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Believing in the Writer's Voice with Verve Agent and Partner David Boxerbaum

In this intimate conversation with David Boxerbaum, a renowned Verve Agent and Partner, he discusses with Script's Editor Sadie Dean his thoughts on the future of the spec market, the working relationship between managers and agents, and he addresses the elephant in the room question “what does an agent really do, and do I need one?” and so much more.

When one thinks of a Hollywood agent, one may think of a fast-talking sinister suit perched up in their high tower office, leafing through a stack of contracts like stacked bills - completely removed from the creativity that makes the artists they represent. And while some of those agents may still exist from yesteryear, I am certain, you will never find that agent at Verve. Verve is made up of a special breed of agents – fans of television and cinema, who are thoughtful, charismatic, and excited by the artists they represent under their growing shingle. When Verve first made waves in the industry in 2010 - they were noticeably different – their clients seemed to be pulled from the cool underground scene, artists with stories to be told and shared with the masses – and the team at Verve set out to make sure those stories, voices, and visions were seen far and wide, and continue to do so.

Cut to a few years later, and Verve brought in one of the industry’s sought-out literary agents, David Boxerbaum. Within the first few minutes of speaking with David, you immediately sense his passion for story, storytellers, the craft, the business, and above all else, his writers. David grew up in California, a budding cinephile, who at the age around of eight-years-old, picked up his first 8mm camera and enlisted his friends to act in short films. This passion for storytelling was something he’d always wanted to explore – don’t let the Jewish boy from California stereotype fool you, he had zero connections in the industry on either coast to gain the system in his favor – David unequivocally forged his own path. He attended UCSB, to get the full college experience. Upon realizing that the hustle and bustle of the film business is non-existent in Santa Barbara, he applied to NYU, and this is where he was able to fully immerse himself into the world of filmmaking. Granted, the New York filmmaking scene had its own edge and aesthetic, more of an independent scene at the time, but it was an experience he thoroughly enjoyed, nonetheless.

Upon graduating from NYU, David’s learning experience wasn’t done yet. He knew there was much more to learn by gaining experience in different fields – while directing and storytelling was a love of his, the hustle in the scene wasn’t what he had wanted to pursue at the time. He ended up getting his first job at Jerry Bruckheimer Films – a wake-up call to what Hollywood was. Over a period of two years, he cut his teeth learning about the business, until one day an associate suggested that if he wanted to really learn about the business, he should work at an agency – that was after all, the beating heart of the industry. Not having had interacted with agents before, he mailed his resume all around town and landed a job at William Morris Agency – a new eye-opening perspective. He quickly climbed up the ladder and worked at legendary agent Lee Rosenberg’s desk. Time was on David’s side as Lee was well into the second act of his monolith career and was primed to mentor – and David was the chosen one. He learned about television packaging and representing highly revered showrunners. As Lee was on his way out of WMA, writing was on the wall and David took the opportunity to join the team over at Endeavor, where he received more of a well-rounded education about the Hollywood business, but where he would also meet the soon to be founding members of Verve. A few years later, after taking a small departure back into producing and finding his way back to the agency life, he became an agent at Metropolitan for four years and was then recruited by APA, for another four years and then five years at Paradigm.

At this time, Verve was making a name for itself, staying true to their day one mantra, “artists first” and lifting storytellers. David noticed a trend that he was losing high-end clients to Verve – and as the saying goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them” and joined the team at Verve as a partner, a testament to his hard work, perseverance and success as an agent. Five years later, Verve and David continue to grow their incredible roster of “who’s who” all the while maintaining the mantra “artists first”.

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In this wonderful and intimate conversation with David Boxerbaum, we spoke about the state of the industry for screenwriters, the future of writing on spec, the working relationship between managers and agents, and he addresses the elephant in the room question “what does an agent really do, and do I need one?” and so much more.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: I remember one Verve first started out. It was like this really cool place, an underground art scene for writers because they really were about their storytellers.

