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Literary and Talent Agent Lisa Callamaro: It's a Partnership

Through her boutique company, The Callamaro Literary Agency, Lisa Callamaro represents screenwriters, directors, and film rights for books. A smattering of projects she has sold includes "Event Horizon" (screenplay), "Legally Blond" and "Where the Heart Is" (books), and "The Man Without a Face," (book and screenplay). Among those on her client list are the writers for Stephen King's "Firestarter 2: Rekindled" featuring Marguerite Moreau (SciFi Channel); the upcoming "Fracture" (New Line and Castle Rock) starring Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling; and "The Mutant Chronicles," (Pressman Film) with Thomas Jane and John Malkovich.

Callamaro started her career as an agent in New York representing novelists. She entered the film industry by selling film rights to books. Eventually, she began representing screenwriters and opened an office representing screenwriters for her employer in 1991. Callamaro went out on her own in 1993 when she opened The Callamaro Literary Agency.

In this interview, Callamaro discusses building client careers and reveals an uncommon pitching tool that her clients sometimes use.

Q: Would you discuss your working relationship with writers?

A: I like to talk to my clients about their short range goals and their long range goals, and set a plan in motion. At the end of their career, whose career would they want theirs to look like? I think that people that haven't been in the business sometimes have this fantasy that an agent is an employment agent. But, it's really a partnership. It's about teamwork. While I'm doing my part of the job, writers need to be doing their part of the job.

They have to be continually writing and working on their craft, so it isn't, "I wrote one spec and now the world is mine." They constantly have to be either working on a spec or ideas, or taking classes, or working in a writer's group. In addition to continuing to work on their craft, they need to create relationships of their own that they bring to the table too, whether it's with other writers, actors, directors or producers; through writing groups; or going to screenings and parties. The marketplace is so much tighter than it used to be. We both have to bring as many relationships to the table as we can. It's about creating opportunity and how we go together to maximize it.

Q: That taps into my next question. Can you elaborate on the strategy to build a writer's career?

A: I asked a client, "At the end of your career, what do you want to be known for when they're talking about you in film school?"

He said, "I want to be an auteur. I want to be a writer/director of important feature films." But the truth is that he was spending a lot of time working on TV ideas. In his head, he was thinking, "This may be a shortcut to getting a lot of money in the bank. I'll get a show on the air...."

When you sit down and think about the odds of that, particularly for someone who's never run a show or created a show before, I had to say, "What portion of your day should you really be spending on that? If you want to be an auteur, what is your next feature film idea? And let's put a deadline down for you to have 'specked' it. And what are the ideas?" We sat down and talked about the ideas and he threw a bunch out. By the end he had an idea that he was going to work on. It's about keeping focused.

Q: What do you do with writers in preparation for a pitch?

A: Pitching is really a dog and pony show. You have a very short period of time with someone who may or may not be excited about hearing what you have to say and you have to capture their imagination. I like to work with writers. I have them come in a lot before they take that meeting. My personal philosophy is you should have your pitch memorized backwards and forwards so that when they stop and ask you questions and interrupt you, you know exactly where you were and you can pick back up on your story and remain so concise and organized that you tell everything that you need to get told. You don't want to get interrupted and have only gotten through a third of your idea and the meeting is over because you didn't have it worked out succinctly. We usually try to work on a 15-20 minute presentation, depending on what the idea is and who they are meeting. If it is really complicated, sometimes we'll go a little longer, but I like to know they can pitch the idea in 15-20 minutes.

I've had clients walk in with boom boxes, scanners-any kind of presentation that makes sense to the project. Writers, in those moments, have to be actors.

Q: When are props appropriate in a pitch?

A: For instance, I have some clients who are going out to present a historical movie. It's not a biopic, but it's going to be about one particular moment in a man's life. The man is complicated and important, but he's a public figure and what my clients are doing is creating a little 3-4 minute DVD presentation that they'll show on their laptops that will pull in news footage and all sorts of things, so they don't have to pitch the whole background of this man. That will save them time in the pitch to really dig into the events that they want to talk about. So, that's a kind of audio/visual companion that they can bring in that also gets attention. Instead of going through a mini biopic of the man to get you up to speed to that moment, it facilitates it.

I had a client do a thriller centered around scanner technology in the early 1990s. It was new technology at the time and his whole premise of the movie was set around the idea that the scanner could pick up private conversations. He went to Best Buy and bought a scanner and brought it to the meeting. He asked the question, "Do you think that anybody can hear your calls?" They talked about how the studio has security [i.e., they did not believe anyone could hear the calls]. He turned on the scanner and they could hear everybody's conversations! They did buy the pitch. Then he went back to Best Buy and returned it. He paid the restocking fee, but he'd sold the pitch!

In that case, it was a dog and pony show, but instead of telling them something, he let them experience it and it scared them. They understood what he was trying to go after.

I'm not saying that's what I have writers do every single time. Mostly, what they have to do is go in and tell a really good story in an engaging storyteller way. They are the modern fireside storytellers. They have to draw on that when they're in a room with an executive. They have to keep them engaged across that fire.

