I’ve had a manager in the past.) And many new writers wonder what the difference is.

Legally, the difference is that agents are licensed by the State of California and allowed to solicit work on your behalf. Managers are not licensed and therefore barred from soliciting work. However most do anyway and few writers report a manager that finds them a job!

Another major difference is that agents, if they are legitimate*, are franchised by the Writers Guild of America. This provides protections for the writer, such as limiting agent commissions to a maximum of 10% and allowing the writer to get out of the agency contract if the agent fails to find them work for 90 days (though that rule is seldom needed… few agents would try to force an unhappy writer to stay at the agency.)

So in practice one of the big differences is that agents have specific rules they have to play by and managers do not. That makes signing with a manager a more risky proposition. (And FYI: common practice is that managers take 10% to represent screenwriters. 15% is standard for actors.)

Another big difference that has practical implications is that agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This prevents a lot of conflict of interest. Many managers are managers so that they can also produce. Many management companies are also production companies.

This has advantages and disadvantages for the writer. On the one hand, if the managers are good at producing and the production company gets a lot of movies made, it gives you preferred access to them as buyers. And, if a manager is attached to a script as producer, they shouldn’t take a commission on any sale, saving you your 10%.

On the other hand there’s that pesky conflict of interest. Some of the big management companies are known for only pushing clients’ material if they want to produce it. If they’re not interested in producing, the client is ignored. Also, having a manager attached to a script as a producer could be a negative when others may be considering buying that script. At the very least, they’re going to have to pay your manager and share credit with them. Any attachments (including director or movie star) can help or hurt – it all depends on how the buyer feels about working with that person. And if your script does sell, your manager will likely be more interested in their producing deal than your writing deal.

So when you are meeting with a potential manager you should discuss under what conditions they will come onto your projects as producer, what they bring to the table in those situations, and what happens when they aren’t going to produce. Writers’ feelings vary about what answers they hope to get to these questions, but at least you’ll be informed.

The difference you’ll hear most is that managers provide career counseling that agents don’t. These days, this is usually true. In fact, I believe managers arose partly because agents were taking on more clients and doing less career counseling. Most just don’t have time anymore to give you extensive feedback on your spec scripts, for example. They want to be out selling your material.

That’s where (good) managers come in. They will generally be a lot more available to read and give feedback on material, coach you in preparation for pitches, and discuss possible long-term career plans. Of course good agents are involved in these things as well, but the manager should give you more time.

Another crucial difference is that it’s usually easier to get a manager than an agent, especially for a new writer. And, managers often help their new writers find an agent. If you get both, whichever order you get them in, you do want to make sure they can work together. Because they’ll need to. The ideal manager-agent pair has several clients in common so they have an established relationship.

So do you need a manager? As the saying goes, “A good manager is worth more than their commission, a bad manager is worth nothing.” It is certainly possible to be a working writer without a manager – or even an agent. On the other hand, if you could double your income wouldn’t you be willing to give up 10% of the results in return?

If you are considering signing with a manager, you will want to meet with them and discuss the things I’ve mentioned as well as how they think they can help you get to where you want to go in your career. You’ll also want to research their company and what they’ve produced (if they produce). In the end, whether to sign will be a judgment call. Just remember: in the long run it’ll be your talent, work ethic, interpersonal skills and luck that will determine how your career goes, not your representation.


*If you are considering signing with a small agent at an unknown agency, you should definitely be sure they are franchised by the WGA – you can find out on the Guild website. If they are not, it is a huge warning sign.


In other news, I have re-launched my Kickstarter campaign for my short film, Microbe, with some revisions. Please check it out and consider becoming a backer. There are several rewards that might be of interest to an aspiring writer or filmmaker!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anthology Movies

(MINOR SPOILERS: Pulp Fiction, The Dead Girl)

“But how does Pulp Fiction fit into three-act structure?”

I get this question a lot when I’m discussing structure. Usually I dodge it. Because Pulp Fiction (story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, written by Quentin Tarantino) falls into a category of films known as anthology films, but it disguises that fact. And I don’t like to talk about anthology films because they are difficult to pull off and nearly impossible to sell. But today, I’m gonna break tradition and talk about them!

An anthology film is made up of several short films bound together by theme or location or gimmick. Each short film follows the normal rules of narrative (on which three-act structure theory is based). If you think of the standard feature as a novel, then anthology films are short story collections.

And they have the same pitfalls as short story collections – primarily that the stories usually are not equally good. And presenting them together invites comparison. Audiences tend to walk out of these movies saying, “I liked the second story but not the third story.” They also risk feeling lighter weight since they spend less time on each character and story. And they can lack forward momentum without a single, overarching dramatic question. It’s easier to put a short story collection down than a novel.

One anthology movie that I thought overcame these challenges was Nine Lives (written by Rodrigo Garcia). The movie consists of nine short films, each shot in a single long take. There are a few repeat characters, but basically each film stands alone. And they are all pretty high quality so it works.

Another is The Dead Girl (written by Karen Moncrieff) – a movie that contains five short films all centered around the discovery of a body. It works because the body connects all of the stories and because the final story tells us how the girl in question died. There is a bit of mystery built up in the first four stories that is answered in the fifth. This provides a sense of cohesion to the film.

