Not really. I think that whatever is your real passion is the place where you should start. You're devoting so much time, and you want characters that you're still going to find interesting six months or a year down the line when you're still working on the same project.
Q: Since the film industry is a business, are there any business books or courses that new writers should study that would help them break into the industry?
I recommend reading everything you can. Become a student of the business. I just read a fantastic book yesterday called The War Of Art—by Steven Pressfield—that I would highly recommend. Also, the more salacious books—
The Mailroom; Down And Dirty Pictures; It's All Your Fault: How To Make It As A Hollywood Assistant; Hit and Run; and Hello, He Lied—are read by many people in the business. As far as screenwriting books, I
read them all, but I'm not a 'believer' in any. I have gotten some insight from all of them—Syd Field, Linda Seger, Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler, David Freeman, Michael Hauge. I am personally a believer in being as well-rounded
as you possibly can in whatever your area of expertise is.
That's another point. It's so hard to be an expert in everything, especially as a screenwriter, that there's nothing wrong with specializing in a really specific
niche and becoming the expert in that area. Then you can always expand. If you really have seen all the movies in a genre, know what has come before so yours can be original and unique. Understanding the things that have worked in
the past is also great knowledge to have.
Q: Would you recommend that a writer look up the box office profits for a similar film to decide whether his or her screenplay is going to be appealing?
You should definitely keep that as reference, but not as your guide. It is my opinion that there is rarely a direct correlation between the success of a script and its box office numbers.
In terms of the corporate hierarchy at MGM, can you explain how the hierarchy works in conjunction with script submissions?
Typically, an agent or producer will call me on the phone and give me a short pitch about the material. If I'm interested, I'll say: 'Yes, I'd like to read it.' They'll send the script over. If it's something conceptually interesting, then I will definitely read the script myself and also send a copy to the Story Department for coverage.
Every script that comes in to the studio is read by a reader. They are union professional readers who have all been in the business for over 10 years.
As a side note, there isn't a correlation between whether we're
going to buy a script or not buy a script based on the reader's comments. We have bought many scripts where the reader passed, and we have also passed on many scripts where the reader recommended that we purchase it. Positive
coverage can help motivate an executive to read a script more quickly.
Q: Is there anything that stands out about the negotiation process between MGM and an agent? What usually takes place?
In any negotiation, we want to pay the least and they want to get the most amount of money. We just keep going back and forth until we reach an agreement. Each negotiation is different. It's all done over the phone and can be incredibly complicated. Even the simplest deals have contracts that are enormous with tons of paperwork and lots of lawyers talking to lawyers. There is a real art to negotiation, and that is an aspect of the business that I am interested in learning more about.
Q: Is the contract usually revised many times?
Q: Does MGM ever give a percentage of gross profits to a writer, or is it just a flat rate?
Flat rate, but usually a writer's deal is multiple steps. They'd get a certain amount for the first draft, a certain amount for a revision, and then typically one or two optional steps. After those two guaranteed script revisions, we decide whether we want the writer to continue working on the script.
There are a number of screenwriting Web sites that claim to help new writers sell their screenplays. They offer services where a new writer can post an entire screenplay, and they claim to sell subscriberships to film studio executives who can log in and view the screenplays. In your experience, has anyone at MGM or any of the other studios actually used one of these services?
No, I haven't ever looked at those sites and I doubt other studios are either. It is possible that producers are looking on the Web for material. The same goes, in my experience, with pitch festivals or other marketplaces because we get so much material through direct channels from major [literary] agencies. There has been a lot of weeding out by the time it gets to us. There's a much better chance that the material could be commercially viable that we only have to go to that source. We don't have to go outside to unknown sources where a script hasn't been vetted. I think pitch fests can be valuable practice for the writer, but I don't believe they really lead to actual sales.
Sometimes, other companies will take material submitted from entertainment attorneys, but we don't because there's no creative vetting needed to get an attorney. An attorney will happily charge you to send in your
script…unlike a producer, who is saying: 'I have read this material, and I will produce this material because I believe in its quality.' That's very different from an attorney just saying, 'Anyone, yes.'
I get a lot of questions about which script consulting services are legitimate.
It's hard to tell. I don't know how to tell other than your own gut feeling in speaking with the person and checking out their references.
There are so many people out there who claim to get writers' screenplays produced, and I try to personally do business as honestly as possible, to steer people in the right direction. That's basically why Scriptologist.com is a how-to forum. I try to take a step-by-step approach. What I wonder about is if someone were really intent on getting into the industry, would you recommend their interning for a film production company?
Definitely. Any way that you can meet people face to face and learn the business from the inside is all valuable feedback. It doesn't mean you can't have a [film] career not living in Los Angeles, because you can if the quality of [your] work is that good. But it is hard not having the personal relationships. So much of this business is based on word of mouth and referral that it's hard if you don't live here [in LA] to get in that loop.
Q: If a writer had certain non-film jobs that were bringing in an income, would it be worth that person's time to do an unpaid film internship? Would this yield some connections for that person?
It totally depends on the situation and individual. When I worked for free, it was because I was fresh out of college and I worked during college to save money to be able to do that. But, could I personally do it now that I am more of an adult and have expenses? I would like to think that I could, but I'm not so sure that I could if I had to start all over again.
Good in a Room: A Guide to Pitching Your Script
We have eight interns here [at MGM] this summer who are all in college now and I think (and hope) have learned a lot and made some great connections just from being here.
Were they referred to you by their colleges?
SP: Either referred or they just sent me their resume and I interviewed them. Anybody can intern as long as you can get college credit.
Is there a requirement that a person be in school?
SP: Yes, they must be in school so they receive college credit for their work. They can't just work for free.
Q: So, you started as an unpaid intern?
SP: Yes, at Marty Katz Productions. He was one of the producers of Titanic.
Q: How did you transition from there to MGM?
One of my college friends (who also interned at Marty Katz Productions) was working as an assistant at Jerry Bruckheimer Films, and she helped me get a job at Jerry Bruckheimer.
How did your theatrical studies at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) help prepare you for work in the film industry? In other words, were there specific courses you took at CMU that helped you understand how to successfully bring feature films from development to theatrical release?
I only took one film course, so most everything I have learned about film has been on the job or my personal reading and watching movies. Playwriting, directing, and production classes certainly helped, and my theater history knowledge has helped too.
Q: What advice would you give to a screenwriter who would like to direct his or her own low-budget independent film?
Go out and do it! It is such an accomplishment to actually get a movie made, and it can be a great showcase of their work and unique skills.
What effect do you think digital filmmaking will ultimately have on the next generation of independent filmmakers?
Digital media is an incredible tool for the independent filmmaker. Because it is so much more economical, it will allow for some breathing room in what are traditionally tight budgets. The result is there will be more funds available for production value. I expect we will see an increase in the quality of costumes, locations, lighting, and visual and special effects now that the money is not tied up in film stock and transfers.
Q: As a film studio executive, how do you feel studios like MGM will deal with digital video? What effect will it have on MGM's production and distribution process?
SP: It's difficult to say how the
industry will adapt in the long run to major technology advances. It will be a slow process with any number of possible outcomes. Over the years, there have been numerous ideas about how to 'revolutionize' the process. Some
work well, and others are dismissed. While I do think digital video will play a significant role in the future of movies, what that role is has not been decided yet.
With the combined growth of independent filmmaking and franchise films, how do you feel the art and business of screenwriting will evolve in the next few years?
This is a great question, and I wish I had a brilliant forward-thinking answer. It saddens me that the studio business is shrinking, but I am hopeful that this will provide more opportunity in the marketplace for risk-taking, ground-breaking creative work.
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