Welcome to episode 96 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing Scott Morgan. Scott is a writer and producer. He’s been working with Chinese production companies recently. We talk about this emerging market for screenwriters. There’s really a ton of opportunity for screenwriters in China right now so you’re not going to want to miss this episode.
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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’ll find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts and then just look for episode 96.
If you want my free guide “How to Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick it 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. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay, and again, it’s completely free. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. I’ve been talking about this over the last few weeks on the podcast. I’m writing a comedy spoof script for a production company. They hired me; they had an idea, a very, very loose idea. They hired me to write the script. I basically had about four of five weeks to write it. The first week or two was the outline, and the next two weeks were writing the first draft. Now I’ve completed the first draft, and last week I spent most of the time just polishing up that first draft. So I sent that first draft to the producers early Friday. I have not heard anything back. I’m recording this on a Monday so hopefully they got it and hopefully they write it over the weekend, and I’ll be getting some notes back on that. There will definitely be some rewriting on that script, there always is. There will probably be some just logistical things, some budgetary things, some cast things depending on who they cast in it, but hopefully the lion’s share of work is done. As I said, the first draft, I feel pretty good about it. I think it’s pretty funny, and I think it stayed pretty true to what they were going for. As I said, they gave me kind of an outline, a very loose outline with some ideas, and I think I incorporated these pretty well. So hopefully the rewriting will be minimal, but you just never know until you get notes back from them so hopefully I’ll hear back from them this week, and then I’ll get going on the rewriting on that.
This is a little off-beat. It’s not something I normally do, but I thought it might be interesting to just tell people something that I bought for my own workstation. I bought this stand-up desk. I had been kind of feeling like my stomach and lower back was feeling very tired and strained from sitting so often. I’ve also been reading a lot of stuff that sitting is really bad for you. So I bought this stand-up desk. I’ll link to it in the show notes, and I’m finding it really valuable. So if you spend a lot of time sitting as most writers do, I bought this stand-up desk. It goes on your current desk, and then you press these two side levers and pull on it. Then it folds up so it goes up and down. So you can sit at your desk, and then you can pull it up. It’s not inexpensive. I think it was about $500 with shipping so it’s not inexpensive, but it’s a well-engineered piece of equipment. It’s very sturdy, and it really works very, very well. It’s a huge working surface, and then you pull on it. As I said, it goes up, and then you can stand there and work. I’ve actually found that I can do just about anything I do I can do standing up, and it’s not really that much more difficult. It takes a little adjustment on the monitors getting them in the right location and the mouse and the keyboard and stuff, but it works pretty well. So I’ve been spending a lot of time standing. The first week was a little rough; the back kind of hurts. You’ve got to walk around. I spend a lot of time especially my creative writing time, I spend a lot of time actually walking around, and this actually makes it very easy because I can kind of walk. Then I just walk up to my desk. I don’t have to sit down and start writing. I can just walk up to my desk, type a little bit, walk away from it and walk back. I’ve been enjoying this. I thought I’d mention it on the podcast just to see if maybe it would help some other people. As I said, it’s a well-engineered machine that really works very, very well. It does exactly what it says. So I’ll link to it in the show notes. If you spend a lot of time sitting down, you might want to consider this.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing Scott Morgan. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Scott, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Scott Morgan: I’m glad to be here. Thank you very much.
Ashley: So to start out, I wonder if you could just give us a quick overview of your career in the entertainment industry, kind of where you got started, and kind of how you got to where you are today.
Scott: Well, I came over here as a model and a commercial actor and was on a series on some small bits for the first year being here and did some stunts.
Ashley: Let’s back up a little bit. Take us back even before that because we’re just getting into this cold so people might not even know that you’re talking about China as an actor. Literally take us back to sort of the beginning of your journey in the entertainment industry.
Scott: Well, believe it or not, before that I was a chef. I was always involved with something creative, and I ended up being called in to do some modeling and that led to acting. I found out due to my high-speed driving as a youth, I was better at stunts, but all this time I was fascinated with being on the other side of the camera. So while I was stunt doubling on the Outsiders and some other shows, I was writing screenplays back you’d almost be on the set with a typewriter going back pretty far. This is how I got started. This will be funny.
I was trying to date a girl on the set, who was really cute, and I had been writing a screenplay, and she said would you give me a copy. I did. I didn’t know that she was Heather Locklear’s roommate. She reads it on Thursday. Heather reads it on Friday. She secretly is seeing the head of development at Universal. He reads it over the weekend. On Monday I get a call saying we want your screenplay. I never got the date.
Ashley: That’s awesome.
Scott: It was called Eighty-Six Restaurant, and it was about like the producers, a restaurant designed to fail in order to bilk the investors out of all their money and everything they do to make a failure. It just makes it more of a hit. But I didn’t know anything about structure, and I was immediately represented by the Swanson Agency and they said you’ve never read or written a screenplay have you? I said no. They said you’re funny, but you know what? Study, we’ll help you, and right away I started to get in with my very next screenplay that went over to Silver Pictures, and to my total surprise Tom Strickler, who was then at CAA, I sent a script out to about twenty agents not knowing how important he was, and he literally calls me two weeks later saying I can’t represent you, but hang in there, you’re talented. Good luck, I’ll see you in the future, and that was really cool.
