Adam Harris Engelhard Of Mailroom On How Screenwriters Can Be Attractive To Producers
As part of Creative Screenwriting Magazine’s commitment to not only bring you the best screenwriting craft articles, we’re interviewing agents, managers, and producers to bring you the most up to date market intelligence to help you get ahead of the pack. We ask Adam Harris Engelhard of Mailroom LA what it takes for screenwriters to break in.
How has the role of literary managers changed in the past 5 years?
I would say that we have become more producorial in nature. We spend a lot of time focusing on the trajectories of our clients’ careers and even more time in the development stages of their material.
What makes a screenwriter attractive to you?
At this point in time, I am very attracted to writers who are forward thinkers and understand how to navigate Hollywood without representation. The screenwriters who are making meaningful connections on their own and understand the hustle it takes to survive out here are the ones who I tend to gravitate towards. I like to work with go-getters. If they are able to hustle as hard or harder then me then I don’t care about all the awards and attachments. So long as their screenwriting is solid, I think we as managers can be creative in how we position our writers so they have the best chance of surviving out here.
What constitutes a breakthrough screenplay?
I think in today’s marketplace your script needs to spark a socially relevant conversation while flipping all of the traditional tropes on their heads. I also see a lot of success working with concepts that are “5 minutes into the future” and feel digestible. Whereas if you head too far into the future ideas can seem a bit far-fetched without a massive audience attachment. We are living in a time where ideas are a dime a dozen and screenwriters need to find unique ways to differentiate themselves as well as their work. My advice is to play just left of center and use what is going on in the world around us to touch on sensitive topics that spark conversation. GET OUT clearly did a great job at touching on both.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the role of a manager?
I think the biggest misconception that budding screenwriters have about Managers is that as soon as they sign with one they are going to start making money. Sure it happens to some quickly, but that’s far and few between. There is a lot of grooming that needs to happen first. Managers need to take time to expose their writers to the town and proceed strategically even if that means pivoting with what they are taking out or how they are positioning themselves.
Another misconception that I see all the time is being signed to a big four agency or management firm. A lot of guys think that if they get signed to a rep at a major company that they will be destined to succeed and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I have friends who are represented by the biggest agents/managers and still can’t find work. A lot of it comes down to how much of a bandwidth does your representative have for you and are they well connected. The latter is less important in my opinion so long as they have the ability to champion your career in an impactful way. Do they believe in you enough to get behind what you are selling or are you just another name on their roster? Usually, it’s the latter.
Why have managers also turned to producing?
In regards to the emerging class of managers/producers, I believe we are living in a time where studios and independent production companies are straying away from buying and optioning content for development. Sure it happens all the time, and more frequently, at the highest level but for the most of us working on sub $10M movies the funds for development just aren’t there like they used to be. Because of that, there are a lot of Managers who are doing a ton of development with their own clients or writers they favor, in hopes of being able to produce the material.
How do you guide the careers of your screenwriting clients?
I have strategy meetings with all my clients. We talk about their trajectories. Where do they want to be in 1, 3, 5, 10 years? What projects are they working on that have the clearest path to success and is that in line with the direction they want to go? It’s easy to get cornered and my job to help decide when we should embrace that or stray from it.
What are some of your pet peeves?
My biggest peeve is when screenwriters who I have never met just cold email me a submission. Usually, they get thrown in the trash. I much more prefer a phone call, but even then it better be the most interesting idea I have ever heard or have a big enough attachment to it that I can use that as ammo to push the project forward. I’m a manager, not a miracle worker.
How educated to screenwriters need to be about the business?
Just like any career someone pursues, the more knowledgeable the better. I think simply an awareness is all it takes. There are little-contained horror films that can be shot for 100K but the right attachments could drive that budget up 10 fold if properly packaged. So while sometimes it is good to have a budget in mind I think just understanding the reality of how projects get made, and at what levels, is key. We sometimes take out shows that could be done for both 10k and 100k respectively. Just depends on the strategy we employ around taking it out/packaging it.
What do screenwriters often not know about how films are set up?
I think a lot of writers think that there are just pools of money out there waiting to purchase their script. Often they don’t understand how long and arduous the development process can be. This can be very frustrating for a lot of guys and gals who just want to see immediate results. If you want immediate results then start acting. You either win the audition or you don’t. Either way, at the time of auditions the project is usually financed. That is just not the truth on the lit side. Usually, there is a script and very little to no financing. The writers therefore have to stick around from the ground up without knowing if the project will ever go. Dallas Buyers Club took 20 years to make.
How do ensure a healthy work-life balance?
I think with management this is a constant struggle, but I have found a lot of success separating my home and work life. I try to be in the office from 9am – 6/7pm every day. Usually, once I leave the office I shut down for the night when it comes to working. I might read a script before I go to bed, but that’s part of the job. On the weekends I go completely off the grid. Balance is good for your mental health and you will find that you will become more efficient in all aspects of life when you are able to set boundaries and tight schedule around what you are pursuing.
What films or TV projects do you wish you had a hand in setting up?
If there was anything I could be a part of right now that I am not it would probably Donald Glover’s show ATLANTA. I just think it’s such a smart show that doesn’t try to fit in any box excepts its own. I am amazed at what Donald and Hiro have been able to accomplish with that one. Plus I’m from Atlanta so the street cred would be cool.
How can screenwriters keep their career expectations realistic?
I think that all comes down to what they are expecting and are they realistic about their expectations. It’s okay to be ambitious; in fact, it is something that I gravitate toward, but at the same time up-and-coming writers do need to humble themselves quite a bit and usually, that’s when they sell something.
Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?
I think the biggest advice I would give any budding creator would be to have a vision and stick to it. Persistence is a key to success. but also knowing how and when to change directions is part of the versatility new creators will need to have in order to be successful in today’s market. I would also recommend networking your ass off. Hollywood is a small town and the smaller you make it, the more opportunities will surface.
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