Robert Kosberg graduated from UCLA film school. He has executive produced, produced or co-produced numerous feature films including TWELVE MONKEYS, COMMANDO, MAN'S BEST FRIEND, and ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT. In the past, Kosberg has worked with many of the top film producers, companies and studios including Fox, Sony, Columbia, New Line, Dreamworks, Disney, Paramount Pictures, Guber-Peters, Neufeld-Rehme, and Constantin. Currently, he is based at Nash Entertainment.
Where did your interest in film come from?
Like a lot of people, I grew up liking movies. I knew I’d be going to college at some point and film school is an obvious choice for anyone who loves movies. UCLA was in California. It was either USC or UCLA, and I ended up going to UCLA film school.
After graduating UCLA film school, the next big step is of course is trying to figure out how to take advantage of what you just learned and get a job. I wanted to be a screenwriter.
So at UCLA, you studied screenwriting?
Yes. It was a two-year program, specifically, where you were allowed to choose between the kind of major that would allow you to learn how to use a camera and make a movie or be more of a screenwriter. I chose the writing program.
That led me into thinking that I might want to be a screenwriter full time when I graduated college. There was only one problem: How do you make a living at that? [Laughs]
You wrote a few scripts then, while there?
Oh, sure. That was one of the requirements. Every ten weeks, turn in another script. But again, once you graduate it doesn’t matter if you can’t sell those scripts you wrote. You’re starting out at zero. And you’ve got to go get a job.
I started getting jobs in the film industry, but not as a writer. Any kind of job I could get to pay the rent. So you become an assistant to someone in public relations or an assistant to an agent. I was an assistant to a talent manager.
And in a lot of those jobs I was being asked to read scripts. While I was bouncing around in all these different fringe jobs, what I was really learning was what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be a manager. I didn’t want to be an agent. I kept bouncing from job to job.
Finally I found myself in New York, after five or six years of bouncing around after college, working for a producer. He had just signed a deal with a European director so I was working at Warner Bros. where they had their deal.
I was sitting there at a desk with a phone. Suddenly almost by osmosis, you start to realize you can be a producer if you call yourself a producer. It’s just working hard and finding material and packaging it, then going out trying to sell it. But if you have a good eye for material or if you can create some of your own material, that gives you a little bit of an advantage. Suddenly you have an inventory of material, which I had been accumulating incidentally over those seven years of bouncing around.
I had this list of ideas, newspaper articles, magazine articles, treatments, friends bringing me ideas, etc. I left the job in New York and came back to Los Angeles. By hook or by crook, you meet someone who knows agents, and even though I wasn’t convinced I could be a screenwriter at that point, I had all these ideas.
It was a time in the late 80s and early 90s, when pitching was easier than it is today. I started getting meetings to pitch some of these ideas that I had been writing down on a piece of paper.
Who got you these meetings? And whom were you meeting with?
What happened was I took the newspaper article that I thought was the strongest, and through a friend who knew someone at the William Morris Agency, I got that article to a specific agent. That agent called me up and said, you have a really good article here; we have some other producers and some other writers that we can introduce you to.
They weren’t interested in representing me, but the material I had was interesting to the agency. Even though I had no value at that point to them, the material that I had acquired and the ideas that I had found made me attractive to this agent, because he could then take my material and show it to his people. Otherwise, why would he bother talking to me? He has his own clients.
But by introducing me to people, I became partners with two other producers. I remember they took me to lunch in Hollywood at some restaurant and I was very excited. Suddenly I had a contract that said if we sold this particular project to a studio they would pay me and I would be making a reasonable amount of money.
I realized, wait a second. I just made a deal with the William Morris Agency and some Hollywood producers, and all it took was cutting out an article in a newspaper.
For those who aren’t familiar with this whole process, what did this entail? You can’t just cut an article out of the paper and shop it around.
I saw this article in the New York Times sports section. It hadn’t gotten a lot of publicity – it’s harder to "cut out" headline stories. It was a feature story about a kid who graduated college then went back to high school. For a year he pretended to be a high school senior.
Right away, even with my limited knowledge at that time, I thought this was what they would call a high concept; because most people don’t graduate college then go back to high school. Most people don’t impersonate kids or pretend to be high school seniors. But this was sexy, because he wanted to go back and date a pretty girl. It was also sports oriented because he became a top gymnast. Of course, he was doing it all under the disguise of being a high school kid, but that made it funny.
I picked up the phone and called the reporter who wrote the article for this Wichita, Kansas newspaper and asked if he could get me a phone number of the actual person who had gone back to high school. Then I called the guy up. I said I worked at Warner Bros. in New York – I kind of inflated myself a little bit. But I was working for a production company. I asked, can I pay you $500 – some small sum of money – to option the rights for six months and see if I can set this up as a movie project?
I didn’t have a lot of money. I didn’t offer to pay him thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I just optioned it for the least amount of money and said we’ll negotiate if we sell it. That way I could have the studio pay him, and not me – the studio has the money. And from his point of view, it gave him a chance to ask for maybe a hundred thousand dollars. I was just someone, in a sense, becoming his partner, his ally, because I was coming to California to try to sell his story. He wasn’t going to be able to do that sitting in Kansas. He agreed.
