Markus Goerg of Heroes and Villains
Markus Goerg is one manager I’ve been aware of for quite some time. Though his management company, Heroes and Villains, is a relatively young one (launched in 2008), his name garners such respect among those in the know that I was delighted at the opportunity to pick his brains a bit. After all, I’ve heard about Markus not only from his peers in representation, but also from his clients who spoke of him with reverence and respect every time. So when the time came for us to sit down, I was excited to find out what the man was all about it.
L: How did you get started in the industry?
M: I started as an assistant at a small agency. Six months later I switched over to ICM, and this was in 2000.
L: How long were you with ICM?
M: I spent five years at ICM in Motion Picture Lit. Then I left ICM to go run development at a place called Prospect Pictures. I did that for a couple of years, and then in the fall of 2007 I started conversations with my friends about starting our own company, and in January of 2008 we opened the doors of Heroes and Villains Entertainment.
L: So what inspired you to get into management?
M: As an assistant at ICM I had received a query letter from a writer named Kevin Bisch who had written a feature called The Last First Kiss. The query really intrigued me and I asked him to send me the script which he did. I read it and really loved it. At the time my boss was by my desk. He sees me reading something which doesn’t happen much because we were always so busy. He says, “What are you reading?” I said, “The next script you’re gonna sell,” and he walked away, laughing. Six weeks later he sold the script to Sony, and three years later the movie came out with the title Hitch starring Will Smith. So, I knew I had an eye for talent and an eye for commercial material. When the opportunity presented itself after having been a development executive at Prospect Pictures I figured that if I found somebody who ended up being a very successful writer in the business then I could probably do it again. So I jumped at the chance and we took a dive into the deep end of the pool and started Heroes and Villains.
L: Why the choice for a management company rather than an agency?
M: Because I had spent enough time at an agency to know that I really did not want to be an agent. I hadn’t been in an agent training program at ICM – they just hired me straight onto a desk. I find the personal attention to detail and closer relationships you have with your clients as a manager more interesting. I also feel it’s a more creative job because you do a lot more development with your clients. You have an opportunity to produce as well, which we do here at Heroes and Villains. So, it’s a better fit for me as a creative individual whereas I really think that agents’ jobs most of the time are largely transactional. They do a lot of deals, have a hundred clients, and really don’t have the time just by the sheer volume of clientele they represent to pay personal attention or forge super-close relationships with their clients as a manager would. [Relationships] was something that was a lot more attractive to me. So, management seemed to make a lot more sense.
L: As a manager, how closely do you work with your writers?
M: Very, very closely. We develop material from the ground up. The process here is that in general our clients will come up with a number of loglines, or worlds or characters they are interested in, and we take a look and ascertain which one has the most potential. Then literally from a logline we will start developing the whole script, soup to nuts, however many drafts it takes, all the way to the final draft. Then we take it out into the world and let people see what we’ve done over the last however many months. That’s a process that for some people takes a bit longer than others. It’s a very personalized experience. Each one’s different, so we follow the lead as to how the client would like to work, and we support them obviously with thoughts and notes in shaping the project into the most commercial, most impressive piece of material it can be.
L: In a market where sales are more elusive than they’ve been in the past, how do you define success for a client?
M: We really focus on incremental success. Obviously selling a piece of material is wonderful, but it really doesn’t happen that much any more. Therefore, we changed our attitude in regards to what our clients should be writing. In the earlier years of our company we were very much focused on creating the commercial piece of material — high-concept, action, thriller, whatever — that has a chance of selling in the marketplace, and then they wouldn’t sell, which was of course disappointing. Now we focus on writing a sensational piece of material, and it doesn’t matter whether it is commercial or not. We just need it to be exceptionally well-written with great characters, great dialogue, and great emotional resonance — which are mainly the three things we focus on when developing a piece of material. Before we take it out, we have to sync on those three levels. Then we show it to people, and what we’ve found through a number of our clients now is that sending out an exceptional piece of writing is a lot more useful in finding success than chasing the latest trend or whatever the marketplace seems to want. Because what happens is when you put great writing out there, and people really resonate with it, then other opportunities will come from that.
