Steve Kayser interviews prolific Hollywood author, Skip Press
What could it possibly have to do with a donkey and Hollywood?
The Complex Sale typically refers to a high-value purchase ($100,000 and up) involving a Buyer's Committee, consisting of anywhere from three to twelve people or more.
Does a Complex Sale (product or service) to large, successful companies like Wells Fargo, Dell, UPS, Northwestern Mutual Insurance, or Boeing, have anything in common with a sale to — Hollywood?
Surprisingly, yes. And prolific Hollywood author, Skip Press, will put it in perspective for us.
But first ...
Recently, at a technology trade show in Phoenix, I became embroiled in a discussion with sales folks from around the country about the dreaded Complex Sale. Within an hour, I was convinced it was a communicable disease.
I finally asked the most vociferous negativist in the group what exactly it was he sold. His response? The finely tuned sales pitch?
A tornadic swirl of immeasurably long and undecipherable words lasting five minutes.
Not even for a breath, which was, in my opinion, his most singular accomplishment, as I had no idea what he was trying to say.
Most Impressive Array of Corporate Gobbledygook Ever
I will admit however, that he had the most impressive array of corporate gobbledygook I'd ever heard. He used every acronym known to humankind, and possibly most extraterrestrials. Now (and this is a frank admission to gain the reader's trust) I pride myself on the ability to out-acronym virtually anyone, but he was the best I'd ever heard.
Yes. You guessed it. I had acronym envy.
"I was hoping," I politely mentioned, "for the answer in English."
"Steve," he said, a bit miffed, "You don't understand. A Complex Sale is a process that involves multiple people, disparate business units, disintermediation and commoditization strategies, and internal political hierarchies. I have to address our Strategic Vision to each constituency or risk disenfranchising potential decision-makers."
The Marketing Brochure
He hands me his marketing brochure. I still haven't quite grasped what he sells, but his brochure had pictures.
I opened the 12-page brochure and flipped to the "What We Do" section. It was only one sentence. Great!
It was nine (9) lines long.
me repeat. Nine lines long. Twenty-six commas, I counted. Then. Eureka! More
pictures on the brochure. I looked up and asked, "You sell Call Center
"No. Strategic enterprise-wide, mission-critical, customer-focused communications."
I lift my hand for a pause. Thankfully, he understands sign language and stops.
"Yes." A deafening silence, which leads quickly to a whispered confession and punctilious correction, "Call Center solutions" (stressing the solutions, better than "stuff").
He turned the tables on me, laid down the gauntlet.
"What do you sell?" I paused momentarily, but acronym envy had impaired my normally staid disposition.
Robust Platform-Neutral Portably (almost probably) Seamless Robuster LMNOP Robustest Interoperability
"I'm an R&D Analyst for hypothetical superluminal quantum particle applications with ERP, CRM, BPM, MRM and PLM functionality targeted at vertical market particularities with platform-neutral 'LMNOP' interoperability." (I must point out, for clarity's sake, that the LMNOP acronym means absolutely nothing except being easy to alphabetically remember.
He shakes his head, suitably impressed. "LMNOP" - cutting-edge stuff."
Uh-oh. There actually may be an acronym "LMNOP" that means something, somewhere to someone. I try to divert his attention for fear he will challenge my "LMNOP" expertise.
"How are your sales?" I ask.
He points thumbs down.
"Steve, I told you, it's a Complex Sales environment ... nothing, zero, nada, for the last two years. But my pipeline is full. Most of its forecasted 30% probability certain to close."
Impressive. Not often a 30% probability is equated to "certain to close."
In an attempt to extricate myself from the conversation and lift his spirits, I suggested that perhaps there are far more Complex Sales environments that he was, luckily, not involved with.
"Complex Sale? You could be selling to Hollywood ... now that'd be a Complex Sale."
"No" he said with an over-confident smile, "It can't be. You ever see the crap they put out?"
I counter, "That simply proves my point. Anyone who can sell a lame piece of crap for an exorbitant amount of money has obviously (at least once) mastered the Complex Sale process." He disagreed.