I sent him a letter. I had a lawyer prepare it. I was a very simple document that said I would have the rights for $500 for six months to shop his idea.
So one of the key things writers (and even producers) can take from this is that you didn’t have to go to the New York Times to negotiate with some big wig, or even the writer of the article, to get permission or the life rights to do this story.
Yes. It was just a story I read about in the paper. I found out how to locate the person who was written about, and got him on the phone. Oftentimes you read a story in the newspaper, and you assume incorrectly that there is no way ever you could get the rights. That, number one, it would be too expensive or number two you’re competing against too many other big people. The truth was, no one had even called him.
I was in no competition. Most people who have a story written about them in the paper are thrilled when someone from Hollywood or New York calls. You make a very small deal, and then you own something as a producer. Then you go out and pitch it. That’s all that happened to me.
And that’s what got me started in Hollywood – selling the rights to that project to MGM. A writer was hired, and I was attached as a producer. But now I was in the game. Now I could go back to William Morris and I could pitch more of my ideas to the studios. And I could say, I’m a producer and I have this project in development at MGM. This is the article it was based on. People start to look at you differently and say, "Oh he’s a real person with a real sense of commercial ideas. Maybe we should listen to some of his other projects." This is kind of what got me into the industry on a daily basis where I could make a living.
I had a writing partner by that point named David Simon. He was living in New York, and we had met when I was there. He flew out to LA thinking, "Wow, this looks easy, Bob just took this newspaper article and sold it. I should come out to LA too, and both of us can struggle." But what we had at the time was youth and energy, and between the two of us, lots and lots of ideas. Pitching was easier then. Selling ideas was easier then. And between the two of us, we started going around town. We were the new kids on the block with lots of high-concept ideas. Within a year, not only had we sold five or six, but we had been offered by Disney the opportunity to come over and work at a studio under a first-look arrangement. That was all in the first year.
Since that time, I’ve never not had an overall studio deal, probably based on one thing… and that’s getting a reputation for being able to create or find good high-concept material.
So from there, you did what?
While I was at Disney I wrote a couple of scripts, co-writing. My partner and I went in different directions, because he wanted to write full time and I was enjoying finding material and packaging it and not necessarily being attached as a screenwriter. I knew that if I found a good idea, I’d have an even better chance of getting it made if I attached an A-level screenwriter. Even though I thought I was good, I knew there were other people who were better and hotter.
And so when the deal ended at Disney, I went to my lawyer. I had a terrific lawyer at the time, Peter Benedict, who’s now at UTA. Peter said, "Look, if you’re not going to be a screenwriter full time, we need to get you a job at a studio where you can get your rent paid." I went backwards. I thought, how am I going to make a living?
When you are writing scripts, like the Disney deal I had, you’re getting paid. You can live on that for a year or two. But now I was going to tell studios I wasn’t a writer anymore but I have all these great ideas. He [Benedict] was the one who was able to structure these overall deals by getting me onto a studio lot under first-look arrangements where they would pay me an advance.
From that point forward I made those kinds of deals for the next fifteen years, where I’d stay at a studio for three or four years at a time just giving them a first look at all my material. And if they passed, I could still pitch ideas all around town. In any given year I’d be based at Paramount or Warner Bros. or Universal, I’d be developing feature projects for them, but I’d also be developing lots of projects that they passed on at all the other studios. But I had a base. That was the key thing I learned: Don’t give up your day job – don’t give up security.
If you are going to be a screenwriter, that’s great; [but] even then you are gambling, you need to have some job to pay your rent. But for me, I was giving up writing screenplays, so I needed to find a way to generate some income. I found it through this odd career, this odd niche, that Peter Benedict helped direct me into, which was becoming a quasi-writer/producer under a studio deal, that would allow me to bring them material, and in return they would give me some kind of advanced payment that would allow me to function. That worked out great, but it’s not the kind of deal that was available very often then and even less now. Studios [nowadays] tend to give you these first-look deals when they want you because you are already really hot, whereas when I was doing it, you could get a deal like that just based on having good material. It should be that way; the studio should want you because of all your great material. But the money is much tighter, development is much tighter, so there are less of those wonderful jobs.
When I used to tell people I had a job at a studio and they asked what I did, I would tell them I bring the studio my ideas. And they would always look at me like, "How did you ever get that job?" It was a dream job. I’ve gotten spoiled, because over the years I’ve put together a lot of features, television movies, series, and reality shows but it all comes back to what I’ve been able to do from the beginning, and that’s interest people in ideas.
You worked for a few years at Guber-Peters. What was your role there? That was a little different, since it was their company and not yours, yes?
Not really, because the good news was, Peter Guber in particular has always been fascinated with people who have good ideas. And he talks a lot about it – even on his TV show he says, "It’s all about the idea!" And he knew I was somebody who had a reputation. So I was just partnering with them because that would give me more political clout. If I brought Guber-Peters an idea, they had the ability to attract bigger name writers. Then we would go into the studio, because they still had to pitch as producers the same way I did. Only now my idea was being brought in to a studio under a bigger production company auspices. Today it would be like partnering with Jerry Bruckheimer. It just makes your ideas seem more exciting to the studio. The ideas are the ideas, but it’s always interesting to see how much more excited a studio is based on who brings them in.
