latest news

Aug 21, 2014

Learn what scripts make producers sit up and take notice—from the advice of a talented Hollywood producer!

As part of our ongoing series, which asks our producers about their work in the entertainment industry, I talked with the delightful Charlsey Adkins, a current Hollywood producer and Voyage team member, about her work in the industry. Here you can learn some of her insights on what makes scripts unique, fun to read, and interesting to producers—and what writers can do to make their script can stand out from the rest.

(You can view the first in the interview series, featuring producer Kelly Hayes, here.)

With a bachelor’s degree in film and nearly a decade of experience in the industry, Adkins has a serious pedigree in production. Now the Vice President of Development and Production at Harbinger Pictures, Adkins was instrumental in bringing the acclaimed feature film The Help to screen.

During her career, she has worked with many writers and learned a lot about what makes a script great and what makes it fall flat. I got to ask her about the kind of scripts that speak to her, and how writers can avoid common pitfalls that turn producers off their work.

So, without further ado, here are…

 

5 Tips For Writing Your Best Script

As told by Charlsey Adkins

 

  1. 5. Value Your Work

One aspect of a script that turns Adkins off particularly is when it is clear a writer hasn’t proofread their work before sending it off to a potential producer or financier. “I read lots of scripts,” says Adkins, “and I can tell when you care when you’re writing, and when you don’t care.”

That care is most apparent in the level of continuity detail present in the script. Geographical fluidity is one of those details—for example, if you have a character leaving a scene to enter a bathroom, you’d better make sure they exit the same bathroom before they reenter that scene. Usually, this type of confusion is caused by merging two drafts of a scene into one, and can therefore be easily overlooked by a writer. But ignoring those details is a dangerous gamble.

Typos, plot holes, unfinished arcs, and confusing action are all finicky details that plague writers through any draft. It can be easy to think that readers will “get the idea”…though indeed many will, these small details can pile up to take them completely out of the story. Adkins cautions that “Those details are important to have, and they mean a lot to an executive who’s reading your script.”

Truly valuing one’s work, and giving it the greatest chance, means being on the lookout for anything that might serve as a mental speedbump to a reader. Whether that means proofreading yourself or handing your script over to fresh eyes, it’s amazing what errors even a quick read-through before sending a script out to a producer can uncover.

 

  1. 4. Make It Fun To Read

Although the logical and structural aspects of a script are something important to keep in mind, there are more intangible factors that can affect a script’s readability as well—namely, how fun it is to actually read!

Remember, when someone is reading your script, they’ve devoted two or more hours out of their day for this one project. If your script isn’t fun for them, resentment for your script and its story can build up fast. No one wants the reading to take longer than it has to, especially a busy producer who might have to make a split-second decision about whether your script is worth the read or not.

On the other hand, a fun-to-read script will build up crucial goodwill in the reader. Says Adkins,“when something’s a lot of fun to read, I get through it in a second."

So what makes a script fun? Certainly, numerous errors, overly-long actions, and plot holes can contribute to a script being a drag, and should be weeded out as early as possible. But the writer’s own enthusiasm for their work is the most important for the reader’s enjoyment. If you don’t have passion for at least some aspect of your script, why should a producer care? Any topic that matters to YOU can make an enjoyable script, as long as that enthusiasm is effectively translated to the page.

And don’t just write what you THINK a producer will like. Write something that you find fun as well! Adkins says, “I’m sure there’s producers out there saying […] ‘We need action, we need international, and we need a hot actress role, so write that.’ But for me, it’s really about the story, and the writer knowing their story.”

So don’t sacrifice fun for what you think might sell. You might find that that very mindset is what turns your reader away from what could have been a more engaging script.

 

  1. 3. Find Universal Themes

Everyone has different passions, and it’s very easy to think that no producer could ever care about a topic as specific as particle physics, small-town politics, or underwater basket-weaving, no matter how personally excited the writer might be about those subjects. And besides, aren’t the biggest blockbuster movies written for the widest audience possible?

