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Today I have an interview with screenwriter Adam Gaines. We discuss what happens in the ‘writer's room', collaboration, how self-publishing his own one-act play got him a deal, as well as how you could pitch your book.
In the intro, I give a personal update about CrimeFest and my progress on the Third edition of How to Market a Book. It's available for pre-order, and you can get 30% off on Kobo with promo code: MARKET30.
I also mention the Youpreneur Summit in London this November – join me and top speakers like Chris Ducker, Pat Flynn, John Lee Dumas, Carrie Green, Amy Schmittauer, John Jantsch, and many more. Early bird pricing is available now, so if you want to grow an online business around your book (as I have), then click here to check out more details.
Today's show is sponsored by my own How to Write a Novel course, which I created while writing End of Days, so you get a behind the scenes look at how the book came together. One course member, Leigh Anderson said, “This course is exactly what I was looking for. I now feel well on my way to writing and completing my first draft. It has been a real breakthrough for me.” Check it out at www.TheCreativePenn.com/writenovel
Adam Gaines is a screenwriter, playwright and Indie author living in Los Angeles. He has written for Network TV Shows like “State of Affairs” and “The Bridge” as well as writing feature films and his own shorts.
You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.
- How Adam got started on his screenwriting path, and why he chose the route he did
- Working collaboratively in a TV writers' room vs. working solo as an author
- Why credits (and therefore residuals) are so important for screenwriters
- Tips for pitching your story or book adaptation to Hollywood
- Why Adam wrote and indie published his one-act plays and how they have helped his screenwriting career
You can find Adam on Twitter @Nothing_To_Gain
Transcript of Interview with Adam Gaines
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from the creativepenn.com and today I'm here with Adam Gaines. Hi, Adam.
Adam: Hi. How are you?
Joanna: I'm great. Just a little introduction
Adam is a screenwriter, playwright and Indie author living in Los Angeles. He has written for Network TV Shows like “State of Affairs” and “The Bridge” as well as writing feature films and his own shorts, which is all very exciting.
Tell us just a bit more about you and how you got into screenwriting.
Adam: I got into screenwriting very early. I watched the movie screen with my grandma when I was 11. And I told her I wanted to do this and she said, “Tell people.” And I said, “No, write movies.” And that was it from that day on. And then like the next year I got the Internet and I looked up what school to go to.
I was a very weird kid who had the blinders on from a very early age and I knew by like 12 that I wanted to write for film and TV and went to one school for it. And then the day after graduation got on a plane and moved 3000 miles from my friends and family and started working my way up.
Joanna: Is that the truth? People hear about it.
Do you have to move to L.A. if you want to be a successful screenwriter?
Adam: I don't know because I'm not fully successful yet. But I think it does help because it is such a hard business to get into as you know other people you've had success like that.
My thinking was, growing up, was why make it any harder? If you're going to put your eggs in this basket that's so narrow and so focused and so competitive and so challenging, at least pick the basket that has the most opportunities. And while there's production in Vancouver, in Toronto, in New York, in London, in New Zealand and Australia, those are crew positions. The majority of the writers' rooms are always still in L.A.
Even shows that shoot in New York City, some of those rooms are in New York but like “Billions,” for example, on Showtime or “House of Cards.” But most of them are still in L.A., the “Good Wife” shot in New York or Chicago but the writers' room was in L.A. “Empire” shoots in Chicago. It's set in New York, writers' room in L.A.
Joanna: Interesting. You said you're “not entirely successful yet,” so tell us a bit more about that journey. I looked on IMDb, which if people don't know is like the place to look for people, and you've got all these things: writer, producer, director, research, whatever.
Tell us a bit about your journey, what those different roles entailed.
Adam: When I first got out here, I was an assistant like everybody else. And I was an assistant at a major production company that was making film and TV.
One of the ways I thought to try to get on this track of being a full-fledged writer with representation in the guilds who could support himself on just their storytelling ability, wordsmith and whatever, was to go the TV route. I put movies for aside for a second because I saw that there was actually a path in TV.
And, again, we're talking about the challenging nature of this all and how there really are no steps. But I saw on TV there might actually be a small, if not treacherous staircase, that I could maybe climb. And that crucial step where the day job and the dream job kind of intersect is writer's assistant on a TV show.
And it has the word “assistant” in it but you're not getting coffee. You're actually in the writer's room with 8 to 12 talented professional writers. And you're the only one in there that's not a writer. I mean, you are in your mind on the nights and the weekends but you're only one there being paid not as a writer.
