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Sharon Cobb co-author of Secrets of Selling Your Script to Hollywood!

Sharon Y. Cobb Interview

by: Kenna Mchugh

Sharon Y. Cobb, a former race car driver and rock musician, is originally from Florida. She once owned and operated an advertising agency/public relations firm and a publishing company. She has been a magazine editor and a free-lance journalist.

She also co-authored a book, Secrets of Selling Your Script to Hollywood! with UCLA instructor Neill Hicks. Sharon even lectures about screenwriting at UCLA and many other educational venues. She has served as a judge for screenwriting competitions and the Cable ACE Awards. I caught up with Sharon in cyberspace while she was between her screenwriting jaunts and web page column, Point of View Hollywood. In this interview Sharon clarifies and gives a poignant example of what "pitching" a story (script) is all about.

Kenna: Tell us a little about your background and what are you currently working on?

Sharon: I owned an advertising/marketing agency in Florida, then opened a publishing company where I was editor and journalist. I began fiction writing when I lived in Key West about ten years ago and started writing features in 1989. I came to LA four years ago, just in time for the firestorm and earthquake festival.

On several of my current projects I work with wonderful partners. Bill Kelley (Academy Award for co-writing WITNESS starring Harrison Ford) and I have written a spec script based on Bill's novel, THE TYREE LEGEND (also the name of the script). My agent, Joe Gatta at Paradigm, is taking it out to producers this weekend (September 6 & 7) and that's pretty exciting, especially since I love the story and characters so much.

There's a TV project, an hour-long drama, I'm working on with Alexandra Seros (THE SPECIALIST, POINT OF NO RETURN). She's a brilliant woman and marvelous writer. Our third partner is Susan Emerling who is a great documentary producer.

Another partner is Brent Reed, former Space Station Operations Manager for NASA, and we have a Movie-of-the-Week deal with Orly Adelson Productions and Citadel. They're taking our "disaster" movie into NBC next week, so keep your fingers crossed.

The independent film world fascinates me, so I'm now writing a script on assignment for indie producers. And I sold another independent-voiced spec script called BAJA TRIANGLE to director Andrew Gallerani last year and he's going into pre-production now. I was brought in by Andy last fall to rewrite a script he was preparing to direct called JUST WRITE. They made the picture starring JoBeth Williams and Sherilyn Fenn and the film won Best of the Fest at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this year!

Kenna: Wow! You have been busy! How has being a former PR/Marketing person who has also worked in publishing helped you in Hollywood?

Sharon: That background gave me a distinct advantage. I approach the screenwriting business like any other business and it's especially like advertising where I created campaigns, pitched to the clients and worked with them refining the final product. When you own your own business you must be deadline-driven, disciplined and dedicated, or you're having a "Going Out Of Business" sale pretty soon. Same thing with the screenwriting business.

Kenna: Do you lean toward the plot driven aspect or character driven aspect of the screenplay when you write or polish a script?

Sharon: Both. The specs I write to be sold on the spec market are more a plot driven, although I like to include very strong character subplots to convey the humanity and emotion of the story. Then I also write small character-driven stories that are more independent-oriented. Maybe I'll produce or direct one of those one day.

Kenna: You novelized "Touched by an Angel" from a TV script. I have listened to authors talk of doing that and it seems to be quite a process. What was it like for you?

Sharon: I was very lucky to be referred by my friend Linda Seger to the "Touched by and Angel" producers, who were extraordinarily wonderful to work with. I mean, it's great to work on a project that is inspirational to so many people. There was one small complication--they needed me to write a hundred-page book in ten days. The novelization was based on two Christmas episodes of the show and I had to decide what dialog to use, how much backstory to add and get into the heads of the characters. The good news was that they would give me the two scripts on disk, their show's "bible," and all the phone conversations I needed for input. The other news was that there had been at least one other writer on the project and what they had written wasn't exactly what the producers were looking for, which added pressure to come up with something they would like, even though I couldn't actually see what the other writer's style was like.

