Many moons ago, in a period of my life when I was starting over and getting my feet on the ground, I met a friend and a mentor – Lee Zahavi Jessup, at that time, the Director of ScriptShark. Lee became a role model and champion of what I was trying to do in Hollywood and I learned more than I can say from Lee. Recently, Lee has taken the plunge, left the corporate world and has set up her own consulting business for writers. Lee is offering consulting to help writers brand themselves and strategize their careers – which I think is really a missing link for aspiring writers. I focus on story and am proud that I turn out writers with significantly improved scripts, writing habits and tools to help them shape characters and plots – with joy and confidence. But what happens after that? Now it’s totally up to you, the writer. Hollywood is a big, confusing, shifting business and it’s tough for writers to know just what to do after they win a competition or get reads. Writers need to know what steps to take next, they need to know how to leverage themselves up, up, up and away.
Lee knows exactly how do do that. So recently I had the chance to ask Lee about her new business, what it is all about and what it can do to help you.
Cheese and crackers, look at your headshot, you’re an Israeli Goddess!
We go way back, don’t we?! I do believe our mutual friend Stephanie Palmer of Good in a Room introduced us! Isn’t she great?
Feels like you and I have known each other forever. Same with Stephanie, who was the first of us to venture out on her own. Very brave woman, that one! I remember having dinners with her while she was still at MGM and brainstorming ideas and marketing approaches for Good in a Room a million years ago. I am so proud of her and all she’s done!
And I’m so proud of you! You’ve always been such an amazing force, and you’ve really channeled all your talents and strengths so beautifully. So you deserve to sound excited about all you’ve accomplished. I’m honored to be included in that group of amazing and talented women you talked about! I’ve been straddling the line for a while now between corporate and entrepreneur, so I’m soooo excited to join the pack!
Oh gosh, thank you! It’s not always easy being a woman in Hollywood, no matter how you slice it. But you really gave me my start, Lee, you hired me at ScriptShark! Time flies, right?
I did! You were so talented right out the gate. From the moment I brought you on to ScriptShark, I knew that every time I sent a script to you, the writer would get really focused, in depth, no-BS notes, whether they liked it or not, lol. You were never one to just cater to a writer’s ego, which I think is so important, and something you and I always connected on.
Remember the old days in my Santa Monica office? You’d come visit me and we’d chat for hours about the industry, our passions, our paths, our kids… Those were some of my favorite times. And boy, time really does fly, doesn’t it? When we met, your kids were just… Kids! Well, teenagers, anyway. And I think I had just given birth to my son then. We both have had so many changes, and have come such a long way.
So I’ve finally decided to take the scary, scary jump, and left my corporate gig a few weeks ago. Am I crazy? The truth is, I’ve felt the hunger to go legit with my coaching business, and begin offering it to a wider audience. I’ve worked with my stable of writers for years; Writers always came to me through either my national seminar series, or by word of mouth. It feels so exciting to take this offering to a wider audience, and really dedicate my time and focus to it full time.
I DO remember your office in Santa Monica and hanging out, lol. Good times!
And so now that you’re on your own, I’m excited about what you are doing! Can you explain a little? Also, can you explain what it means to “brand” yourself as a writer? It’s not like you get a giant letter “W” on your behind, right?
I am excited as well! As I said, I’ve been working with a handful of coaching clients for a number of years now, and they’ve finally convinced me to go legit (which, lets face it, has been a few years in the making). It’s hard to leave your corporate home and the comforts that come with a steady paycheck, but as you know, my passion has always been educating writers about the business side of screenwriting. My favorite responsibility during my time with ScriptShark was doing the national seminar series I mentioned, which The New York Times company so generously sponsored (and which I started with Final Draft). The seminar focused entirely on the business side of screenwriting. I think it was one day when I was teaching up in Seattle, pregnant with my second baby and a little beat up that I realized: This is my absolute favorite part of my job. Forget the big meetings, and the product launches, and the corporate plans. This, connecting with writers, is where I get the most satisfaction. This is what I want to be doing all day every day. It’s a huge honor when someone puts their trust in you and allows you to help them.
