EP4 – Screenwriting for an Intellectual Property with Marlene Sharp


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Geoffrey: 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: We’ve got a great guest for you today. We have Marlene Sharp. She’s an incredible writer and producer who has worked with Sega and other IP’s, such as Sonic Boom and Yoki Watch. She’s got Snack-World right now on a streaming service. She is out there and she is doing it. And she also works at We Fix Your Script.com Marleen, we are so glad to have you on today.

Marlene: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here.

Geoffrey: Well, yeah, we wanted to bring on somebody to talk about work for hire because as we all know, there’s a big difference between creating your own work as a screenplay and having to work on intellectual property. So I think you’re living the life and doing it. So we want to hear your thoughts on it. Before we get into this, I always like to find out your origin story. So what got you into the writing and producing field?

Marlene: Well, my original goal was to be an Oscar-winning actress, so I followed that path and it took a few unexpected turns. And after I finished graduate school in performance, I have an MFA in musical theater. I started temping because I didn’t really want to have the life of a non-working actor. I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t want to wait tables in the meantime. I love the business and wanted to learn about it. I registered with some temp agencies in Los Angeles and I was fortunate to land at a company that was very instrumental in producing Power Rangers. The company was actually headed by the former president of Bandai America, which is the toy company that created Power Rangers and developed it and launched it in Japan.

Geoffrey: Oh! So Saban?

Marlene: Oh, no so Bandai is the toy company, the Japanese toy company that started Power Rangers, and then Saban Entertainment was the partner in the US that helped Bandai to launch it outside of Japan. So Saban really became the public face of Power Rangers when it exploded on the world stage. But Bandai is the toy company that owned the property and made it a success in Japan, first with the TV show and the toys. And then my former boss, Frank Ward, is his name. He was the president of Bandai America, the US office. And so he and Haim Saban, the founder-owner of Seven Entertainment, were very instrumental in adapting the Japanese content and the Japanese toy designs into something with a global a more global appeal. And so Frank was very successful at Bandai and he retired and then they retained him as a consultant. He still worked on all of the seven Bandai properties because after Power Rangers was a success, they did a number of different shows using the same formula. Bandai owned a lot of properties that launched in Japan and were hits there. And then we would adopt them for global audiences. I started as an assistant there and then I became the director of development, worked on a lot of Japanese properties that were then adapted into English and other languages, and launched worldwide.

Geoffrey: So you went from creative director and obviously, that takes you into the screenwriting and producing world because I know screenwriters that become creative directors. So I think that’s it’s an interesting alternative to the path of filmmaking. You never know where it’s going to go. I mean, everybody knows about the screenwriter who becomes a director, right. That I mean, that happens. But you never really hear the stories about the screenwriter who becomes a producer or the screenwriter who becomes a creative director. And that’s just another hyphenate that you can go for. And I think that’s fantastic. And I love that you’re building these skills and creating content. I mean, how cool is it to work on a franchise like Power Rangers and seeing that show and knowing that you had a heavy hand in it is awesome. What would be some of the challenges you had to work on when it came to writing your own stuff, producing your own work to having to work for a SAG or a Bandai or a level five?

Marlene: Well, one of the really important things to keep in mind is that the person or the company that’s paying you is the boss. And you might not agree with the decisions that are made because a lot of them are made from a business perspective and not a creative perspective. But it’s really important for the whole machinery to work, to be agreeable and share your ideas, but know that there is a bigger initiative that is being served. And so so expect to get script notes from people in-licensing and marketing and different departments that seem not related to the creative pursuits. But actually, they’re not being creative. The whole TV series and the toys are not being created for the sake of being artful. It’s to sell stuff, especially to kids’ entertainment. It monetizes with consumer products the license fees that the kids’ programming outlets give to brands to license their content. Very small. So it’s not the same as doing a primetime sitcom or reality show or something like that where you’re you’re getting a lot of money just to make the show in kids’ entertainment is different. The license fees are really small. So the companies making the shows must drive consumer behavior in order to recoup their investment.

Geoffrey: This is very interesting because I just had Melissa Rundle on the show and she talked about how to write for streaming and she talked about writing as a staff writer on shows, on shows that are on like Netflix Hulu. And so, going into this, I was wondering what the similarities are? I’m seeing some similarities, obviously, with network notes or notes from the toy company itself, which I want to dig in a little bit more on that because you don’t really hear about that. But what you’re telling me, if I’m right, is that instead of trying to design a story around, a concept or a character, to keep an audience watching a show. Instead, you are designing a concept around making a toy desirable. Is that is that accurate?

