|Jewerl Ross grew up in Los Angeles and left Southern California to study political philosophy at Yale. After graduating in 1997, he returned to L.A. to work in entry-level positions at ICM and Paradigm before joining APA as an agent in early 1999. Three years later, after making a name for himself selling spec scripts, Marathon Entertainment hired Ross as a manager. In January 2006, Ross left to form his own company, Silent R Management.
With over ten years in the business, Ross can boast a hot slate of writer clients. Jewerl’s clients include comedy writer David H. Steinberg. Best known for “American Pie 2,” “Slackers,” and DreamWorks’ “Puss In Boots,” Steinberg is currently adapting “The Anubis Tapestry” a book series at Fox Animation. Sci-Fi writer Trevor Sands is currently writing “Electric Church” at Sony for producer Jimmy Miller after completing a successful adaption of the prestigious book series “Hyperion Cantos” for producer Graham King (who won an Academy Award for Scorsese’s “The Departed”) and Warner Bros. Known for his work on “Cleaner” (Sam Jackson and Eva Mendes), writer Matthew Aldrich is scripting “Counterfeit Son” and “Fair Trade” for Alcon Entertainment (“The Blindside”), based at Warner Bros. Thriller writer David Logan is rewriting “Sebastian Knight” at Paramount and adapting “Once Were Cops” for Articulus Entertainment. English thriller writers Dominic Morgan & Mathew Harvey just completed a rewrite of “Into Hell” for Bold Films, which landed Alex Holmes (“House of Saddam”) to direct, and is currently out to cast for a January start date. In television, Ross represents Brad Buecker, a supervising producer and director on Fox’s hit series “Glee” for Twentieth Century Fox and Ryan Murphy Television. And those are just some of the highlights of Ross’ 20 clients.
Where did you grow up, and how did you become interested in films?
I grew up in L.A., but more accurately I grew up in Inglewood. I spent most of my first 17 years in a two-mile radius of Inglewood High. In a way, I lived a very sheltered, idyllic adolescence. When I left for college, I never had plans to return to LA because my only experience of L.A. was Inglewood. That was all that I knew and I was dying to explore the world. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Inglewood and I loved my life then, mostly because I loved school. By the time I got to high school, I was one of those kids who did everything: student council, band, swim team, debate… whatever I could get my hands on. At the time I thought the only thing that I didn’t like about school was that I couldn’t live there. I remember a very dramatic story of a fight I got into with my mother. I had done something to upset her and we were having a heated argument and she threatened to take me out of Inglewood High and put me in military school. I responded (as dramatically as a 16-year-old can be), “Mother, I have built an empire at that school and if you ruin it, I will kill myself!” I laugh whenever I think of that story. It does a good job of illustrating my youthful arrogance but also illustrates how much I loved what I was “building.”
Growing up, I was never a film buff. I didn’t have a desire to be in the film business. I wanted to be a businessman. I wanted to make money. I wanted to figure out how to turn my intellect into something tangible (but I wouldn’t have used those words at the time). My 18-year-old self imagined going off to a great law school or becoming a Rhodes Scholar, or going into politics, or going on Wall Street or so many other dreams that did not include Hollywood. I knew nothing of Hollywood growing up and had no friends or family in the business and really no way of getting that idea onto my radar.
However, even as a child I had a passion for words. I was always the kid with the largest vocabulary. Even some of my teachers in high school would ask me to write their business letters because I always knew the right thing to say. I wasn’t a big reader until college but I remember keeping a dictionary handy to explore words I heard on TV that I wanted to look up. One of my earliest memories of how words played a big role for me was when I was 10 years old. We lived very modestly on the salary of my mother’s job as a secretary. When she came into an amount of money she asked me what I wanted. She offered to buy me a TV for my bedroom. I responded that I wanted my own electric typewriter. I had a fascination with typewriters and getting words onto the page. She did buy me a very fancy electric typewriter and a typing book so I could teach myself how to type. Boy, did I love it!
Even though I wasn’t a film buff as a kid, I did love comic books. That was my first introduction into storytelling and complex characters. I always thought, “If only adults knew how interesting and dynamic and riveting the stories in these books are.” I gave up comics when I got to college, and it literally brought me pangs of anxiety when I would walk by a comic shop and I knew I no longer had the time to indulge myself.
You went to Yale to study political philosophy. What attracted you to this major? And what ultimately led you to leave and move back to Los Angeles?
My major was actually called Ethics, Politics & Economics (EP&E). When I got to Yale, it took me some time to find a major. I thought that I had done everything in high school to get into a good college, now I wanted to spend my time in college studying something that brought me satisfaction. After trying out many things and not getting that satisfaction, I was made aware of EP&E. It was one of the few majors that you had to apply to get accepted into. That piqued my competitive nature, so I applied. I also liked many of the professors in the department. Most importantly, I loved talking; and talking and supporting your ideas was such an important element of the coursework that I decided to do it. After you took the main courses in the major, it gave you a lot of latitude to build your coursework and pick your classes around a theme or concentration, and I chose to center my studies on political philosophy.