In a perfect world it shouldn’t matter who brings them in, but everyone is affected by other people’s success, and Guber-Peters had huge clout. I was there during the "Batman" and "Rainman" regime, when they were as hot as anyone has ever been in Hollywood. While working there, I could I develop my own ideas, but I was also a VP of Development. I could still bring in ideas like I did most of the time, but I also read scripts, met with studio executives, and worked on other people’s screenplays. I functioned as a development executive, while also working as a producer. I had the lucky advantage that I could do both. The fact that I was pretty good at doing both jobs, I thought, was a good for my resume, because now I was moving up the ladder. I could be thought of by other companies as not just someone who wanted to come in and pitch but also as someone who could function as a development executive.
Then when I left Guber-Peters and went back to being more of an independent producer, it still always was an advantage to have had those years working as a development executive.
For people who don’t know, can you talk a little bit about what a development executive actually does?
The development executive’s job is to find good material, push it through the system, and hopefully help it get made. And you can find material and create material and work on material in a variety of ways. You can read things in newspapers or magazines. You can hear pitches that come in all day from writers like me. You can call agents all day long and have them submit scripts. Those tend to be the most traditional things development executives do. They work very closely with the community of agents and managers so that every time there’s a hot new script, they make sure the development executives at the company they’re working for are going to get that script, and that they as the development executives not only read it but shepherd it through the system and get credit for having found it. That helps them keep their jobs.
Then once they’ve sold it, they stay attached to the project as a development executive working with the writer, working with the studio executives trying to make the script better. And then of course when the writer inevitably gets fired, and they bring in three more writers, the development executive is still the link between the studio and the production company and keeps that project on track until it gets made. That’s what most development executives do most of the time.
I did it a little bit differently because I like to work with writers who have pitches more than just look for screenplays. Everyone is looking for screenplays. Just as I carved out a niche for myself as a producer who has a lot of good ideas, I hope, I also tried to carve out a niche for myself as a development executive willing to listen to almost anyone who had a good idea. That way I wouldn’t be in competition with every other studio executive and every other development executive who was reading the same screenplays and looking for the same screenplays I was.
It’s hard to find good scripts. It’s not quite as hard to find a good idea. It’s even hard to find a good idea, but at least there is a wide range of people from 12 years old to 75 years old who can pitch you a good idea. There is only a small group of people who can write screenplays – it’s a very small group.
What does your work with a writer on an idea entail?
It means that the writer comes into your office and tells you how he sees the story. And they begin to break the story down in the traditional way. You help form it into a traditional Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3 [structure].
Inevitably as that outline progresses, before it becomes a screenplay, there are numerous meetings just to discuss how to make Act 1 better, where are the problems that happen in Act 2, why isn’t the story making sense, how can it be better, does it need more action, does it need more comedy, do you want to eliminate certain characters, combine certain characters, and then how do you wrap up Act 3?
Finally, once you’ve had numerous meetings with the writer to feel like you’ve both got the story as perfectly outlined as it can be, the writer then goes off and takes the outline and sits by himself and writes the script.
Once he starts writing the script, he starts sending you pages. Maybe he sends pages after the first act or second act, but you start to get pages. Or maybe if they are a really well known writer, you trust them and they give you the script at the end of the process. But then you still, before giving it to the studio, work with the writer doing internal drafts of the script.
You read the script, and it’s never exactly what you thought it would be. So even though you outlined it with them and you thought you knew how Act 1 would work or where the problems were in Act 2, now you read the script and five more problems come up or suggestions pop into your head that you hope the writer will embrace. You argue with the writer. Sometimes they want to make changes; sometimes you want to make changes. You compromise. Eventually that first-draft script, based on that outline, is ready to go to the studio.
The studio reads it. They have notes. They call you in to a meeting with the writer, and again as the writer goes to address those notes in the next draft, they are back in your office working with you to discuss all the changes.
The development executive profile I’m describing is a constant, day-to-day working with the writer to discuss the story and to discuss the screenplay that everybody is trying to make as good as they can make it. It’s amazing with all this work, that there aren’t more good movies, but that’s how hard it is to get a good script and a good movie.
So writers need to know there will be a lot of fingerprints on any project?
Yes. The writers I know who are successful at the beginning of their career are the ones who are the most flexible and the ones who are the most willing to compromise. Still when you run up against producers and studio executives who are giving you terrible ideas and terrible notes, you don’t want to just role over and compromise with all these bad ideas that are going to ruin your story. You do have to fight, and argue, and discuss.
But generally speaking, since everyone wants to make the script as good as it can be, you can usually find a way to compromise. And the more you can be flexible and be known as a writer who is receptive to their ideas and can integrate their ideas and make them your own – and hopefully take their good ideas and do those, and listen to their bad ideas and not do those – your script will get better. You’ll get a reputation as being a writer who is cooperative.
If you are such an artist that you don’t want to change a single word, then most of the time you should be writing books or Broadway plays. Screenplays are collaborative. Movies are collaborative. People want to work with people in the movie business who are collaborative. So it’s very tough to be that 100% controlling "artiste" in the movie business, unless you are the writer–director. Even the writer–director has to deal with the studios.
So much of being out here is about networking, your being personable, and your listening to someone else. You have to get into a meeting and be lively and be willing to work with others as a team player.
