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Interviews
 
Stephanie Palmer & Sheila Hanahan Taylor
Wednesday, Sep 1, 2004
Author: Chris Leeder
 
Stephanie Palmer is the Director of Creative Affairs at MGM. Recent films under Stephanie’s tenure include "Legally Blonde," "Good Boy," "Agent Cody Banks and Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London." She is currently working on "Be Cool" (the sequel to Get Shorty) which stars John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Cedric the Entertainer, the Rock and Vince Vaughn.

Sheila Hanahan Taylor is a Producer at Practical Pictures, formerly known as Zide/Perry Entertainment. Sheila was Associate Producer on "Final Destination 2" for New Line and is attached to a dozen more projects including "Frat Ward," "Buddy List" and "Love Thy Neighbor." She is also currently an associate professor with UCLA’s MFA Producing Program.

How did you end up in your current positions?

Stephanie: I certainly never planned to be a studio executive in a million years. I went to Carnegie Mellon as a theater directing major. Before I graduated, I interned on Titanic, including doing things like smuggling cigarettes over the border, picking up the producer’s wife from the gym at 7:00 in the morning and other such glamorous tasks. I worked as an assistant at Jerry Bruckheimer on the films "Armageddon," Enemy of the State" and "Con Air." Then I moved to MGM as an assistant, and became story editor, executive story editor and now Director of Creative Affairs.

Sheila: I started out acting as a kid in Michigan and grew up as a theater geek. I had the pleasure of working at Steppenwolf Theater after my junior year in college and the person who came in to direct the play was Garry Marshall.  He had written the play, WRONG TURN AT LUNGFISH, with Lowell Ganz, who had written "Parenthood," "Night Shift" and "Splash."  So for me I had this amazing summer of learning comedy writing from Hollywood people, as well as having a chance to do a play every night at one of the most esteemed companies in the world. I had been hired to be a basic summer intern, but when I heard Garry and Lowell talking about needing a writer’s assistant, my ears perked up. I basically lied my way into being an assistant of that caliber because I had no idea what I was doing, I just said I did and then ran home and read every book I could. [laughs] Script changes with the colored pages and the asterisks and all that? Who knows how to do that until you take a script supervisor class? No, I lied. When the play closed I stayed in touch with Garry Marshall, and after I graduated college they decided to do the play out here in Los Angeles. He brought me out and hired me again to be his writer’s assistant and this time I knew what I was doing, so I had time during the day to read feature scripts being offered to him to direct. I learned plenty about screenwriting with the volume of material he was offered. One day Garry told me they were taking the play to New York and I realized I actually preferred Los Angeles and features. As a way to learn about movies, I went to work for a line producer based on the Paramount lot, and did a whole bunch of small films with him and really got a handle on how to make movies. He was old school – did everything from optioning properties to budgeting to 2nd unit directing.  From him, I learned how to be a producer and work with writers. Then I landed at the Zucker Brothers and did a whole bunch of stuff with them during their "My Best Friend’s Wedding" era. And Zide/Perry I basically brainwashed into hiring me. [laughs] A week after I interviewed with them I had the job, and that’s been alomst six years now.

Stephanie: In college, I was an assistant director on a play called “Amazing Grace” that Michael Cristofer wrote and directed and starred Marsha Mason. It was two Hollywood people at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, which is also a great regional theater. So it was like Hollywood coming to Pittsburgh. I thought, “Oh, they’re normal, they’re not the crazy people I thought they’d be. They’re passionate artists, they’re incredibly talented, they’re lovely to work with – and they can buy dinner for everyone because they work in Hollywood!” [laughs]

Sheila: It’s true. Theatre was a good way to get your toe in the water. You hear these stories about “I was an abused P.A.” but this was a baby step in, to help you be more confident that you could handle it. And they treat you like a normal person.

You both have a theater background.  How do you feel that that helped you or transferred skill-wise to your current jobs?

Stephanie: For me, I think I learned about creative problem solving in theater. You have no money but yet you still have to figure out how you’re going to put up a show. Those base skills translate to film. You’re always trying to tell the same story for less money, so that sort of creative problem solving always helps. Another similarity is the collaboration with different creative personalities and how you’re always working together to tell the same compelling story.

Sheila: We both had to read so many plays, we have basic story structure in our metabolism.

