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How the filmmaking industry really works

By Mary Yuhas

David Belenky

David Belenky and Julien Magnat share the facts


David Belenky was a 2014 semi-finalist in the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition for his current feature, ‘The Fabulous Sylvester,’ based on the life of the first Queen of Disco by the same name.  It is co-written by biographer Joshua Gamson. The project is currently in development. He lives in Los Angeles.

third JulienJulien Magnat has written and directed many films ranging from shorts to full-length features. His short film, The All New Adventures of Chastity Blade’ starring Lisa Wilcox was Oscar nominated for Best Student Short in 2001. Since then, he has penned over 150 screenplays for various cartoon series including The Garfield Show and Marvel’s Iron Man: Armored adventures. He directed Milla Jovovich and Julian McMahon in the psychological thriller ‘Faces in the Crowd’, which he also wrote. Julien is represented by Rich Cook at William Morris Endeavor. His managers are Allen Fisher & Brian Dobbins at Principato Young.


LitVote: How did you get into screenwriting / directing?

David: When I had first moved to Los Angeles, I had nailed a plumb internship with casting directors Jeanne McCarthy and Juel Bestrop. I had allusions of being an actor at that time and I thought this would be a great opportunity to really learn the “inner workings” of how actors get parts. There were always potential scripts around their office; on a low day, I picked one up and started to read.  After a few scripts, I started to absorb the consistent act breaks, transitions and overall rhythms of how the story plays out. They were mostly bad scripts, but it was an early lesson that writing a good script is almost impossible.

Julien: I wrote stories since I was a kid. Growing up, my two biggest influences were He-man & She-ra, the old 1980’s cartoons, and the anthology books of Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury. These two writers wrote the absolute best short stories ever written, many of which ended up in the old Twilight Zone series.

Later on, when I was sixteen, I went to see a midnight screening of ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ and had a total epiphany. That was what I wanted to do… Movies!

‘Temple of Doom’ is to this very day my favorite movie of all times. It contains everything that I love. It’s always painful to hear Steven Spielberg himself totally trash ‘Temple of Doom’ in interviews, but for me, it’s still the most exhilarating, crazy, entertaining movie experience ever.

After studying film and drama at Reading University in England, I was accepted into the national film school in Paris, France where I wrote and directed many short films there, including ‘The All New Adventures of Chastity Blade’, my final studies film, which was nominated for a student short Academy Award in 2001. I then went on to write and direct ‘Bloody Mallory’, and ‘Faces in the Crowd’, a psychological thriller starring Milla Jovovich and Julian McMahon that came out three years ago. In the last ten years or so, I’ve also penned more than a hundred screenplays on various cartoon series. I moved to Los Angeles four years ago.

LitVote: Once the screenplay is written, do you shop your scripts to producers?

David: I have great nostalgia for the chutzpah I had shopping my first script around. You become more cautious as you write more, but I just gave it to anybody that would read it. Agents I had met through my internship, unsolicited submissions to management companies, even my neighbors…everyone in Los Angeles got a copy. It somehow landed on the desk of a literary manager and an intern had pulled it from a hopeless stack. He had responded to it and passed it on to his boss.

Julien: If you’re writing a screenplay without any production attached (99 per cent of the time), it’s called a ‘spec’ script. You write it hoping you can sell it / have it optioned by a producer once it’s all done.

Sometimes I’ve worked with producers who had a story in mind and wanted me to develop it. But I mostly do spec scripts. It takes a lot of time to write a good screenplay. You have no guarantee that it will get picked up, so it’s a big time investment for a writer. You’d better know which project you want to develop for a year or so.
LitVote: Are agents a good route for selling your script? If so, how do screenwriters find one?

David: I’ve only worked with managers so I really can’t speak to the agent experience. There is this fantastic podcast by Craig Mazon and John August, ‘Scriptnotes,’ that I listen to every week. When asked the same question about how to find representation, they compare screenwriters to snowflakes…no two are the same. And no two paths are the same. It’s a frustrating part of the business, so if anyone has a clear path, please let me know.

Julien: Agents in the U.S. have access to talent and so on, but they’re more involved in the business side of things, rather than the creative side. The manager is usually the one who’s really supposed to follow your career and help you make the right decision. When I have a new screenplay I first go to my managers who will give me notes etc. then to my agent.
LitVote: Are novels that directors can adapt themselves more sought after these days than screenplays?

David: I wasn’t aware that directors were adapting novels themselves. That’s cool! Novels in general are always more desirable; producers can track its built-in audience. They can follow trends and really get a scope of how to sell that story to financiers. Original screenplays are tough because you really aren’t sure who is going to respond to it. I feel (now more than ever), there seems to be a more concerted effort through foreign distribution to really figure out how to sell a movie these days. But I could be wrong.