Then over these years when I went hot and cold—and screenwriters out there in the audience—you may get big one year, and the next year you’re broke sometimes. That happened to me, and you’ve got to just love writing. I was helping orphan children in China and Vietnam and Thailand for sixteen years at Christmastime for two or three weeks, and so I got to know the cultures. Now I was way ahead of the curve realizing China was going to dominate the market when I ran into a friend of mine who was rebuilding theaters there and said look, this is going to overwhelm the United States. So about three years ago I started to say you know what, I’m going to prepare for China as an emerging market and two years ago started to accumulate some of the best works I’ve come across, that sometimes a producer would call me and say we’ve read something. It isn’t executed well. If you did a rewrite and worked with this guy, I think it’s a valuable comedy piece or action piece, and I said I would do it as long as I could sit on it until I went to China. So when I went over there, I not only was aware of the culture and had many different screenplays or TV shows to present to them and explain why they would be good investments, but they also would say look, this guy’s been coming here for fifteen years helping our kids, and he never asks for anything. He’s not the typical Hollywood guy. Let’s really listen to him, and luckily Barry London and some other people, some great mentors which unfortunately are not around for any of you emerging screenwriters, but I was mentored by Freddie Fields, multiple academy award winner, Jerome Hellman Midnight Cowboy, Glory, American Gigolo, and then Barry London as the head of Paramount taught me many things about running a studio, what really happens, and decision-making for marketability of a script.
Ashley: Okay. So let’s kind of dive in.to China as a market. So you get over there and did you already have some connections? You had a pile of scripts it sounds like. Did you have connections? Did you start to get these movies optioned and sold and produced?
Scott: Well, no, because I already knew that it doesn’t really work like that over there. I did have some connections, and I had people so that when I made my essentially cold-call approach to the studios, I’d say please talk to this person. He’s influential. You might know him, but he’ll tell you a little bit of my background. If you want to see me tomorrow, you will. So I’d literally walk up to the head of their studios which many times are protected by China military people and just say can you please call somebody who speaks some English, and I would say I have an envelope to leave you. That’s all I ask, and if you feel like talking to me, call me tomorrow, and they would always call me the next day. I got in and I said let me just listen to how happy you are instead of saying this hard sell off I’ve got what you need; spend a lot of money with me. I’d say how can I help you, China, achieve your goals amid a little bit of a complicated system with the Chinese government involved, but there is a great responsibility that the Chinese government has so I love them for this. Because I was taking a different orientation and could laugh with them in their own language sometimes, they just warmed up to me and they said you know what, let me listen to what you’re saying a second time. I think there is something for us to learn. It really started with me giving away knowledge for three or four months.
Ashley: Take us through. So what was sort of the first success in China?
Scott: The first success where actually a lot of billionaires and hundred millionaires had pumped money into films and word started to spread I was in Shanghai, I would be called into these amazing offices that looked like the office of Diehard with twenty times more art and giant bulk and everything like that. They’d say we don’t want to tell anybody out there in the real world that we made some investments in American movies, but we’re kind of confused because they’re not going anywhere. I would look at them, and sometimes I even knew the producers in the United States—and I can’t say any names—but I said oh, well, let me tell you that six months before you bought it, word was out on the street that this was a problematic movie or too many players were involved. Let me tell you how to get out of it. So I had to earn some of their respect by giving away knowledge. I had many offers to work for them as a consultant and writer to rewrite some scripts for them, but I was really off on setting up my studio in China. So I withheld that. What I was really looking for were some distribution deal agreements to be able to call somebody up and say I’m coming in four days. I’d like to talk to you about this film to release. Now that I understood their limitations on distribution—government limitations—not so much financial and also understood other things about their company, they said you understand us now. Any time you have something that fits our model, come up; we’ll distribute it and that’s really my greatest gain. I had that with three studios there.
Ashley: Okay. So let’s talk about that. What is their model and what kind of product are they looking for?
Scott: Excellent question. People don’t ask that often enough. It’s kind of like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. The china market is driven by their demographic of young people into gaming and people who kind of want to be uplifted, and you have to understand that the ticket sales in China are also generated by the fact that Ali Babba and Ten-Cent are subsidizing eight out of every ten dollars of a movie ticket provided you buy it on the site because they find that followers spend money on other products. So you say all right, what we’re really trying to please is Ten-Cent and Ali Babba that need to increase the value of their stock, and this is driven by people who will also do streaming so let’s keep it high energy, comedy action, comedy that translates universally which means not too much dialog, and your hardcore hitting action that does not have anything that offends the Chinese government because they’re walking a tightrope now to protect their people. So let’s say you have a hangover, great! You understand once you’ve been over there why some of the hits over here, even Tomorrowland fall flat. They just don’t have the mind that understands Utopia. So if I were to say to a production company or a screenwriter, first of all, recognize the people you’re trying to appeal to. They really like to feel they’re part of America for one. They’re a part of something exciting, that they laugh, that they’ll get the laughs too which means sometimes broad comedy but not really stupid slapstick stuff. They’re getting more sophisticated. Hangover is a pretty darned good example of comedy, then your high-action things like if they were to release Rush Hour now it would do really well. Don’t try to sell them dramas. They don’t want dramas. They don’t want very many period pieces. They want to look into the future.
