On November 6th, 2005, we had the pleasure of chatting with Senior Story Analyst Jason Patti of ICM.
Jacinthe/TwoAdverbs> Jason, I’d like to welcome you to our chat room. Thanks for being here.
[JasonPatti] Thanks for having me.
Jacinthe> Branko e-mailed me a question so I’ll start with his. “Imagine being far away from LA and still wanting to be a H’wood scribe. What would you do? What would be your first steps? Which path to choose? How to get read?”
[JasonPatti] Okay — it’s always tough to be away from LA — but this doesn’t cut you out of the loop entirely. The best way to go at it is the same way new writers work in Hollywood. First, you’ll want to target managers — managers are far more accessible than agents — more willing to take a chance by reading new writers.
Secondly, you’ll want to pick up a copy of the Hollywood Creative Directory. It contains a listing of all of the working production companies in Hollywood — including names of the executives. Target story editors and creative executives — then send them a query. Most query letters will get read and if your letter is solid, they’ll take a chance on you. The bad news is — if someone likes your material, you’ll be called in to take meetings, etc.
The BIG screenplay competitions are a good idea as well, but be careful not to enter the smaller competitions. At the very least, be certain to enter only those with good reputations.
Hope that helps. See you in LA soon
[Tom_Deaver] Horror has been hot. What genres are you seeing being requested now? What do you do to sell genres counter to the “hot” genre?
[JasonPatti] Writing to the hot genre is a very dangerous hobby for up and coming screenwriters. The hot genre is the R-rated comedy [à la 40 Year Old Virgin] and any comedy that fits into that Vince Vaughn & crew formula. It’s important to remember that hot genres can change so quickly that it’s impossible for a young screenwriter to break in and get the material read before it fades.
Good scripts will always sell — no matter what the genre. The best advice is to hit managers and production companies with your best. File away genre material and cycle it out as the genre gets hot. On that note, it’s something of a fallacy in regards to agents/managers wanting single genre writers. Writers have expanded into cross-genre territory and it’s a trend that will continue.
[Deus_Ex_Machine] Jason, you mentioned queries. Can you give us some idea of what you look for in a query? Not in terms of how it is written (unless you want to get into that) but in terms of what piques your interest or makes your spider sense tingle. What should we be emphasizing in queries and pitches, from your POV, to get an agent to request the script?
[JasonPatti] 1: Keep it short. Most execs will take the time to read queries [or force their assistants to read them] so you’ve got a shot.
Secondly, nail your logline. Chris Lockhart’s article at TwoAdverbs is one that I constantly refer to.
3. Don’t oversell. None of the: “this is the best movie in history of the universe! 100 million guaranteed! I would also include a very brief synopsis. Then — this is the most important thing:
4. Follow up. The way I landed my first job in this business was by bothering an exec until he gave up.
[JasonPatti] Call on a bi-weekly basis until they answer your query. Execs are going to hate me for this! [[keep it quiet]]
[Tim_Miller] What’s the number one thing YOU look for when reading a script? (Story? Roles for actors? Commercial viability, etc…)
[JasonPatti] Emotion. A good script — no matter what genre — must create some emotion for me to consider it. I realize this is a big answer, so I’ll try to explain. Imagine that we see a man running down the road. Not that interesting. OK, now imagine that he’s running from the law. Better, but not great. So, we have the beginnings of a plot [man running from the law], but something’s missing. The missing element is character. Now imagine that this man discovered that his wife has been murdered and now the cops think he’s the killer. THE FUGITIVE. The backstory — the information we discovered about the character — engages us.
So plot plus character = emotion. Now, most scripts don’t have everything. Maybe a great story with mediocre characters or vice versa, but the script needs to have a strong enough balance in order to elicit a response from the reader/viewer. No matter what the genre — good scripts — good drama — make you feel something. And that’s what I look for.
Jacinthe> That was an interesting way to put it.
[JasonPatti] So…all of you still want to be writers?
[Tom_Deaver] Without any hesitation, yes.
[JasonPatti] Yeah me too. ;p)
[Audrey] Yeah, a glutton for punishment.
[Tim_Miller] Now I want to be a coal miner instead. Or a cowboy.
Jacinthe> Wordpainter, you’re up.
[wordpainter] This ties in as well. A recent quote said even in a feature action, horror, thriller, etc, that the character story should be strong enough to stand on its own in an independent film, and that was a criteria for picking which project to move forward. Do you agree? Disagree?
[JasonPatti] I agree. When screenplays reach the end of their first act, the protagonist is presented with a crisis. In big studio movies, the crisis is external, largely: save the world, kill the aliens, etc. In independent film, the crisis is almost always internal: coming of age story or drug drama, etc. So — the story is about the internal machinations of the character — without the hook of a big commercial movie [an external plot line], the internal line [this character line] better be fantastic. Good quote.
