Welcome to episode 65 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment, I’m interviewing Thomas McCarthy. Thomas recently co-wrote and directed The Cobbler starring Adam Sandler. He got his start as a writer/director a decade ago with The Station Agent which was a big Indi hit. We talk briefly about The Cobbler and The Station Agent in the interview so stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and then just look for episode 65. Also, if you want my free guide How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
Also, a quick plug for the new Sys screenwriting analysis service. It’s a really economical way to get a high-quality professional script evaluation on your screenplay. All of the readers have experience reading for studios, production companies or contests. The readers I partnered with are the gatekeepers. They’re exactly the same sorts of people who are going to be reading your scripts at the companies which you submit to. The readers will evaluate your script on several key factors like concept and premise, structure, character, dialog, and marketability. Every script will get a grade of pass, consider, or recommend. And I’m also offering a bonus. If you get a recommend from two readers, you get a free email and fax blast to my list of industry contacts. This is the exact same service I use myself to promote my own scripts and it’s the same service which I sell on the website. It’s a great way to get your script into the hands of producers who are looking to make movies. Also, you can read a quick bio on each reader, and you can pick the reader whom you would like to read your screenplay. So just check out the website for those short bios. The website URL is sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants if you’d like to learn more.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. I just signed an option agreement last week. It was for a comedy script I wrote about the time I started this podcast back in August 2013. I did a blast for a horror comedy screenplay last June and this producer wrote back that he was looking for more something that was just straight up comedy so I pitched him this script and he liked the pitch and requested the screenplay. Then I never heard anything from him. Again, this was last June so about nine months ago. Then about two weeks ago, he emailed me again and asked for the script again. I guess he never read it or never even knew that I had sent it to him. So I sent him the script again and he replied a few days later that he liked it and would like to option it.
I get a lot of questions about option agreements so I thought it might be helpful listeners if I just basically just laid out exactly what was in this option agreement. I’m not a lawyer so I don’t like to answer specific questions people have about their own option agreements, but I really don’t mind sharing what’s in mine and maybe that can help a few people. This is a free option. It’s for six months, then after six months he has to pay me $500 for another six months. I get three percent of the production budget, and I think it stipulates that I get paid no later than the first day principal photography. That’s pretty standard. Almost every option agreement that I’ve signed over the years is between two and three percent. Usually I can get closer to that three percent especially if I’m giving a free option to someone, they’ll be a little more inclined to give me the upper end of that two to three percent. So in this case, as I said, I got three percent. There’s a minimum of $20,000 and a maximum of $100,000. The minimum is in there so he basically can’t buy the script for $300 and tell me that he’s shooting this movie on a budget of $10,000, three percent of ten thousand dollars would be 300 dollars. I did have a producer try and do that to me once so you do want to put some sort of a minimum in any kind of a contract. You just ask the producer what’s the minimum amount that they will produce this movie for and they’ll tell you some sort of a budget. You can just basically take whatever the percentage is—three percent and fill in and do the math on that and fill in that number as your minimum. Also, it’s highly unlikely. Producers usually want a ceiling. It’s highly unlikely that this film would ever get a budget of anything close to three million dollars. So having the $100,000 ceiling in there really isn’t a problem for either one of us because it’s never going to come to that. My guess is he’ll try to shoot this on a budget of around five to six hundred thousand dollars so that’ll mean I made about 15 to 20 thousand dollars—I guess I have the minimum of twenty thousand dollars—so my guess is the budget will come in right around five, six, seven hundred thousand dollar range and three percent of that will be roughly the twenty thousand dollars which is the four. My writing credit is also guaranteed I will get a screenplay by credit. I’m not in the WGA so there’s no possible arbitration which means no matter how many writers are on the project or how much they change it, I’ll still get credit. I can, of course, share credit with other writers I suppose, but he can’t not give me a writing credit. This is obviously very important, in fact, probably the most important part of this contract is stipulating that I am guaranteed of getting a writing credit. Since I’m not going to make a ton of money off this, as I said, that most likely I’ll be lucky to get those twenty thousand dollars. So that’s the most I’m going to make so really the credit is very, very important. Just getting another produced credit if the movie does well, then I’ve really got something that I can use to continue to push my career forward. I also get five percent of the producer’s net profits which basically means nothing. It’s nice to throw in there just on the off chance that this thing really blows up, I could possibly be in line for some money but for the most part I know that the producer’s net really means nothing. That’s basically it. The price and the length of the option, the amount of money that I’ll receive should he exercise the option and my writing credit. I’ve mentioned this before on the show with all the options that I’ve gotten, I never really feel like any of these options are really going to go anywhere which is usually the case. I talk with a lot of writers who option stuff and they feel like they’ve made it once they get one or two options, and really you’ve just got to get a bunch of these options. They’re irons in the fire which is great, but any one of them is not really worth that much. It’s really getting multiple options like this going. So nothing changes about what else I’m doing as a screenwriter. This past week I did a blast for a sci-fi thriller script which I wrote nearly a year ago. I did a blast last summer when I finished it. So this was the second blast for that script, and I’m still working on new material. I’m working on a mob action thriller screenplay. I’m about halfway done with that. I’m pitching it as Good Fellas Meets Misery. It’s a very contained script, small cast. Nearly the entire second and third act takes place in one location which is just a middle-class suburban house with really just two actors. So it could be shot on a really limited budget. Again, I’ve talked about that a lot on the podcast about writing something that has a good chance of getting shot. So that’s what I’m doing with this script as well.
