SYS Podcast Episode #288: Aaron Harvey
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #288 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screen writer and blogger over at www.sellingyourccreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer- director Aaron Harvey. He just completed a feature film called Into The Ashes. We talk through this entire career and how he landed in LA without knowing anyone. He eventually got a job working for a really low budget filmmaker and he started just writing his own scripts and eventually he’s now writing and directing them. Stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes, or leaving a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
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So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer- director Aaron Harvey. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Aaron to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Aaron: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Ashley: So to start out maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Aaron: Let’s see… my background, I grew up in North Carolina in a little town outside of Charlotte and I’ve always been interested in films for years. I mean, in high school, through college, you know. Never seriously thought about being able to actually make films because where I grew up was literally the other side of the world from Hollywood, so I always watched and obsessed about them and then went through school, went through college and when I got out of college I had a little bit of a life moment where I thought you know, “It’s kinda now or never,” in terms of giving it a stab and maybe making a move and trying. So I ended up actually just packing my bags and coming to LA totally blind, I knew absolutely nobody and kinda hit the bricks and here I am. So it’s a very truncated version of it, but it’s been a long journey to get to this point now.
Ashley: Yeah, sure. Let’s talk about that. Just arriving in LA not knowing anybody. I know there’s a lot of people that are gonna be listening to this podcast, they don’t live in LA and they’re thinking of making that move. Maybe just run through that… what did you do? You said you hit the bricks, maybe you can tell us specifically some things that you did that actually worked and kinda got your career moving forward.
Aaron: Yeah, of course. I move, as I said I went to college, I was gonna go to film school [inaudible 00:03:28] I was thinking about film school and then again I just… at this moment when I was like it seems like a waste of time, what am I doing? Movies are this thing I have no idea about, I donno anybody working in film. It just was this mystical ball to me. I ended up going to school getting an actual business degree weirdly, got out and then as I was working I again basically was like I should at least take a stab at this because if I don’t I’m gonna regret this forever. So I ended up as I said, moving to LA but what happened was is I had met a guy preferably who essentially wanted to be a film producer and he same thing, was gonna go to LA, I’d met him on the East Coast, he was like, “I wanna move to LA as well, try to make movies.”
I said, “Great, well, I wanna direct films, light films maybe we can go together,” since we didn’t know anybody else. And we figured why not. So we basically made the move together and what ended up happening was pretty quickly after getting to LA we ended up connecting in with a filmmaker who made very low budget movies, you know, $100,000, $200,000 films. This is 2005, 2006 and started just… we connected with him, my partner did at the time. We connected with him and we started just doing everything with the guy, working on sets, PA-ing, literally I was like his assistant for a while and helped him do post-production work. I mean, anything and everything I could get my fingers onto I did. We worked with him for a number of years, and I basically… in essence that was my film school because it was a great platform to learn because it was practical.
I was on set all the time seeing how the process was done. The films that he was making were not great films but he treated the films like they were $10,000,000 movies. So the process was very much [inaudible00:05:18] any movie in terms of how we approached putting stuff together, proper call sheets, proper crews, we shot a lot of them on film. It was a really good hands-on experience for me and I did that for about five years before… actually three, four years before I really started going, “You know what? I should be writing my own stuff to try to get my work moving or my conceptual work that I wanted to be moving.” That’s kind of how I started when I first moved to LA. But I did move to LA because I thought that’s where you need to really be to actually do films, and in my specific case I think especially at the time that I came here it definitely helped being available and being around the business, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily the case now in 2019 anymore, so…
Ashley: When you moved here, like literally you had never written a script, you had never directed anything, you were just a guy with a dream?
Aaron: Never. Yeah. I had absolutely nothing. This wasn’t a situation where when I was 16 I was making short films back home. I did love films. I watched films obsessively but I’d never… I didn’t come from any sort of crazy privileged background. I never had the availability to actually even do it if I wanted to at the time. So no, it was very much just get on the plane fly out just to see what happens kind of throw caution to the wind. But yeah, I didn’t really seriously start doing anything or writing till I got to town and that was after seeing the business on a very macro level for a couple of years.