Stephanie, you are with a major studio and Sheila you’re with a production company. How do the two of you work together from your respective ends of the industry?

Sheila: The easiest way to describe my job as a producer is as a scout for a sports team. My job is to find the best pitcher or outfielder – but it’s a script – the best script I can find. Then I figure out which studio is the best home for that script. Every studio has a trend of what they’re good at making or what they are more inclined to make. Warner Brothers makes far different movies than New Line, for example. So as a producer, I go out and hunt for great scripts, then when I find something I really like and I know I can make, I think “Wow, this would find a great home at MGM, I should go call an executive over there that I have a relationship with.” Then I cross my fingers and hope not only  that they like it, but that they have a vision for it and they have the money to buy it. It’s a lot of hurdles to get over, which I don’t think a lot of writers realize when they’re sitting down to write their script.

Stephanie: I spend my day mostly getting calls from producers, agents and managers who all have something that they would like to sell. MGM gets approximately 4,000 scripts per year and about 500 of those come through my office. I read as a many as I can, but certainly not all 500. So if someone like Sheila calls – we’ve worked together on other projects, I trust her taste and know she’s not going to send something that’s garbage - then I’ll read the script. If it’s something that I like, I’ll take it to one of my bosses and tell them why I think they should read it or why we should buy it. And hopefully, they’ll read it and or say “Yes, that’s a good commercial idea. You think the writing is good? Yes? Okay, go buy it.” And then we’ll do our best to get it made, but that’s another mountain of hurdles of to get over.

Sheila: The two of us, as producer and a studio exec, really team up on that mountain of hurdles and how can we best combat those. So this goes back to the writer. Their job is to write scripts, sure, but their odds of success increase if they craft one that makes our job simpler. Write us a script that more than one actor can play the lead in. Write a script that if you had to you could it make for $10 million versus the $50 million version. Write a script that you can actually guarantee overseas box office, which now is about 60% of a movie’s total revenue. Do that when you start writing, because its what we think about when we start reading, so when I collaborate with someone like Stephanie, we don’t have to worry about those hurdles as much.

Stephanie: It’s hard, I know, from a writer’s perspective; you think “Well, I want to write my 1950’s abortion drama or my grandfather’s story of inventing the wrench, that’s what I want to write.” And that’s okay, if your goal is just to do your own thing, and make it with your own money. But if your goal is to make a commercial studio movie, realize that there are so few of those movies that actually get made. Look at the top ten movies at the box office this weekend: what kind of movies are they, and is your script somewhere in the world of those movies?

Sheila: One thing you could do, if you wanted to be a little strategic is to take five minutes to boil down what the movie is about. So your 1950’s abortion movie could be boiled down to “a woman’s struggle to take control of her life.” That’s a thematic journey. You could come up with a movie set in 2004 in which twenty different actresses could play the role of a woman struggling to take control of her life without an abortion plot! As an artist you could maybe feel pretty satisfied writing that version, but you’ve now just increased your odds 100% in getting it made. That’s one things I try to help writers realize, that there are ways to meet in the middle and still feel satisfied creatively but also have the other benefits that come with making a studio release.

Stephanie, you mentioned the percentage of scripts you read vs. what actually get purchased. What would you say is the percentage of purchased scripts that actually go into production?

Stephanie: Well, let’s start big picture. Last year, over 45,000 scripts were registered with the Writer’s Guild. Now obviously, there are many more thousands of them that aren’t even registered, but we’ll start with that terrifying statistic. [laughs] Let’s say, roughly, there are 10,000 scripts that are agented and have a legitimate chance of being purchased.

Then, from that, MGM got 4,000. Of those, I would say we purchase between 15-20 per year. And we have a development to production ratio of 10:1. So for ten of the scripts we buy, one gets produced.

Sheila: Which is really good for a studio!

Stephanie: It’s excellent for a studio. Most other studios buy a lot more material than they make.  MGM is considered a “mini-major”.  So we purchase less, but hopefully are strategic in what we buy.

Sheila: It’s close to 35:1 at Warner Brothers, I think. Big difference. So get into business with MGM! [laughs]

Sheila, what are some of the things that you look for when you pick up a new spec that just came in?

