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Erin Hennicke, Film Scout, Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Erin Hennicke, Film Scout, Part 3

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.

Below you can find the third and final part of our interview with Erin, where she talks about the biggest change since she began as a book scout 14 years ago, the most surprising part of her job and the popular TV series she hated when she read the script.

Click here if you missed Part 1, and here if you missed part 2!  

SZ: Do you have a favorite part of your job?

EH: I like talking to the different editors and agents and other film people because you’re in this business primarily because you’re a reader --- you love to read and you love the written word. You love the whole world. So I do love that --- I love getting to talk to people who love this as much as I do. And people who are good at their jobs and take it seriously. And I love going to the book fairs, because it’s like, “Hey, we’re all book nerds and we’re here! We’re making a living at it!” It’s funny --- when I would go back to my college and visit my professors, I would always say, “I can honestly say I use my English major every day of my life.” I have yet to use algebra since I’ve gotten out of high school, but I use my English major every day. So it’s kind of gratifying to do that.

So yeah, just meeting other people who love books, writers, good stories and movies is great. I’m very, very fortunate.

SZ: Is there a most challenging part?

EH: It can be challenging because sometimes time is of the essence and you have to get in there quickly. Because it’s not just you ---your client might have to have two people on their end read it before they say, “Oh this is great, we’re going to go for it.” At that point, somebody who had one person read it could have optioned it.

I love going to the book fairs, because it’s like, “Hey, we’re all book nerds and we’re here! We’re making a living at it!”

So that’s kind of frustrating --- when you love something and it gets right out from under you. And there are times that something gets optioned that you love and somebody just sits on it and does nothing. That kills me.

But you kind of put that in your mental rolodex, and you always think, “Check back up on that, because it might have come out of option and that might be a good thing for my guys to do.”

SZ: Do you have a proudest moment in your career?

EH: I think it’s always that moment of getting the right material to the right exec and the right producer at the right time. Feeling like, “This is the perfect home for this story. These are the people who should tell the story.” And the satisfaction that comes from that: “They totally get it and they’re going to do a good job by it.” That feeling.

And there’s been a bunch, like American Gangster. That package had nothing to do with me --- it was everyone at Universal getting that done --- but it was just that moment.

And I’ve been fortunate to have great clients who get that and who are very book savvy and who know authors. They’re not asking, “Who’s John Updike (pictured on right)?” They’re very, very well-read and they get it --- they respect the material.

SZ: What’s the most surprising part of your job?

EH: I think the fact that people think I read all day in the office, and I’m like “I wish! That would be so great!” It’s all about time management. Because there are people who say, “Let’s go to brunch on Sunday.” And I’m thinking,“OK, if I’m going to do that, then I really have to reconfigure when I’m gonna do my reading.” Because the majority of my Sunday is usually reading day. And sometimes I go, “I have this 500-page book to read, sorry!” But other times I’ll be fine and say, “OK, I’ll do everything Saturday and then I can go.”

But yeah, there’s a lot of reading on weekends, which sometimes people forget. I’ve had jobs where you can leave your job at the door when you leave, but I’m always bringing my Kindle, parts of a manuscript, something, home with me.

And I like it; that’s not a complaint at all. That’s a very fortunate thing --- I want to do that.

SZ: Do you ever have time to read for pleasure?

EH: I try, because it’s a great reference point. There are all these books that are referred to as (cut:, like) “this book is the next GONE GIRL.” “This book is the next BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.” So I have to read a lot of them for comparison. I’m also in a book group, which is probably a little too ambitious, considering we meet on Monday and I haven’t read the book yet. I kind of like having that “this is just for me, this is my reading.”

So it’s probably not as much as I would like, but I do always try and keep that going.

SZ: And when you read for pleasure, do you ever find yourself turning it into a movie in your head?

EH: It’s hard to turn it off. And it’s funny too, because when I started working in publishing, it was the same thing --- I never looked at a bookstore the same way again. I’d think “Oh, they have endcap,they paid a lot for that.” Or, “Why is that in this section and not that section?” I never thought of those things before, but it was hard to turn it off when you’d seen behind the curtain.

