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Interviews
 
Jason Scoggins, Trevor Engelson, Mike Goldberg, Julie Bloom & Aaron Kaplan, Managers
Sunday, Jan 31, 2010
Author: EJ Pennypacker
 
Jason Scoggins at Protocol was born and raised in Glendale, California. He went to high school in northern California and came back down for college at UCLA, where he got a BA in English. After getting into the business as an assistant at ICM, he worked for Nancy Josephson, then head of worldwide TV (and later co-president of the agency), first as her second assistant and then as first. After a year and a half he got promoted to TV Lit departmental assistant and then left for Gersh to become a TV Lit agent, where he stayed for two years. He then hopped over to Writers & Artists, and then left the business altogether after about 6 months at W&A. A year later he was living in Park City, Utah, where he stayed until he decided to try to get back in the business in 2006.

Trevor Engelson at Underground Films and Management grew up in Great Neck, New York, which is in Long Island. He went to USC and graduated in ‘98. He also interned at the Tonight Show and on the John Hamburg movie Safe Me. He was also a PA on Deep Blue Sea, and then he got a job in the mail room at Endeavor in 1999.

Mike Goldberg at Abstract Entertainment is from Miami, Florida, and received his undergraduate degree from the University of Florida. He began his entertainment career at Paramount Classics, working in marketing and acquisitions. Hoping to see another side of the entertainment industry, he switched over to Handprint Entertainment to learn talent and music management (Handprint helped launch the careers of Jennifer Lopez, Will Smith, and Mariah Carey). From working with top acting and musical talent, he moved into a position working for Anonymous Content. He was then accepted to work at CAA. Later he was recruited by Silver Pictures (The Matrix, Lethal Weapon, and Die Hard franchises), where he learned more about the business side of the entertainment industry, as well as script development and feature film production. He left Silver Pictures to work in literary management/production alongside another literary manager. He also worked as an associate producer on the reality show Pat Croce: Moving In, as well as a casting coordinator and casting director for Blind Date, Survival of the Richest, and MTV's Parental Control.

Julie Bloom at Art/Work Entertainment grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and Marin County, California. She attended USC Film School, after which she began her career at William Morris. She started her own company in 2002.

Aaron Kaplan at Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment spent his first 22 years in Chicago. He was raised in Old Town and then Highland Park and attended school at Northwestern in Evanston. When he graduated in 1997, he got in a car with his dad and drove out to Los Angeles. He didn’t know anyone and ended up getting a job in the mailroom at UTA.

So how did you end up working as a manager at the company you’re with now?

Jason Scoggins: When I decided to come back to the business, I persuaded Brian Inerfeld and John Ufland, who started Protocol several years previously, to let me build a book of business under their roof. After six months or so, we all decided to jump in with both feet, and I’ve been a partner since May 2007.

Trevor Engelson: I was getting fired from Endeavor and I got a job working as my now business partner Nick Osborne’s assistant when he was at O/Z films. He had a partner who ran the management side of the company; they split up, I stayed, Nick and I started a new company, and I started the management side up from scratch. We became full partners two years later.

Mike Goldberg: To be honest, the stars aligned. The writers’ strike had just ended, and the timing felt perfect to launch Abstract Entertainment.

Julie Bloom: When I left William Morris in 2001 I took about 6 months to figure out what I wanted to do. I found that being an agent at a big company was too much volume and politics, and I was more passionate about the artist.

Aaron Kaplan: In 2000, I was in the training program at UTA. I took a step back and looked at my life and remembered that I didn’t come out to LA to be an agent, but during my years there I had really begun to enjoy representing writers. Management seemed like a perfect fit: keep representing writers and get to be more creatively involved than an agent. There wasn’t anywhere that I wanted to work, so I started a company with another trainee, Sean Perrone. Nine and a half years later, Kaplan/Perrone Entertainment is stronger than ever.

How do you end up signing a screenwriting client? What do you look for? What path do they typically come from to arrive at your attention?

Scoggins: For development clients (those just starting out), in addition to the obvious (really good writing), I look for evidence that the potential client is committed to a career as a screenwriter and understands there’s no such thing as an overnight success in this business despite articles in the trades that make it seem otherwise. I need to see several strong samples (which are never the writer’s first or second or even sixth script) that I can use to help put him or her up for work in the future, including at least one that I could send out as a spec.