David Boxerbaum: It’s true. I remember I was so jealous of even the cover story that I want to say Variety wrote up on them and there’s this picture of all of the founding partners, which is a really cool picture of the new space they're moving into and it was all of them just like young and excited and wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. And I was like, ‘I want to be a part of that.’ We live one life, right? We get one shot at this thing. And you just want to be inspired every day when you go to work. And for me and my wife and my family and we talked about it before I made that jump it was like, ‘Are you inspired when you get up every day?’ Yes, you're inspired by your clients. ‘Are you inspired by the people around you?’ ‘Are you inspired by the brand and the kind of enthusiasm within the walls that you work in?’ And most importantly, ‘Are you inspired by the direction, as a company, is working towards?’ And that was the most important thing to me. I couldn't say yes to my old place where it was coming from, but I can absolutely say yes when I talk about Verve.

Sadie: A special place and they’re lucky to have you, David.

David: Thank you.

Sadie: I have so many questions about that team and the fun part of being an agent, but to dive right in, let's address the elephant in the room question - what does an agent do for a writer and why do we need one?

David: It's interesting to break down when an agent does. I feel like there are so many different moving parts to what we do. We are your defense. We are your best friends. We are your therapist. We're not your therapist. We go into battle with you. We’re your teammates. We are your defenders of your careers, the protector of your career, different words to describe what we do. But most importantly, I think what we are is we’re creative artists ourselves, who just want to see our clients we represent prosper and the way that they want to see their careers end up so we have a very shiny way of saying that. But we are people, we are artists, and we are storytellers ourselves that go out and try to build this career of storytelling in any which way you want to talk about whether you're an actor, writer, director, podcaster, author, you are a storyteller in some capacity as artists, right? I commend that job in so many ways.

David Boxerbaum

David Boxerbaum

I know that I'm a storyteller as an agent in the way I pitch my clients, and in a way, I tell their story every day when they're not telling it. We’re storytellers for you. We go out and we pitch you, we sell you, we find opportunities for you, we map out your career. We map out where your career should go. We map out where your career is going and where we should try to change course. But we help you in times of distress and we celebrate you in times of success. So, I think we are everything in that sense. At the end of the day and this goes back to what I was saying earlier, I believe we're the lifeblood of the industry. Everything comes and flows to an agency. Information is so key. And if we're doing our jobs right, we're the center of the information and we're hopefully the lifeblood of your career. As much as you are the creative, you are the talent you are everything, we are the actual ones that help bring that to light so to speak.

Sadie: It's nice to have that person that takes care of that other side of the things, aka, the business so that we the creatives can focus on the art itself. I think that's very important.

David: It's not just about money at Verve, that's not what this is about. But like a lot of what I just said, sadly, it’s not what every agent stands for. I have a lot of respect from the highest of the highest to the smallest of agencies, the one-man shops to the CAA, whatever it may be, everybody in between. I have a lot of friends that work these places. I respect everybody in what they do. Whenever I'm talking about what an agent does and Verve does as an agency, because I've been there now, five plus years, it's just different. So, when we answer the question of, ‘what does the agent do?’ we kind of chuckle because it's just different from everybody else and it truly is pretty special. And you really only understand it until you when you're in the walls, represented by our many amazing associates and agents.

Sadie: I totally respect that. I actually spoke with one of your clients, Zahir McGhee, and he was saying how you had pushed him so much for this story behind Queens, because you believed in it so much. You don't hear about that a lot with other agents or even managers. I think that just speaks volumes about the character you have holding up the walls at Verve.

[Writing Stories You Want to See On Screen with ‘Queens’ Creator and Writer Zahir McGhee]

David: Yeah, Zahir is a great example. I love him as an artist so much. I love him as a human being. Zahir is 99% all creativity – the excitement and passion that comes out of him every time we talk and whether it be we're talking about his ideas, his show currently on the air, his new idea, all the things or sports or his family or whatever, there's so much passion. And there's so much excitement in his voice when we talk and that's kind of what I live for with any client. Zahir is a very special individual and a special artist, so I'm happy to hear that he said the same about me.