When I read something on vacation, sometimes I will go out of my way to say to myself, “Get a book that’s already optioned, that you don’t have to worry about, or has been made into a movie already, or is so not a movie so you can turn that part of your brain off.” But it’s not easy.

SZ: Is it more important to be a book person or a film person if you’re a scout? And what are you, personally?

EH: I would consider myself more of a book person but definitely with an eye towards film. As I told you, I wasn’t very good at evaluating screenplays, and when I did it at Barwood, it was terrible. I read a sample TV script for a show that hadn’t aired yet. I went to my boss and said, “This is so vulgar. I don’t get it. I don’t like any of these people.” And she, a 74-year-old woman, read it, and was like “Oh Erin, you’re such a lady! I loved it!” It was a script for “The Sopranos.”

I didn’t know the tone! You don’t get tone in a screenplay. You get all that nuance in a book, but you don’t get it in a screenplay. When you watch “The Sopranos,” you get it.  You get the tone and you get why all those F-bombs are in there, but on the page, I did not see that. She did, I didn’t. I was just like, “Give me the books, because I’m not good at evaluating this.” It’s bare bones in a script. I like a little meat on my bones.

And every scout’s different --- some might be more film-y.

SZ: When one of the books you optioned becomes a movie, do you always see them in theaters? What does it feel like when it has finally come to fruition?

EH: It’s nice to see it. It’s interesting if I’ve had the chance to read the script beforehand and then I know what’s coming. But again, I was so involved early on --- everything that happened to make that movie is somebody else’s baby. I’m like the surrogate --- I gave them the material, they took it from there and ran. So it’s nice to see how it turns out.

SZ: What kinds of skills and personality traits would make someone good as a scout?

EH: Good memory!

It has to be obvious that you’re passionate about books when talking to other people, like agents. If it’s obvious that you’re really passionate about the writer or piece of material, they’regoing to remember that. They’re going tosay, “She could probably get this set up with one of her clients because she so loves it.” And that sticks with people. So I think that if you really are passionate about writers, good writing and good material, that’s always helpful. You have to have that kind of “book charm” about you that other people pick up on.

You have to have that kind of “book charm” about you that other people pick up on.

And reading fast also helps. Not everybody has to do that, but it helps. And also, being able to discern good material. I was an English major, so I was used to reading everything, whether good or bad, until the end. And that was the hardest thing to get over. I had to just say, “Alright, this is not grabbing me by page 50 or 75? I’ve gotta put it down and move on,” because there’s just not time. There’s too much, I have to really triage everything. I was like, “maybe they’ll redeem themselves by the end!” but probably not.

But that was tough. Because they work so hard --- they probably spent three years of their life on this, and I want to respect it. But I know what my guys are looking for, and if I don’t find it early on, I have to move on.

SZ: Do you have advice for aspiring scouts?

EH: When people think “I’m going to go into publishing,” they only think editorial. And I always advise people, “that’s great, but also think subrights, or think scouting,” because you can also learn about foreign markets, which is very interesting, and you get to go to foreign book fairs.

It’s a great path to choose if you really love writers, and it’s a path that not many people know exists. Right now, so many things are being optioned for TV and movies --- it’s a very fertile time, so it’s exciting for scouts!

I would also say to read as much as you can and just be open to all the different aspects of the industry, whether it is working for a scouting agency or working at a literary agency or working a publishing house. There are so many different routes to take, and they all teach you valuable, important parts of the business.

So if somebody’s just starting out, I say, “Be open, because this could lead to that. A literary agency job could lead to being a scout or vice versa --- scouting could lead to agenting.”

SZ: Can you tell me more about the foreign fairs? Which fairs do you go to, and what do you do while you’re there?

