#15 Ryan Dixon- Indie Writing vs. Studio Writing

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Aiming to be a consistent and dependable writer will serve you just as well if not better than aiming to write for big studios. Ryan Dixon, writer, producer and the founder of Tartan Valley Ventures, a Los Angeles-based creative development consulting firm, compares and contrasts writing for studio projects/big names and the independent feature. He has written projects for Disney, Amazon, Universal, and for stars including Dwayne Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Josh Gad. He also gives some fantastic tangible first-steps for aspiring writers just starting out. Key Points: 1:54 - How he got started 5:38 - Writing for studios 7:30 - Writing creatively vs. writing what the market will sell 7:52 - The writers that get the jobs 9:06 - What to expect when writing for a studio 11:47 - The sweet spot between writing for studio films and exercising creativity (development consulting) 14:07 - How the Writers Guild works with independent writers 14:54 - Getting a writing job (TV vs Features, Agents, etc) 17:06 - Craft writing vs. Inspiration writing 22:00 - Creativity vs. business 26:07 - Covid/Streaming changes on the horizon and what to write for it 30:21 - The role of social media in being a writer and getting hired 31:41 - Listener Questions

  • Opinions on Packaging Deals

  • Best way to get your script on a major producing platform

  • Finding the correct agent/manager

  • Timeline to expect when breaking in as a writer

40:05 - Best compliment: "It's a movie" - and the elements that need to be in there 43:19 - What are different companies looking for in a script? 45:15 - The questions I wish I would've known to ask

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Full transcript:

Ryan Dixon (00:00):

Pick the biggest high concept idea you have and make it in the lowest production values needed. So it's about the end of the world in a house.

Tanya Musgrave (00:11):

Welcome to There to Here an educational podcast where industry professionals talk nuts and bolts and how they got from There to Here. On today's show, screenwriter and consultant, Ryan Dixon gives us a look into writing and consulting for the independent feature world and how it compares with being a studio writer. He also gives some really good tangible first steps for those aspiring to sell scripts in Hollywood. As this is a new podcast, we're really wanting feedback so go to media.colabinc.org, fill out the feedback survey and you'll be entered to win a $25 Amazon gift card. From CoLab Inc I'm Tanya Musgrave, and today I have Ryan Dixon. He's a writer, producer and the founder of Tartan Valley Ventures, an LA based creative development consulting firm.

Tanya Musgrave (00:51):

As a screenwriter, Dixon has written projects for Disney, Amazon, Universal for stars, including Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Josh Gad. He recently co-wrote an executive produced Opening Night, a comedic film recently featured on Netflix. He's also worked in film and TV creative development for people such as Tom Cruise and for companies such as Paramount, MGM and IMAX. Welcome to the show.

Ryan Dixon (01:16):

Thank you, Tanya. Thank you for having me.

Tanya Musgrave (01:18):

We've had a couple of writers on the show, one who worked in a writers room and daytime, another a script coordinator. So what was your writer's journey like? Was it television features? Did you go through writer's rooms or did you go more of the independent feature route or? How did you get from there to here?

Ryan Dixon (01:35):

I tend to find that when people ask, "How did you make it, or how did you break in?" What you find is there is no one consistent story. Everybody has a completely different story. So it's very hard to model anyone's career off of anyone just because everyone has their own road to success. With mine, it started in college in terms of the collaborations that I still cherish today from Josh Gad to Paula Wagner, all started at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. I grew up in West central Pennsylvania, very rural area, then I ended up amazing my parents by getting into Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama, where I majored in theater directing. But I always loved film. George Romero went there. He was one of my heroes and I used that. Met so many amazing people there. It was constant creation all the time.

Ryan Dixon (02:28):

Then from there I spent two more years at the grad program Entertainment Technology Center. And then from there it's time to get out to LA. What do you want to do? I came out to LA and my focus at first was in screenplay development. I worked for a lot of different companies, Tom Cruise's company, where Paula Wagner was the headed at the time, IMAX, Paramount, as you said in the bio. At the same point, I was working on projects in LA directing, writing stuff, building it, but I really had thought, "Hey, let's focus on the development." And the day I got the call about a really big vice president position at a major production company studio was the same day an old friend from college named Josh Gad called me. We had bonded over a movie from the '80s called Twins, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.

Ryan Dixon (03:24):

He had heard about an opportunity that Universal was looking to make sequel, Triplets adding Eddie Murphy. We had two days to come up with the pitch. We did it and somehow we sold it. So my life, which had been focused on screenplay development, working on that side suddenly flipped and I was a studio screenwriter. During that time, I don't want to make it sound I wasn't writing. I was writing stuff all the time that wasn't selling. I also had found a fairly solid career as an Indie screenwriter. What I mean by that it was ghost writing a lot of projects, people were hiring me to take their ideas. So it was a lot of work that I was doing probably more for money and survival than it was a creative fulfillment, but all that came together and suddenly I was in the world of a studio screenwriter where it really is surreal when you're that level, not necessarily because of how the creative process works.

