Ashley Meyers: Welcome to episode 103 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger, over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing screenwriter Dan Benamor. Dan worked in development and is now a screenwriter. He has some great insight into the development process. As the head of development he hired screenwriters, and he is the one that received incoming pitches from new screenwriters so he’s got lots of great advice from both ends of the equation as a writer and as an executive so stay tuned for that.
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A couple of quick updates. I continually build out the Sys Script Library. I just posted screenplays for The Savages, The Hudge Sucker Proxy, Let Me In, American Hustle, Wreck at Ralph, and Midnight in Paris, and also the screenplay for Dope. They were sent in by Richard Leese so thank you, Richard, for setting those screenplays in. It is very much appreciated. If you have a screenplay that you do not see listed in the script library, please do email it to me. The Sys Script Library is completely free. We have over a thousand scripts in the library, many hit movies and award winners and television shows. All the scripts are in PDF format so you can download them and read them on whatever device you use. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/library.
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.
A few quick words about what I’m working on. I’m still doing the rewrites on the spoof comedy I’ve been talking about for the last few weeks on the podcast. The basic structure seems to be roughly what the producers want so now we’re just trying to make it more visual and more gag-heavy. It is a spoof, very much sort of a vein of something like Naked Gun so they want a lot of really visual gags. I think they’re very afraid dialog jokes and witty banter I don’t think plays as well overseas internationally when you start to have to do translation whereas these very visual gags, Naked Gun is a really good example of that where they’re constantly just doing these visual gags. There is the minimal amount of dialog to really keep the story going, and that’s what we’re really going for here. So it’s a matter of really cutting, cutting, cutting on the dialog and really just trying to beef it up with some visual gags. So it’s dragging on a little bit longer than I would have liked, but I do think these guys are committed to making the movie and they’re committed to try and make it as good as possible. So that’s good so I’ll be spending part of the next couple of weeks, probably through December just trying to get this script nailed down.
I’m still planning on launching my kick-starter in early to mid-January so I’ve been trying to look at as many kick-starter campaigns as I can just to kind of find out how they work and kind of get up to speed and all that. In the next couple of weeks I’ll be writing up the rewards that people are going to get from donating to my kick-starter, all that sort of text and getting all that organized. As I mentioned, I pretty much have my teaser trailer—it needs a couple little tweaks—but I pretty much have that ready to go. So I’m on a pretty good pace, as I said, to launch it mid-January.
I met with the producer of the TV pilot that I’m developing with him. I mentioned this last week on the podcast. He is a movie producer, but he was also a musician many years ago and so this TV pilot is really largely based on his life. So we met last week, last Friday just to have a little chit-chat and really it was just me, almost like a podcast. I was really just talking to him and asking questions about his life in this particular time period and kind of what went on, who were the other people in his life and just kind of what it was like. So it was actually pretty interesting, and I recorded the conversation and took a lot of notes and should give me enough material to write up the pilot. I’m planning on getting this written hopefully in January. As I said, I’m finishing up that spoof—and that’s what I told him. I said I’m trying to finish up this one script—so hopefully I’ll finish that up in December and then in January hopefully I’ll write this pilot up. All the material is already in place. I mean, just from talking with him and spitballing some ideas around, we kind of have a very loose idea of sort of what this pilot is going to be, what the actual scenes are. So there is still a lot to be done filling out the characters, etc. but I have a pretty good idea of sort of the basic structure of the pilot. It’s only going to be a 25-page pilot, and as I said, most of the material is kind of there. It’s just a matter of condensing and kind of boiling it down so hopefully it won’t take too long to write that up. Anyway, that’s what I’m currently working on.
Now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing Dan Benamor. Here is the interview.
Welcome, Dan, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show today.
Sure. Thank you for having me.
So let’s just start out with your humble beginnings in the film industry. Just take us back and maybe even before you even started working or going to film school. Just take us back to your childhood. Were you always interested in film? How did you just get interested and then take us through sort of your early beginnings in the industry and right up through your recent sale and options.
I mean, I think it probably started for me, similar to a lot of people, I saw a movie that was really, really bad, and I was like I think I could write a better movie than that, and so I just sort of almost like it was a lark, I bought like “Screenwriting for Dummies.” They had a book you could actually read like Screenwriting for Dummies. So I read that and then I wrote a script—then I actually was going to be a psychologist for a pretty long time, but I ended up in a double major and doing a screenwriting major and then went to film school. It snowballed basically, but it started with just me going to movies and seeing a really bad movie and saying I could probably write—
Do you remember what that movie was?
I do. I’m almost reluctant to say it. It was really called “Two for the Money” and ironically the guy who wrote that script—and I think it’s now years later having actually worked in the real industry, I understand now how the credit of the writer doesn’t necessarily reflect what ends up on the screen because that guy actually made Night Crawl which is one of my favorite movies. It was incredible. I love that movie. So I think it was also a pretty telling lesson about as a writer you never know what’s going to end up on the screen.
So take us through your film school days. I know one of the things we talked about several times is at the end of your film school; you actually did a feature film. It sounds like you pretty much did everything from soup to nuts on this film, and you got into a couple festivals so take us through that process. I think that’s an interesting lesson for people to hear.
I went to the Vancouver Film School, and basically I just wanted to get the most out of it I could so while I was there, I said yes to everything because it was a multifaceted program where you had directors and photography, producers, makeup artists, and we were all sort of on the same roof. So it was very common that you would meet somebody and they would say hey, you know I’m looking for a writer. I want to do a short, and I would just say yes to everybody. I mean, they’re definitely not all on IMDB but at least seven shorts that year. Then my cousin who was in LA had called me and said I want to do a feature, very low-budget, and I kind of just had this basic kernel of an idea. I knew I could get this one location and so I said I’ll be out. So I wrote the script for him. He then called me back and said he lost his job and didn’t have any money so we can’t make it. I said would you be cool with me making it? He went yeah, sure. So because I had done all these shorts, I sort of already knew–the reason I had the idea was that I knew a guy who’s got a great camera. I know a makeup artist. I knew crew members. I knew people who were trying to produce, and I sort of knew that I could just call those people and ask do you want to make a movie with me? That’s pretty much what I did. Because I had never directed before, I figured I should probably direct a couple things first. So I basically did the same thing and called friends. I think we did three or four shorts essentially just as practice really.
