Monday, January 12, 2009

Spotlight Interview: Movie Exec Stephen Israel

Stephen Israel, Movie Executive

Stephen Israel, a movie industry veteran, is best known as the Executive Producer of the 1994 cult flick classic, “Swimming With Sharks,” starring Kevin Spacey and Benicio Del Toro.

Israel’s corporate experience is extensive: He was Senior Vice President, Development & Acquisitions at the pioneering internet start-up American Cybercast—which brought produced the World’s first Internet soap-opera, The Spot, Vice President, New Business Development at Turner Broadcasting System’s entertainment group and worked in production at Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures, in strategic planning at Warner Bros., and as a management consultant for the firm of BoozoAllen & Hamilton.

Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Mr. Israel:

Mike: What’s the best strategy for a beginning screenwriter to sell a script and possibly have a chance of getting it made into a film?

Israel: Do a little research into films that are similar, and find out who produced them. Then contact those producers and pitch them the idea. Often, you won't get directly to the producer, but their development person—and that's OK.

You can also try directors you like, but if they have any track record, you'll have to get past their agents - and they don't like passing on material that isn't financed, so that's an uphill battle unless you can get to them personally.

DON'T send in an unsolicited script—it'll never get read.

You can also try attaching cast, but that's only worthwhile if it's truly
A-list talent that'll get the film made. Middle-ranking talent will rarely help you, and will often hurt you. And the same problem with the agents applies.

Mike: What's the best way to go about getting an agent if you're a beginning or unknown screenwriter?

Israel: Get a studio deal. Unfortunately there's no good answer here. There are few agents truly willing to take a risk on an unknown.

If you get your script into a few big competitions, that can sometimes help—but that's a competitive and long road.

One other approach is to get mentored by a bigger writer who might get you some referrals.

Mike: What's the best book you ever read on screenwriting and why?

Israel: I think the best way to learn is to read tons and tons of screenplays, rather than books on screenwriting. You'll see what works and what doesn’t.

Mike: What’s the best advice you can offer on screenwriting?

Israel: Sounds cliché, but just write. There are lots of masterpieces that never actually got written! There are lots of unpublished works—but so many more unwritten ones.

Mike: And what about rejection? What’s the best way to handle it?

Israel: Get used to it. If it bothers you, then you're in the wrong business! Feedback, however, is important: you can learn a great deal about how people respond to your work. Of course you shouldn't try to accommodate every single note, but listen carefully—usually you'll find the same note comes back from multiple sources, and if it does, then that's probably a note worth taking.

Mike: Could you talk about your Swimming With Sharks experience? And what path did you take to get where you are today?

Israel: These two questions sort of go together for me.

I was a corporate stiff who got bored counting beans and shepherding paper from one side of a studio to another. So I quit and went to work as an intern for Roger Corman, the king of B-movies. While I was there I put together a bunch of my business school friends and we decided to finance a film—and then I read a year's worth of utter garbage until I found Swimming With Sharks.

The script stood out immediately from everything else I read, and I had to hang on tight and get in business with some guys who were definitely a bit shady, but the script was worth it. Those guys (who will remain unnamed) caused huge problems and stole money from the production, but we eventually persevered and got the film made.

But EVERYTHING went wrong with the film. On the first day our very green transportation coordinator got all the trucks to set two hours late. On day two, someone got their foot broken when one of the trucks rolled over it. On day three the art department truck caught fire. And day four was the Northridge Earthquake—and then the insurance company shut us down fearing after-shocks.

Then there was the theft.

We got the film finished despite that—and then our sales agent went bankrupt. We had to buy back the rights to our own film.

We got into great film festivals—Toronto and Telluride to start with. At Telluride a major distributor offered us a terrific deal—only to renege a week later after we told the other distributors we had a deal!

So finally Trimark buys the film and we think we're out of the woods. But then they pulled the ad budget for the film the day it went wide—so the box-office numbers in the third week went into the toilet.

And this summer our second sales agent went bankrupt again.

So, years later, I'm still being dogged by the film. Good thing it was a classic, because otherwise it would not have been worth it!

After Sharks I returned to the corporate world for a while (I was asked to start a strategic planning group at Turner—and he was always a hero of mine - still is). But after a couple of years I realized I "had the bug" and came back to LA and have been producing ever since.

Mike: What's the No. 1 avoidable mistake beginning screenwriters usually make when submitting scripts?

Israel: Blind submissions. Never, ever do that.

And before you make a call to pitch your work, PRACTICE WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO SAY!

Mike: What's the No. 1 thing you look out for as a producer with new screenwriters? How can you spot talent immediately?

Israel: I tend not to look for screenwriters—I look for scripts. The talent has to show through the writing.

Mike: What should screenwriters should be aware of when they submit scripts to a producer?

Israel: That it's really easy to say "no" to something—and all of us are bombarded by material, so don't give us an extra reason to say no. Face the fact that 99% of responses are going to be "no" and try to make the experience as painless as possible. If you argue with a producer's conclusions, you are never going to change his mind, but you are very likely to piss him/her off—and then they won't read your next script.

Remember, this is a business of relationships, and everything you do should be about keeping doors open and maintaining relationships. So you might violently disagree with the opinions you might hear, but listen politely and accept rejection gracefully—and if you stay in this business for the long haul, even the most successful writers are rejected FAR more often than they are accepted, so handling rejection goes with the job.

Mike: Any final advice?

Israel: Well, you've heard the phrase: “It's not what you now, but who you know.” Well it's true, so quit complaining. Part of your job is to get to know the right people, so start going to cocktail parties.

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