Adam Fratto is a prolific film and TV producer, currently based at Reel One, he has a lot to say about what screenwriters should be doing to build their screenwriting careers. He shared his industry insights with Creative Screenwriting Magazine.
Do you have a list of screenwriters to watch?
I absolutely do have a list. It’s important to be abreast of new and exciting screenwriting voices.
Producers benefit by establishing meaningful relationships early on in a writer’s career. If a producer has a good eye for ideas, chops, and humans in general, then s/he should be able to spot a star in the making.
Good talent, like good ideas, can come from anywhere. I meet writers at festivals and competitions, through reps, via friends and alumni networks, and more. By the time they’ve made it through somebody’s ‘blacklist’-type filter or someone’s ’10 to Watch,’ they’re basically no longer new. Get ‘em early.
What’s more important when hiring screenwriters? Marketability or writing skill?
It depends on the project, its status, and its business model.
Sometimes you just want a great writer, and if they’re young and inexpensive this can be a plus, especially if you have a more experienced creator (eg writer, showrunner, director) already on the team to supervise them. In that case, their marketability is not that critical.
But if the writer is going to be an important part of the sales strategy, then their track record needs to stand out and speak to their chops and their fit for the material. Of course, their writing still needs to be strong, but in these cases there are other factors to consider.
In either case, there’s a third criterion to consider: is this a good person, and someone whom I want to work with, now and again? If the answer to that is no, then in my book it trumps both marketability and chops. It’s a Hollywood cliche, but life really is too short.
Do you hire writers for projects you’re setting up or do you solicit screenplays from writers to develop?
Both, either, depends! I’m always looking for great ideas from great writers. My door is open to qualified storytellers with cool ideas, wherever they come from.
If I acquire underlying IP (intellectual property) first, typically I’ll want to attach a writer before taking the project to market. In that case, if I know, or know of the perfect writer to adapt the material, I’ll go after them directly. If I am not sure who’s right, or don’t have a clear vision of what the adaptation should be, I might meet with several writers to discuss creative approaches and then choose to work with the one that seems most suitable.
I’d say that a good two-thirds to three-quarters of the projects I’m involved with start with some kind of underlying IP, whether it’s something I originate or IP that a screenwriter brings to me.
What attracts you to a project?
For me, a project has to straddle the fine line of being fresh, yet not too far ahead of its time. I like projects that are bold, unconventional or even subversive, and at some level have something important to say. But first and foremost, they have to be entertaining. I like a good issue, but a TV show can’t feel like homework.
Appointment television, not assignment television!
Where do you source your project ideas?
These days, many projects are based on some kind of IP; most of them, actually.
That IP can be anything. I love novels, as they’re tapestries of story and character that lend themselves nicely to adaptation. But there are other great sources of inspiration that may not be as obvious. I have developed projects based on short stories, articles, comic books, graphic novels, life rights, movies, TV formats, commercials, blog posts, even songs. It doesn’t have to have sold a ton of copies, or have massive brand awareness; having something that underlies the project still helps, both in jumpstarting the creative process as well as in commercial viability.
And of course, sometimes it’s an original idea from a great writer. Love that too.
How much do you personally have to like a project to produce it?
I don’t have to love everything about it, but I do have to find something personally meaningful and worthwhile if I’m going to put in the long slog to get it made. It’s not enough just to believe in its commercial potential (though I need that as well). I love the development process, so if it’s a fixer with good bones, I’m down for the reno.
What do you look for in writing samples?
The baseline is competence: grammar and spelling (yes, they matter), format, structure. But that’s just the beginning. A great sample grabs you right away (too easy to stop reading otherwise), demonstrates a specific voice and point of view, has interesting and distinctive characters, and plotting that makes sense.
What are the biggest turnoffs you see in writing samples/ screenwriters?
In other words, what makes me stop at ten pages? Or less.
