How To Sell Your Screenplay: An Interview With Film Insider Laurie Scheer
By Glenn Bossik
Scriptologist.com spoke with media guru Laurie Scheer
at the Show Biz Expo held in New York City in March 2004. This annual Expo is an entertainment industry gathering that features meetings about the technical and artistic aspects of film and video production.
is a professional script consultant who has worked as a high-level development executive and producer for companies such as Viacom and Showtime, as well as for leading actresses like Meg Ryan.
Laurie knows what producers are looking for and how to pitch screenplays to them. She's a true Hollywood insider who has worked in high-level positions involving the production of
network TV and cable TV films, and feature films. She has supervised the
development process that brings a script to the screen.
At the Expo, Laurie conducted "The Scriptwriter's Walk-In Pitchfest," a
special event in which she delivered a keynote speech and directed a "Pitchfest." Her talk on "What Producers Are Looking For" gave detailed information about what types of screenplays producers really want. The "Pitchfest" showed writers how to successfully present screenplays to producers.
Laurie's recently published book, Creative Careers In Hollywood: From Extra Girls to Errand Boys (Allworth Press, 2002), gives writers her insider's view of Hollywood and what it takes to succeed there.
Here's what Laurie told Scriptologist.com about her exciting career:
How did you segue from degrees in broadcasting and pop culture into work as a film development executive?
Laurie Scheer (LS):
When I graduated from undergrad, I went to LA because I wanted to work in the industry. I just took the BA in broadcasting and went, and started at ABC at the time in the early '80s. My first job was in Dramatic Development. I learned a lot right there. Immediately, I was exposed to who was currently on the scene in television. Reading scripts, understanding what coverage is. The person I worked for was the head of Dramatic Development. And I could see how she was answering her phone calls. I learned a lot in the first six months--just how the industry works right there. That was invaluable.
From there, I just kept moving up. And, when I got to Viacom--Viacom is such a multileveled company--it was great. We were developing shows for television like Matlock and Jake and The Fat Man. But, at that
point, they purchased MTV, VH1, Showtime, Nickelodeon, and they needed people to help them develop their first-run programming. That's when they came to us. So, I was involved in a lot of that early [programming]: Real World
, Remote Control, Rug Rats, Ren and Stimpy.
I then ventured into cable. So, I [went] from TV to cable. Then when I moved over [into] acquisitions at Viacom, I was buying packages of film for
international distribution and for Showtime also. That led me into film. I had sort of run the gamut of the various levels of entertainment—television, cable, and film. When I got my degree in pop culture, I dedicated it to
cable being the hybrid of both. Because on cable, you're developing it like television, but you're showing films.
I kind of became known in all three areas. When I graduated with my second degree, I was given the opportunity
to launch the cable network, WE (Women's Entertainment for Cablevision), on Long Island. Then I wrote a book about working in Hollywood and came back here to the East Coast to promote it. So, I'm consulting and doing that.
Q: Have you integrated the book into your role as a teacher of writing?
The book includes writing but it also [discusses] where individuals want to work. Do you want to be an editor? Do you want to be a writer? Do you want to be a director? And then how do you get in on whatever level it is you wish to work? So, it includes writers, but it's all the others: producer, director, manager, d-girl, actor, actress.
Q: Was there a working methodology you had for choosing screenplays and teleplays that were worthy of production?
Essentially, it would be whoever I was reading for at the time. When you do reading, you are told by whoever you are reading the script for what it is that you're looking for. Working at ABC, you were looking for stuff to develop into series. Working at Viacom, you were looking for movie series. I worked for Meg Ryan for a while on a freelance basis.
I had to keep in mind [that] obviously a script about a James Bond character traveling around the world would not be perfect for her. You had to tailor what you were reading. Could Meg Ryan either act in this or would she
be interested in producing this herself? The [question] is, why are you reading? Everyone wants a script that's going to open up with a huge blockbuster opening weekend.
So, they didn't really lay down any specific guidelines?
Q: Would you use your instincts to determine what would be best for them?
LS: For the specific company or the actor. Unless you've been given a specific. Otherwise, it's just, 'Is this a good script?'