You sit there with a laptop and you take notes as they break the story, as they come up with the season, the episode, the scene. And at the worst, you're a glorified court stenographer there to track and take care and type down everything they're saying.
But at the best end of the spectrum, you are there to synthesize the ideas, recap them in a succinct nature and organize the document at the end of the night so that people who were not in the room that day, for example the show runner because he's busy casting a part or in a production meeting, or a writer who's off writing episode 11 so he's not hearing them talk about 12, everyone in the writers' room or the story department can stay on the same page and know what was said that day.
And so I did that on the handful of shows. It was so valuable because not only am I networking and every time I'm in a room, I'm meeting 12 new writers that I get to have lunch with and talk with all day and pick their brains, but also I'm learning all the different types of TV.
I did both the TV show on network TV and on cable TV, different kinds of dramas. Some were more procedural. Some were more serialized. And so I saw how to write to an act out and say, “Okay, well we gotta do five scenes,” and on the fifth scene right before the commercial has to be the cliffhanger one so that people come back after they watch their Bounty commercial and want to come and watch more.
And I've been on a cable show where writing to the act out and writing to the commercial is not as important. You're there to set the mood and the atmosphere and tell your hour-long story regardless of where the commercials fall.
And then what happens is, invariably, the room sizes change. People are out sick. People are on set, whatever. And as you prove yourself in these rooms, they call upon you to pitch ideas, write scenes. “Hey, I have an outline due Friday. You take acts three and four. I'll take acts one and two. Let's get this done.”
You're never not in the room, so you have the best understanding of the characters, the season, the story. If you're on it for more than a year, you know, what happened last season because every year sometimes they hire new writers. I was on a show that went two seasons and there was a big turnover in the room between Season 1 and Season 2. And so I was at an advantage over a lot of the newer writers in Season 2 because I had survived and not been fired from Season 1.
So I was like, “Hey, guys. This is what we did last year. Let's not do that again,” and was given a lot of responsibility in Season 2. Even though my title hadn't changed, I brought more experience than some of the newer writers they had hired.
Joanna: Wow, that's so cool. I have so many things I want to ask out of that. That's you in the writer's room and we'll come back to that.
You've also done your own writing and your own producing, is that right, and directing?
Adam: Yes. Directing I'm starting to dabble in, start a little bit here with a short feature in the future. Like everybody here in Hollywood, I had, for many years, a day job and then I had stuff I would do on the side, my own projects.
I put out two collections of one-act plays which we'll talk about later at some point. But that, in a way, gave me a bunch of my own IP, very similar to your publishing efforts as well, and I made one of those into a short myself.
Two of them were auctioned and I actually received a little bit of money because two different people had found them and read them and wanted to direct and make them. And so it allowed me to explore other things besides just traditional film and TV.
Joanna: Before we get back into the detail, what is your dream? Where are you heading? What is your plan, and what are your goals?
Adam: My dream is to have a small production company and I want to spend half the year in a dark cable drama writers' room spending six months the year working on a show. If it's not my own show, then supporting somebody else's vision but, hopefully, one day it's my own show.
Cable is only a 12 or 13 episodes so actually, as a room, you're only rooming for half the year. And the other half of the year, I want to make small movies. I have an independent film career that we'll also hopefully get to talk about at one point. I like to write and see films produced.
And so there'd be a nice balance I think just for talking economically of make your money in that first six months of the year working on a show, and that keeps my health insurance. TV writing can be, I hear, very lucrative.
And then the other half of the year, take more risks and adventures as well, putting together maybe an under $5 million small movie that might not get a large release or might not do the numbers of a blockbuster or something like that and maybe making a ton of money but could be very creatively satisfying to tell a more personal story like that. Doing that for 10, 20 years, I'd be very happy.
Joanna: Fantastic. It is so interesting. So, goodness, I want to ask so many things.
This writers' room that everyone's talking about, so one of the things when you're an author, you generally are not so collaborative. I have started to do co-writing more these days but mostly a lot of authors work on their own. Obviously, you've written those plays yourself, you do stuff on your own.
How do you see the difference between an author working on their own and how you have to behave in a writers' room in order to collaborate with that many people?
Adam: Right. It's all about putting ego aside. It's about listening. And it's also, just to go over further the mechanics of the writer's room, you're actually never actually sitting down and writing as a group. It's more the brainstorming. It's the pitching. It's, you know, does he kill her with the knife or the candle stick? Do they do it in the library or the rooftop?