Oh, yeah. If you’re talking about being a writer who just has to go in and pitch their idea… it’s a combination of, number one, having a great idea. Nothing works better than having a great idea. All the rest of it – how well you pitch, how personable you are, how cooperative you are, how passionate you are – all the clichés that everybody who does these interviews says are all true.
Which is why I try to come full circle and say you should listen to all those people and incorporate the best ideas. But if you can take one thing away from this interview, I would focus more on finding good ideas. It sounds obvious, but most people don’t spend as much time on that. They wake up from having a dream the night before and decide "That sounds like a good idea!" and then spend three months of their life writing it. Or they read something in the newspaper that inspires them, and they decide to write that. They don’t spend enough time being self-critical and really discussing [the idea] with people: their friends, people they can trust, agents and managers, anyone.
[Writers should] really spend time figuring out whether this is a good enough, commercial, clever, original, high-concept project that is worth their time. I think they should spend as much time evaluating the original idea , as they do writing the script, but most people don’t do that. I think most people don’t value or give enough attention to the original idea. It almost sounds too simple. A one-line idea, how valuable can that be? It’s almost in that category of "Oh, it’s just another idea." The truth is, if you come up with a really good one, it’s not just another idea.
So whom does that writer in Montana or North Carolina or Idaho talk to? And as a rule of thumb, when do you stop testing out your idea and start writing?
No matter where you live, you can talk to lots of people. Friends and family want to hear a good idea or good story. It’s sort of like sitting around a campfire; people want to hear a good idea well told. And if people are falling asleep, are bored or not interested, you’re going to find that out real fast.
I don’t think there’s ever a time when you shouldn’t be testing your idea on people you can trust among your own group of friends. Once you get to LA or New York and you really begin to work on stuff you believe in, then you’ll have certain confidants and your group of advisors becomes smaller. Maybe it’s an agent or manager you can run your idea by, or a couple of screenwriting friends.
But I don’t think it’s ever wrong to make sure as much as one can that you are really on to something, or is this just an idea that you like and nobody else seems to be responding to. If it’s the latter, you’re really going to be gambling with your time. I would think most of the time you should drop that idea. You can prove people wrong as there are always exceptions. But generally speaking, you want to get a consensus from people you trust that you’re on to something.
What actually happens, then, when someone calls you up and says, "Mr. Kosberg, I have this great idea"?
The best example is a woman I met who was from Ozark, Arkansas. She had heard or read that I was a producer in Los Angeles who was open to ideas. She called me up and asked if she could send me an idea that she had been thinking about. I said sure.
She ended up basically Xeroxing an article from a newspaper, just as I had done when I started out my career, dealing with a man who lived in the Statue of Liberty. I thought, boy, she’s found a terrific article featuring a very high concept… because most people have never heard about a man living in the Statue of Liberty. I called her back and said if this is a true story that we can actually document, I think I can help you sell it. I had nothing in writing with her. It was basically a situation in which I said, "If I can help you sell this, then we’ll negotiate a deal."
We weren’t going to option the true story; we were just going to make up our own. The story that existed in the newspaper wasn’t one that lent itself, as far as I was concerned, to a romantic comedy. So we decided that she would give me her permission, since she had turned me on to the basic area, to represent the two of us and try to sell the idea.
I pitched it after developing it a little bit further with her. We turned it into a few pages and it gradually became a story. We talked on the phone. She didn’t want to be a screenwriter, but she wanted to help me develop the story. Once we had the story, I now knew hot to pitch it a little bit better. Then I began to pitch it around town.
Eventually I found a manager who represented a writer I wanted to meet. Next, the three of us (the manager, the writer, and me) went to Working Title, and they agreed to buy the project. They hired the writer and the manager and I became producers. (BTW the writer was Ryan Murphy who has become very well known as the writer-producer of NIP AND TUCK.)
Before any of us made any money, I made sure to tell the company they couldn’t develop this project or hire the writer until they first paid the woman from Arkansas an amount to be agreed upon approximately ten or twenty thousand dollars (i.e. a good sum of money – just for the idea she had originally submitted to me.) And, we also made sure she would receive a story bonus payment, if the movie was ever made.
She got rewarded at the beginning of the deal, and she’ll be rewarded if the movie ever gets made. And that’s a typical example of what happens when someone contacts me. (That’s definitely a success story, because she wasn’t looking to be a screenwriter.)
Now someone else might call me with an idea and tell me upfront, "Bob, I’m going to tell you this idea, but I want to be attached as the writer." And that’s fine. As long as they tell me upfront, then I know that when I pitch the idea to a studio I have to tell them, "Here’s this good idea, it came from Joe Smith, and he is the writer." If the studio won’t agree to pay him to write it, then I can’t sell it without the writer’s permission.
