Denny Schnulo began his writing career at age eleven with the release of his first collection of poems to the kids on the school playground. Believing that first hand reports are always best, he spent his early adult years living and working throughout the world. His writing today is informed by people he met and things they did together. Follow Denny on Twitter: @DennySchnulo
Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis are the authors of I Liked It Didn’t Love It (Screenplay Development From the Inside Out), and The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals, two must-read books for any aspiring filmmaker. The third edition of I Liked it, I Didn’t Love It recently came out so Script caught up with Rona and Monika to discuss what’s new in the book and the world of filmmaking, in general.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Script: You talk about networking in both of your books so I thought it would be kind of interesting to find out how you two met.
Rona Edwards: Well, Monika and I met through a good mutual friend of ours who was a publicist when I was working for Michael Phillips. Michael had hired a PR person, Carolyn Broner, and she said to me one day, “I really want you to meet Monika Skerbelis.” And so she arranged the lunch, and Monika and I hit it off like right away, and I started pitching to her.
Monika Skerbelis: Then there was this opportunity for me to be a guest speaker in Boulder, Colorado at a retreat called “Writers in the Rockies,” and I asked Rona if she would like to join in on it to talk about what’s going on from a production company standpoint, and I’d talk about writing from a studio standpoint, since I was working at a studio at that time.
Rona: But the interesting thing was, when we started doing this, we didn’t have the plan. We started working together on figuring out what we were going to do for this full-day workshop at this retreat in Boulder… aside from enjoying the beautiful scenery. It became very apparent that we were the yin and yang of the experience, that Monika, speaking from a studio standpoint, and I speaking from a production company standpoint, would be a very eye-opening experience for the retreat participants. We’ve worked that way ever since, seeing a real yin and yang. I mean, we agree on a lot of things, but there are some things that we don’t agree with. It was like Siskel and Ebert talking about the studio and production company development process.
Script: So now you’re working together on these workshops, how did the original book, the first edition come to be?
Rona: Well, that’s really an interesting story and journey. After we did this “Writers in the Rockies” retreat, Monika was teaching at a UCLA extension, and I was a guest speaker in her class. She said, “You know what? We should do this together.” So we ended up creating a class together that became the foundation for the book.
Rona: That is a really good question because I started out as an actor and a singer. I took a left hand turn when a friend of mine asked me to work on an after-school special, basically helping with locations, and I said, “Sure, why not.” But I had this ulterior motive that I would hang around the set and the producers would love me so much, that I was young and bold and ambitious, and they would basically hire me on the spot to be in the film. That’s how naïve I was. Instead, they offered me the job as a development exec. I said, “But I’m an actress” and they said, “Well, you could still act.” Those were the famous last words, because as a development exec you have no time to do pretty much anything else, it’s 24/7. So I took a left-hand pass into that, and from that, it was a natural foray into being a producer.
Monika: My journey started working at the studio, growing up in the studio system, and spending fifteen years working in the story department for Paramount, Fox, and Universal. And from the studio system I started to be a program director for a film festival. That lead to being an associate producer on two Lifetime movies that I worked on with Rona. I think that my journey got me here because I had an interest in supporting emerging filmmakers and screenwriters.
Rona: I think for me, it’s also that because I started as an actor I can look at screenplays from that perspective and there’s really not that much difference between the way a writer approaches a script and the way an actor approaches the script after it’s written — what characters want, what’s their objective, and what they do to get it, what’s in their way, what are the obstacles. It’s the same exact thing. In some ways it really goes hand-in-hand, I think it makes you a better producer and storyteller.
Script: You’ve had two editions of the book and now here’s the third. What inspired you to write the third edition of I Liked It, I Didn’t Love It?
Rona: Well, to be honest it was like writing a whole new book. It took a year. It’s twice the size of the 2009 edition and the original edition from 2005. I would say that it had to be updated, number one, as all books do in order to stay relevant. There’s a lot of updated references and statistics as well.
It talks about some of the changes in the industry, but more than that, a good third of the book is now dedicated to television where it was originally just a chapter in the book. That’s because in 2013 pretty much everything changed with the onslaught of digital internet television — Netflix in particular being the big pioneer that forged this new ground. This new golden age of television provides so much content. It’s more than just 99 channels; it’s thousands of channels, so there’s a lot we discuss about this in the new edition. It’s not the Bruce Springsteen song “Ninety Nine Channels and Nothing On.” There’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot of opportunity, not just in broadcast television and cable television, premium cable television, digital internet streaming, but also on the web. There’s so many emerging filmmakers and screenwriters, and even seasoned ones, taking matters into their own hands and creating their own content on the web, whether it’s YouTube or other platforms.