My coursework and my decision to come back to L.A. had zero to do with each other. During the end of my junior year, I was trying to make my post-Yale plans. At the time I wanted to start a business, but many of my advisors and mentors said that I needed to get some real-world experience, and get a real job before I start a business. If I was going to get a job, I said it had to have certain requirements: (1) It needed to be personality driven. I didn’t want to crunch numbers or go to Wall Street like some of my peers because I knew I would suck at that. (2) If I was good at it, I wanted to be able to make a lot of money at it. There was a (3) and a (4) but I can’t recall them. And then by happenstance, right before summer break of my junior year, I was having a conversation with one of my great friends, Leslie Park, who was planning to come to L.A. to become a producer. In that conversation, she mentioned the word “agent” and it was like the heavens had opened up and the angels were singing with a soft, bright light of God himself shining onto me… it was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be an agent. Did I know anything about Hollywood? No. Did I know anything about film? No. Did I have any idea how to get an agent job? No. All I knew was the word. And the word fit. I was always that guy trying to make shit happen—stuff for other people, stuff for myself—and I knew when I heard the word that this was someone who was paid to make shit happen for other people. How fucking cool is that!!
So right after that conversation, I started to prepare. That summer, right before my senior year, I started reading everything I could on Hollywood. Maybe I read 10 books on the subject. There was one book that even detailed the life of an agent’s assistant, and all I could think was, “This is the life for me. I will be great at that.” I started networking. I started reading Variety. I started laying plans to return to L.A.
How did you get your start in the business?
Well, in my networking to meet people in Hollywood, I met a guy at the law school who knew another law grad named Tim Collins, who was working at Warner Bros. at the time (I think that’s where he worked). I got in touch with Tim and he told me that he had a friend who was an agent at ICM. Using that info, I sent that agent a letter (on my very cool Yale stationary) mentioning Tim and selling the agent on me (I wish I remembered his name). The agent got it, called me and said he would meet me on my spring break. That meeting went well, and then on the same spring break he had me meet all seven agents who decide if someone gets into the training program. I got in and started two weeks after graduation.
You started in entry-level positions at various agencies. Where did you work and what did you do? What did you learn from those experiences?
What did I learn? I learned how to get my ass fired. That first year in Hollywood was hell. I was the classic example of a kid who didn’t “get it.” I spoke my mind too often and with too much candor. I was painfully ambitious but didn’t back it up with skill and knowledge about what I was doing. I stepped on toe after toe after toe. I didn’t know how to pretend to like menial tasks and do them with gusto or the pretense of gusto. I got fired from ICM in 16 weeks, and boy did I deserve it.
After being fired from the mailroom, one is not really hirable. You’ve been let go from the lowest rung in the ladder and you have no real skills. You were never anyone’s assistant so you don’t even have assistant skills to offer to new employers.
After I got fired from ICM, I did have one phone number to call. During one of my summers at Yale, I was an intern for Senator John Kerry on the Hill in D.C. In my last few weeks at Yale, I happened to run into Kerry walking through campus. I stopped him and told him I was going to Hollywood. He told me that when I arrived, look up a guy named Brian Medavoy. Brian was the son of his good friend Mike Medavoy, and (at the time) Brian had an upstart management company that was doing quite well called More Medavoy. After getting fired, I called Brian, using Kerry’s name and Brian agreed to meet me. After the meeting he offered me a job. Boy was I lucky and boy did Brian have mercy on me.
The problem with that job was that I didn’t know anything about being an assistant and Brian had me work for one of his managers, Gina Rugalo, who needed a great assistant. They demoted me to receptionist soon thereafter and gave me time to find another job… D’oh! After many interviews, I got into the training program at Paradigm. This is now February of 1998. By this time, I’ve been so thoroughly beaten up by Hollywood and by my own mistakes and my own lack of skill that I finally started to “get it.” Also, some of my youthful arrogance was knocked out of me, and most importantly, that quiet desperation that is present in every successful Hollywood player started to seep into my bloodstream. I was not going to get fired from this job even if it killed me. I worked my ass off. Once I got onto an agent’s desk, I worked every weekend I had that job. The agent I worked for was a guy named Sandy Weinberg. In the year before I started working for him, Sandy had had at least four assistants on his desk who all got fired because Sandy was notoriously difficult to work for. I survived on his desk for a year, and I was prouder of that than anything I had done in my life up until that point.
The biggest thing I learned in that time: No one makes it in this town unless they are willing to do what it takes. Ambition and intelligence are meaningless. Hard work and real skill are what matter.
You joined APA as an agent in 1999. How did that come about? How did you find your initial clients?
One of my best friends was an agent named David Saunders at APA. He and I met even before I started in the mailroom at ICM at a party in Hollywood. We became fast friends and spent much of our weekends together talking about the business. I never thought David would be able to help me with my career; I was mostly friends with him because I loved talking about the business with him and he was fun to hang out with. Well, in early 1999, some of his colleagues left APA or were fired, and he was made head of the literary department. He really believed in my potential, and one of his first official acts as department head was to get me a job as a full-fledged agent.
Many of my first clients came to me internally at the agency. I was given clients to service that other agents didn’t have the time or desire to service. That is in fact how I came to sell my first spec. After being at the agency only a week, the department signed a writer named Rueben Leder. He was a film and television writer that APA had signed mostly because they thought he would be valuable in TV. He wrote a feature spec that no one in the department liked called “The Glory of Love.” No one wanted to go out with it. I read it, really loved it and told them that I would try and sell it. Everyone was glad to get the script off his or her desk, and no one thought that I would have any success. Hell, I had been an agent only for a few days and I had no idea what I was doing, so their assumptions should have been correct. I just made a list of people to send it to and started calling them. I had no assistant. I had no idea about protocols. I didn’t know that if a studio exec didn’t call me back, it might not be a good idea to call them four times in one day. But, naïveté is a wonderful thing! Within a week, I sold it to DreamWorks for $250,000. Many of my colleagues were dumbstruck. Hell, I was dumbstruck!
