This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 402 – Joel Soisson’s Excellent Writing Adventure .
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #402 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I am interviewing Joel Soisson who wrote and directed a film called My Best Worst Adventure. He’s done a ton of producing as well, producing dozens of feature films over the years. So we’ll talk about that, how he got his start in the business, how he’s got some of these films produced, and then we’ll talk about his most recent film and how all that came together. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast. So they are very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for Episode Number #402. If you want my free guide- How To Sell A Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.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. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. Really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So a couple of words about what I’ve been working on the last few weeks. The contest here at Selling Your Screenplay is winding down. We announced the quarter-finalists last week. Hopefully everybody saw that and congratulations to all the quarter-finalists. We will be announcing the semi-finalists next week, so check out the website to see that if you’re interested.
We finally signed with a distributor on The Rideshare Killer, we chose Indie Rights, and it really came down to their reputation in the industry. They’re known as being very transparent and honest in terms of their accounting, and we just never really found another distributor that we really trusted. And this was from talking to them personally, me and Tony, the other producer, but also just talking with other filmmakers about their experience with these distributors. For the most part, you just found a lot of filmmakers that were not all that happy with most of the distributors we talked to. What seems to be happening with this sort of the lower level indie distributors, and this is really just sort of my opinion, sort of my takeaway after going through this process. So definitely take it with a grain of salt.
My experience is not that vast, obviously it’s now with The Pinch and trying to sell The Pinch and then trying to sell The Rideshare Killer. But it seems to me in this sort of day and age, as we sit here in 2021, there is some guaranteed money with these films, putting them up on the VOD platforms. You will generate some revenue, not a ton necessarily, but there is some, and it really depends how well film does. There’s a lot of uncertainty to it. It’s not as simple as just looking at the film, “Oh, this is a good film, it’ll do well.” I could tell from talking with a lot of these distributors, they would look at the film and they honestly couldn’t give us a good example.
Like a lot of it in their sort of, in their opinion was just, you got to just throw it up there and do everything you can to market it. Some films take off some films don’t, but you don’t really have that much control over it. Obviously you need a good film. Obviously you can do whatever marketing you can do, but the bottom line is there is some VOD money. Obviously it does depend on the quality of the film, the ability to market it. But a lot of these distributors have big staffs. They go, they fly over to all the markets over in the Cannes film market, AFM film market, Berlin film market. You’ve got to fly to these things, get hotels, bring your staff. They would set up screenings at these various places, but someone has to pay for all of that.
And if they don’t sell the film, it’s the filmmakers that pay, and it basically comes out of the VOD money that they know is there. So that’s sort of the trade-off. We could have gone with a bigger distributor or one, one that I would say, maybe not even a big one, one that I would say promised us more, but we would have been risking at least in our opinion, the VOD money. Because these distributors have all these expenses and the way the contracts are written, their expenses get paid first before they send any money to a filmmaker. We would find some companies, maybe they have $10,000 or $30,000, but the expenses from the distributors are not nothing.
Especially on a low budget movie like this, it’s just, it’s too much of the budget really to justify it, at least in me and Tony’s opinion. So that was sort of our thought process. Indie Rights has a really good reputation and they’re not the biggest distributor and they don’t necessarily have the most contacts at the highest level. So they’re not gonna sell my movie to HBO. And that was sort of the trade-off. A lot of these other companies, they did sell movies on a regular basis to HBO, but were they gonna be able to sell our movie to HBO? And if they didn’t sell our movie to HBO, we would have basically given up that VOD money because that money would have gone basically to pay them to pitch it to HBO and Showtime and all of these other services.
Again, that was our, that was sort of our thought process. If you’ve been through this process, I’d love to hear from you and just sort of listen to what I’m saying, and then email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from other filmmakers and just see sort of what their thought process was and see if they kind of agree with what my analysis is after going through this. Anyway, so we’re in the process of getting all the deliverables created for The Rideshare Killer, and then we got to send them over to Indie Rights. It’ll probably take a few weeks. If you’re unfamiliar with creating deliverables for a film, it’s all the typical stuff, you need a trailer, and it has to be formatted in a specific way.
You need different versions of the film, you need a 4k version, 2k version, a stereo version, a 5.1 audio version. You need a version without any dialogue typically so that they can sell it and dub it in places. So there’s just different versions the film you’ve got to create. We’ve also got to get the poster made. We waited on getting the poster made. By design with The Pinch I made the poster pretty early in the process, which was fine ultimately because I ended up doing self-distribution, but I knew with this one we were probably ultimately gonna go with the distributor and I wanted their recommendation on the poster. I wanted to really hear what they thought the best idea for the poster was.