Sheila:  My mental checklist is: does this deliver in its genre so that fans feel that they got what they paid for? As a side note, I encourage writers to become an expert on the genre they are writing. That doesn’t mean watching five films, that means watching forty. And watch the bad ones, so you can then know what they goofed up on and avoid their mistakes. I also ask myself: Is this really a full-on movie, or is it just a set-up or premise? Can it sustain someone’s interest for 90 minutes? Is there an inherent poster and is it the same poster that can be used in Ohio as in China and in Paraguay?  Is it going to be easily castable? Are there a number of buyers, meaning studios, who would actually make this? Who are possible directors? I mean, I’d love to work with somebody unique like an Alexander Payne, but I also don’t want to be waiting in line five years before he’s available. I want to be sure that there are a handful of directors out there, available now, who studios all love who can do it.  I ask myself these things with every script I read.

And after you finish reading it?

Sheila: Immediately after reading it, I ask: can I envision 5 or 6 great moments that would make an awesome trailer, that I could sell to any marketing department at any studio? And more importantly, I look at it and say, “How different is it from similar movies that have already been made?” I need to look at all the competitive projects both already made and already in development at studios. Stephanie and I know every single project out there that could potentially be conflicting. So I might read a great spec that has a terrific voice with interesting characters, but if there are four of these already setup, and they’re further ahead in line. That makes it hard.

Stephanie, from your end, what factors help propel those scripts that you have purchased towards finally getting produced?

Stephanie: There are so many different factors. Certainly, if there are high profile cast attachments, or a director already attached, that makes a huge difference. It’s really helpful if the producer is effective at packaging and getting the attention of the senior management at the studio which helps move the project forward.  Trends can also factor into the decision-making.  There’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking around town that can help or hinder a project.  Based on “Oh look, this movie, a project that’s of a similar tone, made this much money at the box office. Girl movies are doing great these days,” or “Horror movies are doing great these days…” or insert whatever genre you want. That can help -- or it can also kill a development project if three movies of a similar genre have been released and they’ve all tanked.  It’s going to be a lot harder to convince senior management that if we have a certain amount of money to spend in a year that we really need to take a big chunk of it and invest it in THIS project versus another one where there seems to be more potential for success. Because it really is a business and we’re sort of like venture capitalists investing in a number of different new companies. You hope that if one of them is a wild success, it will pay for the rest of them, or you hope that you have a couple doubles and triples and one home run, and you’re fine. But if you just have singles or less and they all tank, then you’re out of business.

Before you get specs, you get queries. What would you look for in a query that would interest you in requesting the script?

Sheila: This is a good time to put the caveat out there that every company operates differently, and every studio and executive has their own tastes and boundaries. This is what I need, and some other producer could give an entirely different answer. Short is best. I don’t need two pages about why you wrote the script or where you grew up, unless it’s entirely pertinent to the script. I got a really great letter from a guy who in real life really was a fireman. So that made sense to me then when I read the logline about a fireman, and I thought, wow, he probably brings something really interesting to the table. But in general, you just need to say, “Hi, my name is Sue, and I have a story about a blah-blah-blah. If this sounds interesting to you, here’s how you can reach me.”  Don’t forget, I get probably about 200 a week, so I don’t have time to read your two pages. To me, it’s all about the logline, because again I have to sell it to Stephanie, and she’s getting 200 of me a week! [laughs] So I have to be able to sell it short and sweet, and if you’ve done your homework by really taking the time to craft a great logline, that’s done 50% of my job already.

Stephanie: And the great loglines get to the core concept of “how would I sell this movie in a 30 second commercial?” Because this is a business, and we make money by convincing people to spend their $10-12 on this movie versus everything else out there at the box office. So how is this movie going to translate into a compelling 30-second commercial? It’s hard to hear, I know, from an artistic standpoint, but that is the reality of the commercial studio business.

Sheila: Truthfully, I think that when a lot of writers hear that you have to boil it down to a logline, they immediately say “I can’t turn mine into logline, there’s too much in it that’s important.” But I would challenge you to rise to the occasion!  If you take some of the most interesting, amazing, artistically gratifying projects out there, I guarantee you that a writer somewhere along the line turned it into a logline. A reader at an agency turned it into a logline when the script went out to directors and cast.  So, give them your good logline instead of one a random reader invents.

