lonely keyboard interview:
JAMES V. SIMPSON
First Sale: Armored $400,000
Q & A by John Robert Marlow
JRM: How did you break inand what role did the Nicholl play in that?
Jay Simpson: When you get that first big sale or that first big production, everyone wants to believe in the overnight rags-to-riches success story. But in my case, "breaking in" was more like "creeping in slowly and methodically over a long period of time."
The reality is, I'd been developing some projects with two of Armored's producers before entering that script in the Academy's 2006 Nicholl Fellowships competition. They'd originally sought me out because I placed with a different script in the 2004 competition.
JRM: How did the deal go downwhat events led up to the sale?
Jay Simpson: My rep and the producers developed a specific strategy and timeline for taking the script out. Their timeline happened to coincide with the end of the 2006 Nicholl competition. Armored went out on a Friday, and we started by slipping it to a few people my rep had great relationships with.
By Monday we had two competing offers. One of those included an attachment with Robert De Niro. We also learned on Monday that a competing script with the same name was going out from a writer with a solid track record and a recent, high-profile, seven-figure sale.
Over the next few days, territories were divided and more offers came in.
JRM: In the book world, “territories” are often countries. Here you mean…
Jay Simpson: Territories are essentially studios. Ideally, you want your project taken into the studios by producers who have the best possible relationships with those studios.
JRM: So you're basically placing the script with competing producerswho then present the script to whatever studio they have a preexisting deal or very strong relationship with.
Jay Simpson: Exactly. A producer can typically go to any studio, but some producers have better relationships with some studios than they do with others. The idea is to give each producer or production company an exclusive opportunity to take the script into a particular studio.
For example, we let Imagine take the script into Universal. No other producer was allowed to take it to Universal, which meant that Imagine had Universal as its "territory.” They also wanted Paramount, because they have a strong relationship there as well. We let them share Paramount with another production companywhich also had a strong relationship at Paramount.
The Sony "territory" was given to two production companies, Buckaroo [now Star Road] and Screen Gems. Sometimes you go with a single producer for each territory, and sometimes you don't. It all depends on the relationships the production companies have with the studios.
JRM: And then what happened?
Jay Simpson: Then when I learned that Armored was a Nicholl finalist script, part of our pitch became that Armored was going to be a Nicholl Fellowships winner.
Of course we had no way of knowing whether it would win or not, but that approach enabled us to juice up our pitch and create a sense of exclusivity and urgency by allowing people to read a "future Nicholl Fellowships winner" before the results were actually known.
The two original bidders combined their resources and came back with a huge offer. Then at the last moment, three other competing offersStar Road [then called Buckaroo], Screen Gems, and Sonycombined to outbid everyone else.
In the end, it wasn't just the money being offered that swayed my decision; it was the people involved and their commitment to getting the movie produced. On a Friday, exactly one week after Armored went out, I closed the deal with Sony, Star Road, and Screen Gems.
The same day the finalists were publicly announced, Variety announced the sale of Armored to Star Road, Screen Gems, and Sony. That was a great day for me. I sent a copy of Variety to my mother. She wept when she read my name in it.
Because I was a finalist, I got to participate in Nicholl Week, I met the amazing group of finalists selected by the Nicholl Committee. I also got to meet the wonderfully supportive Committee members and Greg Beal, who runs the competition. It's because of potential secondary benefits like this that I recommend the Nicholl as the only contest worth entering; it's the only one that canpotentiallycreate opportunities for entrants other than the winners.
JRM: What does it feel like when the moment you've dreamed of for so long finally arrives?
Jay Simpson: Armored was a true fairy tale sale. There were about three days where I was glued to my phone and didn't sleep at all. Because it was the object of a bidding war, several big offers came in. Each one brought a new wave of mixed emotions.
My father had recently passed, so my thoughts were often about him, wishing he'd lived a few months longer, so that he could have seen my first sale. Luckily I had good people on my team, so I had excellent advice to inform my decisionmaking.