And Indie Rights recommended a couple of poster houses to us. So we’re in contact with them and kind of trying to figure out which way we’re gonna go on that, but that’s gonna take at least a few weeks. So bottom line is we’re doing the deliverables and we’ll hopefully have those here in the next couple of weeks, but we’re kind of thinking early part of next year is probably when our release would be. So early 2022, hopefully we’ll be all set on these VOD platforms and ready for our release. So stay tuned for that announcement. Anyway, those are the main things that I have been working on over the last couple of weeks. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer, director and producer Joel Soisson. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Joel to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Joel: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to it.
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?
Joel: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, or actually a little town called Chagrin Falls. Anybody’s ever heard of that? But my father with a fine artist, a painter and that was my inspiration. He got me into the visual arts. Despite following in his footsteps, went to art school, realized I’d never be the painter he was. So I decided, well, what’s the closest thing? Animation. Got into that, came to LA to be a Disney animator. I got an apprenticeship and realized I wasn’t the kind of guy to sit there under a hot lamp, drawing 24 frames of the same picture every second. Then realized how cool movies were, they’re just like you push a button and the same thing happens. And that was it.
It was it was originally my ambition was to become a cinematographer because I’ve always been visually oriented. The writing came sort of as a way of facilitating that ambition to sort of move things along. And it kind of stuck at some point because screenplays, I’m probably getting a little out ahead of myself, but screenplays are so different from novels or any other written medium because they are purely visual.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So let’s talk about your first script Hambone and Hillie just a little bit. It looks like you were also an associate producer, you did write it. Maybe you can just quickly, a quick minute or two, just kind of tell us how you were able to get that script. Was it a spec script that you were able to sell, was it an assignment, but how did you get that one sold?
Joel: Well, I’m actually glad you’d bring that up because I think it’s instructive in several ways of trying to help fate along in it’s sort of chaotic approach to who gets to do stuff and who doesn’t. I just did what anybody in LA trying to get in the film business does. I just signed on as a PA gaffer for anybody who would hire me and it turned out to be this guy, independent producer named Sandy Howard, kind of a Roger Corman analog, and just running stuff across town for him. And I overheard him saying that what he really wanted to do was a little dog story, kind of like the Incredible Journey, but a little more contemporary. And he wanted it to star Lillian Gish, who he just thought would be a great sort of capper to her awesome career.
For those who don’t know, she was one of the greatest silent film stars of all time, and yes, it was that long ago. But I went home that night and wrote an outline kind of treatment for a little dog story about a dog that gets lost at the TWA terminal, another spoiler for how old I am. And has to find his way all the way across the country to get reunited with his elderly owner who’s pining for him and bereaved in all sorts of things. But I dropped it on his desk and said, “Maybe this would be sort of up your alley,” and he goes, “Yeah, that’s kind of exactly what I was looking for. Why don’t you write the first third of it?” I was like, “How do you write the first third?” “Well, it’s a journey, right? So just take them from say New York to Ohio, [inaudible 00:10:57] enough?” And I go, “Yeah, okay. I can do that.”
So I wrote the screenplay that got them that far and then handed it off to another writer. And that was my entree into it, but it was all about just being there, jumping on a need and fulfilling that with probably a little luck and a little bit of inspiration.
Ashley: Now, as you were working as a PA for this producer, had you put it in his head earlier that you really wanted to be a writer and you were thinking about writing and so that when you showed up with this treatment, it wasn’t just totally out of left field? Or did you have to sort of, “Hey, by the way, I’m also a writer?” I’m really just asking because I get a lot of people emailing me, “How do you approach your boss?” If you’re working one of these sort of entry-level jobs in the business, how do you approach the people that are above you without being overly pushy and rude and kind of overstepping your bounds?
Joel: Well, I’ve never been a guy who pushes at all, probably to my detriment. I’ve always been kind of the guy liked to sort of slip in between the cracks and go, “Well, maybe you’d consider this?” And no, I was angling to be a cam assistant at that time. That was what I wanted to be, but I guess I was smart enough or desperate enough to realize that you can’t throw any opportunity away. I mean, I felt I knew how to put a couple words together into a sentence and be coherent, and I had this idea, and of course ideas are king in this business. So I thought, why not? And that was, it was a gamble, but not a big one because it was literally, I think the original concept, it was at most a page and half.
