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Erin Hennicke, Film Scout, Part 1

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Erin Hennicke, Film Scout, Part 1

Some of our favorite movies were books first, from The Hunger Games to The Godfather. But have you ever wondered how that transition happens? 

Well, it starts with people like Erin Hennicke --- a film scout at Franklin & Siegal Associates. As Erin explains, it's a film scout's job to "cover the publishing waterfront" in New York City --- reading books and magazines and talking to agents to figure out what might make a great movie, and then reporting back to film studios in Los Angeles.

Read Part 1 of our three-part interview with Erin below, where she talks about how she became a scout, what she looks for when reading manuscripts and the New York Magazine article that inspired American Gangster.

SZ: You’re a film scout! Can you tell our readers what that generally means?

EH: Scouting is basically being the eyes and ears in the publishing industry for the LA-based film and television companies. Years ago, when the money was flush, every studio had a New York office and they had execs covering publishing. But as time went on, costs had to be cut and the New York office was the first thing to go. So then studios would get scouts --- one person on the ground to cover the publishing waterfront.

I am looking at books and magazines to a certain extent, and it can be theater as well. And it’s just basically saying, “I saw this great piece of material, I think it would be great for you.  You were saying you were looking for something for this director --- here you go!” It’s reporting back what’s going on in the publishing world and the media world.

Every scout is different, but I work exclusively with Universal Studios for feature films and Paramount TV for TV (series, mini-series, things like that). It’s like I’m a freelancer for them.

SZ: Are most people who are film scouts located in New York?

EH: Usually --- probably 95% are in New York. The whole purpose is that you want someone on the ground there --- it’s the heart of publishing, the heart of magazines, media and theater. You know that someone is going to get more information being there.

SZ: Can you tell us about your path to becoming a scout?

EH: Well, it’s funny because I never knew this existed when I first started. When I was an English major in college, I had no idea. If you were an English major, everyone just assumed you were going to be a teacher or go into publishing, but when you’re not acquainted with the world, “editor” is the only job you think of. But when you get into publishing, there’s marketing, publicity, sales --- all the different divisions.

I wasn't very good at evaluating scripts. I liked the books.

So when I first got a job in publishing, I was in the subsidiary rights department at Viking/Penguin, where I was selling domestic rights for serials in magazines, audio rights, and things like that. I would get all these calls from movie people saying, “Who’s the agent for that book and are the film rights available?” and I was kind of intrigued. So I would meet with them and say, “Alright, I’ll help you with a little quid pro quo here. Tell me how you got your job and what it entails.”

And that’s when I started to think, “Alright --- I think I might want to tailor it that way. I want to head in that direction.” When I worked in sub-rights, scouts were people who worked on the foreign rights side of things. I didn’t know that they also did film.

 And I just started doing informational interviews with other film people. And it seemed to be the perfect marriage of what I love --- books and film.

Then I became the story editor at Barwood Films for a number of years, which is Barbara Streisand’s production company here in New York, where I was also looking at books and scripts and things like that. And then I came here [Franklin & Siegal], which was even more suited to my tastes because I wasn’t very good at evaluating scripts. I liked the books.

SZ: Can you tell me more about Franklin & Siegal?

EH: There are about 12 of us all together, but most of the scouts in this office are foreign scouts. We represent 20 foreign publishers overseas, and it’s the foreign scout’s job to be their eyes and ears about what’s publishing in North America, and tell them which American and Canadian books would translate best to their markets. They report to their clients and say, “Hey, I think this would be great for France” or “I think this would work really well in Germany.” 

And it gets contentious with publishers in different countries bidding on things, so you want your client to get the most complete information as quickly as possible.

But at Franklin & Siegal, we talk. What the foreign scouts are looking for is very different from what I’m looking for, but we can kind of help each other. Like, “Hey, I’m thinking of this book. Here’s the title, I don’t know the author.” Five minutes later, I get an email from a coworker saying, “Oh, the author’s this.” We can help each other fill in the blanks.

Also, one of the founders of the company has her own literary agency, Lynn C. Franklin Associates.

SZ: So are you a literary scout or a film scout? What’s the correct terminology?

EH: It kind of depends on who I’m talking to. If I’m talking to a literary person, I’ll say film scout, but if I’m talking to a film person, I’ll say literary scout, because then they’ll know, “Oh, she’s looking for books and magazines. Got it.”

It goes back and forth.

SZ: What kind of people do you interact with on a regular basis?

EH: I definitely talk to the literary agents a good deal, just finding out what their authors are working on, what they have upcoming and who they’ve signed. I talk to the film agents as well --- asking what they’re about to submit and who they’ve just signed, and also making them aware of what my clients are looking for, because maybe we can meet in the middle on a few things. And taste changes all the time, so just keeping them abreast. “Universal is looking for 1, 2 and 3, and Paramount is looking for A, B and C. Do you have anything like that?”

