A Conversation with…Justin Samuels

Mr. Samuels has pending litigation against the William Morris Endeavor Agency and Creative Artist Agency, claiming racial prejudice. Mr. Samuels, an African-American, has been trying to sell his screenplays for 9 years, but claims his race has kept him from making any progress within the film industry. To read more about the lawsuit…

JV: You say you've been trying to break in for nine years. How many scripts have you written in those nine years—and what were the genres?

JS: Eight screenplays. I've written horror, fantasy, comedy, and mystery.

JV: You live in New York, correct?

JS: Manhattan.

JV: Are you married? Any kids?

JS: Not married. No children.

JV: As I’ve mentioned many times—on my blog, in interviews, etc.—a big part of a screenwriter's success is contingent upon spending “face time” with the powers that be in the filmmaking community. You need to meet these people face to face. You need to network. Do you think you’d have better luck if you lived in Los Angeles?

JS: No. I lived in Los Angeles on and off during 2003-2005. While I did have a couple of marginal entertainment industry jobs, the problem with working to support yourself and pay your bills is it takes a lot of time. I had little or no time to meet people. And I left Los Angeles because ultimately the jobs I got in that time period didn't pay enough to support me on a long term basis. And honestly, I'm established in New York, which is good, as there are other types of writing here. I could go into advertising as a copywriter, go into publishing as a novelist, or go out for other types of writing while I continue to write my screenplays.

JV: Have you ever spoken one-on-one with a producer and/or an agent, and said, “Will you please read my screenplay?” If so, what have been the results?

JS: Actually, at some sort of conference, I did meet an agent. He was there to give a speech, so I didn't have the chance to ask him to read any of my screenplays. Beyond that, no, I haven't spoken to an agent or producer one-on-one

JV: Has anyone—whether it be a secretary, a production assistant, etc.—ever loved one of your scripts enough to say that they’d pass it on to someone who might be able to get the script produced?

JS: Yes.

JV: And what was the result of that?
JS: He said he loved it. A couple of times it got passed to someone else. I never heard back from them though.

JV: So, this person who loved your script, what position in the industry did he have?

JS: An assistant director.

JV: What exactly did he say about your script—and who was he going to send it to?

JS: Supposedly he was to take the script to an actual director, as well as a producer and agent. As for what really happened, I don't know if his contacts were actually willing to read my work or not. People can overestimate their influence in Hollywood.

JV: Do you think these people—the director, the producer, the agent—simply weren’t willing to read your script, or do you think it’s possible that they read it and just didn’t think it a work of any real quality?

JS: I have no idea what really happened and that's a problem with getting read this way. If I had gotten a direct request from someone of note and they never got back to me, or they did and it was a pass, I'd have a direct answer. But going through a third party like this, anything is possible. While they could have read my work and not liked it, I have no proof that this person had the pull to get them to read it. In this particular case, I don't know what happened.

JV: According to the Social Hollywood article, you seem to feel it’s imperative that you get your scripts only to the “major” producers. I tend to think you’d have better results if you submitted to some of the lower-tier producers. In fact, I know quite a few screenwriters—by the way, one is a black man, two others are women—who make a pretty decent living getting their work optioned, sold, and produced by these lower-tier producers.

JS: Well, I did go that route with some lower-tier producers. They read my work and loved it. But then they went broke and went out of the business. Indie producers, at least in my experience, can have a lot of financial problems and are less likely to be able to raise the money to actually see the production of a film through. That's really why I want to go the major producers. If they are interested in your work, at least they have the financial resources to pay the screenwriter and produce the film.

JV: Approximately how many of these “lower-tier” producers have you queried in the last nine years?

JS: I don't recall the number. Some of the lower tier producers went out of the business; others had difficulty raising the money to do films that require decent budgets.

JV: Have you ever entered any of the top-tier screenwriting competitions, such as Nicholl, Final Draft, or Slamdance? If so, how did you fare?

JS: For the most part, I didn't enter contests, with the exception of Amazon Studios, which is still pending. Though one year I did enter the Nicholl. I didn't place.

JV: From what I can gather, it seems like you’re not really willing to get out there and hustle in any substantial way. You have to do far more than just sending out—as you mention in the Social Hollywood magazine article—“hundreds, if not thousands” of query letters. You have to do far more than meet one agent at “some sort of conference.”