Q: Was there a submission process at the various companies you worked for that people had to go through?
LS: Most of [the scripts were] being submitted through agents, but we did take a few scripts from unsolicited sources.
Q: And were any of those optioned?
LS: Not that I know of.
Q: In terms of pitches, did anyone come in personally to pitch to you and others? Or was it done mostly by phone?
Yes, we had pitches. But, they were primarily arranged through agents or individuals who had made the calls to come in and see us. [They] did call ahead of time and say, 'This is what we have, and here's what we should take a look at it.' But, primarily, most of the in-person pitches were arranged through agents.
Q: Was there one pitch in particular that was successful or struck you as being well-executed, something that would leave an indelible mark in your mind?
Yes. We had Paul Michael Glaser come in a few times and pitch. Starsky and Hutch had ended in the late '70s, and this was the early '80s and mid- '80s. He would come in and still continue to try to pitch ideas. And just having a star or someone that you knew from TV was always interesting. But it didn't make any difference if their pitch wasn't something that could be developed. So, I would just say the ones that were interesting were obviously stars that you knew.
Q: Did anyone use any unusual methodologies for pitching?
A number of times when I worked at networks or production companies, I, for some reason, worked near the children's programming department. Every time there was a Barney-like character, you'd see maybe two guys walk in and then a huge alligator, or a chicken, or something. This is obviously the character that they had created—a friend of theirs in a suit. But it helped in the pitch to have the actual character, even if the character just sat there and smiled like a Disney character, waving or something. It helps for the executive to see what this animated cartoon is going to look like. So, there were memories of that kind of stuff happening, where people would bring in the actual character.
Also, whenever it was based on a true-life person, [the screenwriter] would often bring the person in. And [it] was always interesting to actually meet the person who had hiked the Rockies and maybe had one leg—whatever the
feat was, whatever the interesting storyline was. The person would actually be there. That would be interesting because it's true and there's proof. There's the person that lived through whatever great thing the story is about.
Is there a set of criteria or a methodology you would recommend to an aspiring screenwriter who has a completed script and would like to pitch the script in person to someone? Or is there a structure you would recommend to clients as a script consultant?
The number one thing is [to] be confident. Just be absolutely confident. Know your story inside and out, and have confidence in it to support [it]. If I feel that you know your story and you're going to stand by it no matter what, I feel more confident in it also.
Would you recommend starting out with a logline that segues into a long-format synopsis? That would be the standard format of a reader's report: logline, synopsis, comments. Would you recommend using that for a pitch?
: Absolutely. In fact, that's the best. Working with a writer and perhaps seeing the coverage. Work with a writer on what their logline is, what they see it as, and [how] the reader [interprets it]. Hopefully it's similar
because the writer has relayed that, has said what they wanted to. But sometimes it comes off [differently]. The reader reads something into the script. You don't know.
In terms of the script consulting you do, can you tell me what kinds of services you provide?
I basically will take a script and read it from a reader's point of view, because I've done that most of my life, and I've done it as a reader. I've done it as an employee for a company. And, I've done it also for producers as boutique coverage.
In other words, individuals come to me with a project, and they want me to write the coverage so that it's favorable when trying to get a star attached or some director attached.
Perhaps I am working again for Meg
Ryan's company, but she wants this book and she wants to get a director. I would sort of do in-house coverage to get someone else attached. I'm straying, but what I'm saying is that I will do coverage the way a reader does
coverage. So, here are the notes. Here's what's working, what's not working, and what I would say to the executive I'm working with: consider, recommend, or pass. And here's what I feel is happening here.
Then [I'll] show
you, the writer, why. [I'll say,] 'This is not strong at all. I get this from this sentence. Tell me that the person suffered three miscarriages. You need strong dialogue.' These kinds of things.
I'll do detailed coverage
and then discuss it with the person. Feedback back and forth, back and forth. Let's talk about it. And when we [talk] over the phone, I will say: 'This is what I think you're writing.' That's sort of a capsule of what the
coverage would be. If it's not what they set out to write, then I feel they didn't express it in the writing they put together. So, I will give you real reader's coverage.