And sometimes they need help. They might say, “I have this great book but I don’t know what producer at Universal to pitch it to,” because there are so many producers with different tastes. So I can help them and say, “I would pitch it to these three,” because I want them to get it to the right people. Because that’s the thing --- you want the right material to go to the right person at the exact right time.

SZ: And what about authors? Do you ever work with them directly?

EH: Not often. When I was in publishing, it was so fun being able to call an author. I remember I told one author that I sold the serial rights to her book at McCall’s magazine, and she cried. She left me this voicemail where she cried for two minutes because she was so happy. And my mom got McCall’s, so, when trying to explain my job, I remember telling her, “I did this! I sold them this excerpt!” and she said, “Oh, I get it!”

SZ: Can you tell me about your day-to-day and general responsibilities?

EH: When I first tell people I’m a scout, their reaction is “Oh, a location scout?” because that’s the only scout they’ve heard about before. And I’m like “No, I scout material.” And they say, “Oh, what a great job! Do you read all day?” And I say, “I wish! The reading comes later.”

They say, “Oh, what a great job! Do you read all day?” And I say, “I wish! The reading comes later.” Mostly during the day, it's...talking to anyone and everyone in this world.

Mostly during the day, it’s phone calls, it’s emails, it’s IMs, it’s talking with other film people, talking with other publishing people, talking with literary agents and finding out what they’re going to submit, talking to editors --- talking to anyone and everyone in this world. Just kind of, “What are you hearing about? Have you come across anything good? What have you heard about this? I heard Crown bought this thing for six figures! I have a TV client, and that sounds like it could be a series!”

So then I run ideas by my clients --- Universal and Paramount. “Would this be of interest to you? If I can get material, I’ll let you know” or “I’ll let you know who the agent is.” It’s basically getting them the information as concisely, quickly and thoroughly as I can.

SZ: So if you don’t read during the day, when do you actually read?

EH: I can probably read an article in the office, but between the phone calls and the emails, it’s hard to concentrate. So usually it’s after hours --- subway, home and on the weekends. During the week it tends to be two or three proposals a week --- which are anywhere from 20 to 70 pages --- and articles, because they’re shorter.  And then on the weekend, it’s usually a book or two.

SZ: What stage are these books in? Are they manuscripts, have they already been published, are they being shopped around to houses?

EH: It can really be anything. The majority is in the manuscript stage --- about 75%. If it’s a nonfiction book about a timely subject, it could be in the proposal stage. And it could be before it’s sold to a publisher --- it could be out to editors and they’re looking at it, or I hear about it somehow, or I have a connection to the writer or somebody will tip me off to something. It can be any stage from proposal to finished book.

Or it could be someone saying, “Hey, this book was great! Ten years ago it was optioned by Fox. Can you find out what the deal is?” And very often I’ll say, “Oh yeah, that option expired. It’s free again if you’re interested.”

SZ: Where do you get the material that you’re evaluating?

EH: Well, a lot of times it comes from good relationships with literary and film agents --- literary agents sell to publishers and film agents sell to Hollywood. So a film agent might call and say, “Hey! I’m going out pretty wide with this, and here are the producers on your lot that I’m giving it to. I’m going to send it to you as well.”  They’re hoping that I’ll read it, I’ll love it and I’ll be an advocate for it at the studio. The more voices that chime in and say, “Hey, this is great!” the easier the sale is. So it’s kind of advantageous for them.

For example, I had breakfast with an agent at BEA, and he pitched me a book and I loved it so much that we got a 24-hour jump on it --- the agent submitted it to Universal 24 hours before it went out to other people. We knew the clock was ticking, and I loved it, the exec loved it, and the producer loved it, and the stars just aligned and we bought it.  And it was like, “Wow, that was easy! That was great!” But it was because we had this jump because of the relationship I had with this agent. I’ve known him for years, and that was really, really helpful. 

And sometimes you might get slipped a manuscript by somebody. Understandably, agents don’t like that --- it’s their piece of material and they want to control the submission. But it’s kind of an open secret that people get their hands on stuff earlier than that, and you kind of just have to be covert about it, telling the studio, “We have this unofficially.”

And there are also online resources like Publishers Marketplace where we find out what’s selling.

SZ: When you’re reading a book, play or article, how do you decide if it would be good for a TV show or a movie? What are you looking for?

EH: It really depends, but I think it’s when you start to see it in your head. And usually everything I read I start to cast in my head. Very often I’ll go to the movie and think, “That guy was supposed to be blond,” or “That’s not right!” And I have to say, when I heard that Ben Affleck was cast in Gone Girl, I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about that.” But after seeing it, it was perfect. He had that aloofness about him that could be construed as, “Oh, he’s kind of a jerk.” It was exactly how it was supposed to be. So I concede on that one --- that was right on their part.