Ashley: Sure. So let’s talk just about your first feature- Catch 44 starring Bruce Willis. I’m just curious, was it a spec script? How did you get on to write and direct that project?
Aaron: Yeah, that actually sprung from working with this guy that I was just telling you about. One thing I’ve realized over the years is being opportunistic is always your friend because you learn quickly the system doesn’t owe you anything. I think people come with a lot of chips on their shoulders, they’re, “I’m the genius, the town needs to recognize that quickly.” And so I was always kinda available looking for any opportunity that I could That whole film basically came about because while working with this low budget film director I had met a couple of people through him and his associates and one of then basically wanted me to write him essentially like a horror film. He wanted a small, low budget horror film.
He had this idea for it and I said, “Yeah, sounds great. Perfect. Whatever, let’s do that.” I started writing it for him because… and just to [inaudible 00:07:52] really quickly, I had written a couple of scripts at that point on spec just on my own for fun and he’d seen those and thought that they were interesting and was like, “Hey, I think if we wrote this cool horror film I could put it together for a couple of hundred thousand dollars.” Of course I was like, “Hallelujah!” A hundred million as far as I was concerned at the time, so I started writing him a very low-budget sort of Horror movie and then very quickly realized this wasn’t my thing. I wasn’t writing it honestly, I wasn’t really feeling what I was doing.
I got about fifty pages deep into that script and another friend of mine that I had met at the tine in LA was like could tell I was miserable, saw the laboring happening and came and said, “I have this weird exercise I do where if I’m writing something like that kinda for somebody else that I’m not fully into I will take a weekend and pause and just write whatever’s in my head that I’d wanna see in that exact moment. If I was sitting in a theatre for two hours what’s the movie I wanna watch right now and just take some element of the script that you’re writing that you like and write a whole script around that that’s just totally… like a vanity script. Just the thing you’d wanna see right now.”
I said, “Okay, that’s interesting but whatever,” And I went back to the thing I was working on, I said, “Well, I don’t really like anything about the genre,” it wasn’t my thing. None of the characters, the whole conceit was dumb but I liked one element about it was that sort of isolated truck stuff that was in the script. So I basically took that element out and just sat over a week and then banged out this on the script which inevitably became Catch 44. I threw it all on paper it was like a fever dream. I was just so aggravated with the process that it just all came out over just a couple… literally I think I wrote the script in about two and a half days which was bananas now that I think about it, but wrote the thing, put it on a shelf went back to the other project I was working on.
Well, then that guy who I was kinda writing it for came to me and said, “What’s going on, I’d like to see it.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m 75 pages into it but I can’t. It’s nothing. I can’t finish, I don’t know what it is.” You know, frustrated. And I said, “I’ve got this other thing I wrote just for fun if you wanna read that which has this element in it from the script I’m working on for you.” He said, “Okay, let me see that.” So I actually gave it to him not thinking anything about it and then he in turn ended up loving that script. The guy that I was doing it for was not anybody… you know, not knocking him but it was nobody that was gonna get that movie moving or made in any sort of real level. I was like, “Well, that’s great. I’m glad you like it.
“Yeah, awesome. I like it, you like it. Cool.” But then he ended up by total happenstance showing it to a casting director friend of his who happened to be sort of like an Indie darling casting director. This woman named [inaudible 00:10:35] who [inaudible 00:10:37] really interesting indie film earlier on. And she read it and really liked it and then in turn she ended up giving it… floating it over to an agent, a couple of agents at William Morrison’s. That’s when it sort of kind of took off because they responded to it and one of them and a couple of years process of getting that movie made started. But that was how it started. Initially it was me working on another project for somebody else and then basically just having to take a moment and write this thing I wanna see and then it kinda took on its own legs after it got into the hands of a few people.