And you're gathering theories out first by the season, you know, like where are these characters heading by the end of the season, then by the episode, and then within the episode, the scenes and the beats and all that stuff.
Once after a week or two of doing this, you're then given an outline by me, the writer's assistant, back when I was doing writers assistant stuff, and then you leave the room and you go off for a week or two, much like an author, and write your episode and write your draft that was thought up by a committee of people.
But you then, at some point, when you're assigned, “Okay, Joanna, you're episode 12,” that episode 12 kind of becomes your thing. You imprint on it. You try to sprinkle some Joanna on the show that it is.
If it's “House of Cards,” that's a very specific show, you can't just say, “I'd like to do a “House of Cards” episode where they're in space. And this one will all take place on Mars.” That's not the show.
You can sprinkle a little Joanna in it but you have to stay within the lines of where they're going for the season and what the show is that people are watching. It would be very confusing if, you know, after 20 years of watching “Law and Order,” my dad turned it on and all of a sudden they were underground and they were running from a volcano. And my dad is like, “This is not ‘Law and Order'. I know Law and Order. It's not that.”
So, you break the story as a committee then you go off and you write your episode and then you bring it back into the room where it's then re-written by usually your boss, the show runner, who either created the show or just is in-charge of the writing of it.
TV can be collaborative and then all of a sudden it's solo and then back to collaborative. There's a lot of moving parts.
Joanna: Okay I get that. And then you also mentioned something like healthcare and everyone's like, “Well, healthcare?” That's something that most authors do themselves in America, you know. You have to get your own healthcare. And I was reading about the Writers' Guild of America which is, just as we talked, had reached an agreement with the major studios…
Adam: Yes, thankfully.
Joanna: And avoided strike action. But some of us will remember a few years ago there was a strike that was a whole load of things.
What is the Writers' Guild of America? Why is it so powerful?
Adam: The Writers' Guild of America is a labor union and it's designed to protect the writers in many fashions. One, it's designed to protect credits. If you're on a big summer blockbuster, there's a lot of writers. So a lot of times, when the studios hire, “Okay, it's, you know, Batman 9. It's gonna be these two writers.” And then those writers don't work out so they hire another two, another two.
One of the most powerful things the Guild has is arbitration where they actually review all the scripts and decide and award who actually gets the credit of the movie.
And the credit on the movie is very important. That credit on your movie is tied to your Social Security number. Your Social Security number is how you get residuals. You can't put your kid through college if you don't get your name on Batman 9. So that's one thing.
The other thing it does is it allows for all the studios and networks to agree on what they call the MBA, minimum basic agreement. What are the minimums that we have to pay every different type of writer for every different type of show, whether it's streaming on Amazon and Hulu or it's on cable thing like FX or AMC or HBO or Showtime or even the networks like Fox and NBC?
Now, that's not to say if you're amazing, if you're Greg Berlanti or you're Shonda Rhimes, you're getting paid more than the minimum. There's nothing to be said for supply and demand but they have to at least figure out as a Guild what is the minimums that can be paid at every different level so that there is some universal payment process and that it's enforced. It's enforced and it's regulated and everything is laid out correctly.
I would say those are the two biggest functions. And then as you alluded to, it sort of adds a little bit of stability to such a freelance life because with the Writers' Guild comes the ability to have healthcare if you contribute a certain amount of money every year to the Guild, the ability to have a pension and certain safekeeping that you find in other more traditional lines of work out there.
Joanna: Is Writers' Guild just for screenwriters or is it for the authors who own the IP that might become a film, for example?
Adam: There's a Writers' Guild West and a Writers' Guild East. I think Writers' Guild East covers like soap opera writers and news writers and different things like that. But you can register at least here in America. If you have a comic book idea, you can register with the Guild.
You can register any kind of IP that you wanna protect and enforce. It usually lasts about five years. You can say, “I have an idea.” You pay $20. You send it in. You register it and so that they keep a file of like, “Oh, Joanna came up with that alien movie,” whatever, like that.
But, you know, it covers more than just screenwriters and playwrights. There's different things. But, yes, it is for strictly entertainment. In Broadway, it would be a different thing. It's strictly for films entertainment for sure.
Joanna: I know it's interesting because the Authors' Guild has quite a reputation for not being so commercial. So I like that it's commercial. But you mentioned two words that people might not know what they are and I don't really get so “credits” and “residuals.”
Can you explain what credit and residuals are? We're talking IP and the money.
Adam: Sure. Credits, you'll notice on certain movies if it's based on a book, it says, “Adapted by,” or it says, “The book is by so and so, the screenplay is by so and so.” Those are two different credits.
