David Boxerbaum on the Business of Screenwriting
For anyone with his ear to the industry ground, super-agent David Boxerbaum needs little introduction. After all, year after year his name is associated multiple times with big spec sales, most recently that of Matriarch, an elevated thriller from a first-time writer he sold to Paramount. As I prepped for this interview and surfaced David’s name to my colleagues in representation, one noted: “You know, Matriarch was not the sort of script that could have been sold by anyone.” This statement was not meant as a criticism of the script or, for that matter, the writer. Instead, it spoke to David’s carefully cultivated reputation that allows him to get scripts read and deals done in a time when the industry is shrinking and buyers seem to be more hesitant. So I was excited to talk to the man, and learn more about what he does, what drives him, and even get the readers of this profile some top-agent breaking-into-Hollywood advice.
L: You are known for doing something most agents don’t: developing raw talent. Do you agree with that assessment?
D: Yeah, absolutely. To really break it down even more, for me it’s about finding great voices, whether it be new writers, writers who are seasoned, at all ends of the spectrum. For me personally, I pride myself on having a really great eye for fantastic new voices, and taking that voice, whether it be seasoned or not, and focusing it and angling it towards selling something that works for them. So it can be a new spec, getting a job out there. So yeah, I do agree with that.
L: Most agents are busy with taking calls for their clients, negotiating for their clients, etc. What makes you available to your clients to do the sort of development work that most agents don’t?
D: I think it’s really about taking pride in my own reputation and my own work ethic and taste in the market place. Agents forget that when we get a script out there from one of our clients our reputation is on the line because we are promoting this person in the marketplace, we are saying that this is someone people should get behind, that they should be working with. If I’m going to take on somebody, I feel it has to have my stamp of approval. That writer has to be someone I feel I can really give notes to and work with to make sure that their script is the best that it can be before it leaves my office. I am very hands-on because I want to make sure I push my clients to the best of their abilities, and at the same time support my reputation that anything I get out into the marketplace is going to be top-notch.
L: How often do you take on new writers?
D: Honestly, there is no set number and no set goal on how many clients I take on per year or per month. It’s purely about if I read something that excites me, and I feel there is a career there and a longevity there, I will absolutely respond and make a move to have this person on my roster of clients. I am purely driven by the art of it; I am not driven by a numbers game, or how many writers I have in this genre or that genre, I am driven by the craft of the actual writing. To me it’s just about finding something that excites me on the page. There is no real formula to it.
L: You said that part of what you’re looking for is potential for career and longevity. How do you identify those?
D: That’s a good question. You know from the voice itself. For me it goes back to what I look for in a writer. I look for somebody who not only has good ideas, but someone who is hopefully not just writing indie fare, but more studio driven stuff. I tend to gravitate towards people who write great characters and dialogue. That is something that to me is so hard to teach, and so hard to grasp: writing great multi-layered characters with fantastic dialogue that just jumps off the page. I feel that those kinds of clients have a longevity in this business because those are the clients that studios want to be in business with because they are the ones that come in and fix scripts all the time, and they are the ones who get job after job in the studio world and rewrite assignments, as well as put pen to paper to write specs. That’s a career that has longevity to it. That’s what I look for. I ask a very important questions when I vet a client: What’s next? What else are you working on? A lot of agents don’t do that. I feel that’s a real unfortunate circumstance when an agent signs somebody on just for one script. For me it’s about what else do you have? What else are you working on? What else do you want to do? I think those are important questions to ask when you take them on because that’s really what it’s about: You gave me a great script now, and hopefully we will have great things happen with it, but what’s next?
L: Could you talk a bit about what I’ve heard you coin “The Art of Agenting”?
D: Sure. I mean there’s an art form to everything we do in the agency world. There’s an art form to how you sell a client in the marketplace, how you sell them when it comes to their work. Every client is different. Every script from every client is different. There is an art form to everybody and how you sell them. How you put them in the room. How you bring them the right assignments to work on. The art form is basically crafting their career and seeing ten, fifteen, twenty years ahead before they see it. There’s a real art to understanding what your client wants to accomplish in their mind, before they know what they want to accomplish in their mind. I feel what I’ve worked on over the years – which maybe comes from having a film school background as well, so there’s a real artist-friendly mentality in my work ethic and the way I deal with my clients – is that I like understand and know what my clients want to accomplish before they do, whether it be directing, producing, writing a certain kind of genre movie they haven’t actually tackled yet. There’s an art form to understanding where your client is currently, and where they should be ten or fifteen years down the road. It’s about mastering that. You can use that phrase, the art of agenting, all over: when it comes to spec work, when you take a spec into the marketplace, when you go out for assignment. There’s an art form to all of that.
L: Once you bring a writer onto your stable, how do you work with them?
D: Very hands-on. I am there as much as they need me to be. I think a writer’s job is to write. That’s a very simply way of putting what their task is from the get-go. I am very hands on with them, and very career-minded about having goals for them, and a set plan in place. It’s about how they want to work with me, as well. Some are more reclusive, they want to run ideas past me and then go off and write, others want to check in with me on a daily or weekly basis. It’s different with each client. It’s about making a plan and sticking to it.
L: What do you expect from a writer once you become his agent?
D: To work as hard as I do. To write. To work. To want this as much as I want it for them. To be passionate about the work they are putting forward. To put one hundred percent effort into everything they do, when it comes to assignment work, to spec work. To make sure they know this is their job and I take it just as seriously as they do. I give a hundred percent, I give my all to it every day, and I want them to do as well.