This is in Vancouver as [inaudible 0:09:42.0]
This is with all my film school friends and stuff, I basically cobbled together I think it was like four thousand dollars total, maybe like $4400. That essentially paid for food, makeup, and I think some other basic expenses, but everything else was free. Nobody got paid. I certainly didn’t get paid, and I pretty much just had to figure it out. So I did the casting; I found the location. I directed the movie. I wrote the movie, and I brought in people to help me. I had a co-writer; I had a guy who kind of gave me help with the editing side. I didn’t know how to edit. I had a great director of photography, great actors. I mean, I was very fortunate that in Vancouver they had a pretty strong film scene so that ended up being helpful. There was actually a lady that her son was going to play a kid in a movie, and I met with her to talk about it. She asked how was it going. I said well, we had this location so we’ll see how it goes and hopefully we’ll be able to nail down another one. She said if you get in trouble, you can use my house. I literally called her that night. I said are you really serious about that because we probably will actually do that. She was like yeah, sure. So we sat at her house for three weeks or something. It was like an hour away, and we had to be out of the house by 4:00 because that was when the family came back from work and school and stuff. Her kid was great in the movie. It was a brief part. I personally would not have actually asked her can we use your house if she had not offered. So it ended up being this thing. Anyway, so I edited the movie. I went back to America. I did the movie. I moved out to LA, and I had heard about this festival called World Fest Houston. So I sent it in, and I got in. They said we’re going to show it in Texas, and we’ll give you a hotel room. You can come down and watch it in the actual movie theater and stuff. We won a little award, and it was cool.
How did you happen to hear of World Fest?
One of my professors in film school, I said, I made this movie essentially for no money. What are some different festivals that are sort of open to these types of movies? So she mentioned that festival, and I applied.
Did she have in with it like was it just a cold submission or did she—
No, completely cold submission. Didn’t know them or anything.
How many other festivals did you submit to? Was that the only one?
I think we submitted to probably six or seven. It’s one of those things where given the budget of the movie, the festival submissions would have outspent the budget of the movie by [inaudible 0:12:25.5] more. So it was an interesting situation.
I wonder if you could just pitch the idea. What was sort of the premise?
I think it actually turned out pretty well considering all the challenges we faced. So the movie was basically about these hit men. They go to a house and they’re going specifically to kill someone. They don’t know the person they’re going to kill. They don’t know what he looks like, and they go in and they happen to go in just as another guy who’s been painting the house is going in to rob the house. So they accidentally kill the wrong guy, and then they discover that he was going to rob the house because there is a million dollars in the house. Then the guy that they were supposed to kill shows up, and they can’t really now like they have to decide amongst themselves if they want to take the money because they have a criminal boss who is also coming. So it’s basically this sort of confined scenario where all these crazy violent people are interacting with each other. That’s pretty much it.
One of the things that occurred to me when you told me about this film months ago is that it actually feels like a fairly commercial genre film like it’s kind of a thriller, and did your cousin have some idea that this might be something that was somewhat commercial of an idea? I mean most people in film school, they make that film that’s completely not commercial, the art film, the passion project, and this is not. This is kind of a genre film that you could see actually getting made on a low budget.
I really don’t know. He just literally called me one day out of the blue and he was like yeah, I had this idea. That was sort of the seed of it, and I just kind of took it and ran with it from there. I don’t know why he came up with that particular idea.
How many of these Vancouver friends have made it down to LA and actually had careers in the entertainment industry?
It’s sort of stratified so if you’re a Canadian citizen, the Vancouver scene is active enough that you could really stay in Vancouver and have yourself a pretty nice career. I think for a lot of them they’re still working within the Vancouver scene. I mean ironically as I went forward in my career, most of the movies that I have developed and made were shot in Vancouver. So for them I think it ended up especially being Canadian, the visa stuff and things like that, I just think a lot of them stayed in Vancouver.
So let’s kind of move on to the next phase of your career. You got to LA and you got this job at Nasa Entertainment. Maybe you can take us through that process. What did you do when you first got to LA? I guess you knew your cousin. Did you have other connections through film school? What did you actually do when you first got here?
Literally the only person I knew here was my cousin, and so I didn’t know what to do. I mean I figured I should do something within the film business so I was an extra on every TV show imaginable, and then I just applied to internships everywhere. I had been a script reader in college. When I started getting interested in screenwriting I reached out to a company that was small and would let a lot of different people read. I had a little bit of experience as a script reader and so I interned. There was a posting on entertainmentcareers.net or something. So I applied to that as a reader on a covered sample, and so I got a job as an intern remotely. They would send me scripts, and I would send back coverage. Then from there I got an email saying hey, would you be interested in coming in like one day a week and just running the front desk and reading scripts? I said yeah, sure.
Was this unpaid? Were you doing this unpaid?
I was an intern.
How do you approach something like that when you’re clearly out of school, how do you say well, I’m going to be an intern even though you’re not in school because the whole idea with an internship is that you’re getting school credit.
Later I ended up earning the interns, and it’s not necessarily always school credit. Obviously for some of them it is, and I have definitely filled out the forms for school credit and stuff like that. For a lot of people they just want the experience. I think that when I was in charge of the interns, I would say 60 or 70 percent of them were not for school credit. They just genuinely wanted to have some sort of experience in film and wanted to intern somewhere and that was that.
