Selling NonFiction to Hollywood
March 14th, 2004
Selling NonFiction to Hollywood
by Skip Press
by Skip Press
If you saw the movie "Midnight Express" you may know that it is the true story of Billy Hayes, an American who suffered torture and deprivation in a Turkish prison after being caught smuggling drugs. What you might not know is how producer Peter Guber secured the rights to the story. Guber read about Hayes' dramatic escape in a newspaper article, and like many Hollywood producers wanted to make a movie of the story. Guber beat everyone by flying out to the Midwest to meet with Hayes' parents. When Hayes returned home, Peter Guber had a deal waiting for him. The movie was so powerful, at least in part, because audiences knew it was based on real events.
Anyone with a great true story can sell it to Hollywood. You simply need to know where and how to place your material. One good place to start is the hottest movie "pitchman" in Tinseltown, producer Robert Kosberg. A woman in Arkansas whom he didn't know faxed him an article she thought would make a good movie. She had not written the article, she was not featured in the piece, nor did she know anyone mentioned. She simply thought the true story could be good onscreen. When all was said and done, producer Kosberg had acquired the rights to the article, set up a movie deal at a major studio, and paid his Arkansasan story scout $100,000. That's right, 100 Gs. Real money. 1000 pictures of Benjamin Franklin to walk around with, or to hide in your mattress. If you don't believe that story, tell Robert Kosberg via his Sell Your Movie Idea to Hollywood site. If you want to make a good impression, keep your idea brief. Don't blindly email a book or screenplay youve written. Kosberg is frank about what he thinks he can sell, and he screens dozens of ideas every day. He's one of the people involved in the "Interactive Lounge" pitching session at the Sundance Film Festival 2000, along with the ShowBiz Data website proprietor and movie producer Oliver Eberle.
People who successfully break into Hollywood work hard at it, and those who communicate the most generally have the greatest success. As a freelancer, I know how difficult it can be to promote your work while facing constant deadlines. I've broadened my exposure by reselling regional articles nationally or internationally, but building up such outlets can be a daunting task. Hiring a secretary is usually beyond the means of most freelancers, and while staff writers have access to more resources, there's usually little time to work at reselling.
Industry R&D, a unique media company in Calabasas, California is a freelancer's dream. If they like your story, IR&D will forward it to media outlets across the country, follow story developments for you, notify information TV shows like "Hard Copy" and "48 Hours" about your material, and even introduce it to producers and studios, always listing you as the source. If you're a seasoned veteran, IR&D will even bring stories to you which you can pitch to your editors.
"If a writer has written on a local level or tips us on a local story, we work with them for free," says IR&D president Tom Colbert. "We're paid on the other end to spot ideas all day."
IR&D is currently developing over 5,000 stories for print, TV shows and movies. 32 of their stories have been bought by movie studios, and 16 of those have been made into films. The "Fly Away Home" feature from Disney was one. IR&D also has a national pool of veteran writers who sell to national magazines. The company provides them with stories; if a writer develops it for a national magazine, they pay IR&D a $250 fee and IR&D pays the story provider.
Naturally, if anything bigger develops, like a book or a movie, the original source gets a cut of that, too.
"We're reversing the old trip off the small town writer syndrome," Colbert says, "Anyone can bring us ideas, even if they're still working on them. We have 45 major clients, TV and print, who buy ideas from our source network. Our national writers pool sells the ideas to outlets that we don't work with at IR&D."
Writers interested in being in the writers' pool can contact Colbert directly. Hell ask you to send in a bio with some tearsheets from national magazines. If you have a story you want IR&D to pick up, contact Colbert at tcolbert@IndustryRandD.com. Industry R&D is located at 23945 Calabasas Road, Ste. 207, Calabasas, CA 91302, phone (800) 9956808, fax (800) 9957978.
If you want to do more than merely sell your story, like writing scripts or becoming a producer, it's easier than ever for nonfiction writers. As the number of television channels proliferates like cyberrabbits in an electronic cage, all the material cant be reruns, and it's much easier to break into scriptwriting with nonfiction. Cable channels like Discovery and The Learning Channel are all reality (nonfiction) programming, and writers who can deftly turn a factfilled phrase are in demand. You need to know screenplay format, which anyone can learn, and have a good ear for dialogue. Other than that, you need to be able to do great research.
You don't even have to move to Southern California to write for television. In 1997, I met Bart Wilcox of Wichita, Kansas by answering an ad he placed on the Hollywood Network. Bart and his partners at Perfectly Round Productions were developing "Algo's Factory," a TV science show for kids to be broadcast on the United Paramount Network (UPN). Bart and I traded emails, talked once on the phone, I sent him a writing sample, and within a week I had a fourscript assignment. "Algo's Factory" was planned in Kansas, filmed in Minnesota, and written by myself and the other staff writers all living in California. We could have lived anywhere in the world and done the work.