Julien: If a book / comic book / existing story has already been told in one form or another, it already has a public, a loyal fan base, and producers might feel more confident when they’re investing a lot of money to put it onto the big screen, instead of spending big bucks on something that no one has ever heard of. (Like a Spec script!) This is why these days blockbusters are mostly adaptations from famous books or straightforward remakes of already existing movies. So to answer your question, I think a novel that has been a bestseller will be more sought after than an original screenplay, no matter how good the screenplay is!

Then again, adapting a novel is not easy. It’s a very different exercise. You lose all the introspection. You cannot have the character “think’ out loud in a movie like you can do in a novel. Or if you do, it gets pretty boring. So you have to rethink the story to externalize all the struggles of the main character so that they can be felt and understood without a voice over.

LitVote: What traits in a novel – regardless of genre – make it desirable to producers?

David: There are always trends. They always change. I think the Young Adult Adventure genre is a bit saturated now, but no one saw that billion dollar combustion coming. Smaller movies in general aren’t really getting wide distribution anymore, EVENT movies have to come from EVENT books. Take, ‘Gone Girl,’ by Gillian Flynn for example –  that was a huge, monster runaway best seller. I can’t speak to the content or what kind of film it’s going to be, but it’s going to explode on opening day. Its review proof and the producers know the book has legions of followers.

Julien: Again, if a novel has had some sort of exposure, and made the front page news, the producers will be more inclined to option the rights. It gives more value to the project.

If you look at the amount of adaptations that came out last year, it’s crazy. Hunger games… Divergent… The Hobbitt… etc. etc.

LitVote:  Do you recommend attending screenwriting conferences to learn the business of screenwriting? If so, which one(s)?

David: I’ve never gone to a ‘screenwriting conference,’ but I did go to a ton of social mixers only to realize how depressing most of them can be and how drunk I would get at the open bar. I had to flip the script and stop viewing them so much as ‘networking’ events, but rather just meeting other writers and swapping ‘war stories’ about how challenging things are. Always keep in mind that breaking in the business is a business onto itself, so don’t break the bank doing it. But just go to as much as you can and have an open heart about it. At worst, you’ll meet another screenwriter who is as drunk as you and you can laugh at how drunk the panelist is.

Julien: The problem with screenwriting conference is that you just sit there and listen to something that’s really valuable but that you will likely forget, because you cannot go back to it later. I always advise people to read the books instead. It leaves you more time to digest everything and take notes for yourself.

In terms of business, there are countless books telling you what to do / what not to do.

In terms of learning screenwriting, there are three books that every aspiring screenwriter should have read: Robert McKee’s Story, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat (nauseatingly overused in Los Angeles, but a classic nevertheless) and ‘Into the Woods’ by John York. That last one, a recommendation from my writing buddy Kelly Smith, is absolutely brilliant.
LitVote: What is the biggest mistake most first time screenplay writers make?

David: To be honest, the ‘biggest mistake that first time screenwriters make,’ I don’t often see them making. I didn’t make it. I wrote something personal, non-commercial and something that completely gave the reader a sense of my voice. A lot of my writer friends did the same thing. I think it’s a reflex we have when dipping our toes in screenwriting. Most writers come to the table to share a personal experience and unless you conquered a nation or led a revolution of some kind, it’s usually a pretty small, yet meaningful event.

Julien: To not follow the rules and think ‘to hell with the rules, I’m better than everyone else!’ The rules are there for a reason. If for the last two thousand years people have usually told stories in three to four acts, there’s gotta be something to it. Even the most convoluted Charlie Kauffman movie is usually based on a classic 3 act structure.

LitVote:  Do you have to be in LA to get noticed?

David: I’ve noticed many writers branding their voices by way of developing small projects through social media, which is something I’m too lazy to do. Los Angeles isn’t a requirement these days. But the weather is truly fantastic and you can’t beat our farmers markets. So if for no other reason, come west for that!

Julien: Not technically. If you have a kick ass screenplay, you can send it to your agent, no matter where you are. The problem comes when they call you for meetings. If you cannot be in LA, they tend to forget you very quickly. Unless your script is absolutely ground breaking.

LitVote: What’s in your future?

David: I just finished co-writing a story about the disco legend Sylvester – the first openly gay African America pop star. I wrote it with Joshua Gamson, who wrote the biography it’s based on.  A wild and raucous gospel/rock n’ roll/disco, hi-NRG movie musical, it was the most ambitious and challenging thing I’ve attempted to do.  We recently optioned the script to Alan Poul and Rob Epstein. So having just finished that, I’m going to take a very long nap and then do what we screenwriters do – start something new.

Julien: I am working on a series of projects: more cartoons in the work,.. a couple of spec scripts and a graphic novel. So far so good!


Author Mary Yuhas, is the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother, featured three times on Scribd.

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