It's only been about a couple of years now, I think he was one of the creators I found during the walkout of the agency that happened. I'm very proud of how Verve was one of the very first agencies probably one of the first major agencies to sign the code of conduct as it made absolute sense for us as an agency that fully and has always supported the written word. From day one, it was a no-brainer for us to support the WGA and the writers. And Zahir was one of the writers that came over from that. And when we really were diving into the idea of Queens and all of his ideas in that genius brain of his, it was great to be able to tell stories with him back and forth during that. He's a very inspiring individual.

Sadie: In terms of the spec market, it’s always dying and then coming back from the dead – and I feel like this pandemic had a whirlwind of some the craziest spec sells ever in history – and we just saw Simon Kinberg sell two specs himself. Do you have any faith in the spec market?

David: Yeah, I do. It's a great question. I've had a little bit of success in the spec market here and there. I'm very humbled and I'm very excited about the success I've had, selling specs over the many years that I've done this and I've thankfully been able to have a lot of success doing that. So, in looking at the spec market and the way it's headed right now, it is definitely a bit more challenging as we look at it today. I see studios, and I see streamers being much more hesitant to buy things that are just, we call them naked specs, things unattached - no writer, no director, no piece of talent, whatever it may be. They’re a little stingier on that. But what's not going to change, and I can say this with 100% certainty, is great original stories are never going to find their way out of the spec market. So as much as Verve itself has had one of the most remarkable I think two years run selling specs and not just myself but the entire literary team at Verve has had an amazing run over the last few years, we chalk it up to the written word, the original voice has never been stronger. Whether it be a great run on female thrillers, a great run on two-handed action thrillers, ya great run on action comedies - these kinds of specs in the original market have never been hotter for a great idea and a great original idea. That said, it just has to stand out these days. The down the middle fastballs we used to see are fewer and farther between, just selling, as they used to say, even up to three to five years ago, right? It’s definitely changed in that sense. They just have to stand out. They have to be original.

Sadie: The landscape is changing so much and so quickly every day it's kind of hard for a lot of newbie writers to kind of sink their claws into what they're going to do or able to do and be seen or be heard, through the written word.

David: You're not wrong. I will always say to a newbie writer or an established writer, ‘Write from your place of passion. Don't try to write on a trend.’ There are certain trends that we see that are here to stay, but most of the time you want to write truly from your place of passion and not because you're chasing the trend - you could easily say right now I was chasing that female action revenge, assassin trend, right? All these movies that were suddenly getting made in the John Wick genre kind of way - the female John Wick, that's kind of what we call them, right? Everybody could sell those once a week. I was having the greatest success in that genre for like, six months straight, and clients were just knocking those out and I was just like, ‘bam, bam, bam.’ And that trend definitely slowed down. Because what happened is it gets saturated. Studios and streamers end up saturating themselves and buying a bunch of them and they’re like, ‘OK, now we have a ton of it in our development process and we can't by anymore unless it's just absolutely bulletproof,’ even with an unbelievable piece of talent or director attached, if they're saturated, development wise, they will even turn that down. So, you should be very careful chasing trends. Chase in what you believe and chase your passion, most importantly, and I do believe, for young writers, I've always said it, ‘You chase your passion, and you have that talent and you have the art of telling a story, it'll find its way to myself, to representation wherever it may be in the right way.’

[The Kids Are Alright in Season Two of 'Saved by the Bell': An Interview with Showrunner Tracey Wigfield and Executive Producer Franco Bario]

Sadie: Having been in this business for so long and worked with so many great voices, when do you know a writer is ready to take that next step in their career and take on representation?

David: There's an old saying I've lived by for my whole career, and I think a lot of us at Verve live by which is, ‘You know it when you see it. You know it when you read it.’ A writer that you stand by that you read, something early on in their career, and you go, ‘You know, this person has that talent, they have that gift. just haven't found that voice in the script yet,’ or ‘The voice there but they haven't found the story.’ So you, if you believe, and you have to believe, that's a very important phrase that we have in our walls of our agency with not only the partners but everybody down, ‘Do you believe?’ If you believe, you'll spend time and you'll take your time to find the right story for them.

