Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Justin Manask

Here's a 1/2 Dozen
with literary manager

Justin Manask

(who reps my work for film
and has placed over 150 intellectual property projects)

talking about current trends

myths about agents

being a smart-mouthed, book-obsessed
kid with a bowl cut

the bizarre brief history of STAR TREK

and that new dirty word in the industry:


What, to your mind, is the most pervasive myth about the entertainment industry -- and the agents out there in particular?

The most pervasive myth about the entertainment industry is that producers will be attracted to a property because it is similar to something else that was successful.

While it is true that properties like THE DEVIL WORE PRADA and THE HUNGER GAMES create waves of interest in appealing to a certain market, the publishing industry and the entertainment industry respond differently. The publishing business will rush dozens of clones of a successful book into stores in the hopes of capturing the readers of a best-selling book because their costs are far lower and the buckshot approach works with readers. In Hollywood, everyone wants to produce JAWS and almost nobody wants to produce ORCA or PIRANHA. Due to the high costs of producing, marketing and distributing a major motion picture, we're focused on finding the game-changers rather than playing the changed game. If one were to take a random sampling of 25 book editors and 25 film executives, the differences would be striking: film executives are far more focused on creativity and originality, while publishing executives keep themselves busy running 'comps' on the performance of similar books.

Time and again, I have observed wholly unoriginal yet trendy books sell for large advances in New York, where similarity is a selling point, and Hollywood will pass on the concept over the phone, refusing to sacrifice their Saturday for an obvious clone. Network television is more like the publishing business, but basic and pay cable television are more like the film business.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers who want to see their novels or screenplays adapted for film – or Tip #47 or #2. Your pick.

My list of tips would include a dozen different expressions of this same idea: write visually. When a reader is lost in a book, a character's candlelit conversation or Rothian inner monologue can be as gripping as a knife-fight in a WWI foxhole. But the multi-billion dollar film industry is here to entertain visually. Pay cable and basic cable have taken huge strides forward in the last ten years. The average one hour drama on HBO or FX today is more emotionally sophisticated and authentic than films like THE GRADUATE, ORDINARY PEOPLE or DANCES WITH WOLVES, so audiences will wait for outstanding 2010 films like CYRUS, BLUE VALENTINE or WINTER'S BONE to be released on DVD because they can get that kind of entertainment for free at home. Sure, you can sell film rights to an indie film, but the money will not change your life or sell books. This is a whole topic, really, but the most important thing for aspiring writers to keep in mind is that your novel or your non-fiction book must amount to a visual experience that justifies the $25-a-head cost of a theatrical experience.

Tell us a tale from the publishing/film world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

A few years ago, I sold John Capouya's GORGEOUS GEORGE, an extremely entertaining and insightful biography of the bad boy mid-century wrestler who revolutionized professional wrestling and, arguably, invented modern pop culture.

I love this story, in no small part because my dad used to call me 'Gorgeous George' when I was being spoiled or acting like a little prince. But I didn't get it. I grew up in the 70s and 80s. My cultural references were Luke Skywalker and DIFF'RENT STROKES.

Before WWII, George Wagner wrestled professionally as a German-themed good guy at a time when nearly every wrestling star was an appalling racist stereotype. Throughout the 1930s, it became clear than Wagner's days were numbered as a German good guy and eventually his wife put her foot down. So together they created the perfect villain for the Greatest Generation. His wife was a tailor and George took pride in his appearance, so they wrapped him in silk, had a curly blonde hairstyle created in Beverly Hills and insisted that audiences stand at attention to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance" before "Gorgeous George" would deign to enter the arena. At a time when Americans were making unthinkable sacrifices for their families and for the War, here was a man who blatantly displayed his wealth and treated the audience like his subjects.

The audiences went wild. At a time when Seabiscuit was the #1 celebrity in America, Gorgeous George was #2. He became one of the first television celebrities and famously insured his silk capes for $1,000,000 with Lloyd's of London. It's funny, in a way, because from our perspective Gorgeous George might appear to be a homophobic stereotype, but it had nothing to do with sex or femininity--George was stronger, faster, and more dangerous than any other wrestler and he had the nerve to rub America's face in it.

I can go on. Muhammad Ali later said, "I saw fifteen thousand people coming to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, this is a gooood idea." Not only was this an incredible personal transformation by a man whose career appeared to be finished, it was the beginning of the end of the racist archetypes in wrestling. Americans returning from the War were far more likely to see Okies, Italians and Jews as Americans and peers. Wash and repeat for fifty years and now we have the Kardashians, 16 AND PREGNANT and THE JERSEY SHORE.

