NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Working In Development – Hierarchy

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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(AUTHOR’S NOTE: I will be telling stories about my time working in development over the next few weeks. Although I never signed a confidentiality agreement, I don’t really feel like dealing with my VERY Trump-like litigious former employers. So for the sake of my sanity, the head of the company will be referred to as Cobra Commander and his wife, The Baroness. Cool?)

If you’re going to be a part of the game, you need to know the players involved. This is a “short” outline of who you’ll meet along the way when you work in development.

Keep in the mind that this is how things worked at the production company that I worked at. It might not be how it works at EVERY production company, but having been around a few, most have similar models. So far, the only difference I’ve seen is how much (or little) they let the interns do.

script-4INTERNS

The bottom of the barrel. The grunts. The getters of lunch. Most importantly? The readers of scripts.

It’s somewhat amazing that after all that work we’ve put into writing a script, its fate rests on some 20-year-old college kid that has never seen Star Wars. No, that wasn’t a hyperbolic joke. I literally had an intern that had never seen any of the Star Wars movies.

In theory, people seek internships for the field that they want to work in. In other words, you want to be an agent? Go start in the mail room of CAA. Want to be a manager? Check and see if Zero Gravity is hiring. If you want to work with writers or be a writer? Find a production company.

Anyway, as an intern you’re required to do all of the shit work which means, wading through the pile of scripts that come in. For the most part, interns touch the scripts that are handed to them by friends, unrepped writers, unsolicited scripts and whatever else the higher ups don’t want to read, or more importantly don’t HAVE to read. More on that in a second.

One time, as an intern, I had to read a script that was given to Cobra Commander at dinner the night before. It was written by the Maitre D’ of the restaurant he frequented. He took it because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t get “his table” when he wanted it. Of course, he shoved it off on me, the intern, because he had no plans to ever read that shit. And just so you know: It WAS shit. I really took the bullet on that one.

LESSON #1:

You should know that EVERYONE has a script. EVERY. ONE. I have been pitched scripts by bartenders, guys who work at the American Eagle, a checkout cashier and, among others, an Uber Driver. (Although to be fair, the Uber Driver turned into a friend and is killing it in the world of Stand-Up Comedy.)

To the point: Everyone has a script and everyone pitches everyone. So just know that if you meet a “producer” at an event who says, “send me your script, I’ll read it” what they really mean is: “Yeah, I’ll give it to my intern to read cause I have to give them enough work to justify keeping them around for free…how else will I get my lunch?”

Read more on Inside Screenwriting Industry Politics

ASSISTANTS

Assistants are the backbone of the production company. The gatekeepers. The person that can roll that call or forward that email. At the same time, they’re really just interns who get the privilege of collecting a paycheck. An often meager paycheck, but a paycheck nonetheless.

NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Working In Development - Hierarchy by Manny Fonseca | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwritingUnfortunately, along with a paycheck, comes the grief. If an intern fucks up, the assistant hears about it, and it’s the assistant’s job to handle the situation. Yes, I’ve had to fire an intern and it was the biggest storm of stupid drama that I have ever been apart of.

In fact, just to give the intern an extra shot, I told him to keep quiet and hide. He worked for about a month after I was told to fire him without the higher ups knowing. An example of how much interns are noticed by those up top.

Interns are free. They don’t get yelled at. Now if an assistant “fucks up…” That’s another story. I’ll share some of my tales from behind the assistant’s desk next time, but just to give you a little sneak peek: The worst time I ever got yelled at by The Baroness was over post-its. That’s right, I got yelled at over an office supply.

There are a lot of benefits to being an assistant.

You get access to all the same tools that the higher ups have (like studio system, the tracking boards, etc.) plus you have access to other assistants. Most of your calls day in and day out are to other assistants…assistants to celebrities, assistants to managers and agents and assistants to other producers.

Once you become an assistant at a production company, you’re plugged in to the assistant network. A network of people who all understand each other’s plight. Who all have “their Vietnam” stories. So they tend to be happy to speak to other people who have been in the trenches with them and help them out when possible. Like pass along a script, if you’re a writer.

BUT, as with everything, there are assistants who are shitty human beings. Assistants that have been in the trenches TOO long. Assistants who have been in so long that they question their life choices. They’re bitter and want to inflict their pain on other assistants. These people have been playing the gatekeeper life too long and really should be put out to pasture.

LESSON #2:

That being said, don’t shit on assistants. There’s an old Hollywood saying that goes, “Assistant today, studio head tomorrow.” It’s true. Very true. The assistant I replaced has gone on to be a highly successful writer. After making The Blacklist, his script finally sold and was released last year. He now writes on a very successful TV series. A couple of other assistants I know, like me, moved on to become creative executives and work with prestigious production companies.

I would also apply that to interns as well. I’m still friends with several former interns. Those that have stayed in the business have gone on to do some amazing things. One is an assistant at one of the biggest literary agencies in town, another has started her own production company (after spending time as a creative executive) and is killing it big time. Another has found gold as a successful actress and blogger, while another has become a force in the improv world, headlining her own shows.

Don’t shit on assistants because one day you could be reporting to them.

Read an interview with a HBO exec on breaking into screenwriting.

