“Every writer, director and actor needs to be the CEO of their own business ”
As part of our “Get To Know Your Judges” edition of the Mini Series, we set out to meet with manager/producer and 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition judge Jake Wagner. Jake is a manager/producer at Benderspink with over a decade’s experience in the process of creating content and guiding writers in Hollywood and as had multiple writers on the Hit List, Black List, and Young & Hungry List since 2013.
Jake has had a long history with the competition, having signed two Launch Pad alumni, including Eric Koenig, who sold his script Matriarch in a bidding war in 2014.
His extensive list of clientele include writers such as Evan Daughtery (Snow White and the Huntsman), Chris Roach (Non-Stop), Lucas Sussman (Teen Wolf), Victoria Aveyard (Eternal), and countless others. He took some time out to chat with contributing writer Miley Tunnecliffe about his upcoming role as a Launch Pad Pilots Competition judge, the lessons he learned along the way, and what makes for a successful writing career.
——————⇒ As one of our judges for the 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition and someone always looking for new material, what is your criteria for reading scripts?
JW: The exciting thing about being a judge is that I’m getting an early look at the scripts. I read everything and I always ask myself two questions: Is the script something that I personally feel like I can sell? Is there a voice in the writing that makes me believe that this could be a client? Maybe I can’t sell this script, but can I grow this writer and get them work using this script as a sample.
A sale or a voice are the two things I’m always thinking about with anything I read from a new writer.
——————⇒ What drew you to want to be apart of Launch Pad?
I’ve known the people behind The Tracking board for a while. They’ve been in the business a long time. I know the competition hasn’t been around that long but I feel like so much great talent and writers have come out of the feature and TV contests. The first year I remember I started seeing the success stories in the Trades and on Twitter. Clearly there’s a lot of great talent coming out of Launch Pad and I wanted to be apart of that. I offered to judge so that I could be more involved and get these scripts earlier.
Since judging the Launch Pad Feature Competition, we’ve signed Eric Koenig who wrote Matriarch, which was a feature finalist last fall and we sold it to Paramount for a lot of money. With the features, I got the scripts and we reached out to the ones we felt like we wanted to sign, but we judged the contest fairly. I’m excited to do it again with the pilots.
——————⇒ What’s your breaking in story Jake?
I started out as a manager at Energy Entertainment without any clients back in 2004. Brooklyn Weaver brought me on and minted me a manager. I needed to sign clients so I started out sitting on Brooklyn’s couch reading scripts. The first writer I signed and the first pitch I sold to Universal happened just three months after I started at Energy.
The writer came to me through a producer I had lunch with. He told me about this writer who he thought was great but needed a little help. He had an agent at ICM but he needed some new heat, enthusiasm and energy in his life—he needed management essentially. I read his sample and we met. He was a great guy, soft spoken and a great writer. We decided to work together after he had met with three other companies. That was a big deal to me at the time, that I beat out three other companies to signed him. I mean what business did I have signing writers when I had no clients!
He was working on a new pitch so I supported him, helped him develop it and take it out. The first place we sold it was Universal and they brought it for a lot of money. It was pretty exciting because I felt like, okay, this is real. I’m in the game. I’m selling things to studios.
Now, anytime we do any kind of deal I still say it’s a great moment but we’re doing at least one a week these days. I’m overseeing 60 clients so now there’s a lot more deal flow.
——————⇒ Away from the deals, what is it about your job that keeps you coming in each day?
JW: Just the love for great movies and great television shows. What we’re able to do these days with technology, with all the channels, networks, Internet and digital. There are just so many outlets for great content now. I’m a fan of great content like everybody. I go home and watch Game of Thrones and it excites me. I think, wow, I want to go out and find my Game of Thrones! Then it’s working out “how can I do that?” Then it’s about finding a good book and working out which client would like which book. These great films and TV shows inspire me to help create more great films and TV shows.
——————⇒ What was the biggest industry lesson you learned coming up?
Everyone you meet, make it count. Hollywood is such a small community inside of big city Los Angeles. Everyone you meet inside this community, at some point, there will be business to do with them. Establish those relationships, even if you’re having a bad day. Sometimes I sit down and think “Why am I having lunch with this person? Why am I even meeting with them?” But something interesting always comes out of it.
Take every meeting. I don’t mean meet with just anyone on the street, I mean meetings that come about through the system.