The craziest part about this story, and I'll take this "Gorgeous" opportunity to peacock my achievement for the author, is that after failing to find a buyer for a year, I engineered an auction with two emotionally-invested millionaires and ended up selling the rights outright [not an option deal] to Vince McMahon, the Chairman of WWE, whose parents are featured characters in the book. It was like selling ice to the king of the Eskimos. This is one of my favorite stories because I learned something about my grandparents' and parents' generation, came to understand the precision of my dad's highly justified teasing, and learned a valuable lesson on sticking with my instincts after dozens of people had passed on a worthy project.

Current obsessions -- Is there some trend you're seeing too much of? What's feeling overplayed in LA these days?

I am rather bullish on the current trend, which is science fiction, because it is conceptually much larger than prior trends like magical realist young adult literature or chick lit. The issue with science fiction, whether you're considering its application to literary novels, young adult, romance or thrillers, is that many people have a very limited literacy with science fiction. For example, STAR WARS is not science fiction, it is fantasy.

What I see too much of these days is the phenomenon of writers dipping their toes into science fiction, but exhibiting their very limited literacy with the genre and falling in old narrative traps. Writers should read and draw inspiration from Silver Age science fiction [1960-1980] rather than Golden Age [1890-1960] or Cyberpunk [1980-1994], in part because Silver Age science fiction was focused on the impact of technology on people, while Golden Age and Cyberpunk were speculating on technologies [space travel, the Internet] that had not yet arrived. The best single example of this is THE MATRIX, which, prior the film's release, the Wachowski Brothers openly admitted was a modernization of Roger Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER [1970]. And then, of course, there's the rise of Dystopic fiction, which is the signature expression of Silver Age science fiction.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as an agent?

I was a highly precocious, smart-mouthed kid with a bowl cut growing up in Burbank, California, so my parents offloaded me to a talent agent and I spent the first 12 years of my life as a child actor. I sold cereal, toys and did a hilarious print campaign for Wrangler Jeans that plastered my butt all over America. The most important thing about this is that I learned to read when I was 4-years-old and became more comfortable around adults than my peers. Problems ensued there, of course, but as I became less interested in acting, I grew more and more interested in books. By the time I was in junior high, I devoured whole paperbacks in a day. I'd ride my bike to one of the many used bookstores that no longer exist in Los Angeles and fill my backpack with 99c paperbacks. I used lists of banned books as my reading list and read scores and scores of pulp science fiction. I count myself as fortunate to have read Ayn Rand's THE FOUNTAINHEAD when I was young enough to be inspired by Howard Roark, but not old enough to pick it apart. I was 14, and from that point forward, I read pretentious literature and anything that resembled Bret Eason Ellis or Jay McInerney. That lasted until I read Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY the month it published and spent several years reading the Classics and world mythology. By the time I was in college, when friends would ask me if I wanted to be an actor again, I knew that, if anything, I wanted to be like my agent. She saw the best in people and mixed frank advice with sincere encouragement to build hundreds of careers. She used to call me her "Little John Wayne."

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

Since I read so much professionally and the work that comes my way, whether fiction or non-fiction, is narrative with central characters and plots, when I carve out time for personal reading it is usually for history and 'big idea' books. Among my favorite books are Charles Mann's 1491, Jared Diamond's GUNS GERMS AND STEEL, Russell Shorto's THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD and my client Thaddeus Russell's A RENEGADE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. I highly recommend 'Bad Thad's groundbreaking and controversial history of the United States. Especially if you intellectually came of age in the politically correct 80s and 90s, it's as important a seismic shift in looking at America as Howard Zinn's classic work was to the prior generation. Stacy Schiff's CLEOPATRA is currently on my bedside table.

The sale of what project was the easiest of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

I once sent my client Daniel H. Wilson in to meet with an executive at Paramount Pictures. At the end of the meeting, the executive asked what he was going to write next. Daniel mentioned the idea of a guide to sibling rivalry called BRO-JITSU. Paramount bought it sight-unseen a few hours later. It helped that the executive was an only child, and one of Daniel's central theories is that sibling rivalry prepares us to take our knocks, becoming stronger yet more humble, while only children will misinterpret a noogie and might just break your nose.

You might be old enough to remember the love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I do not. Married and divorced twice, alcoholic, narcissistic and fabulously talented, they were the richest, most powerful, highest paid, in her case the most beautiful and, in Burton's case the most respected actor of his generation. They were also known as the 'Battlin' Burtons' for their fondness of getting drunk and arguing in public wile draped in jewelry [See: George, Gorgeous]. VANITY FAIR called it "the greatest love story of the Twentieth Century."

