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HBO Exec Chris Salvaterra Offers Perspective On the Business Side of Screenwriting

HBO executive Chris Salvaterra discusses the business of screenwriting, offering invaluable tips for a successful writing career.

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative feature adaptation as well as the 10-hr limited series of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The landscape of Hollywood has morphed over the years, requiring us writers to continually shift our strategies for breaking in. It has never been more critical for us to understand the business of screenwriting. When I come across people whose insights can aide us on this crazy path to becoming produced screenwriters, I stop, listen and appreciate.

Meet Chris Salvaterra, a producer known for Hidalgo, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Visitor who is now an HBO Miniseries executive. I had the honor to sit with Chris for a deeper, behind-the-scenes look at this industry known as “show business.” Sure, artists want to think finding success only requires a Charlie Kaufman-like creativity, but the reality is, money must be made from our ideas. Before we get into marketability, let’s start at the beginning of Chris’ career.

HBO Exec Chris Salvaterra Offers Perspective On the Business Side of Screenwriting by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Photo Credit: Marjorie Salvaterra

Chris studied English and American Literature and Language at Harvard before moving to Los Angeles with the same dream as ours – to become an A-list screenwriter. But his path would take an unexpected turn while working at the Torrance Marriott.

“I could write and write, but I felt very disconnected from the industry I was trying to break into. People suggested going the agency route because of all its different facets, especially if it’s a bigger agency – motion picture lit, talent, television lit, etc. With all these different areas, you start to get a sense of how everything is connected and how it works. When an assistant position opened up at ICM, the person I interviewed with declared, ‘I'm looking for someone with no experience and no preconceptions.’ I said, ‘I'm your man!’ (laughs).”

With his foot in the door, Chris wasted no time soaking up everything he could get his hands on to improve his writing.

“The script library they had was incredibly valuable – several rooms with thousands and thousands of scripts. Remember, this was pre-digitization. I would order a script from the library of whatever movie was coming out that weekend, read the script, and then go see the movie. It was a very rough look into development. I would realize a scene in the third act was missing, figuring they either cut it in post or didn’t even shoot it. Why was that? It got me thinking along the lines of script development. I had also been reading for my boss, of course, and learning a lot about the landscape of Hollywood.”

As we spoke, it was clear his understanding of a writer’s mind serves him well when choosing projects to develop.

“I was still writing when I moved on to Peters Entertainment, where I was an in-house creative person during the spec boom of the 90s. I’d be given the stacks of scripts that one of the executives didn't have time to read. As expected, ninety-nine percent [of scripts] didn’t work quite right but then there was one that I thought we should pay attention to. It ended up selling for a lot of money, unfortunately not to us, but to another company.

Even though it didn't get made, I sort of became the in-house, go-to reader. So I read a lot of specs and projects and started doing coverage, which was incredibly helpful. For existing projects, I was doing comparison coverage, which means I was looking at the previous draft along with the new draft that came in, and then comparing the two, discovering where it's better, where it could be improved, and what scenes have been cut or added. I started to learn how to analyze story, which was very valuable. I was promoted to executive and then took the next step and started writing notes for the other executives’ projects. It was all about growth for me. I wanted to learn as much as I possibly could, including more about production. I had been involved with development at that point, and when something went to production, I didn't have a lot to do with it.”

One thing all successful people have in common is a thirst for knowledge and a desire to improve. As I talked with Chris, it felt like he was the kind of the guy who wouldn’t be put under anesthesia during a surgery but instead would choose to watch it live on a TV screen, still able to talk with the surgeon, wanting to know how it all worked. So when the executive who had been handing him all those scripts to read moved on to be a creative exec at a studio, Chris knew that was a job he wanted someday and reached out for advice.

“[The executive] had worked with a woman who just left Disney and was going to Universal. It was sort of kismet. I called her and was essentially hired as a junior executive at Universal. That was my official transition out of writing.”

As writers, we pitch executives all the time, but finding one who relates to our challenges is rare and refreshing.

“Having that experience of writing is invaluable in my job. I’m able to understand implicitly the process and journey of writing. I don't miss writing if I feel like I can be creative and the facilitator of storytelling. Those aspects of the job satisfy that part of me.”