It was time to take a totally different approach. Time to …
“Shoot the Donkey" refers to a classic scene in the movie "Patton" (based upon a true life event) where the Third Army gets critically held up in battle on a bridge, by a cart-pulling donkey that has stopped and refuses to budge, totally blocking the bridge. Life and death are at stake. An MP struggles with the donkey and the owner, trying to get them out of the way. But makes no headway.
The entire Third Army halts for this recalcitrant donkey.
General George Patton roars up, leaps out of his jeep, whips out his ivory-handled pistol, shoots the donkey, and immediately has it hurled off the bridge, removing the obstacle.
The Great Leadership Principle
That classic scene not only revealed Patton's character in a cinematic way, but also embodies the great leadership principle of taking decisive action to remove all obstacles to fulfill one's mission.
Convinced that selling a project to Hollywood had to be an incredibly Complex Sale, I decided to get the real scoop from a respected Hollywood veteran and well-known author. I found that a really Complex Sale, such as to Hollywood, may, at times, be difficult, painful, long-term, discouraging, and frustrating. But it could, at the same time, be … simple?
Skip Press is an award-winning writer for radio, television and film. Skip won a Silver Medal at the New York International Film Festival and is the author of over two dozen books including:
"The Ultimate Writer's Guide to Hollywood"
"Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting" (two editions plus Russian)
"How to Write What You Want and Sell What You Write" (three editions)
Press also did three editions of "The Writer's Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriters’ Agents." The first edition of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Screenwriting" was deemed best of its kind by the "Writers Guild of Canada." The e-book of "How to Write What You Want and Sell What You Write" was a finalist in the Best Non-Fiction Book category in the first Eppie electronic book awards, and Barnes & Noble Books issued a new print edition in 2005. In addition, almost 1,000 colleges and universities on three continents offer Skip's screenwriting course titled "Your Screenwriting Career."
Skip can rattle off Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," scenarios to illustrate a business concept then seamlessly transition to Aristotle's Poetics, lauding its timelessness for covering the principles of dynamic storytelling. But, and this is very, very, very important, his writing is clear, entertaining, convincing, motivating and easy to understand. And, as Gareth Wigan, Co-Vice Chairman, Columbia Tristar Motion Picture Group, points out, "His writing combines fearless opinions and invaluable hard facts both of which are hard to find in Hollywood."
Pretty powerful stuff when you combine that with a rare blend of creative genius and business savvy that has enabled him to create, write, market, negotiate and close multiple Complex Sales, including book, film, radio and TV projects. And, as you'll learn after reading Skip's interview, in Hollywood - EVERY sale is a Complex Sale.
STEVE: Skip, is selling to Hollywood a Complex Sales process?
SKIP: I heard producer Mace Neufeld ("Hunt for Red October," "Sum of all Fears") talk once about putting a property into production that he had been trying to put onto film for 23 years.
Steve: That’s a long sales cycle for sure.
SKIP: Richard Attenborough took a quarter of a century in getting "Ghandi" on-screen. Wendy Finerman needed over a decade to get one particular film made, and when she began the process she was married to Marc Canton, who was the head of a studio. You have to be passionate about it, willing to do whatever it takes to get the project done. A co-writer and I recently had a screenplay "optioned" (picked up for possible production) that we first began writing 15 years ago.
Passion + Persistence + Doing Whatever It Takes =
Success in the Complex Sale
SKIP: Selling something to Hollywood can also be very simple if you arrive with an already popular property. Examples: a non-fiction book, a novel, a comic book or a well-known national true story. If you have an original, well-written screenplay it better be in a popular genre so that it's readily evident that it will make money at the box office.
Concept Easy to Understand + Evident How It Will Make Money or Solve
STEVE: Example of one of these properties?
SKIP: Reading "It's Not Easy Being An Idiot" on the first page of Winston Groom’s novel hooked Wendy Finerman on a project that took 10 years to get financed.
STEVE: Now that's a line I can relate to.
SKIP: Determination, unfailing spirit, and 10 years of tenacious hard work, even in the face of continued skepticism that the project would ever be made, eventually resulted in a little film called "Forrest Gump" with:
Over $1 billion in box office revenue
Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and 20 other awards.
Determination + Daring to Dare + Unfailing Spirit =
Anything You Can Dream.
"Few things are harder to put up with than
the annoyance of a good example."