Ashley: And I’m curious, so this little horror script that this guy proposed, he comes to you with an idea and you’re writing it for him. I’m assuming, but maybe it’s not, but I’m assuming he didn’t pay you any money to do it, it’s more just like spec, “Hey man, if we get this thing funded then we’ll pay you on a back end.” Correct?
Aaron: Of course. Yes. The guy was basically involved… he was the lawyer who worked with that initial film maker making these small movies. He would do a lot of the legal work and the paper work just on a very small level. And he basically, he knew some of the distributors, he knew some financiers and just had guys in his little Rolodex that he thought would do this if we did it for a couple of hundred thousand bucks just again based on the idea, based on some other scripts he would read and he knew I wanted to direct films, so he thought this is something we could hedge in full capacity and being friendly with him I was like, “Okay, sounds great, let’s try it, why not.” And so that’s where it started. But yeah, there was definitely no pay, all one spec. And that’s how we started doing it initially.
Ashley: And I’m curious, you made the comment that being opportunistic and I meet a lot of writers and they have this attitude, “Writers deserve to be paid, I don’t work on spec.”
Ashley: I hear the laughter in your voice. What do you say to those writers that are starting out that have that attitude?
Aaron: I mean, that’s tricky. I don’t wanna stick my foot in my mouth but I have just a very particular perspective on a lot of this and a lot of business on a lot of business because now also being in the position I’m at now and having done this now for over a decade and the people that I’ve met and the places I’ve been, it’s even worse these days from when I was initially starting in terms of you have to be [inaudible 00:13:00]. I mean, you can’t come at it with that perspective because it just never works. I would say I have a lot of friends who actually now by total happenstance ended up… a lot of them went to AFI. Weirdly all my best friends are all from AFI. And a lot of them, they all had sort of that same perspective and I told all of them I was like, “Dude you can’t approach it like this.
Your work has to speak for you. You have to put yourself out there. Don’t expect the system again to give you anything [inaudible 00:13:29]. You need to really prove and validate yourself because Hollywood’s a lot of posturing too. Anybody can come to town. There’s no barriers to entry so it’s also a little bit of that like who makes the most noise can get seen. But I think with writers starting initially you just do the work, put the time in. Your time is all you have until you’re getting paid so you may as well spend it appropriately, but I would say don’t approach it as if you’re too good for the work or you’re above it because until you are P.T. Anderson you’re not. You gotta put the time in and you gotta work. It’s all work. It’s very hard work.
Ashley: Yeah. For sure. Let’s dig into your latest film Into the Ashes. Maybe to start out you can give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is that film all about?
Aaron: In a very broad base sentence just a very simple revenge tale about a man’s past which catches up to him and the sort of a fall out and the ramifications of that and what he does to deal with it. But more importantly it’s more of a dramatic film for me. It’s about these two men who sort of come to terms with each other with a shared tragedy, a mutual tragedy and sort of how they rectify their relationship with each other. It’s a little tricky because it’s technically a genre film, it’s a Thriller but in my mind it isn’t and it never was. It’s always kinda been a Drama with sort of Thriller elements to it. But it’s about a guy who is running from his past who lives in a small town and he’s got a wife and his friend and his father-in-law is the town sheriff.
So past comes up to catch him, essentially his old crew and they end up, [inaudible 00:15:18] without spoiling it, they turn his life upside down and then in turn he has to exact his sense of revenge for what happened and all the while dealing with his father-in-law who’s the sheriff who also has to deal with his own sense of revenge or how he approaches the situation in a way from his perspective. So it’s a simple revenge film.
Ashley: Yeah. So where did this idea come from? What’s sort of the genesis of this story?
Aaron: I love the ‘70’s lonely man [inaudible 00:15:54] type of genre films, you know, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Charlie [inaudible 00:15:59], Don Siegel’s movies are all awesome. Rolling Thunder was a big influence for this film which is a John Flynn’s film that Paul Schrader wrote. Kinda these professional type of films Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, I guess more contemporary films like No Country for Old Men is a good one, A History of Violence, Blood Simple. So these films looked like a sort of singular protagonist with a world that is crashing down around them and what they end up having to do and how they have deal with these situations that they find themselves in. I just love those kind of films. I’ve always wanted to make a film in a vein like that and so I decided I kinda know just how to make it a regional film and make it a genre film.
