This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 028: An Interview With Screenwriter Jason Spellman.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode 28 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at sellingyourscreenplay.com. In this episode’s main segment, I interviewed Jason Spellman. Jason actually left me a nice comment on ITunes a months ago and mentioned that he had recently optioned a screenplay with the help of some of the tips that I gave out in my blog and podcast. You might remember that on the podcast I thanked him and asked him to contact me. Well, he emailed me and we recently got on the phone for an interview. He offers a ton of tactical tips. In the interview he explains exactly what he’s done to get his first screenplay optioned, and these are all things that everyone listening to this podcast could and should be doing. It’s also very inspiring. He’s just a regular guy with a family and a normal nine to five job trying to carve out a career as a screenwriter. If you’ve optioned or sold a screenplay recently, please do drop me an email and let me know how you did it. I love hearing these stories. Hopefully you will too so stay tuned for that interview.
I would like to thank the episode’s sponsor, Screencraft. Screencraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters master the craft of screenwriting and succeed in the business of Hollywood. Sign up for free education and inspiration at screencraft.org. Screencraft is also very active on Twitter and tweets a ton of useful information about screenwriting so if you use Twitter, I highly recommend that you follow them.
If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review on ITunes or leaving a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast.
I’d like to thank Thomas Ryan, Adam Strange, Zuri Jefferson, Amy Brown, and Bill Bridges who left me some very nice comments over on YouTube for episode 26. Thank you to those folks.
A couple of quick notes. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript of every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcasts. Also, if you want my free guide “How To Sell A Screenplay in Five Weeks”, you can pick that up by going to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free. You just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide, how to write a professional log line inquiry letter, how to find agents, managers, and producers who are looking for material. Really it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
So, now let’s get into the main segment, an interview with screenwriter, Jason Spellman. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome, Jason, to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate your coming on the show.
Jason: I appreciate you inviting me.
Ashley: So, to start out. I wonder if we can just kind of get a glimpse into what your current life looks like on sort of a daily basis and then we’ll kind of get into the specifics of your recent success with optioning a screenplay.
Jason: Sure. I currently do have day job. I have an optioned screenplay, but that really doesn’t mean a whole lot financially to me right now. So I have a nine to five just like everyone else. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, and I take care of him when I get home along with my wife, an hour to get to work, an hour to get home, I’m just busy, busy, but I’m trying to do what I can to get my scripts out there, hopefully to get them maybe to features.
Ashley: So how much time do you spend per week actually writing?
Jason: That all depends on what stage I’m at. If I am in the writing the screenplay up, I’ll jot notes throughout the day and usually around 7:30 or 8:00, once my son goes down, I’ll have a couple hours to sit down in front of the computer and get something out. So I’d say one to two hours a day, and then on weekends I’ll just go for a roll and do four or five hour jaunt.
Ashley: Perfect. And so how many scripts do you actually complete in like a year with this schedule?
Jason: With writing, I really get into my characters, and I let things kind of happen organically if you can say that. My first script it took me six months to complete. The second script was about five months, but I like to sit on things a little bit and let them cook, see where the characters will want to go and what will happen in the plot. I don’t rush through things. I don’t work that way; I can’t do it that way.
Ashley: So let’s dig into then this current option you just got. Can you tell us a little bit about that screenplay? What sort of premise is the screenplay and what is the genesis for that story?
Jason: It’s a horror comedy called Dear Dave, and it was written out of necessity. That story is about four years ago, a friend of mine was host of an Internet radio show, and he would review movies. He asked me to come on and we had a great time, and he asked me to keep coming back. I co-hosted with him and we formatted to where it wasn’t just discussing. We actually got into the nitty-gritty of all the films of bludgeoning, little-known facts, production, and then I started writing comedy for it. I wanted to keep things interesting so I wrote sketches and jokes and bits, and it was fun. And about after a year that faded out, and he’s like what do you want to do next? I don’t know, and so he says well, let’s do a movie; let’s do a short. How about that. That would be fun; you’re a writer. I’ve got a friend who just graduated from film school. We’ve got a camera, editing software, we can get this done. It was an idea. I pitched it to him. They loved it. We filmed it over about six weeks, a little ten-minute short, a “Zomedy, a zombie comedy, a very, very funny premise of a zombie coming home to a Dear John letter and what would he do? We finished it; we wrapped it up. Let’s put it on YouTube; it’s going to blow up overnight. It will be wonderful and the directors saying I could put it in the film festivals. I was like yeah, you guys can go ahead, have fun. At that time that was around the time of the birth of my son so I took a couple months off, and I started thinking about it. What happens if it goes into a film festival? What do you get when you win? Well, I started researching online, and, you know, you have to have a script ready. If somebody likes it and they want to buy it, not all the time will they just buy the idea, they’ve got to have something out there. It’s like “I have to write a script.” I don’t know how to write a script. Let’s Google How do you write a script? So I started learning from different websites, and then I printed out scripts and I read them constantly. Okay, I can figure out how to make my words look like this. Let me see if I can do it, and I got probably about halfway through and I found out that the director of the short didn’t put them in any contests. He really didn’t do anything with it. I’ve come this far, let’s see how far I can go. So I took the first forty or fifty pages that I wrote—and I wrote them all in Word, by the way and before that I did it all in longhand—and I handed it out to people. It was pretty good. What are you going to do for the rest? Like I don’t know. I don’t know how to do this. So I’ll just keep going. So I kept researching and kept researching the three-act structure, all that, and I ended up tying it up. People liked the finished product. I’ve come this far. Let’s see what else I can do with it. That’s why I went back on the Internet—Thank God for the Internet—and I finished my screenplay.