Stephanie; Or look at the movies you love, and guess what, there were commercials made for Amelie, for L.A. Confidential, for—

Sheila: "American Beauty."

Stephanie: Absolutely, and how did they sell that movie? So that you can see how it’s done. And I’m not only talking about movies like "Liar, Liar" or "Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London," which was one of my projects. I don’t think that many writers set out to write that. If you do, fabulous, you’ll probably have a great career. [laughs]

Sheila: We need you!

Stephanie: But you need to look to the masters of storytelling. The people who are very successful are very savvy about the business, so they can protect their vision. They understand that’s what needs to happen at the end of the day.

Sheila: If you’re having a really hard time turning yours into the 30-second commercial, one of my favorite tricks that I highly recommend is to stop trying to do the plot. Just take a moment and say, “This is a story about—“ and then fill in the blanks. Is it a story about redemption? Is it about trust? Is it about true love? I know how to sell “redemption” in 30 seconds. I know how to sell “true love” in 30 seconds.  That might help you figure out how to get into describing your movie.

How would you advise writers to approach the artistic vs. the commercial when starting a new project?

Stephanie: My advice is to think about the desired outcome. What is your goal? What would make you happy at the end of the day? It may be that I write to page 110. That is a huge accomplishment to write a script from page 1 to page 110.  Or, it’s that I get the movie optioned, or get an agent off the script. Or, if the goal is “I want this set up at a studio,” that’s a very different goal.

Sheila: Pick your goal and then work backwards from there. If you want to write a script that wins contests, that’s – in most cases - totally different than writing one that Brad Pitt will star in. Figure out what you want to accomplish with this particular script, and go from there.   And the whole “write what you know” thing does not mean to write about the divorce you just had, and all the heartache and sobbing and crying.  It means boil it down to a story in terms of theme, for instance, “I know what it’s like to be left behind by someone that I trusted and loved, and I also know what it’s like to get on with my life.” When you look at it that way, you’re hopefully going to write a more engaging story that you haven’t invested so much of your heart into, doesn’t follow every single detail of your experience.  Honestly, how often is what happens in real life really that interesting? Instead, take the premise and set it somewhere else, create new characters who have a parallel journey to yours, so the emotional impact is there but with a smarter balanced plot.  Then it becomes possible for someone else to see the full movie. Thematically write what you know, but not necessarily scene by scene, setting it in your own kitchen.

Stephanie: After talking to writers who I admire and asking what was it that inspired them to write the story, for each of the great scripts it’s something that they were so passionate about that they could not stop writing it. If you’re not that passionate about it, you may not be at the right idea yet.

Sheila: You haven’t found the movie yet.

Stephanie: You’re the expert on this world, you’re spending the most time with these characters, living and breathing with them. It has to be so compelling to you that it then translates to the producer, and then from the producer to me, and it’s still so compelling so that I can then pitch it to my boss, and they’re still compelled enough to want to buy the script.

Sheila: Sometimes I think writers are scared to throw stuff out and start over. A great example is, I know a guy who wrote a really funny script about a tennis player. It was hilarious. When I sat down and asked him about it, he said it had originally been about a swimmer. But the script wasn’t opening any doors and he realized that swimming isn’t funny or particularly dynamic. As much as he had the three act structure, and really interesting characters and a good arc, it just wasn’t engaging. As soon as he switched the sport – and honestly same story, in terms of plot – the jokes came, the story was heightened, and there you have it. Great script. So he was not afraid to throw out a major component of the story. And he struck gold when he did it.

Let’s talk about genres. Since you all see so many scripts, are there any particular things you see a lot that you don’t want to see any more of?