The author got money to option that book by the studio and then a different writer was brought in sometimes, sometimes it's the same writer, but the different writer was brought in to then adapt that book.
In TV, you'll see there's a “Created by” credit. There's a “Story by.” Sometimes there's a “Teleplay by” and “Story by,” meaning one person in the room got a certain amount of money to just crack the story. Another person in the room got a certain amount of money to go off for that weekend write the thing.
If it says “Written by” without breaking that down, it's assumed that the same person crafted the story but then also wrote the script. It's sort of a catch-all for “Written by.”
And also in TV, especially when it credits, when you watch the opening sequence of a TV show and you see all those producer names, in TV, the producer and writer are almost interchangeable on all those shows. There's like seven levels to TV writing. After the first two or three, you get a producer type title.
So an executive producer on a TV show is usually a head writer or the creator of the show or the show runner. And in that case it's very different than film. In film, the director is the top of the ship.
But in TV, the show runner is the top. And so director will come in for three weeks. The first week he'll prep his episode. The second week, he'll direct his episode. The third week, he'll post and edit his episode. And then he goes off to go do another show across the street somewhere else. Directing in TV is more journeyman style and so the credit is a little bit different and the structure on set is little bit different. The director is looking to either the writer of the episode or the show runner to make sure and be like, “Hey, is this totally in line with what you guys are doing the week before because I wasn't here.” Is everything going the way it's supposed to go?
And then credit also impacts, as you were saying, the residuals. So, when your episode airs, you get a little bit more money. When your episode is sent around the world and in syndication in 100 companies, you'll receive a little bit more money.
If it should be lucky enough to get on DVD or be able to download an iTunes, well that's an ancillary thing. It's the money. So, the credit and residuals go hand in hand. If you don't get credit on your episode or not properly credited, there's no way for the residuals to ever come back in an envelope to your little house.
Joanna: That's what I thought. So if people are listening, everybody wants to get a film deal or a TV deal. And, of course, the contract; there are these horror stories of authors signing contracts, and I won't say any names, but have ended up not getting any money for some blockbuster film that they wrote the original book for.
From an author's point of view, if somebody comes to one of us or me and says, “Hey, we want to turn this into a film,” and there's a contract involved, what are the things we should watch out for?
Should it be trying to get a credit or is it a completely different payment structure for the originator of the IP?
Adam: You definitely want the credit. You definitely want anybody seeing the film or TV show to know that it was based on a book. “Dexter” on Showtime, was based on a book and there you saw the credit every single time on the show to remind you.
And by the way, Jeff Lindsay wrote the book, his book sales went up after that became a hit show. He also rebranded all his covers so that the covers of the book said, “Based on the hit TV show,” or it's the inspiration for the Showtime show “Dexter.”
I'm also a producer. I'm trying to auction a book right now myself of somebody's, is you definitely want a contract. You definitely want your lawyers involved.
I would say too, it behooves you on your end to try to get the shortest amount of time on your option with the biggest amount of money. So if someone's going to offer you $5,000 and you think $5,000 is not a lot, then say “Okay, well you only have this option for six months.” Options come in like 6 months, a year and 18 months. Those are the three most common.
If it's an exclusive option, if you're going to trust a producer to walk around this town trying to sell the rights to your book as a film or TV show, if they're not offering you a lot of money upfront then you wanna try to decrease the window that they have it for as short as possible because what if they don't do their job?
What if they have the book for six months and they were unable to set it up? You want to then be able to go and give the book to another producer, get another $5,000 for them to have six months to try to do it. And you can keep playing that until you find the right person who sets it up at the right place.
But what you don't want to do is you don't wanna get only $5,000 and then someone has the rights to walk around town for two whole years because $5,000 over two years is not as equitable for you as, “Okay, well, $5,000 for six months, I could live with that and hopefully it works and hopefully you set it up, and hopefully a lot more comes after that.”
But if it doesn't, no harm, no foul and six months later, you now have the rights to your book back and you go, you know, and shop it somewhere else.
Joanna: One big question would be about the current market. We know Amazon Studio has kind of an open website where anyone can pitch submissions. What about Netflix?
Aren't our people now looking more to these bigger online platforms than the studios? What's the market like right now?
Adam: There are a lot of buyers, more buyers than ever. The places you named like Amazon and Netflix, those people come from another industry. That's tech money. That's a whole different kind of money. They have more money than any of these studios.
