Screenwriters in search of representation invariably have the same questions on their minds: What are agents and managers looking for? Is my script strong enough to garner attention? How do I get my script in front of high-level agents in the first place? Fortunately, we had the chance to ask all these questions and more of David Boxerbaum (@DBoxerbaum), one of the most highly sought after literary agents working today.
David is a senior agent at Paradigm, and his impressive client roster includes the likes of David Guggenheim, writer of Safehouse; Ken Marino, writer/producer of Wanderlust and writer of Role Models; Maria Maggenti, writer of MTV’s Finding Carter; and Ransom Riggs, writer/co-executive producer of the upcoming supernatural horror thriller, Black River. At the age of 26, David was listed as one of the Hollywood Reporter’s “Next Generation 35 Under 35,” making him one of the youngest people ever to make the list. He is known for his impeccable taste and his strong industry relationships which help him garner six- and seven-figure sales for his clients in a shrinking spec marketplace.
David and I spoke about the dwindling role of the query letter, what types of scripts are selling today, and why he thinks aspiring screenwriters don’t need to move to Los Angeles.
LA Screenwriter (LA): You’ve worked for a lot of agencies that don’t accept unsolicited submissions. How do most of the scripts you read make their way onto your desk?
David Boxerbaum (DB): There is no real rhyme or reason to how a script gets to me. They come from various sources, whether it be a manager I’m close with, people whose taste I trust, clients who have writer friends with scripts they think might interest me, sometimes contests… There’s no real correct way that a script makes it onto my desk. Most of the time, a script comes to me based on a relationship that I’ve built in the business.
LA: You mentioned contests. Which contests would you read the winners of?
DB: Well, the scripts that come to our office are definitely read by someone else first, and then if they like it, it ends up on my desk. People at my company are always tracking the biggest contests, whether it’s Nicholl, UCLA or USC contests, the Tracking Board, or the Black List. We try to hit as many contests as we can, but there’s only so much time in the day.
LA: Say you were to read an unsolicited query letter. What would have to be in the query letter to grab your attention?
DB: You know, it’s really hard to say because I haven’t read one in years. And it’s so unfortunate because I know that’s a big way writers try to get to us to have their material read. Unfortunately, there are legality issues that stop us from having the opportunity to read that stuff. Unless of course someone said I’ll give you $1 million to read this, then I’d say “Sure!” But again, all kidding aside, I haven’t read query letters in over ten years, so I’m probably not the best person to say what should or shouldn’t be in a query letter.
LA: Sure. Do you think they still have a place for aspiring writers, or are query letters pretty much outmoded at this point?
DB: They have a very, very, very, very small place. An extremely small place. I think the agents and managers out there who really have their ear down and a strong hold of this business, rarely these days are they ever looking at query letters. If at all.
LA: What are your thoughts on pitch fests? They’ve always struck me as kind of a scam, so I’m curious what someone in the industry really thinks about them.
DB: Yeah… I don’t want to say scam. Listen, I have such an appreciation for anyone who tries the art of writing. It’s a wonderful medium and I think it’s an amazing art if you can master it. Anyone who puts pen to paper, I applaud. So, any opportunity for someone to feel like they’re pushing their career forward, I’m all for that. And if that entails going to pitch fests where they’re able to discuss and work on their craft a little bit and try to get feedback, I’m all for it.
Having said that, what sales come out of those? Very, very few. So I don’t want to put them down because they are successful for some people, and again, if it gives you some kind of hope and feeling that you’re able to work on your craft and work on your pitch, then go for it. Whatever gives someone the opportunity to move ahead and feel like they’re making progress in their career, I’m all for that.
The art of pitching is something that you have to master over time. The actual pitch fests themselves, do I see a lot of success out of them? The answer to that question is no.
LA: Fair enough. So, it seems like there’s a very pessimistic view of the spec market among people in the industry. Do you think it’s harder now than it was ten years ago for new writers to make a spec sale?
DB: Everybody says that. They say the spec market is dried up, there’s no room for new, original material… I find that to be B.S. I’ve had great success recently with new writers who I’ve signed off of brand-new specs and turned around and sold those scripts for a lot of money to major studios.
I think it’s all material based. Studios are still hungry for great themes and great writing. I think, if you can write a great piece of material, there’s still an opportunity to sell it out there. It’s just a matter of having the right people behind you trying to sell it.
I think right now more than ever there’s a hunger for original ideas. I mean, were seeing all these Marvel, DC, superhero movies and franchises, which is great, and they obviously do big business at the box office. But there’s still an appetite for great, original material that generates from an original mind. I feel like, in that sense, studios are still hungry and looking for that kind of material all day. It’s just about finding it.
Studios are definitely more finicky about what they pick up these days. Years ago you could probably sell a spec that was half way there, and the rest of it would get there based on notes the studio would give. Now, it’s really important for any spec that’s sent out to be all the way there. There’s not much retooling studios are willing to do for an original idea. I think that’s the only real change.
I’m sure this would be disagreed upon by many other managers and agents who are finding it much harder to sell spec scripts. I just – in my own personal endeavors – have seen my business not suffer from it. If anything, I’ve seen myself selling more specs recently.
LA: So what kind of scripts are getting your attention these days?
DB: I’ve always been a character and dialogue kind of guy. So, great characters, great dialogue, and I do tend to gravitate towards thrillers. That’s my love and the genre that I’ve had the most success in. Anything that has great layering and great characters is what I really respond to.
High concept is always important, obviously, but if there’s a great conceit in there and a great character, to me that’s what’s at the top, over anything. You’ll have a longer career, I feel, based on the fact that you can write great characters and tremendous dialogue and wonderful layers rather than if you’re just someone who writes high concept ideas.
LA: Do you think that’s true of the industry as a whole, or is that just your preference?
DB: High concept is always what people are looking for. But I still think people want really tremendous characters, as well. Someone that people can relate to, someone that – if I’m gonna spend $15-$17 per person to take my family to see a movie – I’ll feel like I had an experience and went through a journey with that character.
LA: Do you think it’s important for aspiring screenwriters to move to LA?
DB: No. I think it definitely helps, but I mean, I have a client who I recently sold a spec for who is currently stationed in the army, and he’s going to be in there for another year or two. But he wrote this tremendous spec while serving our country. He wrote it when he’d come home at night and gave it to me, and we sold it to Paramount after a bidding war for a lot of money. Now he’s a sold, successful writer. The problem is that he unfortunately can’t do meetings as much as he wants to because he’s still in the military.
My point is, you can be across the world or in Los Angeles – great writers write. No matter where they are, they find their way to us. Now, if someone can have a job in the industry or be available for a spurt of the moment meeting, there are obviously advantages to that. But I would never suggest that someone uproot their family and move to Los Angeles just to chase the dream. When you do have success, it’s great to be here to experience all the meetings and be around all the people and the environment. But again, if you’re just starting out, I don’t think it makes sense to move out to LA for that.
LA: Last question. What are your favorite scripts?
DB: Hmm, my favorite scripts… Well, I always love Shane Black’s material. The Long Kiss Goodnight and Lethal Weapon are two of the most amazing screenplays. The characters and the dialogue are just so crisp. I appreciate them because they’re so clean – they’re not bogged down in heavy narrative. His writing is just so beautiful. It’s simple yet also brilliant. I wish every writer that was studying the craft of screenwriting would read his material.