Serendipity stepped in again when Chris called the literary manager who was hip-pocketing him with the news of his career change.

“I told him that I'm making the transition to an executive at a studio and I ain’t writin’ anymore (laughs). He then started sending me scripts to consider. One of those things turned out to be American Pie.”

"American Pie' Universal Pictures

"American Pie' Universal Pictures

The experience of Chris discovering American Pie makes a fantastic case study in how to write a project that an executive can champion. In fact, one of our contributors, Brad Riddell, wrote American Pie Presents Band Camp. The trickle effect of serendipity continues.

“With every project you go to bat for, you wonder if there's an audience for it. It's easy to say in retrospect, but I always believed there was an audience for that movie – though I don't think I ever imagined it becoming a franchise of sequels and direct-to-video titles.”

Basically, for me to get behind a script, it has to get me in my gut. I remember reading American Pie, going through the jokes and the sequences, and then at the end with the band camp reveal – I don’t want to get too graphic, but what Michelle says about what she does with her flute – I was like, ‘I have to see this movie.’ What I responded to in the writing was the sense of the story and humor building over the course of the movie, but there was also emotion to it, a real beating heart at the center of it. I went to my boss, Alli Shearmur, and said, ‘I’ve been here for five months, and this is the first time I've asked you to cancel your lunch and read something.’ Thirty pages in, she called me to her office and said, ‘This is disgusting! What is this?’ It was a particularly graphic scene. I asked that she please keep reading because it’s actually about something – it’s about friendship, brotherhood, facing those end times together and heading into a new period of your life.”

Gotta say, that’s a pretty balls-of-steel move to hand a raunchy script to your female boss. You can imagine how much more I liked him after hearing that.

“Oh yeah, it was a resolve of ‘this is what you pay me to do to so, hey, you should pay attention to this.’ Had she not responded to it, I don't know what would've happened (laughs). But to her credit, she burst out of her office, saying we should go talk to Stacey Snider, who was a co-president at Universal at the time.”

Step one accomplished – the script grabs the boss’ attention. While we know the writing was great, now comes the question of whether the concept is marketable.

“Here I am standing in another woman's office – one who made Legends of the Fall, Jerry Maguire, Meet Joe Black, and other big-budget movies. Even though she didn't totally connect with the material, I said I hadn’t seen a movie like this since Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I grew up on. Everything being cyclical, I thought there's a generation that doesn’t have theirFast Times at Ridgemont High. To her credit, she said, ‘I get it; I get it.’ People started coming in, saying that this is funny – really funny. There were a bunch of studios that wanted this script. It was that well written.”

This was the spec boom of the 90s and written by a first-time writer, Adam Herz, who was 25 at the time. We hear of new writers being fired all the time, which is hard to wrap our brains around after we’ve bled on the page, sometimes for years on a given project. But it’s a reality writers must brace themselves for… unless they’re in development with Chris.

“In a lot of ways it's great working with new writers because they'll come in without preconceptions. They aren't jaded. I shut off that little voice of doubt in my brain and commit to doing this unless and until it's not working. I'm totally committed to helping you realize this vision that you have. If my thinking was too businesslike and aware of it not working out down the line, I wouldn’t be doing right by the project, the writer, or the company.”

But there’s no doubt, the business side of the industry is essential for writers to understand, especially when choosing our next creation and whether or not to chase the trends.

“If something is a trend, I say spoof it. As a producer, I was developing a spoof of Paranormal Activity with a writer when I heard about A Haunted House, which obviously stopped our project. As far as chasing trends, what a writer needs to keep in mind is if a movie comes out and it's a hit in a particular genre or subject matter, there are already dozens of projects in development sitting behind that. The studios and financiers are all too ready to catalyze those projects, for better or worse. I'd rather zig when everyone else is zagging for those reasons. When everyone is fishing in one pool, I want to go fishing in another hole. But that can sometimes bite you. If you’re doing something that's so different from what everyone else is doing, it sometimes doesn't get any traction because it’s so different.

It’s a really hard decision to make as a writer. Think about what you connect with. What's going to get you up every morning, willing to stare at the screen? At the same time, you don't want that be a wasted effort, finishing something only to find out there's something exactly like it being set up at another place. What I try to convey to people is to know there are hundreds of people in Hollywood who are smart and good at their jobs and trying to sense where the curves are going. And you can easily overthink this part of it.”