I’ve also learned that I do my best work when I’m working with writers whose voices and material match my own taste. My clients have exclusively come to my attention through referrals from friends and colleagues.

Engelson: They come from all different sources. We hand our cards out to pink dot delivery guys; everyone in this town is either a writer or they know one who’s trying to get discovered. We look at schools, festivals, etc. Sometimes they come from agents or executives who think we should know about these existing working writers. Most usually we find out about them by asking everyone we speak with, “You know anyone we should be reading?”

Goldberg: Every client is acquired differently, and each has a unique story as to how our professional relationship began. I do, however, give extra attention to industry referrals as well as screenwriting contest winners and finalists. In a nutshell, I favor unique voices, strong concepts, witty dialogue, and commercial ideas.

Bloom: MATERIAL, MATERIAL, MATERIAL. I get a lot of material, and for me it doesn’t matter if you have been writing for 20 years or 2—the material must be great.

Kaplan: It’s hard to pin down exactly what I look for, but I think the easiest way to describe it is that I look for scripts that give me an emotional response. I want to laugh out loud at a comedy, I want to be creeped out at a horror, and I want to tear up after reading a drama. And over the years, those scripts have come from everywhere—from agents and attorneys, but also from friends of other writers and sometimes just writers directly.

What about feedback on a client’s script? How do you handle that? What steps are typically involved once you’ve read a “first draft”?

Scoggins: Developing material is a big portion of my role as a manager. I get involved as early as possible, preferably at the concept stage. Often a client will float several ideas past me and together we’ll choose the one to work on next.

There are always several ways to approach telling a given story, and we spend a significant amount of time identifying the best version of a particular concept. Once the writer has decided on the approach, he or she goes away and puts together a one- or two-page outline, and then we’ll get together in my office and flesh out the story on my whiteboards. I’m an advocate of the late Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” story structure, and our discussions at this stage focus on those major dozen or so story beats, plus the evergreen questions of who the main characters are, what they’re doing, and why. We can usually get the skeleton of the script together in a couple of caffeine-fueled afternoons.

Depending on the writer, the next step is either a beat sheet or the first draft of the script. I prefer the former, since it’s much easier to make sure the story is working when you’re dealing with an 8- to 15-page treatment. Either way, my job at this point is simply to be a sounding board for the issues that inevitably come up in this stage.

Once the first draft is done, I try to stay at 35,000 feet and focus on what’s working and what’s not, especially in terms of story and character arcs. I keep an eye out for missing beats, choppy progressions through the various sections of the script, and so on.

Engelson: We are very hands-on in giving our clients notes, they come in and we just talk it out for hours till we’ve cracked whatever the problems may be. My partner Nick is a huge part of this process—he’s great at putting a finger on what’s stopping a story from singing. Bottom line is, we don’t let the client leave the room till we crack whatever problems exist and come up with a plan on how to fix them and a deadline for when that work is due back to us for the next set of notes and revisions.

Goldberg: We’re VERY hands-on. That’s why we prefer to work exclusively with collaborative writers.

Bloom: I always give feedback, good, bad, or indifferent. I am not a writer, but I can look at material and discuss it with a client. They may agree or not, but it is always an ongoing process.

Kaplan: We work hands-on with our clients developing their scripts. We’ll read each outline and each draft and help a writer hone it and polish it to the point where it’s good to go.

Once a script is up to par, what is your typical plan of selling it? Is it “wide” or via attachments? And how is this process played out?

Scoggins: It depends on the project. The spec market has been awful for the past couple of years, and one thing we’ve seen is that going wide to the town with or without attachments isn’t a very good strategy. (As of August 15, just 6% of those scripts had sold in 2009.) That said, sometimes the goal isn’t so much to sell a particular script as it is to introduce the writer to as many producers and executives as possible in one fell swoop. As a rule, though, we don’t take this approach, since it’s a waste of everyone’s time to send a script out wide that we don’t expect to sell given the state of the marketplace at the time. We’d much rather introduce our clients to people piecemeal, making it clear that we’re just sending a sample. Otherwise we’re just crying wolf. Ultimately, it’s in our clients’ interest that people know we’re serious when we go out with a piece of material.