Every overnight success, as people say, was 10 years in the making, and it’s true. You have to keep at it, and if our clients aren’t getting paid, then our approach is, “You’ve got to throw work at the problem. You’ve got to write more material, you’ve got to create more opportunities for yourself by doing what you can do in this process: put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.” Really just churn out more great material that will keep you relevant in executives’ minds. Make people realize that you are a creative force that continues to deliver great writing and great material. Before long you’re gonna break through. But it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight.
L: Do you still take on new writers?
M: For me, personally, given the number of clients that I already represent at this stage, I really have to flip the hell out when I read something new in order to take on somebody new who’s a baby writer. But it does happen. Over the last year I’ve taken on a few previously unproduced or haven’t been hired in the business or have a couple of scripts that show great talent that were in every sense of the word a baby writer. I wasn’t afraid of it because great writing will find an audience and great writing will find success and it’s just a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting that person out there and telling them how to handle a general meeting and shaping them into the professional they can really be. I always keep an eye out for that undeniable new voice that I can help to break out in the business but frankly it does not happen much anymore. Every new writer I take on essentially means that now I have to take away a little bit of time from the other writers I already represent in order to fit them in. In order to make that worthwhile, that new person really needs to be a stand out, so, I’m very, very picky.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with very talented people and the resonance we’re getting out in the industry has been very gratifying. People are resonating with what we do because the material we send out is consistently very high quality. We take a lot of pride in developing material here and we don’t want to send out material until we deem it ready and really, really impressive. We hold back material until we feel it’s ready, and if that means doing another polish with the writer, going back and looking at things that don’t quite work yet, inching it up towards that A-level piece of material, then we’ll do that. We’re not really beholden to the clock all that much because we feel like when a piece of material is ready to be seen then we have time to send it out to the marketplace. If we need to wait a couple of months, if for example it’s a feature and it’s summer time and people are on vacation, then you want to wait until the fall, then we’ll do that. Then we have that time to either take a run at packaging it or get an agent on board if an agent is not involved yet — all those things that one can do with a piece of material. We take pride in the quality of the material we end up sending out and that seems to resonate with the town, so we’re really proud of that.
L: When there’s an agent on the team how do you work with an agent, usually?
M: The agent is very much a part of that team in as far as we mutually make decisions on the future of the client depending on what he or she wants to do – features, television — obviously there’re different agents involved with each aspect. They become very much activated when we have a new piece of material. We look at the agents as valuable parts of the team when it comes time to sell something because obviously two sales people are usually better than one sales person. The power of the agency can be very helpful and bring another element to the table that will help strengthen the package before showing it to the town.
We like to work with agents in such a way that we give them the biggest opportunity to shine: They’re really great with selling material and getting it into a lot of hands. We take our part in the process very seriously which is creating that piece of material that an agent can get really excited about. They realize it’s really good and they didn’t have to spend all that time reading several drafts and getting bored with it in the process. We redraft, we do the rewrites, and we make sure when we send a script out to the agent before we engage in the sales process it’s really a tightly honed pieced of material that they can be proud of sending out into the world.
L: You mentioned earlier prepping your writers for general meetings. How would you normal prepare your clients for a general?
M: Obviously it’s an individual process because everyone’s different. To generalize, what happens in a general meeting is that we liken it to dating. It’s like a first date. You want to make a great impression. Everybody feels each other out, trying to figure out if there’s a longer relationship that can blossom from this. Meaning yeah, we can totally work with this writer and develop a project and be closely involved with this person in a creative process. That is all about finding positive commonality. Did they go to the same school? Do they like the same sports teams? Are they from the same area? Do they have the same taste in movies and television shows? Everyone wants to make a great impression. What you want to get out of it is you want to make a fan who when that appropriate opportunity pops up, he or she will put you on that list of people who might be great to write X, Y, or Z project.
What we work on with our clients, and especially if they’re young, is how they are presenting themselves and honing in on their 60 to 90-second pitch of themselves. Most of what we do in this business is pitching. Either we’re pitching ourselves, or we’re pitching our projects. We’re pitching what television shows we want to watch that night with our spouses and partners. We’re always pitching, and it’s very important going into a general meeting to pitch yourself in the right way and not ramble on for 20 minutes about how you moved from Albuquerque to Los Angeles unless it involved the hijinks of Planes, Trains and Automobiles or a kidnapping. In that case, I’m totally fine with you telling that story. Short of that, it’s all about presenting yourself in a concise and exciting way.
