By Shawn Coyne | Published: April 1, 2011
Here’s another joke:
A powerful Hollywood Lit agent calls a studio executive. After the perfunctory chit chat:
“How’s it going?”
“And if you could, who’d listen, right?”
The agent asks the exec what he thinks of his hottest spec script, the one adapted from the graphic novel based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story as envisioned by his Hunter Thompson-esque female war correspondent client.
“I don’t know. I’m the only one who’s read it.”
The response is absurd. That’s why it’s funny. And it’s perfectly in keeping with what we’ve all been conditioned to think about the corporate commercial machines that package art. So in a way, it’s true too. Another reason why it’s funny.
Surely the executive has an opinion about the script. He read it and it must have had some effect on him. Why not tell the agent how he felt about it? The writer spent a long time crafting the work to illicit a certain emotional response from the reader. Was she successful?
My first post about third party validation (3PV) was about the yin of the phenomenon—obsessive longing for it can be debilitating to the individual. But once you’ve created something meaningful to you, it’s crucial to cast a wide net for 3PV. Remember, art is to be shared . . . . It ain’t art if no one but you and your closet experiences it.
The necessity of attracting 3PV is as institutionalized in the book and film business (probably the tanning salon business too) as the expense account lunch. Without understanding the power of third party validation, a studio or publisher (or grocery store) is lost.
This is the yang of 3PV.
Why doesn’t the exec tell the agent what he thought about the script instead of waiting for others to chime in? Is he a coward? Did he like the part when the ambitious young surgeon convinces his stunningly beautiful amore to allow him to remove the one “flaw” from her impeccable complexion? What about the fact that he did so by dosing her afternoon tea with laudanum mixed with finely ground hallucinogenic mushrooms? The agent asks.
“Good stuff sure, but what’s the one sheet?” says the exec.
The one sheet is the movie poster, (for books the cover) . . . even till this day the single most important marketing tool to reach a critical mass of audience interest. The fact that the exec asked about the one sheet is a sign that he thought the script worked. He was moved by it or he would have passed on it as soon as he turned the last (or even second) page. The agent is ready for this question.
“What about Emma Stone’s beautiful face and the shadow of a scalpel approaching her left cheek. Her expression is like Shelly Duvall watching the ax come through the bathroom door in The Shining? I just spoke with her agent and she’ll attach to this with the right package (studio/director/producer/costars etc.).”
The exec is intrigued.
“Emma Stone is a Goddess! What was the budget for Easy A?”
“8 million . . . It did 75 million worldwide . . . ” says the agent.
“Yeah, but Horror is trending down. Plus this is historical.”
The agent keeps the dialogue going.
“You could twist it and make it a psychological thriller. An updated Sleeping with the Enemy. And I’m sure you noticed that even though the graphic novel is period, there are no period details in the script. It was written that way. The movie doesn’t have to be historical. But before you dump the graphic novel tie-in, you should test market and see what would play better.”
The executive is now taking notes. He’s getting excited—his liking the script is validated by these third party validations—and he knows these arguments can get him somewhere with his boss and the marketing department. But what about tangential publicity? These are media features about the making of the movie to hook secondary markets. He’ll need publicity on his side too if he’s to take this further up the decision making chain and actually get the money to option the property…
“What about tangential publicity?”
Now the agent lowers the boom.
“The screenwriter is a female war correspondent! One of her kids gave her the graphic novel for her last trip to Afghanistan and the script came out of her in one raw writing jag on the flight home . . . . You’ll get major profiles of the screenwriter in all the women’s mags, plus trades and newspapers now. The backstory of the story is a story itself! High school date night pic becomes mom and daughter matinee business. You’ve got three quadrants built in right there—teenage girls who want to be Emma Stone and the teenage boys who want to take them to the prom, plus mom and even possibly dad dragged in to see it as a family night Thanksgiving weekend bonding experience.”
The exec pauses.
“I’ll call you back. Don’t do anything without me.”
As artists and entrepreneurs, we have to understand the yin and yang of 3PV. It doesn’t mean that we have to know how to “position” or “pitch” our work of art to the greatest possible effect. But it does mean that we need to understand the necessity of finding someone who can. Some artists’ do it all. . . . They create art and evaluate its 3PV potential successfully. And even evaluate 3PV and create based upon those parameters. Aaron Sorkin, Matt Weiner and Banksy come to mind. . . .
There’s a popular publishing story that you’ve probably heard a million times. I put it in the “genius who dies before he’s recognized” category.
John Kennedy Toole created a wonderful work of art. He didn’t seem to care about 3PV or even 2PV for that matter, or he would have at least asked his mother to read his novel before he killed himself. He was just 31 years old when he checked out. Thelma Toole discovered the manuscript for Confederacy of Dunces while she was going through Toole’s effects.
For years, Thelma Toole obsessively pushed the manuscript on every publisher she could find. To no avail. She eventually badgered Walker Percy (a wonderful novelist and essayist who wrote The Moviegoer and The Message in the Bottle among others) so often to read it, that he finally agreed. Every agent and editor I know can relate to Percy’s first experience reading the book:
First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good
After taking on Thelma Toole’s maniacal mission himself, Percy at last persuaded Louisiana State University Press to publish the book eleven years after Toole’s death in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and continues to captivate readers today. John Kennedy Toole either didn’t care if anyone ever read his novel or cared so much it destroyed him.
3PV is one tough hombre. But you gotta tangle with him or he will sucker punch you and kill the thing you were put on earth to leave behind. Get in the ring and fight.