It’s kind of an exciting time for all of us. We had to talk about all of that and it’s been done in such a way that I think is going to help people who want to know, not just about feature film development, which is certainly still part of the book, but television development.
Monika: It’s also used as a textbook at universities and film schools. So it was important for us to keep it up-to-date.
Script: What else is updated, beyond the TV bit?
Rona: All of the references are updated throughout. Just to give you kind of a rundown, when we talk about the story department at the studio, we talk about the studio executives, we talk about the production company and the producer agents and managers. That’s still all in there, as was in our first edition, except with lots of changes. In the eleven years since the first edition, there have been a lot of changes, but for the most part I think in those chapters, aside from updated references and stats, the producing chapter in particular has changed a lot because we’ve now included definitions for trans-media producers. Agents and managers have also changed the way they work. It takes a lot of packaging and work to sell projects now when back then [when the first book came out] you could sell something on a logline.
We’ve expanded the sections on finding and developing new ideas to include a lot more potential possibilities. Then of course we have our pitching chapter. In the television arena we talk about the history of the comedy and the history of the one-hour drama. We talk movies of the week, and the difference between a mini series, a limited series and a regular episodic series. We give structure information about each of those. We discuss about the showrunner and even talk a little bit about the genres of reality television in addition to the new golden age of television and the pioneers. We have sections on Netflix and Amazon and Hulu as well as others, including the wild, wild web of Youtube and the craziness of content creators, as we like to call everybody now. They’re not just writers, they’re not just producers, they’re not just directors, they’re content creators. In addition we have a resource chapter that is pretty amazing — a lot of research has gone into it. We give a lot of helpful apps.
Monika: Yeah, we now have a lot of really great apps that screenwriters and filmmakers can utilize, and we updated a lot of the go-to websites as well as organizations and labs. We have a really great reference of books, too. What is it, twenty-five books I think?
Rona: Yeah, we do the top twenty-five books that you should have on your bookshelf. And so we’ve added a lot to the resource chapter and written a lot more about labs and organizations that can be helpful. It’s all about encouraging the filmmaker, the wanna-be executive, the writer, the director. They’ll get a real birds-eye view of the TV and feature film process, and we handhold them throughout the book. In fact, this was the basis for our class. In some ways it’s actually turning into the opposite. We actually have to go back and revamp our classes so that they will reflect this new version of the book which, like I said, is twice the size of its predecessor.
Script: Let’s jump into some of the advice inside the book. What’s the difference between a production company and a studio?
Monika: Well, a production company is both buyer and seller. Whereas a studio is a buyer. They will all develop projects. They will all work with filmmakers, but the difference is, a producer has to not only option material, but they also have to set it up either with a studio, a network, a financier, investor or whatever and raise the money themselves. A studio already has that money in place and will basically look at projects and buy them based upon their needs on their slate.
Script: How important are loglines and why?
Monika: Well they’re important because they need to capture the attention and spark interest for the material. You need them for scripts, and you need them for film, and you need them for books.
Monika: You need them for everything project, actually.
Rona: Everything, yeah. If you can reduce your story to a logline so that people go, “Wow! I want to know more.” Then you’ve succeeded with a good logline. It’s basically one or two sentences that describe what the movie is about, but you want to get a little tone, you want to really talk about the protagonist, the journey the protagonist is on, and the big obstacle that they have to overcome so that a person will get it right away and understand what your story is about and want to know more.
Monika: And I think one of the important things is to be brief and to make sure that it describes what the story is about and that it’s not a statement of theme or a tagline, which is a line that you would see on a poster — a marketing line.
Rona: When we ask a lot of students that we teach for loglines, they’ll either end it with a question or give basically a tagline that doesn’t really tell us anything about a story, but might be humorous or something in some way. They really need to differentiate between loglines, tag lines and themes. Themes can be incorporated into loglines, but you don’t talk about the moral of the story without telling us what the protagonist is going through first, and that’s the journey of their story. Then there’s also the hook which is a higher concept of why an audience would want to go see this movie. What is it about it that makes a sensible person pay their fourteen, fifteen dollars or maybe even sometimes more if you’re going to see 3D, to fork that money out? It has to be interesting to the audience in the same way it would be to an executive who was buying your material.
Script: Is there any silver-bullet secret to writing a good logline?
