Interview with Madhouse Entertainment co-founder, literary manager & producer, Adam Kolbrenner

Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes):  You interned at William Morris while still in college, before being offered an assistant job there and then, after only three years, you left to start your own management company.  What first inspired you to work in the entertainment industry and in representation in particular?  And what drove you to leave William Morris, still very early in your career, and start your own company?

Adam Kolbrenner:  Being on the representation side from the beginning was about understanding artists and what drives the creative in a business based entirely on creative vision.  Working at a large agency is the “belly of the beast” and a real ground-floor look into the machinations of the larger entity.  When I was at William Morris, I studied people, specifically, observed how some managers in Hollywood performed their jobs.  Then, I determined, if I do the exact OPPOSITE of what all those people do, I can have a great career.  When I left William Morris everyone warned me about starting a management company when a powerhouse name like Mike Ovitz was starting his management company AMG.  So, my initial goal was to be a manager longer than Ovitz, I succeeded there.  The only difference is he ended up with a better art collection and a sushi restaurant.

Kevin:  The story of you, developing the Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal film Prisoners with client Aaron Guzikowski over the period of five plus years is fairly well publicized.  But for those who may not know, can you explain briefly how you connected with Aaron and how Prisoners was developed and ultimately produced?  What was it about Aaron and his screenplay specifically, that made you want to spend as much time and effort getting his script made into a movie?

Adam:   Aaron was a new writer based in Brooklyn, NY and he sent me a query letter about a script he had written.  I thought it was interesting that he was from Brooklyn and he had a funky last name, so I had him send me his script.  He says he only sent the letter to me because he went in alphabetical order by first name and stopped after 4 names thinking no one would ever respond to him.  His first script was not a home run of an idea but his voice was on the page in such a clear way, it was impossible not to reach out and talk to him.  About 6 months after reading that first script, Aaron came up with the concept for PRISONERS.  We spent months breaking the story and years breaking the script.  Aaron, myself and Ryan & Chris at Madhouse all poured into that screenplay.  But, most importantly, Aaron never gave up.  No matter how many notes we gave him or how long it took, he pressed on with the development.  He was so committed to it, so we were too.  He wanted it to be perfect.  Ultimately, when it was finally complete, we tried to get an agency on board, they all passed.  But one agent Adam Levine, said yes.  And the story turned to a new chapter of getting the script sold, finding Denis Villeneuve to direct and making a film we will be proud of forever.


Kevin:  I know that you’re particularly discriminating about what you send out, but at the same time, you’re known for constantly reading everything you can get your hands on. Can you describe your philosophy when it comes to the spec scripts, writing samples and finding new clients?

Adam:  One philosophy is to read more than everyone else.  Some people go see movies every day or watch every episode of television.  I would rather read them all.  If I wanted to represent actors I’d watch more movies I guess.  I believe that when you have the great material people will want to read it.  All the actors and directors out there will be available to you.  A well designed spec script, worked over in the development process will be your writing sample and will lead to jobs out there.  I find clients by any means possible.  I don’t care who it comes from or how it comes to me, I want to read it.  I’d recommend using the system that we have for submissions via the company website.  Most companies will have some sort of infrastructure to accept queries.  However, sending direct emails not via a company site will often go unread as it’s against policy to read and reply.

Kevin:  Before the last WGA strike, when the spec market was in its salad days, a writer could often get by with just an agent and attorney.  Now the market is very different, with spec sales more rare and a lot of material being developed in-house and managers have become an integral part of that process.  Can you explain a little of the state of the spec market and how you, as a manager and producer, fit into the development process?

Adam:  Big ideas sell.  Well written and well developed big ideas sell for more.  The spec market will always be alive and kicking, but it’s far more important now for producers out there to have a real point of view about the material they are trying to sell to a buyer.  The days of a producer just flinging a spec to a studio to get them to buy don’t exist, they need to fight.  So I need to find the producers out there who are willing to fight for the scripts.  A lot of them are already super rich so they don’t have to fight as hard as they used to.

Kevin:  Can explain what a one-step deal is, for some of our newer screenwriters – and then what your thoughts are about them?  Do you think the one-step deal adversely affects screenwriter’s creativity and their ability to attempt unique storytelling in fear of not being hired to do any future drafts of the script?