Ashley: So okay, you mentioned Tomorrowland as being something that doesn’t translate. I wonder if you could give us some recent examples of films—you said Fast and Furious, Hangover—are there some other films that are fairly recent that were real slam dunks and translated very, very well.
Scott: Yes, and those are divided into two categories—Chinese-made films and American films. The number of theaters, there are so many theaters, and there are so many people who want to go to the movies, not for the first time but maybe only a couple times that with a subsidized ticket, you have many six to ten-million-dollar films that are breaking two hundred million, surely 150 million, some of them 300 million just in China that we never see. These are movies that Lost in Thailand is like The Hangover. Pancake Man is about a guy who makes crepes on the sidewalk and one day he spills an ingredient in he becomes a superhero. They loved it because it was showing how everyday man is responsible for being his own hero. It was really cool. When you can get a ten-million-dollar film to make 300 million—370 million or so, the last tally I haven’t read for Fast and Furious—you’re starting to realize that they’re really drawn to something that gives them a dose of refreshing chance for hope and dreams really.
Now Fast and Furious was an unusual thing. I was in the audience there and what’s interesting is you can tell who’s not Chinese because they’ll laugh sooner than the people who are Chinese reading the subtitles. So you have a laugh, pause, and laugh. So you see what starts to work with their audiences and also some of the thrills. I would say that the movies that have great trailers and a legacy will affect them more because they might have seen the earlier Transformers on pirated versions or on streaming versions that were really bad quality, so they’re going to these movies to finally see them in all their glory in the theater. This can’t be understated that many of the American releases that did well were sequels, and the audience was primed to finally see it. Now will this trend continue? I don’t know. My monies are on newly-emerging films like The Hangover coming out of nowhere, Juno coming out of nowhere that is just the right sort of taste that the Chinese audience will jump on them. Probably the next thing that you might want to really discuss is the changes in the quota system in China.
Ashley: Let me touch on a couple things that you just said just to get some clarification. So you mentioned this movie about a guy on the street making crepes, and he puts something in the crepes and becomes a superhero, I mean, that’s not a movie that I’ve heard of. Is that a Chinese movie? Was it an American-made movie?
Scott: Yes it is. It was a graphic novel that had about six editions called Pancake Man, and the people just ate it up—pun intended—they said this could be me. I see pancake guys—they call them pancake guys—and so it was something that they see every day. There were a lot of street jokes and stuff, and the people said we’re going to bet on this comic book. Now I’m going to give you some USA relevance to this. I mean, Ricci Holding Company had just made a big offer on one of my films. Then ended up losing out because a bigger offer was made by somebody in Hollywood, but they were celebrating that day. They said we’ve got to tell you what we did. What’s that? Well, Ricci Holding Company is secretly the one—well, not so secretly—they fund all the Marvel movies, the ready cash Marvel that’s not recovered by foreign presales, they get from Ricci Holding Company of Hong Kong. So I’m in their office. They had just got off the phone, that the deal was closed with Marvel and Stan Lee, they had just done a new deal I think it was for 32 graphic novels that come from China or are China-oriented or are Marvel superheroes that maybe they were in comic books and they did okay. They’re going to test them out in streaming. They’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a 15-minute streaming short on a superhero. Then they’re going to send it out over China on Ten-Cent. See which one gets the most hits just like American Idol and produce that movie with a 50/50 partnership on funding between Ricci and Marvel. This gives Ricci the chance to own 50 percent of a copyright. Now what does this mean to your readers and listeners as a screenwriter? If you’re going to write a screenplay and you have your eyes set on China, think about possibly hiring somebody to convert it into a graphic novel also. They get graphic novels. China and Japan, they get graphic novels, of course Japan being kind of the originator of them. I’m on Ricci Holding and they’re going over the deal and how excited they are about doing all these shorts, these short action movies that are only good enough quality for streaming and then you start to see what’s driving some of the decision-making there. They’re seeking some of these action movies that the people relate to so they’re going to do a pole or whatever they do on American Idol, and get those numbers back. It just shows how fast they’re evolving as their own decision-makers.
Ashley: Just specifically back to this Crepes movie, was it like An American Guy or was it a Chinese movie that was essentially made with a Chinese guy on a Chinese street making these crepes and it was essentially just made for the Chinese market?
Scott: Just for the Chinese market. They didn’t have intentions of it going internationally and they lucked out.
Ashley: You keep saying these films are subsidized. What is your average guy paying to see a movie?
Scott: Two dollars.
Ashley: He’s paying two dollars and then this other company that’s subsidizing; they’re picking up another six or something?
Scott: Yes. Now there are three companies out there—[inaudible 0:21:01.4] Ali Babba, Ten Cents. So Ali Babba is like Amazon, and you’ve got Ten Cents which is more like PayPal and other services that are offered in a group so they’re called bat. Bat is subsidizing this because they have stakes in the movie companies that they’re trying to enlarge which is a really good other topic for screenwriters to understand what they’re dealing with over there. So these are everyday people in China who are grabbed off the street just like in the Movie Lost in Thailand which made approximately 300 million in the box office. It’s two guys who have to go to Thailand to try and get this girl, and it becomes like The Hangover. It was just two ordinary Chinese guys who normally would hate each other.