Okay, so take us through that job. You are now working one day a week at Nasa Entertainment. Just take us through sort of what you started to do as your duties and slowly work your way up there.
So I was like the Wednesday intern. So basically you answer the phone and you read scripts and you talk to the producers about what you think about the scripts. That’s pretty much what I did, and I think that I just for whatever reason had strong opinions. I think that that was probably what made me stand out a little bit from some of the other people. Eventually they said listen, you know we need a development assistant. Would you be game for that? I said yeah. So they ended up hiring me to be the development assistant, and I was doing that for awhile. Eventually we got along so well, and it just sort of naturally morphed into me taking on more and more responsibilities until I eventually was running the department.
On a day-to-day basis what does the head of development in a company like this do?
When it’s a smaller company—I suspect it’s probably the same even at a bigger company—but particularly when you’re doing movies that are independent film and smaller budgets, we had a pretty significant amount of different products going any one time and basically every day you’re just trying to move the ball down the field. So you look at your spreadsheet or your grid or however you keep track of it and basically just try to say okay, what can I do today to advance this project. Maybe one thing is just an idea and I have to find a writer. The writer has to deliver the first draft, but the first draft needs some work. So then I take notes and I assigned it for coverage and talk to other [inaudible 0:18:30.4] about it. Let’s say the script is we think actually good. We think it’s ready so now we’ve got to find a director. We’ve got to start thinking about how we’re going to package it, the actors and stuff. Once you get a director, then it’s time to go and try looking at casting, make offers. Once you get some actors and a director, then you really start getting aggressive about how are we going to finance this with distributors, foreign sales and all that type of stuff, getting a budget.
Maybe too you can just give a quick definition and maybe even list some of the titles. You’re saying these are independent films just so people have an idea of what these were. Maybe just list some of the films that you worked on while you were there and some of the cast members that might have been in them.
The stuff I worked on again ran the gamut. The biggest in terms of budget film that I developed and ended up getting produced is a movie called “American Heist” so that came out this year. It started [inaudible 0:19:21.6] and Jordana Brewster, so that I think was close to ten million or in that ballpark. I also worked on a string of, for example, today I went to Wal-Mart, and two different movies that were involved with are at Wal-Mart that are like Christmas movies. So I did between Christmas and faith-friendly probably like a half dozen of those and those are usually on the lower end under five million. Then I did westerns, basically all of it under the roof of ten million and sometimes significantly under that roof. Then that also affects what kind of cast you can bring to it and different things like that.
So you’re mentioning you go to Wal-Mart. You see these films. Where else do these independent genre films end up? What other markets—
We’re in an interesting place now. Occasionally if you have a pretty good cast, so, for example, American Heist I believe did have a theatrical [inaudible 0:20:25.1] type of thing, but if it’s like a smaller just kind of a programmer type of thing, it’s really just a video and video-on-demand play. So you’ll see it at Wal-Mart. You will see it, to a lesser extent at Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Target, but I think the bigger play is in the platforms and Red Box. So Red Box, ITunes, Amazon, any sort of video-on-demand provider, I think that’s where it’s all going anyway. These types of movies are basically DVD and video-on demand.
So you mentioned hiring writers while you were the head of development. I wonder if you can give us a little insight there. How did you decide to hire certain writers? These are obviously not super-high budget so you probably didn’t have access to the top writers at CAA. So how did you go about finding writers for a specific project?
It was definitely something where I was able to give a lot of guys their first credit which is pretty cool. I was a writer before I got that job so what ended up working out kind of nice is that I knew a lot of people who I thought were really strong writers but just for whatever reason hadn’t necessarily gotten the best opportunities yet. So I almost had my own rolodex where I could just call them up like remember me, I have this job. I think you legitimately would do a good job on this script. So I want to hire you to write the script. I think probably half of the movies that I did, I already previously knew the writer in my own writing travels and then the other half was a combination of contest people like someone faced in a contest and I read their script or there was a produced script that I did through a guy on that screen tip. So I was definitely one of them. It ran the gamut, but it was always sort of that entry-level stuff. It was either you did well in a contest or I found you through inktip or some sort of equivalent to that.
You and I actually originally met was I was blasting my scripts using my email fax blast service, and you were on the receiving end of that. So maybe you can talk a little bit to that, just maybe some tips from writers when they’re trying to approach this. Did you ever get cold calls? One of the things I recommend is cold calls because a lot of people are afraid to pick up the phone and it’s nerve-wracking, but I’ve actually been in production companies where I’ve seen that actually work and stuff. So maybe you can just kind of talk a little bit about how those writers can get in the sphere of those heads of development and potentially get some of these jobs.
We were open to receiving queries. I think in general, for example, in your case when you sent a fax and email and the first sentence was like hey, I’m a produced writer. So as soon as that is on the table, it’s all about validating yourself as like not going to waste my time basically because the time is the most valuable commodity always. So the concern—and I think this is where a lot of writers maybe don’t understand it from the point of view of the other side of the desk—is that the last thing you want is to waste your time where you get a query or a cold call that leads to them turning your script or whatever and then you read the script, it’s like this is a colossal waste of my time. It’s like every piece of this interaction was a waste of my time. So whenever the conversation starts with something that validates the writer so it’s like hey, I won this contest or I’m a produced writer or anything along those lines, I think that creates a comfort zone on the other side of the desk, but hey, at least I know the script’s probably going to be decent. So you feel a little bit more comfortable that you’re not going to waste your time. I think that’s really the main thing.
How many cold calls would you get when—
Calls were rare. I think that the majority were emails or we would occasionally get a fax. When somebody would call, it would usually be hey, I have a script or whatever and I would just explain we are open to looking at queries. You can send an email to this email address and that was pretty much what would happen.
How many people send faxes? One of my whole strategies, I figure most people are not sending faxes, and that’s why I actually send faxes myself and wrap it into the email and fax blast service because I feel like a lot of people don’t send faxes anymore.