Other clients came to me in random ways. My first client that I signed on my own a few weeks after starting at APA was David Steinberg. I had a friend, Chris Parr, who was an assistant at Paradigm. He told me that David was a young writer who was very unhappy with his agent at Paradigm who didn’t pay him any attention. I took the meeting and signed him. Well, within five months, I went out with two scripts of his. The second was the script “Slackers” that I sold for $700,000. I sure bet that that agent at Paradigm didn’t ever think that David was capable of writing a script that would sell for such a sum. No one did.
Needless to say, the job turned out to be everything that I wanted it to be. Everything was working in my favor. First, I was lucky. Even though I came to Hollywood for business reasons, I was lucky to actually have good taste and the ability to tell a good script from a bad one. That fact alone is the reason for my biggest successes in this town, and the fact I could not have counted on or bet on before I got here. That is luck. Second, there was a spec market that was hungry for material, and with some aggressive tactics and a take-no-prisoners style, one could make a lot of money for one’s clients (and yourself!). And in my younger years I was just an angry ball of aggressiveness. Next, my bosses at APA let me do what I wanted, sign who I wanted and work the way I pleased as long as I made them money, which I did. I had finally arrived and it looked exactly how I imagined it.
Next you moved into management at Marathon Entertainment. What attracted you to management versus being an agent?
I was never “attracted” to being a manager. Matter of fact, I hated managers at the time. I thought they were losers who didn’t do any real work. I got most of my new clients from managers when I was an agent, and that is how I built my business quickly and how I kept up a heavy volume of spec material to go out with because I got them from managers. I only became one initially because I made a tragic mistake—a mistake that was the result of overwhelming hubris and poor judgment on my part.
In my short three years at APA I was very, very successful. They had never had a young agent sell so much material in such a short period of time. My first year, for example, I sold at least nine big specs and for big numbers. And the more successful I became, the bigger my head became (are you noticing a pattern?!). It’s so easy to get a big head in this town. The more successful you are, the more people kiss your ass. And when you are young, you believe the things they say: “You are great… You need to move on to bigger and better things… Why are you at APA?... You are so much better than them… You should work at a big agency… You are my best friend… I am there for you.” Well, I believed the hype and needed to learn a valuable lesson.
My contract was up at APA. I was already making good money. They wanted to renew me and pay me even more but I wanted to go work at Endeavor. I had met with several of the agents there and a couple of the partners and I felt the job was in the bag. Because I was so sure of this, I was handling the APA people badly. Matter of fact, because I was so sure that my Endeavor offer was just days away, I left APA after they tried to force me to sign a new contract. Rule number one of job hunting: Don’t leave job #1 until you have already signed on the dotted line for job #2. Somehow, I missed that class at Yale! Well, as you can guess, the Endeavor offer did not materialize and there was no way to get my APA job back. To add salt to the wound, I was told by the head of the lit department at Endeavor who was trying to hire me that the reason it didn’t happen was that one of the people who I thought were my friends told the big boss not to hire me. Looks like some of the things I did to sell all those specs rubbed some people the wrong way. Some people thought I was a fucking asshole! And because people in this town never tell you the truth to your face, I didn’t even know that I was being such an asshole. I thought I walked on water. Well, needless to say, I learned a big fucking lesson. I look back on my arrogance and I can laugh today but believe me, it took me a long time to get to this point.
Now, I was unemployed and losing clients by the day. I needed a job. Other smaller agencies didn’t seem as appealing to me. The first lesson I learned at ICM was that perception in this town is more important than reality. Small agencies are always fighting a perception problem: Even when they do a great job for their clients, there is a perception that big agencies are better than small agencies. Clients are constantly leaving small agencies to jump to big agencies because the perception is that the big agencies are more powerful and can wield that power to make you richer. I knew that this was not reality but it was perceived to be reality. I knew that I didn’t want to fight that issue for the rest of my career. How can I build a list of clients at a small agency if they will one day leave because of what the perception in town is? I may be an arrogant fool, but I’m also a realist. If I couldn’t be an agent at a big agency, I was going to go into management.
As a manager, I could build a list of clients without needing to appear bigger than I am. Matter of fact, the perception of most managers is that smaller is better. Also, clients don’t leave managers to go to bigger managers, for the most part.
I had some good friends at Marathon Entertainment. I owe my job offer to Alex Hertzberg. He got the big boss to make me an offer before he even met me. I was lucky this time. I had made a mistake that could have led to me leaving the business, and I had a friend keep me in the game. I didn’t think I would be at Marathon long, but I knew I needed a job so that I could keep what few clients I had at the time. Boy was I wrong. I ended up staying at Marathon for a very fruitful four years. It was a very safe environment for me to build a respectable client list. My boss, Rick Siegel, treated me with respect and, dare I say, love, and gave me the freedom to do what I wanted for the most part. I actually stayed there longer than all of my friends who worked there with me at the time: Alex, Danny Sherman, Judy Orbach and others.
