SHERWOOD OAKS COLLEGE DREAM CLASS
by William C. Martell
Imagine driving to the studio gates, and your name is on the guard's list! You enter the lot, and seven producers are waiting to meet with you! Now imagine going to five studios in five days, meeting with 35 big name producers. Fantasy? No, it's a new class offered by Sherwood Oaks College called ULTIMATE SCREENWRITERS EXPERIENCE. I took the course in December, and here is my report...
Monday we met at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and were taken by van to Sony Pictures where we assembled in the meeting room at Centropolis Entertainment (ID4, THE PATRIOT). Our guests for the day included Judd Payne from The Steve Tisch Company (FOREST GUMP), Crissy Blumenthal from Black & Blu Entertainment (Jason Blumenthal and Todd Black from Mandalay), Mary Kay Powell from RayStar (STEEL MAGNOLIAS), the VP of Development from Gracie Films (AS GOOD AS IT GETS), the President of Red Wagon Productions (STUART LITTLE) Doug Wick, Scott Nemes from Penny Marshall's Parkway Productions (BIG) and the President of Phoenix Pictures Mike Medavoy (who has about seven Best Picture Oscars at home).
Studio based producers are looking for big studio films. Scripts that can be "tent-pole" films. The Indie companies make small movies, these guys make blockbusters. A key component to a film's success is the foreign market, and Crissy Blumenthal said they are looking for scripts with "international appeal". Sports scripts and political scripts "don't travel well". Mike Medavoy told us his company reads 5,000 scripts a year... and only makes 4 films a year!
Tuesday we had a morning meeting with pitch-master Robert Kosberg in Beverly Hills, then were taken to the Warner Bros. lot to meet with Greg Avallone from TIG Productions (Kevin Costner's company), Heather Courtney from Bel Air (THE GAME), Brian Manis from Peters Entertainment (THE WILD WILD WEST), Kevin Field from Maysville Films (George Clooney's company), Far from Mad Chance (THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE, SPACE COWBOYS), and Nathan Kahane from The Canton Company (JACK FROST).
Due to the success of DOUBLE JEOPARDY, many companies were looking for thrillers with an intriguing idea behind them. Being able to legally kill your evil ex-husband is the idea that made that film a hit - that element is the key. Because many studios are trying to lower the cost of their films, they are making more thrillers than action films... though action is still a popular genre. Both Bel Air and Canton are looking for smart comedies and thrillers with twists. Many of the producers at both Warners and Universal were interested in remaking old studio films which they already owned the rights to... These projects are assignments for established writers.
Wednesday was off-lot producers, beginning with Andrew Licht at Licht/Mueller Productions (THE CABLE GUY), then we had lunch with Brady Thomas at Castle Rock (THE GREEN MILE) and Lisa Reeve at Simian Films (Hugh Grant & Liz Hurley's company - MICKEY BLUE EYES). Then desert with Elizabeth from Larry Kasdan's Company (THE BIG CHILL, MUMFORD), before we drove to the Lantana Production Complex to meet with JLT Productions president Jennie Lew Tugend (FREE WILLY), and Chris Salvaterra at Universal Pictures ex-Studio head Casey Silver's new company Gone Fishin' Productions.
Most of the companies were looking for a fresh romantic comedy - something that is a DIFFERENT twist on the standard boy-meets-girl story. Lisa Reeve said that rom-coms require both of the leads get equal screen time, and the element that keeps the couple apart is the key. That element has to be something we haven't seen before. Jennie Lew Tugend said she is looking for characters who find courage or overcome diversity. Very few producers were interested in horror, teen comedy, "Adam Sandler comedy", musicals, westerns or war films.
Thursday we were given the executive board at 20h Century Fox to use as our office, impressing every single producer we met with. Many of them had never even been in the executive building! Our first meeting was with VP of Development Mark Stein from Kopelson Entertainment (THE FUGITIVE), then we had lunch with Mike McGahey at Friendly Films in the commissary (Dr. DOLITTLE), then met with Kopelson Entertainments head of production Matthew Gross. Jennifer Blum from 1492 Productions (BICENTENNIAL MAN), Tracy Silbert from Fox 2000 (COURAGE UNDER FIRE) and Ted Dodd - the VP 20th Century Fox's Story Department rounded out the day.
Ted explained how the studio story department works. Most producers on the lot have their own readers... But the producers at need the studio to fund their films. When a producer finds a script they want to make they take it to the studio for financing. The studio gives the script to the story department for coverage. Fox's story department receives 5,000 scripts and books every year - most from producers, but they also read 100 scripts from screenwriting contests, plus scripts from the 35 Creative Executives in the 4 divisions of Fox (Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Searchlight, Fox Animation). There are two types over coverage - script and project. A project is a script that has already been purchased by a producer (through a discretionary fund) or has talent attached. A "pass" script might be a "consider" project depending on the talent attached. Ted said that the coverage is only one source of information on a script, so it is often ignored. If a script has "heat" or it is by a name writer, the script can receive a "pass" and still be purchased by the studio. If a script is in a bidding war, the coverage is usually ignored. Coverage is also subjective - before closing down, Go-Coverage.com passed on 5 scripts that Fox Story Department recommended. Ted said, "Readers are the only people in Hollywood who have to put their opinions on paper." Fox has coverage going back to the 1920s!
Friday the gates were opened at Universal, where we met with Barry Rosen from Rosen-Goodman (Universal TV movies), Alex Barder at Mike Lobell Productions (IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU), Corey Sienega at David Kirshner Productions (BRIDE OF CHUCKY, AMERICAN TAILS), Bennett Scheir from Robert Zemeckis' company ImageMovers (BACK TO THE FUTURE), Greg Lessans at Marc Platt (PHILADELPHIA), Paul Brehme at Mostow-Lieberman (BREAKDOWN), and Julie Eisenman at Bette Midler's All Girl Productions (BEACHES).
Many companies, including ImageMovers, said they are NOT looking for "programmers" - typical genre pictures without a high concept. A script that doesn't have an exciting idea behind it has little chance of being the kind of big event film studios make. "Give me a great idea," Alex Barder said. Corey Sienga said she was looking for visuals and strong set pieces. Several producers warned against following trends - they said it was okay to write in a popular genre, but avoid copying any specific hit film within that genre. Write something DIFFERENT within the popular genre. Several producers thought that the quality of the scripts they see has gone down - there's a lack of maturity in the work, scripts are derivative, writers are using stale plot devices, and there is a general lack of theme and character complexity.
All of these companies will only read scripts through agents, managers and attorneys AFTER they have been requested by the producer. Most of the companies will eventually get around to reading a query letter, but they warn that they get stacks of query letters every day. If your query comes from a lawyer, agent, or manager it has a better chance of being read. Best thing to do is to have your representative call the company and phone-pitch your script. If they are interested, they'll request it. But I should mention that many of the producers we met were willing to prioritize our query letters, and a couple of them listened to our pitches. One member of the class actually had a producer request his script on the spot (he had a copy with him). We may be reading his name in the trades soon!
The next ULTIMATE SCREENWRITERS course is coming up - for more information call (323) 851-1769 or check out the website at www.sherwoodoakscollege.com.
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copyright 2002 by William C. Martell