Jeff Portnoy’s 5 Things New Screenwriters Should Know
If you’ve yet to hear the name JEFF PORTNOY… Seriously? Where have you been? Not only did Tracking Board’s 2016 Spec Book name him the top manager when it comes to setting up feature specs (getting 13 specs to market, and setting up an unparalleled 6 this past year), but he is also off to a great start in 2017, having already set up The Keeper of the Diary and currently handling the super-hot property The Man From Tomorrow, an Elon Musk spec.
Jeff and I go way back. I’ve watched his rise to power manager, and remained impressed by the ongoing attention he is somehow able to give all his clients (a few of which I happen to work with) and in equal doses no less, as well as his unwavering dedication to fighting the good fight for every new piece of material he takes to market and every writer he represents. Jeff started as a story coordinator at CAA; from there, he went on to Resolution, following which he decided to give management a try. After a short stint on his own, he became part of the dynamic duo at Bellevue Productions, where he and manager-on-the-rise John Zaozirny (who repped 2016’s The Black List topper, Blonde Ambition) have been working side by side.
Over the years, Jeff has proven passionate about sharing his knowledge and insights with up-and-coming, emerging screenwriters. The guy has never been short on advice, and when I interviewed him for my book, Breaking In: Tales from the Screenwriting Trenches, he happily shared with me the following advice:
Jeff Portnoy’s 5 THINGS EVERY NEW SCREENWRITER SHOULD KNOW
#1: You have to love the process of writing. Whether it’s TV or features or fiction, short story, novel, memoir, non-fiction, whatever the genre may be, you have to just love it so that you’re excited to get to the computer or the typewriter. You can’t wait to get up and do it. If you don’t have that passion, that natural love for it, then writing is probably not for you. And that’s why I’m managing and developing and not writing myself, because I just didn’t have that compulsion to wake up and run to the computer. And then, or course, you have to rewrite, which is very tedious. You’ve already lived the story once and now you have to go back and rewrite it and rewrite it and then that’s very fatiguing and so in order to endure that tedium you have to have that natural passion that really burns bright.
#2: If you have the passion and love for the game and you’re able to move to Los Angeles, you should do that. It’s not easy for people of other nationalities to get here and do that. If you live in the States though, and you really love it, you should be here, that’s it. You have to get here.
#3: Until you find a representative you have to be your own rep. So you have to be proactive. If you love writing, you love it enough that you move to Los Angeles, you can’t just sit in a room and write. You have to try and get in the game. Get into the festivals. Get into the fellowships. Get into the competitions. Reach out to people. Network. Work in the business. It’s gonna help you. Once you have your representation you can go back to writing and just focusing on writing and not have to work on all the politics and all the other crap that no-one really likes to do.
#4: If you do all these steps and you eventually find yourself in a room for a general meeting, you’ve got to project that you’re an easy person to work with, you’re a fun person to work with, you have to project charisma, smile! No-one wants to work with someone who’s not going to listen to notes, not going to accept notes, that’s going to be hard-headed, that’s cynical or pessimistic. When you finally get in the room with someone and they have a book they need adapted or a show they need a staff writer on or an article or it’s a rewrite on something, you want to go in there and make them like you. That’s all you have to do. You have to make them like you. Personality is everything. So it’s being charismatic, it’s being funny. Be open to anything. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to roll over to every note that they have but you have to consider it and if you don’t think it’s going to improve the script then you have to state your case.
#5: Read as much as you can, watch as much as you can, stay in touch with what’s happening in the business, if you write for TV you should be watching as much TV as you can, if you write features, read as many scripts and watch as many movies as you can. And just stay in tune with what’s going on in the business and what people are looking for.