Also, I’ll tell the writer that they [the studio] might not agree, and if they call me back and say they want to buy the idea but not hire you, what are we going to do? And they [the writer] usually give me a fallback position. It’s like, yes, pitch me as the writer, but if we can’t sell me as the writer, I will agree to sell the story, and maybe I will be an associate producer. But there are always backup positions. Most people who have an idea, if they are not full-time screenwriters, are open to making some money for their concept. If they can’t be the screenwriter, they often accept the money if it’s fair. [There are] a variety of other scenarios. It’s too detailed to go into, for this interview, all the various ways you can tie yourself to a project, but you can get paid for the story, you can get paid to write the screenplay, you can paid to be a co-producer, you can get paid to be a consultant, they can option or buy your story... There are dozens of ways to make money with an idea, and my goal as a producer and my niche as producer has been to find all these good ideas and to be very fair with the people who bring them to me so I don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
I think I have the reputation of being a very fair person who listens to ideas and tries to tell the person right from day one what their options are. I try to let the person who brings me the idea know that it’s almost impossible to tell them what an idea is worth. It could be worth $10,000 or $100,000. You can never tell how the Hollywood community will react to a specific project.
When writers bring me ideas, I say, look, the best thing for me to do is see if I can get this project out into the community, and we’ll find out what it is worth. It will rise and fall depending on how good of an idea it is. What if I get your idea to Tom Cruise? Does that make it a better idea? Well, sure! The studio will pay a lot more for it once Tom Cruise is attached. All these stars have production companies and I’m lucky to have access to all of them. I’ve accidentally created a career that now allows me into all these meetings with top writers, directors who have companies, stars who have companies, etc. That’s a lot of places that I can go with any one idea.
I can never tell someone what an idea is worth, it depends on who I get it to.
As a producer who doesn’t "bite the hand that feeds him," your approach is fairly atypical, then.
The problem with what I do is that it does require trust. The average person out there reading this who has no idea who I am is going to be very cynical and not have any trust – and I totally understand that. I can only explain that I’ve been doing this for so long now and that my reputation is good because I’ve never been sued and I’ve never been accused of taking anyone’s ideas. Because I have this kind of persona and reputation, the last thing I want is to do something that would ruin it.
If there was ever somebody people could trust with an idea, it’s me, because I make my living helping people sell their ideas. The people who maybe don’t do it full time or who they [writers] have never heard of before… yeah, you shouldn’t just send your idea to some P.O. box somewhere; to some producer you have never heard of, because you can definitely get ripped off.
The problem is, I can’t convince anyone they should trust me. There is no way I can prove to anyone that this system that I have devised actually works. I can just tell you that over the years I have sold probably hundreds of projects for hundreds of people, and everyone has been a "satisfied customer" because they have made money and gotten their careers going. And so have I. It’s important to note that I cannot negotiate my producing deal until you’re happy and satisfied with the deal the studio wants to make with you.
By the way, I want to make sure people know in this interview that I’m not doing this because I’m a such "nice guy"; I’m doing it because this is what helps me find good ideas, and the pie is definitely big enough to make it fair for everyone. So the person who brings me the material gets rewarded fairly, and then I make sure to say attached to the project as one of the producers. That way I am also rewarded fairly for what I did. I think it’s a win-win situation and no one has to be unfair to anyone.
Ultimately they can just say no and walk away, then.
Totally. It’s important that you raised that option. Every time I tell someone that I’m going to help them sell their idea, the first thing that I say to them is that eventually, by the time we get a studio interested, the studio will approach them with a contract that they’re going to be able to look at, they’re going to be able to show their lawyer, they’re going to be able to discuss.
If they think they are not getting enough money upfront, if they think they are somehow being taken advantage of, or this is unfair; or maybe they think the movie will someday become a television show and they want to make sure that if it does, they have to be negotiated with… Those are all fair things to be discussed. I always say, if you don’t think the deal is fair, don’t sign it. You won’t get your money, and I won’t be attached as a producer. And unfortunately we have to wave goodbye, because this project isn’t going forward. They can try to sell it to somebody else.
But generally speaking, I find people to be reasonable. I find the studios to be fair. Yes, you have to work your way up. The deals start out smaller at the beginning and get bigger as you move along with your career. You have to be willing to take less as a beginner. You can’t expect to become a millionaire overnight.
You read stories where someone writes a script and three studios bid on it and they make a million dollars. That happens, but the reason it’s been written about and gotten newspaper coverage is because it’s so rare. That’s not the normal way.
What happens to the idea, stories, etc. that don’t get set up? Do you ever go back to them?
I try to keep every idea that I like in the computer or in a file folder. Every now and then I’ll revisit the files or the computer list of good ideas. I have those ideas in almost a table of contents, with the name of the person and their phone number.
Let’s say I look at an idea that’s five years old, but I’ll pitch it today to a company that has never heard it before. So it doesn’t matter that it’s five years old, it’s still valuable. A project that I’m developing now with two writers looks like it will be optioned by DreamWorks, and it’s an idea that’s several years old. When I met with those writers, six months ago, I went through my files looking for projects I thought they might like. I pulled this one out because I still believed in it. It turns out, it looks like it’s going to move forward.
The point being, good ideas never die. They are always available to me, and there are always things I will be pitching intermittently. But the good ideas I keep on file are accessible to me, and I’m always interested in bringing them to people’s attention.
By the same token, if someone sends me an idea and I don’t sell it in a reasonable amount of time, and the person who brought it to me in the first place can take it away from me at any time. Since I’ve never optioned it, it’s always your idea to do with it what you want. Since I’m not usually paying any money for these ideas upfront, I have no exclusive option on them. I’m just doing the best I can for both of us. If I can’t sell it and the person wants to go off another direction, it’s totally okay.