Being at Marathon was also great for me for other reasons. First, it gave me a place where I could safely learn how to decrease the size of my head. This was no small feat and it took a while. Also, I needed a place where I could figure out what I was doing wrong and why. I could ask the tough questions and be at a place where I could listen to the answers: Was I being an asshole? Was I handling situations correctly? How can I do this better? Did I have integrity? Was I building long-term relationships? Who did I want to represent and why? What are the real reasons that I should stay in the business? What am I truly good at? What kind of manager did I want to be? What kind of person did I want to be?
In those four years I allowed myself some introspection: that along with the tough time I had, recreating my early success really helped turn me into a much better person and a much better representative.
How are you a better representative?
I know that I am in it for the long haul; I know I want to be a rep for the next 20 years. As a result, I am more likely to avoid short-term gain if it will hurt my client’s long-term goals. I am more patient with the writing process. I love my clients and know it’s fucking hard to do what they do. I know now I can get through almost any situation with finesse versus the use of force; I know that finesse is a more powerful tool. I know that real friendship can be built in this town and it’s those people who will help and protect when you fuck up, and we all will fuck up even when we do everything right. I can go on and on…
How is being a manager different from being an agent?
As I mentioned above, the job of agent and manager are very, very similar. For me, it’s mostly in how I talk about my job and how I sign clients. The nuts and bolts of how one moves careers forward are pretty standard.
The main difference between most agents and managers is that managers have the legal ability to produce their clients’ work. I don’t produce for a whole host of reasons.
First, I got into representation because I love representation. I’m good at it and it brings me joy. In order to produce, I would have to leave the comfort of my office and go to meetings: three-hour casting meetings, four-hour development meetings, pitch meetings around town, etc. I know I’m valuable to my clients because I can sit at my desk, every day, and make 50 or 60 calls pushing their careers and projects forward. If I had to sit in and through these meetings, I couldn’t make those calls and couldn’t continue to (consistently) make them money.
Second, I don’t produce because producing and management are a conflict of interest. Most managers produce. Every one of them will tell you that it’s not a conflict of interest. I think that is bullshit. The one project that I did produce a few years ago, there were so many instances that I had to think about my interests and saw where my interest did not always line up with my client’s interest, it made me uncomfortable. My clients are loyal because I can always put them and their needs first.
Third, I don’t produce because producing—real producing—is hard fucking work. I know hundreds of producers. The few that are good at it are special individuals. Even these special people make bad movies. Why? Because making a good movie is fucking hard. There are so many things that can and do go wrong that even when you are special, you can end up making a bad fucking movie. As a typical overachiever type, I only like doing things that I know I will be good at.
Fourth, because I want to represent these clients for the next 20 years, I know that sometimes when a manager produces, the client resents it, sometimes just a little. If I want to continue to represent these clients for 20 years, I can’t afford to plant seeds of resentment that can grow into trees of contempt.
Fifth, I don’t like producing. Every time I have gone to the set of a client’s movie in production, it’s not fun. I’m either too cold or too hot or too bored. It sucks. I’d rather stay in my office and call people and keep the thermostat at 72.
Keep in mind, in many ways I have and will continue to act as producer on many of my clients’ projects: developing them, being very involved in putting them together and pushing them forward. But I can do that as a manager who only gives a shit about one person, the client.
In early 2006 you left Marathon and started your own company, Silent R Management. Why did you move out on your own?
I love Mad Men. I actually hate how popular it’s become because I hate to love things that everyone else likes. I want to be an iconoclast. Oh well. I usually watch each episode twice before I delete it from my Tivo. There is so much wonderful subtlety. I always miss something. Well, the last episode of Season 3, I refuse to delete from my Tivo. I’ve seen it six times. The episode is called “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” It’s about Don Draper, our lead, starting his own firm. The episode connects with so much of what I dealt with in order to start my own company. It deals with the feelings and the complications and the thrill and the fear so completely that I can’t bear to delete it. It begins with Don being fired by his biggest client, Conrad Hilton of Hilton Hotels. At first, Don proceeds to attack and try to manipulate Hilton into staying. Hilton sees right through the bullshit and says the following to Don: “Ya know, I got everything I have on my own… (dramatic pause)… It’s made me immune to those who complain and cry because they can’t... I didn’t take YOU for one of THEM, Don... Are you?” It was this conversation that started Don on the path to starting his own company.
I started Silent R Management because I am not one of THEM.
What are the advantages to starting your own company?
Being your own man.
You represent roughly 20 writers and writer-directors, correct? Is that a magic number for you in terms of being able to focus on their individual needs?
I have been so focused on the people I currently represent, over the past year, I really have not signed new clients. Only this month, because so many people are working or not in need of immediate work from me, I have started really pressing to read and meet new clients. The older I get, the better I get at the job and I think that at this time, I can handle maybe 30 clients. Part of being good at the job is my knowing what kind of people I can sign that fit into my style of representation, also understanding in advance how much work they will need and what services I can reasonably provide. Thus, it’s not just about signing any new client, but clients where I can understand the full picture of how they fit into my business.
Describe a typical day or week or month.