The challenge was capturing in prose the tone and essence of that marvelously rich show. So, I just sat down and pounded out Chapter One as I watched the tape. The experience of it felt really good and when I read the prose they sounded like the show to me--but what did I know--I wasn't the producers. I faxed Chapter One and waited. Late the next day, I was still holding my breath when Marcie Gold called and said they loved it, it captured the voice of the show, and sorry they hadn't called sooner. "Touched by an Angel" had received five Emmy nominations that morning and they had been swamped with media on the set.

After they approved the first chapter, I'd write a chapter and fax to them in Salt Lake City, Utah and they'd mark changes, like: use more of the dialog from the tape here, reword this sentence, etc. There were very few changes that they needed, so I finished the book before the deadline, leaving time for my amazing proof-reader, David Fulk, to dot all the "i"s and cross all the "t"s. Then I sent it to the producers via e-mail: eleven chapters, 76 pages. As it turned out we didn't need to go to 100 pages.

The show's staff I worked with, Marcie, Lisa and David were always available to answer questions and provide research I needed. It was a marvelous experience and hope I will be able to work with them on their future novelizations.

Kenna: How do you "pitch" a project or script?

Sharon: It depends on what kind of pitching I'm doing. If I've got a "get-acquainted" meeting scheduled with a producer or studio exec I research the person I'm meeting with through the Internet or Hollywood Creative Directory, etc. Then I get a list of credits for the company or studio (usually available online), and I pull up their current projects in development on Development Source, a database updated every two weeks of all the films in development in Hollywood. From that information I decide what to pitch. If they have produced and are currently developing comedies, that's what I prepare. I will have at least three commercial comedy pitches ready--title, genre, log line. Each should take a minute or two to pitch. I also will probably bring a list of other genre pitches. The point is not actually for them to buy the pitch, but to let them know what kinds of spec scripts I will be writing in the future. Sort of a promotion for scripts they may get from my agent later.

If it's a serious pitch meeting--meaning the producer could possibly buy the pitch and pay you to write it--that's a different kind of pitch. My partner Bill Kelley and I pitched THE TYREE LEGEND before we wrote it. We met with over twenty production companies and studios, with most of those meetings concentrated within a one week period because Bill and his wife Nina don't live in LA and Bill had to come in for the meetings. That many pitches in one week was pretty exciting, especially near the end of the week when production companies started hearing about the pitch and called our agents to get on the pitch schedule.

We came extremely close to selling the project to Avnet-Kerner and Miramax. Avnet-Kerner loved it, Bill and I went to Miramax with Shari Kimoto (Avnet-Kerner exec) to pitch, and the Miramax exec said "Yes!" But we were very disappointed to hear a week or so later that the deal fell apart. Probably because Sean Connery's company was talking with Avnet-Kerner about coming in as co-producers with Connery starring and Jon Avnet directing, and the budget was escalating out of Miramax's range.

The actual pitch was long--about 25 minutes. When you expect to sell a pitch you have to pump as much detail and emotion into the story as you can without losing the listener. Pitching is a special form of contemporary storytelling. It's very different from writing the story down in a synopsis, outline or treatment and certainly different than a script. I think someone listening to a story can get confused much easier than someone reading the same story, so you have to be careful about adding unnecessary detail that complicates the audio path of the story.

A good pitch is a good performance. If the listener doesn't feel the emotion, whether that's sadness or happiness, or whatever, then you're less likely to sell the pitch. THE TYREE LEGEND is a suspense drama and one of the protagonists is murdered and she's an innocent victim. She's someone we have grown to love and when she's murdered at the second turning point, it's a very traumatic event for many of the characters in the story--and it better be for the producer or studio exec who's taking the pitch.

Since the pitch was based on the novel Bill wrote in the late Seventies, Bill always started the pitch by telling why he wrote the novel. Then I would do the entire 25-minute pitch without stopping. Well, almost without stopping, because when our female protagonist is murdered--that was a very difficult scene to describe, especially when our main protagonist, who is deeply in love with her, finds her murdered. I can still feel that horrible blackness sweeping over me as I'm talking about it now. And that's the kind of powerful emotion that you must deliver when you're pitching.

