Earlier this week I sat down with Ben Cahan, creator of Final Draft , the industry standard in screenwriting software, to discuss his newest offering for screenwriters, Talentville. The website (now in Beta launch) is a place for writers to network, learn, share their work, receive valuable feedback from their peers, and hopefully walk away with that all-important industry exposure.
Film Slate Magazine: Thanks for the time, Ben. How did the Final Draft software come about?
Ben Cahan: Well, I learned about the movie industry by writing software for it. I didn’t go to film school, I took one class at USC, movie making for bozos, basically. Just like a lot of other people that moved to LA, I got bit real quick. But Final Draft didn’t come about instantaneously. People were clamoring for it. Back then it was the days of Scripter, Moviemaster, dos programs, mac had not been out that many years and windows was still a few years away. People wanted something new, something integrated. And we were the first to come out with an identical, cross-platform product. I’ve always found the tools that really do a particular job are the best way to go about it. Integrated products that really serve a purpose. Even though at its core it’s really a word processor, when you add in all the timesaving stuff…I’m proud of it.
FSM: Final Draft has really become the industry standard. How did writers and the industry take to it?
BC: In the early days we went to AFI, we went to the Writer’s Guild, we went everywhere and anywhere people would let us speak and bring a computer, set it up and give a demo. Showbiz Expo was huge for us. We would have it on sale, for around a hundred bucks, and literally from the moment the doors opened we would have a line twenty people deep, and we’d sell six or seven hundred programs. But the key was to get some industry heavyweights, the TV shows, the big producers, and the studios to buy into it. When you get a high profile guy like a JJ Abrams, Oliver Stone, Sydney Pollock, or Chevy Chase, guys that believe in you, telling people “Send it to me in Final Draft,” then it becomes like a wave coming at you. You can resist it, but eventually it knocks you over.
In the early days there was a lot of interaction with the clients. We’d have guys that sold a big script come in (to the Final Draft office) and hang out with us. Not being movie school guys, it was a lot of fun. But over the years, of course, you have to run a business, and you lose a little touch. Hopefully with Talentville I can get back in the trenches.
FSM: Is that what inspired Talentville?
BC: About six years ago I was living in Miami, and I said to myself, I have this reputation from Final Draft, what do I do? Maybe I’ll read some scripts and produce something. The same delusional thinking many people have, and I was not immune to it. I got on a list of producers looking for scripts, and my inbox was filled. I probably got forty thousand queries in six months. And I read about two thousand scripts in those six or seven months. Out of that two thousand, I’d say I found six to eight that I liked enough to say I want to work on this. That’s a pretty low number, and a lot of work. At the end of it, after spending some time working with these writers I realized, well, this is not the way to do it. So I researched, and I didn’t find anything on the internet that was an integrated way to post your script, get feedback, learn and hopefully get some exposure. And I realized I wanted to automate the process, which is what a computer guy does. That was the genesis of Talentville. If you don’t live in LA, if you’re in Boise or Anchorage or Scotland, you should have a resource.
FSM: Will it primarily be a review site, or will there be industry connectivity?
BC: I’ll give you the example of Amazon book reviews. I’ve read some books that I absolutely loved, but you’ll still find a one-star review on Amazon. You could still have three hundred five-star reviews. It’s about statistics. If you get one review, the variants can be top or bottom. If you get ten reviews and you see the same things, then maybe there’s something to it. So in the case of Talentville, you’ll get reviews like at Amazon, but it will let the best stuff rise to the top. See, people want to get noticed. They’d love to win money, but money is not the endgame for a writer. That’s just the lottery ticket behind it. People want to see their stuff get produced. Or at least they want someone in a position to look at it where if it’s good enough, and if the timing is right, they have a real shot. We’re creating a market, and that’s what I don’t think exists on the internet.
There’s a special industry membership, and I’m using my influence to get the people that make movies (agents, managers, producers, studio people) to cruise the site, to join, to be involved and look for projects. We’ll have quality control. We’ll have thousands of scripts, but we’ll be able to have a top list, a sort of black list of the common man, so when industry people come to the site or get emails from me of what’s ‘hot’ they’ll take notice. And if that happens, many people could have careers without having to come to LA.
FSM: How is this top list created? An aggregation of peer reviews?
BC: It’ll be more sophisticated. If it’s a real community, and a community that’s going to mean anything to people, the guy that joined yesterday is different than a guy that’s been there for six months and taken Syd Field’s classes or Robert McKee’s classes or has a screenwriting education. You have to get a reputation, just like many other sites. I also want to get people in the industry involved who read scripts for a living. So it’ll be a combination of lots of reviews from the community, and more significant reviews from people up the ladder.
FSM: So you’ll be monitoring the community and actively developing scripts?
BC: Sure, but the key is to automate the process as much as possible. If I have to go through every script that’s uploaded, that won’t produce anything. When things get to a certain point, then we’ll have to get involved, and bring in development executives to take a look. But we won’t need each one of these qualified people to read ninety scripts. If I have thirty professionals, each reading three scripts, that is ninety quality opinions each month. And I also have a deal with Scriptapalooza to do free coverage for our top ranked scripts. So yes, it is a ranking system, but you have to be more sophisticated, and no one else has seemed to want to take the time to do it right.
In the end, you need a system that gives the people a shot. And it is about talent. A bad script won’t ever rise to the top. But it’s not necessarily about scripts ready to shoot tomorrow. You talk to A-list writers and these people do fifteen, twenty, thirty drafts, and these people have awards on the wall and $100M at the box office. If an amateur or aspiring writer isn’t willing to make the same effort, they won’t get there.
FSM: So what are you goals for Talentville?
BC: We launched a little over a year ago. We haven’t marketed it yet, because the site isn’t quite done; there’s still more work to do. Right now there’s five hundred scripts or so up there. My goal over the next two or three years is 250,000-300,000 people. There are a lot of people that want to write, and I’ve met them everywhere. I want Talentville to be the go-to place, with 25,000 to 40,000 scripts available. And we’re on the path of setting the alliances and partnerships to make that happen, to becoming known as the place to be. My incentives for my members are not just things you can win, and there will be prizes and contests, but my interest is exposure. The potential is endless, and the key for my members will be the industry’s involvement. My pledge to my members is that I’m going to do what I can to make sure someone from the industry is on there looking for scripts.
When you have a success like Final Draft, it’s very difficult to go back and be among the pack. I can’t just do a ‘nice’ screenwriting community. Why would I bother? If a year or two from now I don’t have ten members whose movies are in production, I didn’t do my job. I know how hard it is to write. That’s one reason I want to stay in the screenwriting business. It’s where it all comes from. Would I do everything I can to increase the value that writers get in the industry? Sure. Would I like to see the Academy Award for writing come a little later in the program? I would. The people that come up with the stories are the people I care about.
Jason Chase Tyrrell is a writer, producer and distribution consultant from Venice, California, and the founder of Chunky Baby Productions. He has two feature screenplays in development, “Rainbow Snake Dreaming” (Woodburn Sweitzer Management) and “Erotomania: A Romance” (Chunky Baby Productions). Previously, Jason was the Director of Acquisitions for boutique distributor IndiePix Films, and now develops “go to market” distribution strategies for independent producers as a founding partner of MILK & HONEY.