While that might be true under some circumstances, Adkins maintains that there’s more to universality than just the writer’s choice of subject matter.

“For me, it’s not the subject matter,” says Adkins. “I could connect to a science teacher and their troubles, or an alien on Mars, if it was written in a way that was fun, easy to comprehend, and moved efficiently. […] It’s about the writing, not WHAT you’re writing.”

Adkins advises writers to try and find those themes in their story that anyone can relate to: love, loss, family, friendship, hardship, and more…but to write those themes from a specific enough viewpoint that keeps the reader interested. “If you can find those universal themes, but write them from a personal standpoint,” says Adkins, “you’ve got a pretty lethal combination.”

 

  1. 2. You Gotta Commit

Adkins says, “Writing is an art, just like painting is an art, just like architecture is an art. There’s a certain amount of skill to it, and there’s a certain amount of natural talent—and you really have to be honest with yourself about whether it’s something you have or not.”

Adkins related to me the not-uncommon story of a writer she’d met who worked for ten years as a waiter, writing over a hundred scripts in his spare time—and only considered five of those scripts to be any good. “Make sure it’s the path you want to be on,” says Adkins—because the craft requires a long, difficult road of honing your skills.

If writing is something you love, something you’re good at, and something you believe in, then nothing can stop you from making it your career. But not everyone has that, and that’s okay! Adkins herself admits that she doesn’t consider herself a writer, but her job requires her to talk to writers every single day to help build their stories. If you want to create stories, there are more ways than just writing to feed that creativity.

 

  1. 1. Write A LOT

So, what’s the number one piece of advice Adkins would give to writers starting their careers?

“You have to write a lot. A LOT a lot. Nobody comes to writing and just becomes an amazing screenwriter. If they do, they’ve been writing for a long time, or they’ve been reading for a long time, or they’ve been practicing their prose.”

Like the waiter who spent ten years honing his writing craft, you need to put in the hours to get the results you want. Writing is a skill like any other skill: it takes time to perfect. You wouldn’t expect to get rock-hard abs after one workout, or conduct an orchestra after glancing at your first piece of sheet music, so how could you expect to write a perfect script on your first try?

But just because it isn’t good doesn’t mean it’s worthless: quite the opposite, in fact. Any time spent writing, no matter how unproductive it might feel, is bringing you closer and closer to that script that will make a producer enthusiastic about bringing your story to life.

So don’t let your skills fall by the wayside! Get to your notebook, your keyboard, your typewriter—whatever you need to write—and get to work.

Still think you’ve got more to learn from the real industry professionals? Don’t worry: more interviews with working producers like Adkins are just around the corner! Stay tuned to the blog for new insights and interviews with more of Voyage’s own producing team members–and, if you haven’t already, sign up below for more email updates!

 

About Charlsey Adkins

Charlsey Adkins is Vice President of Development and Production at the feature film production company, Harbinger Pictures, the company behind the acclaimed motion picture, The Help. Charlsey is responsible for overseeing the company's development slate and works directly with the head of the company, Brunson Green. Before joining Harbinger, Charlsey gained production experience working on Studio feature films that include We Are Marshall, Role Models, Fast And Furious 4, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and Inception. Charlsey has a bachelor degree in film with a minor in economics. She constantly looks for innovation in content and believes it is the only way to adapt as a filmmaker in this ever-changing market.

Aug 21, 2014

An expert producer’s look at the past, present, and future of serial programming

 

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Kelly Hayes, a current Hollywood producer and Voyage team member, about what it’s like to work in all corners of the industry, and how the classic forms of development for network, cable, and film compare to the emerging market of digital streaming. This is the first of an ongoing series that asks our producers about their work in the entertainment industry so that YOU can learn from their wealth of experience!