Nobody sends like two people, you and maybe like three other people send faxes. It would be one of those things where you’re looking through the fax machine like how is this? Okay, it’s clear? It definitely was not normative.
So let’s move on a little bit and talk sort of about some of the films that you worked on. One of the things that we have had conversations about—and I think it would shock a lot of people—but we’ve kind of talked about the fact that these genre films in a lot of cases, the script is not really all that big of a deal in terms of the ultimate success of it, and everybody, especially writers, always think that the script is essential. For these genre films you can’t have a piece of garbage, but if it’s kind of like a B-plus type of a script, you’re in pretty good shape. There are a lot of other things that could still go wrong obviously, but maybe you can talk about why were some of these films more successful. Maybe talk about why some of the films were not as successful just to get an idea of what actually shapes sort of the success rate of these genre films.
I think in general, obviously you’re always trying to get the best possible product out the door. That goes without saying, but I think there is also a pragmatism to it where it’s like we want to make this sometime this century especially when you’re working at lower budget ranges, you need to be producing ideally a larger volume of films. So it’s sort of something where you try to pick the best writer you can. You try to grab the best script you can, but at the end of the day you’re trying to get the movie going down the line and that’s sort of the main thing. One thing that was sort of interesting about it was that I actually think, I mean, it’s sort of a complicated issue. So basically if the script is not good—and it’s more difficult for me to go and attach a good actor to it and that later is going to cause [inaudible 0:27:01.2] it’s not going to have as big of a name actor on it. At the same time some issues that might seem to people to not be as important, different things about how you design the script in terms of budget, how much a certain role may be played in the script, the age range of certain roles, things like that that are sort of not intuitive from a creative point of view, those end up just because of the way the business works being really helpful down the line. So, for example, if I have a movie and there’s a role for an older male actor and that role is at the same location, he’s playing at the farmhouse or something, every scene he’s playing is at the farmhouse, but he’s in like twenty pages of the script but he never leaves the farmhouse but it’s kind of peppered throughout the script, you can then go and make a more competitive offer to an actor because they’re going to work a shorter amount of time, and then when somebody watches the movie, they’re going to feel like oh man, this guy is like a co-star of the movie. It’s like a really prominent role, but you’ve saved yourself an impossible amount of headaches for having to be one location. You can shoot them out in a relatively short period of time, and you’ve made things a lot easier for yourself from a production point of view. So that’s one of the things that’s an example of where the creative part of it almost has nothing to do with it. It’s not going to creatively benefit, but it going to make it a lot more producer-friendly. Sometimes there is just being aware of things that are just helpful.
Just to be absolutely clear, you’re talking about the cast, getting the name talent, and if you only need him for two days, that means you can pay him a lot less.
It’s essentially the same role right? This is one of the things that I always want to stress to writers is that you can have just as good of a script where he happens to be set up in a way you shoot them out quickly. There are creative ways to be kind of clever about it and do that, and so then the same role that otherwise you would have had to pay that actor maybe three times as much because he would have worked three times as long, now if he’s working much shorter, you pay him essentially more money but it’s actually less money for the production than it would have been if the role was scattered over a dozen locations and you needed him for a month or something.
I think people might not realize if they’ve never been through is that I mean when Tom Cruz signs on to a film, he doesn’t have a day rate. You’re paying him some extraordinary amount of money, and it doesn’t matter how many days he’s there. When you’re talking about these low-budget films, literally these actors that are doing these, they have a day rate. So if you need them for ten days, that’s ten times as expensive as if you needed them for one day. It’s maybe not quite as concrete as that because these agents also realize that you’re going to be putting him on the box cover so there are probably some minimums and stuff but the bottom line is you need to maximize whatever amount of days you have. You need to maximize that use of it.
Let’s talk about the transition you went through from being a head of development to being a screenwriter and working full-time. Since I’ve known you you’ve optioned a couple things. You sold one script so maybe we can talk about that transition, kind of how you made that transition. Did you just leap off a cliff or was it a slow gradual push?
I pretty much leaped off a cliff. I didn’t have any jobs lined up. I didn’t have anything going on. I had had enough validation in my writing from people whose opinions I really took a lot of stock in, that I felt that I had the skill set to do it.
You had not optioned or sold anything before you quit your job at Nasser.
It was announced in the Hollywood Reporter. I packaged this movie that I co-wrote. It was a Scott Atkins [inaudible 0:31:00.4] movie and I was announced in the Hollywood Reporter less than a year before I left my job. So I did occasionally help out writing on stuff that we were involved in. I had seen that my writing was competitive within a professional arena. So I just felt confident that I could do it, and I had come out here originally to be a writer. I sort of fell into this job running development, and I definitely enjoyed it a lot, but I always felt this sort of romantic call to just go write. At a certain point I just said screw it, let’s do it.
So then what were some of your first things that you did? You had given your two-weeks’ notice; you’ve gone in for your last day. What were the things you did on those first couple of weeks or months that you were just basically writing full-time?
I just tried to be as aggressive with that as possible. I immediately started generating material. I made a real point to–and I think this is how you and I met in person—I basically reached out to every writer that I knew, and at that point I knew a lot of writers, every writer that I considered relatively successful who had something produced or seemed to be having a lot going on or whatever, and I just invited them all to lunch. I met with everybody and I just asked them what are you doing? What would you do if you were me? They all sort of had different advice and so the thing that has allowed me to have most of the success that I’ve had has been referrals. So like I know a guy who says hey, Dan’s good. Let’s give him this, and it’s something that you build over time. So it’s not necessarily one meeting like you have lunch, you check in three or four months later, hey, you want to have a drink. You kind of keep it going like that. So then later when you say hey, I have this script, it’s a different type of relationship. It’s not like a stranger handing you a piece of material. It’s somebody that you actually personally know and are friends with. So I think that makes a huge difference.