So the good ideas remain active. Someone might say to me in the middle of a meeting, "I’m really dying to find a sci-fi thriller." Maybe I don’t have any sci-fi thrillers [with me at the moment], but I guarantee if I go back through my files I’ll find four or five that I remember liking, that never sold, and I’ll pull those out.
You’ll pull them out, touch them up a little, and go back in again?
Sure. Exactly. The first thing I do is contact the person that brought it to me and I say, "Guess what? The idea you brought to me five years ago just got attention!" Then I have to ask them the question I’m always nervous about, "Is it still available?"
They may have sold it. And that’s totally their right. Then I have to tell the people I was talking to, that the project is just not available.
Do you prefer working with ideas more than completed scripts?
Not at all. The problem with being known as an idea person is that then people love to categorize you. Now I’m known as the "pitch guy" or the "idea guy," because I have a reputation for pitching and I have reputation for creating & finding ideas. That’s great and I like it. What can be better than creating a good story, and then hopefully going all the way through the process and turning it into a movie. Ultimately you realize that you’re the one that started the whole process with just a simple idea.
But I also love to read. I love to discover good a script. Unfortunately, they are hard to find. I’m like most producers in town in the sense that I too am always looking for a good screenplay. The great thing about a script is that it’s much further along than an idea. If I could find lots of good scripts, I wouldn’t work on as many ideas. But because I believe I can work on more material and have a better chance of success by also cultivating the ideas, I like to keep my hands in both worlds.
But to answer your question, I definitely look for good scripts. I prefer that people send me a short synopsis of the script first so I know what it’s about before I read it. I like to read an idea or story first and see whether it appeals to me. If I read the idea or story or short treatment and it makes no sense to me, it’s very unlikely that I’m going to have my mind changed when I read the script.
Do you mostly hear from unknowns, then, or do you hear from established writers as well?
I hear from people across the board, from people who’ve never written anything to professional writers who come in and don’t want to write a script on spec. They want to team up with a producer like me and tell me their idea so we can go sell it to a studio and they can get paid to write that pitch into a screenplay. If they don’t pitch it to me, if they just go home and write, they can possibly make more money selling it as a spec script, but then they’re gambling. If they bring me the pitch and we go out and try to sell it, there’s no gamble. We find out if we can sell it very quickly, and if we can, they get paid immediately to write that script as opposed to sitting at home and gambling that maybe someone will buy that screenplay. So there is an advantage to pitching. You find out very quickly whether someone likes your idea or not.
So I enjoy the process of going into the studios and seeing if my instinct was right. Do I have a story that’s that good, that commercial, that exciting that the studio will say to us –before we leave the room, sometimes – "We’ve got to have that."
It’s hard to test yourself that way and say, "Is this that special of an idea?" Most ideas, like most scripts and most movies, aren’t that special. Most people think their ideas are more special than they are.
You get your pain over with?
Exactly! Also not only that, I don’t think a lot of people recognize the difference between a real high concept commercial idea and something that maybe they thought of the night before they think is really commercial. Then they find out after exploring it, it’s really not a high-concept idea, or it’s been done ten times already, or there are five projects around town like it. You have to find that stuff out.
How would you describe your typical day?
The majority of my day is spent either going over material that’s already in development – checking in with the writers and seeing how it’s going, or having meetings. That’s active development. I’m just doing the job the studios pay me to do, which is make sure I’m supervising the material that I sold them.
Then once I’ve done that, I begin looking through newspapers, magazines, the Internet, etc. to find new ideas – probably an hour or two every day. At some time or another I’ll be reading or watching television. It’s fun, but always I’m trying to look for new material.
I’ll be having pitch meetings where people come into my office and tell me stories. That happens almost every day or every other day. And almost every day I’ll have a pitch meeting scheduled, sometimes two or three in a day, where I’ll drive to the studios or to a production company. This is where I probably have the most fun because I’m trying to see if I can interest someone in a good story and a good pitch.
All the things that I’ve done, all day long, from supervising writers to meeting with writers, to scouring for material, has all led me right back to the same thing, which is now going back to the studios and trying to sell the material.
It’s a mixture of trying not to spend all day selling, all day looking for material, or all day supervising other material that I’ve already sold. I don’t want to spend all day on any one of those things.
How do you handle all the e-mails and faxes that come in each day (from aspiring writers)?
We’ve developed a system, because it’s too overwhelming if I spend all my time just dealing with the submissions. One of the things that is helpful about developing projects based on ideas is that you don’t have to read each idea everyday. You can have them e-mailed in and collect them. And then at the end of the week I can take all the e-mails that have come in and read through them. Some come into my office directly, some come in through a website that I have called MoviePitch.com, and some come in because people are sending them to me because they know me.
All those ideas accumulate. Usually by the end of a week I’ll have anywhere from 50 to 500. But they’re e-mails we have instructed people to write in a very formulaic summary style. I could never take home 50, 75, or 100 scripts. You couldn’t do it. But it’s not hard to take home 50 paragraphs and sit at home on a Saturday or Sunday and whip through them. By Monday I have a very short stack of maybe 3 or 4 of those 50 that I want to keep. These ideas become part of what I’d call a permanent file of "good ideas." I’m going to call those people back on Monday and say, "Guess what, I just read your idea – you may have submitted it to me a week or two ago, but I just read it – and I love it, and I want to work with you on it." And then the process begins.
