Monday, August 13, 2012

Guest Post by Jenny Frankfurt – Breaking into Hollywood (from the UK)

A couple of weeks ago we asked on Twitter: “Do you have any questions about UK writers writing for the US market?” We came up with some questions of our own and along with your questions, sent them to Jenny Frankfurt who very generously agreed to answer them.

Jenny Frankfurt is a film and television literary manager/producer who owns the company Highstreet Management in Los Angeles. She currently represents such writing talent as Sterling Anderson, David Madsen, Norma Vela, Joel Thomas, Malcolm Kohll, Jill Campbell, Crystal Hubbard, Phil O’Shea and others – most based in Los Angeles and the UK, but others live throughout the US.  She has sold television shows (both reality and fiction), features and staffed television shows for almost 20 years.

The Q&A – Breaking into Hollywood (from the UK)

Q: Should a writer get established in the UK first?
A: If you can get established in the UK or anywhere else it’s great, obviously. It’s a calling card for the US. If you can’t and want to start your career in the US then I would suggest you become very very familiar with the US way of writing, themes and genres and spend some time in LA and get to know some people so you can have connections and get a foot in the door.  It’s always easiest to succeed on your home turf. If you can get some attention from a small film (not a short, Hollywood doesn’t really care about that), major placement in a prestigious contest or something of the like, it’s a good thing to pack in your suitcase on the way to Hollywood.

Q: When you look at a script, do you look at a good story that can be adapted to the US market in terms of dialogue, locations, etc?
A: When I look at a British or European script I first think of how to get it made in the UK or wherever it’s from. There are a lot of co-productions and foreign financing options but they are difficult to secure - probably no difficult than studio or US financing though. I’d rather people keep things organic and have scripts stay where they’re meant to be.
Sometimes I suggest changing things to make it more accessible to the US but only if it doesn’t completely alter the script. If it’s a good piece of writing and I see the potential in the writer I have to then assess whether they can adapt themselves to the US style of writing. Some can and some simply cannot. It’s just a personal thing of how you were taught to write and perhaps, the education you received?  Some clients I keep on just for options in the UK and Europe and others can straddle both continents.

Q: What does adapting for the US market mean? Is it formatting and language or a different style of story structure?
A: Well, adapting for the US means, firstly that it has to sound as though it is an American writing it or a very accessible foreign writer. I have had Italians write good screenplays that could never be made in the US. They are vague and don’t follow strict act structure like US scripts need to. However, they may work well for a more ethereal European film.
Formatting is definitely important but that’s easily fixed by buying the appropriate computer program such as Movie Magic or Final Draft. Story structure in the US is very strict unless you are someone like Alexander Payne who shades his acts a bit but gets away with it. You can always get away with it if you’re writing something remarkable and a big actor is attached. Otherwise it’s three acts and mainly commercial genre based films.

Q: Do I need to worry about UK vs US spellings?
A: If you are writing a script specifically for the US you should have US spelling. If you are trying to sell your UK–centric script in the US then you should keep UK spelling. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve.

Q: Do you think the US market is interested in different subjects/topics to the UK?
A: Other than our desire to blow things up and have a lot of superheroes running about, probably not. We all like a good rom com and a good story with good characters. However, as many will tell you, we like things bigger. We don’t do small films very often unless they’re done independently, and that’s a great way to go but the basics still need to be in place. It has to be good!  Sure, we like a good gangster film as well but ours are from NYC not the East End. Basically, we’re the same we just like to fit into genres and make things everything a little bit ‘more’.

Q: In the US, is it important to have High Concept scripts?
A: It’s a good way to start out, yes. High concept scripts are and always have been buzzwords here in Hollywood. If you’re writing specifically for the US it’s a good way to introduce yourself. However, if you’ve written material that has been produced in the UK or elsewhere and it’s not high-concept and high-concept is not the way you want to go you may be able to find your way in. It’s important to give yourself time to veer off your track a bit so Hollywood can pigeon hole you and then you can make the small film you’ve always wanted to.

Q: If writing a High Concept screenplay, is it wise to find a writing partner from the US?
A: Only get a US partner if you have no idea how to write a high concept script. If you don’t then you have to ask if the US is the right place for your talents. The UK makes great films too! What would you add to the partnership?  Don’t sell your soul for this. There are a lot of countries in the world with burgeoning and wonderful film industries.

Q: Can you tell by reading a script where a writer is from (regardless of spelling) and do you think it influences the American reader?
A: Yes, I most certainly can. I represent writers from the US, UK and abroad. I chose scripts and clients for a variety of reasons and I do have a script right now by two Brits that does not have a smidgen of Britishness in it. It’s quite remarkable. That, however, is not the norm. There is usually a bit of a feeling of the tone that’s detectable. It influences someone if it doesn’t fit in with the US system but there is a big boon of UK writers and talent in the US. It is a good time to be British in Hollywood!

Q: Is it essential that a script be registered with the WGA?
A: Yes, every draft needs to be registered with the WGA. It’s very easy and inexpensive.