During your ramp-up you knew you were going to leave your development job. Did you start to write a bunch of scripts like at least you had a stack of scripts you could submit?
The script that I sold through your blast, I had written that on the side like at night and stuff while I was still running development. That was when I grabbed that I probably will at some point transition or I wanted to write full-time and I want to have some material on my hands when I do. So that was one thing that I did.
One thing I found—and I’d be curious to get your take on this, and maybe that’s why you just decided to go cold turkey and write full time and not have a job—one thing I found when I was doing production jobs was production jobs are incredibly time-consuming. They’re usually not that high-paying, and to work a ten or twelve-hour day is fairly common, but they expect you to work long, long hours. How did you find time to write on the weekends especially doing development stuff? Were you tired?
That was one of the nicest things about—it was inevitable that if I wanted to pursue it full-time I was going to have to do it just to have the physical time to write because most of the stuff I would write outside of work, it would be where I would essentially plan up to it and then do it on one weekend or something. Literally I got it in one weekend like Friday get off work, sit at a computer, and don’t leave until like Sunday at 1:00 in the morning. I would do stuff like that, it was actually having that extra time to write has made an absolutely huge difference in my ability to be productive.
Okay, so let’s talk about that script that you sold through the Sys email and fax blast service. I know it’s now sort of in pre-production so maybe you don’t want to give away some of the specific details, but maybe you can just give us a little bit about it, kind of tell us what it’s about, the genre, some of the budget range, just any kind of detail so we can get a sense of kind of what it is and what it was.
Coming from my background, I knew I wanted to write something that had really strong [inaudible 0:35:21.8] that could be made on a reasonable budget and had some sort of genre dimension to it, and so I think I had watched Cape Fear for whatever reason, and I thought it would be interesting to kind of figure out a way to do a little bit of a twist on Cape Fear. So basically what I essentially did I figured out an angle where it’s a story basically where these two men killed somebody together, and only one of them ended up going to prison and the other one ended up having a pretty nice life. So when the guy who went to prison gets out and comes to see him, it’s essentially something where we set out to write it. We realized probably like the third draft that the female role was totally bland and not interesting. So we said how can we also create a bigger twist on Cape Fear because that was sort of a familiar template, so we had this idea that this guy would probably visit his criminal conspirator when he was in prison. He might actually feel obligated to go see him, and so we basically came up with a scenario where he goes to visit this guy in prison but he can’t bring himself to go inside. He sees a woman outside, and she also is visiting someone and she can’t bring herself to go inside. They actually strike up a friendship and then end up falling in love and getting married and have a child. When this guy gets out of prison, you basically find out that they both were going to see the same person, that she and he were both involved with this person. They had hidden this from each other for years. So everybody has these really complex histories with each other that are fraught with bad stuff. So it’s sort of a ticking time bomb and hopefully gives the actors a lot of stuff to play with.
So it sounds very contained. Most of it takes place in this couple’s house.
I know what you can make for two million bucks and under, and so I sort of knew have some sort of dimension, you still need some action. You still need some sort of production value so you can’t go super cheap with it. That’s actually one thing that’s a little counterintuitive because if it’s like really [inaudible 0:37:36.9] it’s later when the producer goes to try to sell it in the foreign market, you’re not going to have a very strong trailer if you have no production value, somebody shooting at somebody, a chase, a fight, an explosion so we definitely incorporated some of that, but it’s on a scale that’s so easy to do on a modest budget. So there is a shoot-out; there’s a fight. It’s a lot of stuff with suspense and tension which doesn’t have to cost a lot of money so it isn’t just in the house but it’s just big enough that it will not go cheap basically which was sort of our goal when we went into it.
No, that’s a good tip for sure. So talk about just the marketing of this script. Obviously you have ultimately sold it through my blast service, but talk about some of the other angles you were using to market it.
I mean, I kicked it around through some of my own professional contacts of other people that I knew in development and just things like that. What I ended up realizing is that I actually had in a way scaled it to a degree where it is actually smaller than I had anticipated because I actually could have—and actually now that it has sold, we are doing some rewrites to add even more action to it, but I basically kicked it around through some of my development contacts. I put it on inktip and then I sent it out through your blast service. I actually remarkably through the combination of inktip and your blast, since we sold it a couple more people have come back who I sent scripts to and said hey we’re interested in acquiring this, is it available? No, we’ve sold it already. So I think I ended up having probably five different buyers that were interested, but the producer who ended up taking it was a little bit more aggressive and basically said hey, I’ll just buy it from you vs. option. So that was why we ended up going with him.
I’m curious what your contacts in the business said. They liked the writing but it wasn’t quite for them? What was the note you were getting back?
The main thing was that if I was thinking about how I would do it in a bigger way, it would probably be more action-based. One thing about it is—and that’s probably why I have more action to it now—is that we did it where it sort of hits this mix between drama and horror, and so it has a heavy metal dramatic onus. That’s why I think we’ll probably have some good fortune when we actually get actors with it, but it’s tempted pretty strongly in that direction. So that makes it a little bit more challenging [inaudible 0:40:09.0] a sort of higher genre, festival so the main note I think we got back was that people liked it but it was probably too much of a drama.
Now you are turning it more like action thriller instead of drama thriller?
I mean, it’s definitely still heavy on dramatic elements, but the thriller elements were highlighting a little bit more, adding a little bit more, a little bit more action to it so it will feel a little bit more genre and still have that balance is what we liked about it.
