The following, brill, totally timely and inspiring interview comes from Lee Zahavi Jessup’s fabulous new website, Career Coaching for the Scrappy Screenwriter. Be sure to check Lee’s site often for more great content. And if you use her coaching, trust me, you will never look back.
Marissa Jo Cerar’s screenplay, CONVERSION, was recently selected to 2012′s The Black List. I interviewed her to gain insight into the significance of the experience, what an up-and-coming writer can expect in today’s industry, and how a girl from a small mid-western town gained traction, found representation, and became optioned in the seemingly uncrackable film and television industry.
Congratulations on being recognized by The Black List this year. What sort of reaction have you received from landing on The Black List 2012?
So far, so good! I’ve received a slew of messages from executives who loved my script and were so happy to see a little indie like CONVERSION make it on the list. Many are anxious to meet after the holidays to discuss potential projects, and some were just stoked to see it on the list.
You said that making The Black List was one of your goals. Why?
Along with many of my writer peers and industry folks I look forward to its release every year. I wish I had a better answer, but it’s just so cool to be immortalized on the list. There are so many amazing movies that have come from The Black List, and I hope my script CONVERSION will be one of them.
What does making The Black List mean to you?
Being on The Black List brings more attention to my script, and it’s also validation of my hard work… and hopefully being on the list shows that I have some writing chops.
Tell me about your start. How did you get started writing?
I knew from a very early age that this is what I wanted to do. I graduated high school early, moved to Chicago, and enrolled in a private film school to earn my BA. My college offered a screenwriting program in Los Angeles, and I was one of seven students that semester who were selected for the program. I finished my final semester in college on the CBS lot in Studio City, where we wrote full time, met writing mentors, development folks, and learned as much as we could to prepare us for this business. I stayed here; that was always the plan, and I worked my ass off, got an internship and a screenwriting mentor, and I wrote daily, entered contests, and saw as many movies as I could afford.
You are from the Midwest. Was the move to Los Angeles challenging, and how did you go about building your network?
The move was easy, because I love Los Angeles, and always knew I belonged here. I’m from an incredibly small town of 1600 people in rural Illinois, and I always dreamed of living in California, so I high-tailed it through high school and college, and never looked back. I, of course, miss my family terribly, but I cherish my life here. I love movies. I love writing. It’s the one thing I know I do well.
As far as “building my network” if you could call it that, back when I was finishing my last semester of film school, I simply wrote thank you notes to every writer who visited us on the Lot, and one responded. He became my mentor. Miraculously, I was able to work as his assistant and then he actually PAID me to adapt short stories, rewrite and co-write scripts with him as a “writer for hire”. The money was small, but I gained so much experience, advice, and he and his wife became a great support system. I was 21, so living alone out here was tough. Eventually I moved on, worked at a production company, and I continued to write, enter and place in contests, and I was selected as a fellow for Film Independent’s Project: Involve. I met some of my absolute best friends through Film Independent, and through that fellowship one of my short scripts, STEPS, was produced. I made friends and nurtured relationships, always following up with people because it’s so easy to lose touch here. It also helps if you’re nice. It really does make life easier.
You now have an agent and a manager. How did you come about getting representation?
I’ve been with my managers at Heroes & Villains Entertainment for 4.5 years. I met them the old fashioned way: a referral, but before I met them I placed in a few screenwriting contests, which gave me exposure and dozens of emails from managers and indie producers. Most importantly, I wrote my ass off. I think I had 7 feature scripts as samples for H&V to read after signing me. Heroes & Villains kick started my career. They believe in me, and they were instrumental in getting my material to ICM, who rep me in both film and television. My agents are also remarkable, hard working badasses I truly adore.
What sort of expectations does a writer have from their representation?
You must keep in touch, stay on their radar, and do your part of the job: write good material, write often, and give great meetings. I don’t know what expectations others have of their reps, honestly, but my managers have become like family to me, and while I’ve been with ICM less than a year, I feel valued. They’re always checking in with me and sending me on meetings. I feel fortunate to have found such a great team. I would advise new writers to sign with companies they feel comfortable with – especially with managers, who have to be our therapists when things are rough.