JRM: What happens nextafter a writer accepts The Big Offer?
Jay Simpson: After the "big deal," you're in high demand. Everyone in town wants to meet you and work with you. The same thing happens at a higher level when your movie goes into production. You've proven that you have the ability to do the impossible by selling a spec and/or getting a movie into production.
There's a saying that success follows success, and I think that holds true for everything we're talking about here. If you find success with the Nicholl, it attracts interest. If you find success with a script sale, you attract still more interest. If you find success with assignments and getting projects produced, you attract even more interest.
It's nice to cross that line from chasing to being the one who's chased. You just can't let it go to your head. Never forget that you are a success because of the work you did—and if that success is to continue, you'll need to work your ass off every day.
JRM: Many writers believe that when you sell a script, you quit your job the same day. Others suspect they might starve before a check arrives. What does it really mean when you sell a script for $400,000?
Jay Simpson: There are a few months of contract tweaking, followed by a few months for the process to run its course before your check is cut. Your fist payment usually comes about three to six months after the deal is accepted.
Depending on your situation, you may need to quit your job just so you can take your victory lap and meet with all the people who want to meet with you. In these meetings, you'll get a lot of offers for assignmentsand chasing assignments is a full-time job if it's done right.
To get the maximum benefit from selling a script, you really need to be in a position to dedicate all of your time to your career, even if you haven't yet received your check from the studio.
In my case, there were guarantees of progress to production, and financial penaltiesrewards for meif the studio did not begin production within a year of buying the script. Within a month we had a director attached, and shortly after that we were narrowing down casting choices and going out to talent.
The whole process moved very fast, and my experience was the fairy tale. In most cases, even scripts that are bought never see the light of day. I was very lucky.
JRM: Is there anything you wish you'd known when you started out?
Jay Simpson: It's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. In my case, the whirlwind was intense because I was selling a spec that was then rushed into production. That almost never happens. I wish I could go back and tell myself to not become as emotionally invested in the process as I was.
The lesson I learned the hard way is that once you sell a script, your job is no longer about telling a story; it is about creating a product that can be packaged and sold to an audience.
JRM: How do you approach writingdo you have particular habits or working environments that you find helpful?
Jay Simpson: I did have strict routines before selling Armored, and those routines became an albatross around my neck when I turned professional. When you're chasing assignments and going to meetings that fit into a producer or studio exec's schedule, your own schedule has to be flexible enough to allow you to write multiple projects at all hours of the day.
JRM: It's been said that nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. So other than the obviousan abundance of talentwhat do you believe makes you different from other writers?
Jay Simpson: Honestly, I don't think I am any different from other writers. Whoever said success is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration was right. I've never been afraid of work, and I refuse to let setbacks define me.
Writing can be brutally tough on your ego if you let it. Whenever I've been knocked down, I've always been able to pick myself up and get back in the fight. I think if you can do that, you will eventually find success.
JRM: What goes through your head when you sit down to writewhat are you thinking?
Jay Simpson: Mostly how much I hate writing. Seriously. Writing is lonely and frustrating. If you can find happiness doing anything else, I suggest you do that instead, because writing is not for the frail-hearted.
When I'm not thinking about how much I would rather be doing somethinganythingelse, I'm deep in imagination land, watching my movie unfold before my eyes as I transcribe it onto my computer. I need to be able to see my story unfold in a cinematic manner before my mind's eye, or else I feel I'm not writing a movie. If I can't see it, I can't write it. Not all stories are movies, and I don't waste time writing non-movies in script format.
JRM: What are the most important things for a writer to know?
Jay Simpson: The make-or-break decisions happen before you type FADE IN. Designing a story that will attract buyers and talent is as much an art form as the actual writing of the story. Writing is rewritingbut the real work, the important work, is done before you ever start writing.
JRM: What gets your attention and makes a script stand out from the crowd?