A writer’s supposed to be a storyteller, so tell a story – what’s your story? The idea is to be memorable to that person sitting across from you so in a few weeks if a project comes up that might be right for you they’ll say what about this girl or that guy? The one who had that great story that might have something to do with this project we’re doing, or this book that just dropped into my lap that we’re going to need a writer for? The story of how you grew up in Indiana then went to USC and now you’re here is not a story that’s going to get anyone excited. It’s like, what’s your world experience? What makes you different? What do you bring to the table? How do you stand out? How do you leave an impression when you walk out the door? What are they going to remember next week about you? That’s what a general meeting is all about.
L: In the situation where a writer brings in some kind of pedigree, whether they come from a background in law or medicine or work in the CIA, are those important components in that personal story?
M: Absolutely. Anything that is different from other people. What you have to understand is that these executives meet with, like, 20 writers a week, and it just becomes a blur. After a while they’ve met so many different people that it’s going to be difficult to differentiate between, “Did I meet this person on Tuesday afternoon or Friday morning?” It all sort of blends together. So, if you have something that’s different about you, absolutely bring that up. Are you a former sports champion? Do you play some obscure sport? Did you work in the CIA as an analyst and then left because you wanted to do something more creative, or are you an EMT? Whatever it is that you can bring to the table that might make you different or interesting to the person in the room is going to be important to bring up because it’s going to be something distinctive about you specifically that might fit a project. For example, if you were a lawyer then left law to become a writer and then they end up picking up a TV show about the law — and it’s about family law and you have family law experience — that is something that’s going to resonate. That executive is going to need to know about [your expereince] so they can remember that. If you don’t bring that up then you miss an opportunity to stand out.
L: Is it important that a writer have an extraordinary background if they are switching to a career in screenwriting, or is that not critical?
M: It can be, if the previous experience informs the uniqueness of the project that they’ve written, that can be great, but it doesn’t have to be. If you have a medical background not everything you write needs to be a medical show or a movie about doctors or whatever. We have a client who used to be an EMT and the script that we signed him up with has absolutely nothing to do with medical training. His writing was just exceptional and the first time he was hired on a show they were fascinated that he had a medical background and was an EMT for two years. The reason he was an EMT for two years was that he wanted to know something about that world. It wasn’t like that had been his dream job all along. He did it for two years and then he moved on. But that was a unique experience he ended up bringing to the table in the writers room that from time to time came in very handy. That was part of the reason he ended up being hired for the first time.
So, just because you have specific experience does not mean you can only write about that or that it would behoove you to write about it. You can have that experience and write about something completely different. If you do write about that unique experience, such as if you were in the CIA for five years and now you’re writing a spy thriller – that makes sense, and specifically that makes sense if you are in television. In television a lot of the time, it’s informed by the personal experience of the writers that are bringing the product to the table. So, if someone has that type of experience and then writes a CIA type show, or writes a pilot or has a pitch that has CIA elements in it, you can say, ‘I was a CIA analyst for five years,’ or ‘My parents were CIA analysts so there was a lot of talk around the dinner table about this kind of thing.’ Anything you can bring out as part of your personal life experience that is unique that you can’t get anywhere else is going to be a huge asset.
L: In an environment like today’s where nothing is easy, where is it easier for a new writer to surface? Is TV a more fertile ground for new writers? Are film specs a way to break a good writer? What do you think?
M: It really depends on the writer. It depends on the type of story they want to tell. Some people have feature ideas, some people have television ideas. Writers come with different skill sets. Writing a TV pilot is different from writing a feature and different things have to be kept in mind. A comedy pilot is very different from a drama pilot. It really depends on the individual writer and what his or her strengths are. If I’m sitting across from a person who is uproariously hilarious and all he can do is crack jokes then I would either say write a feature comedy. Or if he have more ideas that would lend themselves to being a television show, i.e. it’s a world in which a number of characters interact with each other and hijinks ensue, then I would say maybe we make that a television show. You can tell a hundred stories in this world or you tell that one story that is the penultimate experience that changes this character’s life, then that would be a feature. It really about the individual writer and their strengths and weaknesses and where we as managers can make up for those.