Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spotlight Interview: Laura Friedman

Laura Friedman, Movie Producer/Filmmaker

Laura Friedman was a low-level script reader when she left New York City for Hollywood at 25 years old. Within a couple of years, Friedman was one of the film industry’s rising young women executives.

In charge of all areas of project acquisition and development, she was Vice President at the Paramount Pictures-based Cort/Madden Company, producers of such films as “Runaway Bride,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and “Something The Lord Made.” She also served as the Head of Development for Rysher Entertainment from 1994 to 1997, overseeing the production and development of approximately ten films a year with combined budgets upwards of 85 million dollars, as well as several syndicated and network television series. At Rysher, she supervised the films “Turbulence,” “Hard Eight,” and the multiple award-winning “Big Night” and “Howard Stern's Private Parts.”

Her producing credits include: Executive Producer of “Foxfire” and “Zeus and Roxanne,” Co-Producer of “It Takes Two,” and Associate Producer of “House Arrest” and “Aberration.”

Besides working in theatrical motion pictures, Friedman originated the concept for the highly acclaimed HBO dramatic series, "Oz,” and has taught film producing at UCLA and Chapman College. She’s currently an independent filmmaker/producer.

The following is my exclusive interview with Ms. Friedman:

Mike: What's the best way for a new screenwriter to break in?

Friedman: Write three great screenplays and find a good agent or manager.

Seriously, there is no single best way. The obvious answer is to write a fantastic commercial screenplay. If you really and truly do that, Hollywood will beat a path to your door.

Other things to consider: Enter every legitimate screenwriting competition you can find. Network like crazy. Try submitting to managers and some of the boutique agencies. They accept introductory letters from new screenwriters. Managers especially are easy to approach. They tend to be more open to new screenwriters than agents, and a good one can help you land a decent agent. Forget about submitting to the major agencies. They almost never sign unemployed, non-credited writers unless they come highly recommended by someone they know or have won some kind of major contest.

Mike: Can a screenwriter have their work read without an agent?

Friedman: Yes, but it is difficult. You can send one page pitch letters to production companies. The best look like professional business letters, mentioning awards, education you've received, and a few sentences about what your screenplay is about. The worst are printed on funny paper, mention names of big stars, and try to be “cute.”

If you get someone in the biz to read and like your script, the first thing you should ask is: Please help me find a good agent or manager. They really serve a valuable function.

Mike: What makes a great screenplay?

Friedman: If I knew, wouldn't I have written one myself?

Start by examining successful films that you like. What was it about them that drew audiences? What common themes, structures and characters do they contain? What did a bad film or one that couldn’t find an audience have in common?

Watch successful films, then read the screenplays and figure it out for yourself. Generally, it's easier to sell projects featuring appealing characters who undergo interesting journeys to which people can relate.

Mike: What separates a great screenplay from a bad one?

Friedman: About $150 million opening weekend, sequels and an Oscar.

Good screenplays are about dialogue, character development and structure. Good projects are about that, plus roles that stars want to play, stories that are fresh and timely, and plots that intrigue and audience.

Mike: Could you explain what you did when you were a reader, then as a producer, picking scripts?

Friedman: I read the first five pages. If I didn't really want to keep reading, I passed. If I kept reading, I usually still passed. If I read it and could visualize the film poster and star, and know why the star would want to do the project, I would consider taking it on.

When I was a reader I had to finish the script, write a brief synopsis (usually four paragraphs—one establishing, then one for each act), then write an evaluation. I evaluated the writing separately from the potential of the script. When I was an executive producer, I had the luxury of passing if I didn't want to keep reading after the first seven pages.

I looked at two separate issues: the talent of the writer and whether I wanted to make the film. Even if I passed on the project, I'd meet with the writer if I thought they were particularly talented. In the meeting, I'd expect them to pitch me another project or two—something they wanted to write that we might be interested in developing with them.

When evaluating the project, I thought about whether it was a viable film: Was it easily marketable? Would it attract a star? Did I feel passionate enough to work on it for several years if I had to? Was it fresh? Who was the audience? What did the poster look like? Which actors would be in it, and why?

Mike: What are the biggest mistakes new screenwriters make?

Friedman: Either writing something so overly formulaic that it isn't special or unique, writing something so personal and “small” that it feels more like a short story than a feature film, or writing something derivative, reminiscent of a recent hit.

Mike: Assuming the writer has talent, what is the number one most common, avoidable mistake a writer makes when submitting his/her screenplay?

Friedman: Not being professional and knowing the etiquette. Not knowing enough to target the companies who would be most interested in his/her genre. Trying to submit too high up the ladder, such as directly to studios or companies unreceptive to unsolicited submissions. Writers need to get an agent or manager and let the system work for them, rather than fight against it.

Mike: What do you think are the most common misconceptions writers have about getting their screenplays read, sold, made into movies?

Friedman: That your screenplay is better than anyone else’s screenplay. And that just writing a screenplay is enough.

The biz is so much more than that. You have to learn, and ultimately know how to be a professional: to be able to secure meetings, to network, to work with executives. It's a process, and a real business that has to be learned.

Mike: What's the best advice you could give a screenwriter?

Friedman: My strategy would be: Get the highest paying job that gives you the most “free” hours, then use those free hours to write like hell. Keep the day job. Which means you should know how you are going to pay your bills over the next year or two. Find a way to LIVE that doesn't involve depending on money made writing and pursue writing as a passion.

Mike: What is your advice for writers who get notes from producers for script changes and the producer doesn't speak dramaturgically (example, you get notes like “make this part funnier,” or “make the hero more interesting here”), what's the best way to handle that situation?