Adam:  Being hired by studios today is harder than ever before, thanks in large part to the WGA strike in my opinion.  One step deals are a way for studios to put a stop/gap on their bet of a writer.  If the first draft comes in and they don’t like it, they kill the project or kill the idea of the writer continuing to work on the project.  My feeling in general goes two ways.  Some writers it makes sense for based on the project and the studio.  Some writers it makes no sense to do it based on the financial constraints.  The reality is now its commonplace for studio execs to ask writers to do more work before technically accepting the draft at the studio.  This is clearly against WGA rules, but they don’t seem to care enough to defend its members and stop the practice.


Kevin:  So many new screenwriters focus on one thing – the spec sale – and really aren’t prepared for procuring other screenwriting jobs.  Can you explain some of the other avenues that a screenwriter, using an unsold, but well liked spec as a writing sample, can develop scripts/pitches/projects and get paid writing assignments?

Adam:  This goes back to the development work of a new spec – if you do that work the waterfall of projects should come from that stem.  I tell my clients to assume there will never be a writing assignment of value for them and to just write a new spec.  Most writing assignments are a way for some executives to justify their jobs by spinning writers around for months without any real understanding of the end goal that would ultimately get a writer paid for the job.  I don’t want to sound cynical, it’s the reality.

Kevin:  It’s always said that everyone is looking for familiar stories with unique twists or points of view.  Can you talk a little about what it really means to come up with a new take on a universal theme/idea/story and why those tend to be so highly sought out by executives and producers?

Adam: This is a question about having a relatable story more than anything else in my view.  What’s a common story idea or theme that audiences will understand and pay attention to?  Then it’s a matter of the writer giving it unique ideas and his/her fresh voice.  Perspective on story is what this is all about.

Kevin:  A lot of writers are concerned that networking outweighs talent when it comes to screenwriting success.  Do you feel networking is valuable for screenwriters and how important is it in relation to talent?

Adam:  This is confusing to me.  Writers need to write.  They don’t need to mingle.  They aren’t here to find love or make new friends.  If it were up to me, all writers would be barred from ever leaving their homes until the drafts are complete.  Then, they can go get food, but they need to come home right after lunch and rewrite.

At some level, the networking with other writers is important to get opinions of your work and rewrite from those opinions.  The networking around the Hollywood community happens naturally as a result of the work you produce and the reactions that work receives.


Kevin:  Why is it important for screenwriters to have a brand or be known for a specific genre and how can they best position themselves to do so?

Adam: I don’t believe you need to brand yourself, just need to find your voice, the brand will follow from that – I do believe a writer can know what they are good at and what they are not good at.  Too often writers will say they have a dark period drama and a college comedy and a TV pilot and I just pass.  Asking the community of executives to determine who or what you are as a writer is a flawed plan.  You have to have some sense of self awareness, the jobs and career will flow from that.

Kevin:  When you’re not spending your days breaking new writers’ careers, how do you like to spend your free time?

Adam:   Being with my wife and our 3 puppies.  Spending quality time outside the written page gives me a perspective about the things you read.  Watching Yankee games.  And for sport:  Boxing.  I’m training now to fight Floyd Mayweather.

Kevin:  What would you consider some of the best, or your favorite, screenwriting resources?

Adam:  “Story” by Robert McKee.  His seminar I highly recommend to all writers, not just screenwriters.  Twitter is a great resource to hear and see what the community of screenwriters is discussing every day.  All the trade websites are vital:  Deadline, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, etc.  And all the other players now online are important as well:  Hitfix, Rope of Silicon, JoBlo, Screen Rant, El Mayimbe, etc.

Kevin:  Lastly, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters or is there anything else you’d like to share?

Adam:  Write.  Write more than the guy next to you.  Write fast, but write quality.  Then:  rewrite.  Also, spell check.  And don’t try and fool me with shrinking margins and writing scripts on ‘tight’ in Final Draft format.



Kevin:   Who should play Adam in an Adam and Eve movie – opposite Amy Adams as Eve, of course:  Adam Arkin, Adam Sandler or Adam West?

Adam:  Sandler circa ‘Punch Drunk Love

Kevin:  Bigger “Madhouse” right now:  Barnum & Bailey Circus, U.S. Congress, or The L.A. Clippers organization?

Adam:   Politics bore me.

Kevin:  Who would win in a paint ball war:  Robyn Meisinger, Ryan Cunningham, Chris Cook or yourself and why?

Adam:  Robyn Meisinger.  She’s “Patton” in this office.


MORE QUESTIONS FOR ADAM?  Adam is happy to answer your Q’s via Twitter or email us at ask [at] scriptsandscribes {dot} com and we’ll forward it on.  Questions only please.  All other correspondence, queries and/or scripts and other material will be deleted.  Thanks!


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