L: A lot of writers have both an agent and manager. Could you talk about how an agent and manager work together, and when a writer would need both?
D: I think that ninety percent of my clients have an agent and a manager. It’s beneficial in a marketplace that we’ve seen shrink over the course of the last five to ten years. Having an agent and a manager is about having two different people getting the writer’s name out there, singing his praises, voicing the writer’s work in the marketplace. When it works perfectly is when both the agent and the manager are in sync about the writer’s career and where it should go. The manager is usually more day-to-day, more hands-on, diving in and doing notes, getting the script ready before I actually see it, giving me the final read, getting fresh eyes before it goes into the marketplace. Even though like I said I am usually very hands-on. It works really well when everyone is communicating, everyone is working towards a common goal. It doesn’t work when the agent and the manager don’t see eye to eye on the goal for the client, when they see different versions of what the career should be, and there is no communication and everyone is off doing their own thing. That’s a situation that I would rarely be in. But with most of my clients – the ninety percent that do have an agent and a manager – it works great.
L: Let’s talk branding for a minute. Should a writer write in a single genre, or diversify their body of work?
D: I think it’s safe to write in genres that somehow link together seamlessly. Meaning: the comedy-drama. That sort of seamlessly works together. So if you’re a comedy writer but you want to venture into drama, there’s the dramedy sub-genre. If you’re an action writer, write an action-thriller, or an action-comedy. You can venture into other areas while staying with your strengths. It’s when you start doing other things, for example if you’re a comedy writer and you go off to write WWI bio pic… It doesn’t make any sense. It’s such a leap of faith in regards to the brand or the genre that you’re known for.
L: Let’s talk about the television market.
D: There’s so much opportunity in TV right now. It’s just such a great time to be a television writer, to want to be a television writer, because there are so many outlets to have your voice heard, whether it’s selling an original piece of material or staffing on a show. There are so many different avenues to be staffed and to be acknowledged. It’s a great time to be in television. But just like with features, you still have to have a great voice. It can be as simple as writing a great pilot and getting it in the right hands, and you have to obviously work your way up.
L: What advice do you have to new writers trying to break in?
D: It’s always going to be hard, but that should never deter you from doing what you’re passionate about. Ninety nine percent of people in this business had to go through tough plights to get to where they are, but it’s that toughness that makes you that much stronger and makes you that much more thankful for the rewards. I would say to every writer that wants to break into this business: Keep on writing. Great writers will write, and great writing will find its way onto our desks, people like myself who can help begin that career for you.
L: What you just said reminds me of a great Truman Capote quote: “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”
David Boxerbaum: Agent, Paradigm
An agent in the Lit Department at Paradigm, David represents a myriad of important motion picture and television writers, directors and producers in the business.
David’s impressive client roster is only a testament to his ambition, commitment and sensibility. His notable client list includes David Guggenheim, writer of Universal’s SAFEHOUSE and upcoming SAFEHOUSE 2; Ken Marino, writer/producer of Universal’s WANDERLUST, writer of Universal’s ROLE MODELS, and writer/executive producer/star of Yahoo!’s hit online comedy series, BURNING LOVE; Maria Maggenti, writer of MTV’s FINDING CARTER; Carter Blanchard, writer of Dreamworks’ upcoming GLIMMER and Twentieth Century Fox’s INDEPENDENCE DAY 2; Joe Gazzam writer of SHADOW RUN and the new CLIFFHANGER remake, and Ransom Riggs, writer/co-executive producer of the upcoming supernatural horror thriller BLACK RIVER, to be produced by Black Forest Film Group, and writer of #1 New York Times Best Seller MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, the supernatural fantasy adventure that sold to 20th Century Fox for seven figures; Tim Burton will direct and Peter Chernin will produce. David most recently closed a seven-figure deal with Universal Pictures for BLACK BOX, a script by client David Guggenheim that attracted several serious bids including DreamWorks and Warner Bros.
David began his career as an assistant at Jerry Bruckheimer Films. He then spent a year under the tutelage of producer Rob Fried, learning about development and production, after which he worked for William Morris Agency’s Senior VP Lee Rosenberg for two years. His next position was at Endeavor for partners Ari Greenburg & Rick Rosen. At the age of 26, David was listed as one of The Hollywood Reporter’s NEXT GENERATION TOP 35 UNDER 35 people in the business, one of the youngest ever to receive the honor. Always seeking new challenges, David moved on to be a Creative Executive at RKO Pictures, where he set up and produced the film SHADE. Boxerbaum then returned to the agency world where, for 4 years, he ran Metropolitan Talent Agency’s Television and Motion Picture Lit Department before moving to APA, where he became the only agent to represent not only feature writers and directors, but also show runners and television staff writers.
David is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Author of the best selling book Getting It Write: An Insider’s Guide To A Screenwriting Career, Lee Jessup is a career coach for professional and emerging screenwriters, with an exclusive focus on the screenwriter’s professional development. Her clients include television writing program fellows (Humanitas, CBS, WB Television Writers Program), WGA members, Golden Globe and Emmy nominated screenwriters, writers who sold screenplays and pitches to major studios, contest winners (PAGE, Final Draft, etc.), and many more. Lee spent 6+ years as director of ScriptShark.com. During her time with ScriptShark, Lee spearheaded a national Business of Screenwriting seminar series launched in partnership with Final Draft and sponsored by The New York Times Company. An invited speaker at the WGA, screenwriting conferences and festivals both in the US and Europe, Lee is a regular contributor to Script Magazines and was the interview subject for a number of film-centric television and web programs. To learn more about Lee and her services, visit www.leejessup.com.