This time, I caught up with Rachel Miller, a graduate of the Tisch School of Arts who now lives in Los Angeles and is the owner of management/production company Tom Sawyer Entertainment as well as a blogger on her site ShowMeTheScreenplay.com
In this interview, Rachel talks about how to build a comedy writing career, what she looks for in potential clients, the most common mistake she sees writers make, and much more. Here’s my interview with her…
Can you tell me a little bit about your background, your company, and how you work with your clients?
I launched Tom Sawyer Entertainment (TSE) as a management/production company in 2006. Our mission is to find young, innovative voices and groom these as the next generation of Hollywood storytellers. We produced our first movie two years ago – HappyThankYouMorePlease, which won the Sundance 2010 Audience Award and we just wrapped our second feature, Liberal Arts.
My background is I paid a lot of dues when I was starting out: I worked for Debra Hill, Joan Scott Management, Artisan, Endeavor, Handprint Entertainment and Red Wagon Entertainment. All of this experience taught me a lot. But mostly I took away that I wanted to do things differently at my company.
We work very closely with our clients from the ground up. Often we sign clients off either an essay someone wrote or even a page of jokes. We will build a team around them and really guide them so they are pursuing the career they want.
How do you find new clients? What do you look for and where do you look?
We look everywhere for new voices. But most of our clients we get as referrals from executives, agents and even our own clients who like working with us and want to send us their recommendations. We get a lot of clients from referrals because those people know our taste and know what we look for.
In terms of what we look for, we look for writers who take their job seriously. What we tell our clients is that your gift is you can work from anywhere at anytime. You can be in Switzerland, skiing the Alps during the day and writing all night. But you have to write every single day. Because just like I show up every day to work on behalf of my clients, I expect them to work every day on their own material.
For comedians who may not know much about how the screenwriting business works, what do you think is the most important thing for them to know?
That it is a marathon not a sprint. Many comedians think that they will wake up one day and suddenly be famous but it doesn’t work that way.
Every great comedian will tell you it takes years and years of hard work and doors getting slammed on them before they “hit it big.” And this piece of advice holds true for any creative talent — even George Clooney had 15 failed pilots before he got on “ER” and now he is one of the biggest stars in the world.
I know lots of writers are always paranoid that their ideas will be stolen – how rational is that fear?
I get asked this question a lot, and while I think the fear is rational, it is entirely irrelevant. Most reputable producers aren’t in the business of stealing ideas (because how would these producers then get any other material?).
But what writers get confused with is people stealing ideas vs. similar ideas that are in the ether at the same time- – just look at Ants vs. A Bugs Life or the two Truman Capote ideas that were out the same year. These aren’t cases of people stealing ideas — but simply the idea was out in the ether at the same time.
Besides, there are no new ideas. What there will always be is great writers executing those ideas in entirely different ways. That’s why it doesn’t matter if someone has the same idea — all that matters is how well you execute your idea.
What do you think is the best way to get a screenplay sold these days?
Write the best damn script you can.
Would you recommend new writers try to write for TV or movies first? Which is easier to break into?
This is a great question. While TV does take chances on young writers, it is a lot harder to get staffed on a show than it is to get a feature script “noticed” around town and have buzz build off it. But if you are just pursuing one path (TV vs. feature), you are leaving a lot of potential jobs on the table.
That’s why we have our clients write both TV and feature material so that we have a strong bench of material to pull from and can help them break into both the TV and feature worlds.
What’s the most common mistake you see screenwriters make?
Writing about a subject they are not passionate about. What many writers don’t realize is that writing is about re-writing. And often that re-writing means 10, 20, or 30 drafts of something to get it right.
If you are not passionate about what you are writing, you will not want to put in all the work that re-writing takes — and this reflects directly on the script. I can always tell immediately if a writer is passionate about the material because the proof is on the page. And if the writer is not passionate enough to give it 110%, there is no way anyone else (manager, agent, producer) is going to be passionate about the story.
Besides being a good writer (obviously), what do you think is the most important skill for somebody to have in order to have a successful writing career?
Doing the work. As my business partner said, having great ideas is 50% of the job. The other 50% is execution.
If you are a writer, write. There are no excuses. I don’t care if you have a day job or have kids or anything else. If you tell me you are a writer, then I want to see your ideas fully executed. You wouldn’t believe how many writers ask me to read their unfinished script and the answer is always no. As a manager I want to read your best fully finished work — end of story.
What advice do you give to writers about how to pitch their projects to producers and/or executives?
Keep it short and simple. Writers often forget that there is a difference between reading something and hearing something. People have short attention spans.
A writer’s pitch should always be concise and short while leaving room for the producer/executive to ask questions at the end. This is a better method than doing a 30 minute or longer pitch where all the beats and details are described.
Do you think it’s becoming easier or harder for people to break into the writing business and why?
I think it is actually both. It’s easier for people to get discovered because you now have Twitter, blogs, YouTube, etc., which are all ways people get discovered.
But I also think it is so much harder because, with everyone consolidating and making less movies, it’s harder and harder to break in because there are so many fewer jobs. That being said, I am a big believer that entertainment is forever and people will always want to laugh, cry or just escape from their daily lives. If you are truly great at what you do, you will break through the clutter.
If you’ve got a question for Rachel, feel free to post it in the comments. You also may be interested to read what happened when she interviewed me for her site.