Screenwriting & Startups: Similarities

My work with Marvel led me to realize how similar the world of screenwriting is to startups, despite everybody in the field thinks it's entirely different.

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“… Screenplays are not works of art. They are invitations to others to collaborate on a work of art.” — Paul Schrader

I fell into screenwriting during COVID thanks to my case study about Marvel. While working on that, I was fortunate to gain the trust, or at least the ear, of key executives that built Marvel from a comic book business to the media powerhouse we now know.

My case became and remains a bestseller. It won the prestigious 2020 Case Centre award in the Strategy & General Management category, the Oscar’s of case writing. It’s taught at business schools and businesses worldwide, including all top business schools, as an example of how blue ocean strategy can be used to turnaround a company.

A while ago, an INSEAD student suggested turning it into a script. I’ve never written or even read a script but the idea was intriguing. Like many aspiring screenwriters, I hacked out a few dozen pages then forgot about it.

During the early COVID lockdown, I was talking to my mom who was bored. She asked if I’d written anything new lately. About the only thing she hadn’t read was that script so I sent it to her. She liked it and sent it to a family friend, a movie star, who wrote me that the formatting is entirely wrong but the characters were interesting and the dialog pretty good. He suggested I get to rewriting and finish it.

I looped back to my contacts at Marvel, who’d left the company long ago, and they also supported the idea. On one hand, they were wary about a biographical film, a biopic in film industry speak, where they’d be characters. On the other hand, it is a genuinely interesting story that hasn’t been told well.

I followed up with more research. There countless articles about Marvel that are wrong and countless devout supports of those incorrect narratives. I’ve had multiple people argue they understood the business better than the executives who actually ran it.

False narratives range from wildly exaggerated to entirely fabricated, no more grounded in real-life than Stark Industries. Most get hung up on the creative talent — the producers, directors, and actors — while forgetting the story is about a business. This would be like writing about the history of Apple and focusing on the top-selling singers in the early iTunes library while ignoring Steve Jobs. Few if any seem to have spent time with the “suits” who rescued the business then created the movie studio.

That’s a shame because the heroes and villains in the real story are every bit as interesting as anything that graced the pages of a Marvel comic book.

Two of the real-life villains include two of the four characters used as a composite for fictional business supervillain Gordon Gekko. One of them gave the real-life version of the infamous “greed is good” speech during a prior hostile acquisition. He eventually bankrupted the business. The other hacked apart an airline, just like in the movie.

The heroes are quirky too. There’s a gun-toting privacy fanatic who came to the US a penniless immigrant and ended up purchasing Marvel despite never reading a comic book. A billionaire, he’s so stingy with money he works in a tiny office and cuts up discarded paper to make his own notebooks. Another is a wealthy lifelong Page Six lifelong bachelor who dated Paris Hilton, hangs with DiCaprio, but lives with his mom. And Stan Lee? His real legacy is deliciously complex.

The founder of Marvel Studios convinced bankers to fund the project with a $525 million loan by comparing it to subprime housing before subprime housing destroyed the world economy. They offered as collateral movie rights on the same terms they gave studios. That is, if they couldn’t repay the loan the bankers would get the rights to make movies from a stable of Marvel characters for a production fee of five percent of the gross box office proceeds, which is what Marvel charged anyway. The bankers agreed.

A pre-Apprentice Donald Trump crashed the first meeting, held at Mar-a-Lago, where the new studio was pitched. Key people thought Iron Man was a stupid character to lead off with. Getting the green light to cast Robert Downey Jr. required an emergency flight from LA to New York. Few people thought the movies would make any money but they’d reap at least a couple hundred million before the loan money ran out.

Seriously - you can’t make this stuff up.

Knowing zero about screenwriting, I set about writing my script and trying to learn about the art and the industry. My entire financial investment included a license for the industry-standard screenwriting software Final Draft which doesn’t make the screenplay interesting but does make formatting it a whole lot easier.

Like my case studies, my script went through countless revisions as key people reviewed it and gave feedback which ranged from “it’s ok” to “pretty good” to “better than the case” (that was from one of the people who’d bankrupted the business). Former Marvel co-CEO and founder and Chairman of Marvel Studios David Maisel was incredibly generous with his time and notes.

People in show business have a reputation for big egos though I frankly didn’t see that. All were reluctant to advance the script out of worries they’d appear too self-centered making a movie where they’re the heroes. I’d worry they didn’t believe in the project but they’re not the type to hold back criticism. These people range from extremely wealthy to ridiculous rich media executives. They’re not the type to avoid saying “it sucks,” which some did about early drafts though they’d also tell me why.

That left me to figure out how the business of being a screenwriter, of selling a script, actually works. What I found, surprisingly, is that except for an unusually large abundance of scam artists, screenwriting works like any other startup. But for some reason, nobody in the business thinks that way. Of course, I’m arguably one of the very few who has spent considerable amounts of time trying to start companies than getting script produced. Or maybe those from the startup world did so well they’d just self-fund their projects (usually, a bad idea even if you can afford it).