They come in every week – week in and week out. These ideas in come every week from Alaska, Hawaii, Paris (France), Switzerland, all over the place. You never know where a good idea is going to come from.
What do you like to see in those query letters? What grabs your attention?
Number one, you want someone who is very clear and can summarize their concept succinctly. If it’s four or five pages and single-spaced, it’s very hard to force yourself to get through it. But if they can boil down their idea into just what it’s about, almost as simple as what you would put on a poster, then that will usually grab my attention.
Sometimes the person will put a title, then a poster line or tagline, because they understand that if I read their idea and I can understand how it might look on a poster, I can better understand how I’m going to pitch it.
There was a project I sold to New Line a long time ago, which is a good example of what I’m talking about. I was pitched a project about a genetically enhanced dog that got out of control. And because it got out of control, the dog basically became a monster. We walked in to New Line and said: "It’s ‘Jaws’ on paws!"
So if someone sent me an e-mail that said, "Bob, I want to do a story about a genetically enhanced dog, and the poster line read, ‘It’s Jaws on paws,’" I’m going to go to the next paragraph since "Jaws on paws" is so succinct and clever. Even though it’s a very glib, one-line advertising line, it does very cleverly make you say, "Oh, a monster on paws." It makes you understand exactly what the person is pitching.
A romantic comedy was pitched to me once where the writer said, "It’s a love story between a man who is afraid of everything and a woman who is afraid of nothing." That’s a wonderful also a wonderful advertising line, that grabbed my attention.
I’m not saying every submission needs that, but it’s a way to get people’s attention. If you are unable to get my attention with a poster line, then at least try to keep your idea story idea short and succinct.
When all is said and done, I like to ask people if they can describe their movie in a sentence or two? That’s hard to do.
So what things do writers include in queries that you don’t like? What are some of the no-no’s?
I get a lot of writers who try to tell you upfront why it’s so great, and there is no reason to do that. It’s pushy and it sounds silly. The writers who oversell are trying too hard. The best way to convince me and other producers is to let the good idea or concept speak for itself. If it’s typed on a computer and it’s clean and clear and easy to read, and you have your name and phone number, that’s what’s going to impress me. I’m going to look at the idea and I’m going to call the person back if I like it, because I do read everything.
If I see something that is succinct, to the point, and compelling as a commercial idea, it’s just like reading a good script – you don’t have to sell it. It speaks for itself because it’s good. Good ideas, good scripts, good anything stands out. Whenever we find something appealing, we get excited. We don’t need you to hype it.
There’s nothing wrong with saying, if you want, "I envision this as a Tom Hanks type of guy." Don’t tell me how much Tom Hanks is going to love it, though.
In terms of pitches, since you are always hearing them and giving them, what do you like to hear, and thus like to do in your own pitches?
The rules of thumb for a good pitch... Number one, you have to have a simple idea that is "pitchable." In other words, it’s more plot driven than it is character driven. It’s should be a plot you can put down in three acts, so that when you go into a room you can tell the story. The best pitches, to me, are stories that have a good setup, complications in the middle, and a conclusion at the end. We’re not reinventing the wheel when we do a good pitch. What’s going to make it stand out is how original and how outrageous the concept is right off the bat. When you tell me that the idea is about babies who can talk, I’m going to hear the three-act structure, but what’s going to be in the back of my mind is: this could be a really commercial idea because I’ve never heard of a movie about babies that can talk," a la "Looking Who’s Talking."
It’s like when Brian Grazer sold "Splash" and he said, "It’s going to be about a guy who meets a girl, but the girl’s a mermaid." Now he’s going to tell you the three-act story of how Tom Hanks meets Darryl Hannah, but the most important thing is the original concept.
Number two: It should be plot driven.
Number three, you should have a three-act pitch that you can tell succinctly so the listener gets in five minutes or less, maybe ten at the most, an understanding of the story. As you tell those three acts, yes you want to be passionate, yes you want to be enthusiastic – those things go without saying.
Then, the most important things to add to all this: Talk a little bit about the main character, but not a lot. Don’t give too much detail, because it slows down the pitch. Try to keep the story in most cases contemporary, because those are easier to sell. Keep them usually centered around relatable circumstances. Don’t make things too confusing. In other words, trying to describe a Martian environment is unnecessary if you just say the main character lives in Los Angeles and drives a car and goes to work everyday. It’s just easier to sell projects about regular people and then something unusual happens [to them].
Is there a theme? Yes, at the end of the [pitch] you probably want to say, "So by the time we come to the end of the story, what it’s all about is the following…." It’s nice to be able to introduce a theme to your story, because it makes the listener realize that your movie is about more than just a pitch they heard, it’s about "the triumph of the human spirit" [for example], which is a classic theme of many pitches. Whatever your theme is, it’s better to have one then not.
Last but not least, at the end, you should go back to summarizing one last time to give the listener a sense that even though he’s now listened to a five-minute pitch, he’s reminded that the whole thing can be boiled down to "A man can’t get a job, so puts on a dress and becomes a famous actress" – and that’s "Tootsie." "A man meets a girl and falls in love with her, but he has to tell her he’s been sleeping with her mother," which is the "Graduate."