Ryan Dixon (04:22):

I have found that the creative process, when you're working with a group, whether you're in high school, college or at the ISF was basically the same. There's going to be the same dynamics, possible conflicts what have you. But what was really different is once you hit a certain level, suddenly you get a team. Suddenly it was like, oh, I had an agent and there was attorneys and all these other people. When I look back on it, the things just come right at you, and it all is amazing, but it's so overwhelming that you don't necessarily have time to think about what questions you should be asking or how this works.

Ryan Dixon (05:00):

For example, I to use in Triplets what we pitched, what we loved when it's sold and how we pitched at first dive in Reitman's company in Montecito, and then we had to pitch it to Universal. They gave the green light, we were good to go and when we had our first meeting after we had gotten the deal in Montecito with Ivan Reitman and stuff, their first note was essentially throwing away the plot we had pitched. I didn't realize that I thought it was, that's odd, but that happens all the time. So it's not even knowing you get the deal what's going to happen? There's a steep learning curve in that and in the way I think that what you're expected to communicate as a screenwriter on that level, in terms of how you talk about story.

Ryan Dixon (05:50):

A studio screenwriter is half architect, half marketer, because you're constantly trying to take in other people's ideas with your own building. An architect if you think about it, an architect can build whatever crazy building, but inside the building there always has to be a restroom. That's screenwriting is you can have that wild time, but at the same point, you need conventional things. And on the marketing side, I think when I see a lot of newer screenwriters, there's a sense that they treat it more being a novelist of like, "Oh, this is my idea. I'm going to develop it, and this is what I want." Whereas when you get to that higher level, you're always having to sell changes your ideas. You're in a constant pitch mode.

Tanya Musgrave (06:40):

It's show business.

Ryan Dixon (06:41):

Yeah, it's business. I do a lot of pitch coaching and I think what people think about pitch coaching is, "Oh, I'm going to pitch my idea and I'm going to sell it, and it's going to be great." In reality that happens, but you're pitching every moment of your life as a screenwriter, not only for yourself for a job, but for ideas you want in the movie, you're trying to have creative discussions with people who are all super smart. That's the thing in entertainment. Obviously there's some bad apples, but overall, most people you'll find a super smart, super collaborative, really wanting to make great projects, but oftentimes that people have different ideas about elements and you have to learn how to balance that.

Tanya Musgrave (07:23):

Well, what is that balance? Do you find yourself trying to be a little bit more original or just delivering what the market will sell?

Ryan Dixon (07:30):

The reason you get hired on that level is ideally for two reasons, one, the project you have or what you're trying to sell yourself, you have a completely original voice. Your ideas are original. It's something we haven't seen. It blows your mind. The other side is that the writers who work a lot and get hired, they know how to write a script, they know how to work well with producers, agents and what have you. That's why you see so often... When I was in college, I remember like, "Why this screenwriter, he did all these bad movies. How does she keep getting hired or he keep getting hired." One, you realize blaming a screenwriter, is it a smart move only because they might have the credit on the movie, but have very little input into the finished film.

Ryan Dixon (08:20):

But at that same point, another reason for working for those who are able to work a lot, it's just people working with them. They know that they're not crazy. They know that your producers, your decision makers can be, "We can work with this person. She can deliver the script on time. She's not going to have a set piece inside that costs $20 million extra. What she's telling you, she's going to write is what she writes," and what have you. Those are, I think, the keys to longevity right now is having a unique, strong voice as a writer and being able to play well with others.

Tanya Musgrave (08:59):

So are you again, more of now the independent feature route, or still doing some studio writing or?

Ryan Dixon (09:07):

Studio writing is extremely hard and not so crushing but just so wearying. It's awesome to work on these projects, it's great to work with great people, but the system is so vast that inherently, you're usually not working on your own ideas and you're completely removed from any control in how the project is moving forward. For example, when you have a studio deal, you'll get so many weeks or months to finish a draft. And those are usually hard. You have three months to finish it and you're expected to turn it in. Oftentimes you do that, you're racing, you're putting every effort of your entire being into this project. You send it off and then you don't hear back from them at all for six months, for eight months, for a year. And then it can be just, "Hey, we're going with another writer or we're going on a different project."

Tanya Musgrave (10:14):

Do they at least compensate you for that?