Ashley: So let’s go back. Just a second ago you said let’s talk about this. Refresh my memory on what you were saying there.
Scott: Well, I wanted to talk about the China quota system.
Ashley: Let’s talk about that.
Scott: Very misunderstood. When I first got there it was January, and the quote was roughly 32-33.
Ashley: Just take a step back because I know nothing about this. So you’re saying the quota system is misunderstood. Not only do I not misunderstand it, I don’t even know what it is. So maybe you could tell us kind of what exactly it is to start with.
Scott: China is responsible for caring for a number of people that are impossible for the American mind to comprehend. They need to make sure they all get fed, that there’s order for the people that they are also aware that they want to transition into a western lifestyle, yet they can’t do this and jump away from their Chinese culture. It would be too much of a shock. It’s like giving too many credit cards to a college kid. So they have to carefully balance the introduction of western entertainment which many times can offer ideas to the Chinese youth who are rebellious. Now rebellion and challenging the establishment is okay if you’re a little bit aware of really what it is you’re inviting in, but when you are 16 and drinking your first fifth of Scotch, you’re going to get really drunk and sick, and these people who go too far into movies, they have to protect China from the effect of too much western influence. So they want to balance out the number of Chinese movies that are in the theaters and also the number of American for cultural reasons but for financial also because they don’t want to collapse the industry of the people who have been making Chinese movies. When I say Chinese movies I’m talking about Kung Fu movies, movies about ancient Samurai warriors and very melodramatic movies about Chinese families. Now they had limited the quota system to 32 to 33, and when I was there I was meeting with people saying trust me, China’s going to raise the quota limit. They said no, they won’t. I said they will because five billion dollars has been risked by the emergent industries in China to build theaters and games and theme parks for movies. They already understand what drives capitalism. So sure enough they raise the quota a couple of movies, and then they announce they are going to raise it to 37. I had said 42. To my surprise kind of but not really, they said we’re going to raise it over 37. So, in other words, they’re going to allow more than 37 movies from the United States to come into China, but if a company has special interest with us and has an ample advertising budget and their movie appeals to us culturally so it doesn’t deflect the interests of the Chinese too much, we will allow more than 42 movies in which means it’s limitless.
Now people have to be smart. There was one of my best screenplays which I cannot mention the name. Right now it’s already set up as a major movie in the United States, but they read it and they said this is awesome but it has elements that talk against the suppression of freedom and capitalism which could be seen as anticommunist so we cannot accept this.
Now the second thing people have to understand about the China quota system is they call it co-production when you link up with a China studio such as Wanda which is the biggest, Kuwai Brothers which is the second biggest, Fosin which is the third, and Bona Film Group and the other major producers of films can be seen as a Bruckheimer influence. The Chinese government wants to make sure that the Chinese studios benefit from American films. They may put up almost no money or all of the money. It’s all over the map, but they want to make sure that the thing for producing this movie is recognized as Chinese if they’re going to take the risk. So Transformers, Fast and Furious, Mission Impossible was co-produced by Ali Babba, but they had nothing to do with the production of it. They allowed it to enter China, probably paid for Chinese advertising, probably paid for a percentage of the film but not much, but it qualified them to be co-producers. So let’s say you’re a screenwriter wanting to go over there. You’re probably going to work for a company writing for less than WGA at first, but they want to get the taste of this American writing under their own studio banner, but for producers, producers misunderstand what it is that attracts the Chinese studios to them. Screenwriters need to be aware of this. It is that in order to get around the quota limitations or just to get approval from the censor board of China, the Chinese studio has to co-produce with an American. That’s why you see some of these giant deals of 500 million, 700 million, 400 million, it’s because they need to show that paper to the Chinese government.
Ashley: So then you’re not part of this 42 quota limit if you’re co-producing with China.
Scott: Many times, yes. Sometimes they’ll say it’s still part of it, but you have a greater likelihood to get around it. You have two boards you have to pass. One is the censor board, and it’s really strange. They’ll show a lot of violence; they’ll show bloody stuff. They’ll cut certain scenes of course if they’re too graphic. They have this rule against indecency, and they don’t have a rating system like PG17 or PG, or R, it’s all one rating. So two days ago they announced they’re going to start a rating board like our rating board so that some of these movies that just show cleavage, doesn’t even show a bra but just shows cleavage are allowed into the country. All of these things are things that I learned on the ground over there when they said come on, we’re going to take you in the back where we’re editing and we’re going to show you what it really means to work with China. I’ve got to say I love China for what they’re doing. They have a duty to keep people intact with their dreams and their prosperity and food on their table, and I can’t say enough good about them because they really are walking a very tough line to give the people what they want but also protect them from themselves.
Ashley: I wonder if you can go into censorship. I mean, there’s obviously some obvious stuff—nudity, extreme violence, obviously something that’s knocking and really bashing the Chinese government, we can understand it wouldn’t fly, but I wonder if there’s anything else that people should be aware of in terms of what these censors may or may not approve.
