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Jes Bickhart On TV Streaming, Tent-Pole Franchises, & Screenwriting Opportunities In Filmmaking

Jes Bickhart On TV Streaming, Tent-Pole Franchises, & Screenwriting Opportunities In Filmmaking
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In our continuing efforts to bring screenwriters current film and TV industry intelligence, Creative Screenwriting got up close and personal with film & TV producer Jes Bickhart to discuss the state of our industry and how screenwriters can best mine the opportunities it. 

I think it’s a really fun time to be in Hollywood. There’s a groundswell shift in the business and I’m choosing to be optimistic about it. There are more buyers now on the film and TV side than there ever has been before,” said Jes Bickhart, film and television producer for the Jacer Company. 

Through various mergers and new over-the-top platforms (OTT), companies like Disney are entering the streaming world traditionally reserved for companies like Netflix. There will always be “Legacy Film Studios,” but these major film studios are also creating niche content for OTT. “Frankly, streaming is a better business model than trying to get butts in seats at a cinema on a Friday night,” he said. The revenue for these OTT companies is broader and more consistent than the vagaries of cinema ticket sales.

If you already have that ten dollars a month coming in as revenue, it allows for you to tell the type of story and market the type of stories that [audiences] grew up with,” added Bickhart.

Over the last decade, film and TV companies like Sony have worked to create projects outside the tent-pole, franchise market. Bickhart listed successful smaller, original films like Moneyball, The Pursuit of Happyness, My Best Friend’s Wedding, and Mask of Zorro as examples. Studios have noticed that movies like Moneyball grossed $150 million in the USA, while movies like a Spider-Man reboot grossed $350 million for the same studio overhead, excluding production costs. That’s why Moneyball is classed as a box office darling, while Spider-Man was not.  

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From a film studio’s perspective, Moneyball was produced for a very specific audience, whereas Spider-Man is produced for a broad audience as six movies or various television shows all branded with the same intellectual property (IP). “As a writer, if you put yourself in a studio executive’s shoes, a film like Moneyball actually makes a lot of financial sense.”

But, thanks to streamers like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, it’s possible to produce non-franchise features specialized for certain audiences. “Not everyone wants to see a caped crusader, a masked vigilante, thriller anymore. They don’t want to see the next spinoff of Spider-Man. They want to see a smaller romantic comedy like Set It Up on Netflix. I think that’s good news. The shift is happening and it’s happening right now.”’

A Shift In The Film & TV Business

These days, there are more TV buyers and there are more ways to finance new shows. The studios finance many TV shows and then a network or distributor licenses the content from the financier. As such, US studios can sell to international networks. There are various other paths to generate additional income such as airlines, cruise ships, and hotels. 

With feature filmmaking, the pre-sale marketplace is in real trouble, because movie stars don’t have as much leverage as they used to,” warned Bickhart. “People don’t necessarily leave their houses on a Friday night to see the next Will Smith movie. It used to be that way, but it’s not so much the case anymore. That has been the case for the last 15 years, really.

The new buyers—Netflix, Apple, Hulu, Audience Network, and Amazon—are forced to fund everything in-house. Although Legacy Studios shift to OTT, they’re still currently only interested in buying existing IP material with a built-in audience at this point. 

For screenwriters, story will always win. As projects shift from the theater to the living room, some writers are changing their approach while others are writing as they always have. The main goal of any film is to “foster conversation” and tell a great story. 

According to a film producer, the unique opportunity is that writers are now working with distributors rather than producers to get their projects into the living room. For those writers obsessed with the brick-and-mortar mindset of writing a film for the theater, this sounds heartbreaking, but it’s simply a new (and perhaps better) way to work. 

After all, living room OTT platforms may reach 100 million viewers, which is as high, if not higher, than the biggest blockbusters on the planet. 

Get Personal (Not Commercial) With Your Screenwriting

Would-be television writers should still look to traditional business models for finding work on these new platforms. Bickhart recommends emerging screenwriters look for opportunities such a writer’s assistant, coordinator, producer, or trying to get staffed on an existing TV series. With feature films, it’s possible to sell a spec, create a blog, or find a competition to find excited readers to circulate your screenplays among the industry. Oftentimes, screenwriting contest winners are used as writing samples to secure other work.