And because of that, they are outbidding a lot of times the more traditional cable networks because they can say, “Oh, that place across the street is offering you 10 million? Okay, we'll double it, 20.” It's no difference to them.
They're working from a different amount of money whereas the person across the street, a more traditional place says, “Well, we only have the $10 million because we only make film and TV here. We don't also sell diapers. We don't also have subscription things. We don't also do all these other things that they're doing.” Amazon's money is coming from a lot of different things.
But because of that, for you as the author or for me as the writer, to entice these places that don't do it as often as like a cable place that's been doing it for 20 or 30 years, they, a lot of times, you want to see a lot more than a script. So you have to come in with a producer and regular TV as well, but come in with a package.
You have to say, “It's based on this hot book by Joanna. It's got this very famous movie actress who usually only does movies attached to star. It's got this indie director who's just coming off an audience award at Sundance.” And you create this package and say it like that.
Because for Amazon and Netflix and Hulu and some of these places, they're looking at the metrics. They're saying, “Oh, that book and that IP is worth this much. This star's bankability is worth this much. Oh, this director's last movie did this.” They can put it together and see, what is this worth doing it for that much?
Also, a lot of the streaming places don't do a traditional pilot like network and cable do. They a lot of times are ordering straight to series. So because of that, if they're going to outlay money for 10 or 12 episodes, they want a pretty established hot team to come in and do it.
They're not going to necessarily roll the dice and say, “Oh, you youngster Adam, you know, with your measly two credits and whatever, we're going to give you $45 million to run a TV show for a year and make 12 episodes.” They're going to give that job to David Fincher or someone who has a 30-year track record for delivering something like that.
Whereas, a broadcast or a cable network might take a chance on a younger or more inexperienced person, because they might just go, “Oh, well, it's only $5 million to make this pilot. If we don't like the pilot, we just won't order it to series.” But Amazon and Netflix are doing much of the pilot process.
Joanna: It's interesting. I guess people listening who are authors of books, they're not gonna have people attached to a project. I think that's probably your level, the producer level. So, coming back to my level, say, well, I've got a screenwriter right now. He's adapting my London Psychic Series which is kind of we're saying Luther meets Jessica Jones.
Joanna: British setting with a female and a bit of a supernatural thing. So, you know, I have some books. She won an award but no credits. We're completely unknown. We don't even have agent.
What would be your tips for kind of pitching something like that? What would we do in this situation?
Adam: First step is definitely the agent representation. In lieu of that though, what I would do is you mentioned those two shows, Luther and Jessica Jones, two great shows. I watch both of them.
I would make a list of 12 shows that are similar to what you guys are doing, similar in a good way, not a bad way. And I would try to reach out directly and contact a producer for production companies responsible for those shows.
Look at the people that make “Walking Dead.” What did they do after they made “Walking Dead?” They made a spinoff, “Fear the Walking Dead.”
A lot of people find a genre or a brand and make other stuff in that. So the people behind some of the shows that you are in that mold that you're trying to go for could very well be sitting at home alone with a candle by their desk going, “I need my next show and I want to build on the momentum or success of my show, my thriller.”
It sounds like yours is a thriller. And so would be maybe open to taking a look or attaching themselves as a production company or producer to material that is in the vein of what they either a, like to do or if they don't like to do it, at least they found a lot of success doing it so that their name with your name can help propel the brand further because they can say, “Oh, it's kind of Luther meets Jessica Jones and she's got one of the key people involved from Luther involved.”
All of a sudden, that starts to make business sense.
Joanna: It's a good idea. It's one of those things, you think you need people…like being an author, or being anywhere, when you're on the outside completely you just have to get started, don't you? And a lot of it is about making relationships over time.
Let's just talk about your one-act plays because I actually thought of you earlier this week. I went to see “The Mentor.” I don't know if you know that one.
Adam: No, I don't know.
Joanna: It's a one-act play but it had F. Murray Abraham and he's currently in “Homeland.”
Adam: Oh, I love him.
Joanna: And he was like literally right here by my face. I was in the front row and I was like, hey, that's really weird. He's just like he looks like on “Homeland.”
Why write these one-act plays and how has that gone for you? Talk a bit about what's going on with those.
Adam: It was amazing. I've been doing them for like eight years now but on the side. So what I would do is in between writing a pilot or a feature, again, not for money but just as I was practicing writing TV pilots and movies, I would just take a week off or a month off and write a one-act play to just de-stress, to be like, “Okay. I'm just going to practice and play with dialogue and I'm not going to worry about what it looks like on the screen or what…if it'll sell as a movie. These are just for fun.”