[wordpainter] Good answer
[Tom_Deaver] Would you include information about yourself in your query just to managers and agents? Let me qualify: information that pertains to the story or to your ability as a writer.
[JasonPatti] I would keep personal information to a minimum. If the screenplay won an award, I would include that. Otherwise, your ideas need to make the sale.
[Tom_Deaver] But to an agent and manager, you aren’t selling your story as much as you are selling yourself as a writer that can make them money…
[JasonPatti] Not really.
[Tom_Deaver] Or does that matter?
[JasonPatti] Managers will certainly be more concerned with your career, but they need a starting point — they need a ‘calling card’ script for you. For example: a manager will bite a well written script that won’t make a dime, because they hope it becomes a sample to land you writing assignments. But — the idea is making them call you. As for agents, they are only interested in the sale.
[Tom_Deaver] Good answer. Thank you.
[steve_slpp_] Hi & thanks. I’d like to improve the “notes” I give to the aspiring screenwriters with whom I occasionally trade scripts. How do you approach giving notes? What’s the mark of professionalism in giving notes?
[JasonPatti] The mark of professionalism is clearly identifying the problems by dividing your thoughts into the elements of the craft. Focus on structure, characters, dialogue — dealing with the major elements. Individual broad problems are handled first [such a massive structural flaw] and then move on to smaller problems: passive protagonist, weak secondary characters, etc. Then — when you are suggesting possible solutions to these problems — try to stay within the context of the draft. Follow this up with page notes, specifically handling scene-to-scene writing, and your writer friend will either thank you or kill you….
[steve_slpp_] Could you clarify seeing a “structural flaw”?
[JasonPatti] Structure is a nasty beast. An easy example: let’s say, a revenge story. If the protagonist decides to seek revenge on page 60… you’re in big trouble. The note would read: the protagonist needs to make that decision on 20 and then do something about it on 30. That’s one of countless structural problems. I don’t mean to sound so rigid with these page numbers, etc. These flow a bit through various stories. It’s a guideline, not a gospel.
[steve_slpp_] It is something we hear — move the inciting incident forward, as far as possible.
[JasonPatti] Absolutely. Gotta hook that reader quickly.
[steve_slpp_] Thank you.
[Deus_Ex_Machine] Good stuff, Jason. This is related. Other than lack of emotion (since it’s your number 1 look for) what are the biggest and most common flaws you see in the scripts your read? What should we be avoiding?
[JasonPatti] I don’t think writers take the time to develop their ideas. Writers are often so anxious to write that they take the first idea that comes to mind. Many of the working writers in Hollywood will keep a separate notebook specifically for concepts. It’s an exercise that you must force yourself to do. Try to come up with 3 movie ideas a week, or 5 or 10, even if they’re awful — write them down.
As Paul Schrader [TAXI DRIVER] said: “if you can “tell” your story to a friend in twenty minutes — and they don’t want to strangle you when you’re done — then you’ve got a movie.” Preparation is writing. Don’t sell yourself short by starting prematurely.
[Deus_Ex_Machine] So focus on the work before the writing and the rest will fall into place?
[JasonPatti] “Fall into place” — I don’t know about that, but focus on the elements of writing. You have a concept, then build your characters, massage their internal and external lines — focus on the craft — and then talent is what will turn your writing into art. Hopefully.
[KGRANGE23] As writers, I feel we’re forced into a “what-can-you-do-for-me?” relationship with executives. Is there a way for writers to work with, possibly for, executives to create long term relationships for mutual benefit?
[JasonPatti] It’s a dangerous world out there for writers. But execs are people too. There are many instances [in my experience] in which execs will find an unknown writer and develop a script with them — eventually setting it up or helping the writer find a manager/agent, etc. But it is free work. I think the process of building a relationship with an exec is critical to your career. Start with the story editors — they are young and hungry. Is that what you were looking or…?
[KGRANGE23] That’s great. Thanks!
[Hamletta] I tend to write high-budget action/adventure sci-fi pieces. How would you go about trying to sell those? The same as your answer above, or should I do anything differently? (Like, forget about it and write something low budget?)
[JasonPatti] I love sci-fi. The only difference is in targeting specific companies. Find out who produced Serenity, and try to make contact with someone there. Dig out the sci-fi producers and focus your efforts there. Also, the sci-fi channel is increasingly interested in features — something to think about.
[Hamletta] Meaning, other than agents/managers?
[JasonPatti] That’s a more difficult issue. There are managers out there who trend towards sci-fi. Circle of Confusion is a great management company and they made their bones on the Wachowskis [THE MATRIX]. You can find out who represents writers by calling the writers guild, which might lead to more specialized managers. As for agents, they just want the sale…
[Hamletta] lol — well you can sell sci-fi… This is great advice, thank you.