Anthology films that I think work less well include Four Rooms (written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino) and Aria (written by a whole bunch of people).

And something you may notice about all of these films: All were low budget independent movies. So if you want to do something like this, you better be prepared to raise the money yourself.

Let’s go back to Pulp Fiction, obviously a successful example of the form. Pulp Fiction contains three stories told for the most part one after another. There are crossover characters, but each of the stories has a different main character and the plots only overlap in the most minor of ways.

But Pulp Fiction does two things to disguise the fact that these are three separate stories: First, it pulls the opening scene(s) out of each of the three stories and puts them at the beginning of the movie. So we start by cutting between the beginnings of all three stories. Then we see the rest of the stories play out in their entirety one after the other. But we’ve been given three catalysts – three dramatic questions have been introduced. We want to find out how each plays out. We know the movie’s not over until all three are answered. Because of this, people tend to remember Pulp Fiction being more intercut than it actually was.

The second thing Pulp Fiction does is pull out a bit of the Jules story to use as a framing story for the movie. You could argue Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are a fourth story, but I’d say they are simply minor characters in Jules’ story. Jules’ story is the final one told and it ends with the robbery in the café. So Tarantino pulled out the opening of that scene and put it at the beginning of the movie to create a frame.

The first trick leads us to a way anthology movies can be morphed into more traditionally structured movies and become moderately commercial: by intercutting the short stories and pulling one out to be the main story. You then structure the film around the main storyline and the others become loose subplots.

Want examples? Love Actually (written by Richard Curtis), Crash (story by Paul Haggis, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco), Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga), and Valentine’s Day (story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein, screenplay by Katherine Fugate) all fit this model.

Obviously this approach is a little more marketable. But only a little. Of these, only Valentine’s Day is truly an American studio film. So if you want to do an anthology film, there are examples of success. But be prepared for an even steeper uphill battle than a normal movie.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Picking an Idea

I’m currently in the process of deciding what ideas I want to develop as pitches for any meetings I get after my latest spec script goes out. At the same time, one of these ideas will likely be my next spec should I fail to get an assignment or sell a pitch. I have notebooks full of ideas for movies. So how do I pick one?

I had lunch a few days ago with a producer friend who was talking about how critical it is to pick the right idea. He said he sometimes spends a year working with a writer to settle on the right idea to develop. Of course, neither he nor the writer are working only on that one project… nobody could make a living if they did nothing else for a full year but select an idea! But the point is selecting the right idea is pretty important.

Recently, someone told me something John August said on a panel at the L.A. Film Festival. I’ve been trying to find the exact quote without success, but here is my second hand paraphrasing of his quote: Rather than write what you know or write what’s commercial, you should write what you would pay $15 to go see.

That’s a really smart way to look at it. Last post I discussed the difficult environment the theatrical film business is in. Going to the movies is expensive now, and people have many other entertainment options. You have to give them a good reason to leave the comfort of their couch and home entertainment system and go to the theater. What would make you do that?

It’s surprising how many times I hear students pitch me ideas that seem far removed from the type of movies they say are their favorites. I often wonder if they would really pay to see the movie they propose to write. And when I evaluate honestly, I have to admit I have occasionally pitched movies that I probably wouldn’t go see because I thought the idea was solid and it was the kind of thing the buyer was looking for. But I never got those jobs…

And remember one of my lessons from Comic-Con was the importance of a good hook. We always need to remember that our script will not be read in a vacuum, nor will the movie be released in a vacuum. The script will be competing with hundreds of others, and the movie will be competing with hundreds of other activities a potential viewer could do that evening.

So before I decide to put time and energy into an idea, I will try to come up with a logline and imagine what the poster and trailer might look like. Then I’ll ask myself how excited I would be if that movie were coming out tomorrow (made by someone else). If I would be buying advance tickets online, then it’s an idea to consider. If there's a chance I would be willing to wait for the movie to come out on DVD, maybe it’s not one to pursue. You have to assume if you would be excited to see the movie, so would other people.

By the way, it's wise to do some research on what movies are coming up soon in your genre. This is why it’s so important to follow the trade press (, Hollywood Reporter, or whatever your favorite source is). I recently had a student pitch me an idea about a guy who forms a neighborhood watch. I asked him if he knew about the movie The Watch (written by Jared Stern and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg). He did not. I suggested he look at the trailer online. As soon as he saw it, he discarded his idea. It happens to every writer sooner or later that a movie comes out right as you’re finishing up a script on the same topic, but a little research can keep the experience as rare as possible.

Another thing to keep in mind is, if you decide to write something, you’re going to have to live with it for months or even years. What may sound cool and clever in the moment might bore you long before you finish the script. Also, you may come up with a catchy logline, but when you flesh out the character and plot, you could find there isn’t any depth there, or you could get stuck on a story point.

So at this stage I’m doing initial development on many ideas. In a few weeks I’ll see which ones I’ve managed to really flesh out and still seem cool. Hopefully I’ll have at least one that I want to proceed with!