Scott: Well, let me see—
Ashley: Is there any sort of counterintuitive things. I mean, the stuff you’ve mentioned seems pretty intuitive, excessive violence, excessive nudity, excessive bashing of the Chinese government, but is there anything else that people need to be worried about?
Scott: Anything that has to do with let’s say student uprising or something, rebellion for rebellion’s sake, futuristic movies. I was actually surprised that some of the old Planet of the Apes would be allowed over there, but they were because when you look at it, it’s insurrection. That is going to be lifted as people get more accustomed to seeing challenging ideas without it meaning that they’re supposed to follow them. So by the time that screenwriters that are listening to your podcasts now will get a movie made, I don’t think that’s going to be as much a concern as the economic balance China has to maintain to make sure 45 percent of the movies in the theaters are done by Chinese directors and producers which is another story unto itself.
Ashley: I wonder, too—and I’ll just sort of run this by you and kind of get your thoughts—I mean, I have had conversations with producers and one of the things that’s come up and I’m always am sort of just curious because it seems to have run against sort of what I’ve talked about before with the censors, for instance, I had a producer pitch me an idea of basically like a Godfather type of thing except it’s Chinese-Americans in San Francisco rising up but basically Chinese gangsters in America, and they thought this would be good for the Chinese market. I was like gee, is that really going to fly past the censors? If you can speak to some of this, maybe just speak to some of the specific ideas. Does that sound like something that actually would fly?
Scott: You know, you’d be surprised to say yes because some of the most popular movies like SP and stuff are about Chinese organized crime either winning or losing, and remember Hard-Boiled from China, one of the biggest films from [inaudible 0:31:27.3] was about corruption within China. China’s going through a great anticorruption campaign. I’ve got to tell you walking down the street in Shanghai or Beijing and people talk about their leader, the president, they go we love him; he’s awesome. He’s actually locking up people worth hundreds of millions of dollars that got that way because of corruption. Imagine us going after any multimillionaire in the United States saying you know what, we’re going to lock you up because we’re going to get to the bottom of the fact that you made a lot of this money with deals that were questionable. So finally they’re going for them. The people are behind it. What you can’t say is that the Chinese government is behind this corrupt element. It would be like saying the United States is secretly endorsing DEA assassinations in order to balance the drug trade in Mexico in favor of the cartels. Now that could be argued, but they don’t want to see something that glaring but if you say I’m going to do a crime movie that’s really awesome like Black Rain but it’s set in China. It’s really going to point the finger at some organized China stuff. It would fly. Now I’ll give you an example. I have a screenplay that almost was picked up by Universal a couple years ago, and it’s called Atlas Punked like Atlas Shrugged, but it’s about a bunch of underground kids that decided to take on this man in Shanghai who has shanghaied the Internet and is controlling the flow of data and skewing it. Because he was Chinese the Chinese didn’t mind this script because he was a genius at manipulating the Internet, but if I had made him a totally bad worthless thug, they probably could have said you know, there’s nothing endearing about the Chinese mentality here. So it’s funny what they would accept, but they’ll accept that one.
Ashley: I wonder if you can give us some other examples of sort of stories that you’ve seen work, scripts that you’ve seen that passed the censors, just ideas for screenwriters who are maybe thinking about trying to write for this market.
Scott: Well, for screenplay writers who are trying to write for that market, aside from just common sense, you don’t want to do an ultra-sexual movie; you’re not going to do a Slasher movie and make it pass, but you can do a suspense. They’re really big on movies like paranormal activity or The Eye. The Eye started in Japan. The Ring started in Japan, and they used to get them in bootleg quantities and they did pretty well. When I was in Singapore in the theaters they were showing Chinese-made versions of movies like Paranormal Activity. Now what I suggest for screenwriters to rush into the paranormal subgenre of horror, no. The market’s got too many of them. Believe it or not, China studios like to see slight variations on very popular American movies that might be considered too close to an existing story line of a hit movie, that American studios would walk away from saying no, that’s too much like The Ring, but China would say it’s like the ring, we’ll take it.
I’m going to talk a little bit about the way decisions are made in China studios that most people don’t understand. I would walk into these offices. It didn’t matter if it was a studio or a billionaire company that was making movies for the studio, and almost within ten minutes they would all say look, we can’t make American movies, and we can’t write like Americans because a lot of our creative time wasn’t free for us in the earlier years of China. This is new to us. In other words, what we would like to do is we can follow examples, and we can reproduce examples. We can mimic examples, but we don’t know how to build a movie in our own or build a story on our own that has the timing of the American movies. Therefore, we are going to watch you for five years, and then we’ll start to make our own products which are really what they’re doing right now. When they make their partnerships with the United States that are three years long, they have squads of people who are watching, learning, and they will mimic the timing and the story structure. Now if they can go ahead and actually write screenplays that are as engaging as ours is another question. So American screenwriters should realize if they write a movie close to an existing hit, whether it’s Fast and Furious or not, they actually could get into the Chinese market for their theaters easier than the American ones because they don’t really look at it like oh, this is kind of like a knock-off of Fast and Furious, and a lot of times in the United States where do those end up? On television. So you can look at current examples, but then again I’m a screenwriter myself. Most of the time screenwriters are motivated by what in their heart they think is their own idea. You want to be smart and write a movie that’s going to be marketable but do you necessarily want to cater to the micro-ideas of Chinese decision-makers, probably not because then you’d be writing too much, constantly thinking about what’s going to pass them rather than what’s good writing.