But anyway, usually I’ll start to read and it’s the minute the wheels start turning, like, “OK, I can see a three-part structure here” or “I could see it for this director because this director said they want to do stuff for this.” And I also keep in mind the relationships that my studio has with writers, directors, name it.

For instance, Universal’s big Christmas movie is going to be Unbroken directed by Angelina Jolie, and we know her interests and we know what she’s done. So if I can think of something that might interest her, I can say, “Hey, maybe this could be something for Angelina to direct or produce.” I’m always kind of thinking about the relationships Universal has.

And they’ll also tell me what they want, which can change daily. Like, “We’re looking for this for so and so. We need to find this kind of project for this director.” So you’re always keeping those prerequisites in mind as you read.

And as you start to read, you can be like, “Alright. I can see this as a movie and I can see how you’d set it up, and I can see what directors would be interested in this and what actors would be interested.” Because you read something that you want to see yourself and that you think that a wide audience would want to see. And the add-ons are, “And it would do great internationally.” That’s always the cherry on top. But initially it’s, “I would see this movie. I think my clients would make this movie, and I think they’d do it well. And I think they could get these people involved.” So if I can start to see it in my head, then I say, “Alright --- yeah!”

SZ: What about when you read articles. Do you analyze them differently than books?

EH: It’s so funny because you’d think, “Oh, that’s not giving you much material to work with.” But the very first thing I got Universal to buy was a New York Magazine article about a drug dealer in Harlem in the ‘70s. It was such a compelling story and world --- it really gave you the day-to-day world of this guy and how he rose to power.


And I just remember little details from the article, such as how they hid the drugs coming in in the coffins of Vietnam veterans coming back, and how he would make the people who were cutting the drugs for him be naked so they couldn’t hide or steal anything on the way out. And that article became American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. And those details came out, and I was just so glad he left those in!

When I read it, I thought, “This is a world that I never would have thought would interest me.” But because they give you the whole blow-by-blow of how he did it, you have a reluctant respect for this guy. He was a bad dude, but you really are compelled by that story.

The producers at Imagine (part of Universal) loved it as well. And it took a long time --- it was set up and fell apart the day before shooting. It was originally supposed to be Antoine Fuquadirecting, with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toroand there was some kind of falling out or disagreement. And Antoine Fuqua left, and when he left, Denzel Washington did the same and it fell apart. And then somebody brought in Ridley Scottand he brought Russell Croweand then Denzel Washington was interested in coming back. They made it that way, and it worked out great. But at first I was thinking, “Sayonara! That’s never gonna happen.”

And, to use another example, Universal bought an article last week. It’s also about a drug dealer --- I promise I don’t just read about drug dealers. There are a lot of happy articles, too! For that one, I’d had lunch with the agent, and she was telling me about it and said, “Oh, I’m going to send this to you guys” and I said,“I’d like to read it.” And I read it right away and I just thought, “Donny BrascoAmerican Gangster,” and these are both Universal movies. And I just kept thinking, “I could totally see this!”

It’s about this white kid who worked in Detroit as a drug dealer and infiltrated this huge drug-dealing gang that was mostly African-American. He garnered such a respect among the community, but he got caught for possession and went on trial at 17. The judge throws the book at him, trying to make an example of him and saying, “What you’re doing is worse than mass murder, you’re destroying this community,” etc. So he threw the book at him, and it came out that he was an FBI informant the whole time, starting at 14!

It was just so compelling, and as I was reading it, I was noting, a director would love this, a writer would love this --- a screenwriter who could adapt it? It would be so great!

But then the FBI left him hanging! They wouldn’t come forward and say, “He was an informant for us. Give him a light sentence and send him to a country club prison, if you wouldn’t mind.” No, they left him hanging, saying, “We don’t know who this guy is!” Unbelievable.

And the last third of it is about the FBI coming back to him in jail when he’s older and saying, “We need your help again.” And him thinking, “Am I going to help these jerks who totally left me out to dangle or am I going to blow them off? Is that going to be better for me, or worse?” He agrees to help them again.

So when I read the article, I was thinking,“How do I not know this story? How do I not know this guy, White Rick (his street name)?” It was just so compelling, and as I was reading it, I was noting, “there’s a perfect three-act structure here.” I would do it almost like Gone Girl, where in the beginning, you’re just seeing this older guy in prison and the cops approaching him, and then find out who he is, and the reveal is at the end. The fact that he was an informant would be the twist.

And I just kept thinking that a director would love this, a writer would love this --- a screenwriter who could adapt it? It would be so great! And to play around with time a little bit. And for actors, too --- there are two really good parts, the younger one and the older one. And the FBI agents who are involved would be good parts as well. You always want to find projects that are going to attract really good talent.