My weeks are pretty standard. Every two weeks I do “follow ups,” which means I spend two days of that week calling to follow up on every submission I’ve made to see if the producer or exec has read my client or seen their movie. I can have anywhere from 60 to 260 outstanding submissions in the market at any one time. These are not spec submissions. These are samples and submissions for jobs or introductions of a client to a new relationship. During these follow-up weeks, in addition to what I just described, I also spend an additional day doing “information follow ups.” There is a document that I keep open on my computer where I track information on everything that could possibly make my clients any money: book rights that could work for a particular client, status updates on assignments that could be right for a client, tips on upcoming jobs, names of particular execs who are special fans of a particular client with dates on the last time we spoke about said client, etc. So on the follow-up weeks, I will print that doc and circle 30 to 60 bits of info on that document that I feel it’s time for me to do additional follow-up on. That takes one day to do, and I usually do it on the same weeks that I follow up on outstanding submissions.
About every two months I’ll circulate a new spec. That can take up two or three days of a week. I’m different than most managers or agents because I tend to send material to lots of places. Even scripts that I don’t love, I have sent to 80 places. (Yes, I will send out a script I don’t love if I respect the creative point of view of the client. Sometimes the clients are smarter than me and I am smart enough to know it!) About three months ago, I sent a script to about 215 places. If I really believe in a piece of material, I want to get it to as many places as possible to give it the best chance of selling. After that “spec process” is complete, I want to be able to tell clients: This script has been serviced as well as it can be serviced. My feeling is that if I service a script well once, it prevents clients from not being able to move on to other things if it doesn’t sell.
I spend one day a month making a list of open assignments that I’m interested in tracking for the entire client list. It takes one day to make the list with info gathered from all the agencies, and it takes two to three days to make all the calls and submissions related to that list. Generally, there will be 40 to 100 assignments that I’ll want to call on, and I will call multiple execs and producers related to each assignment. Thus, a list of 40 assignments might mean a list of 120 to 160 calls and submissions.
Outside of follow-up weeks, spec weeks, and assignments weeks, there are weeks that I will make a big push of a particular sample for a particular client. Let’s say a client has written a script for Universal on assignment and he’s done and it’s good. I’ll spend two to three days sending that script to everyone he has ever met and everyone who has read and liked material he wrote in the past. I’ll do a big sample push once a month for one client.
These are the standard big things that I always do no matter what. Outside of these things, the week is filled with all manner of random stuff: This is TV pitch season and I’m helping a client develop his idea and navigating the politics with his agent who also reps the A-list director who is attached to the idea; sold a script a month ago and the paperwork has not come in and the client wants to make sure we get it signed and him paid ASAP… I mean, I can go on and on listing the little details on all the things I do. Because I am a micro-manager, I want to know about or push forward anything related to my clients making money. I want them to feel like they have the freedom to call me and ask me to make any and all calls they don’t want to make or shouldn’t have to make.
Because I call so many people all day, I don’t talk to most people that long. I can get through 40 calls in one afternoon if I keep everything short.
Describe your daily relationship with your clients.
My most important clients, we speak every couple of days, but our conversations are short and task specific. When clients are very busy, we can talk five times a day but generally speak for just a few minutes each time. Development clients, who are at home writing a spec, we can speak every three weeks to make sure they are on track. Those conversations can take longer since I don’t speak to them as often.
When clients need to strategize about anything, those conversations can be longer, but most people don’t need those chats often.
Do you think writers should sign with an agent or a manager, or both?
This is the most popular question I’m ever asked. I tell everyone that it doesn’t matter. You need to sign with anyone who loves your material and has the desire, ability and credibility to send your material to many, many places. Period. If that person is called an agent, great. If that person is called a manager, great. If that person is called a janitor, great (as long as he has relationships and isn’t just cleaning your bathroom).
What are your feelings on writers living in Los Angeles versus living in other parts of the country, or even the world? Will you consider repping a writer who lives outside L.A.?
I represent writers all over the world. I have four clients in the U.K., two in Canada, at least one in New York, and a few others sprinkled around the U.S. If you have never been paid to write, coming to L.A. is very important, and if you don’t have the ability to come to L.A. four times a year to take meetings, then you definitely should live here. Absolutely.
It’s so hard to find people who are truly talented; I don’t care where someone lives as long as they can come to L.A. four times a year.
How do you find your clients?
It is so hard to find people who are truly talented! I don’t have one way. All the potential clients I met this month I found at one big agency, but that is rare. However, the unifying characteristic is that the majority of my clients come through referral – referrals from agents, lawyers, producers, executives, assistants, whoever. If someone has read a script and likes it and has taken the time to call or e-mail me to tell me they like it, then I always take it seriously and get to it quickly.
Do you put much stock in screenwriting contests? If so, which ones?
Absolutely. If someone puts in a query letter that they have won two contests, I take that query letter very seriously.
If people win contests, their scripts are usually better than people who don’t win contests. If you are writing scripts alone at home and you don’t have a circle to read your work and give you feedback, you’d better be submitting to contests. Absolutely.
You asked which contests. I don’t know or track them all. I just was a judge for the Final Draft Big Break contest. The script that I ranked as number one, I am signing that writer because I think he is such a talent. Though the script is uncommercial, I think people will love his writing. I also deal with ScriptShark and Script P.I.M.P. Everyone knows about the Nicholl and the Samuel Goldwyn contest. I sometimes read the winners from those. Other than the famous contests, people shouldn’t be snobby; they should submit their work everywhere.