Ashley: As I said, I’ve been hearing this just in my own dialog with producers as a screenwriter now. It’s been several years I’ve hearing China is an emerging market. I hear a lot of the producers I talk to are getting funny from there, and I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it. As a screenwriter what can I do? I mean, should I move over there? Should I take a trip over there? Can I email the producers like you mentioned this Ricci Holding Company? You mentioned a whole bunch of these big Chinese studios, will they take spec scripts? Just give us maybe some real practical tips of what a screenwriter can do. They’ve written a couple of scripts that they feel would work, and then what. What can they do to actually get those scripts to producers or the studios over there or whatever you think it would take.
Scott: That’s another excellent question. No, you can’t send products there and expect them to be read partly because they don’t trust their own ideas on reading your screenplay, and they don’t have a development department or a D-girl who’s going to read it. They just don’t have them. I walk in and ask what are all these people? They said they’re out there designing video games or stuff. They don’t know how to develop on their own. The reason they’re linking up with American producers they would tell me over and over again is we don’t know how to do these. We’re counting on you to not only tell us what’s tasteful and tell us how to produce it, but unfortunately for them, just tell us what the budget is. So they don’t have their own people who are able to interpret budgets or anything and they’re getting really ripped off. But that’s another story. As a screenwriter if you wanted to get involved with the Chinese market, and you’re young, I would suggest saving up your money, move to Beijing and work on finding a human resources company or anybody else who can get you hired on at these companies. Now to tell you an idea about how hard but also how easy it is, I literally walked up to the receptionist at Ali Babba, said hi, this is my history which is actually a decent history. I’m nobody famous for sure, but it was enough. I said I’d really love to talk with somebody here and just have a chat, and the receptionist for some reason decided I was worth something, and she let me talk to somebody there at Ali Babba which led to other talks. Now if you were in your 20’s, first of all, travel to China is awesome. They love young American people. They will treat you great, and you can actually find an affordable place to live in Beijing as long as you’re not looking for the kind of accommodations you’re really used to in the United States. They’re pretty rustic like a university dorm or something. Go over there and grow yourself at the company and say I’m from America and I want to work at any job at your company. You will be very quickly gravitated to where you’re most useful. You won’t be paid a lot. You’re putting in your dues just like a development girl at a production company is doing that to be promoted to a producer; her job is to try to get a co-producer credit. Then she’ll be a producer. These writers have to realize that you’re not actors. By that I mean, an actor comes to Hollywood and says I’m going to be discovered in a year, but no sane writer should think that that’s the case. They need to put in their dues and learn the industry, and it’s an industry that’s evolving very fast. You’re useful to China for two reasons: (1) it’s good to be seen with a lot of American employees because right off the bat you’re valuable. (2) They want to learn from you. So learn something about the industry. If you’re totally green, at least bring common-sense good screenwriting that you can get from many of your courses.
Ashley: So even speaking no English, you think someone could get some sort of a low-level job at one of these Chinese studios.
Scott: You mean speaking no Chinese.
Ashley: Speaking no Chinese, only speaking English.
Scott: First of all, yes, they need that. Second of all you learn it. Third, hire a tutor. If you’re going to go over there and go and invest 500 bucks in a tutor who’s going to see you every three days in the United States and learn your basic Chinese. You can do that. When you’re over there hire a cheaper one because they’re really cheap over there. They’ll come to your apartment at 5:00 or 7:00 when you’re off work and teach you two hours of Chinese, and all of a sudden you become insanely valuable to them. It really is a great way to do this, but even your new screenwriters out of college, the knowledge you have of editing, of story structure, of great filmmakers is just not in their arsenal yet. They need you, but you’re going to do two years basically in boot camp. You’re going to work really hard, but you’re going to be somebody. Mr. Wang, who runs Ali Babba, and Mr. Zang, has another Zang who went to Princeton, graduated, worked for a year and a half at Focus Features, went over to China; he is now second-in-command at Ali Babba Picture Group. That’s what happened so fast. It happened in like three years.
Ashley: And so there’s no problem with green cards, just picking up, going there. Do you have to leave the country every so often? What’s the legal status of working there?
Scott: If you’re going to go over there as a tourist which is what I recommend at first, they’ll hire you and help you get into their company and then they’ll probably send you out of the country to come back as a business employee. But just go over there as a tourist, get to know them. Go to the universities in China or Hong Kong but mainly Beijing that specializes in—they have a film school and be bold. Come up and say I graduated from USC or I’m in Hollywood for a couple of years. I want to take a class, but I also want to talk to your classes. So go over there with a few thousand bucks so you can go ahead and do that and you will become your American icon for that and you’ll get ahead. You can’t be reclusive; you can’t be reticent. You have to be a self-starter. You have to be a little bit brave, and you’ll become of value.
