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An Interview With – Writer Christian O’Reilly and Sales Agent Charlotte Mickie

Resources_Wri_130 - Sales AgentSales agents and writers are at opposite ends of the filmmaking process and as a result writers are often in the dark as to what sales agents are thinking. Film Ireland decided to bring together Charlotte Mickie, the executive vice president of Entertainment One, and writer Christian O’Reilly to discuss the gulf between what writers want to create and what sales agents want to sell.

Charlotte Mickie: I generally don’t look at stuff that writers send me. I don’t look at scripts because I am not a producer. And I don’t feel confident about saying, yes, as a sales agent, unless there is a producer on board. The problem is that when I do get just scripts with nobody attached, they often come from screenwriters who don’t really know what they are doing, who are trying to be screenwriters. I think if a screenwriter who had some provenance, like you, came to me I would actually be pretty intrigued. I would wonder why you didn’t have a producer. I might try to help you find a producer, and I might read the material.

Christian O’Reilly: And what do you look for in a script or in a project?

Charlotte Mickie: Well, I am a little on the arty side. So I am usually looking for stuff that is unusual and that I think is either a bit high-concept or maybe cutting-edge, formally. But there are different agendas in our company and some of us are looking for stuff that is quite overtly commercial. Of course, for something to be overtly commercial it either has to have strong genre elements, like action, or it has to have some cast, which often doesn’t happen until later. So again, you could pick it up at the script stage, but you want some packaging with it. But if something arrives on my desk and it really seems to have some vision or to stand out in some way, I find that quite convincing. Recently we got involved in a film called Cold Souls, partly because of the potential. There was a little bit of casting on it that was quite good. The director/writer had been a Sundance Lab graduate, which I thought made her very credible. Additionally, she had really good producers, among them Paul Mezey, who did Maria Full of Grace. And with all those factors, it was promising. But what really got me going was the script itself.

Christian O’Reilly: So you’re attracted to more challenging projects, which probably makes them more difficult to sell.

Charlotte Mickie: If you are independent, if you are relatively low budget, if you don’t have a huge cast, you have got to do something that makes the movie stand out. I think the high-concept, low-budget thing is not a bad way to go. The other thing is there are so many script workshops. And there are all these computer programmes for movie scripts. So the scripts I get are way more polished than they used to be, way more professional. The scripts that came out of Canada used to be really quite primitive. But the danger is that they are now rather formulaic and pretty predictable. And I think that if a script is that lacking in ambition you are probably making a TV movie and it’s not going to work out.

Christian O’Reilly: I have heard that criticism made of the industry here as well. I mean, we have had a great increase in the number of courses available to writers. I have done a lot of them myself. And I found them to be really good courses. But separately I have heard the criticism made that there is a certain kind of conventionality in these scripts and less originality. Yesterday I was at the Christopher Hampton masterclass and he talked about all the directors he had worked with. And he said, what they had in common was that they broke rules. So obviously that is something that you look for, that you respond to.

Charlotte Mickie: Well obviously you have to know the rules to break them. All of this is so subjective. I look for overtly commercial material too. But it’s less likely to fall into my hands. There are very few of the independent films – the big independent commercial films that are available – because it’s so hard to finance them outside the studio system. And there are two, three sales agents in the world that handle those movies. And I am buying directly from producers. But my colleague Jo Sweby, who is buying for the UK, has the option of buying from some of those big sales agents. So we would be looking for probably quite different things by and large. Not that she isn’t open to more independent material, but still, a lot of sellers look for different things.

Christian O’Reilly: What are common mistakes, traps that you think writers fall into?

Charlotte Mickie: This thing that I think happened with Lethal Weapon. I think that was the first script that was written in a way, where you had the writer telling the reader what to think: ‘A girl walks into the room, she is the most drop-dead gorgeous woman you have ever seen in your life.’ That sort of thing – it was apparently incredibly effective when that script came out. But now when I see it, I find it really annoying. Sometimes it’s clever and that’s kind of convincing – but it’s annoying.

Or where they tell you something about the character’s internal life, that you couldn’t possibly pick up off the screen, and you’re thinking, ‘How the hell are they going to direct that?’ This is really great when I am reading a novel but how are they ever going to get this across on screen? I mean, there is no facial expression that could get across that piece of information. So I always find that worrisome although I am prepared to let it go. I have certainly gotten scripts from directors who have never taken courses in their lives, that were almost opaque in terms of being able to understand.