You've probably heard that production companies and studios are buying pitches again. So that's great. It's much better working up a beat-sheet (2-page broad stroke outline) for a story and going in to pitch it, rather than spending a month or two writing an entire screenplay. Although I think it's unlikely that a studio or producer will buy a pitch from an unknown writer. Most pitches are being bought from established writers who have written at least one big spec script that sold, or wrote a blockbuster that did well. The people who buy want to be certain that you can deliver a script before they make a deal with you to buy a pitch.

Kenna: What type of yardstick to do use when you judge a competition in the industry?

Sharon: Each competition has it's own script evaluation form. The competitions for which I have judged send the completed critique back to the writer, which I hope is helpful. Elements like: structure, originality, plot development, character, writing style and format are some of the main areas covered in competition evaluation forms.

It's extremely important to wow a judge with your first ten pages. If you come out of the gate with vivid characters, a setting we haven't seen a lot before, with a scene that's unique and great authentic dialog, then you've got a cheerleader for your script right away. Believe me, every judge wants the next script they read to be a great script, but unfortunately that's not usually the case.

Evoking emotion, just like in pitching, is so important. I don't mean melodramatic action, like in soap operas, but true, authentic emotion. If you're writing a drama you've got to have conflict and emotion. Go to the video store and rent every movie that's every made you weep and figure out how the story and characters did that. If you saw SPITFIRE GRILL, you'll know it was tough to keep from shedding a tear near the end (I won't give away the ending to those who haven't seen it). Even in comedy it's important to evoke emotion. I think sometimes today's commercial movies rely too much on plot and less on character and feelings. Why not do both?

Kenna: How important is it to be in Los Angeles to work in the film industry?

Sharon: Excellent question. I wrote screenplays for five years before I got an apartment in LA in 1993. I had attended a super conference called "Selling To Hollywood" sponsored by the Writers Connection and every agent and producer I met there said I needed to be in LA, so two months later I took an apartment in the slums of Beverly Hills, right in the middle of the city. The first year was really tough. I mean, adjusting to a metropolitan area of 9 million people, 6 million of them commuting on a daily basis, after living in a small coastal town in Florida, was difficult. And I left all my friends and family behind, which I still feel was a huge price to pay. I only knew a couple of people here, Linda Seger (author of "Making A Good Script Great" and now four other books, including her newest--"When Women Call The Shots") and Monika Skerbelis, then executive story editor at Universal Pictures. Both women were helpful to me when I first came to LA, and Linda referred my first paying writing assignment to me, which I got a year and a half after coming to town.

I really believe that to get your career established, even in feature, you gotta be here or come out for meetings at least once every two months. The entertainment industry is a business of relationships and developing those relationships is as important as writing great scripts. There must be out-of-town writers who write amazing scripts and find agents to rep them right away...I just don't know anyone who has or have even heard of anyone who has.

Networking is one of the most valuable things I do. One of the great things about working in Hollywood is that your networking can be done at parties. And there are some cool parties, I must say.

Kenna: What barriers did you have to overcome to find success?

One of the first things for new writers is that they need to understand how the film business works. That's one of the reasons I suggest taking classes at UCLA, USC, other film schools, or seminars. Writers don't only need to master the craft of screenwriting and be phenomenally talented, but they must also have a vast working knowledge of the business. Or you could develop a network of friends who are producers, directors, actors and other writers and learn it as you go. But I'm a big proponent of not reinventing the wheel. Also there are lots of books available now on how the business works.

I guess the largest barrier most writers face is the financial dilemma. How do you have time to write when you're working a full-time job, or how do you pay the bills when you're writing full-time with no income in the beginning? I underestimated the time it would take to support myself with screenwriting, so I came to LA with a small "war-chest" which quickly became depleted. The cost-of-living is outrageous in LA, and finances I thought would last a year were gone in six months. Then I took a contract as Editor-in-Chief of Coastal Home magazine, a new publication started by Jack Thomasson a friend whom I had worked with previously. That lasted for about a year, then Jack sold the the magazine to a subsidiary of Time-Warner and it became Coastal Living which is on the newsstand nationwide now. Since Jack was supportive of my screenwriting career, just as long as I met deadlines (which I always did), I could go to meetings any time and also write screenplays.