Never underestimate a literary agency, despite them being difficult to get into. The cream always rises to the top. You have to believe in that. If you’re having trouble pushing your projects forward, maybe it’s time to pivot and find a more personal story—something that only you could write. Those are the most interesting to read,” he added. 

Anyone can write a James Bond movie, but not anyone can write the James Bond movie that takes place in a very contained setting… Coming from a personal place always mean that you’re going to take better meetings with executives, agents, and managers. Your work is going to be able to shine through.

The challenge, of course, is finding the balance between personal stories and the marketplace, where it feels like franchise blockbusters are the only path. “At the end of the day, I think you just have to write the story that’s most true and the characters that are most true. You can’t be focused on the commerciality.”

You can’t be focused on the production budget size. If you write a true and beautiful story well, the right financier will come along. I believe that,” said the producer. “The right talent will shepherd it. With all these new buyers, you have these new financing opportunities. The buyers will be different.”

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Mary Shelley

What Should Budding Screenwriters Focus On? 

Bickhart watched a film called Mary Shelley go from spec script to finished project. The screenplay was optioned after Aussie screenwriter Emma Jensen got her script circulated amongst various Hollywood agencies. As an Australian citizen, Shelley received a grant from Screen Australia that helped her write multiple drafts of her project. She received various notes from creative executives in Australia before being later introduced to American executives, who purchased the option. 

Bickhart also aims to find true events that are locked up as IP. For example, there are two competing Thai rescue movies currently in the works. “That’s always exciting to me because you don’t need to own any story rights. In the case of a book or a magazine article, you want to adapt, if the option lapses, you have a sterile screenplay.”

At the same time, creative executives love buying book rights because the marketability and potential audience numbers are built into the book already. There are fewer opportunities for original fiction ideas, but that could also soon change.

From the producer’s angle, the Writer’s Guild exists so producers can purchase a screenplay for around $40,000 rather than $100,000 to honor a preset quote. It’s also possible to make a living polishing screenplays, taking open writing assignments, and re-writing scripts for the studios. That’s a personal decision and most screenwriters get involved with the career to tell a specific story rather than to edit other stories. 

You change outlooks,” said Bickhart. “You get people to think about things they haven’t thought about before. There’s a real opportunity [in today’s political climate] to tell stories that unify rather than separate.” He doesn’t believe one film or series can change the world, but one story can change opinions or thoughts. 

Why You? Why Now?

Because of shifting times, producers and agents will often ask screenwriters to describe why their story should be told in this day and time. In terms of the “Why now?” question, Bickhart mentioned marketing guru and author, Seth Godin and his book, The Purple Cow.

The idea wraps around the fly-over states in the middle of the country when the driver suddenly sees a “purple cow.” The metaphor represents something wild in an abyss of sameness. “It’s so wild you have to get out of the car and take pictures. It’s so interesting and unique.” Bickhart believes every screenplay should have something so remarkable that the reader will want to share it with others. 

But, this doesn’t have to be an individual scene. It could be something as simple as powerful dialogue from Quentin Tarantino or a cadence from Aaron Sorkin. The importance is to speak your truth to a specific audience rather than creating broad films. Execution beats concept every single time. 

Give A Producer A Reason To Say, “Yes”

Studios are always looking for a reason to say, ‘No.’ Nine out of ten they’ll say ‘No.’ Then, once, they’ll say, ‘Maybe, but you’ve got to convince me.’” The convincing then comes down to marketability. Who is the movie for? Who will talk about it? Who will share the content? Who will keep watching the series from episode to episode? Sell it while you’re describing it to the producer.

Old school screenwriters will find problems finding the balance between personal writing and marketability. The words may feel like a false truth. Bickhart wants screenwriters to do a portion of the work for him. He wants to hear the insight, “I’ve written something for an audience and I’m a part of that audience.

Producers, like the audiences, want authenticity within the work. There needs to be a truth, a potential life experience, and an intriguing story. “If you saw Molly’s Game, I don’t think everyone can relate to what it’s like to run an elite poker game in LA or New York, but everyone can relate to Molly’s plight. It’s a father-daughter story. She’s looking for reconciliation from her dad.”