Sometimes I see period pieces that are just anachronistic – people haven’t thought about how people spoke and acted in the fifties or in the Wild West and it’s jarring.

Or I see scripts when writers don’t give you enough information in those action sequences. Oddly enough, Todd Solonz writes like that. And Todd never gives you any direction about the emotion that the characters are having – of course his characters are all a bit affectless. So it kind of makes sense. But I sold Welcome to the Dollhouse and therefore I was interested in Happiness. And in the end I didn’t do it although I liked it very much – but he was involved with [the production company] Good Machine, later Focus, at that point. In any case, if you read the script of Happiness it’s actually very, very flat on the page, even though the film is actually incredibly funny.

But if it’s coming from an auteur, if you know their work, you can make allowances for that.

Christian O’Reilly: It sounds like you are not a commercially-driven sales agent. You are very much driven by the material itself.

Charlotte Mickie: Well, not always. Lately, because the market is so hard, I have been more inclined to pick up things that do have some cast attached and where maybe there is a fantastic promo reel and we know we can sell it without even showing people the screenplay. We have to keep making sales to stay in business so I have been rather pragmatic recently.

Christian O’Reilly: Right.

Charlotte Mickie: But the truth is people get it wrong all the time. For example, Valentino: The Last Emperor was a huge success in the States. And I am sure that the distributors who turned it down (they ended up self-distributing) thought, ‘ok, this is going to be really interesting for people who are interested in fashion and really interesting for gay people and if you were interested in Italy.’ You know who ended up being a large part of the audience? Women from the mid-West. Because Valentino is actually a rather conservative, though exceptionally elegant, designer. And he designed for Jacqueline Onassis and Ronald Reagan’s wife. And if you came from the mid-West and your daughter had a wedding, you were probably wearing a Valentino copy and if you were from Texas maybe you were wearing a Valentino. So in fact they got a huge number of middle-aged women going to see it, which didn’t occur to anybody.

They thought Murderball, a doc about paraplegic murderball players, was a slam dunk but in fact it had a small audience because women who would be drawn to see things about paraplegic men because they feel empathetic wouldn’t see it because the guys were way too rough and really brutal with each other. And people who are attracted to sports, these macho guys, were too threatened by paraplegics to want to see it.

Christian O’Reilly: So you were left with nobody, except possibly paraplegics.

Charlotte Mickie: Possibly paraplegic murderball players, which is an even smaller number. And there have been other cases. There was a documentary in the States called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, that made a huge amount of money that nobody believed in. And that happens over and over again. A lot of these examples are documentaries which should have very clear-cut audiences, but apparently they don’t… I think, in a way, the only audience that distributors and marketers really understand are teenage boys. There are about four things that appeal to them: sex, explosions, speed and gross jokes. I have thought this for a long time and I have thought that it’s not because there are so many teenagers going to the movies so often spending so much money on concessions. People are really making these movies for teenagers because they are easy to make movies for. Once you start making movies for older audiences, it’s a lot more demanding. I mean, you have to actually ask yourself: is this a good movie? Do I like these people? Does it make sense? You actually have to make a good movie.

Christian O’Reilly: There are a couple of Irish movies that spring to mind. A film like Once, that’s a movie that breaks all the rules and is fantastically audacious for that. And it’s a musical and a love story. And that was John Carney who simply wanted to make this movie and had been frustrated, I gather, trying to make it, and who really had to express this. I suppose my hope or belief about being commercial and also coming from a personal place is that the truer you are to yourself or to the vision you have, the more chance there is that people will recognise the truth of the emotion that you are trying to express and identify with it, and go to see it, perhaps.

Charlotte Mickie: The thing is, this sort of endorsement of what is really personal and unusual – maybe something especially authentic or possibly transgressive – is that it can become an excuse for people to make awful sloppy films, that everyone think is going to work because it’s so quirky but actually, it’s not a good idea. I mean if you are going to break rules and you are going to do something really different, you have to be really, really good, or else…

This article first appeared in Issue 130 of Film Ireland Magazine.