HBO Exec Chris Salvaterra Offers Perspective On the Business Side of Screenwriting by Jeanne Veillette Bowerman | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Going back to the cyclical aspect of American Pie’s appeal, a recent release of a project like yours doesn’t mean your efforts are completely lost.

“The studio that's looking for the next Harry Potter trend might still allow room for a project like yours. Try to get a hold of an agent or manager, and if they say there's no interest within the industry, then put it aside. Perhaps tastes will change, things will shift.”

Concept is key, but there’s also the struggle of getting past the reader. Perhaps if Chris’ boss had read American Pie without him reading it first, she might not have pushed past the first 30 pages. Chris has read countless scripts and offers his insights into how to make a great first impression.

“It’s one thing if you're reading something and it's not well written, then you don't continue on. What I would say about American Pie, regarding that disgusting sequence, is that it’s a matter of taste whether you think it's funny or not, but it was undeniably very well written. That gives you the confidence to keep turning the page. Regarding getting past the reader, don't think about the reader. Just keep trying to make the script the very best it can be. Do not have typos. If there are typos, that means you have not gone through it with the care you need to. Theoretically, you should be writing draft after draft after draft for a project. You hear stories about people writing a draft in three days. That’s an anomaly.”

Chris reminds us that those three-day vomit drafts are rewritten many times before they’re ever shown to an industry executive, so don’t buy into the hype of those versions going straight to production.

“When I work with writers, I tell them to do a ‘your, you’re and their, they’re’ pass. You've got to make sure that it's spit-shined in that sense. Even if it's subconscious, the reader will know the writer has not put their heart and soul into this script. The writing has to excellent. Make the story as good as it can possibly be, formatting properly without glaring errors. Then let it all hang out (laughs).”

I’m a big believer in writers getting outside of their comfort zones. American Pie is an obvious example of pushing the boundaries to make a script stand out.

“My attitude with developing material that’s graphic, whether it's sex, violence, or humor, is you can always pull back on things, but I never want a writer to be holding back in the writing process. Let us, the executives, rein you in. But as a writer, don't be so self-conscious during the thought process that you're editing yourself. Similarly, you can't be afraid to go dark. You can always lighten it up later.

In this day and age, when there's so much entertainment and noise out there, there's something to be said for distinctive entertainment. So as a storyteller, you have to push yourself and your stories to make your work different. That's what makes the reader go, ‘Man, that's interesting! I want to see this.’”

One aspect of prepping a script for submission is getting feedback from trusted writers or script consultants. There’s an art to both giving and receiving notes. The more you practice, the better you’ll be prepared for a studio executive’s opinion. We talked at length about the value of notes and what a great writer’s take is on feedback.

“It's very helpful for writers to continually keep in mind that it's about making the project as good as it can be. Whoever's giving you notes also wants what you want – a great product. People who give notes well will give constructive notes and be leaning into it. Sometimes you'll get a strong tone, which is hard, but what you have to try to do is get the tone out of your head and find what's behind it. What’s the intention behind this note? Say thank you, then go off and think about it to see what sticks with you.

Sometimes, in a more official environment, you have to go back to whoever gave you notes and talk through them. In that case, a writer should know the executive or producer does not expect every single note to be taken. This is the way it should be, though not everyone behaves this way. The writer is the one who lives with this material and thinks about it all the time, so that writer will know what works best. An executive or producer gives suggestions on the overall intent of the note with some specific ideas that you can choose to take or not, but just as long as you understand the major concern and can digest and absorb that.

The best writers I've worked with are ones who are enthusiastic and don't take all the notes. The spectrum of writers is, on the one hand, they don't want to hear anything. That's a negative. On the other end of the spectrum is the writer who just wants you to tell them what to do. That's negative, too. The best writer is one with a strong point of view, who’s also open to feedback. When I worked on The Visitor, talking to Tom McCarthy on a call, we felt the movie was so beautiful, but how could it not end on such a devastating note? He suggested Richard Jenkins’ character takes the drums and goes down to the subway where his friend [who is now deported] used to go. The subtext being it was a tribute to him. We loved it! Tom filtered the note through his own sensibility and through the voice of the movie and came up with this idea. That's the ideal type of writer, in my experience.”

