Writing is a lonely profession. Most writers come up with their ideas alone, write them alone, and rewrite them alone. If we’re lucky, we get some knowledgeable friends and family to read our stuff. If we’re really lucky, we get contacts in the industry to take a look.
Benjamin Cahan, co-founder and former CEO of Final Draft, has come up with a better way.
Over the last several years Ben has been building Talentville, the Screenwriter’s City. The site is a virtual community in which writers can read fellow writers’ scripts and give them feedback. In exchange, writers earn TalentDollars which they can then use to “buy” coverage for their own work.
I recently spoke with Ben to get an inside look at the City.
LA Screenwriter (LA): What have you been up to since leaving your post as CEO of Final Draft in 2001?
Benjamin Cahan (BC): When I initially left Final Draft, my intention was to take a break of a year or two and come back. Building a company from nothing but an idea was a huge responsibility that was both exciting and stressful. When the company was to the point of running itself to a large degree, my own gas tank was running close to empty. So I packed up and moved to Boulder, CO, to get reenergized in the great outdoors, then I moved to Miami. It was there that I decided to relinquish my stake in Final Draft and seek other ventures.
As you can see from my creation of Talentville and my return to Los Angeles, I have come full circle. But I hope I have returned a bit older and wiser, ready to once again roll up my sleeves and make a difference.
LA: What inspired you to create Talentville?
BC: About 6 years ago, I got it in my head to become a production executive — finding worthy projects, developing them, and then forwarding them to Industry executives I knew from my Final Draft days. I got on an internet list of producers willing to read unsolicited screenplays, and from the 25,000 or so queries I received I had around 2000 scripts sent to me, which I then spent 6 months getting through. From that stack of thousands I found ten scripts that were of interest to me, but the point was that it took six months to find those projects, which didn’t make much sense from a time management standpoint.
I began to think of how the whole process could be transformed using technology, and after researching tools for writers and for producers, the logical conclusion was to use the internet to find and develop new talent, allowing crowdsourcing principles to help cull the worthwhile projects from those not ready for prime time. I had a big vision and none of the sites that were out there for screenwriters seemed like the best approach to solving the problem. So I rolled up my sleeves and started outlining what my dream site would be as an aspiring screenwriter myself.
LA: Talentville is set up as “the screenwriter’s city,” a virtual community for writers. What are some of the city’s key features?
BC: At its core, Talentville is a cooperative community where screenwriters collectively help us determine which projects are worthy of serious consideration. Like any site with a crowdsourced platform (also referred to as peer review) the starting point is content and critiques.
For me, though, that is just the starting point. Let’s face it: what good is a review and rating system unless Industry professionals are also invited in to the mix? Then we went further and added education, articles, events, special interest groups and a host of social interaction features such as message boards, emails, friends, and the other things we expect in a site where writers can both socialize as well as learn from each other.
Talentville is always expanding as we do our best to make it a truly useful tool for everyone, and that includes our writing members as well as our Industry members. For example, we added a tagging system so that writers could identify various elements that relate to their project, and that allows producers to search for specific traits they are looking for.
At Talentville we showcase the best of the best with our weekly Top ten chart as well as our monthly Top Screenplay competition, complete with complimentary professional coverage for our finalists. Our numerous features are designed to help both of our audiences — producers and writers.
LA: While the site has many services, the heart of Talentville seems to be the opportunity to review fellow writers’ scripts and have your own scripts reviewed.
BC: Every writer wants to get feedback. Every writer wants praise for their work and the attention of the Industry. However, to make that work, everyone has to pitch in. Creating a review and rating system that actually works was one of the challenges we knew would be a make-or-break aspect of the site. To put it another way: we all want, but we also have to give. Otherwise the system breaks down.
To make sure every member gets out of Talentville what they put in, we created a review purchase system based on our internal currency, TalentDollars. When you review another writer’s screenplay, you earn TalentDollars, which you then spend to buy reviews of your own work. Remember, our goal is not to have a big staff of readers going through every script at the site. That carries with it a huge expense as well as a bottleneck as each staff member can only look at so many projects a week.