Marlene: Like a cool toy. Yes. Yes.

Geoffrey: Can you speak on the kind of process that you go through or the mechanics of creating a cool character to sell?

Marlene: Yeah, well, it depends on who is generating the idea, so let’s say Cartoon Network, Disney, or Nickelodeon, they are developing show ideas in house. The consumer products, mainly the toys will be important, but not as important as if you’re working for a brand like Lego or Mattel or Sega or Nintendo with a video game based property or something like that. When Nickelodeon or Disney or Cartoon Network create something in-house, they can take a little bit more liberty with story and artfulness because they own the platform where they can monetize their investment through advertising. So the actual golden goose is a toy line, by the way, because the networks will ninety-nine percent of the time pursue consumer products as an ancillary form of revenue. But it’s not as important to them as a brand that is basically creating content in place of traditional advertising. So rather than creating a bunch of TV commercials that’s a sunk cost. Right. You create a bunch of commercials. They run maybe during Christmas time and they cost a lot of money, but their shelf life is very short and it’s pretty much not going to earn any money other than the actual sale of the toys. Whereas if you create a TV show, that’s an asset that continues to earn money through the years. And although it takes a long time to recoup the investment just from content sales, it’s at least a chance to earn money back on your investment and build an IP catalog. And, you know, it’s gotten to the point where animation, a 22 minute or even a fifteen to the twenty-two-minute show can be produced. For the same price, if not a lot, a lot cheaper than a really high-end live-action commercial–

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Geoffrey: That’s something. Yeah, that is so it’s more cost-effective. And this show is the brand, right? So the show is commercial. I’ve got my fair share credits. But it feels like when you’re creating something like a sonic boom it’s like you’re almost trying to create a trend.

Marlene: Yes. Yeah. Yes, that’s right. A lot of times if you’re working for a brand, it’s for a company that is established in that world like Bandai or Nintendo or Sega. So they are trend makers. They’re known for that. And a lot of times, too, when a property does become a TV show, it has some element of awareness in some other. Are some of their platforms, like, for instance, if it’s a video game, you know, Nintendo is known for video games, so they’ll establish the property as a video game and then the TV show will be a supplement to that. Yeah, but sometimes everything launches at once like it’ll be something it’ll be a new brand and it’ll launch with a, you know, video game and a TV show and toys at the same time. But it just depends on the strategy.

Geoffrey: I think the business model, the supplement makes sense. Because if I look at Sega and I look at Sonic, which obviously Sonic and Sega are synonymous if you look at the way the platforms were back then, Sonic was strong. It was never as great as Mario which was huge even back when I was a kid. But kids knew who Sonic was. Then Sega came out with a platform, another console, and it died. Right. And they almost sank because of it. And the sonic name kind of disappeared until you had shows like Sonic Boom, which kind of brought back Sonic and I think gave it a new form of life and was able to carry that name into today. We’re now seeing Sonic games and all the platforms. So I think really that makes sense. It’s another way to keep that brand going in a different medium, I think is fascinating.

Marlene: Oh, yeah. Yes. Sonic has a 30-year history. Next year is the 30th anniversary of Sonic, and so it hasn’t been on an upward trajectory. The whole time has been peaks and valleys over the years. So the company, when they really believed in IP and they want to maintain it and reinvigorate it. They will. They will. Brainstorm ways to keep the franchise from, you know, from dying and try to, you know, breathe new life into that latest film with Jim Carrey that is actually so cute.

Geoffrey: I actually really enjoyed that film. My kid, he’s hypercritical. Of course, being the son of a screenwriter, you could understand. And he was like, that was a GOOD MOVIE! So as a creative director, do you have any other tips for writers looking to get into this field as far as monitoring trends, staying up on pop culture, or anything like that?

Marlene: Yeah, those are all really important things. And if there’s a brand that you love. There’s nothing wrong with embracing it and, you know, doing your research by buying toys and watching the shorts on YouTube, usually the toy companies will create some kind of big media moment with a TV series or movies, and then they’ll have some kind of second-screen supplemental content on YouTube or they’ll do shorts that are embedded in an app on a mobile game app. And a good way to break into writing for brands is YouTube, you know, the short form entertainment root. So you can connect with people through LinkedIn and tell them you’re a writer. And I’ve written for different brands that way just by networking and saying, hey, I’d love.

