Specs Still Sell! Hot Off a Spec Sale with Screenwriter Savy Einstein
Earlier this year, I asked screenwriter Savy Einstein what was the worse screenwriting advice she ever received. Here is what she told me: “A producer I met shortly after moving to LA from Israel told me that since I was a foreigner, I should only write drama. ‘Don’t try to be funny. It’s not your country’ were his exact words. I’m happy to say that a comedy spec I wrote is currently set up at Screen Gems, after being a semi-finalist at the Nicholl Fellowship, winning 2nd place at CineStory and featured on The Black List site. So f#@& that guy.”
That very same screenplay SUPERFECUNDATION (previously under option), was just officially picked up by Screen Gems (in a time when hardly anyone is moving “naked” specs) so to echo Savy’s sentiment… and as a fellow Israeli… f#@& that guy in a big, BIG way.
And days after the big annoucement, my friend and old client Savy, her usual generous self, agreed to answer some questions for me, knowing that not too long ago, she would have been reading exactly this kind of interview. Knowing her, she still would today.
Below is the interview that unfolded…
When did you realize that you wanted to be a screenwriter? And how did you start learning about it?
I read my first book about screenwriting when I was 10. My plan was to win over Tim Robbins’ heart by writing a great screenplay. I eventually abandoned that plan (or did I…?), but the passion for movies and writing stayed. I wrote something resembling a screenplay in high school, then took a couple of screenwriting courses in my 20’s and interned as a reader for a year. However, my day job was producing (I produced TV commercials for over a decade) and it took finally quitting my job to start pursuing screenwriting seriously all these years later.
A lot of writers who end up in Los Angeles moved here from somewhere else. But you came here from farther away: Israel. What inspired your move to make the move?
I realized that if I was serious about wanting to write for Hollywood, I had to make the move and get on that plane. And coming from Israel, being here was also important for my actual writing, not just networking. Living and breathing the American culture and the language.
Prior to screenwriting, you were an Ad Exec. Did that experience help in screenwriting in any way?
I think it helped me tremendously. Still does. The great thing about working in commercials is the fast pace. You do 3-4 productions a month, and no two are ever the same, so you pretty much get to experience all the movie world has to offer in a smaller scale. I shot in Hungary, Romania, South Africa, Vietnam, Russia, in the snow, in the heat, at sunrise, at sundown, with adults, with babies, with goats… I learned a lot. The other thing the ad world teaches you is handling clients and respecting them. To know how to put your creative ego aside to satisfy the client’s needs.
The first script that got you attention was THE LONGEST BIRTHDAY. What sort of doors did that script open for you?
I came out to LA having basically zero connections and THE LONGEST BIRTHDAY provided me with those first relationships. It got me into the Black List annual feature lab and Franklin Leonard and his team have been nothing short of amazing in all their support. They championed me and my work and introduced me to a lot of people. A few month later, THE LONGEST BIRTHDAY was optioned by a German production company (KickFilm who also produced the Golden Globe nominated film The Fencer), which was my first experience dealing with contracts, notes from producers and getting a project funded.
A lot of writers feel uncertain about when it is that a screenplay is actually ready. How did you know, or come to realize, that you were on the right path, and that people were responding to your writing?
The thing with writing, and with art in general, is that it’s so subjective, the jury’s always gonna be out. Even when I was starting to get positive feedback on my screenplays and winning some awards, I was still getting a lot of refusals. If you’re going to wait to feel ready, you’ll never send anything to anyone. I still sweat a bit before hitting the ‘send’ button on my work… I don’t think there’s a single ‘aha!’ moment on this path. It’s more like finding crumbs along the way that give you the energy to continue on your journey.
After writing an earlier draft of the screenplay you just sold – which was a semifinalist in The Nicholl – you landed your manager, Jeff Portnoy. Everyone always wants to know how writers get their first reps so… How did you come to work with him? And how did you know that he was the right manager for you?