Ryan Dixon (10:16):

Oh, yeah. Yeah, but it's more of the sense of, it's a certain type of person who can really succeed on the longterm. For me, I loved doing it. I'm still open to doing it. I still take offers, I still I've worked on projects, but I've split my own career now into when I write, I want to write the stuff that I love and I'm passionate about. As fun as studio screenwriting is, you're more often than not molding other people's ideas and things that you might have fallen in love with, with the project initially could be thrown out. The money's good. It's great to be working it with so many of the top talent, whether it's actors, directors, what have you. It can wear you out because I found on average for each job I got, it took about a year and a half to get that job.

Ryan Dixon (11:14):

There's a lot of uncertainty, there's a lot of like, "Hey, yeah, we love you. We're going to hire you." You don't hear from them for a year or someone's fired. Or even on the pitching level. I remember I was pitching a project to a major studio, I was one of two for this big rewrite and then nothing ever happened with the project. You just never heard back. So there's a lot of false starts. There's a lot of magical thinking that a screenwriter has to do of like, okay, it's going to happen next week. So there's a lot of stuff out of your control and for me, I being in control of my life as much as possible. So I pivoted away from making my living on studio films, which was great while it lasted to working with producers that I love, working on projects that I love.

Ryan Dixon (12:03):

I'll get them, but for the majority of my income, I have transitioned into development consultations which I tend to work with a writing coach with screenwriters or as a freelance development executive for a lot of independent producers. So I'm getting the best of all the world.

Tanya Musgrave (12:25):

Well, that's what I was about to ask you. If you had found that middle paradise where you could do both.

Ryan Dixon (12:32):

It is. It's important because to me, one of the essential ingredients in succeeding in Hollywood is understanding your skills and what you love to do. Because there's so much potential glamour in things that you might not good. It's just like, it's fun to be like, "Hey, I'm writing a project for whoever." So sometimes you can get slightly lost or astray from what am I really good at? And for me, what I really loved was if I want to write something, I looking at it as architecture, a scientific project. I'm interested in writing things that do interest things with structure or character or what have you. And so it's using that for my own writing and then using everything else I know to help others because I can do that a lot easier than I can do my own writing. In that same token, I also working with other writers and producers because I can give the notes and they're great notes, but I don't have to go home and solve it.

Tanya Musgrave (13:32):

You don't actually have to it.

Ryan Dixon (13:36):

I know. It's freeing in that way. I said, I loved being a full time studio screenwriter for that time, but I'm loving what I'm doing now even more because I know what it is to be in those big rooms when you were at the president of a studio or what have you. So I can share that with my clients, and at the same time, I know so much better for my own writing what I should be writing to what can potentially be made.

Tanya Musgrave (14:05):

Yeah. For sure. So technically, are you a freelancer then, or part of the Writers Guild?

Ryan Dixon (14:11):

Oh, yeah. I'm part of the Writers Guild. So the Writers Guild works, basically all of the major studios are signatories with the Writers Guild. That means if you're writing a project for Universal, for Amazon, for whomever, you have to join the Writers Guild. So as soon as I got the job with Triplets, I got the packet and I had to join. That also means that if I'm working with producers who want to hire me for some of the Indie stuff, they've had to join the Writers Guild to hire me.

Tanya Musgrave (14:40):

Okay. So when you were working on these projects with the bigger names attached, were you approached independently through an agent, through a company you worked for?

Ryan Dixon (14:52):

Getting a job writing is multifaceted. There isn't a clean, clear way to get it. In the world of TV, once you break into it, there's a clear progression of you starting off often times as a writer's assistant or what have you, then a staff writer, then a story editor, on each show. In the world of features, it's really open. One element is when you have an agent one of the bigger ones, they often have booklets where they show the open writing assignments that you can say, "Hey, I want to go meet with this person to talk about that." But it's very informal because there's not a billboard where it's like, "Hey, Universal, write for this." It's all word of mouth, even agents their network is only as big as the people they know too. So there isn't a unified, hey, a new job, everyone in Hollywood goes to it. So much of it is about the relationships that you have built over time.

Tanya Musgrave (15:56):

Yeah, makes sense.

Ryan Dixon (15:56):

So much of it about is asking, hearing, thinking about opportunities, hearing someone saying, hey, going out to lunch, "Hey, I have this script." "Hey, can I read it? Maybe I could do a rewrite of it." Then once you get those jobs and if you do them well, you tend then to have people come back and say, "Hey, Ryan I've worked with Joe and Nick Manganiello on several projects, and that comes from, I think we have a really good relationship as I was hired for the first thing. We had a good relationship, so they come back. A lot of the work comes from that. And then obviously there's the specking model where it's just you writing what you want to write and then hopefully sending it out to be sold.

Tanya Musgrave (16:47):

I think you had touched on this a little bit before with the whole, it's a business, you have to write stuff that sells. I was curious if there was a middle ground that you had found with that as well. Like, is it possible to be a good writer with no inspiration? For instance, I remember the songwriting book and it was talking about the difference between inspiration writers and craft writers and why the first album is always genius of some new band, but the second one is just crap because they only have a year to write it and they don't know how to craft write. Like, I could write about a dustpan if I wanted to write a hit, that thing. For your writing and for the consultations that you do, that balance between inspiration and being able to write as a craft writer.

