The Producer’s Perspective on Your Screenplay
This interview originally appeared on LA Screenwriter.
by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Danny Manus is one of the most in-demand script consultants working today. He is the CEO of No BullScript Consulting and author of No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective. Danny was ranked a “Cream of the Crop” script consultant in CS Magazine and named one of ScreenCraft’s “25 People Writers Should Follow on Twitter.” His clients include finalists or winners of the ABC/Disney Fellowship, Austin Film Festival, PAGE Awards, Nashville Film Festival, and Scriptapalooza. Danny is also a Development Consultant for Symerra Productions and was previously the Director of Development for Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story), where he sold “To Oz” to United Artists and was a production executive on Just Add Water and Sydney White. He was also the Development Consultant for Eclectic Pictures (Lovelace) and the DOD at Sandstorm Films (TheCovenant, 8MM2), which had a first look deal at Screen Gems.
LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa recently spoke with Danny Manus regarding the producer’s perspective on screenplays and screenwriters.
Angela Bourassa: What are producers looking for first and foremost in the scripts they consider?
Danny Manus: The generic answers of course are “something great” or “something original” or “a strong voice.” And while those are true, they are truer for Managers. What Producers want is something they can sell because, from the concept and logline, they can picture it as a MOVIE. Something they can package quickly because the characters are so engaging, compelling, deep, and distinct that an actor would kill to play the parts. Something they can sell overseas that has larger appeal than just one domestic quadrant. Something that has great production value. Something that creates a world that people can wrap around them, even if it’s a world they already know. Something that’s universal, yet personal. And something that not only keeps them reading, but something they want their bosses to read, instead of just giving them coverage on it. Plus, as I said… Something great, original, and with a strong voice.
Angela Bourassa: It seems to me like the biggest mistake new writers make is starting with a story idea that isn’t strong enough. What considerations should writers be thinking about when they choose an idea to write?
Danny Manus: I think the biggest mistake is a mix of writing a story that isn’t strong enough and not knowing how to get the most out of the story you want to write. Not pushing your ideas far enough. You have to know what’s great about your idea — what the hook is — and how you can exploit it to maximize your concept in the most visual, compelling, and cinematic ways.
When coming up with a new idea, the most important thing you can do is maximize the first twenty minutes after you’ve thought of it. Because the most creative you’re ever going to be is in the first twenty minutes after coming up with a new idea. Use that time to brainstorm, list, and write everything that comes into your mind. Characters, scenes, set pieces, lines of dialogue, beats, moments, locations – anything and everything that comes into your mind. Then go from there.
When you’re deciding on what idea to write, think of these three things:
(1) Where are you in your career and what are you hoping to accomplish with this script? This is also where consultants can be helpful, because different stories often lend themselves to different purposes, and you don’t want to waste your time writing the wrong kind of script that isn’t going to suit your purpose.
(2) Is there enough there to sustain a film (or TV series), and have you pushed your idea far enough and considered all options, directions, set pieces, etc? Do you know the hook that makes your story stand out and have you thought of enough amazing ways to exploit it?
(3) How much do you love it? You have to make sure you love it. Because if you don’t, then you will really start to HATE it eventually. By your fifteenth draft, twentieth draft… you’re gonna hate it. So you have to sit in it for a while, flesh it out, brainstorm, outline, etc. Make sure that you love all the possibilities your story has. And if you can’t stop thinking about it… then you know it’s time to start writing.
Angela Bourassa: How can a writer know if the idea they want to write will be appealing to the market?
Danny Manus: The short answer is… you can’t. I cannot tell you how many scripts have come across my desk over the last fifteen years that I thought were a commercial, sellable, slam-f*cking-dunk. That I was so sure would sell, that I’d risk my career on it. But it’s a good thing I didn’t… because nothing happened with them. And it’s about equal to the number of scripts I thought were awful or unsellable or things I’ve passed on as an Exec that later got produced. And there’s not one executive or consultant in town who doesn’t have those projects.
But that’s not to say that a writer shouldn’t pay attention to the market and know what’s out there, and where the market MIGHT be going. Know the atmosphere in Hollywood. Do your research. Know when to strike. But perhaps the two most important questions to ask yourself are… Would you be excited to pay $15 to see this movie? And do you think that MILLIONS of other people who don’t know you and don’t care about you would be excited to pay $15 to see this movie? If the answer is no, then it probably won’t appeal to the market. You’d be shocked to know how many writers I’ve asked that question to in a pitch that couldn’t answer yes.
Angela Bourassa: If a writer has an opportunity to get in a room with a producer, what should they do?
Danny Manus: Be prepared. Have a game plan. Know who you’re meeting with, what they do, who they’ve worked with, and why they’re meeting with you. (Presumably it’s because they have read something of yours and liked it.) Try to find a common connection, a personal “in” – maybe you went to the same college or are from the same town or use the same dog walker. And you should know your projects and be ready with loglines and mini-pitches on a few.
If it’s a general meeting, you’re gonna small talk – just have a nice, normal conversation like you would with a friend. Then, they’re going to ask what you’re working on, and they’re going to tell you what they are working on. Listen. Take it in. See if any of their projects sound exciting to you and pique your creative interests.
And most importantly, seem normal and make a connection. Even if they hate everything you pitch them, make a connection so that you can come back in when you have something new. Always leave doors open.
Angela Bourassa: What should that same writer absolutely not do?
Danny Manus: Don’t walk in blind. Don’t be nervous – it’s just a regular conversation. Don’t walk in overly aggressive and start pitching immediately. Don’t over-hype yourself, don’t seem desperate or stubborn. Don’t wear flip flops. When all else fails, fake it til ya make it. Be the person they are going to want to work with for the next 3-5 years. Just don’t leave a bad taste in their mouth.
Angela Bourassa: Producers say “no” a lot more than they say “yes.” What are some of the factors that lead to a “yes”? What’s behind most of the “no”s?
Danny Manus: Truth is, the reasons for most “no”s are out of your control. What’s behind most of the “no”s are things that are company-centric. It’s not the type of material they do, they have something like it already, they can’t sell it overseas, the market is saturated with things like it, the budget is too big or small, etc. There are a million reasons to pass, including just wanting to be polite. There’s nothing you can do about that. Your job as the writer is to give execs as FEW reasons to say no as possible. That includes things like typos and grammar and formatting.
What leads to a yes? That’s easy… Talent + Luck + Timing. When the right writer writes the right project at the right time with the right voice and finds the right producer… they get a Yes.