As a lifelong fan of television and film, there’s always been an element of magic that shrouds the content I voraciously consume. ‘How did they get that mechanical shark to look so real?’ ‘How did they get Whoopi Goldberg’s hair to fit in that nun’s habit?’ And, of course, ‘Who dares to ask Viola Davis to do a second take?’
For me, breaking into the entertainment industry has been all about discovering the various tricks and techniques that make up the grand illusion—from picking up my first book on screenwriting at 17 to shadowing my Made In New York Writers Room mentor Michael Rauch on the set of his CBS drama INSTINCT over the past five months.
The biggest lesson I’ve taken away from my experiences is the importance of collaboration. No produced work is created in a vacuum, even if starts in the imagination of a sole writer.
This past Saturday, I was fortunate enough to attend an event which highlighted the various ways in which creatives, artists, craftspeople and executives come together to bring an idea to fruition. The 4th annual Produced By: New York conference, hosted by the Producers Guild, was packed with a full day’s worth of programming including panels, workshops and networking events.
The centerpiece of the conference was the two-part Producers’ Masterclass, fittingly titled “The Power of Creative Collaboration.” The panel featured a producer and talent—either below or above the line—from the films CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, JOAN DIDON: THE CENTER WILL NOT HOLD, MUDBOUND, THE POST, THE SHAPE OF WATER, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, STOMP, WONDERSTRUCK and WONDER WHEEL.
Hearing so many insanely talented artists and craftspeople speak openly about their experiences working on the year’s most anticipated films was a total dream. Dee Rees, one of my idols, gave a masterclass in directing as she explained the various acting exercises she developed with her actors on MUDBOUND. Oscar-winning costume designer Ann Rothchimed in with an anecdote about dressing Dustin Hoffman on MIDNIGHT COWBOY to illustrate how costumes can play a pivotal role in shaping a character. If that wasn’t enough, Carter Burwell discussed the challenges of scoring over an hour’s worth of music for WONDERSTRUCK with Killer Films’ Christine Vachon. Equally illuminating was a discussion between producer Peter Spears and actor Timothée Chalamet about the importance of creating a safe and intimate space for actors on the set of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.
As a writer, I was reminded that clarity and specificity on the page must come first, before talented artists can bring their own depths, nuances and vision to the project.
The panel “Content Is A King: Meet the Buyers” focused primarily on selling unscripted content. The talk was incredibly pertinent, as it’s not every day you hear six network executives tell you how they prefer to be pitched. The quote that stuck with me the most came from National Geographic executive Alan Eyres, who said: “85% of selling a great idea is listening. The power of active listening is highly underrated in this business.”
A major component of the Made in NY Writers Room program has been teaching the fellows how to pitch ourselves and our projects. This panel was a great reminder that somewhere between pausing to take a deep breath and smiling with my eyes, I should still be listening to and watching the general demeanor of the person I’m speaking with. The panelists also made a point to discuss their willingness to talk, listen and be flexible about deal points during the pitch process.
Hitting this point home was HOUSE OF CARDS showrunner Melissa James Gibson, who talked about how to master the art of the pitch, saying, “Most successful pitches are when you’re making a human connection, person to person. It’s about being so prepared that I can actually be myself.”
While each of the Made in NY Writers Room fellows is lucky to have mentorship from a showrunner, it’s always helpful to gather other perspectives and insights. James Gibson was joined on the “Scripted Series Content” panel with her HOUSE OF CARDS co-showrunner Frank Pugliese, THE PATH showrunner Jessica Goldberg, THE DEUCE executive producer Nina Kostroff-Noble and series’ star Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Pugliese likened developing a show to kindling a flame. Of the pitch process, he said, “There are a lot of forces trying to put out that flame. When [a project] is personal and deeply rooted…that’s the best way to hang on to that flame.” He added that getting across your genuine passion for a project is the best way ensure a successful pitch. “I convey that I’m going to do it with or without you.”
Kostroff-Noble echoed that sentiment by honing in on the idea of conviction. “[You have to be] extremely confident and incapable of someone talking you out of your idea.” The rest of the panel focused on the intricacies of showrunning and the process of getting a show from pitch to post-production.
Former Focus Features CEO and filmmaker James Schamus (INDIGNATION; CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) gave a talk entitled “Does Cinema Have a Future?” I, of course, hoped the answer was yes; naturally, it was a little more complicated than that. Schamus provided a largely optimistic overview of an industry continuously in flux, from the dawn of the feature film to the importance of the international market today. The conclusion I came to is that the film industry has been “dying” since its inception and the key to keeping the theatrical business from flatlining is to get to the heart of how people currently consume content. This means embracing the new digital landscape, while also creating content that better represents the diverse global market. This requires collaboration—there’s that word again—from all levels of the industry.
Produced By: New York provided a wealth of wisdom about the production process and gave me the opportunity to meet a host of wildly talented people. I feel deeply inspired to put all of this energy into my current and future projects.
Ian Olympio is a Fellow with the inaugural Made in NY Writers Room, a joint program between the Writers Guild of America, East, the New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the Department of Small Business Services. You can follow him on Twitter at @ianolympio.