I find that a lot of writers finish a script, maybe submit it to a contest or two, then get stuck because they don’t know what to do next. And there is so much they can do! So many ways they can promote and market themselves.
Our friend Stephanie said it best (though I am paraphrasing): All things being equal, it’s the best prepared writer who gets the job. So for me it’s all about that part of the job, which so often gets ignored: The preparation. From understanding your brand and playing to your strengths, to setting realistic achievable business goals.
For example, I always talk to writers who dream of going to a pitch fest and selling their script on the spot. It’s a nice idea, but does it ever happen? Ever? Instead, they are missing the real opportunity that these events offer: The opportunity to build up their network. To make valuable connections that they can capitalize on down the line when they have a new script, when they are ready for market.
Becoming a working writer is not a magic act. At the end of the day, what writers are trying to do is either sell a product (their script) or get a job (writing to better their script, or writing someone else’s project). And just like in a traditional job market, you have to prepare yourself, especially when you’re going out for a high-visibility, high paying job that is fundamental to the success of a project, and therefore the success of a company. You have to do your diligence. Your research. You have to understand what you’re offering the hiring company or the buyer, and what added value you offer their company or business when you walk in the door.
Understanding and defining your brand is all about understanding your strengths, and maximizing them. The truth is that the day anyone sets the proverbial foot in the industry and get any attention, they get branded: The horror guy. The off-beat comedy chick. The crime-writer who delivers really great, gritty dialogue. So branding is all about identifying where you are strong AND prolific, and positioning yourself accordingly. It’s not about where you want to be strong; It’s about where you are strong. And not just where you are strong, but where your strengths can be marketable. I worked with a writer who insisted for a long time she is a family-drama writer. Which is great, but really hard to market. But then all these super-natural elements started creeping in to her work, and before you know it, she found a way to market herself and her writing – the teenage angst/supernatural thriller writer – that really roused some excitement and got pretty impressive reads. She is actually coming into town in a couple of weeks, and has lined up a bunch of impressive meetings for herself!
Oh my god there are such great pull-quotes in what you just said. I love what Stephanie says: “All things being equal, it’s the best prepared writer who gets the job.” Truer words have never been spoken! And what you said: “It’s not about where you want to be strong; It’s about where you are strong.” That is amazing, Lee.
I could not agree MORE that writers really need to brand themselves and strategize once they get out there – things have really changed, haven’t they?
Completely! The way this business has done a 180 in the last twenty years, it’s no joke! Listen, I know one producer who 20+ years ago found a great script, packaged it with a small time director who did a couple of B-movies, sent it around to a bunch of companies with query letters. The script got the attention of one production company, they bankrolled the whole thing, and… DONE! Mind you, this was the guy’s first film as a producer.
It is sooooo different nowadays! Even over the last 5 years, there have been so many changes. But the flip side is that there are also so many more opportunities these days! What with web and online content… There are lots of ways of getting attention out there. So a writer has to be super ready. Has to be able to generate excitement about themselves and about their brand. Writers often think that generating excitement means having a film they wrote premiere in competition at Sundance or Toronto. And while that would be great, the reality is that consistency, authority, pure professionalism combined with craftsmanship… All those things generate excitement. So a writer really has to identify their strengths, set their sights on what success truly means for them, and work their way backwards to a cohesive and executable plan that will help them get there.
There are so many goods and services out there for aspiring screenwriters. I often tell clients to definitely commit to their writing and attend an event or three, buy a book or two, and get feedback – but to do it judiciously, since you could make a full time hobby out of studying screenwriting but not really writing! Are there any particular resources or websites that you highly recommend for writers that deliver a lot of bang for the buck? Aside from writing, where should writers focus their time and energy in terms of getting a career off the ground?