Hayes’ many credits have ranged from formats in scripted and reality television, film, and digital streaming series. Today, he has a lot of plates spinning in every market you can think of, with ongoing projects in half-hour comedy, hour-long drama, reality, and feature film. To say he’s got a bit of experience is an understatement.

Although Hayes started his career in film, an economic downturn coupled with the WGA strike of 2008 served to destabilize the film industry, and prompted Hayes to look into other options. Television was his next best choice to keep following his passion—and it took some relearning to make it work.

 

Looking Ahead

The biggest change to the process of development in film and television was the notion of planning much further ahead into the future of the project. “It’s ’where do I see this show at episode 100?’” says Hayes of the development process for the life of a series, “versus, ‘I have 90 minutes to tell my story and then it’s done.’”

The core of making a great and lasting show lies in its planning. Although there’s no guarantee at the pitch or even the pilot stage that a TV show will be picked up for one or more seasons, it’s important to know early on what lies in the future of the series—what is it going to be like at episode 100? When Hayes works on a pitch for a television series, he always includes a roadmap of where the show is headed:

“In the development stage, always look ahead and have an idea of what’s gonna happen in season 1 and season 2 […] and all the way up to season 5: if you’re lucky enough to make it that far, you know you’re doing something right.” This way of thinking is a far cry from the one-and-done mentality of many commercial features. Although popular movies can spawn sequels, series by necessity must create a story engine that will keep the show moving for years to come.

Of course, just because a plan is made doesn’t mean that it becomes law. It’s just as important to leave wiggle room for the writers—with new ideas coming to light, changes in development, and current events changing audience viewpoints every day, even the best-laid plans for a series can change. Hayes’ advice to any writers in the process of planning their own series is to remember that “once you get in the writer’s room, everything’s gonna change.” It’s very important to have a solid plan, but equally important to be able to adapt to changes in that plan.

As mutable as scripted television can be, it doesn’t even hold a candle to the quickly-shifting world of reality TV—another arena that Hayes is quite familiar with.

 

Real TV

“Reality,” says Hayes, “is a very different beast.” Although there is one glaring difference between scripted and unscripted television—that is, the task of editing a coherent story out of the daily lives of real people rather than falling back on a script--there can also be other more unexpected challenges to overcome.

The first is getting a great idea to perform in a way that’s compelling to audiences. What can start out as a great idea for a reality show can fall apart if every aspect isn’t perfectly in place. Because of the true-life nature of reality shows, this can depend on luck just as much as it does on planning.

Hayes related to me the story of his attempt to get a reality show based on the lives and work of samba dancers to air. Nothing was fundamentally wrong with the idea—it was exciting, flashy, unique, and a little bit sexy. And with the World Cup approaching, the customs and cultures of Brazil were on everyone’s mind. But as fate would have it, the show was never able to make it to air. And since the industry moves as quickly as does audience taste, the idea was indefinitely shelved.

Another challenge is adapting the development process to facilitate real-life stories. For a scripted show, Hayes will generally find a writer, work on a pitch, and plan the show out over the possibility of a couple seasons. But with unscripted TV, the pitch lies in the discovery of talent—finding a cast of weird and wonderful characters that already exist somewhere out there in the world.

There’s no doubt that bizarre personalities capable of being the engine for a show are out there. But how they come to Hayes usually happens in one of two ways: either he’ll come up with an idea and try to find a community or person that fits that profile, or someone will find him through an agent.

There’s always a risk in trying to search out talent willing and capable to participate in a TV show. Sometimes it doesn’t pay off, as happened with the proposed samba series, but risk can also reap rewards when serendipity and hard work come together to make a show a success.

While Hayes was coming up with an idea for a new reality show based on community service parolees, a scripted show came across his desk for nearly the exact same idea. That show became Bad Samaritans, a comedy show Hayes produced for Netflix. The show went on to be a hit, garnering a 3.5 star rating on Netflix based on 25,000 reviews and moving Hayes into success in the digital sphere.