In any case, we usually take a beat to assess who the best producers and buyers would be for a particular script. If it’s just a handful we’ll consider slipping it out, either directly to those few buyers or to that short list of producers with an eye toward partnering up for the whole town. Other times we’ll go wider with the intention of assigning territories, and still others we’ll take the time to put a package together. It depends on what the given project requires in order to maximize its chances of selling.

Engelson: We find that going out wide with a script is a dying approach. The goal is to get movies made, and the only way we’ve had success with that is by packaging up a script with actors and directors before going to the buyers. It’s that simple. If you want to throw it against the wall and see if it sticks, we are not the company you want to sign with. It takes more time to do it this way, but it’s the way we do it, and it fucking works.

Goldberg: It’s a case-by-case basis. Packaging is always helpful (attachments) and can help in two ways. First, packaging increases the chances of a script sale. Secondly, if the script does sell, an already packaged piece of material has the potential to sell for a higher price. As for going wide when selling a script, we ALWAYS do, as we fully believe in every piece of material that we represent. I really think that this helps in differentiating ourselves from the competition who have the “don’t smell it, sell it” philosophy.

Bloom: Every project is different. One may go wide, one may get packaged. It depends on the market and the project.

Kaplan: It depends on the type of script. But if there’s a way to attach an actor or a director before going out with it, we like to spend the extra time to do that. The closer we are to a movie that we can go out with, the more likely it gets made and the more money that the writer will receive.

When it comes to general meetings (a typical press-the-flesh, low-key meeting where the exec finds out what you’re working on next and you find out their style and preference for material), what do you typically tell your clients to expect, prepare for, and do?

Scoggins: Since we don’t ask our producer and executive friends to take general meetings as favors to us, our clients almost always walk into friendly rooms (i.e., their material has been read in advance and the person is interested in working with them, at least on principle). Also, we don’t often send clients out for their first generals, so they usually know how to roll in the room, and all we have to do is prep them with background information on who they’re meeting as well as reminder info on their recent credits and current development including OWAs (open writing assignments), if applicable.

For our development clients, we prep them as above and then remind them to relax and be themselves; be prepared to talk about recently released movies as well as favorite films, TV, books, etc.; have an elevator pitch version of their own, personal story/background; and make sure to draw the person out on their current projects in development as well as areas they’d like to develop. We also remind them not to pitch specific projects at a general meeting, even when the door is wide open to do so. Generals are about getting to know each other a bit and for the executive to get a sense that it’d be fun to work together. It’s cool to discuss projects the client is currently working on, but there are a bunch of strategic and tactical reasons not to get sucked into pitching something in a general.

Engelson: Usually what a writer gets out of taking “general meetings” is a lot of free bottles of water. We don’t ever put our clients out on a victory lap unless we have prepared them to pitch or test out a few original ideas of their own, see how the town reacts to them. We luck out once in a while and producers/execs pitch the client a cool project. But no writer should ever go into a general without being armed with a few originals of their own.

Goldberg: This is a case-by-case basis as well. But the most important thing to remember is to do your homework and know who you’re sitting down with (projects produced, etc). Additionally, to be fun in the room, to be charismatic, and to be yourself.

Bloom: Homework. Know who you are meeting with, be able to have a working knowledge of the projects that person has worked on. Be friendly, be the person that the executive or producer wants to work long hours with on their next project.

When it comes to pitch/assignment meetings, what do you typically tell your clients to expect, prepare for, and do?

Scoggins: In both cases, the key is to know the story backward and forward. For pitches, the writer needs to have practiced a bunch of times, including a couple of sessions with us, so it feels natural and easy and they’ll be able to deal with softballs and curveballs alike in the room. For assignments, our advice is to walk in with the attitude that they have the right take for the project, they know exactly how to approach it/fix it/whatever, and generally act like they have the job already and it’s just a matter of working out the details. This is not to say be arrogant and rude; the idea is simply to make it clear you know what it’s going to take to get the script where it needs to go, and you’re just the person for the job. In other words, don’t walk in saying things like “I’m not sure this is a direction you want to go…”; go in saying “Here’s the best version of this movie.”

