Brand new world for scribes

Squeeze on script sales leads to reliance on typecasting

“We are a name-brand society,” marketing guru Stuart McFaul told the rapt audience who filled a Marriott Hotel conference room. His acolytes nodded, bending over their notepads to scribble down his words.

McFaul was not leading a marketing symposium; the founder of Spiralgroup was a speaker at last week’s annual Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles.

Writers as name brands isn’t a new concept. Half a century ago, if your Western needed a rewrite, you called Ben Hecht. More recently, Nora Ephron has been the go-to gal for romantic comedies.

But in today’s increasingly competitive market, writers are being packaged and pushed like the latest laundry detergent: New! Improved! Better than the rest!

Although writers resist such anti-artiste sentiment and its equally sterile marketing geek-speak, some are more than willing to submit to makeovers.

Writer-producer Robert Kosberg (“Deep Blue Sea”) says he’s a convert. “Branding is a fantastic piece of leverage in this time of fantastic desperation,” he says. (Kosberg’s brand: King of the Pitch.)

Of course, the ultimate writer’s brand is that of the A-list. For everyone else, it’s all about crafting a saleable image.

“I think branding is critical,” says Simon Kinberg, whose screenplay for “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” helped solidify his brand as a writer of smart action pics. “This is a business that seems to always be looking for a specific skill set. Every studio makes a certain amount of movies a year and makes a certain number of each genre and you want to be considered for at least one of those genres.

“Having a specific identity helps studios figure out what to hire you for,” he says. “At a certain point, filmmakers — directors and actors — understand that identity as well and feel that they’re signing on to a movie with a particular voice.”

One agent compares it to declaring a major. “Once you declare it and excel in it, you can do whatever you want. If you jump around early on, they don’t know what to think of you. The worst thing for a writer to do is to do one action script, then a comedy script, then a thriller. Studios will say, ‘Well, what can he do?’ If you do one thing well, then you can move.”

Branding can also limit writers, however.

“Once you’ve been branded, it does open the door to create a lot of opportunities, but writers need to be careful about the choices they make,” says Valerie Phillips, head of Paradigm’s motion picture lit department. “Nobody wants to do the same thing over and over again. Then it just becomes mechanical.”

Furthermore, not all screenwriters are comfortable being typecast.

“I don’t know how many screenwriters think of themselves as a product,” says Aline Brosh McKenna, who scripted “The Devil Wears Prada.” “I don’t think in quite those terms. I think: what do I respond to? What am I excited about? I don’t know how narrowly you want to define yourself.”

Still, she admits that the success of “Prada” prompted several so-called chick-lit projects to come her way: She’s working on “The Undomestic Goddess” for Universal and “I Don’t Know How She Does It” for the Weinstein Co.

“The Grudge” scribe Stephen Susco also has ambiguous feelings about being pegged to a particular type of film. Since the success of that film, he wrote “The Grudge 2,” indie zombie pic “Zero Dark Thirty” and is developing another spooky story, “Dibbuk Box,” with “Grudge” producer Ghost House Pictures.

“I’d written for a long time before ‘The Grudge’ and was able to hop genres very well,” he says. “After ‘Grudge,’ I had more opportunities, but they were all coming from the horror genre. I think it’s a double-edged sword.”

Beyond selling what they do, writers are increasingly expected to sell who they are.

“It’s all about the performance in the room,” says Evolution Entertainment’s Chris Ridenhour (who manages Susco). “Writers need to be energetic, optimistic, enthusiastic — they need to be selling themselves without seeming megalomaniacal. A writer who has an acting background is great because they’re going to be able to engage people. That’s what it’s about — engaging the execs.”

However, branding also means re-branding — a common dilemma in a business where everybody wants to do something else.

After winning on the reality series “Project Greenlight” with the script for “Feast,” Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan were dubbed specialists in the comedy-horror genre. When they wanted to write a thriller, there were no offers.

In order to cast themselves in a new light they realized they were going to have to go to extremes. So after they wrote the spec “Midnight Man,” they produced and financed a $5 million promotional trailer for the thriller with backing from Fortress Entertainment.

The result? Dimension preemptively bought the film, which is being produced by Fortress and Imaginarium Entertainment.

A week later, Melton and Dunstan sold another thriller, “The Neighbor,” to Dimension, as well as a reality-based TV show (yes, a thriller) to Fox.

“Now they’re the thriller guys,” says Trevor Engelson, their manager at Underground Films.

An agent says rebranding can be approached more gradually when writers are willing to take smaller pay increases.

“I have a young guy whose first spec was a legal drama,” he says. “All of a sudden, he was the young, legal-drama guy. I then got him a gig to do a rewrite at scale of a dramatic New York story with an edge. So all of a sudden he was about youth, edgy, New York.

“Then I got him his next job doing another youth-action movie with an edge, for a slight bump in fee. I’ve moved him from the legal, courtroom drama thing to the action, drama, thriller thing — a more saleable commodity.”

In the end, however, success is the red-herring that defies any branding strategy — i.e., a writer can do what he or she pleases provided the film is a hit.

Says Benderspink principal J.C. Spink, “The best thing you can do to brand yourself is to write a great script.”

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