JS: You glossed over the point where I had to work in Los Angeles. Work—you know, I do need money to survive—and commuting take up a massive amount of time. Los Angeles landlords are like landlords in any city, rent must be paid at the first of the month. Nobody cares that you want to be in the film industry.

JV: Yes, that’s very true, but I still think that if you can write a marketable script, you’re far better off being here in L.A. than in just about anywhere else.

JS: I've already lived in Los Angeles and living there doesn't give you access in and of itself. While I will always write screenplays, there are other types of writing that are centered in New York, not Los Angeles, and these types of writing are a lot more open. Publishing, theatre, advertising, are all centered in New York, not Los Angeles. So while I have my difficulties in accessing film, it's just better to be here in New York.

JV: You also mention in the Social Hollywood article that you’re a graduate of Cornell University and have a B.A. in history. You also minored in English and “writing classes,” and have “done screenwriting workshops on the side.” In my opinion, this is all fairly irrelevant to your eventual success as a screenwriter. There are plenty of successful screenwriters who have had relatively little education. Sure, maybe they’ve attended a couple screenwriting workshops or seminars, maybe read a few how-to books, but they simply had the innate ability to craft a motion picture screenplay, to tell a story that people would want to pay to see.

JS: How did those people get read? Did they have relatives in the business? Did they live in Los Angeles all their lives? Who supported them and paid their bills when they moved to Los Angeles? You might have a lot more time for networking if you're a trust fund baby. I mentioned my education in the context of if even I have this much difficulty getting read, I know it would be outright impossible for almost all non-whites in this country to break in. Since there would be others who would use the excuse that lack of education and/or talent explains the shortage of non-whites as screenwriters or in other behind the scenes positions.

JV: With regard to the agents and/or producers you’ve queried, how do they even know you’re an African-American screenwriter? I mean, your point of view seems to be: “They know I’m black—they won’t read my script!” Do you mention in your queries that you’re an African-American?

JS: I didn't say that they know I'm African-American. I said since the majors do not even accept queries, this has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans in terms of locking us out of the industry, as we have no access to the people we would need to be read by.

JV: Justin, I’m not saying a certain amount of discrimination doesn’t exist, but I tend to think that a vast majority of producers and lit agents don’t necessarily care if you’re young or old, black or brown, gay or straight, male or female. These producers and agents simply want great material. I really can’t imagine one of these agents or producers—one who has read your script and thinks it would make a great movie—sitting down to meet with you for the first time and saying, “Uh-oh. He’s black. I can’t represent/buy his script.”

JS: But how would I access these producers or lit agents? I'd have to get read in order for them to like my work or not like it. Truthfully, I've had people say that my work is great. Unfortunately for me, they were so far on the fringe it didn't matter. If I had gotten a bunch of reads from major people in the industry, and they didn't like my work…I'd have to deal with that. Basically, I'm saying I have no access, in part because of my race and because I'm not in on the right social circles that would allow me to talk to a producer or agent one-on-one.

JV: C’mon, Justin, you don’t have to be “in the right social circles” in order to talk with producers and/or agents. Again, if you just got out and schmoozed a little, especially here in Los Angeles, you’d be running into film people all the time. See, that’s really one of the keys to all this—meeting people in the film industry…not just producers and agents…and getting them to read your material. If you’re good, if you have a script that could potentially be turned into a movie, you’ll get noticed. Sure, perhaps by a “lowly” Production Assistant at first, but then that P.A. might say, “I really like your script. Can I give this to my boss?” That’s how many careers have started in this business.

JS: Look at what you just said. Yes, you do indeed need to be in the right social circles to do what you said. You'd need wealthy parents—disproportionately white—or some sort of backing where you basically didn't have to work in order to schmooze with film people all the time. You seem to have glossed over the part where I lived and worked in Los Angeles. At times, I worked long hours, commuted long hours. It’s why I said the idea where one must meet people basically favors wealthy white people who can live a certain lifestyle.

JV: I happen to know plenty of Caucasian screenwriters who can’t sell anything either. They can’t option anything; they can’t get meetings with either producers or agents. I’ve read quite a few of their scripts. Truth is, they were awful. Again, white, black, yellow, or brown—if you can’t write a marketable screenplay, you’re not gonna generate any heat. It’s that simple.