Do you work only with industry people or with the general public as well?
I do both. I have worked often—and I still do off and on—with Showtime, which has come to me a few times because of my connections in working with Viacom. [They'll] come to me with a script. They like it, but they just don't know what they are going to do with it. And, they've invested money in it. They've optioned it. They've put time into it. They don't want to let it go.
Q: They're trying to get out of development hell?
Exactly. [They say,] 'Can you see something in here that we can't see, and can you find a story? Or, is there some angle that we're not seeing, or the way it works best for this actress over this actress, or that sort of thing.' I will work with companies on that level.
I have worked with writers who have representation through agents and are well known. They work fast, but they just need a slight kick in the butt. Mostly, I work with individuals through extensions, a lot of adult
individuals I teach at the Writer's Center in Bethesda. Mostly older adults, professionals—helping them to hone the script. And then, of course, students.
How do you divide your time between teaching at the various colleges you're affiliated with, mentoring the public, and mentoring film industry professionals as well?
Primarily, I teach five or six classes a week in addition to promoting my book. For the past year, this has been my schedule. I'll do [seminars] to get my name out there in connection to [my] book. [My] time is divided half and half. I love teaching. I really want to encourage people to realize their dreams. It may not happen overnight, but they shouldn't give up.
I'm from Milwaukee. I had no money, no connections in the industry. I did it.
I've had a very successful career. At any point in time, I can go back to working full time if I want to. I'm just saying I'm not bitter. I love it. I love the industry, and I just love to encourage [people]. I got a call from a student who graduated, say, in '97 from Northwestern [University] with a whole group [of students], and they're just doing great. That's really important to me.
Q: Are you saying that the film industry is accessible?
Right. [The new generation of filmmakers are] not coming from families that are show business oriented. In fact, they're coming from good Mid-Western families. They got in their cars and went out there [to LA]. One is a junior agent at CAA. Another one is head of Disney story. Another one is a producer on the Universal lot. These kids are about 27, 28-years-old. They'll be fine. And none of them had any connections. They're just normal, hard-working kids, extremely talented in what they do, but working hard. If I can do it, they can do it. If you make that 110% effort, there's no reason why you can't sell your script.
Q: A lot of people visiting Scriptologist.com worry that they can't get past what they call the brick wall of screeners. Is there a particular way that you show people how to get past that?
I will work with a number of loglines, a number of different high concepts catering toward a specific group, a specific company. The other thing that I'll do is take an hour—-2:00 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon—and I'll keep my phone clear. We'll do four or five mock phone calls. [The writer is] calling me. For the first [call], [I'll pretend] I work at Tom Cruise's company. For the second [call], I'm just a secretary at Universal. You know, the various situations where a writer would call to pitch a script. I pick up the phone and say something like, 'Mark Platt Productions.'
The writer has to do the shtick. We've gone through it. We've talked about it. And, it's up to the writer to go ahead. I can either be the real easy secretary or I can be mean and rude. But, it's an exercise of spending an
hour, making four or five phone calls, and then learning from that. We hang up, call back, and say, 'Here's what you did right. You shouldn't have said that.' But, you learn from that. Then it's not so difficult making those first
calls. And, once you start, it becomes really, really easy.
In terms of follow-up for pitching scripts, I would get a script into a production company, then four weeks would pass. How do you follow up in such a way that you imbue production companies with the sense of urgency that this is indeed a hot script?
That's when you haven't stopped calling in that month. You get the script to fifteen or sixteen other places, and you call them back and say: 'I've got so and so over at Fox looking at it, and I've got TNT looking at it.'
But, you tell them: 'Hey, I've got other people looking at it. I need an answer.' And, you're not rude about it. Then they'll say, 'Oh, there must be something about it if somebody else is looking at it.'
So, you call back
and say, 'I'd like to know what's happening because I've got it at other places, and I'd really like to work with you.'
Q: So, you're talking pure sales techniques?
Do you think it would help screenwriters to read books about sales closing techniques?
Right. [Read about] things like not making a phone call without getting what you want. Not going into a meeting without visualizing that meeting beforehand and thinking, 'I need points one, two, three, and four before I leave that meeting.'