Also I’m going to be attending the Robert McKee story seminar on March 20 in Los Angeles. It’s pretty famous and lots of writers have attended it. In the Charlie Kaufman Movie adaptation, The Nicholas Cage character actually goes to the seminar and Kaufman sort of makes fun of it. I’ve always wanted to go and check it out. So I’m finally getting to go, as I said, the weekend of March 20. It’s kind of pricey but then again it’s three solid days so I guess it might be worth it. I’ll report back after March 20 and I’ll kind of give the listeners of the podcast some idea if I thought that it was worth the money or not.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking with writer/director Thomas McCarthy. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Thomas, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Thomas: It’s awesome just to be here.
Ashley: To start out let’s just get right into it. You recently wrote and directed a movie called The Cobbler starring Adam Sandler. Maybe to start you can give us a quick sort of pitch of the movie, maybe the log line.
Thomas: That can be tricky. Basically it is the story of a New York City cobbler, shoe repair man, who is sort of stuck in the day-to-day of his life and he discovers and uses a family heirloom which is a shoe stitcher passed down from generation to generation and discovers that when he uses it to resole shoes, that he can actually take on the identity of that person. It then leads to a little self-discovery so to speak.
Ashley: Perfect. And I will link to the trailer in the show notes so people can check that out too. So where did this idea come from? What was sort of the seed of this?
Thomas: Like ideas, it was probably a bit multi-faceted in terms of its origin but it started, I think, specifically with this idea of trying to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. I was sort of thinking about that one day. At the time I actually lived above a cobbler in New York City and he had one of those neon signs in his store that said something to the effect loose soles within fifteen minutes. I thought that was kind of interesting. I started putting it together, and I reached out to my co-writer, Paul [inaudible 0:10:14.9] and we started kicking around the idea for about a year until it started to feel like something. We kind of tried to do a little bit of research in New York on the lower east side and kind of took on the stable quality of the story.
Ashley: Okay. Great! So you’ve got a bunch of films under your belt and so maybe your experience getting this movie made is going to be a little different than some of the listeners, but maybe you could walk us through the process. At this stage of your career, what happens? I mean, was this a spec script and then you take it out to your contacts? Did you pitch it to people and then you got funding and then were paid to write it? Maybe you could just kind of walk us through sort of the logistics of how a movie like this gets made.
Thomas: Well, just like you direct [inaudible 0:11:07.3] and I’ve made a few films now, I just sort of jump into it. So with this one I’ll finish the script and get it to a point where I can start pushing it forward towards production and casting specifically, then I’ll reach out to actors is almost always how I do it. I will start putting the script and some actors together. I’ll have a lot of my team in place and then just trying to find the money with some financiers and studios and say here’s what we’ve got. Are you interested?
Ashley: Obviously getting a big start like Adam Sandler makes getting the financing easier. In this particular case did you get him attached before actually securing financing or did you secure financing and then get him?
Thomas: I think it was around the same time. I honestly don’t remember the order. So people who were interested in it, they were certainly interested in it. I had to let them know we were going to go after Adam. Obviously everyone likes that idea. And about that time I reached out to Adam through a mutual friend. Adam and I had a conversation. I sent him the script. Not long after that we were kind of getting work.
Ashley: And so there was no prior relationship with Adam Sandler before this. It was just—
Thomas: No, I actually didn’t know Adam at all. I knew him only through his movies and had heard good things about people who heard about him through people who had worked with him. The guy’s got kind of a sterling reputation for being a really good guy and it turned out to be true.
Ashley: So let’s talk about the tone of this movie because that was one thing that struck me and it struck me many years ago when I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie with Adam Sandler. This is obviously not sort of the Adam Sandler brand of movie that we’re used to seeing him in. And was there any pressure to maybe make it more of a broad comedy?
