Write On! speaks with authors Rona Edwards and Monika Skerbelis, who just released the 2nd edition of their book I Liked It, Didn’t Love It. Edwards and Skerbelis, who met more than 15 years ago, have worked as executives for production companies and studios. Skerbelis spent 15 years working in the story department at three studios: Paramount, Fox and Universal, as well as the production company system where Edwards worked as a Vice President of Creative Affairs for three diverse producers (Fern Field, John Larroquette and Michael Phillips). When an agent invited Skerbelis to speak at a writer’s conference in Boulder, Colorado, she invited Edwards to speak with her on the role of the production company vs. the studio system. That lead to them eventually teaching together at UCLA Extension and writing the book.
Recently, the team produced two movies for Lifetime. They are also are the co-founders of ESE Film Workshops Online—courses include Creating a Production Company, Maneuvering Film Festivals, Finding & Developing New Ideas, and Screenplay Development From the Inside Out—which provides students with a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of Hollywood from working industry professionals.
When and how did I liked It, Didn’t Love It come about?
We spent six years teaching “Introduction to Feature Film Development” on the campus at UCLA Extension and decided to write a book. We knew there was nothing like it out there in the marketplace, and with our 2nd edition just published, we still have the quintessential book on the Hollywood Development process. We only wished we had this book when we were starting out. Most people starting out in the business have no idea what it takes to get your project submitted, read, and put into development—how many hands touch your script or project before it’s recommended or passed on. We wanted to bring to light that process from the studio perspective, as well as the production company’s. The book highlights all the players involved, what their function is, and how the pieces all fit together. More than that, there’s concrete advice and guidance on how to pitch, find new ideas, network, and get your foot in the door.
Our diverse backgrounds provide a good balance of illustrating the studio system. We felt our experience on both sides (as a buyer and a seller) would help to educate students and emerging filmmakers.
What are the benefits of writing with a partner? The challenges?
Working with a partner helps because you can divide the duties and split the research tasks, which in turn lightens the workload. It helps to have a collaboration with similar sensibilities and goals for the material, but enough diversity to have a different point-of-view on an issue and respect that point-of-view as another suggestion whether good or bad. Working side-by-side and discussing what is on the page is a good way to brainstorm and come up with other ideas. Also, it gets lonely writing alone so it’s fun to bounce those ideas off of each other. Though we don’t always write together, when we do, each one motivates the other and more gets done somehow.
What was the book’s original writing process?
Well, we had a good idea of what we wanted to write because we had been teaching it. What we needed to do was organize it so that it would be easy for the reader to understand without us physically lecturing and answering questions as we did in the class. So we began by having each week’s class become a chapter in the book, though we added some material that we thought was interesting to us that we didn’t teach. For example, we wrote a chapter on the history of the story department which dates back to the silent era. That was something we really enjoyed writing and researching. We also have a chapter about the Television Movie, which is something not included in our classes. So we added even more and as we outlined the chapters, we kept asking ourselves questions that students have asked over the years and we answered and then some.
After outlining each chapter, we gave it a subtitle that was funny and we were able to get Katy Maratta’s wonderful cartoons to head up each chapter—because we wanted it to be fun to read as well as educational.
We prepared a table of contents, a sample chapter, a marketplace comparison, why they should publish this book, bios, pictures, etc. We put it in a neat little presentational package—it took us weeks to put it together so that we were both satisfied. Then we went out to two publishers and within 24 hours, they both wanted the book.
How did you go about writing the second edition? What new info is included?
We knew it was time to update some of the information. It had only been 4 years since the book came out but the industry has changed a lot. When we realized that our first printing was sold out, we had to act fast.