The best writers also search for a solution to the note that’s something we’ve never seen on screen before. But also remember, filmmaking is a collaboration. You aren’t alone in this step. Brainstorm with the execs and hopefully everyone will keep an open mind.

“If there’s a particular note that doesn't resonate, and there's a follow-up that needs to be done, I think the best approach is to be clear with whoever you're working with that although you thought about the notes, you just can't wrap your head around how this can work. That's acceptable, as long as you thought hard about the headline note and the specifics. It’s a collaboration. A good executive understands the creative process can be maddening and hard to pin down, so you have to assume people are doing their best. If you choose to be a screenwriter, remember it's a collaborative process and it's business. You realize as the producer, but also as a writer, it's not always going to turn out exactly the way you envision, but that's okay. You hope that it turns out even better. But even if it doesn’t, remember you got something made, you are working, and you move onto the next thing.

I read tons of screenwriting books when I came out here, and the best advice I read was when you finish something, start working immediately on something else. That way you're not sitting around, anxiously waiting, and if passes start to come in, you're already working on the next thing.”

Which brings us to the seemingly endless stream of “passes” during the submission process while searching for that one “yes.” Even great writers struggle to stay in the game despite having a hard drive full of scripts and too many encouraging pats on the back to count. How does an artist stomach rejection and not lose faith? Being a former screenwriter, Chris offers a helpful view.

“As an executive, I have the perspective that great writing will get recognized in some way, shape, or form. Great writing gets recognized and passed around now more than ever in the digital age. People email each other wanting to know what great scripts they’ve read. That's how The Black List came about.

While this sounds very Pollyanna, I would encourage those people to try to see the storytelling as its own reward. I know how hard it is to be working on something and feel this is the one that will break you in. That's incredibly difficult. But if you have something else – another career, or whatever that might be – that pays the bills, I would encourage that. In the 90s, I might've said just come out here and be a waiter and you got a shot at getting something developed. But in the last few years, I've seen how hard it is to make a living as an artist in the entertainment business. Even talking to agents and managers, it's a real challenge, but great writing will always shine through and get recognized. You have to look at it as a craft and take pride that you're always working on it.”

One way to help get your script in people’s inboxes is to do well in a reputable screenwriting contest. It’s a level of vetting your work, especially if you don’t have representation.

“There are tons of people in the industry paying attention to screenwriting contests because that’s their job. A couple of years ago, I had a friend say their second cousin's husband wrote a script and it won the Final Draft Big Break contest, so I knew it had been through some type of gauntlet. It turned out to be a great script, though incredibly hard to get the movie made. But it can be used for a writing sample to find representation.”

Marjorie Salvaterra's new book, 'Her'

Marjorie Salvaterra's new book, 'Her'

With decades of experience in show business, I asked Chris to go back in time and give advice to his 18-year-old writer self. Let’s face it, none of us knew anything when we were 18 – no offense, kids.

“There’s the funny response and then the true response. The funny response, which has some degree of truth to it, is go to business school and work on Wall Street (laughs) and then get into entertainment. But the more serious response would be the advice Stacey Snider gave me – it's a marathon, not a sprint. I continue to keep that in mind. That would've been very helpful for me to understand when I was 18 or 22 or whatever. When you're younger you can tie yourself up in knots wondering if this is the right way to go. You have to keep in mind that it's a marathon and not get worked up about too many things because then you take your eyes off of the process of learning and growing and working on your craft. I say this about writing, but I also feel this about my job – it is its own reward. I believe that's how you keep the passion going without getting caught up in all the other noise, because there's a lot in this industry.”

During my research for this article I found a video of Chris speaking at UCSB. He offered a piece of advice I want to share that might help you stay in the game.

“If I’m in the major leagues, I could fail seven times out of ten. That means I got three hits. But if I do that in the course of an entire career, I’d be a hall of famer.”

Keep swinging, people.

Photo Credit: Marjorie Salvaterra Photography, Chris Salvaterra's talented wife. Check out her new book, Her: Meditations on Being Female.

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