Okay. Cool. So the next thing I want to talk about, I thought it might be interesting to offer producers’ notes and basically get your insight on people’s scripts. So this is something we’ve been talking about, and I just want to kind of describe what that service will be and then we’ll dig into some of the actual details. What we’re thinking of is you’re going to get a synopsis from a writer, and you’re going to review the synopsis. Then basically all this stuff you’re talking about, sort of the practical production stuff, the producers’ notes, you’re going to then have a 45-minute telephone consultation with the people and give them all of your insight into how they can improve their script with sort of a practical, not so much on story structure or that kind of angle but on sort of the practical angle, how they can improve their chances of actually selling this. We’re still working out some of the details, but I’m going to link to it in the show notes. So let’s talk about some of the broad strokes of what this is going to be and then we’re going to talk specifically about one of the scripts that you wrote earlier in your career and why you made some mistakes and what those mistakes were specifically about that script but just in the broad strokes maybe you can tell us what this product is going to be.
One thing especially being a writer who then became a development executive and then went back to being a writer, I had sort of an unusual path, and when I was a development executive, I was extremely sympathetic to writers. One of the reasons that we started talking about this is because on your show we often talk about how if you’re a writer and you’re looking to break in, some of these smaller companies and movies where they’re open to new writers is a great place to start. So I was the guy that you’d send that script to. I would accept queries and I would read scripts from new writers and I was that guy. It was very common that I would read a script, and I would say this is actually pretty decent writing, but this one element in here makes it essentially impossible for me to produce. It is not something that is an insurmountable obstacle, you could rewrite it and fix it probably, but that’s not what the script is. I have this script in front of me. I’m not going to buy this script. I’m going to read the next script that hopefully is going to fit into the boxes that I need kind of checked off. It’s a lot of stuff that isn’t necessarily intuitive. It’s something that is very difficult for me to unless you actually did what I did which is basically do this every day for years and constantly have a conversation with a foreign sales agent, the producers, and with the line producers and the budget and tax credits and all these different things, unless you actually do that all the time, it’s tough to just have that knowledge. I would often think if I had this writer sitting next to me, I could just explain to him if you’d just change this one thing, this would be a lot more producer-friendly. It would be a lot more attractive to me, and so that’s essentially the kernel of this thing that you and I started talking about is if that might be a service that’s actually useful to writers and gives them some of this kind of behind-the-curtain practical knowledge that is helpful ultimately to the writers and to the producers.
So just quickly you mentioned about a script, checking certain boxes that you needed checked. Maybe you can just talk about what some of those boxes actually are.
An example that we had chatted about that I wanted to bring up is actually a script that I wrote awhile back—and it actually was a pretty good script—we almost made the cut, they actually sent us a little note saying you literally missed the cut by twenty scripts like we really liked the script. It’s been optioned, and it had interest. We have had some people kind of hook around at it, but I think the reason why it had not—
I have the log line in front of me and so maybe we can just talk about that because I think we’re going to get into some specifics here, and it might be worth just actually telling the log line. I could read it. If you had it, you could read it.
Basically it’s a script about an amnesiac and he basically wakes up in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t know who he is and he finds out that he’s wanted for murder. He genuinely does not know whether or not he committed the murder. So he actually starts investigating. He doesn’t know if he is investigating himself and he committed the crime or if he was the victim of the real killer and that’s who he’s trying to find. So gradually he starts remembering stuff and it basically goes from there. It’s essentially a straight mystery. I think it speaks to the point of this whole service. Creatively we were happy with the script, and we’ve had a lot of feedback that people have enjoyed the script, and so we sort of narrowed the script at least on some level it works creatively. What I didn’t know—and I ended up finding this out directly because we actually had a conversation about it at my company. We actually sat down and said okay, who was going to make this how were we going to go about doing it? Me as the head of development, I actually agree that we should do it. At the end of the day I understood the business realities of it even though creatively I said what a shame. Once we actually talked it through and I understood all the reasons why, I said I get where you’re coming from. Essentially if something is a straight mystery, it’s not really a thriller, it’s not really an action movie, and it’s just kind of a mystery. So that means that you can’t really sell it the way that you would an action movie in a foreign market. Now if it’s a studio movie it’s a whole different conversation because there is what is called [inaudible 0:46:33.0] behind it and they can make it for a much bigger budget. They can put a [inaudible 0:46:36.3] but this premise is not a studio premise. There have been way too many movies that have been the guy wakes up in the middle of nowhere, doesn’t remember who he is; this is too familiar of a premise. It doesn’t have the conceptual kind of heft to it that you would need for [inaudible 0:46:51.0] so that’s off the table. So now you’re down to independent films. So if an independent producer is going to make this, because it’s not action and it’s also not like a thriller or anything kind of direct like that, I’d essentially cut out probably like sixty percent of producers because they can’t sell it the way that they would sell those more commercial genres. So then it becomes almost like a drama where you have to essentially over cast it to get the money to make it. One of the things that makes it a little bit easier to produce would be if you could do it for a lower budget, but we wrote it with an extremely specific setting that would be very difficult to duplicate like this town in Alaska—and they have stilts beneath the houses like we put that in the script which is based on a real town and then we also have this intersecting narrative in New York and a scene in Central Park. They row a boat out to the lake in Central Park and things like that, the intersection between the budget of it and the place where it had naturally just goes to in terms of how you would produce it [inaudible 0:48:07.9] and so I even though I still generally think it’s a cool script and I hope that we actually find somebody that we can actually still sell it to, I understand that we made it a lot harder on ourselves just because we didn’t know that all this stuff was something that would make it more difficult to produce.
A lot of the things that you’re saying like the Alaska and the Central Park, for a studio film that’s no problem at all. There have been lots of studio films in Alaska and Central Park. So as a writer if you’re not really understanding where this script is potentially going to land and for all the reasons you just said, is this really a studio film? It just doesn’t have the heft for a studio film. So you’re going to have to do it independently, and it has too many—it’s just that the budget would never work.