— Pudd'nhead Wilson -1894
SKIP: Unfortunately, most people don't bring undying determination to Hollywood, and so they must find a champion for their project who won't give up, like the filmmakers mentioned above. Stepwise, this can mean an agent who finds a producer. Stepping back one step, it might mean finding a manager (unregulated by the State of California, unlike agents), who works with an agent or goes straight to a producer. It might be an entity that acts both as manager and producer, like Bender-Spink.
Then a producer will have relationships with a funding apparatus, which may or may not be a studio. To get funding, the producer might attach a director, who will attract talent, which will hopefully impress funding entities. If not funded by a studio, the producer might need to line up distribution, and a distribution company will know how much the talents' names are "worth" in various worldwide markets, so this will factor in how much they will be willing to spend. For all of these reasons, I advise people to try to write and sell in established genres and markets before trying to re-invent Hollywood.
Know the Business.
Know the Process.
Speak the Language.
STEVE: A crucial step in a Complex Sales process is an easy-to-understand value proposition. You encapsulated that in one of your books as "Hollywood Success in 25 words or less." Can you explain what that means, and, how important is it in your business?
SKIP: Here's a personal example. My own script that I mentioned above is called "Alien Creeps." You can probably get an idea from the title that it's about aliens and you might intuit without much trouble that it's funny. I told a friend of mine, who had run all the TV series and TV movies at Viacom (the parent company of CBS, Paramount, etc.) the title. He smiled and told me it was a good title. The concept communicated to him immediately, before he even heard the logline (the 25 words or less). So it really starts with a title, and this applies to any business. "Mr. Johnson, I understand you live in a haunted house. Have you ever enlisted the services of a ghost buster?" That's the concept — Ghostbusters — the profession doesn't exist per se but you know pretty much what the movie is about just from the title.
Or, it can be an intriguing title that makes you want it explained, like "Men in Black". So then, you have to tell someone on the phone, or via e-mail, or (worst choice) in a letter, what your script is about. You expand it further, which is sort of what studio marketing people do when they say things on the poster like "Next Summer: You Will Believe." You call someone and you say my script is called Hitler: The Other Story. And so they're intrigued, perhaps. "What do you mean The Other Story?" they ask. "Well, my script is an alternate history look at what would have happened if Hitler had become a successful artist the way he wanted." And that might be enough to get them to at least read the script, and if your story was interesting, then you might get somewhere. (By the way, in case you think this made-up-on-the-fly script idea is far-fetched, that didn’t stop the Hitler mini-series from getting made by a U.S. network.)
STEVE: One of the most important keys in any Complex Sale is getting the right information, to the right person, at the right time. How do you accomplish this, finding the right person at the right time?
SKIP: You pay attention to what Hollywood is doing by a daily reading of "the trades" meaning the Hollywood newspapers like Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. If you live here, you also network with people, go to parties, go to screenings of films, and try to find out who is looking for what. And then you get lucky. I have a TV project being pitched at a high level at Paramount. I just happened to bring it to someone who has their ear at a time when they were considering a similar series but couldn't get it right.
Attention to "The Trades," Industry Mags + Research + Build Relationships =
Placing you in the Right Position to Win the Complex Sale, or Get Lucky.
(Yes, luck counts too.)
STEVE: "Pitching." What is it, and how do you relate it to the Complex Sales scenario?
SKIP: It is explaining your entire movie, usually within 15 minutes. If your pitch is effective, the executive you are pitching to will bring in his/her boss and you pitch again, until you reach a person who can say yes or no. In some cases, they will then go pitch the story to their boss, the person who writes the "green light" checks at a production company, network or studio. In short, you have to keep making people happy all the way to the top. Not any different than any other business, is it?
Knowing Thy Pitch Frontward, Backward, Upside-Down = Making People
Happy (including yourself when you close the deal)
STEVE: You advocate, and have often exemplified, aggressive action, cold calling, never waiting or depending on someone else to get you through to the highest-level contact possible. Some people have an aversion to this, or, perhaps, are intimidated. But you also state that usually, in your experience, the higher-level point of contact (Producer-Director=CEO-CFO), the easier they are to talk with. How did you come to this conclusion?