Ryan Dixon (17:29):

Yeah. That's a great question. One thing that is the difference and I have friends who are great songwriters between screenwriting and songwriting, is it's a lot faster to write a song than a screenplay. On average you'll be with a project, even if they don't do additional steps and hire you to do rewrites probably for a year. Just in terms of doing the pitch meetings, getting hired, then writing whatever kind of outlined and getting commenced in the script. So it's a lot harder to do that without being passionate about the subject, I have found. Obviously I think where the dispassion could come from is if you get offered something. If somebody is like, "Tanya, can you please just do a rewrite on this? We'll pay you a lot of money." But where it's, if you're going after something, I have found that usually there's so much work that unless you're really masochistic, you're not going to do a lot of free work.

Ryan Dixon (18:37):

Now, what I will say again, where the lack of inspiration can come from is you're in the middle of a project and what you love is vanished. Again, if you pitched a road comedy about a dog and a cat driving and they were like, "We don't want a dog in a cat, we want a turtle and a rabbit," and you really love dogs and cats, it can be harder to keep going with things. But again, oftentimes on the studio level, those projects are so rare that it's not usually about passion as the drawbacks are usually much more about you just have bad relationships, whether it's with the wrong type of producer, development executive or a director.

Tanya Musgrave (19:22):

So, did you have to learn how to develop that creative boundary where it didn't break your heart to make it into a turtle and a rabbit or was that a skill that you already fantastically have?

Ryan Dixon (19:38):

I was lucky because my grandfather had a heart attack when he was 50 and he lived on a farm and the doctor said you needed exercise. He built in the '60s three holes for golf on the farm and people in the area, I grew up in a rural area again, started to come and say, "Hey, can we play it?" And so he started charging and by the time I was born, it was an 18 hole public chorus. It's not in any way snobby everybody was there, but instead of learning how to play golf, I decided to do plays and movies on there with the locals. So I learned early on about criticism, about taking notes, about working with people. My time at Carnegie Mellon only enhanced that to where you were expected to when you looked at whatever you were doing. If I was doing a short piece that I directed, the feedback was honest upfront.

Ryan Dixon (20:33):

I remember the Disney Imagineers when they do tests for projects, their first question is, "What didn't work? I'm open to that. Like I said, when it comes to my work, my own writing that I'm doing on spec, I tend to have a more specific idea of what it is. So there's less room for interpretation versus if you're working on a studio project and it's like, "Hey, let's do the Monopoly movie." But what is that? That's the thing. Oftentimes with certain studio projects, you're going in with a vague idea, and you're trying to, as a screenwriter, fill in the story with different inputs from the producer and what have you.

Ryan Dixon (21:18):

So it's a different process than this is my baby. Again, it's an architect they're not thinking my building. It's like you're being hired to build something for somebody else versus something you're writing. And again, that's where screenwriting, I think is a lot different even than novel writing, which I think sometimes people compare it to. It's a lot different in terms of how you use your mind.

Tanya Musgrave (21:43):

It is about business and so I was curious what that balance was for you, how much you're able to exercise that creativity, but then also having to deal with the business side of your company like dealing with finances and negotiating and that kind of stuff.

Ryan Dixon (22:00):

I've always loved the business elements. Coming from a small business with a family, especially in entertainment, I read everything about the entertainment business. Like I said, and I had a background in development. So the business side was never foreign or scary to me.

Tanya Musgrave (22:19):

Okay, that's not something a lot of artists can say.

Ryan Dixon (22:22):

No and I think that it's helped me too, because the difference is some deals I have to make as a writer, you tend to want the job so much. You're willing to first say, hey, what I have found that I've had to do differently, especially as a writer is you want the job so you want to be the nice guy. So you're willing, sometimes you volunteer to give up things because you want them to hire you. You're like, "Hey, I'll do it even faster than you do. Or hi I don't need that money." It's the reverse of being slowly and deliver. In the end, it comes down for negotiation. It's like dating as they used to say. You don't want to show too much eagerness or people will be like, "There's something weird with this person." And so you have to take it deliberate. When you've been in the entertainment business long enough, your scar tissue allows you to realize you can be excited about something.

Ryan Dixon (23:19):

I think the best advice is if a piece of good news happens, if you hear, "Oh, Steven Spielberg is reading my script." Enjoy it that day and then forget about it until you hear something following, because there's so many times somebody will be like, "Hey, send me your script. I want to hire you to write this or what have you." And you never hear back. So it's important to take the victories of, hey, even if this person is interested in you as a writer and take that nugget, but don't spend your money, which I learned the hard way nor money you think you're going to have, or think that you have it until you get a call from business or legal affairs from the studio.

