Interview with Literary Manager and Producer, Alexander Robb
Kevin Fukunaga (Scripts & Scribes): How did you get your start in entertainment and what made you want to work in the industry?
Alexander Robb: That’s a long story. As a kid growing up in Michigan I truly loved film and television. I spent plenty of time outdoors but I was a sponge of anything on the silver screen. Flash forward to Michigan State University, and after struggling to find a passion in my studies, I stumbled upon film. It was a bit of a left field idea to go into entertainment from Michigan though. None of my family ever worked in the industry. Years later I moved to Southern California and began working in physical production, from sweeping floors on big studio movies like the Jodie Foster thriller, FLIGHT PLAN, to stunts on the Mark Burnett/Sylvester Stallone series, THE CONTENDER. Eventually segued into an assistant gig at The Gersh Agency working for a senior TV Lit Agent, then spent a brief spin in indie film finance before becoming a Creative Exec at Melee Entertainment. Post writer strike I started my own shop where I currently work in all mediums of the business. All genres. Film. Both indie and studio. TV. Live-action. Animation. Scripted. Unscripted. Publishing. Video games. Comics. Kids content. Etc.
Kevin: What was your first script sale ever and how did you celebrate?
Alexander: Eesh. Putting me on the spot!! I honestly can’t remember but I will tell you how I started my business. Post-Melee I was stuck between being over-qualified for an assistant gig and under-qualified for a studio development position. The economy in 2009-10 was shit but I left Melee with a couple properties, one of which, a Hitchcockian home-invasion thriller that I spec’d out and ultimately started my business with my first-to-be client? His spec lead to a development opportunity on a feature that was supposed to be the sequel to THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE, with the original film’s producer, Arnold Kopelsohn.
Kevin: What is your typical work week like and how often do you like to speak with your clients?
Alexander: Work varies. Some weeks I focus on notes and development. Others I’m taking meetings and presenting pitches. Some I’m negotiating deals while others I’m setting meetings for my clients and discussing strategy. Each of my clients gets a personal, hands-on strategy. We discuss each creative opportunity and I try to guide per their creative strengths and passions, while fielding opportunities and sourcing IP. Usually a typical week is a mix of all of the previous though.
Kevin: You’ve worked in the industry since 2004. How has the business changed since you started and where do you predict it going in the future?
Alexander: Very good question. The past, present and future are all fractured but connected. The system continually evolves. Both creatively and financially. I could rant about this for days but in general? As technology shifts, so does content and consumption as it fits each new development. Take, for example, video games. In the matter of decades, the global gaming industry has literally eclipsed the total GDP of the sex industry, reaching a gross total of somewhere around $100 billion worldwide. The point? Consumers have an extremely diverse set of options when it comes to entertainment, regardless of form and media. As for tomorrow? I see a world where the machine continues to meld with the individual. That may be ten years away, or less, but VR and AR will not only create new opportunities, but the physical mediums will shift again, much the way home video and streaming influenced film and television. Not too long ago I did a deal with CAA for one of my clients to write one of the first Oculus Rift VR games, Chronos, which was basically Zelda on steroids. The game is extremely immersive and the fees for writers in the gaming industry are healthy. And while there are wholly distinct challenges to securing a job for a client in the gaming space, I imagine we’ll continue to see a convergence of tech and narrative that makes for a more interactive experience.
Kevin: 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?
Alexander: The spec market is challenging. For some reason material not only needs to be square on the bulls-eye creatively, but the execution is paramount to getting material to the next level. That wasn’t always the case. Ideas with no IP or talent attachments used to sell. (Packaged) Pitches, however, are very en vogue. Nonetheless, that bulls-eye for specs is a narrow window that needs to fit producers, studios, showrunners and networks. In short? Specs need to be perfect. And that’s to just get in the conversation of maybe having a conversation about whether or not a player will take interest. As for where I personally fit into the process? I’ll say this. My entire life I’ve been independent. So as the saying goes, if you want anything done right? You do it yourself. Granted I still play a role in the overall system. But each creative opportunity presents a unique business opportunity. Sometimes I’ll have an idea that I’ll pitch to a client and we’ll build the property from the ground up together. From outline to final draft, with numerous drafts in between. Some properties need a little push too so I’ll often create a look book. Others I’ll spend a good amount of time acquiring the rights to something like a graphic novel, which I’ll shop as a producer, and look to partner and ultimately package. And sometimes I source job opportunities for my clients. And it goes much further than that, but that’s the tip of the iceberg. I’m also a consultant for a fantastic company called Roadmap Writers. They help writers connect with industry professionals and they offer programs that range from reviewing pitches to personal mentorship where I help each writer find their voice.