So he could read that between vodka tonics, and which is what he did. And yeah, it was like, he could have said, “No, this is a piece of crap,” and I might’ve never done it again, because like I said, it wasn’t what it was angling for. But if you wanna be a writer that’s, to me, that’s the number one thing. And I say this to people now that I’m producing and looking for projects, although I’m mostly looking for stuff to direct now. But yes, certainly write your spec script, write the best script you know how, and if it’s really, really good, it will get seen, it will get talked about and hopefully get made. But my road has always been easier where I have written something for someone who already demonstrated the need.
It’s like, I want a story that fits this box. And quite often is, if you looked at my IMDb page, it’s just way overstuffed with sequels. A lot of that is because when somebody makes a successful movie, what they want most is a good idea for the follow-up. So if somebody can come in at that point and go, “What if Freddy Krueger does this, or what if Jason does that, or what if whoever does this? Oh, he died? Well, not really because of this,” you know? That’s always been kind of the thing that gets people interested in my work.
Ashley: I’m curious, I get a lot of writers, sort of cynical writers that are like, “Oh, writers need to be paid for their work and never do anything for free.” I mean, obviously this guy with Hambone and Hillie, he didn’t pay you to write the treatment. Did he then pay you to write the first third of this script? I ask just sort of, what is your opinion about early on in your career doing work for less than fair pay, let’s say?
Joel: I have never in my career thought of that as an issue. Now, after a few scripts that got made and a little bit of a bump up in the industry, I did get into the WGA, which zealously protects my rights as a writer. And I find myself now doing everything I can to circumvent those rights, to make myself more appealing as a writer. But everything that I’ve done is based on what makes you happy with the work. I’m 65 years old and I just got through, don’t listen WGA doing basically a script for hire, which was a single draft and a rewrite. And I’ve done 27 rewrites and probably the equivalent of five totally different scripts in order to satisfy this guy. And it’s gonna get shot next month and I’m more than happy, but even at my age with a fairly sizable resume, I can’t, I’m not one of those guys that can afford to be demanding.
Ashley: I’m curious. So you just mentioned that, like the example you just mentioned where you did a whole bunch of rewrites and now it’s going into production. I mean, there must be tons of these projects over the years where you did all of these free rewrites or less than WGA pay rewrites and they didn’t actually get produced. How do you get through that emotionally? How does that not make you feel cynical on the next one, jaded on the next one?
Joel: If you’re… there’s so many, as you know, that do exactly that. They get cynical and they get jaded and they say like, “I’ve been abused and blah, blah, blah, blah.” To them I say, “You’re right.” But if I took that attitude, I would not be working in the industry right now. Quite honestly, it’s probably because I probably lack the superstar talent to be one of those Terentino types that goes, “If you want me, you got to do X, Y, and Z.” There’s a vast majority of us that are working stiff writers who know that we serve at the pleasure of the king and if we don’t deliver, and I don’t mean just deliver quality, which I think we all feel that we’re capable of, but deliver it on time for what the client is willing to spend, then we’re dead in the water.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully people are really listening to that. That is some great insight. So let’s talk about your new film, My Best Worst Adventure, which you wrote and directed, but actually did not produce. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or a log line for that film. What is that film all about?
Joel: That film stemmed from a little thriller that I wrote and directed in Thailand in Bangkok. The producer of that film, a Thai woman named Kaew Tavoranon told me one day about her life growing up in the north of Thailand in this little town near the Cambodian border. They raced water buffaloes, got on top of them and basically stampeded between here and there and tried to hang on for dear life, and the first one across the finish line won. These things go as fast as horses and you fall off, you get trampled. It was just like something I wouldn’t subject an adult to and these are kids as young as seven and eight years old. It was just bloody insane. It was like Seabuiscuit with no protections whatsoever.
And I just thought that would make a phenomenal story. It’s both sports for my protagonist who comes from America from a broken home and trying to find her way in an alien world. It just felt like the most incredible, exciting alien world that I’d ever heard of. So I said, “Do you mind if we make a film together about this?” And she gave me a story and I developed it into a script and we shot it, found an amazing cast and I’m fiercely proud of it, probably more than any other film I’ve ever done in my entire career.
Ashley: That’s fantastic. So maybe we can talk a little bit about your writing process and we can talk about it sort of in general or specifically to My Best Worst Adventure. Where do you typically write and when do you typically write? Do you have a home office, are you the guy that needs to go to Starbucks and have that ambient noise? Do you write in the morning, do you write at night? What does your writing schedule typically look like?