Rona: Start with your protagonist. You could say “a man,” but is it a young man, is it a dying man? Say something about that character and what they must do and what they end up discovering on their journey and what’s in their way along that journey — the biggest obstacle that they have to overcome. Really, there’s no magic bullet, and the one thing I will say is, I’ve had many filmmakers pitch me a logline in the same way. They might use the beginning of “what happens when…” or something like that. To me, that’s not necessarily going to pique my interest all of the time; it depends on the story. Try to be original with your loglines. Know that it’s about the protagonist and their journey, know that it’s about the big obstacle that they have to overcome in spite of themselves.
Script: What are some of the key differences that you’ve seen in the development process that has changed over the years?
Rona: The way projects are getting set up these days.
Monika: Less studios.
Rona: Less studios, but there seems to be more opportunities out there with Amazon and Netflix and Hulu and some of the other content providers. The actual process of coverage and development hasn’t really changed that much. It’s still pretty much the same as it’s been for a hundred years. So that hasn’t really changed. What has changed is the expense of such. The fact that studios are developing big franchise films versus just buying. They’ll buy a film in acquisition or if the whole package is attached possibly, but they’re much more interested in these big films that they can get seven or eight movies out of and build on that from a marketing standpoint, because it’s so expensive to market films. It’s always been expensive to market films but even more-so today.
Branding is a very big part of the studio system. They want audiences to already be familiar with he material before they see it because they believe it will bring more people in to buy a ticket. I think they’re finding in some ways that it doesn’t always work. A good film is a good film, and it will always bring audiences in. You will have small films that are the little engine that could do very, very well and you have these big studio films that flop. Those are big changes, the franchisable films are not working, as Monika said, as much as they used to. They’re smaller. There’s also not as many studios that you used to go to to sell as a producer. It’s much harder, so producers and production companies are raising money on their own. They’re doing international co-production so that they can attract and take advantage of tax incentives and rebates from difference countries by shooting them in different countries which is limiting in some regard because you have to use talent and below-the-line that are from that country in order to get those benefits. There’s a lot more strategy I think that goes into selling and making a film than there used to be.
Script: As industry professionals why do you also write books? You’re out there in the business every day. You’re teaching, why write books too?
Monika: To share our experience and experiences. To compliment the classes we teach. I mean, we’re not getting rich doing this.
Rona: Yeah, you don’t make a lot of money from books, they’re calling cards in some ways. Also, I think really when it comes down to it, we didn’t have these books when we were starting out. We didn’t have a roadmap. So now we’re giving you guys out there a roadmap, and we’re very accessible. You can find us on our website esentertainment.net that’s “E” as in Edwards and “S” as in Skerbelis. We offer online courses that are not necessarily offered in film school. We try to be very deliberate about that. We keep in contact with all our alum from ESE film workshops online.
So, why do we do all this? Because we didn’t get it when we were starting out. David Madden, the President of Fox Entertainment, said he read our book. He wished he would have had this when he was starting out, it would have saved him years! It would have saved Monika and I years as well if we’d had a book like this. It’s basically the quintessential book on development. There is no other book quite like it. Other books will have a chapter in it that talks about development, but nowhere as in-depth as this book. It offers so much information, and it’s very eye opening for both new and seasoned people in the industry to see what really goes on in development. How many people have touched your script and your project before a decision is actually made whether to put it into development or pass on it, green light it, and/or put it in turn-around. All of those buzzwords you might hear in other books, but we explain it all.
Script: If someone is about to embark into this business and trying to get up the ladder, what do you think they should know before they dive in head first?
Monika: I think they need to figure out which area, which arena, they want to work in. Whether it’s features or television.
Rona: You can do both.
Monika: You can do both. Do the research and find out what companies you would want to work with.
Rona: A good way is to see what kind of films you like and who makes those films, and then try and target those kinds of companies to work at. I think one of the things that is very successful about I Liked It, I Didn’t Love It is that it talks about all the players and all the jobs in the development process part of the business. From that, you understand how they work and how they also fit together, so you have a very good array of potential jobs. A lot of students will read this and go, “Wow! I really want to be a reader.” Or “I really want to work at a production company” or “I want to be an agent.” And from this book you’ll get a very good definition of all of those positions and how they work together.
Monika: If you want to work at a production company, then you really do need to learn how to write coverage, learn how to read a screenplay and write development notes.
Rona: The book teaches you all of that by the way. As a screenwriter, I think the book is very helpful because it gives the writer an idea of what happens to their material. It’s a mysterious process that our book basically demystifies and you get a really good conclusive understanding of everything that goes on and how they’re all connected and what you must do as a content creator, director, writer or producer.