Some days you just don’t want to, but take every meeting high and low. It will blow you away the amount of business that you end up doing or what leads to new clients or a deal for a client later just by simply having lunch with someone. Meet everyone and be nice to everyone!
Attitude, drive and ambition—you’ve got to have those things.
When I worked with Brooklyn, he would have lunch everyday and some days it would be with someone really big in the business and some days it would be with someone you hadn’t really heard of, but he’d just have lunch with everyone. He’d take me along to his lunches and it was just amazing the things that came out.
——————⇒ If you would manage any writer out there from today or another era, who would it be?
We haven’t seen anyone that smart and clever in one specific zone for a long time. I mean the guy did 30-40 movies that were instant classics. It would be exciting to present the next Alfred Hitchcock or have represented him back in that golden Hollywood run.
⇒ Besides writing of course, what are the habits or characteristics you see of writers actually making it in the business?
You need to brand yourself like anyone does. You need to own one genre out of the gate.
JW: Attitude, drive and ambition—you’ve got to have those things. You’ve got to work really, really, really hard. Steve Zaillian and David Koepp are two of the biggest writers in the business and they work incredibly hard right now, but they worked even harder to try and break through. Once you’re in, it’s not time to coast. That’s when the real work begins. The people I see who are the most successful are the hardest working people. They’re up for jobs or they’re at home, generating new material—a new pilot, a new feature spec. Not all of it’s going to be sell-able. Not all of it’s going to be great. But some of it will as long as you just continue to generate.
The writers that write one thing and sit back to wait for me to sell it or get them a job, those are the ones that don’t make it. But, the ones that are constantly generating, constantly hungry. The ones that listen, they let me guide them and they ask: “what can I do to keep going and reach the next level?” Those are the writers I see with the most success.
——————⇒ You’ve found a script you like and you’re meeting with the writer to hear more ideas. What do you expect when meeting with the writer?
JW: Have two or three other ideas that are in the same zone as the script I just read. If I read a comedy, come in a pitch me two other comedy feature ideas and maybe one TV. If you wrote a horror, come in and pitch me a couple horror ideas. If it’s action, tell me about your action TV show. What’s your version of 24 that you want to write? They’re being brand and genre specific. I get them. That’s the way writers need to think.
You need to brand yourself like anyone does. You need to own one genre out of the gate, be the new comedy guy or sci-fi girl or biopic writer. Then eventually you can write your way into other genres.
——————⇒ Any advice for up-and-coming writers?
Every writer, director and actor needs to be the CEO of their own business.
JW: Always be reading and always be writing. I can’t stress that enough. Read every script you can get a hold of. See every movie you can see. Watch every television show you can watch. Even bad ones. Go see a bad movie and try to deconstruct why it didn’t work. See if you can pin-point it. Same for the big hits—American Sniper, Cinderella, Fast and the Furious. Those are the big hits this year so far. So see them and check off the boxes as to why they work. Be a student of the business.
I feel like too many people don’t take the time to learn the business. A lot of people come out of film school and they’ve been taught about the craft but they know nothing about the business. You can learn that yourself by reading Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Tracking Board everyday. Learn the names. That’s what I did. Even before I was in the business I was reading Variety every morning and seeing every single movie.
Every writer, director and actor needs to be the CEO of their own business. You need to learn the business side too.
——————⇒ Would you recommend writers enter Launch Pad?
It is my favourite contest right now. It’s definitely the hottest contest for finding new talent. Just the volume of great talent Launch Pad is finding is more then some of the other great contests out there. I feel like they’ve got the hot hand.
I can’t wait to get my hands on the scripts. I’m going to read them all right away. I’m excited to see who in that stack of scripts is going to be the next big undiscovered writer, or writers hopefully.
——————⇒ The next Alfred Hitchcock?
JW: Oh gosh, I pray! That would be amazing.
Contributor Miley Tunnecliffe is -based actress and screenwriter, known for the short films “Love in a Disabled Toilet,” “Bye Bye Lulu,” and “Barnesy’s Numbers.” Her comedic road-trip script, “Run Santos Run,” recently placed in the top 5% of 7500 unproduced screenplays entered in 2014’s Academy Nicholl Fellowships. She is also a co-head of Red Milestone Productions, which is based in Western Australia.
Follow Miley on Twitter: @mileytunn
The 2015 Launch Pad Pilots Competition is now accepting submissions!