I wanted to make it a revenge and a redemption film. You take all the elements and throw them in the pot and then you start simmering and hopefully a story presents itself. But I just started writing it and it just came out on the page as the film that you see but it starts from a deep love of those films.
Ashley: Let’s talk about your writing process just a little bit. Just a couple of quick questions. Where do you typically write? Are you writing at Starbucks, do you have a home office, do you have an office outside the house? What does your writing look like as far as just location?
Aaron: No, I have a little office in my house. I mean, it’s technically a second bedroom in my home so I just tend to write there. It’s difficult for me to pay attention when I’m at Starbucks or anywhere else, it’s very distracting. So I just tend to get in a little bubble and write when it hits me too. I try not to force it. I know a lot of people do this five pages a day, like it’s an exercise of some capacity. But I never really started writing initially to write. I was always writing to direct and to make the films that I wanted to see as a filmmaker or the things that again, if given all latitude in the world I would make. Most of my writing comes from a pretty personal place and kind of a vanity place in terms of these are just movies that I wanna really make.
I’m not writing so much for the formality of the writing or to be a writer. So my [inaudible 00:18:12] is a little [inaudible 00:18:14] because it’s very much on my own timeline. The things that I’m writing are just things that I literally wanna make. I don’t really try to push into the talent, I’m not actively trying to sell stuff that way. But I do write at home. I have a home office.
Ashley: How much time do you spend in the outlining, the index card stage versus actually in final draft writing out the pages?
Aaron: To be frank, not that much. Generally what I’ll do is I’ll pull final draft up and I’ll start scribbling notes out literally on final draft like just on the page, on the first page. Just ding ding ding, just some bullets of kinda want the story to go in this direction and be the sort of beat the hat on the head that I wanna hit at home point. And then what I do is I usually just start writing. Like literally writing the script and as it’s going along letting it unfold and I keep running little bullet point notes below wherever I’m at in the actual screenplay so I see it all the time as I’m banging out dialogue or scenes and then I weave it in as I go along and pull the little bullets in as I hit them.
But I don’t really do heavy outlining or note carding also because most of the stuff I tend to write again, it originates with character where it’s really like, “Where is this guy going? This is the point of view of this guy’s mind, how is he interacting with these moments or these scenes or how is he gonna pull us through this beat and what does this beat mean?” And kind of discovering it as I write it which I think is… I try to do it that way to be more honest with the writing and not be so hamstringed by, “Oh, I’ve gotta hit this specific plot machination,” or “This story has to happen at this specific time,” and then you… because I feel like you start back loading things and start working into that structure versus going, “Where is this guy?
What’s happening in this scene? Why isn’t it my character in this moment? What does he want out of this?” So the process for me is a little bit different than I think a lot of more [inaudible 00:20:18] writers and the way that screenplays are usually written. But that’s just how I do it and it seems to work so [laughs] what do I say?
Ashley: How do you know when you script is ready to show to others and especially with someone like yourself that kinda bangs out a first draft? Do you then do several revisions before you start to show friends and agents and managers and stuff or do you get a first draft out there and then start to work through those rewrites with the notes of other people?
Aaron: No. I definitely do a lot of smoothing before anybody sees it. I mean, we’re all writers and everything, we’re all neurotic about our own work to a point so there’s a fear when you write something that you stick it out there and no one’s gonna wanna do it or see it or like it or whatever. There’s a little bit of that kinda crippling anxiety that happens at [inaudible 00:21:09] first draft and you’re like, “Oh my God! This is garbage,” and so then you go back through it. I sit on it for a while. I’ll probably do a good solid four, five or six revisions of the first draft of just going through and looking at literally every scene, making it perfect trying to make sure the grammar is all correct. I try to polish them really well so that when you read them there’s nothing sticking out, nothing feels floppy, it’s all very tight, as tight as I can get it I should say for first draft.