Ashley: Just to interject here, though. This feature then was somewhat based on the short?
Jason: Yes, it was.
Ashley: It was a zombie comedy as well basically just extending that same premise out to a long feature length.
Jason: Exactly. And I was torn so much with how do I stretch it out to a full-length feature on a one-note joke? That’s basically what it was. I did subplots to other characters, okay, this is how you do it and then I ended up finishing it. I finished with my review. What do I do now? So I went to the Internet and that’s where I found your site on how to format an inquiry letter. What’s a query letter? What do I use that for? I kept reading and reading, went to other sites, and I, for some reason kept on focusing on the fact that I’d heard you need an agent. You can’t get into doors without an agent. Well, okay. I’m going to focus on getting an agent because I know a lot of producers won’t talk to me if I don’t have an agent; that’s what I learned from the Internet. So I wrote them a query letter, and I started sending out to agents. I got lists from the WGA, and then I just listed a search for agents. I queried everybody. I emailed. I sent faxes. I drove out west just to see what would happen. Not too much later I started getting hits back. I couldn’t believe it. I got a request for a script from a pretty well-known agent. She read it. She liked it. She had some notes. This was my first critique. This is my first professional critique, and I thought on my end she didn’t get it just because of the notes that she gave me. She focused more on a certain section of the film that was a sub-subplot. I wanted the movie from the zombie’s point of view because there is not a whole lot of films that did that. They focus in on humans. Well, she was focusing in on the human saying that you actually were zombie type. I think well, okay. So that was a pass. I even called some agents, and I had one guy ask me well, give me your pitch. I don’t know what a pitch is. This is what I thought in my head. Okay. It’s Zombie Landings Office base, and I went through the one-paragraph synopsis in my head and gave it to him. He said “I’ve got too many clients; my roster is full. Good luck.” And I thought that was it. I can’t get this done. So I went back with my tail between my legs and I took a couple months off to regroup and figure out what I’m going to do next. I ended up re-querying the agent that I talked to on the phone because he said he had too many people on his roster. But he didn’t say I’m not going to take you because you’re new or I don’t like the script or whatever; he hadn’t even read the script. I emailed him again, and I said you were kind enough to talk to me on the phone. You said at the time you didn’t have enough people or you had too many people on your roster. What’s it look like now? Well, go ahead and send the script. Oh wow! Okay. Sure. I Fed-ex’ed him a copy of the script. He called me two days later and says I love it. It’s clever; it’s funny. It’s original, but I don’t have anyone that’s interested in zombie comedies. I thought that was it. You get an agent, your prayers are answered. They do all the work for you. They go out and they shop on the Internet. I’m naïve; I don’t know any of this. And it didn’t happen that way. He said you’re going to have to do your own work. You need to contact producers. If you have a deal that’s on the table, I’ll be more than willing to help you. But other than that, I can’t help you. I think he nailed me just a little bit because I knew nothing, and he referred me over to Inktip. He said it’s affordable. You’ll get great exposure. Put it on Inktip, call me when you get something, and that was it for that. So I put it up on Inktip, and I started getting hits on that. They had the log line hits, and it was great. After a couple of months I was getting script hits, and people were reading it. I said hey, this is awesome, but this is not enough. I need to do more so that’s when I went and got the Hollywood creative directory. I went through every company on there even though they have there on the bottom what types of movies that they’re interested in and if they will or will not accept unsolicited material. I sent it to everybody; I didn’t care.
