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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on Thomas Dever, the head of development at Coverfly. Thomas, thanks for being on with us today.
Tom: My pleasure, thanks for having me!
Geoffrey: I wanted to really chat about Coverfly, because it’s a really cool way of submitting your scripts to festivals and contests. I like to cover these different avenues, get a behind-the-scenes look at what’s going, and ways you can provide for our screenwriters out there to take advantage of your platform. But before we get into that, let’s get a little bit of your origin story.
Tom: Oh man, where to start? I’m originally from Ohio and two weeks after I graduated undergrad, I moved out to Los Angeles to start working in the film industry. And, in the stereotypical mid-western way, I didn’t have any sort of plan. I thought, “I’m just gonna go work there.” In the early part of my career, I started reading at a production company that had a first-look studio deal, from there I was able to work under a producer making a Fox Searchlight film. That’s where I got my crash course in both production and development, and basically learned the skills of assessing screenplays that I still use to this day. I hit a bit of a crossroads in my career where the typical trajectory was to get in the mailroom at one of the big four agencies and that would set you on the career path. I interviewed at two of them, which I won’t name, but with one of them the interview honestly frightened me in a way my naïve midwestern-self was not ready for. Even thought it maybe would’ve been the more sensible career path, I realized I can’t do this. That opened up a few years of me bouncing around between many different endeavors; everything from reality television, to teaching at a film school.
Somewhere in there, based off of working for that production company with the studio deal, I was reading for screenwriting competitions. I think I went in admittedly, and I think you’ll appreciate this seeing how you’re familiar with the screenwriting competition space, I remember when I would get the agency submissions at the company, being so underwhelmed. I thought, “these are so collectively vanilla. Being a professional screenwriter must be a very attainable goal.” When I went into screenwriting competitions, just doing it freelance and moonlighting, thinking that these were the people who weren’t good enough for that, so what are the quality of these going be? I was so pleasantly surprised that the quality was amazing and there were really excellent samples, voices, and writers from fascinating backgrounds. I should’ve known this, but that’s where it clicked for me that it’s not just about talent on the page, it’s about talent and the intersection of opportunity, relationships, resources, and all these other factors. That really charted my course to where I am now with Coverfly and where the company has grown in the past few years, particularly my position and my department of bridging that gap to make connections so that if you do have the talent, we can supplement those other parts. We can solve those problems of relationships and opportunities that aren’t readily available to writers.
Geoffrey: Let’s chat about that for a second. Thomas, you sound like a writer’s writer. It sounds like you’ve done everything. I almost want to ask if you had to live in your car, it sounds like you have that story going where you had to go down to LA. It’s good to talk to someone who has that background, understanding, and empathy for what other writers are going through. With Coverfly, they’re really judicious on the festivals they bring into their network. I can say this firsthand because I run the Script Summit screenplay contest and everything we do is for screenwriters. We’ve got cash prices, we offer a contract with a Hollywood talent manager for one of our winners, we really try to go out there and make it happen, which it sounds like Coverfly shares that. Something I don’t think a lot of people know, Coverfly vets festivals. I was wondering if you could talk about that for a second.
Tom: Sure, at the risk of opening a significantly larger discussion, I feel like I could do an entire miniseries on the world that is screenwriting competitions. As a person in it, it’s such an interesting niche. I think people who aren’t terribly familiar with it get an impression and generalize them together. They come in all shapes and sizes with different goals and initiatives, depending on the people running it and the affiliate partners behind it. What we ultimately look at, when verifying our partners on the platform, is are they actually providing value to writers? How do [the festivals] justify that? Is it connections in the industry? Is it well known mentors that are improving their craft? Is it the successes of previous winners who’ve gone on out of the opportunities created by the competition? The partner management side of the company could speak a little more in depth on that, but it comes back to that core philosophy of “how do we help these writers?” If it’s a competition that is just going to read the first ten pages take your submission fee, then feels no obligation to give anything in return, that’s not really someone we want to have on the platform. It gives a bad name to those who are providing a legitimate service and value to the writers.