Again, the basics: formatting, spelling, grammar. A writer has to respect the reader by proofing and showing that s/he cares about the work and understands the conventions of the medium. Clunky exposition. Obvious imitation of someone else’s work. Storytelling that’s boring and cowardly.
How do you stay vibrant and relevant (as a producer)?
People often ask what a producer does all day. The fact is that, when you’re not on set or closing a deal, a lot of effort and time goes into staying abreast of the shifting landscape around us.
I network obsessively. It’s not possible to go to parties every night when one has a family, but it’s typical to have three working meals a day that are focused on networking, information sharing, and sowing the seeds of future business. A producer should make it his/her business to meet as many people as possible: not just writers, but also directors, actors, below the line folks, novelists, scientists, anyone who has an interesting voice and could be part of a project at some point. Peers are important, but it’s equally important to cultivate the elder statesmen (and women!) who have seen it all, as well as the up-and-comers who have a refreshingly idealistic and energetic outlook.
Reading is important. I typically wake up early and catch up on the day’s digital news: Deadline, Variety, C21, Playback, MediaREDEF, and more. It’s not just important to understand what’s going on in the business, but also in the zeitgeist. What are people talking about, worried about, excited about? What news stories seem to be breaking through, and why? If you can keep your finger on the pulse, you’ll have a better chance of identifying stories that are relevant and timely.
How do you characterize the current film and TV landscape?
Change is the status quo. The two mega trends that are upending many businesses worldwide — technology and globalization – are disrupting our business as well.
All at once we are seeing the rise of digital delivery; the corporate consolidation in the entertainment business; the increased sophistication of industries outside the US; the ascendance of TV-like storytelling; the importance of mobile content consumption; the thirst for premium entertainment (at the same time as growth for user-generated content continues to grow); the new emphasis on under-appreciated voices and under-served audiences; and the fast-changing tastes of worldwide viewers. How do these factors interact, and where is it all going? Smarter folks than me are struggling to figure that out.
What remains clear is that good stories and strong voices remain important. It is a great time to be a content creator: demand is high, conventions are crumbling, and the door is as open to new players as it’s ever been.
How can screenwriters stand out and boost their chances of breaking in?
Screenwriters need to pay attention to their brand. Who are you as a person? What is your point of view on the world? How does this feed into your writing? Ask yourself these questions all the time, and then ask how they relate to the stories you tell and how you tell them. The clearer your brand as a writer, the more likely it is that someone will think of you when they know of a project that’s a good fit. Don’t try to be all things to all people; be the clearest, strongest version of who you are.
A key part of the branding process is your samples, especially when you don’t yet have much of a track record. You should have great samples for the kinds of content you want to write (e.g. light procedural drama, horror feature). But it’s also helpful to have unusual samples that speak to who you are even if it’s the wrong format. I’ve hired writers based on short stories, one-woman plays, even a Sopranos/Sex and the City crossover episode.
Include some samples in your arsenal that are risky and unusual. They won’t work for every instance, but sometimes they can really help you stand out.
Any thoughts on how screenwriters can better sustain a career?
For aspiring TV writers, there is a ladder to climb, and it’s possible to network your way in, starting as a writer’s assistant. Once you have that foot in the door, you can work your way up through hard work, networking, and smart self-branding. Of course, there are fallow periods for everyone, and it’s good to have supplemental sources of income – tutoring, dogwalking, technical writing, etc – that keep you afloat between gigs.
The feature business is more about what’s on the page, and I often counsel up-and-coming movie writers to get a day job that pays the bills, but can be left behind at 6 pm so they can go write. Keep that day job until you’re comfortable quitting it. Maybe longer.
Either way, the secret to success in this business is surviving the ups and downs. If you have alternate income sources, so you’re not just depending on writing, especially at the beginning, that tilts the odds in your favor.
Any closing thoughts for our readers?
Make friends with producers. We straddle the worlds of art and commerce and can help turn your brilliance into a viable business. We need you, and you need us.