Ryan Dixon (24:00):

Once they start actually doing the contract, and that's also just a sidebar is one of the things that's interesting in Hollywood, at least on the feature side, it's still business that makes business on a handshake. So when they say you have the job, business affairs starts, that's when the negotiation starts and that can often take six months or more.

Tanya Musgrave (24:20):

Wow. So how have things been lately? It's been about three, four months since this COVID stuff happened. And of course, writing can happen throughout this whole entire thing. I was curious if you've been doing more writing, more consulting, like how these last few months have affected you.

Ryan Dixon (24:39):

It's affected me in the way that a consulting business is based on writers, producers, people who want to work in the industry. And often what they're paying me is extra money. You know what I mean? Like money they have. So inherently, an economic downturn, it's a great depression. It's hard to do that, but in the same way, the one advantage is entertainment is clearly going to come back in one form. It's already going to shoot. I think people who get in entertainment, who hire me as a consultant or writing coach or doing it out of a passion, a longterm passion. So in other ways, my business has been steady because what we're doing now is basically what I do with my clients. So it's on the phone. It's reading, it's calling people and for the most part, Hollywood exists in that form. I'm working personally on a project I'm developing with the producer I'm very excited about, and then I'm busier than ever with clients, because on the reverse, all of this downtime has made people or at least my clients want to write a lot more.

Tanya Musgrave (25:53):

Yeah, "Hey I can write. I'm home alone. I might as well write."

Ryan Dixon (25:57):

The day to day of the business from my business whether it's consulting or writing, hasn't really changed and assuming everything's getting back where it looks things are going to get started getting shot again and what have you, I don't foresee it changing all that drastically in the near future.

Tanya Musgrave (26:16):

I'm curious. What changes do you see with for instance streaming, the content wars there's potentially, I mean, it seems there would be a lot more opportunity for writers. Is that something that you've observed?

Ryan Dixon (26:31):

100%. It used to be, the hardest thing to do was to create the content. 20 years ago, 30 years ago, it was so hard to make a film. That if you were able to make a film, there was a decent chance it would be distributed and somebody would see it. It would come out on DVD or VHS because the ancillary revenues were so high on those elements. Now you can make a film, but the chances of it being released by a major distributor what have you, are rare. It's reversed now where it used to be, you would build towards content. Now content I did to see it as the first thing. You create your content, and then you try to get the money for it or to build your brand.

Ryan Dixon (27:18):

So I think that is the big difference of where the business is. That it's easier than ever to create content, to write something that's interesting and probably even have it made it's harder than ever to get someone to watch it. And that's where a place Netflix is so important because they want to massive content. So if you get it onto Netflix someone buying that, that's the victory.

Tanya Musgrave (27:50):

Is there something that writers should look out for when it comes to this new process?

Ryan Dixon (27:56):

It's just fast tracking what has already been there. What would I tell every writer. It's like, if you're going to write a script, pick the biggest high concept idea you have and make it in the lowest production values needed. So it's about The End of the World in a House, A Quiet Place, Don't Breathe. There's a lot of these movies that, that's where... it's the Blumhouse model. I think one of the reasons Blumhouse changed horror is horror before Blumhouse used to be chasing the leader. Meaning Scream came out in 1996, that was followed by a five year period of essentially versions of Scream. I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, what have you. Because the people were chasing, and this is in general across all genres. People are chasing that big title. Every producer the day after Scream was released was like, "Let's develop our own Scream."

Ryan Dixon (28:50):

What Blumhouse model did was taking the cost of making a horror film and the logistics and brought it down huge and scale $5 million and below, and what that has allowed and what other companies that has followed is real innovation in the content. That's why I think horror is particularly in its golden age, because it's no longer trying to just make rip offs of the popular thing. It's allowing, finding unique fresh voices from all across the spectrum. It's just like, "Hey, we'll give you this much money, you can do whatever but don't breach that." Because they know if they can make it for 5 million, 4 million, 3 million, it basically guarantees a profit. So that's the same as a screenwriter in general, whether you're writing for TV or film, small stakes but always be bold, be crazy. There is there isn't any more really that sense of nobody's going to make that like there used to be. Like, "Oh, that's out of style."

Ryan Dixon (29:49):

You can find anything being made now. Every type of movie content is being made. There's not something that people are like, "No, one's making it." Like it was 10, 15 years ago. The key then is on the writer. It's like, instead of what it used to be Scream was a hit, I'm going to write a Scream, write something that is unique to you and that's going forward. The other thing about where we are, it's more and more writers need to be their own brand as much as possible. It's not just the screenwriting, but it's do you have, or can you build a following on Twitter? Can you build something on Instagram? What are you doing to be known to be hired?