It took more than three years to convince my clients Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger to adapt Sam's article for VANITY FAIR ["A First Class Affair"] for a book, more than two years for them to research and write that book, and another two years to find a buyer. Among other things, their New York Times Best Selling book FURIOUS LOVE features the contents of love letters that Burton wrote Taylor over the years. The final letter, written the day before he died and waiting for Taylor when she returned from his funeral in London, begs Taylor to make one more go of it--a proposal for a third marriage. Problem: Burton was married to Sally Hay at the time [for about half the time that my clients spent writing the book], so while Elizabeth possesses the letters, Burton's widow owns the copyright to those letters. So after all of this time and effort, Paramount Pictures and I have managed to corral both Sally Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to cooperate with a motion picture adaptation of Sam and Nancy's FURIOUS LOVE. The deal is not finished, but it is by far the hardest thing I have worked on. Given how hard it is to sell love stories at a time when race, class, geography and war [the traditional barriers to love] are irrelevant, I am very proud of the work my clients and I have done so far.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of the entertainment industry -- both books and film?

The answer is a dirty word: transmedia. It's a dirty word because it's being thrown around Hollywood and New York as shorthand for this thing that we know is happening, that we know is going to happen and has happened before, but that sounds naive or presumptuous to use like it's as simple as uttering those four syllables.

The basic idea is that, like STAR TREK and STAR WARS, the future of the entertainment industry is in intellectual properties that can exist across all media--films, books, television, comic books, toys, games, social media. Did you know that for a time in the 80s and 90s, Simon & Shuster's paperback STAR TREK books were so profitable that they kept the entire publishing company in the black? Did you know that during the same period, the STAR TREK films and THE NEXT GENERATION kept Paramount Pictures afloat? Did you know that Paramount did not create STAR TREK, but purchased it from Lucile Ball, whose company Desilu produced both STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? There's nothing I can say about STAR WARS that you don't already know.

STAR TREK was an accident based on Gene Roddenberry's extraordinary vision, while STAR WARS was subtitled Episode 4 and Lucas had the foresight to trade apparently valuable rights for merchandising rights in 1976, so there is good evidence that he knew what he was doing.

So the challenge before executives in Hollywood today is to find those game-changers that are conceived from the ground floor as intellectual properties that can last decades. Yes, this is about money and making more of it, but it's also a sound strategy for getting around piracy. If the sole profit center for your motion picture or television series is data, then forget it. The pirates will win. But if your intellectual property is interactive, requires software updates and encourages the use of proprietary console gaming systems and the purchase of lucrative merchandise... then, using the logic of my client, author/futurist/activist Cory Doctorow: Go ahead and make a copy. You'll only make my property more popular.

I am giving you the big answer for the big prize. Hollywood will always make movies like THE KING'S SPEECH and television shows like BREAKING BAD. It is a big, diverse world and we need as many different kinds of artists as there are cultures and languages. But if you're goal is to rock the world and have kids use your character names as slang in 50 years, like The Beastie Boys singing about "a pinch on the neck from Mr. Spock," then try to wrap your head around transmedia.

These 3 questions were taken from a Facebook poll.

How do film companies even go about discovering books? Do they actively search for novels that translate well to film? Come upon things in chance ways? Or wait for solicitations from agents? What draws them to certain works? Strong plot? Or a book that has already generated 'buzz', so that the work has a built-in platform? Is it more often bestsellers that are made into movies?

Wow, an easy question. The answer is all of the above. The biggest players in the business [Studios, A-list producers and filmmakers] make use of scouts, and I, as an author's representative, use those scouts to my clients' advantage, too, but every other scenario you imagine is true. Producers wait in Doctors' offices and read People Magazine, they hear about YA novels from their daughters, and catch their assistants on Twitter. Agents and managers like myself make big splashy submissions and often toil away at their passion projects.

The harder part of the question is what draws them to certain works. In the interest of keeping this brief, I'll reduce this to three points:

The High Concept: Can your idea be explained [or promised, or teased] on a billboard that a driver reads at 35mph? The more words and details that are required to explain why people should see the movie or set their DVR, the more grounded the concept is. Hollywood wants high concept entertainment that draws the audience in, and the details come when you've paid the price of admission. Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! does a great job at explaining this.

Character Arc: Hollywood wants stories that about characters who are transformed by their journey. Joseph Campbell explains this better than I can in his book THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Readers for producers look for characters that are active not passive, who are transformed rather than static, and whose stories play out along the classic lines of tragedy, comedy, love stories, romances and heroic mythology.