We do have a coverage department, but their time has to be reserved for those projects that make the cut. Besides, what’s better: one review by a “reader” or ten reviews from other writers? Ten separate opinions that can be used to gauge the areas that work as well as the areas that lack in quality or believability. If you can convince a majority of the writers who read your work that it has real potential, then it is time for us to step in.
It’s a system that helps us separate the wheat from the chaff and get involved where we can do the most good.
LA: I have a terrible time writing log lines. How does the Logline Hospital work?
BC: Log lines are a funny business. In looking at the projects at the site, it became clear to me that a large percentage of them just did not sell the story to me, they didn’t make me HAVE to click on that script. Since it is our goal to have Industry people actually look at the projects in our Library, I had to do something to attempt to help writers improve their log lines in order to more effectively promote their work.
The result was an alliance with Script Pipeline, a respected coverage company as well as a popular screenwriting competition. The Logline Hospital was set up so that writers could enter their log lines in a weekly “contest” of sorts with the chosen scripts getting a logline rehab and rework by the professionals at Script Pipeline.
LA : How would you compare the value of participating in Talentville to that of entering a script contest or paying for professional coverage?
BC: Contests and coverage are two different beasts, so let’s look at them individually.
Contests are once a year and carry with them an entry fee of somewhere between $40 and $60 per screenplay. While winning or placing high in a contest can get a writer great exposure, there is an inherent risk in having a single reader be in charge of moving any given script to the next level or tossing it into the reject pile. We are affiliated with some well respected contests, and they will always have their place, but our model is meant to be year round, with top script charts each week and winners every month, which in my mind creates a more ongoing and dynamic environment. The other issue I have with contests in general is that there are so many of them nowadays that placing high in a contest seems to have less impact than it used to have.
Coverage is actually something I have come to greatly respect, especially as we have recently created our own coverage department using some top readers at a few of the big agencies, management companies and production companies around town. Readers who actually read and evaluate scripts for a living have a great perspective and understand how to point out the plusses and minuses of a project in very clear and concise language.
However, there is a time and a place for coverage, and that is usually not a week after the first draft is completed. Find out what works and what doesn’t work from other unbiased writers, make it the best you can, and only then get professional coverage before attempting to send it out to your ex girlfriend’s uncle’s best friend who is an agent at CAA.
LA: How does Talentville facilitate networking?
BC: Networking, to me, is not about letting everyone know what you had for breakfast, and that was one reason we did not copy the “wall” or “feed” concept popularized by Facebook or the status updates popularized by Twitter. For me, it is about conversations, questions, asking for opinions about a story or contest, hearing the experiences of other writers, and having other writers who you can befriend and use as a resource in any way that makes sense. We included a forum in Talentville called the Bar & Grill where writers can do all of the above.
LA: How does Talentville help writers get their scripts into the right hands?
BC: Talentville was set up to give writers two paths to help them get their work in the right hands: Industry memberships, which are part of the site now, and our First Look partnerships, which are coming soon.
Industry memberships are a special membership class reserved for working professionals in the industry, including producers, agents, managers and development executives. They can search the library, peruse log lines, read reviews and check out our top ten lists as well as our monthly top scripts (not to mention the pro coverage we do for our finalists). We encourage all industry professionals to apply for an industry membership and can assure them that they will not be deluged by unsolicited queries or spam.
Our First Look partnerships will be alliances with a select group of high profile producers who will get first crack at all of our top projects. We hope to have the slate set and announced sometime in late March. Writers who make it through the gauntlet of other members as well as our professional staff will have their scripts end up on the desks of some influential producers. From that point it is in the hands of the movie gods. Being looked at by fellow writers we can guarantee — the rest depends on the quality of the work.
LA: Do you have any other plans for additional services or features that writers should look for in the future?
BC: We have plenty of things planned for the future — alliances, partnerships with other companies who are involved in the movie making process. While I must remain discreet, I will say that the list of things to add is long and we’re committed to continuing development and adding benefits, features, and partners who can help our members reach their potential.