I have started to get a bunch of them and I wasn't showing them to anyone. They were literally just for me. I never even printed them out on the printer. They just sat on the computer. I didn't even put them in the closet.
And as I was coming up in these different writers' rooms as a writers' assistant, I was noticing, especially in cable, that they were starting to hire people that weren't just TV writers. I was on a cable show and they had a New York City playwright, a Chicago author, a Canadian poet, all these different walks of life, all these different types of creatives and writers and smart people.
And I thought, “Well, I'm having trouble jumping that level from writers' assistant to staff writer on a TV show. What if I try to get hot or work at another lane and medium to try to bring some attention to the TV work that I want to be doing?”
So, I took my favorites that I've been doing and I put them together as a free e-book available on download on Amazon, iTunes and all the e-retailers. And I put it out for free in 2013 and it was designed to be a “top secret, shh, don't tell anybody” TV sample. It was very short. It was very quick.
It was meant to get me back into TV or back into TV as not a writer's assistant but as a staff writer. And so it was designed to be read in one hour, just a pilot. If you were to show me a pilot of yours, it would take me one hour to read it. It's the same amount of time and it was only six one-acts and each one had a different kind of theme and different kind of genre…not genre per se but a little bit different situation. And it was meant to showcase my character and dialogue work in a more untraditional manner than the TV executives were used to see.
I put it out for free in the same way rappers do. That's why I called it “Mixtape.” It was supposed to be my mixtape, how rappers will put out free music that used to be in a tape, now it's just on the Internet under some account to try to get labels and meetings and try to get representation on stuff. And I did the same thing and it kind of worked.
I got signed to a big agency. I got onto a TV show as a staff writer. And then the reason why I did it again though was not for Hollywood. I did it again a second time because we noticed that the downloads…you get a report, as you know, of the downloads of where it was going and beyond just Hollywood and that colleges all across the country. Some were recommending and saying, “Hey, I need you to sign this piece of paper so I can use this in my directing class,” or, “I need the amateur stage rights because we're putting this on our acting showcase again this semester. My teacher needs you to sign this, whatever.”
And so I realized that maybe college kids were just getting drunk at night and Googling “free theatre” or they needed a monologue the next day for class, I don't know why. But they were starting to download it and the numbers were going up.
Two years later, I decided, “What if I tried to monetize this skill?” that dirty word. I was like, “What if I could make a little bit of money from this? I don't know.” And so I put out another collection, a sequel, of another six one-acts, and this time I charged 99 cents on all the same platforms, iTunes, Amazon, whatever, just the idea that like, “Hey, if you liked it for free, would you come back and pay a dollar?”
And I tried this time targeted more towards colleges. And I actually emailed that out to 200 drama schools and tried to just say, “Hey, you know, share with the students if you want. They seem to like it the first time. They might need more.”
Joanna: You put it out for free originally and then it did parlay itself into work.
How did those people find it? I don't think of e-books as the way to download a play. Are people searching for plays on Amazon?
Adam: I don't know. It was never intended. It was intended really just for Hollywood. I was trying to get certain agents, producers, old bosses of mine that I had had. I was trying to get their attention. And then it just kind of accidentally took another course.
I really don't know. I don't read plays. I don't use it for that. I mean, I read plays all the time and I had to in college and high school but I don't sit and look for new plays on Amazon like you're saying as well. So, I don't really know. I've also never been an actor though I think a lot of drama students do stuff like that and maybe people are getting tired of just being able to go to the same classic ones. I have no idea.
I think the classic ones are great but… I have no idea. But another reason why I'm so glad I did it and what we talked about earlier is this idea of like now I have IP in the same way that Hollywood is obsessed with remakes and reboots and you can literally walk into a meeting if you had this very obscure 1982 lunchbox and said, “Hey, you see these characters in this lunchbox? Give me $40 million, I wanna turn this into a feature film franchise.”
And, honestly, Hollywood is so obsessed right now with that stuff and these franchises that they would be like, “Well, if it's a lunchbox, it did well in 1982, I'm sure those people would still be interested. Boom. Here you go. There's your $40 million.”
So what it did for me was now I have these 12 stories, these 12 little one-acts because it's 2 collections of 6, these 12 little stories. And as we said, three of them got made into short films. One of them I took and I created my own next TV pilot that I shopped around last year but did, you know, “Okay, I got a handful of meetings on.”
My latest indie feature is based on one of my one-acts. I expanded one of my one-acts into a whole blown movie and that's the new thing that I'm trying to get financing and casting on now.