Sheila: This all changes year to year and season to season. Right now, everyone is pretty much saturated with mafia movies but no one is buying them because the Sopranos has already hit the apex. They do it better and more cheaply, and more importantly they’ve found the “millennium” version of the mafia. So mafia is really tired. Usually, twin movies are really tricky to do, because of the special effects. We see a huge number of angel/devil/heaven/hell movies – and they can be comedy, drama, soul-searching, you name we see it. So unless it’s really really special and you have some unique version of it, which – sorry – the odds are really slim, we’ve seen it. Anything that’s disease-related, the cancer, the AIDS, the Alzheimer’s, in general tends to make a good movie of the week. Unless you get a major star. "Lorenzo’s Oil" was a really well-crafted script. It became a movie-movie because they got Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte to do it. Otherwise it would have been a great, Emmy Award winning TV movie. The other thing we see a lot of is the horror hybrid genre. So it’s either vampires in the Old West or werewolves in the Far East. We see hundred of them. I can’t tell you how many vampires in the Old West I see! Tricky because of the rules for one genre are tough enough – splicing them is a challenge.  Then there’s the woman wronged, it’s always about some woman who everyone has mistreated and all the men in her life are horrible, and then some sort of magic spell or genie or whatever turns her dog into a man, and it’s the most loyal and loving relationship she’s ever had. I swear to god, we get two of those a month! [laughs] That’s this year. Four years ago, it was about a group of people at a bar who sing on Saturday night once a week, get discovered by a record label and become the new band of the month and you watch them skyrocket to fame and go through all the trials and tribulations. I got five of those a day, and everybody thought they had a brilliant take on it. Seven year ago it was wrestling movies.  So these come and go. Everyone swears their idea is unique.  The only thing that is usually unique is voice and storytelling – because we’ve seen most loglines.

Stephanie: The one you didn’t say was Jesus on Earth.

Sheila: Oh yeah! Jesus in modern day is the other one to avoid. We see that a lot.  Jesus in LA, Jesus in Paris, Jesus at McDonald’s. Oh, and the last one is anything about Hollywood and writers. Which hopefully people know.  Bottom line, the rest of the world does not find Hollywood as interesting as we do. The best example is "Bowfinger" with Eddie Murphy, one of the biggest stars in the world, Steve Martin, Heather Graham, a great line up, and Frank Oz directed. It really delivered, but wasn’t not a box office success.  Nobody thinks we’re as interesting as we do.

What about romantic comedies? What are you looking for in a romantic comedy? What are you worried about?

Sheila: Honestly, they’re almost impossible to get right. If you look at what sells in the trades, the smallest percentage of all scripts or pitches sold are romantic comedies.  First, of all it’s one of the trickiest genres. Second, castability. We’ve had a really hard time establishing a new generation of romantic comedy stars. So it’s getting harder and harder in terms of my job. There are about five women and five men and after that I can’t get the movie made. And third, I find that most people don’t understand the conventions of the genre. There’s a really big difference between the old-fashioned Hepburn and Tracy version, which is “They’re meant to be together but they fight the whole time” versus “They have to get over their own personal issues” which is really like a coming of age movie. Pretty Woman is a coming of age story where they both get over their issues and then they can be in love.  So, when people are pitching and say “I have a great romantic comedy,” seven out of ten times they don’t have a romantic comedy. One of the reasons romantic comedies are so difficult to write is that out of all the movies out there, we all know how it’s going to end. With a heist move, there could be an interesting twist. But romantic comedies are a guaranteed ending. So the problem is, the onus falls on the writer to make that second act so, so unique. Because we all know the third act. And that’s a really big challenge.

Stephanie: What is the unique hook that keeps these two characters apart?

Sheila: You all pay your ten dollars to ride the roller coaster, so how can you make your triple loop better than the one at Six Flags?

Stephanie: And when you say romantic comedy, I think, oh gosh, those five actors and actresses who can star in romantic comedies have already done them and don’t want to again. They want to do something else. So it is really hard to convince them to do another romantic comedy. I have a couple romantic comedy scripts that I love, they’re really well regarded around town and the writers have phenomenal careers, but we can’t get the movie made because those five people all say “I don’t want to do another romantic comedy” and there isn’t someone else that we’re willing to bank on at this point to get the move made.

Sheila: Which is why so few sell, because the people with the checkbooks figured all these problems out.

Stephanie: And there is a backlog of well written romantic comedies that studios have spent money on. The prospects aren’t good that we’re going to spend money on something new when we already have something similar that we’ve invested money and time into and is already moving forward.

So the $20,000 question for a lot of writers always is, why do so many bad movies get made?

Stephanie: There are a million reasons why movies turn out badly, but no one sets out to make a bad movie initially. Any investment that has so much money at stake has a lot of people who want to protect their investment. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen and like any decision that’s made by committee, unfortunately, a lot of times the result lacks a cohesive point of view. There are so many people involved in the decision making it waters down what could have been really compelling at the start. It’s unfortunate but that’s a reality of the business.

