Today I’m delighted to welcome Julian Friedmann, Media Agent and co-founder of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency.
Hello and welcome, Julian. It’s easy for me to work out how many years your agency has been in business, because it matches my wedding anniversary—45 years and counting! I’m guessing you’ve turned your hand to most aspects of being a literary agent during that period and have also experienced many new developments, not least the technical revolution. What have been the main challenges?
Before I became an agent I ran a small publishing company. I had been an editor in a bigger company and spent 80% of my time editing, which I loved; the other 20% was meetings about design, production and marketing, HR and so on. When I was made redundant I decided to set up my own company without realising that I would only spend 20% of my time editing and 80% of my time dealing with all the other things (invoicing, warehousing etc etc) – most of which I didn’t enjoy and was not all that good at. That was a challenge.
Despite the technical revolution, which has been massive (our first fax machine cost £2500; first Blake Friedmann computer network £35,000) a dominant factor in running a company well is ensuring that every aspect of the work that needs doing needs to be done well. And if you run a company you really need to understand everything. This is one of the main challenges, alongside trying to keep all colleagues and all clients happy. Agenting is a bit like informed gambling: can I sell this writer and can we both make money? If we fail we lose money.
And I imagine, as for so many companies, the challenge got even bigger with the Covid crisis.
In the pandemic the tech came into its own: we worked really well through the first lock-down, discovering we didn’t need an office. Our staff seemed motivated; intellectual property rose in value (the combination of the streamers buying up books and scripts and people stuck at home binge watching everything) and we have had two of the best years.
The main challenge was making sure all our colleagues were able to work from home, providing new computers and monitors where needed and lots of pastoral care.
And can I ask what led you to specialise in script-writing?
I merged my agency with Carole Blake’s agency and she knew more about books than I did (I had been an academic publisher so somewhat limited) and we wanted to offer our clients a broader service so I started selling books to producers and that segued into representing screenwriters. For many years I continued to handle books. But in the last few years, as I don’t get to meet all the editors and I stopped going to Frankfurt a decade ago (after nearly 40 years of going), it made sense to concentrate on film and TV buyers.
What does your typical working day consist of?
In no particular order: I get and send a total of at least 100 emails a day (many very brief); I probably read between 100-400 pages a day of scripts (quicker to read than prose) and novels; on a reading day that can be even more; I have a number of zoom meetings with colleagues, producers and clients every day; I draft or respond to contracts. I only work at Blake Friedmann 3 days a week. On the other days I run a small production company with two clients; and I also have 11 grandkids and usually spend a couple of days helping look after some of them. Then there is the garden, the orchids and the bonsai trees. And if I am being honest, I watch quite a lot of sport. That is real relaxation.
Wow! When do you sleep? I wanted to ask you a question that several readers may already know the answer to, but the world of script writing is completely new to me. From a writer’s point of view, what are the main differences between writing a novel and preparing a drama/film script?
Novelists are ill-advised to have a go at a script. Firstly, I think you need to read at least 2 scripts a week for a year before trying to write one. It is fairly technical in that it is a blueprint allowing directors, actors and a host of other tech people to bring the story to life in front of the camera. Filming is hardly ever sequential: ie they don’t shoot scene one then scene two. It is a messy business. And from a writing pov you cannot describe what a character thinks or feels unless you use voice over (which beginners use very badly) so you have fewer tools at your disposal.
Thank you for such a detailed answer. The short response, I’m aware, could easily have been Why not buy my book? I know you have both written and lectured widely on the art of scriptwriting. Is there a defined difference between writing for different settings? I’m thinking here of film, television, radio and the theatre. And, in your experience, do scriptwriters normally specialise in one of these, or are the skills so transferable that they can easily switch from one to another?
Some scriptwriters manage all the formats; some are only really good at one or two. Whichever format, you need experience: this is gained by reading scripts (watching movies is not good training to write them); by doing some research/studying. I don’t believe that writing is best learned in a classroom. Reading books about how to write I think harms as much as it helps: depends on the reader and how they use the material.
So, my teaching is focussed on the business of being a writer rather than on how to write. What I have discovered as an agent is that writers who do not treat themselves as business people, needing to earn a living, and all that that entails, often make bad choices about what to write, how to write it and how to sell it.
Over 20 years ago I wrote a book called HOW TO MAKE MONEY SCRIPTWRITING. In lock-down I decided to rewrite and update it. It got rather long. As I was convinced conventional and commercial publishers would not be right for it and, as I wanted to understand the brave new world of self-publishing, I have been self-publishing through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.
Join the club! How have you found it?
It is a fascinating world, not straightforward, but it is possible to either get help or go the DIY route. I started thinking I would do the latter; then I realised I needed help with some aspects (mainly building a half decent website: www.makemoneyscreenwriting.com ). Fortunately, after over 40 years editing, I can manage the editing and proofreading.
The most fascinating thing I have discovered is that there are genre writers – from romance and erotica to crime and thrillers – who turn out shortish novels at the rate of 10 or 12 a year, sell them inexpensively (from 99p to £1.99 or so) and who make hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. The heavy hitters make over £1m a year. Hard to believe but I am assured it is true.
I wish! RNA members who’ve been published the traditional way will be all too familiar with the journey to becoming a published author. Is there a typical career path to becoming a scriptwriter? I get the impression it’s quite a difficult world to break into. Any advice to authors who would like to try?
The best advice is don’t give up the day job. Read lots of scripts (they are available online or at the BBC Writers’ Room). The usual career path is a degree in screenwriting (in my view of dubious value unless it is a part time MA, usually done by people in middle age who have proven their story-telling ability and who also have something to say); the Soaps used to be the access points, especially shows like DOCTORS. But it is very tough to earn a living until you have had a hit. Publishing is not only far more reliable but on average book authors probably earn more than screenwriters. If you are passionate about drama writing a play might be a better place to start.
