John W. Kim is a School of Cinema-Television graduate of USC and writer-director-producer of Blur. He is a former Nicholl Fellowship semifinalist and quarterfinalist who lives in the Bay Area and is currently working on a technological comedy. Follow John on Twitter: @jktwit11.
Script Magazine is pleased to announce a new podcast and YouTube series dedicated to the craft and business of screenwriting, “Development Hell and Back.” Hosted by Hammad Zaidi and John W. Kim, the highly anticipated episodes will cover a comprehensive look at screenwriters and their craft, from interviews with A-list scribes to discussions with industry producers and current development executives, agents, and managers.
Writer-director-producer Hammad Zaidi has a unique window into the film industry, and a set of daunting challenges that would give even the most intrepid storyteller pause. Knowing that the odds of his fitting the traditional mold were long from the start, he decided to change every mold to fit him instead. Born in Lahore, Pakistan and brought to the United States after a childhood injury left one side of his body less abled than the other, he considers his unique upbringing and disability as “the rent” for one of the most varied careers in Hollywood and abroad today. Self described as a “deliriously happily” married father of two, Zaidi keeps a writing and producing schedule that would tax a team of ten, and is on the constant lookout for material from writers that meet his standards as a producer, and for ideas inspiring enough to dedicate his own writing skills to.
His work with Lonely Seal Releasing, a company he founded after graduating UCLA's prestigious producing program, has made him realistic about the interests and demands of today's producers and financiers. Though he acknowledges that the scripts he writes are driven by “unseen forces,” as a producer he knows it is his responsibility to take a hard look at projects that cross his desk. For him to choose a project, his litmus test is simple: "I have to want to commit to the project for three to five years of development hell," says Zaidi. “I have to be 110% sure that I want to take on the headaches that comes along with bringing an idea to fruition."
The challenges of development hell are those he is well aware. Zaidi sees the current state of studio filmmaking as being in historical transition, with development budgets shrinking or disappearing for even the most well-known name producers and directors, and bottom-line concerns impacting the biggest franchise series and tentpole films. "A-list directors are losing major studio tentpole gigs to indie directors (Godzilla, The Amazing Spiderman, the upcoming Star Wars trilogy), says Zaidi. “Even most major producers have lost their audacious studio overhead deals. Thus, these days, you really have to love the cinematic craft to be in the film industry, because the earning potential isn’t what it used to be.” Zaidi believes today's film climate make some of the unspoken “rules” for presenting material even more important, such as the “elevator pitch,” which he emphasizes is critical to getting a script into the right hands. “What happens when you meet the person you want to impress?” asks Zaidi. “Sometimes eight seconds is all you're going to get.”
Though he encourages the traditional path of approaching agents and managers, Zaidi suggests engaging a reputable producer, production company, or distributor as viable project paths for unknown writers. “An option is usually the first step,” says Zaidi, even as he cautions writers to be realistic about the value of their works. “An option price for an unknown writer will probably not exceed $5,000 for the first year,” says Zaidi. “And it’ll only get that high if the writer has won major awards or if the writer has strong management.” Though seven-figure deals for script sales still occur, option prices for unknown writers can be as little as $1,000 to $2,500, and can lead to important first career milestones such as completed films and credits. Even so-called one-dollar options are on the table, though Zaidi warns against them. “I’d only advise writers to take those deals if a star, producer, or distributor is bringing significant value to the project.” says Zaidi. “Even then, the writer should make sure there’s a several thousand-dollar option for year two. The last thing writers should be doing is giving a young producer a one-dollar option. Charging a thousand dollars or more makes the producer far more motivated.
Zaidi acknowledges that getting meetings without representation isn't the easiest goal to achieve, but for the writer without representation the effort is not only potentially fruitful but a necessary part of a proactive screenwriting career. “The best way to approach is to have a killer, succinct one-line description of your story and do intense research on the person, as well as their assistant,” says Zaidi. “The writer should know where the person grew up, where they went to college, any films they've been attached to, the genres they've gravitated to, as well as any significant quotes they've said in previous interviews and articles.” It is this attention to detail, Zaidi stresses, that can mean the difference between a script being read, or consigned to the pile of unread scripts found in every producer's office.
This work should extend to that first phone call to the producer's office or assistant as well. “Since the writer will only be given ten seconds or less to engage the person who answers the phone, he or she must make the right statements in order to extend the phone call,” says Zaidi. “Mentioning what your connection is to the person you want to meet is always a good start, i.e. you both went to the same college, grew up in the same town, have a common friend, etc.” Zaidi emphasizes that even the simplest social niceties go a long way in the hectic, fast-paced world of industry gatekeepers. “Respecting the assistant will get the writer a lot closer to the meeting,” says Zaidi. “Remember, assistants and executives alike are trained to say "no,” and combating a trained behavior is not easy, but it is not impossible. All the writer need is a great idea and an infectious personality to help them break down the doors to their future.”
It is this combination of will and adaptability that have served Zaidi well throughout his life. Growing up as a child in Overland Park, Kansas, where a supportive Uncle sponsored his family's green card and entry into the United States, Zaidi remembers being introduced to simple Disney fare in the 1970's such as Herbie Rides Again, transitioning quickly into the riches of that decades best American films. Movies as disparate as Harold and Maude, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Deer Hunter made him realize that films not only had the ability to entertain, but the power to move audiences. "I knew I wanted to tell stories for the rest of my life," says Zaidi."