Thomas: No, not really. We were always playing with both genre and tone in this movie which I think shifts a bit from time to time depending on where we are in the story. But I think the script is pretty specific and I think Paul and I talked a lot about it and had a pretty tight script by the time we went to Adam. He got it and, of course, had questions. I think we all understood; we were kind of on the same page to exactly what movie we were making. I think Adam felt like it wasn’t really one of his movies and it wasn’t really one of my movies completely. It was somewhere in between. We were taking the opportunity to try something new and different.
Ashley: And so financing people, nothing like that. There’s no pressure to turn this into something that might seem more commercial and more broad.
Thomas: I think the term commercial is often misused. I do think—of course, these financiers are looking for something like that, but it is pretty clear—and I think, like I said, the script set the right tone. You can read the script and get a sense of it or not. So I was pretty clear about the movie I was making. I don’t think I remember any pressure to blow it up. I think that early on when you’re partnering with somebody else—and I won’t mention who it was—and they really loved the script. Basically it was like we’ve got to make this a much bigger broader movie and really go for it. I just walked away. I think that when you’re putting a movie together, working with people who understand what you’re doing, because it’s too hard to make a good movie. When you have partners who aren’t on the same page, it can become very detrimental to the process and the end result.
Ashley: So let’s dig into the actual fundraising of this. You’ve sent it out to actors and you’re going about doing the actual fundraising, what does something like that look like? Who invests in a film like this? Did you go back to investors from previous films? Did you just network? What does that actually look like?
Thomas: The money people put the word out on the script, and a number of people approached us at different places. Then we just went with people who underwrite to make the movie which was [inaudible 0:15:49.8] at the time. It was pretty straightforward. We put it to a higher window where I could make the movie in the fall so we had to move pretty quickly. It’s maybe the one thing that we had to do because that was July or August and we had to shoot in the fall. Adam had a window and I had a window.
Ashley: When you say you get the script out there to other people, what exactly does that mean? You’ve sent it to your agent. You’ve sent it to producers you’ve worked with who know money people; they send it around. It’s just like networking through your network.
Thomas: Exactly. My agents [inaudible 0:16:32.9] works in the financing department up in Toronto selling movies. People know me and kind of what they’re getting. It was really just finding the right package and someone who could move quickly was key. We found a company who could move quickly.
Ashley: Okay. Let’s just briefly jump back, The Station Agent is one of the films which I still hear people it’s kind of the quintessential successful independent film, and I wonder if you could just take us back to those early days when you were out trying to raise the money for that. I think there will be a lot of people that listen to this podcast that can kind of relate to that experience of really grassroots and getting something done. Maybe you could just tell us how that movie got made. How did you raise the money for that and where did that all come from?
Thomas: That was like my first time—probably like a lot of your listeners—I had no idea how to go about getting money. It took a long time. It was two or three years of batting around with that script. I was doing other things. I was acting more at the time. I was in LA doing some stuff. I was moving around a bit and just taking every opportunity to kind of shove the script in front of somebody. It was slow going and we finally, through some odd sequence of events it got into the hands of a first-time financier, a guy named Robert May, who stepped up and financed the movie a half million dollars. Robert stepped in and we made it with him.
Ashley: And then take us through the process. So you get that movie made. The thing that you hear is it’s very political to get in Sundance. You need the right producer’s rep. You need to know someone. Take us through that process of getting into Sundance. Did you get a good producer’s rep? Did you just submit it blindly? How did you actually get in?
Thomas: We pretty much submitted it blindly. We just sent it in and heard back and got in. We were pretty blind to all that. So I think yeah, there’s a lot of talk about that but it was just make a good movie.
Ashley: Tell us just what, as I said, The Station Agent is looked at as one of those quintessentially successful independent films. I mean, you won a screenwriting award for it. It was a good solid hit box office-wise, what did your career look like right after that festival and for maybe the year after? What things were happening or what surprised you and what didn’t surprise you?
Thomas: Well, I mean, it certainly changed my career. It sort of pushed me off towards the writing/directing career and opened up a lot of opportunities. [Inaudible 0:19:47.9] It completely altered the landscape of my career and opened up a host of opportunities, five films later and a host of other opportunities. I still write on the side for studios. That movie changed my life for sure.
Ashley: No doubt. Literally what does that look like? You get back to LA. Is your agent able to just set up meetings? You start going out to all the meetings. People are saying hey, would you work on this project? Would you work on that project? Just maybe give us a taste of what that kind of looked like.
Thomas: [Inaudible 0:20:34.7] I was meeting people who wanted to meet me and as a result, I had a lot of material sent to me. I remember at the time saying I’ve just got to go back to work now. It was kind of what it felt like to me. I actually spent so much time promoting your movie and talking about your movie which is all great and fun. You really just get to the point where you just really want to go work. I want to go write, direct, or act. It certainly opened up all those doors that you mentioned to some degree depending on how much you embrace it or not.