Friedman: Are you asking about a situation in which something is in development, or in which a general comment is given in a “pass” letter?

If you're talking about a script in development, ask for clarification. Ask the exec or producer to show you exactly where the script isn't working for them. Don't be afraid to take a meeting and have a dialogue.

If it’s a general comment given by someone who is passing on it, it probably isn't fair to ask for a meeting (unless they are on the fence about the project and would be willing to read a rewrite). You have to decide if their comment is valid and whether you want to address it in a rewrite.

Mike: What is the number one thing you look for when you pick up a script from an unknown writer?

Friedman: I look for the same things I look for in any script. I don't judge it any differently than a script from a known writer. A bagel is a bagel no matter where you got it. If you like it you'll bite, if you don't you'll toss it.

Mike: What's the best screenplay you ever read? And why was it great?

Friedman: I've read a lot of great scripts. They keep you engaged, make you care about the characters, contain universal themes, clear structure, and satisfying resolutions.

One that sticks out was a biopic about Bela Lugosi. I don’t remember the exact name. It was a very difficult project, probably best suited for cable, but it was really beautifully written. It took you into the world of old Hollywood while exposing Lugosi as a tortured and complicated individual. It started with his entering a drug rehab clinic to get off heroin, then was told through flashbacks as he went through cold turkey. His alter ego of Dracula acted as a kind of narrator, tormenting Lugosi as he evaluated his own life.

I remember wanting to buy “The Rock,” because I loved the idea of a group of men trying to break into prison. Ron Bass (“Rain Man”) has a great writing style. I’d recommend reading some of his scripts.

Mike: What do the best writers always do automatically, and talented beginners seem to need to learn? In other words, what do the best have in common?

Friedman: They are great pitchers and have an instinctive understanding of what kinds of stories people want to see. They understand the motivations of the buyers and try to give them what they want. They write simply and tell good stories.

Mike: What is the most important thing a writer should be aware of when he/she submits their script to a producer?

Friedman: That EVERYONE is TRYING to find a GREAT SCRIPT. But…no one owes you a read. All script reading is done in “off time” out of the office. It is a big deal for anyone to spend an hour reading your script, and you should be grateful when they do and understanding when they won't. Agents and assistants perform a very important function as filters. They are not your enemy. If you really, truly have a great story to tell AND have great writing talent, Hollywood will beat a path to your door. Unfortunately, the sad fact is, 99.9% of non-professional writers are mediocre at best. About 95% of unrepresented writers are not worth reading. I read scripts for about 15 years and only read about five great scripts by unrepresented writers. The rest were, at best, so-so. Given this fact, don't get bent out of shape that no executive wants to read your unsolicited script or responds to your query letter.

Mike: Writers are always told that all submitted screenplays should be between 100-120 pages in length, yet we often see movies at the cinema that are longer than that . . . is there ever a time a writer can submit a longer screenplay?

Friedman: Just like directors or stars, writers can only deviate from the norms when they've earned it through past successes. Given the difficulty of getting anything read, much less bought, why make your chances even more difficult?

Mike: Are there any stories or genres to be avoided at all costs?

Friedman: No. In fact, doing a traditionally “difficult” genre can actually get your script attention, as long as it is brilliantly executed. That script will in all likelihood never be made, but it might work as a great sample. For example, I know a TV writer who wrote a spec script in which the guys from "Taxi" picked up in their cabs the women from “Sex in the City.” That script got the writer a job because it was so creative.

Just know that a difficult genre probably won't sell, and should be written for the purpose of being a writing sample.

And what is “difficult”? Costume dramas, period films, "small" dramas that don't involve big issues or a role that will give a star an Oscar, any genre that is currently over represented, and anything with a sad ending.

Mike: What is your advice for dealing with rejection /negative feedback?

Friedman: Listening to the comments very closely. Don’t take harsh critiques personally. Instead, use them constructively, as a way to improve.

Mike: What's your favorite movie of all time?

Friedman: I don't have a single favorite movie. Some of my favorites are: The Sweet Smell of Success, West Side Story, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, and Annie Hall.

Mike: Are there any books you recommend as must-read for aspiring screenwriters?

Friedman: There are hundreds of books on screenwriting, yet most, if not all of the authors make their career out of teaching screenwriting rather than actually writing screenplays (example: Robert McKee).

That's a better question for writers. The only book I've read about Hollywood is “Hollywood Babylon.” I'd suggest reading as many scripts as you can get your hands on. I know some good writers who have worked in Hollywood as script readers. It's a great way to learn, and an even better way to network and get your script read.

Actually, instead of reading a ton of how-to screenwriting books, I'd recommend that you study film theory and history—especially history. You can't be a good filmmaker if you don't know the canon. You should see the great German silent films as well as the important films from each era of the 20th century. If you don't know film references and history you won't be taken seriously in Hollywood. Believe it or not, Hollywood is filled with film buffs who really know the medium.

You should read screenplays of movies they liked, read the reviews of top critics. Try to find the reviews of The New Yorker magazine’s Pauline Kael. She was a great critic.

The only RECOMMENDED reading is “The Hollywood Reporter” and “Daily Variety.” You MUST, MUST, MUST read these every day to be able to succeed in the biz. You have to learn all the important executive's names and the important companies. You have to know how to talk and what's going on around town. I can't stress this enough.

A good movie to see that really shows what it’s like in the biz is Kevin Bacon’s 1989 film, “The Big Picture,” in which he plays a boy-wonder director.

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