Generally speaking, this connection with the audience comes down to the character relationships on screen. The goal is to make an unrelatable story relatable to the audience. This is true for both comedy and drama. Fans want to have a relationship with the characters. A gimmick or setup alone will fall flat.

Do I Need To Live in L.A.?

For screenwriters who want to write in areas other than Los Angeles or New York, Bickhart said there’s no reason to uproot your life for the movie business. Some writers will need to visit Los Angeles and be in the room to pitch TV shows, but Skype is just as good as an in-person meeting in the beginning. Some writers do better work in the culture they’re familiar with, rather than adapting to a new city. 

In my experience, I’m not more likely to hire a writer who lives in LA than Miami or Wichita or Columbus. I’m working with a writer right now in Columbus and he’s got a full-time job, but he writes on the side. He comes to L.A. twice a year (for American Film Market and general meetings) and we will find something to work on together. It’s up to you and where you will be able to focus on the work.

The key is to look for producers and representation who will advocate your screenwriting and help set up general meetings. 

What Are The Most Effective Ways To Pitch?

I don’t think cold query emails work. I think warm introductions work. Production companies are so busy. I think a great script can come from anyone, but not everyone can write a great script. They’re always looking out for great scripts.”

Cold emails are often sent in bulk and deleted in bulk. Bickhart prefers getting pitched from agents, but he’ll occasionally even open or accept pitches if a lawyer is involved. The intermediate third-party creates legal protection so there are no issues in the future for copyright infringement, etc. 

At the same time, producers don’t know exactly what they want. Everyone passed on Stranger Things, including Netflix. Bickhart related this to Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Basically, nobody knows where the best material comes from. 

Show Me The Proof

The producer also backed the idea that proof of concept helps create films. Screenwriters can create short films to showcase a major idea and then make a full-length feature or a series. Shooting a $10,000 short that looks like a student film is wasteful, but shooting a $5,000 short that looks like $50,000 “will open doors.”

Bickhart loves contained thrillers where one location fills a two-hour movie, such as 10 Cloverfield Lane, Buried, Locke, The Call and he also mentioned genres that aren’t being taken seriously. For example, A Quiet Place worked so well because it redefined the horror genre. He also joked that he has read a ton of scripts that feature an old man in a post-apocalyptic world trying to fix a robot. Clichés are made often, but it doesn’t open the door for a novice screenwriter. 

The Key To Breaking In: Persistence, Remarkability, & Understanding

For Mary Shelly, Emma Jensen got warm referrals from an established film entity in her area. Every state has major cities that are somehow involved with screenwriting. Bickhart advises getting that establishment to reach out to agents in Hollywood or other established relationships. Finally, it’s vital to fill the gap in an agent’s roster that needs a new client in a specific genre. 

From the time they read the spec for Mary Shelly, it took three and a half years to wrap production on the film. Then, a few months later they sold it to IFC in Toronto. “That’s a great example of a talented writer, not in LA, who wrote something because she believed in the story [and] had a personal relationship to the plight [author] Mary Shelly had while she was trying to write Frankenstein.”

Modern writers need remarkability, persistence, enthusiasm for revisions, and the understanding of a “note behind a note” when receiving feedback. The producer will give notes such as, “Let’s fix this character flaw” or “Let’s make this character a little more rounded” and the screenwriter should be able to re-think the scene and re-examine the character. The writer must interpret the motivation and intent of the note even if it’s not specific. 

Is Feedback Useful?

Writers shouldn’t be overly protective of their work, which means being open to criticism and a willingness to improve the story. Sometimes, when something isn’t working, the mistake may begin on page five, but the note is on page twenty-five when it’s more obvious the problem exists. A skilled screenwriter should be able to pinpoint the problem based on the note. 

Is It Worth It?

Finally, for those who are unsure if they should pursue a life of a screenwriter, Bickhart has several questions to ponder. “Do you go to the movie theater alone? Is the storytelling medium something that you get goosebumps in a solitary moment? If yes, and you want to contribute your voice to the media, in whatever way the world is going to allow you to, then you should try. The world deserves to hear your voice.”

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