Tanya Musgrave (30:32):

I'm actually curious on that part when you mentioned social media, that seems to be a big thing in the Indie world, which is like, we'll cast people or we will hire people based on the amount of followers that they have. Is that important for a writer?

Ryan Dixon (30:48):

I follow a lot of writers who have gotten their first TV writing jobs through Twitter, for example, some of them were writing blogs, some of them were writing for different... some of them weren't and they get a Twitter following you inherently connect with show runners, what have you. And you're offered a job writing for television. So, that's the difference now is there is no separation. You don't necessarily have to be a writer from day one or saying, I want to be a writer and do what writers used to have to do. If you can build up a presence online that has a unique voice, and that's where it's really about. It's your identity, your uniqueness, your view of the world, your voice and if you have something that and it catches, you could very well be hired for a TV show or a project.

Tanya Musgrave (31:39):

Speaking of Twitter, we actually have some listener questions from our social medias again, shameless plug if you want to ask your questions to future guests, our handle on Insta and Twitter is ColabIncPodcast. We're going to jump right in. What are your views on packaging deals? Apparently it was a big to do with the Writers Guild last year, and a bunch of writers fired their agents over it. What's your view?

Ryan Dixon (32:02):

Just to back up, the idea that with packaging for the last however many years, agencies would say, "Hey, if this project is created under our auspices, we're going to get potentially the directors, the actors, we're going to give it all to the studio so they don't have to make the hiring exchanges. And in exchange, we'll pay the agency a fee." So that fees is the debate. And the debate becomes, "Hey, agencies are supposed to be working for their clients, not for themselves." The argument is that money that the studio is giving the agency, the packaging fee would be better served paying more writers, paying support staff. So that's the core battle. In terms of the strategy, so last year the WGA said the deal that they had signed with the group representing the agents was no longer valid. It was out of date. They needed to come to a new agreement. The agencies don't want to get rid of packaging, the major ones, because it's such a huge amount of money. I mean, it's asking Amazon to stop Prime delivery.

Tanya Musgrave (33:17):

Wow, yeah.

Ryan Dixon (33:18):

There's several sides to it because if we were wrapped by any agency that did packaging, which are the big four or five, the CAA, WME, UTA, ICM, which is where I was at. We had to officially fire our agent. So officially now there's some agencies, Verve being among them that have signed, have agreed not to do packaging. So some writers are going there, but for the most part, the major writers don't have agents. There's one side where especially... it affects more TV than it really does movie writing. TV one argument is, again, this money should be going back into the writers, really helping. There's another argument where smaller early level writers are saying, or middle-class writers are like, these packaging fees it's really about already the successful writers arguing about money because they want the money.

Ryan Dixon (34:16):

It's not something that would necessarily help the younger writers and losing the agent. For me, coming from more of the film focus background, I have, I said, mixed feelings. I think that agencies should work for the clients. I think that it's something that to make them change would take painful steps. But I also, as a feature film writer, not being able to officially utilize your agent is hard for any type of wanting to pursue your writing. Now, the WGA has put some portals on their website that have helped in terms of getting writers, connections out there. But it's a very traumatic fisher in how writers are hired.

Ryan Dixon (35:00):

The other thing I should note that upper level writers aren't effected as much because you might have to fire your writing agent, which you did. But if you're a bigger writer who were repped by... you have a producing agent, a directing agent, all those people, you don't have to fire those people. So you could be whoever J.J. Abrams or whoever fired his writing agent, but he still rep... I think he's repped by CAA. He still has a directing agent.

Tanya Musgrave (35:29):

He still connected.

Ryan Dixon (35:30):

Yeah. He's still connected. I have no idea how it will resolve itself.

Tanya Musgrave (35:36):

Wow, it is a such a different world. I'm so used to the production side where you just show up for the day and that's it.

Ryan Dixon (35:45):

I know. The development side is a lot of tense emails back and forth and passive aggressive meetings.

Tanya Musgrave (35:55):

All right, second question. What's the best way to get a script you wrote on a major film producing platform?

Ryan Dixon (36:01):

If you can break into television as a staff writer or whatever, there's a very direct incline, but it's a lot harder. If you have no experience, it's a lot harder if not nearly impossible to sell an original TV pilot. You have to have the right attachments, meaning you need to get a potential show runner attachments what have you. Feature film script is still open. If you write a great script and you can get it placed by somewhere, it doesn't matter who you are. What I would say is in terms of getting it there, you write your great script. There's several ways in. Contests, there's tons of contents out there, but there's probably about 10 that are the top tier, the Nicholl's Fellowship being an example of that. If you win the Nicholls or plays highly, you will get attention, agent, what have you.