Some of the most the famous movies can be boiled down to one line. It’s not that difficult and you can usually manage to do this with your own project. Force yourself to put your story into one or two sentences so you can repeat it back to the listener at the end of the pitch. Because when you leave the room, the listener won’t always remember that five-minute pitch, but they’ll usually remember the one sentence.
Also, it’s usually not better to leave them anything in writing – it doesn’t seem to help.
How do you practice for your pitches?
By the time I go into a meeting I’ve told the story – because I like it – to five, ten, maybe fifteen people, practicing my pitch as I tell it to them. By the time I pitch to the studio, I know the story in my mind and I’ve seen the movie in my mind. What’s important about that is that one of the things that makes a pitch really good are set pieces, trailer moments, things that you can visually picture. If you can picture scenes in your mind, as you pitch them, then you know the listener can also envision these scenes. It’s like describing a red Ferrari that goes off the cliff and crashes in a ball of flames. You can see it.
So I would make sure any project I have, whether it is a comedy or a thriller or an action movie, has three or four of those big, visual set pieces that don’t take a lot of time to describe but you can drop them into your three-act pitch.
As I’m pitching it around I’m also practicing. Some of the early people that are hearing me pitch aren’t hearing it quite as well worked out as the tenth person who hears it, but by doing what I do, I will eventually tell the same idea 30 or 40 times. What’s weird about it is that 10, 20, or even 30 of those places won’t like it. Then the last place that hears it loves it and buys it. So who was right and who was wrong? You just don’t know until you get your idea to the right place.
What do you suggest writers keep in mind when dealing with Hollywood?
Probably the biggest [problem] is they think their own ideas are more special or better than they are. Not to sound rude or cruel, but you really have to be tough on yourself about your level of talent.
And if you can’t come up with a good idea, there’s nothing wrong with admitting, "I’m not good at this." Maybe you’ll be able to find a good idea from someone or somewhere else. Maybe you can find one in a magazine, or maybe your brother has better ideas than you do. Because the good thing about ideas is, if someone contacts me with a good idea but it’s not theirs, that’s okay. As long as they tell me and we still reward the other person, they can stay in the middle, so to speak, and be attached to the idea they found.
The thing about ideas that I love is that they are out there and you can grab onto them and approach producers like me, and still making a living in this world, but you don’t necessarily have to come up with them yourself.
My last piece of advice would be recognize good ideas are out there in the world every day. On television, the radio, they are in conversations you have with your friends. If you start to put your antenna up and be aware of looking for stories and ideas, you’ll find them. And by now you can tell, I’m one of those producers who is always looking for a good idea.
For a lot writers dealing with selling their ideas and trying to sell to someone like you, is this really the best way to be a writer? Or are they more playing producer?
Anybody who wants to break into Hollywood needs to recognize that the odds are really difficult. The reason I’m spending so much time on ideas is not to say it’s the only way. I’m just suggesting the world of ideas can help you in a variety of ways.
If you want to come to Hollywood and become a screenwriter, the best way is still to sit down and write a screenplay on spec. That doesn’t mean, though, that you eliminate the possibility of coming up with good ideas, because you can’t write scripts based on every idea you have.
So now you start to divide up your ideas. Some ideas are so special you’re going to want write them on spec. Other ideas aren’t good at all and you’re going to throw them away. Then there are ideas you’re thinking about and might want to pitch to see what people think. Either you go to the studio and pitch it, or you bring it to producers like me, and we develop it together.
Thus, while you’re sitting at home pursing a screenwriting career, you’re also in the world of pitching ideas. That doubles your chances. You might sell a spec script, or you might not. How good would it be while you’re sitting at home writing a spec script to get a call from a producer who says, "Guess what? We just sold one of your pitches, and they’re going to pay you to write a script." I’m saying, you can do both.
When I talk about ideas and how important they are, it gives the wrong impression. It makes people think I’m only interested in [ideas]. Or that I’m only telling people to pursue that approach. My advice is multifaceted. Write screenplays. Develop ideas. Or even come up with an idea, give it to a producer, and partner with that producer. This will also increase your chances of breaking into Hollywood. Because if you’re only sitting at home in your apartment trying to write a screenplay, that’s probably one of the most difficult ways to break in. But if you’re out there meeting people with pitches, who knows who you’re going to meet on a given day? The idea of pitching and developing ideas is also a terrific way to meet and network.
Ideas are little gold nuggets that you can always keep in your "back pocket." Ideas will always be valuable because most people are interested in hearing a good story.
Do you want to be a screenwriter? Do you want to be the kind of person who comes up ideas and segues into becoming a producer? Maybe coming up with lots of ideas could lead you into becoming an executive at a production company or studio.
Having good ideas shows people that you are creative, and that you have something that they might want. Once you have something they want, you have leverage to negotiate. If you only sit in your house with one idea to write as one script, imagine how insurmountable those odds are. I’d rather have 30 good ideas while I’m writing that one script. Maybe those 30 ideas will take me into places I could only dream of being, even if they never sell. It all cross-pollinates.
Obviously, everyone still has to make a living. Everyone still has to pay their rent. But at least if you have lots of ideas, the possibilities are limitless.
Ideas are not "a dime a dozen." Good ideas are "one in a million."