Ashley: As an example, do these producers or the Chinese people who work for these large Chinese studios, do they show up at places like AFM like maybe you could potentially meet them especially if you spoke a little bit of Chinese. Maybe you could potentially go down to AFM and strike up conversations with them.
Scott: That’s a terrific idea, and what I would recommend is saying I’m already planning to come to China. I would love to come to your company, and I’ll work in any position you give me. I’ll work and do anything for you. I’m learning more about China, and I respect them. I will learn as fast as I can to be an asset. Just let me come to China. You just have to throw yourself at them like that, and say I want to get in contact with them. One thing you have to remember; this is really funny. You have to stay on them. They don’t return calls and emails as regularly as they do in the United States. Stay on them, and then be bold enough to be able to fly over there. You can fly over there for a thousand-dollar round trip ticket. Spend a couple of weeks. Show up at their place. Hey, it’s me, but if you do that you will be the one girl at a Super bowl party. They’re going to want to talk to you.
Ashley: I feel like I know so little about this market. Maybe there are some very obvious questions that I haven’t asked you, and before we wrap up, is there anything that you think gee, he really should have asked me that because you have so much knowledge of just whatever you can tell us. Is there anything else maybe we didn’t talk about even if we should have.
Scott: We covered most of the basics but here’s the biggest thing. The Chinese studios entered into massive expensive deals right before the stock market crash. I actually consulted two of the studios there, sending them a letter in May saying your market’s going to collapse this summer. You need to get ahead of this. You need to use Hollywood to get ahead of this. Now one of the companies followed my advice and they’re doing better. The other ones didn’t and they fell for a 34 percent crash. The days of massive amounts of money in China are gone because of this crash. They’re going to be much tighter. The only companies that have money are Ten-Cent and Ali Babba. Now knowing that your producers who listen who are trying to go over there and your screenwriters who want to write for them should understand that this gravy train is over and they’re also going to start to realize their deals are bad. They’re going to start to get a bad taste in their mouths. They will become more picky. So this is all a macro look at the industry there. Producers in the United States, if they were to talk to me, they would come out much more a winner and understanding what has changed in the last nine months. When you’ve got $1.5 billion deals with Lion’s Gate, and then the owner of Lion’s Gate selling 45 percent of his stock for [inaudible 0:46:12.1] what does that tell you? The same thing I told the studios. Lion’s Gate was never in the business of finding material. Don’t send your script to Lion’s Gate. They never were in the development game. The owner of the stock just sold half of his stock and is going to sell the rest of it because he knows he can’t deliver on the fifty or so projects he’s presented that he can deliver to the Chinese studios. That’s the first bit thing I want to say. I don’t know how much more time I’ve got. But I would just say that China even though you read a lot of things in the paper about the stock market and their economy is a hundred times in better position than the United States government in monitoring in the valuation of their currency or upset in the stock market. A very small percentage of their revenue is based on that. They’re going to do just fine, and I think Hollywood is probably going to go into the dirt. In other words, they’re going to go into a funding crisis in the near nine months. This is going to make China that much more important for you to appeal to.
If you’re a young person, go over there. Stay in China. You’re a rock star. They’ll love you. Take the risk. Borrow money from your parents; get ten grand together and go over there. You can live for cheap. One day at lunch, you know what I ate for lunch? A bowl of cornstarch; that’s when I was taken out with the peasants to eat. Just get into it, guys. You are in a business that’s based on boldness and risk, and you can’t take the risk out of it. You’re young. Risk a couple of years. Risk your diet. Go over there; enjoy the fact that you happen to be in the right place at the right time, and you’re the right look at the right mentality. They need you. Go on over there. There’s a lot that I could tell you. We could talk for three hours, and you would say wow! I’m still learning stuff, but I will say this, in Singapore I saw in advance that Singapore would become the center of finance for China and George Lukas went over there with an entire 200-person crew to do his last animated movie. Following the mood, the New Line Cinemas went over to New Zealand to take advantage of tax credits, and I had succeeded in setting up my distribution deal in a structure for taxation and corporation existence in Singapore that’s so superior to American models. Just simply put you pay ten percent in Taxes there and 50 percent in the United States. Right off the bat you keep 40 percent more of your box office in toys. When you’re talking about a billion dollars, that’s why George Lukas did it. Now it became so appealing that I’m back in the United States for a month only because American companies have said we want to invest 25 million. We want to invest 50 million. We want the advantage of being in Singapore where you’re three to seven hours away from Beijing or Hong Kong and you’re not considered an American production. We can get around the quota rules and make a fortune just in China, 200 to 300 million before we even hit the American market. If your screenwriters are so bold, go over there and get into something like this.
Ashley: Sound advice. I think we could probably talk the rest of the day, and I would still be learning. So I appreciate you coming on. I always like to wrap up the podcast interview just by saying how can people keep up with you and follow you? If you have a Twitter account maybe mention your Twitter handle, Facebook blog, email, whatever you’re comfortable sharing and I will gather all that up in a link to the show notes. But you can just mention it now and then people can potentially touch base with you.
Scott: Well, the main thing is I’d say you and I are probably at the start of a continuing relationship, and I’d love to have more talks with you from Singapore and Beijing.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely.