Let's give a good example, David Guggenheim is a great example, because to your question, ‘How do you know that person is ready to take that next step?’ Well, David Guggenheim, when I first signed him, he gave me a spec that I saw the voice but I didn't believe in the story. And I said, ‘I think there's something here truly, but I don't think you've nailed the story you want to tell yet.’ In a sense, a story that I can sell in the marketplace and a story that will a splash in the business. And he got it. He went back to the drawing table, and he worked on another script. And he gave it to me, and it was really good, but it still had something that just wasn't right. That's two scripts in, but I still believe in his voice. I just knew something was there. I knew that if we could find the right idea, we would have some success with them. And there was some sort of success within his family. His brothers were already starting to hit a little bit, Marc and Eric, but David just hadn't found the success yet. But I knew that there was talent there. And I remember it as clear as day when he gave me out on my way to Sundance and he gave me Safe House. And he emailed it to me I remember that email was something to the extent of, ‘I don't think this is the one, it’s something I just kind of knocked out pretty quickly. But take a look. If it's not the one, don't worry, I'll get back to the drawing board, we'll figure something out.’ I'm like, you know, not as confident. I don't know what's going to happen here. But I remember getting on the plane, I opened the script, and I started reading it. And I was so excited by what I read. I was so hyped. It's so just jacked-packed full of energy and passion that I was begging this plane to get down as fast as possible because I just had to call him and tell him this was the one! And to this day, that movie that you saw, that script that was sold was pretty much exactly what's on the same page the same day I read it on the plane to Sundance that year, so it's pretty crazy. His success has been a meteoric rise ever since. You know when you feel it when you see it and get that right story.

Sadie: I think it kind of goes back to you as an agent and what Verve does - believing in that voice, the talent, there's something - otherwise you wouldn't have signed them.

David: We will tell a young agent in our walls a Verve, ‘OK, this person you hung on to for a little while, or do you believe?’ ‘Trust me, Box, I believe.’ Cut to a year later, this person just sold a big show. This person sold a big spec and you go know what, there you, they believed and they knew it, It’s just really satisfying and gratifying when that happens.

Sadie: The last 10 years or so have been very contest-centric, and seems to be a new way to get your foot in the door. Do you and Verve rely on the bigger name contests like the Nicholl, to find the new voices or do you guys keep it old school with receiving query letters?

David: We don't do query letters. It's never really been a part of the process for Verve. There are legal issues and all of that. I would say that we definitely pay attention to the things you're talking about the Nicholls, Final Draft, UCLA, USC, high-end film school competitions. We actually pay attention to the Black List website and places like that.

I think it’s unfortunate because it's difficult to pay attention to the ones that fall under those ranks, right. And I always say listen, if some of those great, certain kind of mid-level to lower-level contest, gives you the satisfaction to make you continue to go keep on going as a writer because at the end of the day, there's two parts of this - the ones that succeed are the ones that don't stop trying. Don't stop continuing to write. Don't stop continuing to pursue their dreams. The ones that don't make it, are the ones that give up so it is the survival of who has the most passion and who has the most energy and focus to really continue to strive for their path for their goals. And that's true in a lot of business, but truly in the business of writing and being an artist. You have to continue. You're going to get told no every single time and we get told no every single day, but we don't stop - we live for the ‘Yes.’ And you got to live for that possibility that ‘Yes,’ as a writer too. We truly have to. And if you believe in yourself and you believe in your talent, they will come.

To the point of these contests that a lot of us I'd say the majority and there is a handful of agencies and agents that really move the needle, and I want to say that Verve is part of that, a lot of that handful doesn't necessarily sometimes pay attention to those smaller to mid-level ones and it's hard. And so, I'm always wary of those. I hate it when they take advantage of young writers and they take their money or they try to give them notes on things and take their money that way. I just get very protective of storytellers in that sense. But on the flip side, Sadie, if it gives you the passion and it gives you the drive to continue to keep this up to your goals, then maybe it isn't so harmful in any way. It's a very fine line for me because I'm very protective of anybody that tries to do this kind of art of telling stories, because it's such a precious and a wonderful, artistic opportunity. And there's a lot of people out there that don't take it seriously or don't do it the right way.