Ashley: And how do you think your background as an actor has shaped your writing and your directing?
Thomas: I think it’s that I’ve been working with material for a very long time and working with dialog and paying attention to story from an actor’s perspective certainly had an impact. Ultimately as a director and working with actors, I feel very comfortable with that.
Ashley: So maybe you can just tell us how people can see The Cobbler and what are the dates? How is it going to be released?
Thomas: It is being released first in theatres and then video on demand it will be released March 14. Is that right, Jackie?
Jackie: It’s March 13.
Thomas: March 13. You go on line you’ll find it and go see the movies.
Ashley: Perfect. Well, you’ve been very generous with your time. I really appreciate you talking with me today.
Thomas: I had a great day.
Ashley: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Thomas: Okay. Bye.
Ashley: Just a quick plug for my email and fax blast service. I’m running a special right now where you can purchase one-third of the producers’ blast for a little more than fifty dollars. The total list is around six thousand contacts so this first one-third is about two thousand contacts. So it’s still a pretty solid number of producers. I’ve done this just to lower the barrier of entry so that people can check out the blast service without having to invest a whole lot of money up front. Obviously if it works well for you, you’re welcome to buy the second two-thirds of the blast after that. The one thing that hasn’t changed, I still require that you join Sys Select which at the time of this recording is just $24.99 per month. The reason I require this as part of the process is that I’m going to personally look at your log line inquiry letter and help you make them as good as possible. This is really to everyone’s benefit. I want to make sure that every query letter that goes out using my service is well-written before I send it out. The people receiving these email and fax queries can unsubscribe to these blasts so sending out a bunch of half-baked query letters would just burn the list up which hurts everyone who might want to use this service in the future including myself. Also by getting my feedback on your log line inquiry letter, it means your response rate is going to be much higher. I’ve been doing this for awhile and have had a lot of success from cold query letters so I think getting my feedback alone is valuable and well worth the price of admission.
You’re welcome to join Sys Select for just one month and then quit once your query letter is ready to go. I hope you don’t obviously but that’s totally fine. And once you have your query letter approved by me, you’re free to buy the other blasts later even if you’re no longer a member of Sys Select. You don’t have to rejoin down the road just to buy a blast. Joining for the month really is just to get your query letter and log line into shape. Also, a lot of people have joined Sys Select just to get my input on their log line or query letter so you’re more than welcome to join even if you don’t want to use my blast service. So if you’re looking for some feedback on your log line inquiry letter from an industry pro, this is a great very inexpensive way of doing it. Again, you don’t have to use my blast service to join Sys Select and get my feedback.
Also by joining Sys Select you get access to the Sys Select forum. In the forum I have reviewed hundreds of query letters and log lines and you can see my notes and the revisions the writers made. So this is a great resource just to help you write your own log line and query letter. You also get access to all the online Sys Select classes that I’ve done over the last year and a half. There are more than a dozen classes covering all sorts of screenwriting topics from writing your script to pitching your script to writing and producing short films, it’s a great resource for any writer who wants to further their screenwriting education. I always get the question how long will this sale be going on? Honestly, I don’t know. If it seems to be working well, I’ll probably keep it going for awhile, but if it just ends up being a lot more work, I’ll probably just revert back to the one price for buying the entire blast in one big purchase. Anyway, to check this out just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast. Again, that’s sellingyourscreenplay.com/blast.
So just to wrap things up, I just wanted to touch on a few things that were said in today’s interview. One thing you might have noticed, this interview, at least for me, it felt very rushed and what’s happened is I’ve gotten in with a publicist who is promoting these independent films and they’re passing me a lot of these interviews that you’re hearing, not all of them but I would say maybe thirty or forty percent of the interviews I’ve done over the last six months, I’m getting through this one publicist who is working with these filmmakers, and sometimes they come to me and they basically say you only have fifteen minutes with the filmmaker and that was one of these cases. So you could tell I was definitely rushing through it. I always ask for more than fifteen minutes and sometimes they give it to me and sometimes they don’t. So I wish I had had more time today just to dig in a little bit more into The Station Agent because that really is a great example of a very, very successful independent film.
What was interesting, though, talking with him was he’s not really the most introspective person and I’m not even sure he fully understands why he was successful. I do think his story about how he got his recent movie made is a nice counterbalance to some of the other stories I’ve had on the podcast. I’ve talked to a lot of filmmakers who struggled for years or decades trying to get things done and it doesn’t really sound like he struggled that much. So it’s just nice to hear that sometimes things do go smoothly and you can get your movie made without a lot of problems.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.