Script: What’s the one thing that screenwriters should know about the development process?
Monika: I think they should know, basically, how many hands and how many eyes are on your work when it’s submitted to a studio and even a smaller production company. Someone is going to write coverage on their project. Coverage is basically a synopsis, comments, and a recommendation of whether this is material for that production company, for that studio, or for that network. Also, they’ll do a recommendation on coverage if they like the writing. Let’s just say maybe the story or the script isn’t for them but the writing is really good, so they’ll recommend the writer. That gets filed into the studio, production company, or network database.
I think it’s also important for the screenwriter when they’re given development notes that they’re not defensive and that they really listen to the notes.
Rona: I think that you have to understand that it’s a collaborative effort in the entertainment and the movie business, basically, and in the TV business. Everyone’s going to have an opinion and you may not always agree with the notes, but rather than immediately get defensive about it, we actually have a chapter in how to give notes and how to receive notes. I worked with some writers who were pretty defensive and what was an hour story meeting with an executive at a network turned into two hours. It wasn’t boding well for that writer to be hired again because the writer questioned every note. There’s a way to handle that. You don’t have to agree with the note, but you can say, “That’s interesting. Let me think about it.” Then, of course, you’ll think about it and go, “No. That doesn’t work.” Understand what is at the core of that note. Why is that executive or that producer having an issue about something? Maybe they’re not able to explain or communicate it properly, but there’s something wrong. It’s your job as a writer to go in and say, “Why are they questioning this. What isn’t working?”
Script: You said they’ll recommend the writer but not the script. Does that go into a database?
Rona: Yes. It’s part of coverage.
Monika: Yes. It’s part of coverage, so when a reader’s reading the material, there’ll usually be two little recommendation calls on the coverage — for the script and for the writer. If the writer is recommended or considered, that writer then will be considered for future writing assignments.
Rona: Monika had a great story. You should tell us about that.
Monika: When I worked at the studio, there was a young screenwriter who came out of USC. I read his screenplay. I really enjoyed it and put it on what was called the weekend read at the time. The studio executives read it.
Come Monday morning, my boss said, “The bad news is that the script was derivative of another movie, but the good news is this writer knows how to write.” I found a new writer to bring into the studio and the other studio executives met with this writer as well. Whenever we had an open writing assignment, I would say, “What about this writer?” Cut to a couple years later, I had an open writing assignment and I was able to put this writer on that project. It all started from him being considered on that piece of coverage.
Rona: So don’t get discouraged. If your writing is good, it’s probably going to get noticed.
Script: Let’s go into a little more detail about your ESE Film Workshops online. Tell us a little more about that.
Rona: We’ve been proponents of online teaching for a very long time, maybe ten to twelve years. We decided to start these ESE Film Workshops online because we saw kind of a hole in the university’s film program, and we thought we could fill it. We have some very interesting courses that we teach that you don’t necessarily see at universities. We are toying with the idea of adding some screenwriting courses, which we had always actually nixed in the past, because we feel you can get that anywhere, but people have asked us. We’re constantly trying to develop more. We’re actually having some other teachers teach their fortes for us online, and we’re hoping to grow.
We’ve taught hundreds of students already on ESE Film Workshops online and probably our most popular class is a class called “Creating a Production Company.” It’s not a how-to-produce kind of class. It’s really about focusing what kind of production company you want to have, how you set it up, what are some of the systems you can put in place, creating talent books of people you want to work with, looking at your slate of films that you might already have (screenplays that you’ve already optioned, for example, or even ones that you are working on yourself). It really helps the producer. If you’re creating a production company, whether you’re a writer, director, or distribution person who wants to have their own production company, this class works for you as well. It helps you focus on what kinds of movies you want to make and how to make that first phone call and get out there and start putting your movies together. (Editor’s note: The next class runs September 28th to November 2nd.)
Monika: Then one of the other classes that we have is “Maneuvering Film Festivals” where we use our book, The Complete Film Maker’s Guild to Film Festivals, as a textbook for the class. We have students learning how to target festivals. They learn about niche festivals, marketing material, putting postcards together, how to do a good Q and A, putting their Electronic Press Kit together. Let’s see, what else?
Rona: We talk about the fact that most filmmakers don’t put in their budget money for promotion and for film festivals. We make them do a budget for the top, say six, film festivals that they want. We usually do a top-tier and a second-tier set of film festivals and create a grid. We give them forms of early, regular and late-submission deadlines and the cost and such.