Theme: Michael Ovitz, one of the founders of CAA, is fond of saying that Hollywood is like a train. The director is the Engine. The intellectual property is the Coal Car. And everyone else is just attached. Following that logic, the primary relationship is between the person who has the story and the director who puts it on screen. The bottom line here is that directors [and television show runners] are highly focused on theme. Is this story about something greater than its parts? What does this work contribute to my filmography? Is this thematically about America, the American experiment, or the idea of America--thus making it Academy material?

How much leverage does the average novelist have in negotiating creative control, i.e., at what level is the writer not simply signing everything away, and perhaps even adapting it themselves?

Almost no leverage, except in extraordinary success. The best thing an author can do is to create something so wonderful that everyone involved wants to live up to its greatness. JK Rowling's deal at Warner Bros. was highly unusual, and after SAHARA, no studio, financier or insurance company will ever permit a deal like that which was given to Clive "Crazy Pants" Cussler.

Terrence Winter has a great story about not being able to get an agent and deciding to masquerade as his own agent. He was couriering his own scripts around, using an answering service, the whole nine yards. It was his solution to the old "you can't sell a script without an agent and you can't get an agent unless you've sold a script" problem. Maybe you could ask why everyone shouldn't follow in Winter's footsteps?

Honestly, they shouldn't because providing access is the least of an agent/manager's contributions, but I wouldn't rule it out. I'm a big fan of outlaws, renegades and pirates.

Justin Manask is a literary manager representing writers
and intellectual properties in Hollywood. Native to Los Angeles and the entertainment business, Justin spent 12 years as a professional actor and received his B.A. in Political Science and Art History from the University of Arizona,
while he began managing punk bands, producing ska tours,
and founding/editing a music magazine. This provided the foundation for both his first jobs at MCA Records and Universal Pictures, as well as admission to Loyola Law School, where he earned his J.D. and specialized in Entertainment Law.

Following a year as a reader at USA Films, where he wrote the crucial overnight coverage upon which Donna Gigliotti purchased Stephen Gaghan's TRAFFIC, Justin joined Artists Management Group in 2000, where he trained under Michael Ovitz and Joel Gotler, and began selling books to Hollywood.
In 2003, Justin joined Joel Gotler to form Intellectual Property Group.
In 2007, Justin founded the Office for Literary Adaptation, a boutique management/production company.

In ten years, Justin has placed over 150 intellectual properties, including:

Wingnut Films/Peter Jackson's TEMERAIRE, based on Naomi Novik's series also known as HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON.
Sony Pictures/Davis Entertainment's UGLIES, based on the Best Selling Young Adult series by Scott Westerfeld.
Don Murphy's LITTLE BROTHER, based on BoingBoing editor Cory Doctorow's New York Times Best Selling novel.
Dreamworks' ROBOPOCALYPSE, based on Daniel H. Wilson's 2012 novel, which also sold to Doubleday's Jason Kaufman [THE DA VINCI CODE], and adapted by Drew Goddard for Steven Spielberg, scheduled for production in 2013.
Daniel H. Wilson's HOW TO SURVIVE A ROBOT UPRISING, recently optioned to Jack Black and Steve Pink.
Paramount Pictures FURIOUS LOVE, based on Vanity Fair Editor Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger's New York Times Best Selling account of the love affair betwen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
20th Century Fox's GO LIKE HELL!, based on Playboy Editor A.J. Baime's groundbreaking account of the '24 Hours of Le Mans' war between Ford and Ferrari that produced the American Muscle Car.
Universal Pictures/Temple Hill's FIRST MAN, based on James Hansen's biography of Neal Armstrong.
WWE Films' GORGEOUS GEORGE, based on John Capouya's biography of 'Gorgeous' George Wagner.
Anonymous Content's Black List adaptation of WHICH BRINGS ME TO YOU, based on Julianna Baggott & Steve Almond's novel, scheduled to be directed by Suzanne Bier [THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE] in 2012.
21 Laps/Tom McNulty's Black List adaptation of THE SPECTACULAR NOW, based on Tim Tharp's novel, scheduled to be directed by Lee Toland Krieger [THE VICIOUS KIND] from the adapted screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Mike Weber in 2012.
Focus Features' HOLLYWOODLAND, based on Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger's HOLLYWOOD KRYPTONITE, which is also credited with launching widespread interest in 'Cold Case' units of police departments.
HBO's EMPIRE FALLS, based on Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Guillaume Canet's TELL NO ONE, based on Harlan Coben's International Best Seller, and often referred to as the best French thriller in a generation.
Cult Sensation and Midnight Movie BUBBA HO-TEP, based on Joe R. Lansdale's novella and starring Bruce Cambpell.