Geoffrey: I think it’s okay for us to dig into other festivals because that’s what I really like about Coverfly. You guys actually approached Script Summit, you came to us and said, “we’re interested, we’ve been watching you, and we’ve seen what you’re doing for the community.” You vetted our festival, and we were able to be on the platform. There’s other platforms that do not do that. There’s tens of thousands of festivals out there. There’s horror stories of people submitting to contests, never getting read or judged, then they visit the address of the contest and it’s in the middle of the desert. There are some scams out there that are just in it for the money. As somebody who runs a festival, if you’re doing it right then your festival breaking even, at best. You’re not making cash on this, it’s almost selfless in a way because you’re putting in a bunch of effort.
Tom: It’s a very passion-driven thing. I could dive into this, though I know we want to talk about my advice to writers. I think that the entertainment industry is undeniably a business and an industry. You’re talking massive revenue and profits for these companies. But it’s such an emotionally driven thing. I think if all you care about was getting rich, I would advise doing something other than screenwriting competitions or the film industry, in general. You’re there for it because you love it, and it is that passion that is driving you. That’s really across the board. It is selfless, but passion is one the word I keep coming back to with all of this. If you didn’t have that, I don’t know if you would stick it out with us.
Geoffrey: No, you’re right. We’re going on four years with Script Summit and I can tell you that I love watching the community grow. I’m moved. I don’t want to admit that I get a little teary-eyed when I see people on the Facebook/community page supporting each other, even if they don’t win, they’re excited about the other person [who did win]. Seeing everyone come together to help and swap scripts, it warms my heart. I think you’re 100% right, it is a lot of passion and work, but if you’re running a festival, you’re not getting rich on it. Unless you’re these other scams out there that are just taking money for nothing. But that’s what I really respect about Coverfly. I do want to get some of your advice on what scripts you think do well on Coverfly, in particular. You have this thing called The Red List and I think that’s interesting. What scripts do well, how do you improve your Red List score, and what can it do for you?
Tom: That’s really where this idea was born out of, which is you have people submitting to Script Summit, getting coverage from this other service, then being a finalist in this other competition. Before Coverfly, we saw that this was so scattershot, and getting that all into one place for the writer profile accomplishes a couple things. One, you get to put all your accomplishments in one place and actually have a cohesive writer profile of everything you’ve done. It’s a documentation of how a bunch of different sources have responded to your material.
Geoffrey: Like a resume, sort of?
Tom: To a certain extent, like an aggregation. There’s a similar component of something like Rotten Tomatoes to it, as well. There’s a weight behind it and you get a confidence metric, which I can dive into. One thing I would really love to reiterate to every writer is that there is no completely objective perspective on quality. That is how you end up with 70 people passing on Back to the Future, or how nobody would pick up Montauk until it became Stranger Things. That’s it. Something is not undeniably good, and nobody is perfectly qualified at [judging] that, so it’s important to remember that it’s about how people are responding to your material. If you submit to ten festivals and seven of them say this is a finalist level screenplay, you’ve got that data to have and to understand, which accomplishes things on two fronts. One, for the public-facing side of it with your profile. Having that all in one place can make someone see that a lot of people have read [the screenplay] and say it’s really good, so they feel safer taking a look at it. Likewise, on your end, you’re able to track that progress as a writer.
Geoffrey: It sounds validating. Every writer out there has a little bit of an insecurity issue, if not imposter syndrome full out. It sounds like you can get on there and get some nice validation from having other people read it and say it looks good. To build on your point, no one wanted Star Wars.
Tom: Exactly, the most valuable IP in the history of the industry.
Geoffrey: It sold to Disney for $4 billion. It’s true, it is a very subjective thing, especially with screenplay contests. Sometimes, with a contest, you just don’t have the right reader. At Script Summit, we strive really hard to make sure we have readers who, if they like horror, they’re reading horror and not some other genre that doesn’t work for them. That helps with the objectivity ratio, but people are human. Sometimes a writer’s voice just doesn’t resonate with you and it can affect the score. Have you noticed any kind of trends on scripts that tend to do well on Coverfly?
