Creative Screenwriting Magazine interviews as many working industry professionals as we can to give our readers a snapshot of the current state of the market. We spoke to Jack Garman, Story Editor at Gallagher Literary to give you his thoughts on your screenwriting career.
What is the current state of the screenplay development market? Are you still one of the few companies that still invest in it?
The development market is currently flooded with scripts of every type and quality and I don’t see any reason to think that is going to change any time soon. Fortunately, some scripts are excellent examples of lush, high-skill screenwriting while others stagger through a poorly thought-out story to the point of self-defeat. Some have vivid historical and cultural value and some are as transitory as morning dew. Overall, I’d say that most of the scripts I’ve read in Hollywood could demonstrate their own strengths more effectively from a partial or thorough rewrite.
That’s the basic idea behind Gallagher Literary. As soon as we find a screenplay that we believe would benefit from a series of notes and rewrites, we take it on. We invest in both the script and the screenwriter, but it only works when the writer makes good use of the notes. The creatives at Gallagher Literary put in a great deal of time into each script so the notes that come out convey insights, reflections, reactions and distinct options for the writer to consider in an anticipated rewrite. Our goal is to place a polished script on the desks of studio script buyers. We don’t send anything out until the scripts we’ve developed achieve this level of quality.
What is a typical development process and time frame?
For us, and I don’t think we’re unusual, more than one set of notes will be supplied to the writer. The screenwriter is expected to use them, on their own terms, in rewrites that are then the subject of more notes. The writer then uses the new notes for another rewrite. If no one on our team sees progress, we’ll move on to another project from another writer. If there is progress, we keep cycling through notes and rewrites until we have a high level of confidence in the polished draft.
This process can take months, but I don’t think anyone would want to spend years on a screenplay. After a few months time, if it isn’t up to studio standards, that’s when you begin to think that maybe it’s time to move on.
Is packaging part of the development or marketing process?
Maybe you have an up and coming talent attached? Maybe an actor or a director? Those attachments in themselves will give more market impact to your script. Producers who see attachments assume that someone has seen something strong in the screenplay. They’re going to look for that strength themselves, and if they can connect with the perceptions of the existing attachments, they’re going to be much more likely to push that film script forward. All this is meant to happen in the independent film space.
Since we deal directly with studios, we haven’t taken a packaging approach. We know the studios have extensive arrangements, commitments, and budgets with some of the heaviest hitters in the industry so we don’t want to foreclose on any possibility they may want to consider when they see a new film or TV script. For a major studio, an attachment blocks out other possibilities they might want to pursue. Our work is more focused on getting a new screenwriter noticed at the studios. For us, attachments get in the way of that.
How do you road test ideas? What is the balance between developing a writer’s voice/craft and saleability?
From one draft to the next, we swap readers as a way to give each draft a fresh view. That serves as the road test. Each set of readers comes to the script, and to each rewrite, with fresh eyes. At the same time, one factor in any set of useful notes is the marketability of the script in question. After all, you’re asking people to spend millions of dollars long before there is any chance of profit. With all that in mind, everything depends on a scriptwriter’s craft and voice as the vehicle that gets across their story to the people who have to make that kind of deal. A convincing read is crucial to getting the script to investors.
What sorts of scripts should aspiring screenwriters be working on?
Robots! Robots are taking an enormous place in our daily lives. We have them at home, at work, and on the roads. Hollywood has long made use of robots and their close binding challenge to our social norms makes them even more of a challenge in movies and in our daily lives.
However, besides a question of content, any new writer has to show a crisp, quick, elegant style that informs and mystifies as much as it distracts and surprises. I say this because screenplays are definitely shorter than I’ve ever seen. Ninety-five pages seem to be the current industry standard and that presses down on your storytelling.
Should emerging writers write blockbusters or smaller producible films that can be made to a budget?
Blockbusters come about from years of chatter between writers, producers, directors, actors. Who knows how many screenwriters touch a script before it’s a blockbuster. If you want to be on a team like that, you have to show world-class results in successful storytelling. After all, everyone else has done as much. The smaller film is going to get you some attention. Your skill and talent will be apparent which is all you need to get noticed for larger projects. And there is one other advantage. Smaller films can make a great deal of profit on their small production budget
What excites you about being a development executive?
I get to read stuff in it’s earliest stage. I’ve seen things I’ve read make it to the screen and do well. But even if they don’t make it, the distinctive voices and the unpredictable situations I come across in my script reading are a constant reminder that we are in a new era for moviemaking. There will be more and more films made annually within the next decade than ever seen before. And due to Movie Pass there will be more people going to more movieplex showings than ever thought possible. When you consider this growing production environment and this growing audience, it is a great time to be writing screenplays.