What ends up being is—and it’s actually ironically many of the scripts that I would read that I could not pursue because I could see they weren’t practical—it essentially is something that has to go to somebody who has equity, that just has money and can just go make the movie, and then once the movie is made great. The thing is there are so many newer buyers that are in that situation, and I think that most writers when they sit down to write something, they just assume that it’s going to be a studio movie. I think that the amount of pressure on a concept is something that people just fundamentally are reluctant to think about. I know I was. I would just sit down and write a good script and see what happens. It’s not necessarily that simple.
So the last point about this particular movie is if you were to do it over again, maybe you can just give us some quick tips of how you would maybe if you were starting from scratch now, what would you do with this project?
I think that it was something where we had this premise that was sort of sounds much more high octane kind of premise than the actual movie is, and again it was something where we were so interested in the dramatic elements of the story, that we kind of focused on that. It would be cool kind of drama mystery movie, but in terms of the commercial appeal of it, we probably would have had to make it a lot more action-oriented and more of like an action movie that has kind of a cool role for an actor and has some weighty themes about identity and things like that, but you’ve got to get in that kind of commercial part of it. Otherwise it just becomes tough.
Again, we’re going to figure out all the details on this and then I’m going to post a link in the show notes so if anybody wants to learn more about this project, because essentially the product is going to be you doing to their script exactly what you just did to your own script giving them all the same advice. As I said, we’ll work out the details. I’ll put the link in the show notes, and if people want to learn more about it, they can find the show notes and check it out.
Perfect. So Dan, this has been a great interview. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, and I learned a lot so I know some of the listeners will as well. So I really appreciate your coming on and spending an hour with me.
Absolutely man. Thanks.
So perfect. Thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
I just want to mention two things I’m doing at Selling Your Screenplay to help screenwriters find producers who are looking for material. First, I’ve created a monthly newsletter that will be sent out directly to producers. Every member of Sys Select can submit one log line per newsletter. I went and emailed my large database of producers and asked them if they’d like to receive this monthly newsletter of pitches. So far we have well over 200 producers who are signed up to receive it. These producers are hungry for material and happy to read scripts from new writers. So if you want to participate in this pitch newsletter and get your script into the hands of lots of producers, sign up at sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
Secondly, we’ve partnered with one of the premiere paid screenwriting leads sites. So we can syndicate their leads to Sys Select members. There are lots of great paid leads coming in each week from our partner. Recently we’ve been getting ten to twelve high-quality paid leads per week. These are producers and production companies who are actively looking to buy material and are looking to hire a screenwriter for specific project. If you sign up to Sys Select, you’ll get all these leads emailed directly to you several times per week. These leads run the gamut from production companies looking for specific types of specs up to producers looking to hire a screenwriter to write up one of their ideas. We have shorts, features, producers looking for TV and web series pilots. It’s a huge array of different types of projects these producers are looking for, and these leads are exclusive to our partner and to Sys Select members. To sign up go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/select.
I recently set up a success stories page for people who have had success through the various Sys Select services. So if you want to check out some of what other people who have tried our services are saying, just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/success. Also if you’ve had success with any of the Sys services, please do let me know. It’s inspiring to hear these success stories, and I’d love to share your story and perhaps even have you on the podcast for an interview just to kind of get a feel for how you did succeed. You can always email me at email@example.com.
So next week on the podcast I’m going to be interviewing Andrew Haig about his new Indi drama called “Forty-Five years”. It’s a very intimate look at older couples 45 years of marriage. If you’re looking to have a career writing and directing art house films, his career is probably a pretty good template to look at and next week will be the last episode of the year as well. I’ll be taking off a week between Christmas and New Year’s. So next week I’m also going to be doing a wrap-up of kind of what I’ve done this year and some of the lessons that I have learned. So Happy holidays and, as I said, the last week will be the last episode of the year. So keep an eye out next week.
To wrap things up, I just want to touch on a few things from today’s interview with Dan. To me there are a couple of big take-aways from the interview. I actually think what Dan is doing is probably the highest percentage play to become a professional screenwriter. I’ve talked about this before around episode 75 of the podcast. I went and I tallied up how most people who I had interviewed had broken in. I’ll link to it in the show notes, but I basically just created a list. I listed each podcast episode and then listed exactly how they had broken in. Then I tallied up the results. The overwhelming way people broke into the business was networking and under that very broad term of networking, there was sort of a subterm is working in the business and that was by far the biggest group of people who were networking. Working in the business was the single biggest way of breaking in. So I really think getting firsthand knowledge of the entertainment business really is probably the single best thing you could do to help yourself in your screenwriting career. I talk a lot on this podcast about doing shorts to get your career started, and I reiterate that. I think that’s a great avenue. That’s something Dan did in film school. He worked on a bunch of shorts, but I think combining that with working in the industry is a great one-two punch. Again, this is kind of what Dan’s doing. He had a lot of practical production experience through film school. He had made a feature film, entered it into some film festivals. So he had a little bit of experience on that end, and then he combined it with this experience of actually working in the industry for a few years.
