Tuesday, November 25, 2008

GumboWriters Interview with Literary Manager, Michael Kuciak from AEI

How long have you been agent and how did you get your start Mike?

I started in the film industry working as PA and grip in Chicago. I
moved to LA, and landed an internship at the Bruce Brown Literary Agency
in 2002. From there, I was hired as a creative executive at AEI, and am
now senior vice president of development at the same company. Also... To
clarify, we're a management/production company. There is a lot of
overlap with agents, and we perform many of the functions -- finding,
developing and selling books, scripts and television projects, etc. The
only thing we don't do is find television employment for writers, as
that's the sole purview of agents. In exchange, however, we have the
freedom to engage duties of a producer, such as pulling a package
together, finding financing, and so on. For that reason, we're less
focused on short-range goals like running a script around town and
dropping it if it doesn't sell, and more focused on the longer-ranged
goals of developing projects to their best possible incarnation, pulling
together the best deal we can, and never, ever giving up on projects in
which we believe.

What makes your agency different than any others?

Our company is unique in the extent to which we deal in the world of
books and publishing. We take queries from both screenwriters and
novelists, and our perfect client is someone who can do one or the
other. That's easier said than done; though creating a script or book
are both functions of writing, they're disciplines which work different
sets of muscles, and we've found some people are better screenwriters
than novelists, and vice versa.

We maintain a close relationship with New York, and we always have just
as many books out there and working as we do film projects. For that
reason, we're always looking for books that could make great movies and
televison. On the flip side, we'll sometimes run across a script that
isn't very commercial as a spec, but becomes very interesting to the
studios if it's based on a novel. A good story is a good story, but
publishing and filmmaking are two different business models, and each
has specific needs. By way of a recent example, I doubt TWILIGHT would
have opened to $70m if it were based on a spec instead of a bestselling
series of novels with a rabid fan base.

Given our relationships in the publishing world, we also get access to a
lot more books than many other production companies. In the same vein,
we're in the midst of pushing our range of crossover into graphic
novels, as well.

What are you looking for specifically that you wish you would see more

Clean, strong, high-concept, well-executed projects in almost any genre
- but particularly comedies and thrillers - from writers who are writing
both for themselves and for the market. Dramas are very hard to sell,
and horror is tough in the current market. Things change over time, of
course, but thriller, action-thriller, broad comedy and action-comedy
are our main points of focus at the moment.

Mike what are you tired of receiving?

There are four kinds. They are:

1) Derivative, me-too scripts. These are projects that are so clearly
wearing their inspirations on their sleeves that it seems like the
writer did nothing but watch a bunch of movies and cribbed ideas. There
is such a thing as being inspired, and such a thing as providing the
beats an audience expects from every given genre or sub-genre. But any
chump can sit down, watch a bunch of zombie movies, and write a zombie
script that's nothing but just another rehash of the same beats. Every
piece of art says something and, when a screenwriter pours months of
effort into creating a story that has nothing more to say than, "I've
watched a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies," it's an empty waste of time,
in writing and in reading. Every kind of script can be derivative, even
"indie" scripts that are just a mash-up of Wes Anderson/Kevin Smith/Coen

2) At the other end of the spectrum, we get a lot of scripts that make
us wonder, "Who in their right mind thinks this will get turned into a
movie?" It's important to find your own voice as a writer, and find
unique ways into a story so it doesn't fall under the sins of example 1,
above. But at the same time, writers should be aware of what's come
before, what's coming out soon and what's in development. This is just a
matter of reading the trades and paying attention to the industry you
hope to become a part of in the first place. Not only do you want to
avoid writing a script that already has something very similar on its
way into theaters, you also want to look at the marquee and see what
kind of movies are getting made. When you look at a movie poster, is
there any question what the genre is, what kind of movie you'll get for
your ten bucks? Writers are told be craft unique stories, and the
frequent response is to smoosh together as many different kinds of
movies as possible, so it's a unique mess. That's shallow thinking.