What are some of those circumstances that can happen? Say, a great spec script comes in, and what happens?

Stephanie: I certainly look back at movies I’ve worked on or other movies too, and say, okay, where did this movie go so wrong? This had such potential at the beginning, what was the decision that did it? It could be a casting decision, it could be the hiring of the director, it could be a writer, it could be we didn’t allocate enough money to make the movie the way it should have been made, or it could be we spent too much and the box office was never going to justify the budget.  A phrase that is often quoted is “This isn’t the butter and egg business.”

Sheila: Sometimes it’s getting the guys upstairs to agree to make a movie, which means, I’m looking at the line up of the next ten movies that my studio is going to release, and they’ve made it clear they absolutely have to have a romantic comedy for next summer. So I look at this one, figure: it’s close, it’s not fabulous yet but it’s the closest, but some pretty decent actress read it recently and I’m pretty sure we could get her, which means the guys upstairs will pay attention.  Then I’ll have delivered a movie and helped move the system along.

Stephanie: And also, two plus two does not always equal four. There is a subjective chemistry involved in making movies. A lot of it is your gut and if you’re the decision maker, you just have to say okay, we’re going to make this leap. Because if we all knew what a hit movie was, then studios would only make hit movies.

Sheila: Don’t forget, we spend months and months getting a draft in place, just so the studio will say, “Now we’re willing to knock on the door of a director or an actor’s agent.” And if you get that director or actor, they have ideas, and suddenly you’re back at square one, and you have to start all over in making a script that they like but still keep the guys upstairs happy, which is a really delicate ballet. It can take three or four years to get everyone involved to all agree that it works well enough that they want to move forward.

Stephanie:  There could have been a complete management change or different executives have come into the studio or new producers were added to the project.  There is so much turnover in this business, and that can have a huge effect on where your project is and its priority within the studio.

One of the things that’s frustrating for writers is we hear that Hollywood is looking for unique voices and scripts that really stand out, but then at the end of the process what comes out is something that often feels fairly run of the mill and generic.

Sheila: You’re not wrong, in that what writers are hearing that we need, sometimes it doesn’t feel like that’s what we’re actually ending up with. But it goes back to what Stephanie said, which is by the time the committee is finished, that unique voice and storytelling sense that got our attention originally and got that script noticed may ultimately have been diluted a little bit. But at the end of the day, our memory of that great voice is what kept our enthusiasm and passion going and is what kept that writer and script in the game.  Think of it this way: at least you have a finished film to go see and compare to an earlier draft, versus all the writers who have neglected scripts sitting on shelves somewhere without a finished film to measure it against.

Stephanie: And it’s always great if your script was made into a movie that made a lot of money, but if your script was great and the movie didn’t do well, people in the business understand that it’s not within the writer’s control whether the movie turns out good or not. So, you can still have a really successful career. People remember these were the original writers on that spec script. People read the original and that’s how they’re determining if they’re going to hire you for a rewrite or another job or buy your spec.

Sheila: I can definitely say I’ve had meetings with writers who own amazing houses up in the hills, who send their kids to private school and have a great life, who have never had their name on screen because their movies have never gotten made. They would still like to see them made, but it doesn’t change their world. They’ve just figured out another way to go about surviving in Hollywood.

So are there personal projects that you hope to see made one day?

Stephanie: Oh, there are so many! [laughs]

Sheila: Too many!

Stephanie: To choose one, one that I really hope gets made, is a script based on the book "Bringing Down the House," by Ben Mezrich, which has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 47 weeks at this point. Kevin Spacey’s company, TriggerStreet, is producing and Kevin is going to play one of the characters. It’s taking a bit longer than I thought it would to get to the screen, but we’re getting closer!

Did that come in as a script? Or is it a property?