Several decades ago, I remember a half-hour TV drama about a pack of killer rats on the rampage near a housing estate. It was spine-chillingly horrifying but throughout you never saw a single rat! Do you think visual portrayal, particularly in TV and film, has become too explicit and unsubtle?
I must admit I don’t watch horror movies but they are extremely popular. So, for me that kind of explicitness doesn’t do much; for others it does. For me a Bond movie is a bit OTT. There is so much to choose from that no one need watch what they don’t want to. I wouldn’t therefore say visual portrayal has become too explicit, though it is true that as audiences get used to a certain level, the industry tries to ramp it up.
Book or Film is an interesting debate and I’m sure my book group isn’t the only one to choose this theme for one of its sessions, which led to a lively discussion as to whether a film should be ‘true to the book’ or whether it was fine to leave out or even change some characters or story-lines. What’s your own view on this?
This is such a big subject but it is one I have very strong views on: a book or a film or a play or a TV drama needs to be true to its intended audience. Readers of the book are not the intended audience for the movie, though they might well watch it. I absolutely believe that adaptations need to conflate time, merge characters, cut out characters (or add new ones) and make changes that will enhance the audience’s experience of that medium. Of course, this involves subjective judgements. But being true to the book will usually sabotage the film or TV drama. There are many ways to tell the same story: if an adaptation plays fast and loose with the source material but the film makes a profit, then in my book it is a success, whether I liked the film or not.
It can cost anything from say £500,000 to £100m to make a film: investors put the money in to make money. One has to respect that.
It’s so interesting to hear the professional point of view on this. Can I ask about another aspect of production—as a script-writing agent, do you play any role in advising on the choice of incidental and theme music for a production?
No, partly because I would not know what will work and partly because someone hopefully very knowledgeable will be hired to do that.
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA, as for many other organisations. I wonder how Blake Friedmann’s selection of books/scripts and client list reflects these principles?
We are very pro diversity and wherever we find a writer whose work we love we will take them on; we also have a training programme – the Carole Blake Open Doors Project – that specifically selects individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is information on the Blake Friedmann website: http://blakefriedmann.co.uk/carole-blake-open-doors-project
I should be failing in my duty interviewing on behalf of the RNA if I didn’t ask about ROMANCE. Where does it sit in comparison with say mysteries and thrillers in terms of ease of placing a script. What genres are the makers of TV drama currently seeking more of?
There is really only one market for scripts in the romance genre: movies for Hallmark and Lifetime (though Netflix and others are also doing them) usually with American characters. They tend to be modest budgets ($1m-3m) and a lot of them get made. The producers sometimes buy books though they prefer screenwriters to come forward with ideas or books. Christmas romance movies are always popular.
In the UK crime is always in demand, thrillers too. I believe that what makes a successful screen drama (or novel) is the extent to which it engages the emotions of the audience. This emotional connection was described by Aristotle 2500 years ago in three brilliant words: PITY, FEAR, CATHARSIS. By pity he meant get the audience to identify with the character (eg by making the character suffer an undeserved misfortune); then make things much worse for that character and because the audience/reader has identified/empathised with the character, they will feel fear; then when you relieve that character of the jeopardy they are in, the audience feels good (catharsis).
I have 2 chapters in my new book MAKE MONEY SCREENWRITING: Creative Strategies specifically on the psychology of being an audience or reader. I believe that being able to engage the emotions of your audience is the gold dust of writing. And it doesn’t matter what the genre is. Broadcasters will go for emotionally compelling stories.
Romance in the UK does have a problem: we have little daytime drama, and in the evening a show that appeals predominantly to women (as say Mills & Boon books do) will not attract a sufficiently large audience for a broadcaster. So, romance needs to be spliced with another genre. In media we talk about 4 quadrant movies or TV drama: young, old, male or female. It helps if you can appeal to all 4; two is risky and because of the costs of production, broadcasters and producers are quite risk averse.
I am not the best person to ask about the genre in publishing: my colleague Juliet Pickering, whom you voted as Agent of the Year, is far better placed to comment on that.
We’ve been through some strange times these past couple of years. What’s your view of the immediate and longer term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the publishing world?
It greatly increased the sales of e-books and audio books so more people than ever are reading, which is great.
Over all the decades you’ve been involved in the publishing world, what have you enjoyed most?
Working with writers; my mother was a writer; she had writer friends and I love being around creative people and love storytelling.
As I said earlier, all the work other than working with writers that you need to do to be successful in publishing, film and TV.
And what’s your proudest achievement?
The proudest is probably a book called WHAT THE RIVER WASHED AWAY by Muriel Macleod. A wonderful book that I was particularly proud to have agented. I am also quite pleased with the fact that at the moment there are simultaneously 3 TV series in production that I was involved in selling: Peter James’ GRACE, Sally Andrews’ RECIPES (novels not cookbooks) and Alex Scarrow’s thriller LAST LIGHT. I have never before had 3 in production at the same time.
What do you yourself read/watch/listen to for leisure (I know you don’t get much!). Do you have a favourite script from any play,film, TV or radio drama?
We have over 200 clients so I am always reading a few of them at any one time, though that is really work however pleasurable it might be. I read a bit of gardening and cookery; I watch the first episode of lots of TV drama (that is also really work); don’t see as many movies as I would like (also work); so pure leisure would be sport, astronomy (my wife is more into it than I am, but I enjoy the programmes), geology and natural history.
It’s been so interesting talking with you, Julian. Thank you for sparing the time.
For more on the agency and Julian’s words of wisdom see:
Julian was talking with Susan Leona Fisher (website: www.slfisherauthor.co.uk)