I love answering this question because I got my manager through a cold query (and a little help from a friend called Lee Jessup…). I decided to be proactive about getting representation, so I spent a few days looking up writers who I believed to be writing in a similar genre and then used my Googling skills (and IMDBPro) to find out who was repping them and get their contact info. I don’t know if you remember this, but I then came to you with a long list of people and a semi-interesting query letter to get your advice. You helped me fine-tune the list and rewrite the query. I then sent it out and was super surprised when I got a few responses! I ended up choosing Jeff because he seemed the most passionate. He spent an hour with me on the phone prior to our meeting discussing the script and ideas he had even before he knew he’d be repping me. Two years later, I’m still super happy with my decision. Jeff is awesome!
How does your life as an up-and-coming screenwriter change once you have representation?
The biggest change was not feeling like I was alone anymore. Suddenly, there were other people working to advance my career and it wasn’t just me against the world. Experienced, knowledgeable people, who truly believe in you, offering invaluable advice, giving you inside information, and helping you navigate these uncharted waters. It allowed me to focus more on the actual work rather than how to get it read.
Now that you are a working writer, what does your daily/weekly writing-related routine consist of?
I try to look at writing as an office job; you have to go into work every day. I used to wait to be in the mood or to feel inspired, but once there are deadlines and other people working to push you forward, I feel you have a greater obligation showing up to work. So, my daily writing routine consists usually of a 3-hour session in the morning and another 3-hour session in the afternoon. Of course, there are days I miss a session because of meetings and, well, LIFE. But, for the most part, I’m pretty disciplined.
I imagine that you go on a ton of generals (i.e. general meetings) – do you find those to be beneficial?
I think they’re beneficial in the long run. Sure, most generals don’t lead to anything, but some do, and you never know which ones. Networking is such an important facet of this industry that meeting new people is always beneficial. I also think it builds your confidence and teaches you to be better in a room. You learn to steer the conversation in a direction that will allow you to talk about other projects you’re working on and it gives you an opportunity to see if people are responding to them.
Tell me about the process of getting and applying studio notes – I know it’s an experience that some writers dread, but other appreciate!
First, I try not to take notes personally (easier said than done, I know). Yes, this is a script I worked on for a year, poured my heart and soul and all my issues into it and when you criticize it it’s like telling me you hate my child — BUT once your script gets optioned or sold, it is no longer just yours and you have to accept filmmaking is team work. I am very lucky since my development process with Screen Gems has been very positive. I was fortunate to have my script land at the hands of people who saw the story in the same way I did and gave me great notes. And another thing I’d say is if you disagree with a note in the room, speak up. Don’t nod in the room and then write something else. Use your chance to express your opinions (in a professional manner, of course) and have the discussion in person.
You are also a mother. As a mother myself who staunchly believes that women DO NOT have to choose between family and career, how do you juggle the two?
You definitely can’t do it if you don’t have the support system. And that’s true for both men and women. I’m lucky to have married a man who believes in me even more than I do and was willing to leave his home country, family and friends so I could pursue my dream. Perhaps the biggest challenge, being a woman, is accepting you can’t do it all. It took me a while to not feel guilty about being less involved in my daughter’s life.
Leaning on your journey and experience, what advice do you have for other writers out there who are just starting out?
My biggest advice would be not to follow every advice. When you read about writers who have found success, you notice they’re hardly ever the same. Some started working when they were 10, some when they were 40. Some went to school, some didn’t. Some got attention after their first script, some only after their 5th. Know who you are and what works for you. I got told a lot when I first moved to LA to tweet more, so my Twitter account could serve as a sort of writing sample. Now, that’s great advice. But, not for me. I can’t just type something, hit ‘post’ and forget about it. I keep rereading it and then I hate it and then if someone interesting follows me all I can think is ‘oh my god, they’re going to see this lame tweet I wrote and won’t want to work with me’… So, not good advice. Find and follow the advice that works for you. But trust me on the sunscreen…
Savion (Savy) Einstein hails from Tel-Aviv, Israel. After her military service, she went into advertising and spent the next decade producing award-winning campaigns in Israel, Europe and Asia for top domestic and international brands such as The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and P&G. But having read her first book about screenwriting when she was 10 years old, Savion always dreamed about writing movies and eventually moved out to LA to pursue a career in Hollywood. Her scripts have since won numerous awards, including placing in the Nicholl Fellowship semi-finals, winning 2nd place at CineStory and being selected to the Black List annual feature lab.
Savion is repped by Gersh, Bellevue Productions and Del Shaw.