 

Rise of the Digital Titans

Netflix has become a production powerhouse in its own right. Having just passed its 50 million subscribers mark, digital streaming is beginning to have serious reach in the film and TV industry.

With digital cable dominating the industry, bringing in younger and more tech-savvy viewers, and muscling out the old paradigms of network television, how different is producing a digital series compared to producing a show for a traditional network?

According to Hayes, not as different as you might think. “In terms of developing for broadcast cable versus the digital space, there really isn’t a difference. You need the same things: you need a great story, you need a showrunner, and a piece of talent that everybody wants to work with.”

If anything, the advent of digital television gives producers more options than ever through which to create a show. Hayes warns writers and producers alike not to try and pigeonhole their story ideas into just one format: if a story is good, it should be given the best chance possible to get made. And sometimes, digital media can be the answer to a show that’s having trouble fitting into a bigger network’s brand. “The digital world opens up a little bit because they’re not so stringent on what their brand is. They’re more: ‘how many people can I get watching these shows?’””

However, the profitability of digital media is so new that creators often overlook it. But for those looking to increase the possibility of a studio picking up their project, digital streaming is still an open world hungry for new work that will build their brand and visibility. It’s up to you to take advantage of that need!

 

Make Some Noise

According to Hayes, the buzzword in the industry right now is “noisy.” There are a lot of producers, Hayes included, that are always on the lookout for something new, something edgy, something that hasn’t been done better somewhere else. A writer’s best chance at getting noticed lies in their ability to create the most original premise for their market.

But Hayes also warns to stay away from “gimmick.” Your story should stand out from the crowd, but also have the heart, emotion, and care to bring your audience back again and again to your work. It can be a fine line to navigate, but one that will pay off immensely to both an audience and a producer. So don’t be afraid to make some noise!

Still think you’ve got more to learn from the real industry professionals? Don’t worry: more interviews with working producers like Hayes are coming soon! Stay tuned to the blog for new insights and interviews with more of Voyage’s own producing team members--and, if you haven't already, sign up below for more email updates!

 

About Kelly Hayes

Kelly Hayes is a producer and development executive working in feature film, scripted and unscripted television, and digital series. He has spent the past four years working for The Walt Becker Company as the Director of Development and Production as well as working as an independent producer.

On the feature side, Kelly was instrumental in the development and sale of Boys Are Stupid Throw Rocks At Them at Universal. He also attached the director Nzingha Stewart to the 2012 Blacklist script Doppelgangers, written by Evan and Shea Mirzai. Kelly’s other feature script Office Fight! has John Scott attached to direct and Clark Duke attached to star. Leading up to his time at The Walt Becker Company, Kelly was an Associate Producer on the Walt Disney Studios film Old Dogs starring John Travolta and Robin Williams.

In television, Kelly has led the sale of numerous projects such as Thunderballs at Spike, Black Girls Are Easy at VH1, Sweat at ABC Family, Glory Daze at TBS and Heaven at Starz.

In the unscripted space, Kelly produced and directed the sizzle reel for Jesus Freaks which is awaiting a pilot order at E!, and developed other pilots for TBS and VH1. Kelly has sold digital series to Fox Digital Studios that include the animated comedy Thrilla and the live action show Better Off Dad. He produced the Fox Digital series Bad Samaritans, which is streaming on Netflix and has received 3.5 stars on over 25,000 reviews.

Aug 21, 2014

Last week, Voyage announced the latest film we’ve produced, Valley Uprising: Yosemite’s Rock Climbing Revolution--an in-depth documentary about the history of thrill-seekers climbing Yosemite’s treacherous granite cliff faces.

Soon after the announcement, we received a pretty interesting email, which brought up some questions about Voyage’s project selection process--Why would we spend money on such a specific-interest documentary? How could we ensure we broke even on marketing a project with such a relatively small target audience? After all, rock climbers and adrenaline-junkies are such a small and specific part of the overall moviegoing audience…isn’t the goal to reach as many of the “4 Quadrants” as possible?