EH: Not all scouts go to the fairs, but I’m very fortunate that I get to go to the London Book Fair in the spring. I think that’s such a great fair, because a) it’s London, and b), even though I’m only there for five or six days, I get so much bang for my buck. When I’m there, I’m meeting British film agents and book agents and editors, I’m meeting with British film people, I’m seeing British theater…I feel like I get so many levels from that trip. I’m seeing so many different people.

A lot of the material may not be right for us, but it is good to meet with these people. And it’s true; the more of that face time you get with them, the more they keep you in mind! They know what you’re looking for. 

So I think that trip is great because it’s so productive, and you can get so much out of it. A lot of my coworkers are just getting back to Frankfurt, and they report to me what’s going on over there and what’s selling.

SZ: So you aren’t just optioning American material then?

EH: Definitely not, because it’s such a big studio. Same with Paramount TV, because they sell internationally as well. They’re always thinking about what will play internationally, what will be of interest and will sell abroad. 

SZ: You’ve been a film scout since 2000. How has the role changed since you started?

EH: You see a lot of trends. You see what people are buying and what people are going to see, and it’s neat to see those transitions happen. And like I said earlier, the whole Harry Potter movie explosion happened when I was starting here.

You wouldn’t be seen reading [YA or middle grade] on the subway until HARRY POTTER opened up that whole world.

At the time, no one was really paying attention to YA or middle grade literature (or taking it very seriously). You wouldn’t be seen reading it on the subway until HARRY POTTER opened up that whole world.

And it’s like, “No, there are fans!” In my book group alone, we probably do a couple of YA books a year because people are like, “Oh, I’m curious --- I want to read this.” So that YA explosion has been a big thing to see.

SZ: And what about the position itself? Are you doing the same kind of thing you were doing 14 years ago?

EH: No, which is nice. As soon as you think, “Oh, this might get repetitive,” it changes. What the studio is looking for changes and the way they’re looking for it changes. There was a time they’d say, “We want you to scout a lot of theater,” and then that pulled back. Right when you’re about to hit a wall and be like, “I am so bored,” you get something new. You get a new client, you get a new mandate --- you get something that reinvents the job, in a way. A lot of the job is still kind of the same, but it’s always evolving. You never have the same day twice.

SZ: Do you see it changing in the next decade, and if so, how?

EH: If I knew that, I would be so rich because I would buy up all the books I thought would be huge! But you never know.  We were getting really tired of the dystopian material, thinking, “If I read one more book about a girl living outside the wall of a city who has to get inside the wall of the city to save her mother/brother/father/whatever, I’m gonna scream!” But then The Hunger Games movies happened, and that’s still happening.

But then to balance that, we got THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, and teen weepies are the popular thing now --- IF I STAY and things like that. You never know what the audience appetite is going to be. And things can come out of nowhere --- like the little Sundance film Little Miss Sunshine. They released that in the summer and said, “We’ll see how this does,” and boom! Huge hit. You never know.

If you can be a step ahead of the curve, that’s great. But that’s a tough place to be.

SZ: What were your favorite books as a teen and 20-something?

EH: It’s cliché, but I was a huge fan of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger. I recently re-read it and it still holds up. I also loved A SEPARATE PEACE by John Knowles and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  In college, I fell in love with the works of Thomas Hardy --- especially JUDE THE OBSCURE--- and JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë was also a favorite. In my 20s, I discovered more modern authors like Paul Auster and John Irving, and I devoured everything they wrote. A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by Irving will always be one of my favorites.  

SZ: What were your favorite movies as a teen and 20-something?

EH: I was fortunate to come of age in the time of John Hughes’ teenage movies. My favorite was16 Candles, but I also loved The Breakfast Club. I can still recite most of the lines by heart, and if I am channel-surfing and one of them is on, forget it --- I’m watching until the end. I was also a total comedy nerd, so any early Woody Allen movies (particularly Take the Money and Run and Broadway Danny Rose) were always go-to movies for me. I also loved Mel Brooks and his movies. Madeline Kahn was my heroine --- she could do it all and Brooks knew how to use her talents to the fullest. And of course, the movie adaptation of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was/is/always will be one of my favorites that I never tire of.