We hear a lot about contracts that managers make writers sign before deciding to represent them. What are your thoughts about contracts in general when repping a client?
If a potential client has never made money in the movie business, they have to sign a two- year contract before I will represent them. This is important and I usually don’t make exceptions. My contract is two pages and pretty standard. If a new client doesn’t want to sign, I generally become suspect of them and their motives and it makes me less interested in them. Why do I become less interested? Partly because not only am I judging whether someone is a talented writer, I am also trying to make judgments about their long-term viability. I can only make real money with a client if they can stay with me for many years. In Hollywood, two years is an extremely short time. People rarely become big earners in such a short period of time. Therefore, if someone is not willing to sign for two years, how can I be sure they will stay on after they start making real money? If someone is too insecure (or paranoid or uncommitted or grandiose) to sign for two years, the likelihood that they will stay for ten years is in doubt. I am not actually interested in signing people for two years, I am really only interested in signing people who will stay forever. What will happen when they go through a rough patch in their career? Will they stay with me then in the tough times? Maybe they are too cheap to pay? I need to know that now before I make them really rich. Maybe they are too insecure about my real value? If they don’t think I’m valuable now, they certainly won’t think so later. If you can’t make a wise decision now, how can I trust you to make wise decisions later? It is my job to read the tea leaves about a client’s long-term viability. Contracts are one tool. In that conversation on a contract, you can often see shades of one’s personality, their loyalty, their potential for craziness, their potential for drama, their level of insecurity, their likability and many other things. All of these ideas contribute to whether they can make money in Hollywood and whether they will stay clients with me for the long term.
In general, I am an alarmist. If someone is going to have issues about a small thing, they will have issues about a big thing. Meaning, if someone is going to fuck me over $300, they are going to fuck me over $30,000. In the early part of a relationship, it’s the small things that matter because they portend what is to come. Not to be a fucking cliché and fucking quote Oprah Winfrey but she does have a really great quote that I love: When people show you who they really are, believe them the first time. Contracts are one tool that help tease out who people really are.
Why are referrals so important in this town?
If you read a script cover to cover, how long does it take you? 90 minutes? Two hours? Three hours? If I take home just five scripts and I have to read all of them cover to cover, at the very least that is 7.5 hours gone from my weekend. That is a son-of-a-bitch! Almost every weekend for over 11 years, I have had to take home a pile of scripts. (And ironically, I am a slow reader, too!) That is the life of everyone I know in the movie business. All of us are desperate for ways to reduce the amount of scripts in that pile. If we read everything that anyone wanted to send to us, we would never, ever have a life! I want to get laid and have kids and go to a concert just like you do! I can’t spend every waking moment reading scripts. None of us can. As a result, there is a thing called “the referral.”
So the first reason would be the scarcity of time. Secondarily, unlike the car business or the lumber business or the T-shirt business, the writer business is a particular animal. Deciding the value of a T-shirt or a brick is easy and standard and subject to industry norms. Deciding if a script is good or if a writer is talented is dependent on a set a standards that are sometimes hard to quantify as easily: taste, passion, experience. (I am resisting using the term subjective. I don’t think good writing is subjective. I think that subjectivity is the excuse of the average.) But, if a good script is dependent on so many factors that are not easily apparent, then how can you tell if a script should get into the pile? Certainly, every untalented writer I have ever met thinks his material is genius. (So often, the real geniuses think their stuff sucks!) Well, I think that if someone has the balls or passion or desire to be someone else’s advocate and tell a friend “This script is good,” then that matters, that is a reason to take a script seriously, that is a reason to look through the fog and say, OK, I will read this, I will trust your recommendation, I will take two hours out of my weekend and love what you love. Recommendations and referrals matter because it forces people to be honest and put their reputation on the line and say that a script is good.
Often, when a writer sends his script to a stranger in the business, the stranger will give them positive feedback about their material even if the script is not good. These strangers don’t want to offend the next Aaron Sorkin and they don’t want to get stuck giving notes to people who are wasting their time. Saying nice things is the solution to moving on quickly, and in the end, everyone likes everyone. Thus, the only way you know if that person really did like your script is if they are willing to tell a friend. Next time an executive tells you they like your material, ask them if they could send it to someone else. If they say no, you got your answer.
Is it risky for new writers to send their material out before getting a rep? What if they send it out and get many producers who pass, and then an agent signs them and doesn’t want to spec the script because it is overexposed?
I hear this complaint quite often as well. I think this is the wrong way to think about your material and the wrong way to think about reps. If you have never done anything—never been paid to write, never sold a script, are unrepresented—selling a big spec is the least of your worries, being overexposed is the least of your worries. What you need are advocates—fans—people who love you and love your writing. You don’t just need one of these, but many fans. The only way to get fans is to send your material to people. You can’t be precious with your material and super selective on who reads it. You can’t be worried about people stealing your ideas or fucking you out of money that doesn’t exist. You have to move your career forward and you can’t do that without people reading you.