So my advice is don't quit your day job until you sell a script that will pay all your expenses for at least a year. I have a friend who works for MGM and he goes into his office an hour early every day to write, which means he has to get up at five o'clock. But he gets it done. His dedication to writing is inspirational. Other writers I know who are not supporting themselves with their writing take temp jobs at the studios or production companies so they can write part-time and make contacts when they are working.

Another extraordinarily huge barrier for some writers is something called rejection. Here's my slogan: Reject rejection! So many writers write one script and then when agents won't represent it, or producers say "No thank you" the writer feels like digging a hole and crawling in...but what a writer needs to know is: just because an agent won't represent their script and a producer doesn't hand them a quarter of a million dollars to buy it doesn't mean that it's not good...or even great. It could mean that it's not commercial, or that it's too derivative, or that it's just not right for that agent or producer.

You have to believe in yourself and in your writing. If you aren't confident in your writing, then take classes, work on your craft until everyone says, "Hey, this is really good." Then once you've learned the craft, learn the business and find out what's selling and what's not. If you're writing spec scripts there's a new resource you must have. It's called the Spec Screenplay Sales Directory, published by Howie Meibach at In Good Company Products here in LA (310-828-4946). It lists all the scripts that have sold on spec (meaning you wrote it on your own time hoping to sell it) between 1990 and 1997. It's a rich resource and has each script that sold listed by title, genre, writer, who bought it for how much, what agent and which agency sold it and even a log line. Who wants to be spending a few months or a few years writing a story that's already sold?

Tenacity, determination, unwavering confidence that you're doing the right thing--all those things are invaluable in this business. If your destiny is to be a film writer, you will find a way to do it.

Kenna: What do you mean by "to derivative?"

Sharon: A script that is too derivative is a collective regurgitation of underlying concepts, similar scenes, familiar characters from other movies. For instance, if you meet with companies that produce action pictures, their execs will say, "We don't want Die Hard on anything," meaning they have been Die Harded to death. Taking any story, even a wonderful story like Die Hard, and reworking the story to be "Die Hard on a bus," or "Die Hard on a ship," or "Die Hard on an ice cream truck," leads to tired, formulaic cinema. The joke around town for a while was that a really young new writer was pitching "Die Hard in a building" (which, or course, was the setting of the original Die Hard.) As writers are trying to break in, they will have an easier time of it if they can combine some comfortable current Hollywood storytelling trends with a fresh new take of their own.

Kenna: Which writing career do you feel has less obstacles than the others?

Sharon: No matter whether you're following your dream of becoming a writer for film, television or novels, there will be obstacles. Having a career as a well-paid, full-time writer is like starring in your own Action-Adventure movie...especially in Hollywood. You just want to make sure that you conquer the antagonist in the end. The antagonist can be anything--financial concerns, writers' block, your own introverted personality--anything. I will say that from my own personal perspective I think that writing for film could be an easier way in. Although the voracious demand for TV product grows daily with the international market place expanding rapidly, there are only a finite number of staff writing positions on television shows. I know several extraordinarily talented writers who have won every writing competition in existence, but can't get a job on a sitcom. It looks like a very political arena and absolutely favors relationships. It's who you know and who knows your writing and loves your writing and how you interact with the other writers "in the room."

With film, if you can figure out how to support yourself while you are writing specs, you can write what you'll think will sell and have some chance at attracting an agent and eventually a sell. It's a very entrepreneurial job. So you're your own boss and your success is 100% your personal responsibility.

With independent film doing so well, that opens doors to new writers. Although low-budget producers want to pay as little as possible for an option (an agreement with the writer to buy rights to their screenplay and pay them later if the producer gets the film made), more independent films are being made now than ever...and there's no film without a script (unless you're Mike Leigh, of course).

I'm not that knowledgeable about novel writing careers, so I won't comment about that, except to say that I'm sure submitting your manuscript and getting it back with a "no thanks" note is much like getting a "pass" on your screenplay. And that leads me to reiterate: Reject rejection! Focus on your positive goal of having a successful writing career and let nothing stand in your way.

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