Jay Simpson: The concept. Most writers obsess over execution, Execution is important to a point, in that it needs to exploit the concept and clearly convey it in an interesting and entertaining way. But if you don't start with a concepta “hook”that grabs someone's attention at first blush, you're stacking the odds against your own success.
JRM: What makes you think a script will be a chore to read, and is there anything you find particularly lacking in today's scripts?
Jay Simpson: You can tell in the first page if the script will be a chore to read. A lot of scripts I read simply don't start where the story begins. I think those writers either don't know what their story is really about, so they aren't sure where to start itor they realize their story is not really interesting on its own, so they try to distract from the mundane story with creative visuals and structure. It never works.
JRM: What are some of the mistakes you see writers makewith their scripts or in their approach to people or the industry?
Jay Simpson: A lot of writers invest thousands of hours studying and improving their craft, but virtually no time learning about the business or developing a network with people in the business.
JRM: What are the most important things writers need to know about "the business?"
Jay Simpson: Too many writers labor under the illusion that if they write it, buyers will come. They type FADE OUTthen have no idea what to do next. But if you want to work in the film business, you need to be a professional, and that means understanding the business in which you wish to work.
It's a ridiculously small industry. Every aspiring writer should have a general idea of who works where, and who buys the kind of product they're writing. It's also a good idea to understand the reality and the mechanics of the way the business works, to inform your story choices before you write and to prepare you for making informed choices when approaching buyers and dealing with the development and production process.
JRM: Aside from the script itself, what says to people in the business“Hey, I want to work with this writer?”
Jay Simpson: That's it. It's all about the project and/or the writer's ability to deliver a good product. Being able to take notes and collaborate with creatives is a bonus, but not a requisite. Those things will help keep you on a project, but in terms of selling a script, the only thing that matters is the story.
JRM: What says “I don't want to work with this writer?”
Jay Simpson: Resistance to notes and being antagonistic toward others involved in the project.
JRM: You may be the wrong guy to askbut what are the odds of selling a spec, as opposed to getting work off a spec that doesn't sell?
Jay Simpson: The odds of selling a spec are small, and the odds of getting work without selling a spec are even smaller. The people competing for assignments are people with sold specs and/or produced movies under their belts.
JRM: There's a widespread perception that a big part of making it in Hollywood is “who you know.” How true is thatand how does “who you know” stack up against “what you know” or “how good you are?”
Jay Simpson: Who you know is crucial. Going back to my earlier comments, knowing the producers who championed Armored was vitally important. Knowing my manager and having his tireless support was crucial to my success.
Having connections with producers and studio execs gets you on the short list for assignments, because once you're recognized as someone they want to work with, buyers will continue to offer you assignments.
Of course, it all begins with the ability to deliver a good product. How good you are is extremely importantas is your ability to impress others and develop a network. But it all stems from your work.
JRM: How does a new guy or gal make contacts?
Jay Simpson: Everyone knows someone. Everyone went to school with someone who went to school with someone who works in the industry. There's no shortage of information on the internet. I'm not a great social engineer, and I managed to develop a network of fans in L.A. while I was in Vancouver, Canada. If I can do it, anyone can do it.
JRM: It's been said that there are three crucial elements to breaking in: talent, access, and timing. Can you rate their relative importanceor would you alter the equation to include other elements?
Jay Simpson: I think success is primarily a function of having the right script in the right place at the right time. Part of that has to do with talent, part of it has to do with accessbut most of it has to do with timing.
The frustrating and demoralizing part of this business is that the biggest factor in your success is entirely out of your control. It's also a little humbling to accept that your success or failure has little to do with your talent.
JRM: What are the chances of making it in this business without a good rep?
Jay Simpson: There are many roads to success. Most of them involve a good rep. All involve the writer as relentless self-promoter.
JRM: Any tips on 'relentless self promotion?'
Jay Simpson: When someone asks you to do an interview, you say yes. Seriously, it takes an entrepreneurial mindset to be a writer. You need to constantly be developing a network of potential reps and buyers, and constantly promoting new and better products which you are prolifically producing.