JS: No, not that simple. According to the WGA, 5% of screenwriters in film were non-white. Are you claiming that non-white screenwriters are genetically incapable of writing screenplays? Disproportionately, screenwriters are white and male, in large part because of the schmoozing policy you defend. And your earlier advice to me, move to Los Angeles, meet film people all the time, has nothing to do with writing a marketable screenplay.

JV: Where have I claimed that “non-white screenwriters are genetically incapable of writing screenplays”? I’m only saying that plenty of white screenwriters can’t write marketable scripts and, therefore, can’t get anything optioned or sold. So it’s not just African-Americans and women who are having trouble getting stuff sold. Fact is, selling a screenplay isn’t easy for anyone!

JS: However, statistically, selling a screenplay for some reason is apparently a lot harder if you aren't white or if you're a woman. Those are the stats quoted by the guild.

JV: I think that might simply be because there are far fewer non-white and female screenwriters trying to break into the business. Anyway...here’s a little story I’d like to relate. I grew up in Los Angeles and decided on “the screenwriting life” in the early 90s. By then I had been married, divorced, and had a daughter, so I was working full time. But I managed to learn the craft and crank out scripts. My first optioned script came a few years later. This wasn’t a big producer and it certainly wasn’t big money, but it was an option. It was basically somebody telling me, “You’re a good writer. I want to produce a movie out of your script!” I stayed focused and kept writing and kept getting my scripts “out there.” Do you know how I eventually sold my first screenplay? In 1995 I answered an ad in Variety. Some upstart producer was looking for scripts. So I contacted him and sent him a script. By the way, not once did he ask me if I was young or old, black or white, gay or straight. He got back to me a short time later and told me that the script wasn’t quite what he was looking for, but he really liked my writing. Not long after that he got back in touch and asked if I wanted to do a rewrite on a script. He said he might have a potential buyer if the script was solid enough. I did the rewrite, which I wasn’t paid for, and he was able to set the script up at a prodco here in town. The movie eventually got produced. This wasn’t a huge prodco, but it was a respected one, and it was a credit, and that movie has been playing virtually non-stop on cable all around the world for over ten years, and this has opened some doors for me. I wasn’t supported by a wealthy family; I didn’t hang out in moneyed social circles. No, I learned my craft, wrote and wrote and wrote, and sent my scripts to anyone who would read them. This is what it comes down to: writing marketable scripts, getting them out to people, building a fan base, and hope your scripts eventually land on the desk of someone who can do you some good.

JS: I really don’t see how this is relevant to anything. I said that the mainstream agencies have policies that disproportionately lock non-white—or those who don’t come from wealthy families—out of the industry. Your option didn’t come through a script shopped by a top agency, so that was a path that was closed to you at that time. If you had been from a prominent enough family, you might have had that opportunity.

JV: You’re suing WMA and CAA for eight million dollars. I realize that it’s customary to pick a monetary amount when you initiate a lawsuit—and I’m sure you’re factoring in punitive amounts—but are you saying that you feel you’re owed roughly $850,000 for each year you’ve been attempting to sell your scripts? If so, please explain your rationale.

JS: No comment due to pending litigation.

JV: I have to say, Justin, agents, producers et al. tend not to want to be in business with someone who’s—and please excuse the term—“lawsuit happy.” Do you realize that by filing this suit, you might very well be destroying any career you might potentially have in Hollywood?

JS: If my efforts bring about any change at all, it’s more than worth it. And I'm not lawsuit happy. Businesses sue each other all the time in Hollywood. I think there's a double standard here. If a wealthy person or a business sued another wealthy person or business it would be no big deal. If a poor person who believes he's standing up for himself or for the rights of others sues, he's the devil.

JV: All right, Justin, go ahead, pitch me your best script. Sell me on it.

JS: “Lunatics”: A mental patient suspects the institute's head psychiatrist is actually a demon reaping the souls of the weak-minded, and must use his untapped ability to help his fellow patients regain control of their thoughts.

JV: What’s the current status of the lawsuit?

JS: I'll just say it’s pending; these things can take a while to fully resolve.

JV: If three or four years from now you still haven’t sold anything, will you still continue to write screenplays?

JS: Yes.

Read part two of my interview with Justin!

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APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)