[Tim_Miller] Will an agency like ICM take on a writer on the basis of a single script?
[JasonPatti] No — ICM isn’t in the business of breaking writers. A big agency will come calling after you sell a few projects.
[Tim_Miller] So it’s NOT just the sale?
[JasonPatti] You can bet on it. It’s the difference between big agents and small agents. The big agents want big sales, the smaller agents want any sale.
[JasonPatti] Money is evil, isn’t it?
[Tim_Miller] I wouldn’t know.
[Deus_Ex_Machine] Unless you have it
[Tom_Deaver] What are some of the management companies that you would recommend? There are so many it’s hard to know who is a player that can help and who isn’t.
[JasonPatti] That’s a tough question — it depends so much on what you’re writing. The best way to find out is to read the trades [Variety], etc. To get the same information for nothing, there is a web site called www.scriptsales.com — they track day to day spec sales. You can easily see which managers are consistently in the game.
[Tom_Deaver] I write epics, sci-fi, and action. Any recommendations based on that?
[JasonPatti] Honestly, the best advice is to blanket the more active companies. Bender Spink is a fantastic management company. Always setting projects up — but they have a huge client base now. That makes it a bit harder. But you’d be a fool not to try.
[Tom_Deaver] I’ve been following your advice. Thanks for the inside on Bender Spink. I was looking for some of that info that you can’t get from the trades.
[steve_slpp_] An issue I see frequently on screenwriting forums is the sort of “mythology and lore” of the written script — “no wrylies” and “only 1 adverb per 3 pages” and so on. Could you weigh in on wrylies and reader asides and two adverbs per page? Is there anything in the presentational style of a script that makes you despise it? Love it? Can you generalize?
[JasonPatti] Okay — simple answer to this one: don’t believe the hype. There are no secret formulas, special sauces or magic eight balls. Proper format is important because it’s professional. If I see a script with illustrations or diagrams, it’s a turn-off. Rodat doesn’t use them, Kaufman doesn’t, Billy Wilder didn’t.
[Deus_Ex_Machine] What about money paper clipped to it?
[JasonPatti] So just follow standard screen formula and tell me a great story.
[steve_slpp_] Thanks. Do I get a bonus for including “two adverbs” in my chat question? Doesn’t everyone have to do a shot now?
[Tim_Miller] I didn’t wait.
[Loops] If you wanted good/solid feedback on a script, who would you send your script too? I’ve often wondered about all of those “services” out there, but I feel like it’s sending something to McDonald’s for a cash & carry response. In short, I’ve networked into some very nice Hwood contacts, but I do not want to send them something and burn my bridges.
[JasonPatti] The services are dangerous. There are some good ones out there, but the valuable depends wholly on who is reading your script. I would check the reader’s background and experience. If the site doesn’t include a reader bio — avoid it.
[Loops] Had not thought of that. Thanks.
Jacinthe> Tom, the last question is yours.
[Tom_Deaver] What’s your typical day like? What’s your weekly schedule? What’s the business climate like at ICM?
[JasonPatti] Business is booming at ICM — we just closed a 100 million plus cash deal to expand business — so all is right in that world. A typical day… read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and then… On a good day, I’m working with writers and trying to develop their scripts, working with existing clients’ projects and trying to find solutions to sticking points in their scripts.
[reblscribe] More importantly, what’s Chris Lockhart like at work?
[JasonPatti] Chris Lockhart is a maniac…but I don’t need to tell you that
[JasonPatti] He’s a fantastic guy — one of the sharpest story minds in the biz. (mail the check, Lockhart)
[wordpainter] Le Hammer
Jacinthe> Jason, thanks again so much for being our guest.
[JasonPatti] I had a great time.
[Deus_Ex_Machine] Thanks, Jason. Great stuff!!
[steve_slpp_] Yes. Thanks.
[Tim_Miller] Thanks, Jason. Cool stuff.
[Hamletta] Thanks Jason!
[reblscribe] Jason, you’re awesome. Thanks for your time. Helpful, edifying stuff. I’m really glad I made it to this chat. Thanks!!!
[JasonPatti] I’ll be seeing you all around the site…
[ConODon] Yes, thanks. It’s been fantastic.
[wordpainter] Nice of you to donate your Sunday off…thank you.
[LateNightWriter] Ditto! This has been incredibly informative!!!
[Tom_Deaver] Thanks, Jason! Great information.
[wanderer] Thanks I learned a lot.
[Freezo] Thanks all of you for organizing this
[KGRANGE23] Thanks for your time! You’re a great help!
[Hamletta] We’ll be looking out to see you on the site.
[JasonPatti] Thanks to all of you — good luck!!!