CREATIVE EXECUTIVES

CE’s are, obviously, the creative force behind the company. It’s their job to read books, read scripts, deal with managers and agents to get new material, all in hopes of finding that ONE project that will make it to the big screen.

script-3While the assistant’s will deal with the assistants of the agents and managers, CE’s will deal directly with the agents and managers. They’ll have ironclad relationships with managers and agents in hopes that said managers and agents will give them their best projects and writers.

That’s right, being a CE doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to get the next hot spec. Managers and agents are looking for the BEST company for their writer (and their pockets) to thrive.

If you’re the CE for a production company that has a studio deal… you’ll have to fight off agents and managers with a stick.

If you’re in a smaller production company, that doesn’t have as much clout, you’re going to have to do some legwork. Wine and dine those managers and agents in hopes that them liking you will garner favor when specs hit the market.

If you’re the CE of a company that has money, regardless of a studio deal, your phone will never stop ringing. After all, this IS a business, not a “making art factory.”

Becoming a CE isn’t easy. It obviously takes experience but it also takes having strong connections. The people hiring you for that position want to know you’re bringing your contacts to the table. i.e. the above mentioned relationships that you’ve nurtured. You also have to have the same sensibilities as the company you’re hustling for. Obviously, if your thing is Lifetime movies, you’re probably not going to get the open CE position at a production company that deals mainly in horror.

Even if you make the argument that most Lifetime movies are horrific. (INSERT RIMSHOT) “Thank you! I’ll be here all week!”

LESSON #3:

At the end of the day, titles don’t really mean a thing when you’re just starting out. I have had the privilege of being the actual CE at a company and, what we’ll call, a junior CE at another. I gained the latter title because I wanted to make my own connections in the industry to help further my writing career. The CE of the company gave me their blessing as long as I stayed at my end of the pool. Totally fair. I would never do anything to jeopardize their career or our friendship and if I ever thought things could get messy, I cleared it first.

That being said, I wasn’t ACTUALLY the creative executive of the company. Doesn’t mean I didn’t act like it.

Perception far outweighs title in this town.

BUT, and this is the most important part of the equation: ACTUAL POWER outweighs perception of power.

Let me explain: In my case, I wasn’t misrepresenting myself because I worked for a reputable company and had the ears of the higher ups. If I found a project that I thought was worth people’s time, I could send it up the ladder and the people above me would LISTEN. That’s power.

Then there’s the other thing. The guy (and it IS usually men) who tell you they have power but really don’t. RULE: If they have to tell you they have it… they don’t have it.

REAL LIFE EXAMPLE:

script-1When I was heavy into the pitchfest scene, there was a group of friends that would all get together and hang out before and after. One time, this guy (let’s call him Weird Guy), glommed onto our group. He told us (and the people who were pitching him) that he was the creative executive at this production company. Weird Guy REALLY wanted to be a part of the group so he’d always text and email us, inviting us out for drinks or whatever. You know, “bro hangs.”

I’m not really a “bro hang” kinda guy, so I used to pass a lot. One time though, I did go because he said he could get us into the Jimmy Kimmel green room. I practically lived across the street from Kimmel’s studio, so I figured why the hell not? Besides, he’s obviously got some connections, right?

It was embarrassing as hell. He was “showing off,” giving high fives, chatting people up, trying to get on camera during a stunt they were trying to perform. You know… THAT guy.

A few weeks later, we find out the guy was actually a fucking masseuse! Turns out he just wanted to hang with us because he liked movies and wanted to be around “movie people.”

The lesson here? If you’re getting creepy vibes off someone, there’s a reason. Don’t be so desperate to succeed that you believe everything you’re told.

PRESIDENT OF PRODUCTION

The head cheese. Top dog. The person with THE connections. They are the ones that handle the day-to-day on a project and only answer to one person…the owner of the production company. Presidents of Production are hired to run the company and MAKE SHIT HAPPEN.

They have years of experience, are well known and usually have more than a few titles attached to their IMDb page. They have a direct line to the top agents and managers and usually have a direct line to top studio executives.

When a new hot spec goes out, it’s their job to get a piece of it and when they DO get a piece of it, it’s their job to package it and present it to the studios.

When I said above that sometimes there are scripts that HAVE to be read by the people they were submitted to? Well that would be the case with the Presidents of Production. Often they’re reading scripts written by A-listers and they can’t be shoved on interns.

LESSON #4:

It should be no surprise to you that having a President of Production who likes you and believes in you is invaluable. If they want to help you further your career, they can open doors for you that would take others YEARS to get through.

More importantly, there’s no better form of validation than a President of Production believing in your writing. After all, they ARE the top of the food chain when it comes to creative decisions.

BUT…

Remember the previous lesson: Anyone can tell you they’re something that they’re not. Don’t just take them on their word, Google them. If you are fortunate to have access to Studio System, look ’em up. They have an iPhone app, it’s great. You have no idea how many times I’ve been at lunch with someone and had them drop a name and in 2 seconds I find out they’re not who they say they are.

LASTLY…

The owners. These people usually have their names on the company. Your Blums, your Bruckheimers, your Grazers.

The faces of the company.

If you know THESE guys, well then you’re probably reading this column from your studio lot bungalow while you wait for an intern to come back with your lunch.

If that’s the case…can you call me? I gotta great script for you.

What? I’m hustling just like the rest of you!

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