Stephanie: I actually chased it down because I had heard the story and thought it was a good idea for a movie. It’s a true story of six M.I.T. students who came up with a card-counting system to win at blackjack. And I thought, that is a movie that I want to see! I’m intrigued by that story. So I chased down an article in Wired magazine and found out who was representing it, which was Matt Snyder at CAA.  I called him and made my plea of why he should submit it to me – this was before the book was published when they were going out with the manuscript. And he said, “Honestly, we are sending it to studios soon but we decided not to send it to MGM because you are an affiliated business of MGM Grand casino, and the casino business is not flatteringly depicted in the book.” I got mad and made a case to Matt and my bosses at MGM about why we should get it and buy it. Initially, they were a bit concerned, honestly, but they then saw the value and loved it.  Now they are really behind it.

What was the process of attaching a writer to the project?

Stephanie: That was an interesting process, because the book by that time was very popular.  We got a lot of in-coming calls and it’s fantastic to have agents calling and saying “My client really wants to write this.” We heard about ten takes from a whole gamut of writers, from people who hadn’t sold a movie up to very established writers. In the end, we hired Peter Steinfeld who is one of my all-time favorite writers. He also wrote "Be Cool," which is the sequel to "Get Shorty" that Elizabeth Cantillon (Executive VP at MGM) and I are working on. We had a really fantastic experience with him because he is so hard-working, so collaborative, has a great attitude, and has a fantastic voice.  Those factors certainly played into our decision of who we were going to hire.

And Sheila, do you have an example of a project you’re championing?

Sheila: I’ll put this out here now so that maybe the forces in the universe will generate good will about it. [laughs] And this will show writers that even producers dare to dream, because I have a 1972 women’s sports movie, which couldn’t be more against the rules of what not to get in business on. True story of the first year that Title 9 went into effect, which meant that women’s sports had to be treated equally. The very first team to win the NCAA women’s basketball title that year was a teeny, tiny Catholic women’s college outside of Philadelphia named Immaculata. So basically these girls had to work together with the nuns, they didn’t even have a gym, they had to work out in the nun’s practice room. And they did things like sell toothbrushes door to door so these girls could raise money to pay to go to all the games they needed to go to. And not only did they win the entire conference but they ended up playing in Madison Square Garden. It’s a true “Hoosiers” type of feel-good movie. And going through my mental checklist, I know what the trailer is, I know what the poster is, and I already know there are fifteen girls out there who could be my starting line up. So I would love to see that made.

Any last thoughts for the writers out there?

Stephanie: To give writers a sense of what it’s alike on the “other side of the desk;” sometimes I look at my job as if I was in housing development instead of script development. I have been given a budget to find an architect to build a house. (The writer being the architect on the movie.) Am I more likely to hire the architect that built my house and did a beautiful job, or my best friend’s house, or one of my co-worker’s houses, where I can see the evidence, we had a great working relationship, they had a great attitude through the process and we collaborated really well? Or am I more likely to hire an architect from the Internet, who sends me an email that says “I’m the most talented architect in the world?” Now that person may be a brilliant architect and there are gems out there in school that haven’t been discovered yet. But it is a business, and if you’re hiring an architect you’re probably more likely to go with someone you’ve worked with and who has established credit in the business already.

Sheila; Going off that, most writers are artists and their goal is to sit and write all day long. So I beg all of them to remember that this is a business, and even though they loathe it, they need to capitalize on it. A lot of it is about relationships, about people knowing you and knowing your reputation, and having the integrity. That’s where going to the mixers and getting to know people and taking advantage of your college alumni relationships, every little bit does help. Even though you’re inclined to sit at your keyboard and be a hermit, you need to be a businessperson a little bit, because that’s really what will generate the doors that will open. Good word of mouth in this business takes you really, really far.

Stephanie: You are the entrepreneur of your own career.

Sheila: And the writers that I know who have done really well in this business who started from scratch without any connections don’t dwell on what’s current and what’s in the trades right now. My best advice is, honestly, move to the beach, don’t read the trades, and just write. Read all the samples you can, read contest winners, but don’t dwell on the trades. Just write. Write as much as you can.

[Update 9/23/05: Stephanie Palmer as opened a new service called Good in a Room, which teaches creative professionals (primarily screenwriters, directors and producers) how to present themselves and their ideas so their projects get purchased and produced.]

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Chris Leeder is a recent graduate of the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. His scripts have placed as a 2003 Chesterfield semifinalist and Fade In semifinalist, and as a 2002 Scriptapalooza finalist. He is also an award-winning playwright. He lives in Los Angeles.

 


 

 

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