Tom: The thing is, I would like to say because it’s not this monolithic thing I think we’re very good at breaking it down by category. What we’re able to do is not just break down the top features and pilots, but we’re breaking it down by an ever-increasing list of genres. We can look at the best horror features and best actions pilots and get that specificity. Even from there, because it is so dynamic, constantly changing; and we’re constantly updating the data every second of every day; you can see what the top scripts were of the past week. Or the top scripts of the past month or year. That’s both on the industry-facing side as well as on the writer-facing side. We are providing those metrics to you to see how you’re stacking up against people from a similar group. “Your dialogue is in the top 2% of other projects in this format and genre, but your plot is in the top 15%.” That doesn’t mean you have to erase it all and change your plot, it means more people are responding positively to your dialogue than your plot.
Geoffrey: With some of my students, I stress to start going into contests when they’re ready, because I want them to find out where they fall with their peers.
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Geoffrey: If you come in as a quarterfinalist and you don’t make finalists, that tells you there’s something going on that maybe needs a little tweak.
Tom: We get that feedback from writers a lot, “Why wasn’t my script good enough to make this?” It’s not a remark on the quality of the script. As much of a customer-support canned response as that sounds, it’s the truth. A competition is literally about how you are stacking up against [other writers]. Some of these competitions get thousands of submissions, and they tend to only take the top 10%, so take that with a grain of salt. No one said that you’re a bad writer or that your project wasn’t good, the readers just responded more strongly to this incredibly high bar in this specific competition.
Geoffrey: Let’s be honest here, your hopes and dreams should not be hanging on a contest. That should not be the way it is. What I recommend is submit to the festival, then move on, and then find out what happens. But don’t sit there waiting and wondering. I actually had one of my first clients that I ever worked with, at We Fix Your Script, I did notes with him and found out recently that this script, which he’d been rewriting for years, he won Nicholls with. I was blown away, that is such an amazing thing. I was so excited and touched to be a small part of his journey. He did all the work, but just to be there to see that. He’s the humblest guy and he knows what it is, he submitted, and he knows what it’s going to do. He didn’t submit thinking it was going to be his big break, because you can’t do that, you have to keep moving forward and find your path.
Tom: Maybe that’s a natural transition into working with writers and generating those opportunities. I don’t ever want to put forth the impression that I am plucking raw-talent writers from obscurity and making their careers for them. That could not be further from the truth of what we are doing. We’re really trying to give writers the tools to set themselves up for success. The writers we’ve been able to find the most success with are writers that are busting their you-know-whats creating these opportunities by getting both their sample to the point where it is ready for opportunities, as well as putting in the other intangible aspects of it. Depending on which sports metaphor you want to use, they’ve gotten to second or third base and we can get them home. That’s usually what it is. I don’t want writers to ever view any competition/program as, “I don’t have to do anything else. I’ll be winning Oscars next year if I get this.”
Geoffrey: I try to express to writers that your script is not your lotto ticket, it’s your resume. It says, “this is how I can write, and this is what I can do.” That is what opens doors and opportunities. That doesn’t necessarily mean that script is going to get made. The very first script I ever had that did really well, it took me around the world, that still hasn’t been made. It’s been optioned a few times, but it’s never been made or shot. But that opened doors for me. I think that’s one of the great things that you can get out of a contest. It shows what you can do, and it opens doors. I’m sure Coverfly is figuring out ways to help arrange that for writers.
Tom: Yeah, see it as that. It’s validation, you should have confidence in sharing your material. You should leverage the exposure that came with it directly or indirectly from the competition to make those connections. Find advocates that are looking for the work like that. We’ve got the advantage of being on the other side and seeing who all those emerging writers are. And we’re in a position to be that advocate.
Geoffrey: The other I can say, and I want to stress this, because there’s other platforms where you can do well in a festival, but it might not be a very big festival and not carry any weight. If you can do well on a festival at Coverfly, it carries so much weight because you guys vet festivals so thoroughly. That’s my own opinion, at least.
Tom: Thank you. It’s something we take very seriously.
Geoffrey: Is there anything new coming down the pipe from Coverfly?
Tom: I feel like we’re growing faster than I can honestly keep track of. We’re constantly expanding. We just had our bi-annual pitch week at the end of September and the next one will be in February. To anyone listening, I would strongly encourage you to submit on the Coverfly platform. For those who don’t know, that’s a week of virtual pitches with managers, agents, creative executives, producers, etc. This past one was the biggest event we ever had, there were 123 writers doing 250 pitches to 30 industry executives.