You have to do whatever it takes to get them, particularly if you're interested in selling to Hollywood.
Hollywood needs you, because good true stories are hard to find. That point was fully conveyed to me when I interviewed Marc Lorber for my book Writer's Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriters' Agents (Prima Publishing). Shortly after I met Marc, he became the head of Television Development for Hallmark Productions, then Vice President of Development for Television for Mike Medavoy's Phoenix Pictures. I came across Marc by doing a member directory search of America Online. When I entered the keyword "producer" his member profile was one that popped up. By the time you read this, Lorber will have become the VP of US production and Development for Carlton, the UK media conglomerate, in their Los Angeles office. But even though he's moved up the Hollywood success ladder, he still has the same email address. You can reach him at with a short email description of what you have to offer at TVMovies@aol.com.
Lorber might have moved up the Hollywood success ladder, but he still has the same email address. You can reach him at Phoenix Pictures, 10202 W. Washington Blvd., Frankovich Bldg., Culver City, CA 90232, phone (310) 2446138 or (preferably) post a short email description of what you have to TVMovies@aol.com. Email gets a quicker response.
Email gets prompts a more immediate reply than just about any other medium, particularly if your work is unknown to a producer. It can also lead to lasting relationships; when youve traded a few emails you begin to feel like you know your correspondent. As an example, in October 1997, I chaired two panels at the first annual Hollywood Film Festival. Some of the people on my panels I had previously met in "real life," but I mostly knew them via phone and email. My panelists were as eager to press the flesh with me as I was with them. I attribute it to the human need to put a face with a voice, a body with a collection of thoughts. If you don't believe this, do an experiment. Get in an online chat room and propose a group gettogether at a mutually convenient place. You'll be flooded with responses.
If you are outside the Los Angeles area, haven't sold to Hollywood, and don't have an agent in town to sell for you, a cyberconnection is your best bet in breaching the "newbie" barrier. It works wonders. I'd met producer Robert Katz (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Esperza-Katz ("Gettysburg," "Selena") before the Hollywood Film Festival, and had talked to him many times on the phone, but on our panel discussion I learned that his company had two films going into production that Katz first learned about about via email.
Busy Hollywood executives love email. It's quick, immediate, and you have to state your business succinctly or get deleted. If you can state the "high concept" of your story, the 25 words or less or what it's about, that's perfect. Think TV Guide description and youll have the idea. "Police Woman Centerfold," for instance, or "Switched at Birth." As a non-fiction writer accustomed to coming up with headlines, it should be easier for you than for writers who primarily create fiction.
What writers and agents selling to Hollywood have over people outside the system is information. Thanks to the WorldWide Web, that advantage is changing fast. One of the hottest sources on Hollywood "buzz" is located in an apartment in Austin, Texas. Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News will tell you what test audiences are saying about new movies and much more. The site got the attention of USA Today, which featured it in an article.
If you have a story that you think would make a good movie but arent sure if the subject has been done before, you can research if for nothing at two sites. The Internet Movie Database is a tool for finding out when a film was made, who directed, produced, wrote, starred, etc. The IMDb is a great tool, but in my estimation the AllMovie Guide is about as good. See which one you like best.
Once youve done your research, the next question becomes "How do I find someone who will buy my story?" Conventional wisdom is to find an agent, but the real truth is you can approach a great number of producers by yourself. You can reach all of them via the Hollywood Creative Directory. The company also publishes the Hollywood Agents & Managers Directory and several other Hollywood source books. For details and the latest prices, call 800-815-0503 if you're outside California, or 3103154815 if you're in the state. The best deal is their online subscription. If you call, they'll give you a temporary screen name and an access code to try out the service. The Hollywood Creative Directory lists thousands of entertainment people, their production companies, their personnel, their phone numbers, fax numbers, e-mail addresses and/or Web sites, and a few of their credits. The online listings are updated weekly, whereas the print versions only come out quarterly.
A competing site is In Hollywood from Brookfield Communications at (which recently became a part of the new Hollywood industry information supersite, Creative Planet). This site offers a free trial and a $19.95 per month subscription. On the site you can find out what novels and scripts are selling, where to find people, and a search of their database offers an excellent crossreferencing of credits of filmmakers.
There are tons of sites these days offering an inside track to the world of Hollywood development. You'll just have to decide which sites are useful and which ones you like best.
From TV movies to feature films, "Based on a true story" can be Hollywood movie gold. Nonfiction writers have a better chance of seeing their name onscreen than ever before, and these days you can sell to Hollywood from anywhere in the world.