As with any other film we’ve helped develop, we’re very excited for and confident in Valley Uprising’s success. But this email created an interesting opportunity for us to debunk several myths about the industry, financing, and what makes a marketable project. Plus some details about how smaller films get financed—and many of them can be applied to non-documentary film projects as well. So if you’ve been burning with some of the same questions, now’s as good a time as any to clear up a few misconceptions you might have about the niche filmmaking process!

 

Misconception #1: Producing a niche film will put you into debt

A financially successful film can be measured in not just its total sales, but rather more accurately in its percentage of return on investment, or “ROI”. Of the top three genres with the highest returns on investment, two may surprise you. The first on the list is horror—less surprising, since many low-budget horror flicks like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity have garnered astronomical profits compared to their modest initial costs.

But what about the other two? Historically, the next-highest returns on investment come from documentary films and concert movies. So, in terms of ROI, these kinds of films actually perform better than action films, thrillers, sci-fi, and dramas. If they’re budgeted and financed appropriately, documentaries can be an extremely reliable source of return on investment.

 

Misconception #2: Films need to market to as many of the “4 Quadrants” as possible to be successful

The 4 Quadrants of film marketing—that is, males under 25, males over 25, females under 25, and females over 25—are used to broadly divide audiences into more marketable segments. The “Holy Grail” of big-budget studio movies are those that have something for viewers in each of those quadrants.

However, it’s not a hard and fast rule for marketing any movie, and in fact is only one of many marketing models. The 4 Quadrant model can actually be incredibly risky and, given the investment outlay, many 4-quadrant movies never make enough to cover their initial investment.

Instead, Voyage advocates identifying and creating for actual market demand for any number of marketable audiences. By measuring the size, location, and purchasing patterns of your audience, you can create the right project in a price range that accurately reflects what that market is willing to watch and buy.

For example, YouTube markets to relatively niche audiences, and in this arena, a webseries spending two thousand dollars per episode can make a lot of money for its creators in return. However, YouTube is unlikely to be able to deliver enough of a wide market and corresponding revenue to warrant say, a five million per episode series.

As always, it’s of utmost importance for you to know your market! Targeting a niche with a project that’s made for the right price can be an incredibly lucrative business.

 

Misconception #3: Independent filmmakers must pay for the entirety of production out-of-pocket

If this was true, then niche projects would simply not exist! In fact, as you tighten your focus, more out-of-the-box financing models become available to you.

In recent years, crowdfunding has become more and more of a viable option, and it’s a route that both beginning and established creators have turned to create a quality product for a targeted market.

But crowdfunding is far from your only option. In the case of Valley Uprising in particular, roughly 100% of the cost of production was covered by brand sponsors with a similar target audience to the film—Clif Bar and The North Face among them. Since these sponsors get paid back in brand recognition rather than revenue from the film itself, it’s a win-win for advertisers and creators. It also means that the very first ticket sold or Video-On-Demand download returns a profit to the filmmakers!

With such low risk and a high rate of return, why would a filmmaker not want to be in this business?

The entertainment industry isn’t just about blockbusters and studio features—with a great premise, story, and appropriate financing for the right market, even a more modest feature can be a huge success for its creators.

Aug 21, 2014

How to untangle the web

“Googling yourself” has sort of become the punchline of the digital era—it’s degraded as a vain and silly pastime of the erstwhile millennial. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Far from just an ego trip, Googling yourself can be crucial to building your online presence as a writer.

I’d like to encourage you to Google yourself right now. Take a moment, I’ll wait. What are some of the first pages that pop up. Your social media sites—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, your personal blog? Or is Google drawing a big blank?

