Friday 7 December 2012

Interview with Adam Levenberg

Adam Levenberg is a former Hollywood executive (Intuition Productions, One Race Films) who spent years inside the system.

Once outside, he promptly wrote a book called The Starter Screenplay, which gives an executives' view of the factors that influence studio decision-making about spec scripts.

I took the opportunity recently to ask him a few questions.

•  Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born and grew up in Cheltenham and Upper Dublin, which are both suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

•  Where did you go to school?

I attended USC School of Cinematic Arts and majored in Critical Studies. It’s a great place to study cinema, but I think the reason for the school’s success is that every single student has already made the commitment (most at age 18) to move away from home and live in Los Angeles. Most of my friends from USC are still living in L.A. and working in the entertainment industry.

•  When did you first take an interest in films/stories?

Before I can remember. I have Dr. Seuss’s My Book About Me and for My Favorite Sport, I filled in “Watching.” As a kid, I was completely indiscriminate about what I watched—I just tried to see everything. I probably spent about 5-6 hours per day in front of the television. Weekends were spent watching movies at the theater or on video.
   By the time I hit film school, I was seeing about 200 movies per year. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood Cinema from the late 1980s to the present. I don’t watch sports, so when my friends are watching a game, I’m knocking off another film title.

•  What was your first paying job?

At 16, I worked as a dishwasher at Friendly’s, which is a restaurant and ice-cream chain.

•  What was your first job in the movie business?

My first paying entertainment job was producing a show for Trojan Vision, which is the USC television station. It was called Organized Chaos and we tried to make it as wild as possible. I think on the second show the hosts were doing a flavored condom taste test. Nobody was watching, so we tried to be as outrageous as possible just to entertain ourselves.
    My first real industry job was reading scripts for USA Films, which at the time had deals with Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze, and was making films like Traffic (2000), Nurse Betty (2000), and Being John Malkovitch (1999).
    It was interesting to read the projects that great filmmakers would submit and evaluating if the script or book had any potential as a feature film. The first book I did coverage on was submitted by an amazing filmmaker, but I didn’t understand how it could be adapted into a movie. I called in and was told, “Evaluate the material honestly. Don’t be swayed by the name on the cover letter or the names attached. If the book is a pass, it’s his job to explain to how he plans on adapting it into a great screenplay.”

•  What did you learn from working with Vin Diesel?

Vin likes the idea of building worlds and I learned a lot about intellectual property development. That works for an established actor/producer. But for screenwriters, I tend to suggest sticking to the screenplays. There’s nothing wrong with creating some concept art as inspiration for yourself, but if you don’t have representation, just focus on the writing because there’s no artwork that will make someone reconsider a script that doesn’t work. 

   One piece of advice from my book is that you should never worry about sequels or franchise building while you’re writing a spec script. I say this not because it’s a bad idea in theory, but because these attempts (especially from new writers) tend to result in unreadable screenplays. Creating effective setup and payoff in one screenplay is hard enough.

•  Why did you write The Starter Screenplay?

I went from being a production company executive to an independent consultant. Basically, my intention was to do the work of a development executive for multiple companies, make the same amount of money with more freedom to pursue projects I was interested in advancing. 
   Then a friend pointed out that I could allow unrepresented screenwriters to hire me for feedback. I got creative and e-mailed the writers who had queried me in the past. A bunch of them decided to send me their scripts. At the time I didn’t know that there were other companies out there who just sold notes without discussion, which is so much easier to do, but worthless for the writer. When someone hired me, I would read their script, then talk to them for 2-3 hours. I still do that, except now I make notations on the pdf of their screenplay. I do notes after, and then the discussion takes place within 24 hours, so I’m fresh.
    Once I started working with unrepresented screenwriters, I went looking for screenwriting books to recommend. I couldn’t find a single book that shared the perspective on what an executive is looking for, or a book that nudged writers in the direction of simplicity and commercialism, while still getting the hang of the medium. 

   So I wrote it. 
   The book is broken down into two parts—the first is What to Write? The second half is about Interacting with the Industry—how to decode people’s reactions to your material, including what it means if you don’t hear back from queries, or when someone says “I liked your script, it’s a pass.” 

Even executives have to unwind. Here's Adam on Space Mountain at Disneyland.
•  You wrote on Twitter that Australian screenwriters are your favorite clients. Why is that?

Professional Hollywood writers are used to being asked tough questions. They know how to separate their ego from the process of getting script notes. This can be an intimidating experience for a new screenwriter. Some get overwhelmed. But Australian writers (or at least the many who have hired me) do great taking constructive criticism in stride and staying upbeat. That’s important because they’re at full creative capacity when the conversation turns to “How can we fix this?”
    After a consult, I usually suggest a specific book on screenwriting (depending on the writer’s current level), run down a bunch of movie titles to see, and pick out some scripts for them, as well as discuss their next step in terms of the script. I ask all clients to let me know how they’re progressing with the work, what they thought of the scripts/book/movies, but only a certain percentage follow through. Australian writers definitely do a better job staying in communication with that feedback. Or again, at least that’s true of the many I’ve worked with thus far.

•  What was the best advice you were given at the start of your career?

At some point in the process, I had a long conversation with Anne Lower, who was working with Save the Cat. She explained how, by Snyder’s third book, he gave up on trying to defend his positions because, ultimately, people will either accept what you write, because they get it, or they won’t. That’s exactly what I needed to hear. I ended up cutting tons of unnecessary material as a result, once I wasn’t concerned with defending my suggestions from the exceptions to the rules. 

•  If you had to suggest just one screenwriting book (not your own) to a newbie writer back in Adelaide, which one would it be?

Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! is the essential foundation of screenwriting for any newbie. My book covers what types of movies you should write and how to navigate the industry; I intended it as a companion piece to Save The Cat! 
   I think once you know Snyder’s structure backwards and forwards, you’ll need to move on to more complex stuff, such as John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.
    It's important to note that most screenwriting books contain great points, but bury the important stuff under hundreds of pages. That’s why The Starter Screenplay is sparse and to the point—I talk about what to write and what not to write, from an executive’s perspective. An agent has to sell your script to a producer, and a producer has to sell your script to a studio. If there’s no chance of that happening, why would an agent agree to represent you in the first place?

What are your ten favorite movies of all time?

I don’t think I could limit it to ten... but off the top of my head:

Last year my favorite movie was The Help. This year, as of November, I've been blown away by Cabin in the Woods, Prometheus, Cloud Atlas, End of Watch, Wreck-It Ralph, Argo, and especially 21 Jump Street, for delivering humor and action alongside profound insight into today’s teen culture.

What's next for Adam Levenberg?

At the moment, I’m working on some fun projects as a producer, but I’m also launching a podcast, and teaching a screenwriting course on Saturdays at The Director’s Playhouse in Los Angeles. I developed the curriculum myself and it’s going well. We start with beginner and advanced classes in January 2013.


Ed Love said...

Interesting stuff, thanks. Save the Cat again? I just spent a few hours at a local cat rescue place :)

Unknown said...

A busy boy. It sounds like his help would be invaluable for any unpublished screenwriter.