Ryan Dixon (37:00):

Then there's the covered services like Script Arsenal, for example. I used to run one when it was owned by the New York Times called Script Shark. And there, if your script is strong enough, they often have scouting services that will take it to agents, managers, producers. Again, instead of thinking, "How do I get my script to Paramount or Warner Brothers? I would think in steps, how do I get my script to either a manager agent or a producer?" Because that's the process. Getting it to somebody who has a relationship somewhere who can then... you know, relationship with an executive. Again, it's all about relationships. So if you're an unknown quantity, your goal is to become known by somebody slightly above you. So it's a producer, a manager agent, and that person who they know they like this script, then they can push it up to the next level.

Tanya Musgrave (37:57):

Yeah. So how much, or how possible is it to do research on finding those particular agents? Because it's all niche. So it's just like, "Okay, I didn't write a horror script, but I wrote a drama. So how do I know if this agent does more dramas or horrors?" That thing. Is it even possible?

Ryan Dixon (38:17):

The agent question is a big one. My advice is don't worry about agents because agents are interested in you if you're making money and you can make them money. Agents are great, but they're not the ones, especially in writing, who are going to cultivate and develop your career. That's much more aligned with a manager. Managers still opens some to open submissions, solicitations what have you. Then there's also producers because there's a ton of producers out there who are open to reading scripts and what have you. But what I would say for someone breaking in, focus on your project, what you're writing your brand as a writer and then focus on your networking. What I mean by networking it's not, "Hey, I'm going to go to every event and meet every person."

Ryan Dixon (39:10):

It's an email, let it be organic. Look who are in your own circle, build it out from people. If you're in production, who you've worked with, who you like, and eventually you might meet someone in production that you get along with, and they'll be like, "Hey, I my sister in law is an executive at Netflix." or she's a manager... It's building organically. It's also the understanding of so much of success in Hollywood is just sticking around because things take a long time. If you Tanya, wanted to be a professional screenwriter, I would say, you have to give yourself five to seven years starting today if you had an idea to hopefully break in, because that's... Sometimes happens a lot faster, sometimes slower, but that's the nature to build up these things.

Ryan Dixon (40:00):

And there's so many false starts and also getting your writing excellent. Because one of the things people love to say is the best compliment you can get in Hollywood about your script is someone saying, "It's a movie." Because you might get notes about the structure character, but it's a movie is something that you can't quite pinpoint, but it just feels you can see it in reading. It's something for me, you've read thousands of screenplays. I can just tell sometimes. It's like, the way it flows, the way you don't stop, the way... it's simple. Each scene is about one thing and there's such a clarity. You're like, "This is a movie." And that's a hard thing because a lot of that is technique. Like for any vocation to master technique, takes a long time.

Tanya Musgrave (40:46):

Is there something that you look for? I mean, you mentioned one, each scene is about one thing, but for instance, if you were looking at a novel screenplay, is there some small little detail as in they used a dash instead of a period, you're like, "This, kid's got it." I don't know. Is there something small that tips you off to the fact that, "Hey, there's something special about this person," or they pay attention to detail or they have what it takes to make it.

Ryan Dixon (41:12):

They have what it takes to make it a little harder, just because what you find in Hollywood, there's so many talented people and so much of making it is just blind luck. Being in the right place at the right time, happening... So there's so many people who could easily slip in and out with super successful people and you wouldn't know difference just because somebody had the right opportunities. In terms of the screenplay, I've read them long enough screenplays where I can be fairly certain, if it's ready to go in any sense or close to it in the first five pages. Maybe the first one. The movie part is you have to read the whole thing, but even to start thinking if it could be. If it's in the first five pages and this is the same with almost every other screen writer, screenplay reader, I know you by the first page, just by how it looks, how it sounds.

Ryan Dixon (42:12):

It's the same I'm sure if you were a record producer. Somebody played their tape in the first 30 seconds you hear a song, you understand they have, or they're at the level of their ability. That's the thing. With screenwriting, it's not about, are you this? Are you great? It's, you're always working to become better and so to your question, it's more about what I can read in that first page, first five pages and say, "Okay, they're clearly ready for a professional career." Or they themselves need more time to work on their technique and what have you. Because usually almost all of the screenplays I've ever read for the most part, the ideas are solid. There's very few I've ever read them, like, "Oh, that's a terrible idea. It would never make a movie." But the challenge is so much about the technique and knowing how to construct a screenplay.

Tanya Musgrave (43:16):

The next question is what are those different companies looking for in a script and what are they more or less likely to buy and produce?