Ashley: I ignore that too. I’ve even been on production companies that have written that in there and it really means nothing. You just send it, and if they don’t accept unsolicited material, they just simply won’t respond or they’ll tell you not to call them again.
Jason: Exactly. No harm, no foul. So I start sending them out. I must have mailed about 200 letters. I got them all returned, and sometimes I would get them returned in certified mail saying that they didn’t open anything. And sometimes I would get very nice letterhead from major production companies that I’d saved and will frame someday because it’s really cool. With the emails I sent out, over the course of about three months I sent out a little over a thousand emails, and many of them came back that the email address is invalid or No thank you; we’re not interested, but throughout the process I got six or seven requests for the script.
Ashley: So let’s just stop at that point. So literally you sent out about a thousand email addresses, and these were all taken from the Hollywood Creative Directory?
Jason: Hollywood Creative Directory. I might have skipped ahead a little bit, but when I finished the Hollywood Creative Directory, I got to I&D Pro. I got that subscription, and that’s worth a lot of information that came my way.
Ashley: Okay. So you sent out a thousand query letters and you’re saying roughly speaking you got about six people that requested the script.
Jason: Yes. That was it. From what I hear, if you send out a hundred, and you get one hit back, that’s the average.
Jason: That’s a crazy average, but that’s what I hit. What I want out of it is request from every company, but at least some of them were kind enough to respond. The ones that got to me were the ones that requested the script and then wouldn’t even give me the time of day to say no, we’re not interested or it’s just not for us. I still know nothing about those companies. They wouldn’t respond at all.
Ashley: So let’s keep moving along in the story. So then you still had the script up on Inktip and eventually you do get a hit on Inktip?
Jason: I had four script requests within a week, and about two weeks later, I got a phone call and on the other line, the other guy said Hi, my name’s Greg Huge. I’ve read your script, and I think it’s one of the companies that requested it from my queries. My heart’s beating; I’m racing. I ran out of the house and went into the back yard so I could have some privacy. I’m trying to keep my composure; it’s just so exciting. He’s saying I believe in this script; it’s funny. It’s hilarious. I want to get it made. Here’s my offer to you. Sure. Yes, that sounds good and I’m screaming in my head, “Oh my God.” I try to remain as professional as possible, and at the end I said let me go over this with my agent because I need to get his approval on it. So he said sure, talk to your agent. Call me back and I’ll draw up a contract. Man, that’s it right there, right? I call up my agent and he’s upset at me. He’s upset that I talked to the producer directly, and I didn’t refer him to him directly and that he was upset with the offer that the producer gave me. And that’s not industry standard and blah, blah, blah, and he started to sound like a drill sergeant.
Jason: Hey, look, I didn’t approve anything. I said it needs your approval. Well, this is what you tell them, and don’t tell him about me yet and bring me out at the last minute. He knows about you because you said I could use your name. Okay, I’ll call him back and I’ll tell him what you want. I’m thinking in my head, agent, can you call and negotiate for me? I have it up to this point. Take over please. But he’s giving me what to say. I call Greg back. I tell him this is what my agent wants, and he says I can do that. Let me draw up the contract and I’ll send it over to you.
Ashley: I wonder if you can give us some sort of rough estimates on what this option agreement actually looks like in terms of time frame. I mean, you don’t have to tell us the exact money amount, but are we talking less than $10,000 or less than $5,000, even just a ballpark figure would probably be helpful for our listeners.
Jason: Well, here’s the thing. The original offer was a dollar amount, a straight-up dollar amount, and that’s what my agent was upset about. The industry standard is a percentage. You get a percentage of the production budget. So this is what you counter with, and so we agreed to a certain percentage of the budget, and it’s a dollar option which is very popular nowadays. And when my agent found out about that, he was extremely upset quoting that he has had million-dollar contracts go through his door, and I’m saying “but I’m a first-time screenwriter.” “It doesn’t matter, I can get you a million.” “Can you get me a million then?”
Ashley: And what sort of a budget does this movie need to get made?
Jason: One thing you think about Greg is he keeps me up to date with everything the script, what companies he’s going to, he forwards me the emails, the conversations and the text messages. He hasn’t given me an actual dollar amount. He has given me what he would like for it, and it’s in the seven-figure. At one point in time he said we would like to do this between 30 and 40, but if need be we can do it for a lot less. It’s just this is what we would like to shoot for. It’s not a super high budget, but it can be because there are effects in there, makeup, different locations we bill for it. He wants to try to attract new talent through the script as well. I mean, who doesn’t really. He’s an independent producer. He is trying to work as hard as I did getting it out there myself so I trust him.