Sadie: They think it happens overnight, but really, it’ll take 10 years, if you're lucky.

David: Correct.

Sadie: I'm curious, now that filmmaking is basically at our fingertips with our phones and computers, do you do see more of a trend with multi-hyphenates, and is it an easier sell for you guys in packaging or getting a project sold?

David: I absolutely love multi-hyphenates. I think multi-hyphenates are an absolutely essential part of being an artist today in this business. I think expanding yourself and maybe sometimes unnaturally, I should say unnaturally meaning, not necessarily in the comfort zone, but trying to venture into other areas like TV, trying to be an author, trying to do stage theater, trying to be an actor-writer or writer-director, all those things, is absolutely a huge selling point as an artist storyteller these days and something that we look for and we love within the walls of Verve. We're proud of our multi-hyphenates and we something that we really aspire all of our clients to reach and kind of get out of their comfort zone and kind of, ‘don't be put into a box in just one area for this.’

Sadie: There's so much creativity at your fingertips if you can wear those multiple hats.

David: For sure, absolutely. There's so much more opportunity for you. Again, you don't have to do this, you can stay in one lane, but why when there's so many different opportunities and so many different great areas of art to travel down that you can actually explore? I find it to be a pretty amazing time to be an artist storyteller in this business because of all the different lanes to travel down these days.

Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. So, in terms of an Agent and Manager, what is that relationship typically like for you in dealing with a writer's manager?

David: It's interesting because, we pride ourselves on being in the word manager, managerial, and the way we approach agenting. We're very hands on, we're very creative. We're very about being there from day one with sometimes the kernel of the idea down to, hopefully, sitting at the premieres or in front of the television watching the first episode or whatever it may be. So, we're very hands on in that sense. If we're talking about the peer relationship, or what a Verve agent and a manager is, and what I think it is, it's an absolute lockstep united front, that you're both on the same page about where the client’s career should be headed. You are in unison, you understand the path, the goals, the kind of materials they should be working on, the kind of project they should be going out on, the kind of thing they shouldn't be directing, the kind of things they should be writing, the kind of movie they should be starring in - you are literally on the same page. Yes, Mom and Dad are sometimes going to have arguments and disagreements, but Mom and Dar are going to be in lockstep with the journey and the way to go.

To me, a perfect symbiotic relationship with an Agent and Manager is you are on the same page, always with the client, and where the direction in their career should be headed. And that's not always the case. And it's not always easy to achieve that. But if you believe and if your goals are aligned, you need to get there and that's the most important thing that I try to strive for with every partnership I have to manage here and I think it's very achievable if you believe.

TWS-2021-31DaysOfWriting-500x500

Sadie: Your day to day, I'm sure it changes every second working with one of your clients, but I’m curious about what that relationship is like in terms of are they giving you new material to sift through? Are you checking in on them daily?

David: That's what I love about my job is it changes every day. It can be anything from talking to clients through an issue they may have on a script or writing or talking them through an exciting opportunity that's come about. It could be giving notes on something, it could be, obviously, negotiating deals on their behalf. It could be something as minute as just talking them through a life experience they’re dealing with that they need help with because it'll help them kind of unlock a certain part of their brain to help get back into the notion of writing or directing. Sure, there's your typical phone calls and meetings, internal meetings, and administrative things of running a company and all those things that I deal with on a daily basis. But the real fun of it is really at the end of the day getting to interact with my clients. It can be minute by minute, daily, weekly, monthly, whatever it is a client decides they want it to be, and really just figuring out how to continue to tell their stories. And get their art seen in a way that makes their career and hopefully in a way that obviously financially, makes them very successful as well. That's most of the time, one of the ultimate goals as well.