SKIP: I've never had a problem with it. I said hello to Richard Donner ("Lethal Weapon," "Conspiracy Theory," "Superman") in a parking lot and sent him scripts for years afterward. I ran into Michael York ("Austin Powers" trilogy, "The Omega Code") in a copy shop and noticed he was copying something about Tennessee Williams, whom I'd interviewed - we struck up a conversation and have been friendly since. And speaking of Tennessee Williams, I knocked on his door in New York one day and asked to interview him for a magazine and he said yes. Very gracious man.
"Fortune favors the bold."
There have been times when I have been intimidated by legends. Fred Astaire walked by me on the street in Beverly Hills one day and said hello and my jaw literally dropped and I managed to bungle out a return greeting. Burt Lancaster smiled and tipped his hat to my then wife and I one day in Century City. I covered the opening of a club Merle Haggard started in North Hollywood and every country legend within the western U.S. was there, and the only people I just couldn't muster up the nerve to say howdy to were Roy Rogers & Dale Evans who were absolutely glowing and everything my cowboy pal childhood mentality told me they would be. Nevertheless, by and large, the nicest people are at the top in this business.
No one is unapproachable.
Open your eyes.
(I'm not sure about saying "howdy" though.)
But, even though they’re nice, approaching a “power player” may be dangerous if you don't have your concept and/or script together. If you do have it together, though, you will not blow your first chance with a powerful and busy person. Even if they don't have a particular liking or need for your particular project, if they are impressed by your conceptualization and presentation, they'll listen to you again. In the instances above, the stars who said hello to me may have noticed me because I'm generally confident, or they could've just been nice guys. First impressions mean a lot. I got a phone call from Michael York's assistant one day about something I wanted to interest Michael in (Michael was doing a movie in Croatia at time). I realized it had been almost 20 years since we’d first met. So good first impressions can start long-lasting relationships.
Sell to power.
Don't waste decision-makers' time.
STEVE: But, there are instances, probably more often than not, when you have to work your way up the ladder to the decision-maker. How do you get past the gates in Hollywood?
SKIP: First of all, you mustn't think of those "gates" as part of a castle where the gatekeeper will always be a lowly soldier or servant. In all the major agencies - and this has been true a long time — everyone starts out working in the mailroom, so they learn how the agency works. No matter what college degree they bring in, that’s the rule. In production companies, the person going for coffee today (called a "go-fer") might be a staff writer the next day (this actually happened to a guy in my Yahoo! group “Skip’s Hollywood Hangout”). So it pays to be cordial with everyone and not condescend. You're not in a hurry to get past someone but to get into communication with them and get to know them. More often than not that works well, and they remember your sincerity and interest when others have not paid them this respect. Over the years, I have seen person after person work with established producers like David Permut ("Dragnet," "Blind Date," "Face-Off") and move on up to produce movies with David and then go off on their own highly successful careers. So gatekeeper today, hotshot producer tomorrow. Don't give them a reason to remember to hate you.
Develop relationships from the go-fer to the CEO.
Don't ever give them a reason to remember to hate you.
"A child of five would understand this. Someone fetch a child of five!"
— Groucho Marx
STEVE: How important is that first sale to a writer? That first reference or success story? How can it elevate marketability and economic reward?
SKIP: It's just a sale, unless it is a big splash sale for a lot of money that gets mentioned in the trades. At that point, you're suddenly on everyone's "radar" and your old classmate from kindergarten calls you about a project they'd like you to help with. With references, you reflect up on the person who sent you, so if you don't create a good impression, don't expect a lot more references.
STEVE: In your opinion, what’s changed in the last few years in Hollywood?
SKIP: These days in Hollywood, escapist entertainment rules. When pretty people do exciting things onscreen, people watch, living vicariously through them. Some times it doesn't matter about small things like rumors of breaking up a marriage while making "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" - audiences want to forget about their struggles via onscreen thrills of people like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
STEVE: For years you have been espousing a simple message. A message to writers, that if you want to win, and win big, you have to do one thing. Write for …
SKIP: "Family" entertainment. It triumphs overall, partly because of numbers. Kids will see a movie they like multiple times in a theater, while adults may not. And if the kids, the parents and the grandparents can all see and enjoy the same film, guess which one they pick? Most often, this means a comedy, and more likely than not a CGI-animated film voiced by top Hollywood actors.
How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in life you will have been all of these.