Ashley: And that’s what I think a lot of newer writers don’t understand, that the producers are really in the same boat as the writers. People feel like Oh, if I could just find that producer, but just exactly what you’re saying, then the producer has to go out and sell the script to somebody else so it’s really everybody out there just trying to work as hard as they can. And these dollar options really are just an unfortunate fact of life, but it’s not like the producer’s going to make millions of dollars on this thing. He’s going to work his ass off, and he may never see anything out of it if it never gets produced.
Jason: Right. Exactly. We’re all working for the same goal, and mostly all of us are working for free.
Ashley: So what’s your current relationship with the agent like now? You said you finished a second script. Have you passed that to your agent? Is he a little more receptive to helping you now that you actually have some heat on this first script?
Jason: Well, now the terms of the option was a six-month dollar option, and then in the contract itself, the producer has the automatic right to renew after six months. It’s his choice, he read over the contract and he agreed to this. Well, when it came time for that to happen, I gave the agent an update, “Oh hey, the option’s been renewed.” He’s in talks with blah, blah, blah. We’re looking pretty good, and he said to me a while back, you let the second six months go for five dollars, you’re a dummy. And that was the last I heard of him. That was about six months ago. He didn’t return any of my calls. He didn’t return any of my texts, emails, nothing. I don’t know if he’s alive. He’s an older gentleman. That’s pretty much a write-off don’t you think?
Ashley: I would say it’s a write-off. I mean, I think your story is classic too because again, so many writers, they feel like hey if I can just get that agent, it’s all smooth sailing. You know, agents, just like I said about producers, there are very, very few agents that just have this magical touch where they can just green light a script. They have the connections to get us all the big studios. All the agents are working hard too.
Jason: Most definitely.
Ashley: How did you find the producers for your current script?
Jason: I went through every single email, and I had sent out for Dear Dave, and the ones that responded to ask for Dear Dave, I sent it to them first. After that I went to every other email, every other company, and I just sent it back to all those companies. I was able to wean out the ones that were not interested or it’s not our type of thing. And also, I went back on IMDB and researched it out. I also have it on Inktip. It’s been getting a couple hits. I haven’t had any script reviews or requests, but to me it’s a more difficult script. It’s still a comedy; I write comedies. It’s a sci-fi comedy, and with sci-fi I kind of have a bigger budget on it. So I’m not sure if the smaller companies are willing to take it, and you know, the things that are selling right now as far as mainstream are the comic book movies or the movies that are adapted from a novel or remake so it’s going to be a hard one, but I think it’s hilarious. That’s just my opinion because I wrote it, but it’s going to be a harder sell. It’s a funny, funny premise though.
Ashley: Do you mind sharing the premise?
Jason: Oh sure. Back in I think it was ’97, the mission to Mars, they sent up a rover, and kids were selected from a school. They put little items in the capsule for the Martians. And the Martians come out and see the rover. Well, a virus accidentally makes its way onto one of the items and it kills off half of the Martian population. So Mars twenty years later decides to take revenge on Earth and take revenge specifically on these three once kids but now adults. And they hunt them down and take them back to Mars for their punishment, but it’s silly. There’s a lot of slapstick, but there is a lot of relation directly to what is going on at the time in 1997. I did research for this. You’ve got to know what you’re writing about. They want detail in scripts, and it helps to do the research. I think it’s funny; I think it works. I’ve had people read it and say this is far better than the last one. You optioned the last one so why can’t you do this one? You know, why not? So many people say why do you need to do this? Why take a chance, but you know, other people do it. It’s not that hard.
Ashley: So do you have any advice just to wrap things up here. Do you have any advice for someone who is, you know, maybe you, two years ago, sort of at the beginning stages, just some tips for people who are trying to get that first option?
Jason: Have super, super thick skin, and be relentless. Don’t give up. Keep sending it out. Just keep on going and going and going. You’re going to get so much rejection. Sometimes it will hurt. It’ll sting, but you’ve got to keep on going and keep writing. At the same time marketing, you’ve got to keep on writing to hone your craft, and you’ve got to keep reading scripts to know what’s out there. Read the masters, the really good scripts, the movies that you like so you can kind of mimic and learn how they did it.
Ashley: That’s solid advice from top to bottom. I’m curious. Is there anything in your life, maybe in your childhood or something that prepared you for the sort of rejection that you’re talking about? Is there something that you look back on and why you’re able to take this rejection and not let it bother you as much as some people?