Scott: Aside from that, I have a website that’s being restructured now in the wake of some of my bigger screenplay sales over there, and it is called fulcrumfilmstv.com and they can go to that website and find out how to get in touch with me but it’s firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. They can email me in either case and keep up with me. What I want to do is I want to send you some information and maybe you can post those things wherever you can.
Ashley: For sure. I’m happy to do it. So, Scott, again, I appreciate you taking time out to talk to me and we’ll definitely stay in touch. I’ll definitely put all these links and hopefully some people who want to want to contact you will get in touch.
Scott: That’s great, and also you should see some announcements in the trades in about three to four weeks which is right about when this podcast comes out about two slates of one film and one TV show each, that’s six films and two TV shows that are going to be funded out of Singapore and China.
Ashley: Perfect. So once again, Scott, thank you for coming on and talking with me.
Scott: Awesome, Ashley. Talk to you later.
Ashley: Thank you. Take it easy. Bye.
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In the next episode of the podcast I’m going to be interviewing Gustavo Cooper who recently wrote a horror thriller film called “June.” It’s another great example of a low-budget genre film. We dig into the details of how he got this one made and how he launched his career as a writer and director. So keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch up on a few things that Scott talked about. One of the follow-up questions that I wished I had asked him is what can you do if you are not in a position to move to China because frankly, that’s the position that I am in. I have two kids and a house here in Southern California so I can’t pack up and move to China and get a job with a production company in China, but I still think there is a lot of opportunity for people like me and others listening to this podcast who can’t necessarily move to China.
I think you definitely want to keep your eye open. One of the things I did a few months ago was I started to read books on various Chinese-American topics. For instance, there was a book on the Chinese-American Mafia that took hold in San Francisco in the early 1900’s. That was a book that I started to read. So there are topics like that that have cross-cultural appeal, and I think just finding interesting stories and just reading about them and kind of getting immersed in that world can be helpful. Another big thing that I think would definitely be worth thinking about—and I’ve mentioned this on the podcast several times—if you get Inktip’s weekly newsletter of leads, it’s a paid service but it’s very, very valuable. I’ve talked about it a lot on the podcast or if you get the leads that I send out through Sys-Select, quite often in these Inktip leads and the leads that I’m sending out through Sys-Select, quite often you will see leads from production companies looking for stories that are going to be funded by Chinese production companies. Sometimes they’re will be stories with cross—appeal where they can appeal to the US and the Chinese market. A lot of times, though, they are just stories that are purely written and purely take place and shot over in China, and they are purely made for the Chinese market. Getting these leads is a great way to start to understand exactly what production companies are looking for. There is a certain subtlety to this, and no matter how much I talk about it on the podcast or try and explain it, getting it from the horse’s mouth, actually getting these leads, reading the description of what these producers want, there is a subtlety to it that I simply will never be able to explain. Unless you experience it yourself, it will be kind of hard for you to fully understand what these leads actually look like. So I highly recommend that. Obviously I recommend my own service because I provide it, but I also do recommend Inktip’s weekly newsletter service as well. You get a weekly email and there will be lots of leads in there. So definitely consider that, and as I said, it’s a real good way of getting first-hand knowledge even though you don’t have a script to submit to the production company at that particular time, it’s a real good way of seeing what real producers are looking for. Some of these requests that we get coming through these leads that I’m sending out, they’re very, very specific, and I’ve talked about them before on the podcast. But they’re very, very specific, but getting an understanding and getting a general idea of what they’re looking for and seeing some patterns week after week, seeing certain patterns with these leads month after month, that can really help you and it can really help you focus your own writing and your own storytelling and what projects. All of us as writers have dozens of ideas. What’s the next spec script I’m going to write? You might have three, four, five, ten ideas that you think are pretty good. Understanding what the marketplace is looking for might really help you form what script specs that you should write now, and they also might help you option and sell that script down the road.
So also I’ve been thinking about the upcoming 100th episode. This episode’s 96 so it’s just four episodes away. What I thought might be an interesting idea for a special 100th episode would be to answer listener questions. So if you have any screenwriting-related questions, really anything related to screenwriting, just email them to me. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Put in the subject line one hundred episode question, something just so I can kind of know because I get a lot of questions every day from people and I do try to answer most of these questions. So if you just send me a question, I might just send you an answer. If you want it answered on the air on the 100th episode, just put something in the subject line one hundredth episode question. You definitely check out my FAQ page. If you go to sellingyourscreenplay.com there’s an FAQ link at the very top in the header links. There is one that says FAQ, click on that. That’s my frequently asked questions. Definitely check that out. If you’ve never looked at that, check that out. I’ll link to that in the show notes, but check that out because a lot of the same questions come up over and over again and I’ve tried to answer those in the FAQ. I won’t probably be spending time answering those types of questions in 100 episode. Something new, big, broad questions, something that we can really create a topic around, real discussion around I think might be interesting. So anyway email those questions in if you have anything screenwriting-related at email@example.com. Again, just put something in the subject line, something like one hundred episode question just so I know that’s what you want; that’s how you want the format of the answer.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thanks for listening.