3) Scripts that are poorly executed. This may sound like stating the
obvious, but sadly it's not: if you want to be considered a professional
writer, you should learn basic skills of the craft, like spelling and
sentence structure. No one's English teacher is going to go through your
script with a red pen and give you a grade but, if you want to come
across as someone who takes the job and craft seriously, the very
basic-BASIC skills should be givens. It's like a guy who shows up to an
open try-out for an NFL team smoking a joint and wearing a bathrobe. The
coach's instant reaction is - what were you thinking when you left the
house this morning? There are plenty of examples of professional
screenwriters who are somewhat lax in their spell-checking, but they
make up for it in other aspects of the craft: character development,
story structure, cinematic storytelling, awesome dialogue. DO NOT fool
yourself into thinking that someone will take the time to wade through
your garbage to find the diamond buried within. They will in all
likelihood just take you for lazy and/or untalented, and pass on page

4) Stories that don't tell the truth. It is the writer's first task to
tell the truth. This is the one and only way to craft stories that are
meaningful and engaging to the audience. You can tell stories with a lot
of fantasy, but the stories, at the end of the day, are written by human
beings, about human being and for human beings. Unless you're relaying
how people truly react, feel, speak and act, you're just repeating
cliches you've heard on television. For instance, though the main
characters are robots, WALL-E is a far more true and human story than
most of the scripts I've read by writers who think crafting a script is
just a matter of stringing cliches together and laying on some quirk.
It's an empty and meaningless waste of time.

I should also say that a writer should be versed and passionate about
the story they're trying to tell. For example, I'll sometimes read an
action-comedy script (for instance) written by someone who obviously
doesn't have a passion for action-comedies; they've written the script
only because they think it'll be commercial. It's the opposite - the
script only shows your writing in the worst light, a hollow and
mercenary exercise. The key is to write good, unique stories that are
marketable, which also spring from your passions as a human being and as
an artist.

How can a new writer get your attention in a good way?

Come in with a smart and original concept, well-executed (see above), be
cool, friendly and professional. This second part is as important as the
first. Many writers hear so many horror stories about Hollywood that
they come in defensive and ready for a fight. It's exhausting to deal
with, and makes us look for reasons to break off the relationship. 

How can a signed writer stay in your radar without driving you insane?

Check in every once in a while, and have something pertinent to ask or
report. A weekly "I'm on page x of the script I said I'd write" is
perfect, along with a "By the way, did we ever hear from Lionsgate about
that submission...?" Email is always best, because I can get to it when
I can get to it, whereas with a phone call, I have to drop everything
else to give it my full attention and, even then, it'll likely be
interrupted. You should be enthusiastic and proactive in your career,
and the best way to express that is it write, take notes, offer ideas
and understand that 90% of your success will come from you. On the other
hand, the most swift and sure way to lose representation is to start
blaming them as the sole reason why you're not Mr. Hollywood yet. If you
were writing scripts and novels that were easy to sell, you wouldn't be
thinking of whom to blame for your failures.

What do you wish more writers understood about you as an agent Mike that
they don't seem to?

Extending the thoughts touched on above... Many writers are told in film
school or in screenwriting how-to books/seminars that all they have to
do is write a good story and they'll get a Rich and Famous Contract, and
if they don't, well... Obviously their agent is a hack and/or Hollywood
is too dumb to understand their genius. This is ridiculous. If you want
to write whatever you want and let that be that, you should write poetry
and post it on your blog. But filmmaking -- and, thus, screenwriting --
is a collaborative art and business. Movies require tens of millions of
dollars to produce and market. The entities which front that money
expect to make it back, and then some. But you're not building a house
or manufacturing widgets - this is still art. You should write stories
that can be attractive to financiers because they reflect the current
marketplace; you should write emotional stories in a visual manner that
are attractive to directors, and you should write interesting characters
with great dialogue to attract cast.

This may seem like the script is serving many masters, and that's right.
It's not easy, which is why screenwriters are paid so well. They are
specialists of the form and, if you would like to join their number, you
must become a specialist, as well.

Also understand that this is not an overnight thing. A screenwriter is,
at the core, an entrepreneur, offering both a good and a service to a
very specific market, i.e. Hollywood. It can take years to build any
small business from the garage level to Fortune 500 status, and
screenwriting (or producing, or directing, or acting, or whatever) is no
different. Think of the long road, play the long game, understand that
you have to build a career brick-by-brick, and you'll have a closer
comprehension of the reality than the writers who think all they have to
do is type "THE END" and a limousine is going to pull up to whisk them
off to the Oscars.

What's the best way for a writer to reach you?