Remember in the olden days, when movies were based on nothing more than a screenwriter’s brainchildren? Now movies are based on novels, childrens’ books, even theme park rides. And which superhero is helping bridge the publishing world with the glittering stardust of Hollywood? That’s right, a hard-working, bookstore-scouring, voracious reader like one Ms. Sarah Self, literary agent at The Gersh Agency and champion of writers everywhere.
WordHustler sat down with Ms. Self to get the skinny on the convergence of Hollywood and the publishing industry, the kind of queries that hook her, and the lure of a good, old-fashioned zombie story. Read on to fill your cup with the elixir of publishing (and Hollywood) SUCCESS!
WordHustler: How did you get your start in the industry?
Sarah Self: I went to school at Northwestern University and got my start in the industry by working/interning for Lynda Obst, Jodie Foster, and Stacy Sher and Michael Shamberg at Jersey Films. In college I knew that this was the business I wanted to work in, so every summer I would come to LA and do internships. I did a lot of coverage and started building my resume.
Then when I graduated everyone told me I should get agency experience but didn’t think that I wanted to be an agent. I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do- maybe more in line with being a producer- I definitely knew I wanted to create. But agency experience really helps, despite what some may think. Agencies put it all together. Of course the project starts with the writer, but the agency is really the link that connects everybody. That’s where you have directors, writers, talent and they all come to an agency as the center point. It’s the perfect place to start if you’re not sure what you want to do, because you work with all the elements. So I started working at CAA for Bob Bookman, who’s the head of CAA’s Film Department and still my mentor today. He’s at the top of his game.
WH: Going from a Hollywood agency background to working for an agent who is also involved in book publishing, were you drawn to the publishing industry?
SS: I started working for Bob as his assistant and found that it was my dream job: working with authors who are in the movies. I worked for him and became a junior agent CAA, but didn’t think I wanted to be at an agency long-term so I worked in development. But then had this moment where I looked around LA and looked around my peers and didn’t feel inspired. I found the development process to be stifling and dismal. You see the same people going after the same scripts and everybody is so reactive- no one is really taking any risks.
I started to freak out, so I decided to move to New York because I’d romanticized New York from when I worked at CAA with authors. I knew I had to shake it up. I knew that The Gersh Agency had a NYC office and didn’t have anyone doing books. WMA, Endeavor, ICM and CAA [other Hollywood agencies] already had saturated NYC book departments. So I went immediately to the company that didn’t have anyone doing it and I created my own job. If you sit and wait for your dream job to come, it never will. You have to be proactive. So I created the job and said, “Let me run your New York book department.” I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have any clients, I had never even been a real agent. To be an agent you have to know the ins and outs of making a deal. But I just jumped into it.
WH: As one of the few book agents working in Los Angeles, do you find your job to be challenging since you’re one of the lone bridges between Hollywood and the publishing industry? Especially now that Hollywood is leaning more heavily on the publishing industry- are you over-saturated?
SS: I think every agent is probably over-saturated. We’re part of a bigger trend, which is that agents are more and more becoming producers. So the role of the producer is being diminished in the traditional sense in that it’s not just about me taking a book and sending it to producers, and them sending it to the studio and making the movie. Now I have to package the book- attach talent, directors, etc- and then give it to the studios. More often than not, I’m starting to go to manager/producers or go to agencies and package materials there. I also package internally within Gersh. I have no need to keep it internal, it’s what’s best for the client.
I think Hollywood is relying on publishing yet is also reluctant to take big steps with material from publishing unless publishing has already performed. The book ofTWILIGHT, everyone forgets, had already been optioned a couple of times before Summit finally made it. It all comes down to risk. It’s all about having an opinion and having a voice and taking a stance. If you try to like what everyone else likes, you’re going to be at the end of the trend. If you try to wait for someone to find your book and your script in their huge stack, they’re never going to find it. You have to keep pushing and keep being proactive.
WH: Do you find you have a lot of agents calling you with a tiny book that isn’t published yet and they’re trying to sell movie rights? Or do you deal with books that have already been published?
SS: I think that everything is changing. Book agents are still calling with that little book they just sold. But this amazing zombie book called BREATHERS was something that I found in Publisher’s Marketplace. It had been sold and I called the agent because I love zombies and said, “This sounds great.” She sent it to me and I loved it, so I packaged it. On the other end of the spectrum, I got a call from an agent yesterday who is sending me a small, literary difficult book. Overall, publishers don’t know what Hollywood is looking for because everyone wants to have the small, perfect Oscar nominee and no one knows what that is.
WH: What draws you to a book? Is there a particular genre you like?
SS: I love anything dark. I love horror- especially psychological horror. I love worlds and subcultures. I’m really interested in death metal, for example, or anything that’s a unique world.