Joel: I used to go to the local coffee shop on Beverly outside where my office used to be in LA, a place called Jan’s Coffee Shop. I’m not even sure if it’s there anymore. And I sidle up to the same chair, same day, three, four hours, and just drink coffee and write. And by the time I got out of there, I was so hopped up on coffee that people thought it was a coke addict. I was just jittery like, “What do we do now? Let’s go, okay, got to move on.” It was like almost an addiction. And I finally decided I got to cut this out. I just got to find another way of working. But you know when you’re wired on coffee, it sort of helps you think, it sort of makes the juices flow. But now I’m the same guy, I just sit at home drinking decaf and staring out the window at the shorebirds and thinking, like thinking stories.
For me that comes easily between seven and say, noon in the morning, and then I got to be doing something else. I’ve just like that, I burned out that gear and I got to do something else. So it’s a routine.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So how much time do you spend outlining versus how much time are you in final draft actually cranking out script pages? I’d be curious to get sort of, what does your ratio look like on outlining versus writing?
Joel: It depends on the project. Because if they’re generated from character, then it’s almost like you’ve got to develop the character in your head, know them as a person and a friend and an enemy or whatever you wanna think of them as. And then you let that character sort of determine his or her way forward. I think it’s sort of a more novelistic approach. More often for me, I’m more plot-driven a lot of the time, partially because of the films that I’ve been hired to do. Then it really becomes essential to me to know early on how I’m gonna end it, because I can’t tell you how many scripts I have started brilliantly that had the greatest first act, but I realized that I didn’t know where it was gonna go, and it was never gonna tie up in any kind of thrilling, shocking, satisfying way. So I need to have that end hook.
I don’t know if M. Night Shyamalan or whatever his name is, knew going in that Bruce Willis was… spoiler, dead. How do you make that movie without it, without knowing that? How do you write that? How do you write the first sentence? So that to me is the gold standard for writing. It’s different for other people’s process, I know, but for me that has to be essential.
Ashley: I’m curious how you approach screenplay structure. There’s the sort of formulaic, the Blake Snyder’s, and the Sid Fields, I’d say there’s a more intuitive approach that I hear from, and then genre requirements. Are there some sort of genre requirements with a coming to age drama? Are there some other films you’ve looked at, some tropes that maybe you wanted to use and some tropes that maybe you wanted to circumvent?
Joel: I love tropes, as long as you just do something that puts a spin on it. Like you acknowledge it’s a trope, but you’re gonna tweak it somehow. But in terms of the, sort of the Syd Field of it all, I always tell people like, this is act one, this is act two, this is act three because people wanna know, “What’s in your first act?” It’s blah, blah, blah. But I don’t write thinking of acts. I don’t ever think, “Well, see here’s the first act break.” It’s just sometimes it kind of lands that way, that things sort of change pace and direction around the middle, the first third of the script, but it’s more intuitive for me, the short answer. I would say that the thing that I’ve learned over the years more than anything, and that comes from making the movies after shooting, after writing them, is that half of your first act is going to wind up on the editing room floor. Pacing is everything, and usually it’s non-existent in your first act.
Ashley: I’m curious. What does your development process look like? Once you have a draft that you’re happy with, do you have an agent manager, do you have other writer friends that you send the script to? How does that look for you and how do you approach something like that?
Joel: Yeah, I think everybody needs a sacred brain trust and there are different people. There are ultimately people who you trust their instincts and also you understand like you do with movie reviews. Sometimes you really think these people are super intelligent and know exactly what they’re talking about, but their tastes are different from yours and how they differ. So like my wife, I trust her judgment implicitly on everything I write and I try to get her to read everything and give me her feedback, but I know she hates gore. She hates violence for the most part. So when she goes, “No, that scene didn’t work, when the two nude hookers hacked each other up with a machete.” That’s not in any of my scripts yet, by the way.
But I know that’s not necessarily a bad scene, it’s just that that’s her particular taste runs different. So you need not only to have that brain trust of people, I have about four or five that I would give the script to, to get their feedback, but you also need to know where they’re coming from. Otherwise you’ll find yourself abandoning good things and keeping things that aren’t that popular.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. How do you typically deal with when you’re maybe being hired, especially with all these sequels that you’ve done, where you’re clearly writing to the producers and the companies that have hired you. How do you deal with those sorts of meetings where they give you notes that you just absolutely don’t think are very good?
Joel: Once again, it’s something I’ve learned that other people may fortunately avoid, but I’ve learned to subvert my ego and sometimes my intelligence. Because money is king and it trumps everything, and the best you can help to do is articulate a powerful rebuttal to a bad idea. But if then the executive or the investor, or whoever is the one that’s sort of got their, the thumb up, thumb down role, the power of the green light, they’re the final calls. It is not your script. It’s not your franchise. It’s not even your characters. You’re hired hand, you’re borrowed help, and you can’t ever lose sight of that.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So with My Best Worst Adventure, once you had a script that you were happy with, what were the next steps to actually getting it into production? Did you have an agent manager? Do you have a producer sign on to go and raise money? Talk about that a little bit. Like once you had your actual material ready, what did you do to actually get it into production?