SKIP: Then there's the great movie, the quirky independent that seems to come out of nowhere, speaks to the great underdog-loving North American audience, and thrill people to the consternation of formulaic-driven Hollywood executives. Like the main character in "Napoleon Dynamite" says in the first scene of the film, these movies seem to do "God! Whatever I want to!" The original budget of the Utah-made "Napoleon Dynamite" was $200,000 and it grossed $40,000,000 at the box office. Try to find a Hollywood studio movie with that kind of return - you won't. Originality still rules, and usually comes from outside Hollywood.
STEVE: The great under-dog loving audience. Know it well. That defines the appeal of Forrest Gump to me. Simple. Honest. Ethical. True to heart.
STEVE: Rejection. It's part of every sales process, more so I think in the Complex Sales process because of the multiple people and groups with differing agendas involved. A lot of potential Donkeys. How do you "Shoot the Rejection Donkey," and what one word describes the best lesson learned in your career about it?
SKIP: Serenity. I used to get very angry over rejection and burned bridges. Sometimes, I had something to learn. Sometimes the rejecter was full of crap. Sometimes I was simply offering the right product to the wrong buyer. Anger generally doesn't do you much good. It's appropriate in some instances - some people need a good chewing out, and some people are just worthless creeps who need to think you will loose the hounds of hell on them so they'll stop screwing with people. But generally, you need to just figure out if you erred with your work or in contacting that person in the first place (wrong market). If not, just find the right market and keep sending it out. And you must remember this - sometimes you're just ahead of your time. Lastly but most important, there's a principle I call "resonance." If you've ever tuned a guitar or piano (or seen someone do it), then you've seen a point where a musical string vibrates in harmony with the tuning device. The same thing happens with people. You won't hit it off with some people, no matter what you do. So if there isn't resonance, don't think twice about it. Just move on to someone with whom you will find a mutual resonance.
Re-read above paragraph.
Re-read above paragraph.
STEVE: What, in your opinion, matters the most in closing the Complex Hollywood sale?
SKIP: Talent without ego.
"A short saying often contains much wisdom."
STEVE: What's the biggest obstacle you run into and how do you get around it?
SKIP: Getting the time to use all that I know to write scripts that I know will sell and other things that I'd love to leave as my legacy, whether I sell them in my lifetime or not.
STEVE: Final question. You're a well-respected veteran journalist. What's been your favorite interview so far, and why?
SKIP: My favorite interview? A tie between Tennessee Williams and Steven Spielberg. Tennessee because he was so gracious and so damn funny, invited me into his home. Spielberg because he's in love with what he does and so upfront about it.
I was as intrigued by the answers of the author of "Chocolat" (who was thrilled with the movie of her book) as I was in hearing what John Williams (who made "Shrek" happen) had to say about how he developed the movie from a tiny children's book his kid liked. I simply enjoy talking with people who love the creative process and don't mind doing the sometimes very hard work (that latter part is the difference between them and dilettantes).
Love the work. Work the love.
About Skip Press
Skip Press is currently working on a book that applies his discoveries about the "Shaping Force" of great screen stories to life itself.
The "Shaping Force" was a unique story discovery and has been well received by students. It doesn't bind creators to a set "formula" like some other gurus tout. Skip uses it in his own work and life with much success.
About Steve Kayser
Steve Kayser is currently PR Manager for Cincom Systems, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. Steve has recently specialized in hypothetical superluminal quantum particle applications with ERP, CRM, BPM, MRM, and PLM functionality targeted at vertical market particularities with platform-neutral LMNOP interoperability.
In his spare time, Steve models kilts for Un-Vanity, Non-GQ and The Manly Kilt Wearing Man’s monthly magazines. Steve also headlines fundraising events for his run at an Olympic Gold Medal in the kilt-wearing mechanical bull-riding competition to be held in Cincinnati, Ohio in 2050.
In addition, Steve has won screenwriting awards from: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science Nicholl Screenwriting Competition, Writers Digest Screenwriting Competition, and Project Greenlight. Steve was also named a “Purple Cow” by best-selling author Seth Godin, featured in a Marketing best practices cases by MarketingSherpa, Innovation Quarterly, B2B Marketing Trends among others.
For more information, you can contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org