Sadie: Yeah, making sure they're set up for success and every step of the way. This is like choosing your favorite child or your favorite movie, but any projects that are on your roster that you're really excited about?

David: I mean, I would have to literally go through every client because every client is my favorite child. I'd say every client has something I'm really excited about. There’s so many different things that have happened in the last couple of years that have just been inspiring for me. I'm excited about what's happening with the Zahir and Queens. I'm excited about what's happening with my client Katie Wech on this show, Good Sam that's going to be on CBS this summer. We've gone through a lot of peaks and valleys in her career and it's been a journey and a joy to watch and to see her finally have her first series on the air has been…I think it brought a tear to my eye for sure the day that we got announced because it was such a great beginning of the next journey for her. A fulfilling reward for all the things that she had been through and we had been through together as a team up to that point.

Again, so many great, successful spec sales with me and my associates that we've been a part of, and Verve has been a part of. We had one recently with a gentleman Daniel Kunka, we sold it six months ago, a spec with Simon Kinberg producing, sold it to Netflix - it's greenlit and it stars Kevin Hart, F. Gary Greg directing, and it starts top of next year. And that's just like unheard of. I mean, literally a spec that we sold six months ago, is now greenlit and going into production. Here's a guy who came over to this agency, to Melissa Solomon, and with the hope and strive of trying to get a movie made and we accomplished not only that, we sold a big spec which changed his life financially, but we also again, got his movie made within nine months of selling it and that just really, it just gives me great joy. Yes, financially it was a great success and all that, but it gives me great joy to see that kind of stuff happen. And again, that's not to singling out certain children, that's just giving you examples, because you and I could again spend and you can quote me on this, we could spend all day talking about how inspired I am by all the success stories I've seen with all of my clients over the last two or three years.

Sadie: It’s a great roster that you guys have at Verve and they're always doing something that's changing the industry in some way.

David: Yeah, like watching Jac Schaeffer create such a buzz-worthy show and she came from the feature space, but to create a show like WandaVision is really inspiring. Watching us take two clients who have never spent a day in television, Patrick McKay and John Payne, and put them into running the biggest open writing assignment slash series in the history of television, The Lord of the Rings for Amazon is just inspiring. It's why we do what we do and why Verve is different than anyplace else.

[L-R] Verve Partners: Adam Weinstein, David Boxerbaum, Chris Noriega, Amy Retzinger, Felicia Prinz, Bill Weinstein, Bryan Besser, Adam Levine, Sean Grumman.

[L-R] Verve Partners: Adam Weinstein, David Boxerbaum, Chris Noriega, Amy Retzinger, Felicia Prinz, Bill Weinstein, Bryan Besser, Adam Levine, Sean Grumman.

Sadie: It always comes back down to the storyteller. Going back to what happened this last year with agencies and streaming services and of course this pandemic, I sense a lot of good things have happened and change is happening in the industry where it really needed the most change. What do you hope is the next big movement in Hollywood in the next five years?

David: I hope I don't think is far fetched, but it's something that again, I think comes fully back to something that we've seen that we've talked about throughout this whole entire interview, is that I hope all these different platforms don't forget that the original voice and the writer is still king, and to continue to buy and to allow original stories to be told. I appreciate all of the great blockbuster Marvels and DCs and stories of those kinds of worlds, right? But what really inspires me is when we still see original voices, original ideas, and original stories get told. Five years from now, I hope we're still telling as many if not more, original stories, original content, and original ideas are being sold in a way that is exciting, is plentiful, and still makes people feel like there's opportunity to tell those things.

Sadie: Yeah. I hope so too. And I think we're slowly on our way there it's just going to take some more effort from the bigger guys.

David: It takes everybody. It takes audiences to tune into that. Thank god for Free Guy, for movies like that – original, cool, inventive stories, that shows that people still have a real thirst and a passion for those when it comes to viewing. It takes those kinds of movies to do well at the box office, on-demand, home viewing, to show that there's still a real appetite for that. So, I hope that still exists, and it's still flourishing in a big way five years now.


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