Jeff Belkin represents screenwriters and directors for both film and television at Zero Gravity Management (Ozark, The Accountant). His stable of clients ranges from first-timers, Blacklist writers, and the more established studio scribes. He has active projects with Thunder Road (The Broker), Echo Lake (Francis and the Godfather), Voltage (Surveillance), Mandalay (Retrograde), and a host of others.
Why did you choose a career in literary management?
I originally started out as a screenwriter. Having attended NYU and UCLA film schools, my career was heading in an upward trajectory. Repped by managers and agencies (including CAA), I did countless water bottle tours, developed my scripts for name production companies, even optioned a few. But finding the ideal rep (someone who returned calls and emails, gave notes, offered guidance, got me meetings, kept shopping a script after 5 passes) seemed impossible. I got to a point where I couldn’t keep writing new specs with the hopes of finding that missing link. So, I switched gears. I knew countless people in the industry from both my writing days and also having been a story analyst for six years. It seemed like the next best step… and I really just wanted to become the manager I never had.
What separates the good writers from the great?
Perseverance. Checking your ego at the door. Being very open to notes and realizing that the adage “writing is rewriting” is an adage for a reason. To keep writing and not hang all your hopes on just one script because it might be the fifth one that establishes you. And of course, innate talent helps.
What does your ideal client/ manager relationship look like?
I don’t think I have one. I work differently with all my clients…and try to be pliable to their preferences and needs. Some call me a few times a week and some I hardly ever speak with. Some write three scripts a year and some only one (if at all). I’m just looking to work with talented artists… yet with the hopes and expectations that they know the time and effort, I put into them. And that they have a healthy dose of realization of just how hard it is to make it in this industry.
What common misconceptions do some writers have about what managers actually do?
I’ve honestly never faced any misconceptions in terms of what I do. I think there are misconceptions about how the industry works, especially with those who haven’t established themselves yet. Not understanding that most producers don’t have money (i.e., financing, funds) to buy, option, or pay for treatments or rewrites. Not understanding how difficult it is to come by an Open Writing Assignment (OWA) and win the gig over a ton of more experienced competition.
What turns you off a potential/ current client?
Those who aren’t willing to do the work. I am very heavy on development. I don’t work with writers who think one draft is it, don’t take notes, or are too precious about everything.
How much reading do you do each week?
Pre-COVID, I could average 10-20 projects a week. Now, it’s gotten exponentially more. Everyone is home writing and rewriting. Pretty tough to catch up. I have 40 scripts on my iPad at any given time. I don’t mess with articles or books. I will definitely check out the trades. But, if someone posts an article on Facebook that’s usually the best way I come across info.
How many pages of a script do you read before you know you have a writer you want to work with?
I have the reverse answer for you. I can read a script and know within a few pages (could be 5, could be 55) that I don’t want to sign a writer off of that particular submission (or be involved in that script). There is no page number going the other way. If the screenwriter is good and I’m enjoying the script then I’m reading the whole thing and potentially even reading other samples beyond that. There is no race to sign someone off of “x” number of pages. I want to make sure I’ve found someone I feel confident about because it’s going to be a relationship that could last a very long time.
How do you balance originality with commerciality?
Damn good question!! I don’t. Movie concepts will often spark excitement. Director and cast notwithstanding, it’s the hook that makes us want to watch something. But, I find it very rare to come across an idea that’s truly original. However, an original or unique voice is another creature altogether. They show up from time to time and it’s an amazing thing to come across. Now, having those original voices write in a commercial vehicle really is up to the writer and their willingness/interest to work in a higher concept arena.
Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill) in The Player
How do you define a writer’s voice?
I’m not sure I do. Hollywood is like the movie, The Player. We speak in comparables. This meets that. So, if there’s any definition of a writer’s voice or style it would merely be the types of movies he or she is most comparable to.
How can writers best harness their voices to best promote themselves?
I am often referred to potential new clients with “amazing voices but who write too small”. And while I don’t want to knock small pictures and rep many, usually the smartest thing to do is channel those voices into more commercial ideas. When marketing oneself, you’re essentially hoping a one-sentence logline will capture the attention of that producer, exec, or rep.
So, think conceptually bigger. What’s the hook? What can make something unique? Remember, commercial ideas don’t need to translate into Jurassic Park size ideas. Ex-Machina is the one movie every person in Hollywood (and internationally) seems to want another one of; and that’s about as small as they get. But the hook reels everyone in.
How do you pitch a writer around town?
I very rarely send out samples because people have enough on their plates already. My preferred plan of attack is to shop a new, unexposed script or pilot around town as part of the introduction. There’s far more excitement to read someone when an exec or producer knows this is also a new script up for grabs.
In the case of OWAs, the strategy is vastly different. But, because those are so few and hotly contested, I often rely on the writer’s established credentials at that point. Making the Blacklist, winning Nicholls, previous sales, and options. I lead with those and then showcase the best sample possible. I work mostly in features so I thankfully don’t have to deal with staffing.
Gwynneth Paltrow (Beth Emhoff) in Contagion
How do you see the current trends in the marketplace?
COVID-19 has changed a lot of trends and needs. Despite Contagion being such a popular title during the pandemic, it’s best to avoid anything viral-related. Anything apocalyptic. Anything too dark. People are looking for more uplifting stories right now for the most part. Of course, inclusivity and socially conscious stories are always a focus. Voices that haven’t had a chance to truly shine before. But the industry is more increasingly wanting to see those voices in a more commercial, genre package.
What are your current preferences in terms of genre and writers?
I don’t shut the door on anyone regardless of genre or style. It all comes down to concept. Does that logline interest or excite me. Then it’s all about execution. Yes, I will represent indies, prestige, and even the occasional drama. But those are really tough. So, I prefer to find high concept, commercial material in the genre space with an eye towards setting them up with the studios. Having said that, I am a sucker for contemporary true stories and biopics.
What are you binge-watching right now?
Nothing at this very moment. But, the instant new seasons drop for The Mandalorian, Stranger things, Cobra Kai or The Crown, I’m there. I’m all over the place. As with my taste for screenplays, it’s not so much the genre — it’s the core idea that drives it. That said, I could easily re-binge The West Wing at any given moment. And the Aussie/New Zealand show 800 Words is an absolute favorite.