You need to buy a Hollywood Creative Directory. It lists every producer who has ever made a movie. You need to call them and send them your material. Make a list of the 20 biggest companies. The least important person at each of those companies has no assistant and likely answers his own phone. Call him. Pitch him your script. At least a few of these people will agree to read you. Follow up with them in six weeks. Beg them. Plead. At the end of this process, if your material is great, you will have people who love your writing. If you have just two of these fans, it will be easy to get a rep. They will tell their friends about you and how talented you are. We are all desperate to find the next big thing and if we hear that you are it, we will start calling you. If you can’t get an exec to read you, beg the assistants. They are just as powerful in getting you a rep as an exec. I will take an assistant’s word on a good script as easily as I will take his boss’s word (he likely reads more than his boss). Reps are the last people who really matter in that chain.
Another reason people worry about overexposure of a script before it gets to a rep is because this is the only script they have written and they want to do everything perfectly. If this is the only script you have ever written and the only one you will write for a year or two, you are not a real writer and none of this advice is for you. For real writers, it doesn’t matter if one script is overexposed because you are writing two or three scripts a year. I tell people all the time: I don’t represent scripts; I represent writers!
Why are managers and agents “careful,” let’s say, about sending out a script in spite of the fact the writer might think it’s perfect?
There are a ton of possible reasons for this: Maybe it’s not perfect! Maybe the rep doesn’t think it will sell and doesn’t want to waste his time. Often, if a writer writes a script that is good but not as good as his previous material, a rep will not want producers and execs to think less of the writer and ruin the brand the rep is building for the writer, and that is another reason why not to send. (Other reasons: Maybe the rep is lazy. Maybe the rep is smart and trying to be strategic.)
I regularly deal with agents who I share clients with who don’t want to send out a script if they don’t see an immediate sale. I often will then go out with material alone even when the client has an agent. I can’t tell you how often material then sells or then lands the client enough activity to produce their next job. I don’t fault the agent. He needs to make that cost/benefit analysis of his time, especially if he has 80 clients. On the other hand, I need all of my clients to work or I don’t eat, so I am most prone to be proactive if I love the writing. Loving the writing is the most important factor to me in deciding when and how to service material. I feel like no one knows if something will sell, and often the most interesting material can be the most uncommercial. I’m not saying that all I will do is service the uncommercial. I’m no fool.
But the bigger idea here is about passion and, dare I say, magic. I’ve built a business around servicing my own passions: the writers I love, the screenplays that I can get passionate about, the ideas that personally excite me. And when one of these screenplays sells or one of these writers gets a job—these are all low-probability happenings. It’s so low-probability in fact, it feels like magic when it happens. I don’t need magic to happen that often for me to have a pretty good life. Since I view my business that way, then I can take the risks on the ideas that are totally outside the box but that get my heart racing. If I think anything that happens is magic, why not roll the dice? The more often you roll the dice on the things that get you excited, the more opportunity you have to be wowed!
What do you look for in writers when considering whether to manage them? What turns you on about a writer? What turns you off?
The most important thing is being good on the page. I want to personally connect with the material. If it’s a comedy, I want to laugh. If it’s a horror movie, I want to be scared. After that, it depends on what level of writer they are. If they are a new writer, I want to see how our meeting goes: Are you likable in the room, what are your ideas, how do you communicate, would others want to sit in a room with them for hours to discuss a script, do you inspire dread or confidence? My first meeting with a writer can take up to two hours. I ask a ton of questions in an attempt to discern if they have that special something to make it in the business. In an interview, by really getting into a person’s past, I can often get a sense of whether they have that special set of qualities to make it over the long term. Are they well read: Did they grow up reading everything they could get their hands on, did they study literature, what are the books and ideas that inspire them? Are they students of the business: Have they read many other screenplays? Do they read the trades? Are they passionate: Is this a part-time hobby or a real career path? Are they financially stable enough to endure a long window before they hit it big? Do they have a unique set of knowledge that would fascinate me or someone else: Did they work in politics or a jail or on an archeological dig? I don’t ask these questions specifically, but truly spending some time getting to know a person, so much of these details come to the surface.
Turn-ons and turn-offs: This question is almost too obvious to answer. I’m turned on by superintelligent and supertalented people. I’m turned off by the opposite and the average.
How do you work with your clients in terms of feedback and suggestions? How hands-on are you with shaping and preparing their material?
I definitely want to be involved in the decision making on what ideas to write. After a script is written, I do give feedback and suggestions for improvement. However, there are managers out there who are specifically internal development types who spend the majority of their time reading and developing material, reading 10 drafts, doing everything they can to turn a C script into a B script. And then, when the script is done, they hand it off to an agent and hope that the agent likes it and will help sell it. That is not me. If someone doesn’t know how to write a great script before getting to me, I can’t teach them. I need my client to be much more creative than me, with a very strong point of view on their material. I don’t want to read five drafts and baby clients along in order to get to the final script. If they need that, I usually have a client work with a producer on a specific piece of material. There have been so many times that I have been very hands-on with a particular script and have developed the script in a circle or laterally. I found that very frustrating and know it’s a recipe for me going to the poorhouse. Also, there are so many reasons that one could develop a script laterally: The idea is flawed, my notes suck, my notes are great and the client is not talented enough to execute them, the client has a different idea of what he wants than I have of what it should be, the client and the note giver aren’t communicating well, the client can’t rewrite themselves well, etc. Because there are so many pitfalls to development, I try not to do too much of it and try to choose clients who are too smart to need it.
Many times writers worry about trends in the market. What’s your advice on this? How do you as a manager deal with the trends?
