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Development 101 – What a Creative Exec Needs to Love Your Script

Hollywood loves buying good scripts, or so it would seem. They’re definitely looking for material, always looking, says Creative Executive Joyce San Pedro, who has more paper in her office than a college professor during finals week...

Columbia Pictures bought Big Daddy, a spec idea from first-time screenwriter Steve Franks, which went on to gross more than $160 million domestically.

Columbia Pictures bought Big Daddy, a spec idea from first-time screenwriter Steve Franks, which went on to gross more than $160 million domestically.

So, you’ve written a screenplay, maybe even two, and now your ready to sell it and make it big. Piece of cake, right? Hollywood loves buying good scripts, or so it would seem. They’re definitely looking for material, always looking, says Creative Executive Joyce San Pedro, who has more paper in her office than a college professor during finals week. “I’ve got a very large ‘get to this today’ pile,” she laughs, and that’s her job -- to find your script amongst the others. When she does, she has to love it. Then, she has to make her boss, Alex Siskin (The Master of Disguise, Mr. Deeds, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Big Daddy) love it. And after that, he has to make Escape Artists love it so they can make Sony love it. That’s a long list of loving it. So, your submission better be something to get excited about. Script sat down with San Pedro to get some insight on what she hopes to find among that stack in her office.

SCRIPT: What does a creative executive do?

JOYCE SAN PEDRO: That’s a fancy way of saying I look for material that fits into the mold of what we want to produce for movies and/or for television. I try to find new writers, new directors. I look for new voices.

SCRIPT: What’s the challenge to finding new material?
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: There is a never-ending stack of reading material on my desk. You can never read enough books, magazines or scripts. There’s always something to pore over. And, if a new draft comes in for one of our projects, that trumps everything. It’s always changing. When you have that much reading material, it’s difficult to read cover to cover. You can usually get a decent sense of a writer’s ability and sensibility pretty quickly. When I’m reading writing samples, I look at how his or her voice can be applied to projects we currently have going on. If someone has a really good romantic comedy voice, I set it aside and say, “This is someone we’ll go to for this kind of project.”

Creative Executive Joyce San Pedro

Creative Executive Joyce San Pedro

SCRIPT: Describe a typical day for you.
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: Every day is different. There’s a lot of reading. I usually go through about four scripts and up a day. We have interns cover what we call “third world submissions.” Somebody’s friend of a friend wrote a script. Or somebody’s dentist. Because you just never know, you have to read them all. You just never know if it’s going to be great. That kind of material goes to the intern or to the assistant. And when they say, “Thumbs up” or “Thumbs down,” I look at it, depending. If it goes through me, it goes to my boss and up the pipeline to Escape Artists and then to Sony. I have been an intern, so I’ve been there. I don’t want them just getting coffee and just reading the crappy projects. I want them to read scripts they’re going to get excited about and fill them in on the projects we have going, and involve them where it’s fitting. On top of the daily reading, some days I’ll meet with writers or directors, or meet with managers and/or agents to discuss projects and clients.

SCRIPT: Explain how a “first-look deal” works?
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: We have a first-look deal that goes through Escape Artists. And, on top of that, Escape Artists has their first look deal that goes through Sony. If Alex and I find a project and if Escape Artists is interested in producing it with us, then we’ll take it to Sony. And if Sony is interested, they’ll get on board. But if Escape Artists or Sony decide that they aren’t into it, we can shop it elsewhere. It’s a system with a lot of checks and balances. When you’re working for a studio, the biggest lesson that I have learned is that this is a business. It’s a billion dollar industry. You have to separate your personal taste, and look for projects that are commercial. My taste isn’t always the most commercial. I like art house and indie, but I need to look for something that has commercial appeal.

SCRIPT: What makes a project commercial?
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: High concept, easily castable, and easily marketable make it commercial. For me, I love stories and characters that are relatable. Alex and I look for what we like to call the “poor man’s Jim Brooks” material. That’s what I like. The John Hughes movies. The feeling that you can relate to this story and these characters. And, I love movies that make me cry. Knowing that someone else has been through your pain. We like family, coming of age stories that have a heart-warming feel. Like Parenthood. That’s the perfect example of a movie we’d love to do. It’s something the whole family can enjoy. But it really runs the gamut. Escape Artists produced Seven Pounds, Backup Plan, Pursuit of Happiness, to name a few. Good material is good material.

SCRIPT: What’s your advice to aspiring screenwriters?
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: You can’t be too precious about your material. Have people read your work. You can’t work in a vacuum. You should be willing to have eyes on your work. Writers’ groups help a lot. It’s hard when you live in a city where there isn’t a big entertainment industry, but there are writers’ groups online. They help keep you disciplined. You have to submit pages every month and it forces you to be open to critique, as well as critique other writers’ work. It keeps you focused. But don’t be shy about your work. Sell yourself. Also, try and develop relationships with other people whose tastes you admire. It can work as a good support group.

SCRIPT: What’s the best way for an aspiring screenwriter to get a script in front of someone like you?
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: Enter competitions. I’m on several tracking boards, and there are all kinds of online boards and groups for people like me to read. People in my job share gossip and news. We look to find out who’s selling what? Which hot specs are going out? We’ll exchange information that way. When the Nicholl’s finalists were announced, there were dozens of emails floating around. “Do you have the script?” “Have you read it?” Join as many competitions as you can. Look at the Black List. Get your script out there and get people to read it. What good is it, if it’s gonna sit on a shelf? You have to let go of it.

SCRIPT: What’s your advice to beginner screenwriters on writing?
JOYCE SAN PEDRO: I’ve tried to write, and I give you guys credit. It’s hard to get what you want on the page. Especially, when what you want is to give someone the feeling that you’re having. It truly is a skill and a craft and a discipline that you have to work on. For someone in my position, it’s easy to say, “It works or it doesn’t work.” One of my old bosses told me once, when you work in development, “Anyone can say, ‘No.’ It’s your job to figure out how to say, ‘Yes.’” Maybe that means taking a period piece and making it contemporary, or flipping a horror into a comedy – who knows? I have to think about how to do something commercial and sometimes that involves going through a lot of bad ideas to get to the good ones. That said, if you want to work in this industry in a commercial sense you have to be willing to collaborate. A lot of people come together and weigh in on the story. No projects happen through just one person. It helps to be open to the process. Have people read your work. It brings something out in your unique sensibilities when you can understand what’s worth fighting for, or what’s worth keeping. If you have three people reading your work and they all have the same note, you know that something isn’t working. So go back and try to rework it. Be open to the process.