But no, I sit and I will go back. It’s like if somebody, forget that it was me, maybe even P.T Anderson actually said it’s like ironing, like you’re always going… you write a bit and then you go back four pages then you kinda smooth that down then you write three more pages, go back two more, smooth down. I kinda do that when I write. I do that when I rewrite or revive the draft but it takes me a good four or five solid revisions or rewrites before I send it to anybody and then those rewrites are… I sit on it for a couple of weeks just to make sure… I step away from it for a little bit and come back to it and just make sure that when I read it again it’s somewhat fresh and you can spot the inadequacies of it easier than being so in the hubris of it in the moment.
Ashley: Sure. And what does the development process look like? Do you have a few trusted friends that you respect and you send it to them? Do you have an agent, a manager? Who do you send it to and who do you send it to and who do you get notes from?
Aaron: I do. There’s a couple buddies I’ve made over the years who are probably the most say like trusted confidants who will look at stuff and basically tell me honestly what they think. Two specifically that I really do it with and then I do actually have essentially a writing partner, he’s actually my editor and we’ve written a number of screenplays together, not this one I did one my own, but we’ve got the next one I’m trying to do we did together and we did the one before this together. But he’s really good with story and character so I always send it to him. And then I get… I call [inaudible 00:23:16] sort of try to see where, if there’s any kind of commonality between them because it’s obviously… film is so subjective and screenwriting is very subjective so it’s always everybody’s got an opinion and all opinions are valid.
But at the same time because I’m also making a movie, my job is really just to protect what I perceive as the honesty and integrity of the material itself. Someone else may have a different point of view on it but that’s okay. And then I’ll tell them, “Thanks but no thanks,” because it’s a movie I wanna make and I know what I’m gonna do with this moment. But if there’s like kinda common notes that I get back from some of these friends that I really do trust then I’ll tend to pay attention to them and maybe figure out why they’re saying what they’re saying or what it is they’re really getting at in terms of the material. But I do that first with friends and try to get a broad consistence on the notes.
And then after that I usually will send it to… duly I just go straight to the couple partners I work with on these films that I produce with them together. Send them the material say, “Hey, Check this out. Here’s a film in the making, what do you think?” And then inevitably to my manager agent who I don’t have an agent anymore right now but I have a manager at the moment and just say, “Hey, check this out. Here is what I wanna do.” I don’t lean on them too heavily because again I’m trying to make these movies myself so it’s a bit of [inaudible 00:24:46]. I’m more interested in what the producing partners are gonna think and work with something that we feel we can actually get moving like practically.
Ashley: And I’m curious, using Into The Ashes as an example, did you go to these producing partners before you started writing and say, “Hey, here’s an idea I have for a movie. Do you think this is something that we could get produced?” Do you get feedback before you start writing or do you just follow your passion, write something and then see where it lands?
Aaron: Yeah, I definitely follow my passion. I just write the movies I wanna make. I mean, I love the guys I work with to death but I also have such a strong point of view on the films that I really love and I literally watch a film or two every day. I’m just obsessed with cinema so I know what it is I’m trying to say in the movie I’m trying to make, so I don’t like to put a bunch of voices in my head before I do it and so I just tend to write kind of in a vacuum for myself first and then to them and then if they respond, cool, if not, cool and we go from there. Fortunately the couple guys that I work with on most of these movies we’re all the same age, we all have similar agendas are very tangent to the same philosophic ideas, I guess, in terms of our approach and the films we wanna make and sort of what we wanna put on our résumés, I guess. It’s pretty seamless once we get there.
Ashley: Yeah. So as someone who’s been doing this now for over a decade what do you think is some of the biggest misconceptions that people have who are trying to break into the business?