Pitfall! By the time you find out about a trend and finish your script, the trend may be over. You can’t write with your head in the sand, but following trends is for the hacks. New writers ask me all the time what they should be focusing on, what they should be writing. I think that people have to follow their passions and write what they know, what they can write well. If it’s weird, that is sometimes OK. If we’ve never seen it before, that is sometimes OK. It just needs to be great and executed with magic. We are all desperate for something that doesn’t read like every script we read last weekend.
However, please know that 90% of new writers are writing dramas. That is OK if that is all you can and want to write. However, your chances of breaking into the screenwriting biz writing dramas are so very, very slim. Most people break into the business writing genre material: comedies, horror, thrillers, etc. If you expect to break into Hollywood writing a period piece about Abraham Lincoln and his obsession with calligraphy, that script is not going to be read by a lot of people. Also, so few of the jobs that I can get for writers are dramas. Most drama jobs go to super A-list writers.
Temper your passion with the wisdom of what people are actually reading and buying.
Clearly you’ve set up a lot of assignments and rewrite projects for your clients over the years. What should new writers understand about this aspect of the industry? Do you subscribe to the popular notion that unless you’ve sold a spec, you can’t be seriously considered for an assignment?
Writing a screenplay that sells is one skill set. When a buyer buys a script, they clearly see what they are getting and can read it. However, in order to get a job on assignment, it takes a whole other set of skills that must be learned over time.
- You have the ability to rewrite yourself. So many writers are too precious with what they put on the page and can’t rewrite themselves.
- You have the ability to communicate an idea in a way that gives someone else the confidence that you can get it on the page. They must feel like they understand how your mind works, that there is creative common ground, that you see the same movie and can talk about it in intimate detail.
- You have the ability to actually hear notes. Learning how to understand notes and hear “development speak” can sometimes take years. Often when execs want something executed, the biggest stumbling block is effective communication. Can you hear them?
- You are likable. No exec wants to sit in a room with a curmudgeon. It takes a long time to get a script just right and execs want to work with those who make the process fun and easy.
- You have political skill. So many execs are stupid or have stupid ideas. Telling them that often doesn’t go over well and so many writers can’t play the game.
- You have the ability to come up with “a take.” A take is your verbal pitch selling your ideas for the job. Usually it involves reading the material they send you for the job (a book, a broken script, a treatment) and coming up with your totally unique way of envisioning the movie. Most writers can’t quickly digest material and have a take ready in two weeks.
- The ability to think on your feet. I’ve seen clients come in with a take that nobody likes but in the room be able to understand what they want so quickly that they re-imagine it on their feet and sell their new vision on the spot.
- Patience and persistence. Getting a job can take four months or even a year. It can involve an avalanche of creative meetings with the execs, massaging an idea this way and that, breaking down elements of a story to the finest detail. Taking their notes and coming up with inspired revisions over and over again.
In my mind, you don’t have to sell a script to get a job on assignment. However, in order for me to actively look for jobs for a particular client, I need to have a sense that you have at least a few of these skills. Also, you need to have two scripts that are excellent and that are both in the same genre and sub-genre.
I can’t teach all of these skills. Most of these things have to be learned by attempting and failing over and over again.
Everyone talks about the importance of relationships in Hollywood. How do you form new relationships with new companies and producers? Agents?
When people talk about building relationships in Hollywood, others often get the wrong idea. People often think of meeting people at parties and going drinking with your favorite people, or of close friendships you have with people in positions of power. Like most people in town, I have five real close friends in the business: people who I hang out with on the weekend and tell my secrets to. All my other relationships are people who I want to send material to and who want to get material from me. Finding and maintaining these relationships is pretty easy. I want to hear from them and they want to hear from me. Every so often, I will need people to do me favors or do my clients favors. They do that because they respect me or need me. I do the same because I respect them or need them.
New relationships: I call them and try to do business. Sometimes that means going to a lunch with them, sometimes not.
I think the more interesting question is, how can writers start and maintain relationships with execs and others who can help them? The most important way is to continually produce new material. The other way is to develop a project with a particular exec. When two people develop a project together, they learn whether they like each other or not pretty quickly and can form tight bonds that can eventually lead to that friend helping you get a job or a rep. Developing projects with others is a writer’s primary tool for developing relationships with others that can help you get jobs and move your projects forward. Yes, you can go to parties and other bullshit. But that stuff is not important to building true relationships and making good movies.
And how do you maintain relationships with people you already know?
I continue to send them good material. The main reason I talk to anyone is because they have or want to read something I represent. I keep a relationship fresh by sending fresh material. The same should be true for my clients: They keep their relationships fresh and current by continuing to produce material.
For writers interested in working in television, how different or difficult is it to break into TV as compared with film?
Breaking into TV is just as hard as breaking into features.
With regard to the studios, where do you see the literary side of the business headed over the next few years? Clearly the economy and preexisting materials have influenced the industry, but how do you see it changing in the years to come?
I can’t answer this question or this type of question. This is a big picture, macro question. I am not a macro thinker. I think people get lost trying to understand the macro when all they need to know is right in front of them. I understand if a writer is talented. I understand if a certain client can work. All you need to know is right in front of you: Can you write? Are you passionate about this idea? Can you see the movie? Do you have the skill and perseverance to get it done?
Where is the business going? Who the fuck knows! All I know is that it will be here next year and so will we.