Q: Is a good story all that really matters?
A: It certainly helps. Is it all? Probably not. Characters are of course very important and in Hollywood, scale is important and that ‘high-concept’ idea as well. We have all seen some rather large high concept films that go nowhere fast story-wise and make a lot of money. But more than you might think, out of the sarcasm here, story matters a lot regardless of the genre. Another thing that matters a lot in the US and everywhere is sell ability, marketability overseas.  There has to be a far-reaching element of the genre or story. I have had a very good thriller passed on because people just didn’t see how to market it. The story was good but the ‘business’ wasn’t. It’s a shame one has to think of all this and you can’t just write but it’s a business.  If you have any contacts in Hollywood, I would suggest asking them what the best script you could write would be – have a few ideas and let them tell you what they feel is the most sellable in the market right now.  I am happy to help in that regard.

Q: Could a very British story, for example East End gangster style script, sell in the US (be easily adapted?) or would it be advisable to adapt it before sending to a US Producer/agent/studio?
A: Don’t sell yourself for a possibility! If you want to write an East End gangster film then you should and try and sell it in the UK. All East End gangster films we see come from the UK or from foreign money, not Hollywood. Do not be desperate. Write what you know and are comfortable writing because adapting something might not be right for you or Hollywood at all.  Wait until you have a US story to write to write it for the US.

Q: When wanting to break into the US Market, what is the best approach?
A: Firstly write something for the US.  Come to LA and take a writing class if you need to, if you’re able. It will help get the structure right and you’ll meet people. Get into social networking so you meet people (like me) who are open to reading screenplays. Enter your screenplay into a contest. It’s a job to network in Hollywood, so do it as best you can, even if it’s from 8000 miles away. Learn as much as you can about the Hollywood system of representation and start working it. Become a Brit in America whether physically or psychologically and make it your goal to figure out the way in.

Q: Do you need an agent based in America?
A: No, not necessarily but if you do have a UK agent make sure they have good contacts and ways in to studios and producers. If anyone is representing you, keep them. If someone believes in you, keep them. It’s very very hard getting representation these days. Be grateful.

Q: Are there a lot of phony agents out there and how do you identify them?
A: Not really phony agent but one’s that might represent themselves as being bigger and having a wider net than they have. The Internet is your friend and you should ask people in the business as well. People will know them or not. Agents have to be licensed in the US so it’s harder to set yourself up as a fake agent but easy to be a bad one!

Q: Is being physically in the USA important?
A: It’s important when you’re getting some heat because you want to make sure you’re available to meet people. If you’re going for TV work it’s 100% imperative. For film it’s helpful once you start building traction to get yourself known and network yourself a bit, but ultimately you can writer anywhere. However, there is a strong social element to Hollywood so being here and making yourself known and hobnobbing with the right people is, unfortunately, a part of the game.

Q: If a Producer picks up a script and says they want to meet, would it be acceptable to suggest a Skype meeting given the distance and cost, or would a writer be expected to cover the costs?
A: Yes, for sure. You do not have to come to LA to talk about your script. Phone or Skype is very common these days and if things get to the point where you need to come to LA and meet in person, hopefully there will be some development money to make it happen. Cross that bridge when you hopefully) get there!

Q: What about Visas?
A: I believe you need a work visa; even a temporary one if the company hiring you is US based. If you are being paid by the US for that work, you need a visa and the company will sponsor you.  If it’s a film that is being financed through foreign companies, etc… you don’t need a Visa. It all depends where the money is coming from. I am 98% sure about this.

Q: What advice would you give a writer wanting to break into the US market?
A: Three things – learn how to write a script for the US market, understand who the players are in the US, study books, go online and find out who and what you’re dealing with. If you can make a trip or two to the US then do. If you are going to put the effort into breaking into a heavily saturated market then you have to write a great script and know your market. Take classes, join groups, get involved in any kind of film societies that have connections to the US and make it your job to make it happen.

We hope this Q&A has been insightful and would like to hear any comments or remarks that you may have about the above. Make sure to follow Jenny on Twitter on @tryingtrue for more tips on the industry and any other questions you may have and check out her blog on

About Jenny Frankfurt

Jenny began her career in representation after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts by working at the William Morris Agency in New York where she worked for a legendary film, tv and playwrighters agent, who represented such writers as Eric Bogosian, William Mastrosimone, Warren Leight, Eric Overmyer and Jon Robin Baitz.

From NYC Jenny moved to Los Angeles where she worked at ICM with clients such as Susan Sarandon, Louis Malle, Johnny Depp, Lasse Hallstrom and Will Smith. After deciding management would give her more freedom to produce and influence her client’s careers she started working with manager Rick Yorn and clients such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Claire Danes and Benicio Del Toro among others.

Jenny tried her own hand at producing the independent feature JOHNNY HIT AND RUN PAULINE, to which Emma Thompson was attached as Executive Producer. Jenny then started working with the infamous manager Benny Medina at Handprint Entertainment, and, incorporating all the time she had recently spent in London, started specializing in working with British and European clients including Spice Girl Geri Halliwell and writers, directors and production companies such as James MacInnes,  Saul Metzstein, Daniel Bronzite and the production company F&ME.
She soon became Head of Handprint’s Literary Department.

Besides representing writers and directors Jenny has the option on the book
THE BEAST MUST DIE, written by Nicholas Blake in 1938.  She is currently developing it with both UK and American companies and is attaching a major filmmaker to adapt and direct.

1 comment:

  1. Does anyone know where I can pitch a screen play? I think I have a good one? Big deal, right? So does everyone else. Mine's a comedy:)