Writing a script, whether it be a pilot for a TV show or a feature-length motion picture — and I’ve now written both — isn’t especially different than creating an investor pitch deck except scripts are hopefully more fun to read. Like finding investors, the hard part is trying to get through to the right person who can appreciate what you’re trying to do and will finance turning an idea, which may or may not be entirely fleshed-out, into reality.

The things that matter are identical: the track-record of the screenwriter, the strength of the proposal, matching to the right producer/investor, sometimes using intermediaries to help find the right people, lots of lawyers, and more than a little bit of luck.

Thanks to draconian copyright laws, studios and producers will not accept unsolicited manuscripts without an agreement that they may be working on something similar. This is less of a concern for early-stage investors since business ideas can’t be copyrighted. In both the startup world and the screenwriting world, there’s always a fine chance that your idea/project will be stolen so dealing with people who have a good reputation is important. Dealing with the wrong people is a frustrating waste of time in either field.

Screenwriting has far more scammers than the startup world, the most common being countless screenwriting contests people pay to enter. Some are high-quality; most aren’t. Contest entry fees are typically about $50-$80 plus another $50 or so for feedback on the script, typically from a high-volume script reader paid half that amount. Winners may receive a cash prize but what they’re really looking for is an introduction to interested producers. Experienced screenwriters often say they’ve never personally met anybody who successfully entered the business this way. There are more than a few stories of contest winners whose work was never picked up.

Besides the iffy contests, there’s also a horde of screenwriting coaches, plenty who’ve never had anything produced. Finally, are outright scam managers and agents, who aren’t at all what they claim to be, prey on the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers.

So how does a person break into the screenwriting field if not for the contests? I haven’t so I can’t say definitively. Then again, I haven’t tried too hard despite I think my work would do really well. Figuring out how it might work is where my day-job as a research fellow at INSEAD comes in helpful.

A few things that do work … there’s the old-fashioned way of having the right parents: Malia Obama was just hired for a project at Amazon and plenty of screenwriters, actors, and directors are the spawn of Hollywood royalty. There are lots of credible stories about people moving to Los Angeles, taking a job (any job) in a studio, then building a network that eventually lands them a paid writing gig. And there are a few people who write a good script, luck out getting it into the right hands, and either get it produced (unlikely, but does happen) or gets them a job writing something else (far more likely).

If you do find work, writers for TV shows are treated far better than writers for feature films. TV show writers typically work in teams, called a writers room, while the lead writers, called showrunners, call the shots. Showrunners hire directors, actors, and all the rest who typically vary from episode to episode. In television, directors are the hired help.

In movies, it’s the opposite. Directors control everything to the point they’re often known to take primary credit for scripts they didn’t write. Ever wonder how all the top directors seem to also be great screenwriters, with their names attached to the scripts of the movies they direct? The short answer is they’re often not; they force the genuine writer to take a sub-credit, if they’re credited at all, often sending them packing with a check just large enough to scrape by until they sell another script.

One thing that strikes me as especially odd is the impression both aspiring and experienced screenwriters have that the field is unique, that there’s nothing else quite like it. As far as I can see it’s virtually identical to the process aspiring entrepreneurs go through to find early-stage capital. These days, entrepreneurs tend to be treated better than screenwriters but the process of getting green-lighted isn’t all that different.

Both screenwriters and entrepreneurs develop their business plan/script, find the right people, pitch until they’re blue in the face, adjust their proposal, have countless odd things happen until the vision either dies or flies, then do the whole thing again while hopefully living in a nicer house from the money they made. The Hollywood crowd has managers and agents whereas the entrepreneurs have investment bankers but they’re both doing essentially the same function.

Aspiring and established screenwriters tend to write about screenwriting as if it’s the only type of writing job that exists. I’m a professional writer. It’s how I made my living for years now along with the occasional consulting gig that comes my way. My work is published in the top outlets for its category and many of my pieces are bestsellers. But I’m not a professional screenwriter. I’m not even sure I’d consider myself an aspirational screenwriter though I do like both my feature and my pilot script, especially the pilot (seriously! if you’re vaguely in the field, check out my series Origin Stories). It’s necessary to note aspiring screenwriters range from people with Master of Fine Art (MFA) degrees from UCLA, University of Southern California, and NYU to high school dropouts.

There are a few more superficial differences. Aspiring and professional screenwriters are in general more supportive towards one another. A few see the field, wrongly, as a zero-sum game but most get there’s little real competition. A producer who is going to pick up Origin Stories, a series of TV biopics about inventors isn’t going to pass on a horror film to make it. They’ll make one or the other (as with early-stage investors, beware the generalists). The Hollywood people tend to be more physically attractive and, if equally successful, they’ll have an easier time getting good tables at restaurants. Then again, the entrepreneur may be the person who owns the restaurant.

I’m not sure where the notion that breaking into screenwriting is substantively different than breaking into any other field came from. And if screenwriters looked at their scripts as business plans they’re selling — which isn’t far-fetched given the cost to produce a movie or TV show — they may learn a lot from entrepreneurs.

One thing that stands out given my day-job as an executive fellow at the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute: the Hollywood business model is hopelessly broken and in dire need of innovation. That was true before COVID and it’s far worse now. There’s enormous opportunity in entertainment but a business living in a past that went away once high-quality low-cost TVs and sound systems came into living rooms throughout the world.

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