Geoffrey: Networking is essential. I totally agree with you. So and LinkedIn is nice for online, especially during the quarantine. LinkedIn was great to connect with. But I will agree with you that YouTube has a lot of gigs right now for screenwriters. People haven’t really considered that. But as a screenwriter, if you want to get a good gig, there are freelance sites or you can reach out by other networking sites and you can land gigs writing for a YouTube show. And the really cool thing about that is it counts as a TV credit on IMDB. So it’s a nice way to build up your resume. Well, that’s fantastic. That’s fantastic advice. Marlene, thank you for that.

Marlene: Oh, you’re welcome.

Geoffrey: I think we’re probably going to wrap up I’ve been wracking your brain for a good minute here. Is there anything else that you would recommend?

Marlene: I would say. Be nice to everybody, that is that’s a consistent theme I get from all of my guests.

Geoffrey: Yes! Please be kind to everyone online and in-person when that starts up again in earnest.

Marlene: But, yeah, it’s important just as a human being. But in the business of entertainment where relationships are so important and especially to get repeat clients, that’s a goal. So you want to do everything with a smile on your face or a smile in your voice.

Geoffrey: That’s a good point. You are the brand right here, your own brand. And if you’re somebody that wants to work with people, people will work with you because they like you. And I mean it. I had a director who’s done some really great stuff. Tell me, “you know, I can’t wait to work with you, Geoffrey. And the fact that you’re a good screenwriter is a bonus.”

Marlene: Yes, it’s true.

Geoffrey: So keep the keep that in mind. You don’t want to be that bitter screenwriter, because that’s the dude who doesn’t get work. I heard that you’re adapting a new book series, right?

Marlene: Yes. So one of my clients is Rangi in entertainment and their kid-focused subsidiary is insane and so on. On behalf of them, I worked with a team to acquire the rights of a really fantastic book series for it. It’s called Middle Grade because it’s appealing to kids from fifth grade to maybe early high school. It’s called Young Captain Nemo. It’s a contemporary retelling of the Captain Nemo story. So we actually met at a conference years ago and kept in touch and he has these books and I knew that containment was looking for IP’s that had brand value. And this certainly does. And one thing led to another. And we announced last week that we acquired the series for animation and mobile games and other forms of media.

Geoffrey: That’s amazing. So you’re going to turn it into a TV show and then interactive content, which is another big deal. I hope listeners heard how you met the author. She met him at a conference. That’s right. Working. And then the other key thing she said here is we kept in touch over the years. That’s the huge thing over the years, guys. That’s the Occasional email or whatnot. Obviously not stalking the person, but you keep fresh and their network and that’s what you’ve done. I mean, you’re professional, of course, what you’re doing. But I think people listening to the need to know it’s not just handing out their business card and then walking away. It’s forming an appropriate relationship within your network. The other thing is providing value. And obviously, when someone knows you can provide value and you stay within their network, eventually, you’ll probably end up working with each other. And obviously, Marlene, you’re somebody who has great value. Otherwise you wouldn’t have had such a remarkable career so far. And I’m sure you’re just going to keep doing bigger and better things. I mean, I don’t know many other people who have got to sit in on a panel at Comic-Con. First of all.

Marlene: I mean, oh, that is level super. I do like to brag about that. Yeah. Are you kidding me? That was a great highlight of my life actually is to be on a Comic-Con panel and also just to be involved in other kinds of cool, fandom stuff, because I am a fan. First and foremost, I’ve always been a toy collector and a cartoon watcher and a love lover of movies and TV, so, yeah, that’s another good point. It’s an honor. If you’re going to work on these Ip’s if you’re fortunate enough to work your way into working and be a fan of the product, I mean because that’s going to show through.

Geoffrey: If you’re a fan of what you’re writing or producing, people are going to know what they’re going to feel it. It’s going to feel authentic. So I think that’s a great way to finish this up. And Marlene, thank you so much for being on. Really appreciate you all.

Marlene: Thank you for the invitation. I love it. And I’m a fan of Geoffrey D. Calhoun. So it’s a mutual admiration society here.

Geoffrey: Absolutely. Take it easy, OK?

Marlene: Thank you. You too.

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