Last week I posted the first half of my interview with agent and exec producer and Julian Friedmann on screenwriting. Here’s part two where we talk producing, pitching and what makes a commercial project.
Julian Friedmann is the co-owner of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and was the publisher of ScriptWriter magazine.
He has taught at universities and film schools all over the world, is the co-author of The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television, author of How to Make Money Scriptwriting and editor of two volumes on Writing Long-Running Television series.
He designed the MA in Television Scriptwriting at De Montfort University and PILOTS, for developing long-running television series for the EU MEDIA Programme. He has been on both Emmy and Grierson Juries and is Senior Advisor to the London Screenwriting Festival. He gave a TEDx talk on storytelling:
Julian also acts as Executive Producer for and with clients and has a number of films on his slate.
How has your perspective on film changed now you’re executive producing?
I do feel more sympathetic to producers. I do feel they have a very difficult time. But I feel a lot of that is because they go out with scripts that aren’t ready.
As agents, we do that too but we’re in a slightly different position. We go out with a script that’s not ready to shoot, but we believe the script is good enough to demonstrate a) the story b) the genre c) the writer’s ability.
I go in saying, we’ve gone through two or three drafts, we’ve given notes, we’ve done rewrites and we’re now at the point where we want a producer and a director’s perspective because I could push the writer to take it in this direction, the right producer or director might want it to go in a different direction.
I’m not the producer. I’m not the person who’s going to buy it, so I don’t want to make the writer do unnecessary rewrites they might have to jettison.
In the same way that writers need to understand the agenda of the agent, agents need to understand the agenda of the producer. Exec producers raising finance need to understand the agendas of the financiers. It may sound obvious but one of the agendas is to make money, but financiers are very often ignorant about the nuances of the business.
They might want to bring their wife and kids to the set. We get asked “Could my daughter get a small part in the film?” The fact is that’s how you raise money. It’s one of the tried and tested ways of raising finance.
There’s a lot of money out there because of SEIS and EIS. A huge amount. I had a meeting with a company that has 20 EIS companies fully funded. They don’t know what to do with the money. They need to find product.
So, there’s no shortage of money. Often when you really dig down deep enough, the price is too high. They want too much in return for their money. That’s a delicate balance.
I would say that it’s better to have a small share of a successfully produced movie than to cling on for a large share of a movie that never gets made.
I think what producers and exec producers want are long -term relationships with people who are reliable, trustworthy, honest, nice to work with.
It’s better to make less money out of a film that gets produced under good circumstances. You get credit, a track record on IMDB and you get known for being involved.
I teach negotiating skills and pitching. When you go into pitch as a writer, you’ve lavished a year of your life on a project. This is your baby. This is the thing that’s going to make or break you.
When you finally get to meet an important producer, you go in and you’re completely focused on your project. You are likely to forget that they might not be.
Your agenda is very clear. You want them to buy your script. But you need to know what their agenda is. For the meeting you don’t use your agenda. You use their agenda. If you use their agenda, you’re far more likely to sell your script or your writing ability.
You start the meeting by talking about lots of other things. You’ve researched them. You follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. You know what the last movie they made was, you know what they’ve got in development, you know who they co-produce with. You try to establish some kind of common bond, to establish that you share values.
You might discuss a co-producer that you’ve both worked with, the films they’ve done, something they were tweeting about. You try not to pitch until you’re forced to and they ask you to tell them about your project.
To be successful at selling anything, you need to know what the other person might want. What’s in it for them? If you can demonstrate what’s in it for them, they’re much more likely to buy it.
That sometimes means you don’t even mention the story because by chatting to them you learn that they’re not interested in the very thing you’ve come to sell.
If you meet someone in a queue going into an event at a film festival and start talking – Hi, what do you do? I’m a writer. Oh, I’m a producer. What kind of films do you make? Zombie movies. I’ve written a zombie film. You start discussing films you like and you might pitch. You’re not prepared or rehearsed, so you still need to know how to pitch off the cuff.
I’ve certainly been on the receiving end of that at film markets. Filmmakers doing circuits around the stands, trying to pitch their films, without doing any research into the sales companies, what they do, what’s on their slate, what they’re looking for. They’d launch into monologues and I always felt, hey, stop talking at me and have a conversation with me.
Think as if you are the one receiving the pitch. There’s an example I use when I’m teaching pitching. How would you pitch the movie Titanic?
The answer is, don’t mention the ship and you’ll be more successful. Try to get down to the essence of it. It’s a love story. It’s better to have loved and died than never to have loved at all. That’s universal.
As soon as you start talking about the unsinkable ship that sank, 90% of the people you’re speaking to start thinking, I don’t want to do a period movie. It’s too expensive. Everyone knows it sinks, so what’s the big deal?
Robert Harris wrote Fatherland, which is about what would have happened if the Germans invaded Britain. Because he’s Robert Harris, it sold well, but if someone unknown tried, they’d get, “But we know they didn’t invade.“
One of the conventional wisdoms is to pitch “What if?” What if you discovered your husband, wife or child killed someone and no-one knew but you? What would you do? It’s kind of universal. What would people do? It has a sellable hook.
