Big Break Behind the Scenes: Judge and Bellevue Manager Jeff Portnoy
Final Draft: How did you start out in your career?
Jeff Portnoy: I got my bachelor’s degree in film production, came to LA and enrolled at UCLA Extension. I did the certificate program for writing in film and television, to supplement my bachelor’s degree because that was in film theory, film history, physical production. There was very little screenwriting. At UCLA Extension I took a course called Story Analysis, basically teaching students how to read, write and analyze a screenplay and write a coverage report. I learned in that class that people actually got paid for coverage on scripts. I figured it just made sense, if I’m an aspiring writer, to write coverage and get paid as a way to pay my bills.
I started working as a freelance reader around town. I would do a coverage report here and there for a production company or an agency. My big break into the business came when I had a friend working at CAA. He was a trainee at the time, stationed in the story department and he found out they were looking for readers. He got me connected with the head of the story department there and I sent in the samples that I had written. I ended up getting a job at CAA as a freelance script reader. Four months later there was an opening and I ended up getting promoted to staff, which was full time and salary. I did that for five-and-a-half years. It was awesome. They would give me scripts that were written by clients, scripts that were set up at major studios and had major actors and directors attached. So I got to read really high level stuff and see it evolve as it developed from draft to draft, which was a great experience.
FD: That sounds like a great way to watch the whole process. I have been a reader as well and it is one of my favorite jobs in the industry.
JP: I’ll be honest with you. It’s hard to make a living when you’re getting paid per script, freelance. But there are a handful of salary positions at the biggest agencies. There’s also a union for studio readers. With those opportunities you can make a career out of it. Some people have been doing it for over 20 years.
FD: So how did you make the leap from reading to managing?
JP: When all was said and done, I had been at CAA for about five-and-a half or six years and during that time, I had a chance to write a few scripts of my own and had a chance to write development notes for scripts that were written by CAA clients. I would work with the writer. I got to see the script develop based on my notes or some of my notes. I got to see the script improve, so I got some development experience. I eventually decided that I enjoyed development more and I was better at it. I was better at collaborating with writers to help them with a story, or figure out a story, overcome obstacles in a story, and solve problems.
I liked the social interaction aspect more, as opposed to being the writer by myself, blank page, sitting there for hours on end. So, I decided that I wanted to get into development. I knew the two most likely paths to developing scripts with writers were managing and working as a creative executive. So, I applied for jobs to be an assistant at a bunch of production companies and management companies. I ended up getting a job as an assistant at a management/production company called The Gotham Group. I was at Gotham for a year-and-a-half and that was essentially my training, the beginners’ class on “this is how you be a manager – this is how you do it.”
FD: What’s one of your favorite parts of the job?
JP: My favorite part of the job is developing the story with the writer. Sometimes we start from scratch. They have some ideas they send me, we bounce ideas back and forth until we find one that we’re both really excited and passionate about. We lock the idea and start writing up a beat sheet, a really broad strokes beat sheet for the story. We bounce that back and forth. We lock that and then we expand that into a treatment outline, lock that and then go into the script. After we write the first draft of the script we bounce that back and forth, developing it until we lock the script and there is a draft ready. My favorite part of the process by far, is the creative input into the story. Seeing it develop – it’s just fun. I really enjoy it. It’s what I came out here for.
The second most exciting part of the job, after the development process is when the script is finally ready and it’s time to take it out and debut it to the town. There’s an exhilaration to that. You don’t know; is it going to fall flat? Will it hit the target in a big way where everyone’s trying to make it and buy it? There are offers coming in and it’s exciting. You never know, it could be either or. If it does hit and people are responding positively, it can get really exciting and intense with people fighting over it. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s really fun and exciting to be in the middle of it. It’s stressful as well, but it’s fun stress. Good stress.
FD: Speaking to that excitement. What projects have you worked on that are really exciting? Or what genres do you work in that are really exciting?
JP: As far as genres go, I dabble in a lot of genres. The one space that I’m a little bit cautious with is comedy. I don’t have a lot of clients who write raw comedy or physical comedy. The only comedy I have is usually R-rated and it’s high concept R-rated comedy. Something like The Hangover or Hot Tub Time Machine. Or meta-comedy like Being John Malkovich or Bird Man. I’ll do something in that space but I won’t have a lot of writers writing raw comedies, physical comedies, even romantic comedies. It would have to be really high-concept and unique to get on board. But I do everything else. I’m developing scripts right now; science-fiction, action, thriller, drama, mystery, suspense, thriller, just a little bit of everything. And TV as well. We do TV and features, so we’re doing just a little bit of everything.