And so it's been this little treasure trove of stories that I keep mining and not letting go from and kind of working with. And I can also now go into meetings and say, “Hey, this one has been downloaded this many thousands of times. This one has been done like this.” And it's nothing staggering.
It's not going to pull anyone away like that 1982 lunchbox would but it's helped a little bit say like, “Oh, you know, his mom is not the only one who likes this stuff. He has other people now.” It's able to kind of show that some of this stuff might be working or there's potential here if you guys wanna take a risk with me.
Joanna: Wow, so interesting. All right, we could talk for ages but we're almost out of time. I do have a question; as you're saying, your career has developed at the same time the industry is changing, in the same way the publishing industry has changed.
Like you said, there's Hollywood at one and with the kind of blockbuster model and the franchise model. And then there's the indie writers like you're doing indie writing and indie films. And, hopefully, being an indie author in fiction and non-fiction will soon be as trendy as being an indie filmmaker.
Adam: Let's hope so.
Joanna: Do you see that divergence continuing; blockbusters at one end, indie at the other, and the middle ground falling away? What do you see in the next few years of film and TV?
Adam: I hope I'm wrong and I hope the middle comes back but all signs point to no. The middle has been falling out now for about 10 years.
If you notice, most movies being made are either under $10 million or over $75 million, that the adult movie, the movie that I would usually take my parents to go see that usually had Bruce Willis in it or, you know, an action star, something like that. The only person in those movies right now is Ben Affleck. Ben Affleck make “The Town,” “Argo.” He's one of the few people that is making studio movies but that don't necessarily have…well, now of course he's doing comic book stuff, but that don't necessarily have a built-in franchise IP, right?
There are very few movies like that now. Even the comedies are getting smaller. You haven't seen too many like “Hangover” type movies. That was almost, you know, 10 years ago and in the $25 to $30 million range.
It's important I think when, to answer your question, to bring up the number. You have to bring up the budgets. It's hard for the studios to make the money back on a $40 to $50 million movie if there's no previous brand, if it's not based on anything, if it's just an original idea like that you or I would come up with, the indie people.
They will take that risk under $10 million for sure which is more…under 10 would be more of your either your indies or you're like Blumhouse horror movies. A lot of horrors all under $10 million like that.
Or they'll go over $80 million and it will be a sci-fi epic. It'll be a sequel. It'll be based on a comic book, you know. Even “Deadpool” which made a lot of money and was a comic movie is on the cheaper end. But even on the cheaper end, it wasn't. It still wasn't in that middle. They didn't make it for 40. It was still 75.
So the middle seems to be going away. Where I think you find the middle now though, it's just not in movies. It's in TV. It's cable TV.
Did you see “The Night Of” on HBO, like that limited series? Or “Big little Lies?” Some of these things that are on HBO now that are…or “True Detective,” whatever, those I think are the middle ground for adults.
They live on TV now. They live on Showtime and HBO and FX and AMC. And I think that's where you have to go for that stuff. If you don't want the art house indie things and you don't want superheroes, I think right now you're watching cable TV.
Joanna: That's right.
Adam: And Netflix.
Joanna: Exactly. That's what we watch. Last question about writing; we would be, as authors, pretty much aiming because I'm assuming everyone listening is unknown and not writing in a massive franchise, we would be aiming for scripts that would come in under $10 million to make.
What are some of the no-nos?
Adam: I think that would be very smart, yes.
Joanna: In many of my thrillers I blowup really big places. So that would be a no-no; there's no point in me pitching one of my massive explosion-based scripts because it would be more than $10 million whereas I should be looking at the smaller kind of detective series which would be cheaper.
Is that the kind of mindset to have?
Adam: Yeah. It would also depend if you want to make it yourself or not.
Last year, I was involved in a small micro budget movie. We had less than a million dollars and it was a thriller. It was a thriller like you're talking about. And we saved all the money for the gun and stuff, for the end of the movie. And for the first 70 minutes of the 90, they're just talking. And, you know, we just did what we could do, right.
The director said, “I have a car. I have a house. I have these two actors. Reverse engineer it and come up with a story.”
So, it depends. There's two ways to answer it. If you want to go the Kevin Smith ‘Clerks' route, remember Clerks from 1994? He wrote in what he knew he had. He worked at a convenience store so that's why it took place at a convenience store. He was able to write towards what he had because he knew he was going to make it.