JRM: Agent vs. managerwhich is best, or does a writer need both?
Jay Simpson: It's often easier for a new writer to approach a manager than it is to approach an agent. Managers are often more willing to take on unproven clients. Agents tend to want clients with some proven value that can be marketed.
A new writer first needs a good manager; managers develop careers. You then need a good agent; agents create networks and deals. Finally, you need a good lawyer, because lawyers negotiate deals. There's a large amount of overlap with all of them.
When your career reaches the level of a David Koepp, you no longer need a manager. When your career reaches the level of William Goldman, you no longer need a manager or an agent. But when you're starting out, you need all three.
JRM: Thoughts on manager-producers?
Jay Simpson: I found it very beneficial to have another voice of support in the room during the development and production stages. It also saved me 10% of the sale price, because a manager doesn't collect a commission when being paid as a producer by the studio.
JRM: What makes a good rep, and what are some of the things that tell you you're dealing with a keeper?
Jay Simpson: A good rep shares your vision for your career, and remains in constant contact with you in order to be putting you out for assignments and tracking your progress in writing original material.
Good reps act like partners who are equally invested in your success. Average reps act like they work for you, only working when you direct them to. A bad rep acts like you work for them, expecting you to do all their legwork for them.
JRM: What are some signs of a bad repthings to watch out for? The legwork bit you don't find out about until it's too late.
Jay Simpson: An stable of clients that's too large to be properly serviced. A stable of clients that have been with the rep for a long time, but have had no work or sales in that time. A rep who doesn't return your calls and can't get your work into the hands of people who like it. An inability to get clients up for assignments or even into “meet and greet” meetings with producers and studio execs.
JRM: Big agency vs boutique vs small agency: what's your take, pro and con?
Jay Simpson: For me, what matters isn't the size of the agency; it's their ability to get movies made. A lot of the big agencies can't get movies made because they don't rep the kinds of people who can be packaged to get a movie made. I think the writer should make sure they're with a company that can not only get work for clientsbut also get clients' work produced.
JRM: Care to name names when it comes to effective agencies with the ability to package?
Jay Simpson: Endeavor, CAA, and WMA are the only powerhouses left in Hollywood. Other agencies can help you get work, but these three are the only ones with the juice to package and push projects into production.
JRM: What about sending scripts out to producers? Many writers have qualms about that.
Jay Simpson: I think most of the pitfalls are associated with blindly approaching producers. If a writer does the appropriate due diligence, most potential pitfalls will be eliminated.
Developing and maintaining relationships with producers is essential to launching and sustaining a career. The sooner you start building those relationships, the better. Having a rep is a shortcut for your due diligence, as you tend to rely on their experience and access to filter the people you work with.
JRM: How important are loglines, pitch-sheets, and treatments?
Jay Simpson: Their importance cannot be overstated. The logline is the cornerstone of your pitch. The ability to pitch is crucial for success. The ability to write treatments is essential when chasing assignmentsand assignments are the bread and butter of the working writer, easily accounting for over 90% of the work.
JRM: Many writers believe it's all on the page: once the script is in the right hands, the writing will sell itself. In your opinion, how important is it to be “good in a room,” and to be able to pitch the work in person?
Jay Simpson: When selling a spec, it really is all on the page and a matter of getting it into the right hands at the right time.
When trying to land an assignment, you absolutely need to be able to work a room and pitch not only your take, but also yourself as a writer who is interesting, reliable, creative, and someone people want to work with.
JRM: For the writer, how important is it to read scriptsgood, bad, or indifferentas opposed to watching movies?
Jay Simpson: Reading scripts and watching movies are both very important for aspiring writers, but it's more important to deconstruct scripts and movies to understand how and why they succeed or fail.
JRM: Artistically or commercially?
Jay Simpson: Both. Movies are a commercial art form, and I believe that commercial and artistic success are intrinsically linked.
JRM: What do you see as the pros and cons of television vs. feature work?
