An Interview with Kenneth Atchity
   by Michael Neff

Kenneth Atchity is president of Atchity Editorial/Entertainment International (AEI)--a successful motion picture production and literary management company--and chairman of AEI's Writer's Lifeline, a company specializing in coaching writers. Kenneth is the author of a dozen books, including "A Writer's Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision Through Revision, " and he co-authored with Chi-Li Wong, the now famous "Writing Treatments That Sell." After teaching comparative literature and creative writing at Occidental College and UCLA (1970 - 1987), he served as a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at the University of Bologna. Soon thereafter, he left the academic realm to develop, produce, and publish literary properties. Kenneth has produced twenty films, and is currently executive producer of Steve Alten's "Meg," a co-production with Zide Films and Walt Disney Pictures.

Neff: Ken, it appears to me that Atchity Entertainment International is truly a unique entity in the world of Hollywood due to the fact that it's owned and operated by an individual with not only a very accomplished creative writing background, but a strong desire to spend the time necessary to work closely with promising new writers. Can you confirm or deny this?

Atchity: Chi-Li and I like to think we're unique. Not only are we both writers (who've sold or optioned treatments to television, as well as film), but we LOVE writers--who are willing to stop at nothing to achieve excellence and commensurate success. Our uniqueness comes from the combination of both book and film, and the breadth of experience--from my years in the academic world as a professor of literature, and Distinguished Instructor (novel, nonfiction, screenplay) at UCLA's Writers Program, to her New York street savvy.

Neff: I'm curious. Can you tell me what complication or epiphany persuaded you to leave the academic literary world for Hollywood?

Atchity: I think it was the need for more creative freedom which, ironically, I found and find in the world outside the campus. It began happening when I received tenure, which immediately threw me into a one-year funk. Then I ran into Norman Cousins, who gave me a copy of William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade," and suggested I consider entertainment--a world I knew little about. When I realized it was all about storytelling, and getting paid for it, I knew I'd finally found the right place to nurture my talents as inspirational speaker, editor, publisher, and writer.

Neff: Do aspiring novelists approach AEI any differently than unknown screenwriters?

Atchity: Not really. The approach is the same, though we aren't interested in "aspiring novelists." We want someone who IS a novelist, because they've just completed a novel! Instructions for approaching us are spelled out on we love 2- to 3-line email

Neff: Can you give us an example of AEI working ground-up with a writer to develop a novel, treatment, or screenplay into a successful sell?

Atchity: John Scott Shepherd pitched me an idea called "Henry's List of Wrongs," which he wanted to write as a screenplay. I suggested instead that he write it as a novel. He said, "I've never written a novel before." I said: "So you're exactly even with everyone who's never written a novel before." He faxed it to me 10 pages at a time, until three months later it was done--and it was outstanding. I submitted it to a publisher in New York who I knew would leak it to Hollywood. Two weeks later we sold it, in auction, to New Line for $1.1 million (against $1.5).

Steve Alten sent us an unwieldy manuscript called "White Death" (or something like that). We saw it had potential and referred him to our Writers Lifeline company, that mentors writers whose skills and craft don't yet equal their talent and ambition. Nine months later, we had helped Steve shape it into a raging 100 pages (called "MEG", an international best-seller with more than 2 million copies in print) and an outline for the remainder--which Walt Disney Pictures preempted for $1.1 million. Then Steve had the money to finish editing the book with twl; sixty days later I sold "MEG" in a 7-way auction for $2.2 million to Bantam-Doubleday's Shawn Coyne (now publisher of his own company, RuggedLand, which bought "Henry's List of Wrongs" in a 3-book deal). Steve has gone on to write "The Trench" (the sequel to "MEG"), "Domain," "Goliath"; and is now working on "Primal Waters," the third in the "MEG" trilogy.

Neff: That's all a dream driver, no doubt. But back to the mundane for a moment. How many novel and screenplay submissions, treatments, and proposals does AEI get in a typical year?

Atchity: I'd guess we get about 15,000. We accept about 50 of them.

Neff: I'm curious. How does AEI score-box new screenplay submissions? In other words, can you tell us exactly what qualities AEI is looking for in a new screenplay? Do certain factors count more than others, for example, "production value" vs. "dialogue"?

Atchity: Our score-box is standard to the industry. The most important elements are: (a) story, (b) character, (c) character, and (d) character. Once we know it's a good story, what everyone wants to know in the world we sell to is--are the characters strong enough to attract top talent? Everything else, though important, is secondary.

Neff: But how do you define "production value"? Is it a gut feeling or a scientific find, or some combo thereof?

Atchity: We don't worry about it that much. NEVER tell us, "It can be done for a budget." We'd prefer a $100 million script to a $2 million one. Having produced budget movies at the beginning of my career, I can tell you it's just as much trouble as producing blockbusters--and there's lots more money in the latter.