Joel: I have an agent and she’s been wonderful over the years, but I didn’t take it to her. I actually showed it to the mother of my former assistant who fell in love with it. And that relationship came weirdly enough, which by the way is a whole nother little side story is, the best way to help yourself is to help other people. I had, back when I was running a business in the early offs she’d come to me and said, “Would you just be willing to read my mother’s script and give some notes on it? I hate to ask you, because I know it’s an imposition.” But I go, “Sure.” She’s really interested in developing as a screenwriter because she’d just gotten, I think, through a divorce and was looking for something else to do.
And I realized she was really, really talented and I decided to do everything I could to help her make the movie. And we did, it was called the White Frog and it was a good little film. So she was willing to look at my script and it was sort of a mutual love thing. Because she just looked at it and said, “I just… I don’t have a ton of money, but I’ll give you whatever I can and just go out and try to make the most beautiful film you can, and don’t worry about me. Don’t worry about whatever creative ideas you’ve got. Run with them, and we’ll worry about the recruitment later.” That’s a unicorn, you just don’t get that very often. And after 75 feature films or whatever it’s been for me, I have no idea, that’s the first time that’s happened to me, and it’s liberating.
I’m frankly glad it didn’t happen on my first film. Because I think I needed guardrails early on in my career because I didn’t know all the tricks and all the, what really was satisfying filmically and how to translate what your idea was on the page into what was gonna be an actual movie.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I’m curious. Just to wrap up the interview, I just like to ask the guest, if there’s anything you’ve seen recently that you thought was really great that maybe screenwriters could really benefit from, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, is there anything out recently that you saw that maybe could use a little highlight?
Joel: Oh, boy. You’re press… That’s always a difficult one because I watch movies, I love them, and then I forget the names. There was one, maybe you can help me with it because it won an Oscar, I think for best screenplay or best something last year about the girl who…
Ashley: I’m stumbling with you. I didn’t see any of the Oscars with COVID and stuff. I literally never saw any of the Oscar nominees.
Joel: We’re gonna have a part two interview, and I’m gonna give you the five great movie screenplays that I’ve seen recently. I will sound like that I have the memory of a steel trap, but right now I’ve got nothing.
Ashley: I got you. It sounds like the both of us could take another glance at last year’s academy awards movies.
Joel: Yes, we could.
Ashley: Anyways, how can people see My Best Worst Adventure? What’s the release schedule for that gonna be like?
Joel: It’s coming out on VOD, pay-per-view September 1st. And shortly thereafter, it’ll be streaming on whatever we can stream on. That’s all being set up now, but it’ll certainly be on your Amazons and your iTunes, and your cables and On Demands and all that stuff. I would look for it because it’s an interesting exercise in taking an idea and I think fulfilling it as a full-fledged movie. The translation of it for me worked really happily and satisfyingly, and I just can’t push it hard enough. So, yes, [inaudible 00:31:54].
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Perfect. We’ll look for it there. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing, Twitter, Facebook, a blog, any social media, we will round up and put in the show notes?
Joel: Okay. Thank you. I am just starting a Twitter presence. Hey Claudia, what’s my Twitter presence. Do I have a handle?
Claudia: Yeah, everybody’s been doing this hashtag, #MyBestWorstAdventure, but the page that it’s on is hashtag #M-B…
Joel: Okay. It’s really just, I think on Twitter, on the movie, it’s capital it’s #MBWA for the capital. And I think hashtag my last name S-O-I-S-S-O-N is another Twitter thing, but I haven’t really developed anything on there yet.
Ashley: Got you. Got you. So I’ll email you, we’ll get all those rounded up for the show notes.
Joel: Okay. All right. Great. Fair enough. Thanks.
Ashley: Well, perfect Joel. I really appreciate your time today. Thanks for coming on and talking with me and good luck with this film and good luck with all your future films as well.
Joel: Thank you so much, Ashley. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later.
Joel: Alright. Bye-bye.
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This is a monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this 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 podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing writer Logan Burdick who just did a coming-of-age film called It Takes Three. Logan has written and directed and actually produced a number of interesting projects. So we’ll talk about some of those projects, how we got his start in the business, of course, and then we’ll also talk about this new film, It Takes Three and how he was able to put that together. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s the show. Thank you for listening.