Engelson: We do a lot of preparation work on these. Long story short, we read the script, and then our clients speak with us first, then rework their pitch. Then we sneak in a call off the record with a junior exec on the producing side, then rework their pitch according to his/her suggestions. Then they pitch the senior producer, then rework the pitch according to their notes, then we sneak in a call with the junior exec at the studio. All this, so that by the time our client pitches the senior exec at the studio, they don’t walk out with notes they would have normally heard if they didn’t do all this prep work, they walk out with the fucking job.

Goldberg: Be a good listener, take notes while in the meeting, and take your time once you’re home developing your take. Also, keep your reps in the loop! Two or three heads are always better than one.

Bloom: Be prepared to pitch the whole thing, but also be prepared to answer any questions they may throw at you.

Kaplan: When our clients go in to pitch for an original or an assignment, they’ll practice with us until they are extremely comfortable with their pitch. We’ll help them develop their take and make sure they have a better chance at getting the job.

How does a writer establish and maintain a “quote” (what a writer can charge, their going rate), and how does a manager play a role in this?

Scoggins: As managers, we try to focus on the career trajectory more so than building quotes as high as possible. Plus, quotes apply primarily to rewrite assignments. Specs and pitches are affected more by the state of the marketplace and the law of supply and demand; you get as much as you can for a given piece of material, regardless of the price for the writer’s previous specs and pitches. For assignments, though, we do what we can to craft deals that establish a weekly rate, and then work to improve that rate from project to project. Here, too, the state of the marketplace and the law of supply and demand have an effect, as does the type of project the writer is up for.

Engelson: Our clients hand in good work. That’s the only thing that counts, that’s not only how you maintain your quote, but you increase it and keep increasing it.

Bloom: Hard work. Good choices. When I first started my business, a wise attorney told me that what you say no to defines you more than what you say yes to, and I say the same thing to my clients when it comes to jobs.

Writers often hear about “branding” when it comes to writing in a given genre. How does this make your job easier? Is it impossible for a writer to be taken seriously if they decide to switch gears and genres?

Scoggins: For most writers, it’s not “branding” so much as it is positioning the client as effectively as possible, especially for development clients. I’m pitching the writer to the producer or executive or whoever, just like writers pitch ideas to those same people, and the person I’m talking to needs to understand what types of projects the writer would be right for. It’s definitely easier when the client’s samples all fall into one or two buckets, but on principle I’ll put a client up for any job if they have an appropriate writing sample for it. If a writer’s samples are all romantic comedies, for example, I’d have a hard time convincing an executive to hire them to write Transformers 5 or an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and I wouldn’t bother trying to do so.

For established writers, the idea of branding is more of an issue, and in my opinion it’s not a bad idea at all to get known for being good at a particular kind of project. That path leads to steady paychecks at the very least.

On the other hand, I can understand the desire to switch genres from time to time, and no, it’s not impossible to be taken seriously when you try to go outside the box. All it takes is a stellar piece of material in the other genre, plus some work on the part of the agent and/or manager to reposition you.

Engelson: I don’t buy that shit; we have writers that are known for dramas, but then write a comedy and it sells ‘cause the comedy is funny and commercial. We don’t expect our drama clients to book an action OWA, but they can spec their way into being known in a different genre easily. You wanna be taken seriously as a writer in a different genre, write a different genre and write it well.

Goldberg: Branding is important in the beginning of a writer’s career. It allows studio and production company execs to best categorize a writer for “writers’ lists.” They use these lists when considering writers for future projects. However, as you get more industry fans, you can spread your wings and branch out to different genres. Additionally, if you write something “outside your zone” but it’s awesome, then go with it anyway.

Bloom: It takes a very talented writer to “jump” genres, but if you put the work in, good writing will always shine, whatever genre you choose to write in. I will say that if I get a query letter from a young writer who has a comedy and a horror to show, I won’t look at either one. It is a skill that needs to be honed; be great at one and then expand out from there.

Kaplan: It’s not impossible, but it’s easier when a client writes in one genre, at least when they start out.

What genre trends are currently running through the studios—if any—and where do you see them going?

Scoggins: I don’t have any unique insight here—the trends have been widely reported and discussed: As a group, the studios have been making fewer and more conservative bets on big tentpole projects, usually based on underlying material, and smaller budgeted comedies.

