by Colleen McAllister
Hollywood executives are on the prowl for the book or series that could become their next franchise long before a manuscript is published. But what are they looking for and how do they find it?
We’ll hear from Nathan Schram, Senior Manager of Animation Development at Nickelodeon, and Maddie Breeland, Development Executive in charge of developing material for Fox, Disney and most recently Anvil Pictures, about how they find your book.
COLLEEN MCALLISTER: What does the process look like as far as how you look for book manuscripts to option?
MADDIE BREELAND: We generally go through book scouts who have relationships with reps and publishers that allow them to get material super early. Some proposals give you a really clear sense of what it could be as a movie or television series. For those, we highlight it and wait until the manuscript comes in to go after it. Scouts keep us apprised when agents are submitting to producers for adaptation so we know if our competitors are looking at the same thing.
NATHAN SCHRAM: We don’t have a book scout, so we rely on executives (like me) to build relationships with agents, authors, and publishers. We discover new intellectual property (IP) through conventions, fairs, and in-person meetings. We are based in LA but visit NYC every few months to take meetings, maintain relationships, and get a preview of what is coming up.
CM: How does your companies’ brand of content factor into what you’re looking for?
NS: Nickelodeon has always been about comedy! Our common theme is character driven comedy, kid point of view, creature comedies, and an ordinary character that experiences extraordinary circumstances. I will often hear, “This is the next SpongeBob SquarePants,” or, “Think Paw Patrol but with (some other animal).” Those pitches are exciting, but we tend to be more drawn to original character-driven comedies that will draw kids to our network.
MB: If we get a proposal or partial, it gets us creatively thinking about packaging – “who would bring this to life?” If we can’t think of who the audience is, it’s a harder sell. The ideal IP for Disney or Fox expands beyond one story. We have to ask: “Is this a world worth investing in?” If we are investing 100 million+ dollars, we need to be able to tell more than one story in this world.
CM: Do you see the same thing over and over? Patterns as far as what’s coming out? Are you tired of seeing too much of one thing? Not enough of something else?
MB: I have seen a lot of dystopian YA and “sick-lit” romance. If it works, a good story well told is something we pay attention to, even if it’s a trend we see a lot of. A familiar, universal theme set in a world that is fresh or told with an unexpected tone has an advantage. There are a lot of cultures and backgrounds we haven’t seen yet. That’s what I’m looking for.
NS: We see trends and stories that have similar themes, characters, and even plots that are the same. I don’t get tired of any of it, but we do tend to target more original concepts that stand out in a crowded marketplace. However, we will get a new mandate from time to time that can be very specific – in that case, those similar stories can be just what we’re looking for and really come in handy in identifying the right story.
CM: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
MB: Pay attention to what’s working for the audiences you want to be writing for. Some of the books we read are beautiful, engaging stories but they’re not in the best place to be adapted into a movie. Don’t write a book because you want it to eventually become a movie. Write for yourself first and foremost. A powerful perspective, unique to your own experience is what we want in the market.
NS: I am looking at this through the Nickelodeon lens, so I focus on whether a book will fit our brand. That comes through the theme of the story, the characters, the settings, and the world that the author has created. Executives at other studios will have a different lens than mine, so what turns me away from a book might attract them. To any author writing a book and second guessing if their story is worth telling and/or if the space is too crowded… It doesn’t matter. Write your story in your voice.
As you consider ideas for your next manuscript, think like a development executive. Consider what you’re personally missing from what’s currently in the market. Ask yourself, “what worlds haven’t I seen yet? What new perspectives can I use to explore universal themes?”
By the time Hollywood comes knocking, you’ll have set your manuscript up for success.
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Colleen McAllister has worked as a film & TV executive in Los Angeles on such titles as Minions, The Secret Life of Pets, SING, and Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Equestria Girls series. She is currently an animated television writer for Netflix.