Q: What's different about the way you work with writers in a boutique environment versus a large agency?

A: An agent that's a friend of mine summed it up like this: "There are volume shops and there are focus shops." Because our client lists are smaller, boutique agencies in general have a little bit more time to focus on specific writers and specific career plans. That's not to say that doesn't get done at a large agency, but I have twelve writers on my list. There's a vast difference between the number of writers on my list and the number of writers on their list.

Also, I have writers and directors and that's it. So, the way in which I approach a piece of material is probably a little different as well. Mostly, I think it is about the one-on-one daily contact. That really suits some writers and it doesn't suit other writers. Some writers really want that partnership and other writers want to be left alone. They're not necessarily interested in the kind of interaction that my clients like from me. It comes down to what they need from an agent. Just because of the size of my list, I probably have a lot more time to in my day to focus on their ideas and short term and long term planning.

Q: In addition to a career strategy and pitch preparation, what else do you do with writers?

A: I've worked on screenplays, from the idea stage through the finished product. My philosophy is you only get one shot. When you're going to take a script out, it has to be in order. It has to be the best it can be. My clients know that when they hand me something, I don't just throw it out there and see what happens. If I don't think it's ready, it's not going out.

Q: So you discuss ideas and help determine which ones might be best to develop?

A: First there's that idea stage--if they're going to spec something. My job is to say, "There are already three ideas like that in development. Maybe you don't want to write that one," or "This one is interesting." There's that line between what they want to write as artists and what they want to write to move their career forward--there are a lot of different reasons. First you have to evaluate what they want to get out of the spec. Which idea serves that purpose? Sometimes, I'm trying to push them in one direction for long range career ideas and they are hooked on an idea that may be a little more personal. I have to navigate that with them.

Q: And you go through the drafts with them?

A: Yes. Some clients like to have me read each act. Some like to just go away and write the whole thing and come back. Some like me to read an outline. It just depends on the writer. Sometimes, they like to save me as the clean set of eyes when the whole thing is done. Other times, if they hit a problem in the middle of the script, they might run it by me and I may have ideas. I make myself available to them for whatever part of the process they want me to be in. That can be time consuming, but I think it is worth it in the end because, hopefully, we get a product that is marketable and is the best of what I know the writer can do.

Q: Based on what you have seen, is there anything you would caution aspiring writers against?

A: I get opposite ends of the spectrum. I get query letters or scripts that are so personal there's almost no movie in their movie. It's about something that happened to them that was huge in their lives, but isn't something that someone is going to pay twelve dollars to see. I did say that to a writer once--that there was no movie in his movie.

The other side is that sometimes I get queries or scripts that are clearly about what just did really well at the box office and that they are just emulating. There's no personal voice in it. I have writers that work the gamut of things from comedy to horror to science fiction to small intimate dark stories, but what all of them have in common is a voice. Each one of them has a different voice, but they all have some identifying, clear voice that they bring to their work that sets them apart from any other writer. Even if they are writing big, commercial movies, there's still something--there's a confidence in their writing. You can tell that on the page when somebody's a confident writer. I don't mean an arrogant writer. It's confidence in what their story is and the way in which they are going to tell you the story. Often times, I find those people want to be directors too.

Q: On working with writers, is there anything else that you would like to add?

A: Writers are awesome. I truly am in awe of my clients. I don't know where it comes from. I don't know how they get it all down on paper. I think it's very courageous of anyone who wants to tell a story and chooses to actually tell it. It's a very brave thing to do, even if it's a silly comedy. I think it takes guts. There's a lot of pressure on them. They're generally sitting alone in a room having to create this thing from a blank screen. It's pretty amazing.

Q: Are there any resources you'd recommend for writers?

A: An organization that I would recommend highly is Cinestory (www.cinestory.com). They have a screenwriting contest and the winners get discounts off a weekend retreat in Idyllwild once per year. Sixteen writers get to work with professionals from the business who work with them one-on-one with their scripts. They read the scripts and give notes, and during the weekend also do seminars. I think it is great because it is just focused on the craft. The whole focus is about how you make your project better. There are a number of different executives, agents, producers or managers reading your work and giving you notes, so you get the full gamut. That's one I usually do and I would highly recommend that to writers.

Q: In closing, is there anything you'd like to say?

A: I'd just stress the importance of the partnership. One of the most moving moments for me as an agent was when I went to see one of my clients--a long-term client, who had just bought his first house--and he met me on the sidewalk before I came in to see the house. He put his arm around me and looked at the house and said, "This is the house that we built." That's how we have always viewed our relationship--he and I--as a partnership.

Lisa Callamaro recently partnered with media trainer Shauna Stafford to give Hollywood pitch workshops for both groups and individuals. Information on those workshops can be found at: http://www.shaunastaffordmedia.com/services.html. In order to give her clients the attention they deserve, Callamaro cannot accept queries or unsolicited submissions.

Updated: 03/09/2007
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