As for where we’re going, my take is that we’ll see the types of projects the studios develop and finance open up a bit in the next year and a half, but we’ll see a renewed focus on budgets that are appropriate for a given film’s expected box office results. I think the appetite for smart adult movies, for example, is still there, but since the studios can’t rely on ancillary revenue to cover their investments in these projects they’ll either make them more cheaply or stay on the sidelines. At the end of the day, I think it’s in everyone’s interest to figure out how to make movies in a cost-conscious way, and the stakeholders on both sides of the table will work together to do so.

Engelson: We don’t pay attention to that. If our client develops a good script, we will find a home for it or die trying.

Goldberg: Hollywood’s unfortunately reactive, not proactive. Trends change every Monday morning based on the previous weekend’s box office numbers. Every buyer has different needs, and the best course of action to take is to be represented by someone who stays in tune with those needs.

Bloom: Dramas are very tough right now in features. Someone will always make them, but don’t expect a big sale or an easy one.

Kaplan: Movies based on preexisting properties and movies that can be made for a price. But it’s all cyclical—we’ll see what happens next year.

What things do you feel more writers need to know or recognize about themselves and/or the industry?

Scoggins: I think more writers should develop a deep, general knowledge of how the various aspects of the business work. The craft is obviously paramount, and you can’t even get in the game without great material, but it still surprises me how few writers really have a handle on how the business side of the industry works. You might be a great cook at home with your family, but you wouldn’t expect to open a successful restaurant without understanding what it’s going to take to do so. To beat the metaphor to death, it’s fine to partner up with someone who knows how to open and run a restaurant, but it’s still really important to learn as much as you can about the business side of it. Ultimately, if you don’t have your own sense of what’s happening and why, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Engelson: Writers should write what they know about, what they are going through, what they relate to. When it’s forced, it’s obvious. When it’s natural, it’s natural. Don’t pay attention to what’s selling. Just write what you believe in.

Goldberg: Educate yourself! Read screenwriting books, read the trades, take writing classes and workshops, and practice your craft. An NFL player doesn’t throw around a football once or twice a week, he plays all day, everyday. Same goes for an aspiring writer. Practice those writing muscles!

Bloom: Always be writing. You have a gift. I think writers forget why they write in the first place. A writer has something no one else in this business has. An actor ages and you will see it onscreen; a director can go to jail and has very few chances to get out; but a writer can always write their way out of the box. It’s up to you.

Given the recent WGA and SAG struggles, and now the economy issues, how do you see the industry changing? And what good do you see on the horizon for both managers and writers alike?

Scoggins: I don’t see the past couple of years as a paradigm shift in the industry. It’s always been a cyclical business, and I think we’re just in a particularly deep valley right now. That’s not to say that changes aren’t on the horizon in general; we need to figure out how to keep the film and TV business from experiencing the fate of the music industry, for example. Nevertheless, I don’t think the WGA and SAG issues nor the Great Recession will result in permanent change. We’re definitely in a buyer’s market right now, so budgets and purchase prices and quotes are going to stay depressed for a while, but eventually we’ll start to climb out of the valley and swing back to a seller’s market. And then we’ll peak and head back down again.

Engelson: I love where we are at in this business right now. It’s gonna weed out the people who aren’t meant to be doing this. I read a lot of books and autobiographies about Hollywood’s past, everything from back in the ‘20s to a year ago, and what I’ve noticed is, this has never been an easy business. Never been easy to get a movie made, never been easy to get a client a job, etc. Sometimes a shit movie gets made, and sometimes shit writers work for a few years. It’s a funny world we’ve all chosen to live in. All I know is, we sign talented writers, and talent floats to the top in this town. If you’re a good writer who’s serious about getting shit done, this is the place for you. You ask me, “What do I see on the horizon for managers and writers alike?” For good writers and good managers, it’s a simple answer: “A lot of fucking money.”

Goldberg: The entertainment industry is a fluid machine. As this most recent shift takes place, I think that the “fat” of the industry will continue to be trimmed and the survivors will be both the young up-and-comers, and the heavy hitters.

Kaplan: The ways we are entertained might change, but good writers will always be needed. Or maybe I’m just an optimist.

 


 

 

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