WH: Do you ever find books that you love that you don’t think would translate to the screen?
SS: Yes but if I love it, I figure out how to translate it to screen.
WH: What’s the last thing you read and absolutely loved?
SS: The last thing I read that I loved is Dame Darcy’s book, which is akin to THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS, called THE HANDBOOK FOR HOT WITCHES. The parallel she makes is how to be a strong, sexy, confident woman and the parallel being that it’s a witch, not a bitch. You can be tough and be smart and do your thing and if guys call you a bitch, you’re a witch. The whole book follows the witch theme with a how-to spell guide and witchy recipes. It is so awesome. I love it. I fell in love with this book and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but I will sell the movie rights.” It’s all about passion.
WH: Why do you think Hollywood is moving away from generating original content and relying on remakes, sequels, and books?
SS: I think for a while representatives were getting really lazy. There were certain people in town called “The Spec Boy,” which were reps who would just go out and sell spec scripts and create this fake buzz. There were so many instances of slamming not totally ready material out there and studios were being duped into buying it because there wasn’t anything else and because it was on a “list.” So it became this “We should be buying this” herd mentality. Finally the studios looked around and said, “We have so much bad material, let’s go back to what’s always been consistently viable, which is books.” There’s also a platform to books, remakes and sequels that screenplays don’t have. That’s I think the number one thing.
But look, if there’s still great material, it gets put together. Great scripts still sell. Producers still have deals with studios, who are still making movies. But today people have to rely on platforms and branding- I know that’s a word everyone hates hearing, but that’s the way the market is going.
WH: Well put. What types of book adaptations are you looking for that you haven’t found yet?
SS: Something that’s really about a cool world, a non-fiction world or a sub culture that I might not know about yet. Whether it’s related to music, etc, I don’t care. I sold this book- it’s a great story called THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI. It’s a nonfiction book written by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. It’s very clinical and dense – these guys knew everything about Houdini. They are amazing researchers. But it was a book that when I sent it to producers, people were just tuning out.
So I kept sending it and sending it for four years and finally I was like, “You know what? This isn’t working and I believe this is a movie. I’m going to change the pitch and turn this into something else.” So I changed the pitch to: “This is the next SHERLOCK HOLMES and DARK KNIGHT.” All the big superheroes have already been exploited, who’s a big international star that we haven’t done yet? Houdini. Its Robert Downey Jr, it’s Warner Brothers, it’s glossy, and there you go. Done. So I pitched it to someone at Summit Entertainment [makers of TWILIGHT], they loved it, and it sold. My point is that if you love something, you can sell it.
WH: What advice can you give aspiring writers, both prose and screen, out there?
SS: Don’t write what everybody else is writing. Just because THE HANGOVER is making a ton of money and won a Golden Globe, please don’t write something that is THE HANGOVER meets DADDY DAY CARE. By the time you write it, it will have already been done. I think Diablo [Cody, screenwriter of JUNO and Sarah’s client] is a great example in that she wrote a movie about a 16-year-old girl who gets knocked up and decides to keep the baby. If she had pitched that to any producer they would have said, “Huh? What are you talking about? No way.” But she did it anyway.
It’s true when they say: write what you know. Stick to that. Don’t try to write what people want you to write and don’t copy what’s already out there. There are so many reps tell their writers to: “Go write THE HANGOVER” and that’s so wrong. It’s all about showing that you have a voice and being provocative and being different. You have to do it as a representative and you have to do it as an actor- you have to have a different look and a different style. Look at music – it’s a perfect parallel in that you have all these one hit wonders and then you have Lady Gaga who doesn’t give a f#$% and she knows if she looks crazy and is amazing, people are going to notice her. And it’s worked! You have to get people to notice you.
When I get queries all day long, I usually hit delete. I delete them because they are really long and the writers don’t know how to craft a query and they’re boring. So I just started hitting delete. Then today actually, for the first time in a long time, there was a query that stuck out. I was going through emails and I was swamped and there was something funny in it and the title really summed up what it was going to be. You could tell this person had done their research and knew what deals I had done, too. So I wrote back: “Yeah, send it. I’ll read it.” I’m not encouraging people to send ridiculous things, but be bold. Otherwise, it all just goes by really fast and you’ll just get lost in the sea.
She speaks, we listen. So what are you waiting for? Tighten your prose, polish your query, then spend some time seeking out agents who match your aesthetics and aspirations. Targeting your submissions to agents who you’ve researched shows them you’ve put in the time and you’ve got the drive to succeed. Why not sign up for our Digital Submission System to help keep track of all those wonderful queries you’re sending out to the world?
WordHustler wants to help you find your perfect agent, editor, and writing future. Hopefully soon you’ll catch the eye of an accomplished agent like Ms. Self then be on your way to publishing (and Hollywood) success! Fingers crossed!