Do you have any breaking in/ success stories you want to share? Anything to inspire screenwriters to keep writing through the fog?
If you hear a story about an ‘overnight sensation’ you can be pretty sure that screenwriter has a fairly detailed background story of work in the industry over the previous years. It might sound like they scratched out a spontaneous first draft and dropped it on a producer’s desk, but typically many years of grinding away have already taken place before anything happens.
The smart play is to improve your knowledge of the industry and the market by going to seminars, speeches, networking events, and while there to find ways to let people know what you’re writing about at least in general terms. If anyone is interested further, they’ll let you know. There is a numbers game going on here which simply means if you get your work in front of more and more people, you are closer and closer to finding the one who wants to produce your work.
And the best way to do that is to have conversations about what you’re writing about. How do the general idea and the specific story sound to writers, producers, directors? What do they respond to? You want to have a high wire act type of skill in this regard. Poise, composure, flexibility. Polish your storytelling through practice.
Managers don’t have to be the ones who make your career. They only serve a purpose for you. Remember that managers are an intermediate link in the chain. They can introduce you to producers and directors, but you still have to wow the producers yourself.
You’re probably the only one who’s totally invested in your career, at least early on. Sure, everyone wants to be connected to your success as a way to gain some limelight for themselves, but you’re the one who’s going to stand for your own success. Besides, when you get a meeting you’ll never know what’s behind their interest. Maybe they like your style and need some help with something their working on? Or they simply want to increase their writing stable so they have some options for their next project.
Is there any advice you can give to writers to help them stand out/ raise their odds of breaking in?
Submit your work, your loglines, your synopses, everywhere and anywhere – within reason. By that, I mean that you have to find producers that want to see new work. They put out the word in various places. And by the way, when they ask for a logline and synopsis, send a logline and synopsis, nothing else. You don’t want to be ‘the writer who can’t follow instructions.’. You want your work to land on someone’s desk, to get read, and you want to impress them. Remember that what you send out is the first impression you make. How you present yourself is going to be an example of your judgment as much as the details of the story itself. In spite of the frustration that comes from sending your work around, it’s an excellent time to get something seen. New production vectors are opening up all the time. And as they succeed, yet more will open.
Maybe the best way to understand what you’re up against when writing for Hollywood is to view any brief clip from Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’
What should/is a healthy working relationship between development exec and screenwriting client?
As I was saying before, I think it matters for the scriptwriter to manage their own expectations. I can contribute plenty to their story planning and their execution, by reflecting back to them thoughts about their story and how it can look and work better on screen. Like anyone in development, I can tell you about format, story plans, the dramatic shape of the material, the apparent emotional impact of what you’ve got, any necessary set-ups and payoffs for a sense of wholeness and completion, but the whole matter has to come from the writer.
Even then, screenwriters have to understand that nothing guarantees success in the screenwriting trade. Taste changes in a weekend. Star power fades as audiences find new favorites. Producers and directors get busy with other projects.
Are query letters a useful way to make connections?
The query letter is useful when you have an arsenal of quality work to show and you’re ready to make a weekly habit of looking up managers that might have some interest in your work. Find their addresses and send them your letter.
Query letters can make an initial good impression with a manager. Once you have a proper query letter, you can begin to search for either a manager or a lawyer, or a production company that is actively looking for material as mentioned above. A manager or lawyer will introduce you and your work to producers. They get a fee, typically a percentage of any sale. They are a huge help to a writer who wants to break into Hollywood. There are many examples online of query letters and they all emphasize simplicity.
As far as production companies are concerned, there really are substantial block out policies designed and implemented to keep new material out of a producer’s office. They won’t read unsolicited material at all, under any circumstances. They will delete and/or discard anything sent to them. And they will tell you so. And they mean it.
What they will do, however, is read material that comes to them from a known and trusted source. This is typically a manager and can even be a lawyer. An agent fills a different role where an established creative in Hollywood needs someone to work up a proper deal based on something they themselves have already arranged. An agent makes the final deal but doesn’t initiate anything for you.
And remember, everything you send out might be nothing more than a writing sample for them. When you speak with a producer, let them guide the conversation. You’ve already had all the practice you need. You are ready for this conversation. And you have a goal – use this meeting to get to the next meeting, whether it’s with him, her, or somebody else entirely.