Jason: That is a pretty deep question, Dr. Phil.
Ashley: I’ll give you an example. I totally am in the same boat. The rejection doesn’t bother me. I have an older brother who is about two years older, and, you know, two years is enough especially with boys who are competitive, that he basically beat me growing up as a child. He beat me at absolutely everything because he was a little bigger, a little smarter, you know, just that two years is a big difference when you’re a kid. So literally growing up I would lose at everything and get beat at everything. And he’s much more, I would say, of a perfectionist, and he doesn’t like now to play games where he loses. Losing to me doesn’t bother me at all, and I think that is part of what’s prepared me for being a screenwriter is the rejection really doesn’t bother me. I don’t like it. I prefer it not to happen, but it never really—I mean, the kind of things you’re talking about, a thousand query letters and only getting six script requests, that doesn’t even strike me as that bad. And I think that would just completely, most people might not even persevere through that.
Jason: I was adopted when I was little. I had an older brother who was a terror as well. I think I adopted this mindset. I was in a band for probably eleven or twelve years, and the same thing sort of occurred. I picked up a guitar and said, if they could do it why can’t I? And I became very successful in this Orange County band. You get rejection from critics and from people, and art is very subjective. I experienced a lot of that and a lot of turn-downs trying to sell TVs or trying to get executives to look at this or that. So I probably learned on the road while doing that to become thick-skinned, and their opinion doesn’t matter because again, art is subjective. Someone is going to like it.
Ashley: Do you mind just sharing if there is some way people could contact you, maybe your Twitter handle or your email address in case people had a follow-up question or just wanted to get in contact with you for whatever reason.
Jason: I’ve got a Twitter account at jasonspellman. My business email is kind of different. I’ll send you a link to it as well at [email protected].
Ashley: Okay. I will link to that. Send me that in an email. I’ll link to that in the show notes so if anybody didn’t catch that, they can just go to the show notes and I’ll have it there. They can click on it and get to it. Well, Jason, you’ve been very, very generous with your time. I really appreciate you coming on the show. I think this is an inspiring episode, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I’m trying to inspire with my blog and my podcasts.
Jason: Thank you because without you, I wouldn’t even know how to do half of the things I’m doing now. I mean, what you do for free, what you’re putting out into the ether for free, everybody listening right now, they need to go to your website. They need to listen to what you have to say because there are not a lot of guys out there that are willing to really put it out and help somebody out. Thanks, Ashley. You’re doing a real good job out there. I appreciate it.
Ashley: Thank you.
If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of your screenplay by an industry professional, I work with several consultants. Check out sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. All the consultants listed on that page have years of experience actually working in the entertainment industry. Right now we have a real working producer who will give you notes on your script, and two screenwriters with actual screenwriting credits. These guys are not real pros. They’re not gurus or professional consultants. They are people who actually work in the business. So if you’re looking for some high-quality feedback on one of your screenplays, check out sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
In the next episode of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast, I’m going to be interviewing Mark Andrushko. He’s one of the founders of Script Pollusa which is a big screenwriting contest. He gives us great insight into that contest specifically as well as some solid screenwriting tips. I’ve had numerous people ask me about Scripta Pollusa so if you’re wondering about it, definitely keep an eye out for that episode.
In today’s writing words section, I just want to highlight a few things that Jason talked about in the interview. Really listen to what he is doing. There is literally nothing he’s done that you yourself can’t do. If you’re listening to this podcast, it means you have an Internet connection, and that means you can do all the research and all of the marketing he did to option his screenplay. It’s not easy; it does take some work, but it is possible.
Also, I want to point out Jason’s not just sitting back waiting for his first option to get going. There is a good chance it won’t ever get made so he’s written another script and is out there marketing it heavily. Again, this is so important. Also, I don’t want people to look at what Jason did and come away saying okay, I just need to upload my script to Inktip since that’s what worked for Jason. I talked about Inktip many times in this podcast. I even interviewed the founder of Inktip, Gerald LeBaron in episode 20 of the podcasts. Definitely check that episode out. Inktip is a great service. I use it myself, and I recommend it to others. But look at what Jason’s doing. Sure Inktip worked for him, but he’s not stopping there. He’s still sending out query letters and marketing to the contacts he’s made in the industry. So keep that in mind. The wider marketing net that you cast, the better off you’re going to be. I really like Jason’s mantra. He sees other people doing something and wonders why not me. So, I’ll just end this week’s episode with a question. Why not you?