In the 2nd edition, we had to focus on a number of chapters like the Agent and Manager section—because spec scripts don’t sell like they did and though some agents still go out with a spec script in the same way, most now are careful and help to package the material with talent. Studios want it to be perfect on the page (even though they will redevelop it)—in their eyes, they have to see on the page, and if there’s talent attached that they want to be in business with, it has more of a chance of getting put into development. We’d like to believe that the story is key but that’s not always the case anymore—it’s about whom they’re buying from, and who’s attached. We also made some changes to the Television Movie chapter because as less and less TV movies are getting made, that needed to be addressed—as well the fact that the TV movie structure for commercial tv has changed from a seven act structure to an eight act structure. We also have an updated resource chapter chalk full of helpful organizations, websites, and competitions, as well as trade papers for people to get involved with for networking and educational purposes. There’s changes throughout the book, since we’ve updated most of the chapters to some degree.
What are the three biggest challenges writers face in the screenplay development process?
That it is a process. No one intentionally wants to create havoc with the writer’s ideas or material. Everyone wants the same thing, to get a movie a made. It’s a collaborative medium. Not only that, it’s a business—so for good or bad, the person writing the check has a lot of say.
The writer should understand how to receive development notes from their agent, manager, producer, or studio exec. The notes are there to address problematic areas and help make the material better. True, everyone has their two cents to add and too many chefs can spoil the broth, but most times, when you address the notes head on, trying to understand where they’re coming from, most writers will agree it does make the script better. That’s not to say you might receive some pretty strange and terrible notes—that comes with the territory. Better to nod your head and then do your best to address the note behind the note if you can. Rather than argue about it, come back and explain why their note doesn’t make sense, back it up; most times you can convince the powers that be. But our guess is that most notes are given to elevate the material so don’t take the criticism personally.
Don’t quit your day job if you sell one script. Unless you start getting writing assignments—most likely—it can take years for the script to get made into a movie — and you don’t get that full payment until it goes to production.
Lastly, keep writing. Always have more to pitch, more you are working on, don’t rely on one script.
What are some of the key things a wanna be screenwriter needs to know?
a) Have a clear genre for each script—don’t give it five genres
b) Understand the importance of a good logline for pitching
c) Know how to pitch
d) Understand the difference between and agent and manager
e) Know the appropriate person to submit to at a production company (i.e. Story Editor, Creative Executive or Director of Development)
f) Take advantage of all networking opportunities—Pitchfests, Film Festivals, Industry Breakfasts, etc.
g) Writing is Rewriting
h) That we all want the same thing: to get a movie made so we’re all on the same team
i) There’s no such thing as overnight sensation—it takes a lot of hard work
Advice for writers?
Don’t give up! Keep writing. Perseverance is key in this business. If your dream is strong, you will prevail. It may not happen overnight, but stay focused, continue to meet new people in the industry who might be able to help you and be open to improving your writing. The more you write, hopefully the better you’ll become (like a fine wine). Write what you feel passionate about but that other people can also feel passionate about. And understand there’s a lot of money at stake for a studio, network, or independent production company—so if you get rejected, understand why and keep trying. Nothing ever dies if it’s good: Rona had two projects passed on and she ended up selling them to the very same network who rejected them. If they’re good, they will get made eventually if you keep at it and don’t get discouraged.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Well, we wished we’d had our book when we started out or classes like we offer from ESE Film Workshops Online—we had to learn at the feet of someone else or by the seat of our pants—trial by fire. We might have made different choices if we knew all our options and what it all entailed. Today, there are so many film programs, classes and organizations you can get into and learn from as well as networking with fellow filmmakers—we feel like we missed out a bit on that—because those kinds of things came into being just after we had gotten in the industry. That being said, we were able to create our own path and journey without any examples set before us. So maybe that’s a good thing too.
Tags: Author Q&A Creating a Production Company Debra Eckerling ESE Film Workshops Online Finding & Developing New Ideas I Liked It Didn't Love It Katy Maratta Maneuvering Film Festivals Monika Skerbelis Rona Edwards Screenplay Development From the Inside Out UCLA Extension Write On!