There are a lot of great resources out there. First of all, I am a big believer that writers should be aware of what’s going on in the industry they are working in or are trying to penetrate. They’re not working in a bubble. They should know if a spec just like theirs just got picked up by Universal, or if a known manager has made a move to start their own shingle. This doesn’t mean that they should try to anticipate the industry, or write to meet trends just for the sake of trying to achieve success, because unless they have a killer, unique concept, the trend will shift before they’re completed the work. Point is, they should have a basic knowledge of the who and the what. There are lots of free news sites out there these days. You don’t have to pay for a subscription to The Hollywood Reporter (even though I love their daily PDF’s) if you’re broke – you can sign up for free notifications from deadline.com and check out their site for news once every day or two, or subscribe to the daily and afternoon roundups on studiosystemnews.com. I know that there are some managers out there who prefer their writers don’t pay too much heed to what’s going on in the industry, but to be your own best champion, which every good writer has to be, you have to be cognizant of the industry you’re working in. For example, just this morning Deadline announced that The Black List is launching a posting site for screenwriters, where positively reviewed scripts will get recommended to industry professionals. Whether this ends up taking posting sites to the next level and really providing a highly regarded opportunity for writers remains to be seen, but it’s pretty big news in the writer’s realm nonetheless.
Other info sites and services that I love include Stephanie’s site, goodinaroom.com, where she offers not only her own super-valuable pitching and meeting management tips, but also great insight from some of her working clients. I am also a fan of VirtualPitchFest.com. VPF has a model that makes sense to me. I’ve sent a few of my writers over there. One of them secured representation with CAA that way! Of course, it helps that I know both Stephanie at Good in a Room and David at VPF, so I can vouch for their integrity and intention – both things that are super important to me!
As far as getting a career off the ground, consistency is key. Establishing a writer’s brand, becoming an authority and marketing yourself consistently are HUGE. You don’t want to be the writer with seven amazing scripts that never got produced. The question will always come up: If the scripts are so good, how come they are still unproduced? Often times, the industry will look at the writer for an answer. Is the writer high maintenance? Inconsistent? Do they really want to direct? So pick your single most marketable script, a script that you can get behind and which reflects your brand effectively, and put your firepower behind it. Again, the word here is consistency. Market the hell out of it. Enter it into contest. Talk to people about it. And whatever good news you get, capitalize on it NOW. Find any excuse you can – you finished a new script, you placed in a contest, you got a positive coverage – and market yourself.
Your entire mission as a writer is getting your script read. And while you build your network and make deliberate efforts to create tangible reasons to market yourself, work on your next script, because you know an executive’s favorite question is: What else do you have? And whatever your answer is, it would best serve you to have your next script extend and strengthen your brand, turning you into a consistent, reliable source of creativity and productivity in the industry’s eyes.
Well, life is funny, right? You mentored me many moons ago and now I live in Tel Aviv – your home town!
Funny indeed! Tel-Aviv is fast paced in its own right but it’s a whole different world. I actually realized – quite proudly – that parts of this current season of Homeland were shot in Israel. My husband and I were watching the season premier a couple of weeks ago, when I realized where they were shooting Israel for Beirut. I kept telling my husband: I know that street! I know that view! I know exactly where they shot this! Turns out I know a couple of people on the crew as well. You know how Israel is: Everyone knows everyone. Kind of like the industry, in a way, even though in Israel, they don’t let you get away with ANYTHING you shouldn’t, which in many ways makes you so much better!
The creativity in Israel is off the charts, I don’t have to tell you, of all people! The entertainment business here (I won’t say industry; this is not LA, for sure) is much more accessible than it is in LA. You can go to cafes here and meet the biggest actors, directors and writers just hanging around. I love it. I tell you, Israel is a new hotspot for creatives. The success of Homeland is a good example. But I digress….
…thank you so much, Lee, for your words of wisdom. Is there a website my readers can check out? How do they reach you?
Of course! I’d love to connect with your readers, especially since I know that if they’ve worked with you, their material is already going to be so much better! I can be reached through my website, www.leejessup.com. Just fill out the contact form with anything you want to know or how I may be able to help, and we will take it from there!
And thanks to you, Julie! You’ve really done an amazing job building up your business and your own brand, and pulled apart from the pack. Not easy in today’s marketplace! You should be very proud of yourself. I certainly am proud of you!
What can I say? I learned from the best