Geoffrey: How does a writer get involved in that?
Tom: It’s actually free to apply, so just apply through Coverfly by creating an account if you don’t have one. Submit to it and make sure your profile is as up to date as possible.
Geoffrey: The pitching process itself is free?
Tom: Yep, all of it.
Geoffrey: I respect that so much because there are so many pitch festivals out there that will charge you an arm and a leg for just five minutes.
Tom: Because they’re actual pitches, they’re not five minutes, each of our pitches are around fifteen minutes. We aggregate it onto a list that we send to the participating industry members. We had CAA, FOX, Paramount, MGM, big places. They actually select the writers they want to hear the pitches from.
Geoffrey: That’s awesome!
Tom: It’s not this, as you mentioned, situation where someone pays for only five minutes.
Geoffrey: I love it, it’s legit, and what a fantastic opportunity for people. Definitely check it out.
Tom: That was our big one, most recently. We’re constantly doing live virtual table reads in partnership with Storyteller Conservatory, through the Screen Actor’s Guild, so these are union actors. That’s twice a week, also free to submit. My team is growing, we’re seeing that we’re able to generate more opportunities for the writers on the platform, so we’re having to hire other people to assist with that.
Geoffrey: That’s a great sign.
Tom: There’s four people in my department now, as well as across individual brands.
Geoffrey: Script Summit is growing, every year it doubles, which blows my mind. It’s to the point now where I’m constantly chasing down sponsors to provide value to our award winners. Last year, we gave out ninety awards from [sponsors] like Indie Film Hustle. I think you guys and places like InkTip [helped out], plus we had our Kristen Keller Award. This year, we picked up another Hollywood talent manager, so now we’ll have two different talent managers plucking winners for presentation. It’s absolutely amazing to see these things grow. How is the community aspect of Coverfly?
Tom: It’s growing every single day and that’s something we’re conscious of. I don’t want to make an assumption, but I’d be surprised if we weren’t the largest online platform for emerging screenwriters and filmmakers. With all these other different places, we’re not a competitor, in most capacities. We’re just bringing them all together in one cohesive place for the writer and streamline it to the industry. We certainly take the community aspect seriously and we put on a Career Lab Summit earlier this year, which was online for Coverfly users to speak with. [It included] panels that we had with showrunners, managers and agents giving the advice of breaking in during an uncertain time in your career where you’re really honing your craft to reach the level for those opportunities and actually converting them. We also have a peer-to-peer coverage service on the platform where you can get notes from other screenwriters for free.
Geoffrey: You can communicate with them and give/receive notes. That’s great, it’s a good opportunity because it helps you build your network. I would 100% take advantage of that. You’re a writer’s writer, but you’re also a filmmaker, too. Do you have anything coming out on your own?
Tom: Yes, it’s completely independent. Coverfly is very meshed in the industry, we deal with a lot of the big agencies and studios. But my production company, which is completely independent of it, is indie. That is my space and my passion. It’s what I’m fascinated by both from a creative standpoint and economic simultaneous limitations/opportunities of independent filmmaking. My company is actually shopping a business model with our first film that was released on Amazon Prime earlier this year, For the Weekend. You can still find it there and watch it.
Geoffrey: It’s called For the Weekend, tell me a little bit about it. Pitch it to me.
Tom: It is a contained thriller. A group of friends head out to an Airbnb in the middle of the desert, back when that was a thing that people did. I think that also makes it a period thriller.
Geoffrey: That’s so funny!
Tom: A group of friends head out to an Airbnb in the desert and one of them disappears. That is the linchpin for all the manifestations of their strained relationships coming to a head over the course of the weekend as they deal with the fallout of that.
Geoffrey: I love the idea of a contained thriller, and just contained stuff in general. It’s so difficult to write, it’s an indie thing, budget wise. If you can write and film a really good contained thriller, that says what you can do as a filmmaker. Bravo to you, we will look forward to checking out For the Weekend.
Tom: Also go to writers.coverfly.com to create your account if you haven’t already.
Geoffrey: I recommend Coverfly, I just love the whole process. Thomas, I really appreciate you coming on today. Thank you so much.
Tom: Thanks so much for having me. It was great to chat and I hope we get to talk again soon.
Geoffrey: Of course!
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