Arm yourself with sales techniques or debate techniques. Just keep remembering that [production companies] do need good product. They just don't want a hassle with that legal thing in the middle. The problem is that
everyone's been sued and burned in the past because of unsolicited stuff. But they are looking for product.
Q: So, people should steer clear of putting the copyright notice on the cover page of a script?
I still wouldn't put it on there.
Q: Getting back to your book, what motivated you to write your book,
Creative Careers in Hollywood
As a kid, I had always been watching movies and television shows about working in Hollywood. The book [discusses] all the movies that are about working in Hollywood, and you learn about the job through watching the movies. For instance, with writers, the movie [to watch] is either
The Player, Sunset Boulevard, [or] In A Lonely Place. In those films, you see what the writer's life is as depicted through the eyes of Hollywood. [As a child,] I became hooked on the behind-the-scenes stuff of
what I was watching on TV and film. It's just stayed so that I actually did that as a career.
When I found that I was teaching what I had done, I thought: 'Well, what better way to show people what the film industry jobs are
than through the movies that are dedicated to those jobs.'
Q: Would you recommend seeing a film like Swimming With Sharks?
LS: Absolutely. That's mandatory.
Is the brutal producer in Swimming With Sharks a reality?
There are individuals like that. Yes, it is hell to work with that person, but you will survive and you will become triumphant as a result of getting through that experience.
Let's say in a hypothetical situation, an aspiring screenwriter without an agent
has made it to the sale or option stage where an offer is actually made. Is it advisable for this writer to negotiate the sale him- or herself, or should that person bring in an entertainment lawyer?
You most definitely should bring in an entertainment lawyer or an agent. If you have a deal on the table from a reputable company, you can then feel free to call an agent or a manager and say, 'Universal wants to give me $750,000 for my script.' Believe me, that agent will take it.
Q: So, the writer will sign with the lawyer or agent, and then he'll sign with the production company?
Right. Then the agent will say, 'Fine. I'll negotiate the deal. Let's talk.' Or, [the agent will say:] 'Tell me what's happened.'
I cannot imagine an agent saying no, because you've done the work. You do need someone to do
that though. Do not do it yourself. You're the artist. You're the writer. You're not the lawyer. Even if you are a lawyer, still let someone else negotiate it. It's just the way it should be.
The last thing I'm really curious about is how would it be possible for a writer searching for a script idea to narrow it down to something that would be the hot script?
A lot of it is gut instinct. I also think you need to look at the gimmick—what's different about your story? Maybe it's just another romantic comedy. Maybe it's just another story about some kids in a frat house. Maybe it's just another haunted house [story]. What is it about your script that makes it unique? That's what I think you should look for as a writer. What separates you from everyone else?
Remember The Others. We've had a million haunted house [stories] and they're good. But [The Others] is a different point of view of this same haunted house story. Memento tells the story backwards.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
tells it from the total female point of view about a wedding. We've had wedding movies, but we didn't have her own personal point of view. So, it's the brand that you put on it. I think that's what you need to look for.
Q: Say someone were trend tracking—reading the film industry trade papers—and saw that there was a great resurgence of horror films, as evidenced by the remake of Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, and
The Ring. Do you think it's advisable for this person to jump on the bandwagon or to try to foresee the next trend?
You can either do that or create your own. But know that horror is always going to sell because it's cheap and fast, and you can write the script in 80 pages, 90 pages. And, you can make it. You can do it. It's timeless, and it's just going to sell. But, what is it that's different?
Q: So, you've got to have that angle?
LS: You've got to have that gimmick. In The Ring, the gimmick is [that] if you watch this [video] tape, you're going to die in a week. In the past, you would
have just watched the tape, and it would have been scary and you would have been haunted. But now they added another level to it. Now you're going to die. There's this urgency. That's the gimmick. Primarily that's the thing that
became what everybody's talking about.
Q: So, it's cult status at that point.
LS: Exactly. When you hear [people referring to The Ring] in other pop culture, [the film has] created a gimmick that
people are now mimicking. So, I'd say look for your gimmick.
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