You go a on a lot of General Meetings. Can you tell my readers what Generals are, and what happens during them, more or less?
Generals are meetings after an exec has read your material and passed, for whatever reason, but enjoyed the script and your voice. They want to meet you, find out about your background, your other projects, and perhaps consider you for future writing assignments.
Generals are no-pressure meetings: you go in, talk about your life, your path to writing, your inspiration and the projects you’re working on now. In my view, you must have an arsenal of ideas (and a good personality) to make the most of these meetings.
Is it more important to have a solid film spec or TV pilot these days, or both? And why?
I can only speak from my experience as a writer, it might be a good question to ask an agent or manager…but this year I wrote my first pilot, and the response has been fantastic. I’m taking both TV and feature meetings as a result, but you have to do your homework if you’re transitioning from features. I watched everything on TV and read as many pilot scripts in development that I could get my hands on. Write something original. You can take more chances in TV and explore more complicated characters – just look at all the amazing shows on cable right now. Whether you’re in TV or feature-land, writers are constantly asked “What’s next?” so we must have a few concepts we have yet to write, articles that sparked an idea, or books we’d love to adapt.
What is up next for you?
Well, I have a ton of Generals on the books. I am chasing a novel I’d love to adapt, and the producers attached to my pilot are preparing to package it. I’m gearing up for my first TV staffing season, and next week I’m meeting a director who took an interest to a supernatural thriller I recently finished. I’m outlining two pilot concepts and one feature idea I’ve been dying to write for the past year, so I’m just trying to figure out what makes the most sense for me to write first.
What advice do you have for writers just starting out?
Study screenwriting! Learn the industry. Read screenwriting books, and get feedback on your material before you submit it anywhere! If your scripts aren’t placing in the top screenwriting contests, or getting any feedback from agents, managers, or producers, find out why. It might hurt your ego, but you must get a variety of opinions, and if you really want to work as a professional screenwriter you get critiqued daily, sometimes your work is massacred, so get used to it!
Get coverage if you don’t have industry friends or acquaintances. I do development notes, coverage, and critiques, and the biggest frustration I have when speaking with writers who’ve written one script and don’t understand why they aren’t rolling in dough is that they refuse to hear any negative feedback. When you’ve completed a draft you feel is ready to be critiqued, get feedback from 5 sources – AND rewrite, rewrite, rewrite before resubmitting. This is a tough industry, and you have to be dedicated to this because success rarely happens over night, especially now when it’s so tough to sell a spec script or get a writing assignment if you don’t have credits on IMDB.
Write every day. Stay on top of industry trends and sales. Read scripts. WATCH MOVIES. So many writers say they don’t watch movies, and I don’t understand why they want to write them if they don’t watch them.
I can’t stress enough how important personality and professionalism are. Be polite in emails. Be nice to readers, receptionists, and assistants. Meetings are auditions for future writing gigs. Be nice. Be nice. Be nice! Execs are more likely to fight for you and your material if you’re a pleasant person.
If you can, join or create a writer’s group. Navigating this business can be tough, especially if you don’t have a great support system who understands rejection and the amount of work a screenwriter must do to finish a script. It can take a year (or longer) to finish a script, and it can “die” in 2 weeks (or less). That sucks. You need people by your side who understand just how much it sucks, and who will inspire you to keep writing. My writers group offers unconditional support, and we’ve seen amazing successes in the two years since we’ve formed. We help each other break stories, craft stronger characters, and when we have a crappy day we know there are six other writers we can call who will get it. So….if you can form a writer’s group, do it!
Marissa Jo Cerar is an alumnus of Film Independent’s Project: Involve program and a member of the WGA Indie Caucus. She’s repped by Heroes & Villians Entertainment and ICM. Her script FRENEMIES was listed as one of the best unproduced spec scripts in Hollywood on the 2010 HIT LIST; her script NEXT SEASON was a semi-finalist in Francis Ford Coppola’s 2011 Zoetrope Screenwriting contest, and her script CONVERSION won 2nd place in the 2011 Written Image Screenwriting competition. CONVERSION was recently selected for the HIT LIST and the BLACK LIST in 2012, and is currently in development at State Street Pictures.