Aaron: Break in? That’s tricky. I mean…
Ashley: I mean, are there some things that surprised you?
Aaron: You know, I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Ashley: Well, are there some things that surprised you as someone who’s driving across the country in North Carolina and knows nothing about the film business now a decade in are there some things that really surprised you or that they weren’t what you thought that they would be?
Aaron: Yeah. This sounds a little interesting to say but you realize how many, I guess, inadequate people are here in this town. The town to me is just so packed with warm bodies that really have no business trying being in the film business. It’s not taking anything away from anybody else because obviously we all have a love of film, everybody wants to do it to some degree but I think that it’s hard… I didn’t realize how difficult it was to cut through the riff raff and get to the point of working with more established real people and what that really took. I was a little naïve to the idea that it’s brutally difficult and there’s so many people trying to do the same thing you’re doing and there’s a line of a thousand people behind you, so you always have to remember that.
Again, I guess this goes back to being opportunistic. But at the same time not letting that affect your perspective because who knows? There’s diamonds in every coal mine. You just have to put the horse blinders on and not pay attention to the noise of the town and just focus on your work and really do good work but I don’t think… because the cream inevitably will rise, it will separate at some point if you just do the work and have the talent to some degree. But I think the other thing is knowing your position I guess. Understanding your place in the machine and not trying to be bigger or something different than you are. Like we all romanticize, again, the Paul Anderson, the Scorsese all these big filmmakers that we love and we look at and idolize but at the same time you’re not that person, I’m not that person, I’m me.
I can only do what I can do. So sort of understanding and owning that and being happy with that was a big thing that I learnt early on and using your own strength and keeping again, that sort of macro perspective is very helpful if you really wanna get ahead and work and make films but a misconception, I don’t know. There’s no specific misconception I think I had or I think again, the people that I’ve known in my universe have had really truly beyond maybe some of the kids coming out of film school who thought, “Oh God! I went to AFI therefore where’s my million dollars and my camera?” it’s like well, that’s definitely not how it works. The system doesn’t owe anybody anything so just keeping that in check I think you’ll be alright.
Ashley: Perfect. How can people see Into The Ashes, what’s the release schedule like for it?
Aaron: It is coming out on July 19th all over the place. It will be in theatre. I’m actually not exactly sure which theatres yet, distributor RLJ should let us know soon, but it’s gonna be in all the major markets and then it’ll be on demand VOD for a while and then it’ll end up reaching everywhere else, iTunes, Netflix, everywhere.
Ashley: Sounds good. And what’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing in your career, Twitter, Facebook, a blog anything you’re comfortable sharing I will round up and put it in the show notes.
Aaron: Oh yeah, no problem. I don’t do a lot of social media. I have a Twitter account. It’s probably a good one, www.twitter.com/aaronharv I believe. I say that and I’m like, “What is my exact Twitter account?”
Ashley: I’ll figure it out and put it in the show notes, okay.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s a good one. I’m always on there reading other film bloggers or listening to guys like yourself. So it’s [inaudible 00:30:17].
Ashley: Perfect Aaron. I really appreciate…
Aaron: What kind of film’s still there.
Ashley: Yeah, perfect. I really appreciate coming on and talking with me today Aaron. This was a great interview, lots of great information so I’m sure a lot of people will get a lot out of it.
Aaron: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Anything I can do to help, it’s [inaudible 00:30:34] forward as much as you can.
Ashley: Yeah, for sure. Thank you very much, will talk to you later.
Aaron: Thanks Ashley, I appreciate it.
Ashley: You too, bye.
Aaron: Take care.
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Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you, you can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program.
Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing writer-director Timo Vuorensola. He just did a Sci-Fi film called Iron Sky The Coming Race. He’s got a great story about he and his partners, how they built an audience by doing some other films including a prequel to this Iron Sky film, and then they ended up crowd sourcing this second one. It’s a very ambitious Sci-Fi project, so it’s really interesting and fascinating to see how he and his partners have put this film together. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show, thank you for listening.