FD: How do you find your clients?
JP: We find our clients through a lot of different ways. The first way we find clients is scouting for and signing clients coming out of all of the screenwriting fellowships and competitions. So, Final Draft’s Big Break, Nicholl Fellowships, Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, Page Awards, the list goes on and on. We’re always looking at those winners and the scripts that win and place in those competitions. Sometimes we’ll actually serve as judges and we’ll get an early look at the scripts. Sometimes we’ll just read scripts that win first place after the competition. We also go to all of the college pitch fests. USC has one, UCLA has one, AFI has one, LMU has one, NYU – they all have these events where writers can pitch their scripts after they graduate. That’s a primary way we find new clients.
Otherwise, we get referrals from friends and associates in the business. An executive at a production company or a studio might send us something, an agent might send something, a manager friend might send us something. And of course, there’s also incoming unsolicited submissions. Every once in a blue moon, I’ll get an unsolicited submission that kind of moves the needle for me and makes me engage, on one or two occasions that’s happened. That’s the least likely way we do it, but it has happened once or twice, where someone just reached out and said, “Hey, I wrote this script. It placed or won this competition. I had a movie produced and my manager left the business. Would you be interested in taking a look?” And I’ll say, “Ok, let me see what’s going on here,” and take a look at the script.
FD: Are those kinds of credentials you look for in a query letter?
JP: Yeah, I mean the goal of the query letter is not necessarily the logline of the script or the idea, it’s primarily to distinguish yourself from tens of thousands of other writers; I’m taking an estimated guess but maybe a hundred thousand. A lot of unsolicited submissions are coming in on a daily basis, so you want to lead with any awards you’ve won, that the script has won. Any contests that it’s placed in or won. Even if it’s made the second round or third round, anything that says to the reader, “This script has been vetted by someone in the industry who’s given it some type of approval.” Like, it made semi-finals in the Nicholl Fellowships. If a query comes in and it’s just simply, “Here’s the log line and here’s the script”, it’s unlikely we’re going to take a look. It’s just, quite simply, because there are so many submissions. If I read the first 5 pages of each of those scripts, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else during the day. I would just be reading all day. So essentially, the least likely way we find clients is through unsolicited scripts. The most likely way is the college graduate and undergraduate programs, all of the fellowships, contests, and then of course there’s always friends and associates. And also we get client referrals. Sometimes the client will say, “Hey, I’ve got a friend who’s got a great script and he’s looking”, so that’s another way we find people.
FD: What advice would you give writers who are looking to be represented by someone like you?
JP: I would advise them to enter their material into as many of those contests that I just spoke about, so they can get vetted before they reach out to me or any other manager or agent. So, if you’re reading this, what you need to do is write the best piece of material you can and put it in every single competition or festival or fellowship. Keep trying to build a set of talking points or bullet points that show you’ve been vetted and your work has been approved and vetted by people in the industry. That’s number one. The other thing is it always helps when you live in Los Angeles because half of the game is getting assignments. We send a script out and an executive reads the script, passes on the script, but loves the writing and calls us and says, “We’d love the writer to come in and give us a pitch on this book we bought, or an article we bought”. If they don’t live in Los Angeles, it’s nearly impossible to get those assignments. So, moving to Los Angeles is the biggest step a writer is ever going to take in their career.
After moving to Los Angeles, it’s getting vetted by a myriad of fellowships and contests. One other piece of advice would be, move to L.A., keep writing, but also get a job in the industry, by virtue of being an assistant or an intern or a coordinator, you’re building relationships with people who will go on to become agents, managers, producers, studio executives, directors and actors. Then you naturally have those relationships.
So, move to L.A., get a job in the business, keep writing and get vetted. You follow those steps and something’s going to happen if you work hard on the writing front. And make sure you get your script in the Final Draft Big Break Contest, first and foremost! I signed a client out of Big Break. I actually tried to sign a client out of Big Break that went with another manager and then there was another instance where I did sign someone out of Big Break, so that’s proof positive that things can happen. It’s a great program.
For more information on The Big Break Screenwriting Contest, click here!