There is a time and a place for the reclusive, mysterious, off-the-grid writer—but falling into that description can be dangerous for the up and coming. The Internet makes it easier than ever for producers, directors, and financiers to find out what you’re all about. And social media searching has become more and more commonplace as a tool for weeding out the unprofessional or unmotivated writers from the writers with serious passion and marketability.

Make no mistake: the question on the forefront of a producer’s mind is going to be “how can I market this?” If your website or blog has any sort of following, it means your Internet presence comes with a built-in audience AND that you’ve already got a huge advantage over the throngs of other writers trying to get noticed! It gives the producer a sort of “cheat” into your market—they’ll thank you for having less work to do to create a finished product that people will watch.

With so much riding on the kind of persona you exhibit online, there’s no reason not to put your best digital foot forward. If you’re serious about building a writing career in the age of the Internet, here are a few steps you can take to ensure you’re giving yourself the best possible chance to get noticed by a producer.

 

Blog It

It can be tempting to let your work speak for itself, focus entirely on your writing, and let the producers come to you. Spending time blogging and creating web content can seem like an easy distraction. But don’t be fooled--having a blank online footprint can actually HURT your career. If a producer is Googling you, it means that they’re at least casually interested in what you have to offer. Use that to your advantage!

Remember, the key to getting your work seen as a viable option for a producer is to make the decision to hire you as easy as possible for them. And what could be easier than a website with all your information and samples of your work in one place?

If you don’t have a personal website or blog specifically showcasing your writing, consider creating one. Not only can it help a producer see what kind of work you’ve already done, it can have the welcome side-effect of creating a following for your work.

One of the first questions any producer will have while looking at your work is: “will this idea be market-worthy?”. When done well, a professional writing blog can allay a producer’s marketing concerns by showcasing that your work comes with a built-in fanbase. As always, the more you do for a producer ahead of time, the more willing they’ll be to work with you.

 

Brand It

Hollywood loves adaptations. If something thrives in one market, executives know that there’s a good chance it will thrive in another. As much as this applies to books, TV shows, and movies, it also applies to Internet content!

The Internet provides a rare opportunity for writers to get heard without assistance from the filmmaking world. For many writers struggling to bring their ideas to a more conventional market, blogging can be a viable alternative to get their ideas noticed. Popular blogs and Twitter feeds have even been optioned for books, movies, and TV shows simply based on their Internet buzz!

And these adaptations can spread widely across markets. One success story is the TV adaptation of $#*! My Dad Says, which was based off the popular Twitter feed of the same name. Though the show itself was eventually canceled, the buzz around the show launched the career of its creator, Justin Halpern.

And it’s not just TV shows—the critically-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film Julie & Julia started its life as a cooking blog written by little-known at the time writer Julie Powell.

As you can see, there’s no reason to discount the viability of a “concept” blog as a path to success; especially if it can be marketed to the same audience you are basing your personal brand on. The Internet exists to satisfy a wide variety of niches. If there’s a subject you’re passionate about, there’s a good chance that hundreds, thousands, and even millions of other people share the same interests!

Your web presence can serve to accomplish everything from showcasing your professionalism to establishing proof of concept for a film or television show. The digital age can provide writers a myriad of opportunities—but it’s up to you to take full advantage of what it has to offer.

 

Connect It

There’s no doubt that a solid blog can get you noticed. But don’t stop there—the Internet gives you a vast expanse of platforms for every taste of social media: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Instagram…we all know the names, but depending on the type of name you want to make for yourself, you may want to do a little more digging into what blogging platforms your target audience uses.

The more of a presence you can generate outside your main professional hub, the better chance you have of building a unique fanbase for your work. Building a sense of trust and community with your readers can pay off hugely in your professional writing and in launching your career.

A well-connected, market-focused, and specific online personality is definitely going to make a producer sit up and take notice, no matter the content. And a dedicated, professional Internet presence is a sure sign of a writer who will be easy for a producer to work with.

So, come on. Google yourself. And turn that search into something exceptional.