Last week I had Jared Frieder on the podcast, and he was winning contests and he was also working in the industry. So again, he had this great one-two punch of working two angles. Take note also of what Dan said about how the two of us met. I think it’s worth noting. He went and he contacted everyone he knew and just offered to buy them lunch. That’s exactly what he did with me. He emailed me and said hey, I’m going to start being a full-time screenwriter. Do you want to get together for lunch? I said sure so I met up with him, talked and that’s a very powerful thing because he had been working in the industry for quite a long time and he knows a lot of people from this experience. I’m sure there were dozens of these lunch meetings, and you just never know where these are going to end up. Through that meeting with me he ended up using my email and fax blast service and ended up selling a script. You can clearly trace that to actually selling something but there is a lot of subtlety to a lot of these meetings. Some of these things will pay dividends for years down the road. So that’s a powerful tool and that’s a real firsthand concrete example of how working in the industry can be so powerful for you. Also listen to what Dan said about not saying no to anyone and working on a ton of projects while he was in film school. He just had that attitude. He’s just not going to say no to anybody. He just wants to work and learn and that’s the sort of attitude that you need. You need to be willing to work on a ton of projects to the point where you don’t even know how you’re going to get them all done. I do that. I try and talk about some of them on the podcast just to give you an idea of what all I’ve got going, and I’ve had several conversations with Dan outside of the podcast so I know that’s what he’s doing too. He’s got a ton of irons in the fire, a lot of stuff we didn’t even talk about on the podcast. He’s just working a ton of different angles trying to get some things going and that’s just what you’ve got to do. Obviously this goes all the way up to the highest levels of screenwriters and producers and directors and just being in the entertainment industry all the way up to a guy like Spielberg. Go look up Steve Spielberg’s resume. He’s producing this, executive producing this. He’s got TV shows. He’s got movies. He’s got dozens of projects that he’s trying to push forward. For every one that succeeds, he’s probably got a half dozen or a dozen that don’t succeed. This is really worth noting and worth kind of understanding. If you have one project that you’re trying to push forward, chances of any one project actually taking off is very, very slim so you’ve got to just constantly push on various projects. That’s at all levels. That’s from people who are trying to break in all the way up to the highest levels. Spielberg as I said is probably at the highest level and go look at his resume. He’s got a million things going on, and I can assure you for everything that he gets into production, he’s got lots and lots of projects that never saw the light of day and that’s just part of the business.
I hope, too, hearing interviews with guys like Dan gives you some perspective. If you’re out there trying to be a screenwriter, you’ve got to realize that guys like me and Dan are exactly what you’re competing against. We’re all using inktip; we’re all using the blacklist. We’re all using my email and fax blast service. We’re all in this same group. We’re all out there trying to push our projects out. Really think about what you’re doing and figure out how you’re going to be able to outhustle guys like me again because that’s what it’s going to take. There are a million guys here in Hollywood like and Dan trying to push these things forward so if you listen to interviews like the one I just showed you and you’re thinking gee, that’s amazing. He’s got so many things. He’s worked in the industry. He’s got so many projects going. He’s working on this. If you listen to his podcast and think the same thing about me, that’s just what you, have to do. If you’re not working on as many projects as I’m working on, you’re probably not really in the race. You’ve got to get up to speed. You’ve got to get a lot of these projects going and really, really hustle. As I said, there are a lot of really smart people here, Dan being one of them who are all out there hustling projects. He’s getting projects produced. He’s getting projects sold, and that’s just what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to be hustling and hitting a million different angles.
Once again if you want to learn about the producers’ notes that Dan is offering, check out the podcast. It’s episode 103 of the link to the landing page in the show notes. As I said in the podcast, we’re still working out some of the details, pricing and kind of exactly how it’s all going to work, but go to the podcast. Go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts. Look for episode 103 and then I will link to the page in the show notes so you can learn more about that.
Also one last side note and this kind of pertains to what I was saying just a second ago. I’ve had a few people on the podcast over the years that have had success with my email fax blast service like Dan. You can go back and listen to some of those episodes, episode 79 and I can’t remember the other number. I will try and dig it up. It was an interview with Jordan. He also sold some stuff and optioned some stuff through the email fax blast service. So those are available, but I would say almost all cases the people have had success with my email and fax blast service are people like Dan who have some considerable experience in the industry. In fact, I can only think of two people who have had options that didn’t have any experience in the business. This is really worth noting. When I say experience in the business, it can mean anything, working in the industry like Dan and also doing shorts and a feature film, also like Dan did or having previous options or sales or again having a track record of doing a bunch of shorts. Almost all the people who have success with my email fax blast service have a track record of actually doing some of these things that we’re talking about—shorts, doing an independent feature film, working in the industry. Experience counts. This is worth noting because anybody can get the experience that I’m talking about. These entry-level jobs, Dan just described how he got this entry level job. Last week with Jerry Frieder, he described how he got the entry level job. If you’re young and fresh out of college, you can get those entry-level jobs. They’re not going to be easy but you can get that experience. Same thing with doing shorts, if you, for whatever reason, are not in a position where you can work in an entry level job in the entertainment industry, I certainly understand that, but you can go and you can work on shorts and you can build a resume of shorts that you have written and produced. Again, that will build up your experience level. It’s hard to quantify exactly why. It’s hard to point to some specific thing. In Dan’s case he’s worked in development so he understands kind of what producers are looking for. That’s invaluable experience, but as I said, a lot of the people who have had success with the email and fax blast service also have done some shorts. I just think that they’re just getting experience seeing your projects actually filmed, seeing actors interpret your dialog, all of these things sort of add up. Very subtly add up to experience that helps you write a better script. That’s ultimately what I think it is. I think the people who have experience are typically writing better scripts and that’s why they’re having more success with my email fax blast service. Anybody can get this experience, and so starting at the bottom and trying to get that experience I think is really worth doing. My guess is the same thing for the blacklist and for inktip. My guess is if you looked at the people that are having the most success on those services; they probably had some other things going for them. They were working in the industry or they had done some shorts or something else. My guess is it would extend out to those other services because it’s all the same. It’s basically the same people are using all of these services. Again, it’s really worth thinking about how you’re going to get this experience and perhaps go out there and actually make some shorts. Again, see if you can get that low-level job in the industry. Definitely check out that post that I wrote. As I said, I think it’s about the first 75 episodes where I tallied up people. Check that post out because there you can actually look and see how did this person break in and you can probably find sort of a method that will work for you. Everybody’s situation is different, and as I said, I understand some people can’t work in the industry, but everybody has different ways of breaking in. So go look at that post. You can kind of figure out this is how people have broken in and then hopefully you can build a template based on some of these other people’s experiences, build a template that is going to work for your particular circumstances.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thank you for listening.