Limited to one usable hand because of his childhood injury, Zaidi is adept enough as a writer to have created stories for multiple formats, including short and feature films, documentaries, and even video games. He is also active in the dynamic growth of new media and the internet. “Spark,” an interactive tablet being produced by Zaidi in alliance with Industry Corp., Andrew Matlock's Canadian-based technology and entertainment company, is expected to release eight to ten thousand units within the next two years, with dedicated content provided by Zaidi and his partners. Prior deals with The Jim Henson Company, NBC Universal, and the Wasserman Group have presented Zaidi and Matlock an opportunity to expand into a growing marketplace for storytellers and producers alike. Additionally, Zaidi is looking to reboot “Script Accessible,” a screenwriting contest founded by Zaidi in 2009 and designed to promote writers with disabilities. It is an impressive list of commitments, but as a filmmaker and producer, Zaidi understands the value of engaging in all facets of a changing industry while respecting the craft of storytelling. It is a sensitivity that allows him to help writers and filmmakers even as it guides his own work.
Initially, writing served as a therapeutic oasis for Zaidi. As a disabled minority growing up in the heartland, his real life didn't yield the adventures his mind could conjure, so he created his own worlds through his imagination. Foreshadowing his current producing career, he prepared for writing short stories in grade school by crafting fictional reviews from newspapers and magazines, then working backwards until his stories satisfied his own glowing coverage. A grade school award for a “Why I Love America” essay contest during the middle of the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1980 and a wave of vitriolic “anti-foreigner” sentiment, made him realize that his own voice could be heard through the noise of even the most turbulent international events.
Accepted as one of eleven students at the MFA Producers Program at UCLA, Zaidi studied under teachers such as Howard Suber and Peter Guber, all while taking as many classes as available in the prestigious writing program. Encouraged by mentors such as the late Dee Caruso to create stories he was passionate about, Zaidi produced his first script, “Chasin’ Santa,” with fellow UCLA alum Michael Gantman, a story about a six year-old Jewish girl who chases down Santa Claus one holiday season to ask Santa why he didn’t visit her.
Seeking to gain a greater understanding of the industry and international marketplace, with the encouragement of Edward Stencel (now owner of Royale Greenstreet Entertainment) Zaidi partnered in an international film distribution company, Lonely Seal Releasing, and used his experience to strengthen his own writing, producing, and directing careers, as well as seeking distribution and financing support for independent filmmakers and their projects. A short film produced and directed by him to satisfy his creative impulses, Baptized at Lucky Lube, garnered national awards and led to Get a Life, a high-concept comedy that won the Telluride Indiefest Screenplay contest and was tapped as a semi-finalist at American Accolades. A recently completed high-concept comedy, 30 Days in the Hole, described as the story of an “accidental” male chauvinist who gets sentenced to thirty days in a women's prison in order to be taught a lesson, received attention from several “A” list feature producers, including a close encounter with recently departed Sony studio head Amy Pascal.
For all his success as a producer and distributor, Zaidi respects the creative process and considers writing his primary joy and inspiration. "I never decide what to write," says Zaidi. "Ideas strike me like a bolt of lighting, forcing me to put them on paper.” An admitted workaholic, his writing habits unsurprisingly follow a demanding schedule. "I’m a binge writer, which means I write as close to 24/7 as possible until I finish the first draft,” says Zaidi. “Then I step away for a few weeks, to come back to discover my first-draft flaws." It's a methodology that allows Zaidi to immerse himself in the storytelling process, then rewrite and edit with the objectivity he knows is essential for scripts to survive the gauntlet of critical hurdles that follow.
As attached to his own stories as he is, he's sympathetic to writers who have difficulty understanding the development and sale process. "Most writers I’ve met think they’re getting screwed every time a producer, production company or studio changes their work," says Zaidi. "While no writer likes having their work altered, including me, once a writer agrees to the financial terms, he or she shouldn’t complain about creative changes. Simply put, if you sell your home, you can’t restrict the new owner from repainting it, so why would you have the power to do so with your script?"
As for the writer looking for representation, Zaidi advises to do research on whom agents or managers represent and how the writer’s material complements their slate. “Inquire if they are open to reading new material,” says Zaidi. “And if not now, when will they be open to it? Those who are open to it may ask for a few loglines.” Contrary to their reputations, agents and managers are rarely powerful game changers, nor are they trained to be creative confidants. “Agents and Managers are wonderful, but it’s not their job to hold your hand or instill you with confidence,” says Zaidi. “Their job is to provide you with opportunity and make you money. Thus, only contact them when you really have something that’s ready to pop.”
Zaidi reminds writers that the responsibility for a vibrant and healthy career will always fall back on the writer and the work they produce. That having been said, he knows all too well the power of the well-written script with a voice. “Regardless of how daunting submitting to a studio may seem, everyone loves great material,” says Zaidi. “If your material is great and commercially viable, it will rise.” Based on a survey of the industry, Zaidi has very specific information on what is considered commercial these days.
Family films are the hottest genre internationally,” says Zaidi. “Especially stories with kids and animals. Action films are always a solid bet - because viewers don't have to understand the language the film's made in to understand the story.” He acknowledges the long-term popularity of thrillers as well as the growing interest in paranormal based films. He warns that for the most part, however, none of this matters without a star cast. “The greatest indie film without stars is an indie that may earn less than ten to twenty thousand dollars. Not ten to twenty thousand in profit, I mean ten to twenty thousand total, regardless of how much they spent - the market is that weak.”
Today, Zaidi continues to encourage writers and filmmakers to understand the realities of today's international film industry through his column “Going Bionic.” At Cannes this year, he will be introducing CineCoin, a film funding website designed to help independent filmmakers and writers get their projects funded. Consistent with Zaidi's interests, there will be an active investment pool presence for women and disabled filmmakers at the site.
As a writer, Zaidi knows his job is to continue creating stories, a role he does his best to fulfill at every opportunity. As a producer and businessman on the search for the next breakout idea, he is alert both to the wants of the industry and those stories that will mesmerize audiences, just as they did a young boy in Overland Park, Kansas, in a darkened theater long ago.
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