Jay Simpson: Television work offers employment security; feature work allows you to be the master of your own destiny.
JRM: Should writers want to direct or produceand if so, why?
Jay Simpson: Most writers do not have the detachment or skill sets needed to direct or produce.
JRM: What industry trends do you see that writers should be aware of right now?
Jay Simpson: We are entering an era of big movies. Currently that's dominated by comic book adaptations, but there is an increasing appetite for original big movies.
JRM: Any tips for those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Jay Simpson: Don't take no for an answer.
JRM: And of course, the eternal question: how does a writer get repped?
Jay Simpson: Start with a concept that feels like a movie, and could not be done as anything but a movie. A concept that has a unique and appealing hook that is solidly rooted in a specific genre, and that elevates and twists that genre in a new and interesting way. Then write a script that fully exploits your concept, and relentlessly promote it.
JRM: Can you cite any examples of this in films readers might be familiar with?
Jay Simpson: I remember reading an interview with the writers of the Wedding Crashers, who said they had great difficulty with their first drafts. The ending didn't feel right, and they didn't know how to fix it. They tried everything, but it wasn't until they went back to their core concept that they realized what the problem was.
Their story was about a guy who crashes weddings, so naturally the ending had to involve him crashing a wedding. So by exploiting the concept, they were able to find the way to fix their story.
I know my answer sounds like the same old tripe we've all heard before, but it really is that simple. I've never had a problem getting representation, so I've never understood why writers find it so difficult.
I suppose those writers who can't interest people in their work are those who don't believe their concepts are the most important part of their story. They probably believe execution is everythingbut you can't pitch execution, and you can't put execution in a query letter.
JRM: Is there any one thing you took away from the development process that might help new writers in crafting a script that appeals to buyers?
Jay Simpson: The importance of creating moments, as opposed to just writing scenes. Producers and directors are always looking for momentspowerful and dramatic moments that crystallize plot, character, and theme.
When writing, think in terms of moments and not scenesand your script will "feel" more like a movie, and be more appealing to buyers.
JRM: These "moments"can you point to a few top-end examples on film?
Jay Simpson: People naturally communicate moments. When we tell people about our past, we tell them about the moments that crystallize our emotional experience. We instinctively edit out the mundane details and focus on the emotional moments. We do the same thing when we describe a movie to someone who hasn't seen it.
A scene is capable of advancing the plot. A scene can also advance the character's arc. A moment advances the audience's emotional experience. Look at movies like Dark Knight and Iron Man. Both deliver emotional moments on a regular basisand that was enough to sustain audience interest and leave viewers satisfied, despite the flaws.
The "scenes" are easily forgotten. We don't care about the bullet reconstruction scene, because it's emotionally flat. No one is going to recommend that movie to friends because of the great bullet reconstruction scene. They will recommend it because of the great "moment" where [spoiler warning] Gordon is shot, or the great "moment" where Dent and Rachel know they're going to die.
Iron Man is interesting because they turned what would have been a flat scenebuilding the third-generation suitinto a series of funny moments by treating the trial-and-error as gags. A lesser writer and director would have treated them as scenes, without an emotional experience for the audience.
JRM: Can you point to a few films that have "scenes" instead of "moments"and suffer because of it?
Jay Simpson: That is hard to do because scenes are the first things cut from a movie. They're easier to find in scripts than in movies. Most mystery films tend to have more scenes than moments, resulting in intellectual puzzles rather than emotional experiences for the audience.
JRM: Any suggested resources for writers?
Jay Simpson: Chris Lockhart's The Inside Pitch DVD.
JRM: What's next for you?
Jay Simpson: Armored drops Sept 18, 2009. And I've taken some time out of the assignment game to focus on writing a new spec. That's going out soon.
Jay's first film, Armored, is scheduled for release on December 14, 2009:
A rookie security guard coerced into stealing his armored truck's payload turns against the crooked guards, becomes trapped inside his own truck, and struggles to stop them from breaking in.
View the Armored trailer here.
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