Kevin: Obviously, first and foremost, a writer should write a script they’re passionate about, but are there certain genres or topics that are especially difficult to sell for baby writers?
Alexander: I’m gonna approach this answer with a slightly different angle. My evaluation of a writer is mostly based on their talent. I look for a writer with vision. With style in their writing where they let their voice breathe and not get stuck in the confines of camera direction or flat, blanketed descriptions that talk at the reader. Ultimately I believe that anyone with true talent can work and succeed in any genre and medium. Take, for example, BROAD CITY, on Comedy Central. The ladies? They just HAD it!! That said, you can still evaluate the market and see what’s selling and being green-lit. Keep in mind the timing though. Most of the time, by the time you see an announcement in the trades, that project will be anywhere between six months and three years in the works already. So it’s important to be aware of the creative ebbs and flows.
Kevin: What are your expectations when you sign a new client? How much material is ideal to have in their arsenal at the beginning? How often should they be writing and developing new material?
Alexander: Great questions. Approaching this from a literal standpoint? I think every writer should be able to create at least two scripts and one pitch per year. At minimum. Ideally, however, let’s say a writer can do both film and TV, one hour drama. Ideally though, any writer would be smart to create four well fleshed out scripts and one or two well fleshed out pitches per year. The goal is to get producers, studios and networks, as well as publishers and game developers (for those who are multi-hyphenates) to bring opportunities your way. To get there though every writer needs a solid resume. And within that resume, hopefully they bring something unique to the table. Like being a journalist or an attorney. A former cop or teacher. Or you can go farther and have a background like Channing Tatum and Diablo Cody, and bring a unique life story to the table. Even being a history buff or a comic nerd is valuable. It’s all about pushing your talent. And when it comes to rates of success? The reason why writers need to be so prolific is two-fold. One. A good writer would sell one out of four projects. Including pitches and scripts. An average writer may be around one out of five or six. That means that if you’re only putting out two projects per year, you may sell something once every couple years. And that’s a tough way to build a name…
Kevin: What is the most common misconception, by aspiring screenwriters, about what managers do and don’t do?
Alexander: Also gonna approach this from another direction… I have a lot of great close relationships with a number of managers. From those at bigger firms like Circle of Confusion and Zero Gravity to independent managers like myself. And I’ve got A TON of respect for what we do. The business today is both growing and filled with opportunity, and it’s also increasingly difficult to succeed in due to the shift in the development game. So the 10 or 15 or 20 percent game is arduous. Buyers are slow to pay and deals take months to negotiate. Why I share this is bc many don’t know what it’s like for reps today. So ultimately what writers should be looking for is a manager who genuinely takes an interest in their talent and believes in them. Because this business is a marathon. And for me personally, because of how I run my business with so much one-on-one interaction? I have to like the person I’m working with because I spend a lot of time interacting with each client!! Ha!! Granted if I rep’d a high grossing earner who was a pain in the ass I’d gladly take on the challenge, but regardless, writers should avoid any rep who they’re not in sync with, on various fronts. As for what managers do? See above…
Kevin: What are the most common mistakes you see newer writers making and how can they avoid them?
Alexander: Not a fan of when I see writers following trends. Be original. Just be smart about it creatively. Remener that producers spend anywhere between three to seven years working on a project. They want something that’s intelligently designed, with real “legs” and can sell. And they have to be proud of the properties they work on that pulls them away from their families and represents them in the industry.
Kevin: Lastly, what kind of advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters or is there anything else you’d like to share?
Alexander: Let your writing breathe. And make your voice active, not passive. Too many writers use “ing” improperly. As well as using “is” “are” and “we see/hear”. That creates a flat description that talks at the reader and puts them behind the action, thereby taking them out of the flow of the narrative.
Kevin: What is your favorite insignia of all time?
Alexander: Nike? Or the NBA logo of Jerry West. #classic
Kevin: Who (or what) is your favorite Robb and why? Robb Stark, AnnaSophia Robb or the Robb Report?
Alexander: Oddly enough there aren’t many famous “Robbs”. My family is somewhere between blue and white collar. So I wouldn’t mind if the family tree had the creative talent of AnnaSophia Robb in it :)
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