So if you and your friends are going to go make an indie movie, I would just suggest writing only what you can kind of come up with. If you're going to go out and write something and try to sell it, I would also still think smaller because, yes, I do think the middle does not exist anymore.
Limit your amount of locations, limit your cast, limit the high concept-ness of it. Make it something that is plausible and maybe set in a smaller area because the amount of money that they're going to use to bring that to life, they're not going to have what they used to have in the '90s when every single movie was “Die Hard” on a train, “Die Hard” on a bus, “Die Hard” on a plane.
By the way, “Die Hard” is one of the greatest movies ever. But then if you notice after Die Hard in the '90s, there was just “Die Hard” rip-offs for a whole decade.
Joanna: I love those movies. Con Air is my favorite movie.
Adam: “Con Air” is great. “Con Air” was such a great cast. “Give me the bunny.”
Joanna: Brilliant. So this has all been so interesting and I'm going to look forward to interviewing you like in a few years time when you're super, super famous director and I'll be like, “Hey, remember me?”
Adam: I lied about all of this and I made the $50 million movie.
Joanna: Tell people where they can find you and about your books again and everything that you do or like.
Adam: So, the books are on iTunes, Amazon and barnesandnoble.com, anywhere that would have an e-reader application. And the first one was called “Mixtape,” one word, and the second one is called “Fire Sale,” two words, written by me, Adam Gaines. And I'm on Twitter at nothing_to_gain. So, Nothing To Gain, which is my little company that I hope one day will be real. And that's the best place to find me. My email address is also at the back of both of the books, so if you get to that last page and you wanna tell me how much you hate it and/or love it, you can just email me directly and contact me there. I'm quite reachable. And I love hearing everything, good or bad. I'd take it all.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Adam. That was great.
Adam: All right. Thank you very much for having me. It's really great talking to you.
Jeff Willis says
Thanks for the great podcast on screenwriting last week!
Since screenwriting and the film industry is also my area of expertise, I wanted to add some additional context to the conversation. 🙂
With respect to the Writers Guild of America (WGA), membership in the West or East faction of the Guild is actually a function of which side of the country you live on (the dividing line is the Mississippi River), not necessarily the type of material you write. The WGA East does happen to represent more news writers, variety show writers, etc., but that’s because most of those jobs are located in New York rather than Los Angeles.
There’s also a difference between joining the WGA as a professional writer, and registering material with the WGA Script Registry. Joining the guild as a professional writer requires a certain number of points to be accrued through working professional, guild-signatory jobs. The WGA Script Registry, on the other hand, is merely a service available to anyone who’s willing to pay the registration fee. (WGA members do get a discount, though!)
It’s also worth noting that the WGA Script Registry is generally a less effective alternative for registering copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. While both forms of registration are recognized in court, the WGA Script Registry can only establish a valid date of creation. It does NOT establish legal ownership of the material in the same way that registering the copyright can, which means that in most cases of infringement, writers are limited to actual damages and not additional punitive damages. Not to mention that the registration only lasts for a handful of years as opposed to the Copyright Office’s 70 years after the life of the author. While the WGA Script Registry is $15-$25 cheaper, the Copyright Office gives you a lot more time and additional benefits.
Finally, the most important thing to know about the WGA and the whole practice of having a labor union represent writers is that screenwriters, unlike authors, are considered employees of the studios and production companies they’re engaged by. And while that entitles them to unionize and collectively bargain for working conditions and benefits like health care and a pension, residuals, separated rights, minimum wages, etc., it does come at a cost.
Since they’re considered employees of a studio, the work they do is classified as a work for hire, which means the studio is commissioning the work. In other words, the studio owns the copyright to the material (and as a result, the right to exploit the work in all other media), the same way a company paying the salary of a computer programmer would own her code, or a company employing a graphic artist would own the art she creates. Even if it’s an original screenplay, the reason script purchase deals are generally more lucrative than book deals is because the writer is expected to assign all right, title, and interest in the work to the company. Some authors with established audiences in other fields are able to carve out reserved rights or even only license the certain motion picture rights to the studios, but those are very difficult deals to negotiate and often involve dramatically reduced purchase prices to reflect the reduced opportunities for the studio to exploit the rights.
If a studio is interested in making a deal with an author for their original IP, the author needs an experienced entertainment attorney or other representative to help them ensure that the value of the deal is commensurate with the rights being given up. It’s the same with studios as it is with publishing houses… if writers are not careful, even if the amount on the check has a lot of zeroes, it might pale in comparison to what those rights are worth in total beyond the scope of the first film or episode of television.
Keep up the great podcasting! 🙂