That’s certainly something we looked at when I was a sales agent. We wanted high concept films we could pitch in one line. It’s a film about a celebrity chef who’s a cannibal.
Sure. The script might be rubbish, but it’s an idea that grabs you and would get buzz.
I remember once talking to one of the producers of Whale Rider, which was nominated for an Oscar. He was a sales agent. I interviewed him for ScriptWriter Magazine. I was really interested to know what a sales agent looks for in a script.
I believe cinema owners, distributors, sales agents probably have a much better sense of what works than producers and writers because they are at the audience end. They see the figures daily in a very brutal way.
So I asked him, what do you look for when you invest in a movie? He said, because I’m a small company, what I looked for was a script that would make a good film that would get a lot of free publicity. Publicity we couldn’t afford to buy because we didn’t have an advertising budget.
With Whale Rider, he said they got a lot of op-ed. They had two whole pages in one of the main Washington papers. That was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars which they couldn’t afford. They got it because the film was dealing with a real issue.
Obvious Child is in a similar position. It’s benefitted from editorial coverage as an “abortion comedy” because of its subject matter, far more than an indie comedy without cast would normally receive.
I don’t know if Erin Brockovich worked for the same reason, but it was a brilliant script. Chris Vogler and Michael Hague have a deconstruction of the opening sequence that shows how the script creates identification and makes us connect to her as a character.
It’s pure Aristotelian: pity, fear, catharsis.
Writers generally are far too removed from the other end of the spectrum of selling films. They need to know more about it. They should be writing what I’d call a selling script.
A selling script is not the one they really want to write, but the one that’s easy to buy. It develops the relationships much more.
If you’re writing an action thriller and you’re brilliant at writing chases like Bullitt with Steven McQueen, but your characters are a bit thin, you’re not going to sell it.
Sacrifice some of your chases and put in some more character depth. The chases will appeal mainly to young males. What about old males? Not so much. Old females? Not so much. Young females? Not so much.
What do you do for them? Well, you might put in an elderly couple and involve them more in the story. What about women? Put in some romance. Put in something about the relationship, so it’s not just a kid on the run from prison.
He’s on the run from prison because his girlfriend’s pregnant and she’s about to have the baby. He doesn’t care if he gets caught. He wants to be there for her, even if it means he has to go to prison for longer.
Then the twist is when he explains this to the parole board, this useless piece of shit who’s spent his life in and out of jail, was raised by drug addicts, has no education, says I want to be the kind of father to my kid that I never had. The parole board says okay.
You need to build emotional connection. You’ve got to make people cry.
Or laugh so hard they cry. I don’t know why writers don’t do it. I don’t know why producers, script editors and directors don’t make them do it.
Good scripts can be made into bad scripts. It’s not enough to have a good script. You need a good director. You need a good producer.
I think part of the problem is directors have too much power. Their decisions about what to do are often made without a lot of thought. Why can they make choices? Because the producers allow them to.
People seem to think there’s something enormously attractive and exciting about being in the film business. It’s very beguiling. Working with creative people. I love it. But then you have to meld it with the business. They forget that this is not about massaging your own ego but making money.
The American film industry is about making money. The European film industry is about making culture.
I think part of the problem is that there are an awful lot of people working in the industry who are sadly not that good. Anyone can be a producer. You need no qualifications. You need no judgment. You need the ability to raise some money.
With my sales agent hat on, my advice for filmmakers is to keep track of what’s happening in the business. For now, it’s make genre films with strong stories and good production values. Then I take my sales agent hat off and as a person who loves great film, I want originality, innovation, great storytelling.
I’m not the target audience. The target audience is the mass market. You’ll find it from time to time. There are some people who are making original movies.
I think the genre film is more likely to get made. It won’t necessarily make money.
A genre film is easier to write because genre films have conventions. You can have a checklist. There are some extremely good books that deconstruct conventions. It’s a bit like painting by numbers.
The risk in painting by numbers is it has no soul. It has no character, no depth. You can compensate by making sure you build in really good conflicted relationships.
If a writer can write a script that grabs you in the first five pages – actually, I’d say the first two pages – then we read on. But will it set up the impossible situation for which the reader is very emotionally engaged, take the reader through the wringer, where things go from bad to worse to even worse, then surprises the reader with this incredible climatic ending that leaves them in tears or panting?
Even if the genre is one the production company doesn’t want, they will know you know how to manipulate the audience.
I would say 1 in 20 writers can do that. Some writers will never be able to do it, even if you tell them about it. It’s just one of those rare things. It’s a different mindset.
Agree, disagree, questions, thoughts? Hit me up in the comments
Picture Credit: Network. Because Paddy Chayefsky is one of the best screenwriters of all time.
You can follow Julian on Twitter @julianfriedmann. If you’re a UK based screenwriter, I really recommend checking out the London Screenwriters Festival. With workshops, writing guru guest speakers, pitching and networking opportunities, it’s one of the best events you can go to further your career. Tickets are selling out fast, so get your hustle on.