Then they do another grid on budgeting for those film festivals. It’s quite eye opening how expensive it can cost just to go up for three days, to say Sundance, or even a smaller, local festival. Most filmmakers don’t put that into their initial budget, and then they’re left with a film in the can and no festival budget. But I always say that the real work begins once the film is in the can. Now they haven’t done anything. They don’t even have an electronic press kit. Some people I know didn’t even take still pictures while they were shooting their film and these are things we recommend in our book, as well as help them put together and formulate for the class.
By the time they leave “Maneuvering Film Festivals” class, they will have an electronic press kit ready to go. They will have a strategy of film festivals that they want to submit to. They will know how much it’s going to cost them and what they’re going to do about it, whether they’re going to self-finance, maybe do crowd sourcing. Maybe they do have extra money leftover from the budget, which would be a miracle, because most films never have extra money left over in the budget. It’s a four-week, very, very intensive, online class at ESE Film Workshops. Actually, we’ve been debating whether we should expand it to make it a six-week class because it really is a lot of work in four weeks, but we want to try to keep it reasonable. That has been a very successful class. We’ve got a lot of students commenting to us that because of the class they’ve been not only getting accepted into film festivals, they’ve actually been winning awards as well.
We also have our “Screenplay Development from the Inside Out” class, which is about the development process, and is pretty much based on our first book, now in third edition, I Liked It; Didn’t Love It, as is another class we teach online “Finding and Developing New Ideas.” We’re going to be developing classes in producing a short documentary, some screenwriting possibilities, and we have someone right now teaching the hour drama. We’re hoping to get someone to do the half-hour comedy and talk also about distribution and acquisition for your films.
The idea behind ESE Film Workshops online is you are getting us as industry professionals, or if we have teachers that are doing certain classes for us on an adhoc basis, they are also industry, working professionals. You get our undying attention for those four to six weeks. They’re very concise classes. They’re not full-length like semester classes in a college, so they can be taken anywhere, from anywhere in the world, and you can be in your pajamas while taking them. We’re basically your mentors just for those four to six weeks.
Script: Okay. Similar question, just for the writers, though. There’s a million contests out there, writing contests, screenwriting contests, hour drama, feature film. Is there a lot of value in those, from your perspective?
Monika: I think it depends on the contest. Obviously, there’s some top-tier ones that you should always look at like the Nicholl, which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The TV College Award, which is sponsored by the TV Academy. Those are very important and there’s a number of others.
There are programs also, not just screenwriting contests, that I think we talk about a lot in our I Liked It; Didn’t Love It, especially under resources. There are labs out there from almost all the networks because they’re trying to train showrunners, but they also want diversity. So ABC, Disney, NBC’s Writers on the Verge, CBS, Fox, they’re all offering programs now, and it’s highly competitive. They’re writer-driven programs. If you get into one of those, it probably would be very valuable.
Rona: There are some writing contests that can be valuable even at smaller festivals. Although the Big Bear Film Festival is not in existence right now, they did offer a screenwriting contest. Monika can talk about a very big success story that happened there.
Monika: Yeah, one of our winners was read by an agent. A big agency, and next thing we know, that screenplay is being submitted to Paul Haggis who gave the script to Clint Eastwood. Her name is Iris Yamashito and she ended up getting a writing assignment for Letters from Iwo Jima and became an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter. She was pretty much discovered at a film festival because of a screenwriting competition.
Rona: One of the things that you look at with those screenwriting competitions, as well as film festivals, is to see if there’s an industry presence. By going to their websites and seeing who the jurors are, how relevant they’d be to you, are they going to be at the festival (although a lot of sites won’t exactly say that). There’s a lot of networking opportunities at film festivals. You want to see if they have panels and educational outreaches so that you can go see seminars and maybe even meet with those people that are doing them. Most of them are usually industry professionals. The Palm Springs Short Fest, for example, offers a lot of that, and it’s a great way to meet those industry pros.
Look at who’s behind the festival, who’s the programming director, and what their biography is. Look at their contacts. Look at who attends the festivals, because they’ll always have a gallery page of pictures, and they’re going to always want to shoot the bigwigs that come. Knowing that, you’ll see, maybe your script will get read by somebody who can do something. Case in point, Big Bear actually did accomplish that, and it was right in everybody’s backyard here in Los Angeles.
Be sure to check our Rona’s and Monika’s other book, The Complete Filmmaker’s Guide to Film Festivals: Your All Access Pass to Launching Your Film on the Festival Circuit