Neff: The realities of the Hollywood film business make it clear that to successfully pitch a treatment or screenplay to agents, producers, or studio execs, one must perfect the log line, or no more than a very brief paragraph designed to absolutely wow the reader into wanting to read more. Coupled with a title, and perhaps a proposed lead for the film, this is known as a "high concept" pitch--or at least that's the way I understand it. "Liar, Liar" or "King of Comedy" to my way of thinking are great examples of screenplays that complement this approach. However, there are very good and even popular films that might not fit snugly into a "high concept" pitch box. For example, I can't imagine "The Big Lebowski"--a film I enjoy even more than the two above--surviving the cut. Should good writers forsake a script or story they feel strongly about because it doesn't comport with the high concept model? Is there a way to reconcile or balance given the realities of Hollywood?

Atchity: Nothing need be forsaken--just "paused." The sooner a writer receives money, the freer he or she becomes. One of the things a good manager does is help his client prioritize among projects based, among other things, on the time/money equation. Hollywood loves to throw scads of dough at great log-lines. If scads of dough is what you're after, then you focus on that kind of project first. You save your "Lebowskis" for once you've gotten the dough. It just seems like common sense to me. But if you're not a writer who can do the "big concept" film, then send us the best you do--we're very open minded and our tastes go from the commercial to the Laemmle.

Neff: Pragmatic advice, thanks! But Hollywood, well, at least ostensibly, craves original and unique stories, the magic bullet of a new "high concept" to be made into film. On the other hand, forces of bureaucracy apparently exist in some quarters that work towards overly compartmentalizing and dumbing down or pseudo-glitzing new ideas and stories to make them, at least in someone's opinion, more marketable. What in your opinion accounts for this phenom, this apparent contradiction, and how is the good writer to avoid potential instances of this counter-productive environment, or is this even possible?

Atchity: It's not possible to avoid it entirely unless you've had some success. One of the roles a manager-producer can play that an agent can't is to guard the development process. And that depends on his degree of clout--we have more now than we did a year ago. What we do, if the client isn't in a crazy hurry to get cash, is to protect the vision by attaching a director or star to the script or novel BEFORE we take it to the money people (the studios). We're also raising our own $100 million film fund to give us more control for our clients' projects. Find the powerful people, an get them to protect you!

Neff: Yipes! Will do. But just to follow up a bit more, in the context of the studio development process. Oliver Stone once said that he found the studio development of screenplays to be in some cases debilitating and even harmful to a writer. Apparently, unless a writer is allied with a powerful player who supports his or her script, the script may be diced and repasted any number of times and in a variety of ways, and often by a committee of people whose appointed task it is to find fault and revise. Given this potential reality, is there anyway a good writer can take steps in advance to assure as little damage as possible will be done to the script? Does the agent have any say over the studio development process, or does the situation simply vary from one circumstance to the other, depending on the players?

Atchity: The agent has zero say. A manager-producer is at the table for every creative step along the way: development, casting, choice of director. We just find it more sensible to get the director on board as soon as possible--which automatically raises our control level--though ultimate control nearly always resides with the financiers. There is no secret to the secret of winning in Hollywood: It takes just one thing: Success. Once you've got box office or critical success, you become powerful and can control the outcome of your vision. That's what you strive for, realizing full well that you must take many steps, some of which are baby ones, along the way.

Neff: Do you think what is "commercial" in films is as much a product of what producers think is commercial, i.e, the result of a producer "group think" culture, or do you believe there is a legitimate understanding of the "market" in Hollywood?

Atchity: This is a tough question. If I knew the right answer, I'd own Hollywood! But the studios know more than we like to admit they know. They believed "Spider Man" would be a massive success, and they were right. Fortunately or not, the American movie-going public responds to Hollywood blockbusters--especially when they're done well, as "Spider Man" was. But there's a huge dearth of good films for many audiences who aren't being served right now--romantic comedy in particular. Sooner or later, the next Neil Simon will command a responsive box office. John Scott Shepherd may be the one, if we can get his films to the screen with the vision intact; and that will happen!

Neff: "Independent" filmmaking has been somewhat co-opted by Hollywood, with all the major studios buying up the independent production houses/distributors. What does it mean to be "independent" as a filmmaker in your mind? Can you be independent and work in the Hollywood system?

Atchity: Independence is indeed a state of mind. The independent filmmaker is simply someone who will do anything he needs to do to get the film made, even if he has to steal the film (or digital camera) and put it together himself.

Neff: One final question, Ken, and this one's tough. Is there any room for art in Hollywood filmmaking?

Atchity: Ha. What's art got to do, got to do with it? ... But seriously if you're determined to be an artiste, move to Europe. The American market is about gut-response from the masses, "tunes you can hum when you leave the theater" as my mother once told me after a not-hummable premiere of a choral symphony I wrote the book to at Lincoln Center years ago. The masses we court appreciate art--but only if it's disguised as drama: witness the success every year at the Academy Awards of little movies like "Monster's Ball" or "A Beautiful Life."

Copyright Web del Sol, 2002

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