Ryan Dixon (43:25):

So each company's individual. You know what I mean? Each studio is looking based on their own needs, because it could be that sometimes a studio has just had a hit romantic comedy. And hey, we want another one that especially if you think about Netflix, how they work, where they put these movies out and then people who like this, you'll this. So it's an individual choice. Like I said, if there's to be advice to, "Hey, I want to write a screenplay and I want my best chances of getting it made/sold, write it at as low a budget as possible with as big of idea as possible. Because everyone is looking for that, and that's only increased with COVID and everything. Everybody wants that. In terms of genre, the horror, thriller genre is forever evergreen at that level.

Tanya Musgrave (44:23):

Gotcha. Okay. One of the last questions, it's fairly random.

Ryan Dixon (44:27):

I love random questions.

Tanya Musgrave (44:29):

How do you your eggs?

Ryan Dixon (44:32):

Burnt. I do. I like them scrambled and burnt dark. I liked the dark black.

Tanya Musgrave (44:42):

That's amazing. Well, I think I would prefer that over the running ones. I don't do running.

Ryan Dixon (44:47):

Or if it's like sunny side out, the yolk has to be cut out and burnt as well. So burnt and I also omelets.

Tanya Musgrave (44:58):

Oh, interesting.

Ryan Dixon (44:58):

That's my egg choice. And devil's egg, I love devil's eggs too. So those are my top egg choices.

Tanya Musgrave (45:07):

So what questions should I have asked you?

Ryan Dixon (45:08):

Something I realized a lot and kind of through my own career up and downs is I wish I had known the questions to ask upfront and the process. Because I tend to think that the more I'm in it, screenwriting is a process of solving things upfront and knowing what to solve upfront. For example, I'm a big believer that there's no point in writing your screenplay now, unless you figured out clearly what your protagonists want is. I learned that by experience where I used to write scripts. I had no problem in writing plot and plot and plot and plot and incident. But a lot of those scripts, I just didn't know what it meant to have a protagonist with a clear want. Because of a protagonist with the clear want also means they have a clear point of view, and that protagonist's point of view is also essential to the style of what you're writing.

Ryan Dixon (46:04):

For example, I made this mistake a long time ago. I was writing a horror script and why isn't it working? I was like, I had a good idea, but I couldn't figure out why it wasn't working. What I realized is I had my characters respond to the horror that was going on with sarcasm and humor. Instead, they needed to be scared because if you're writing a horror script, your protagonist needs to be scared or your audience won't. So that's just one example. It's a deeper conversation, but I tend to think that a lot of general screenplay discussion doesn't focus on this stuff upfront, where I would say to a new client or somebody is getting into screenplay. It's like, before you write your screenplay, before you outline it, just focus on the protagonist's want. Build it out from there.

Ryan Dixon (46:54):

And that same point, I think that the idea that to be a screenwriter or a writer about the discipline, writing every day. I think writing everyday is a great thing, but it's an element of training. When you get to a certain point, writing every day can be detrimental. There's times where you would be better off instead of spending the day with final draft open and writing to just think about where things are going, to think about your concept. In general, it's okay that some days you'll be better served, not just writing pages blankly, but actually thinking about a character issue or thinking about what happens. I tend to think that the more thinking and really answering questions about character and plot upfront. I guess, my process is like writing the screenplay, I push it further and further towards the end.

Tanya Musgrave (47:51):

Interesting. So if you could make a bullet point list of those kinds of questions that wish that you would have known to ask what would those be?

Ryan Dixon (48:00):

It would be, what is the protagonist's want? Another big one is what I call the narrative engine of the story? Meaning, say you're writing a horror film again, there's different types of horror films. One is the Agatha Christie and then there were none model. Meaning if you were writing... It's oh, we have a set group of characters at a house at something, and we're watching them get killed off one after another. By that narrative engine, that would inherently mean your big act breaks, your big moments in your script, you probably want a death. In that same token, the narrative engine of romantic comedy, the big act breaks what have you, you want them to be around the relationship?

Ryan Dixon (48:44):

A big problem in a lot of the writing I see is people have an idea. They start writing it, but they don't think about, "Hey, this narrative engine, what I am writing and how should, what I'm writing be connected to the genre that I'm writing."

Tanya Musgrave (49:03):

Yeah. Got you. Well, thank you so much for the time that you've taken out of your day-

Ryan Dixon (49:09):

It was my pleasure.

Tanya Musgrave (49:09):

... to enlighten us with all of your knowledge. Now we really appreciate everything that you've been able to teach. I love the fact that you are, I don't know, you have a passion for education just we do. So I don't know.

Ryan Dixon (49:21):

You guys are awesome. You guys are awesome. I can't speak highly enough about CoLab.

Tanya Musgrave (49:26):

Well, we are going to have you back for the next one.

Ryan Dixon (49:29):

I can't wait.

Tanya Musgrave (49:29):

Thank you for joining us. If you enjoyed this interview, follow us right here and check out more episodes at media.colabinc.org, as well as fill out that feedback survey for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card. Ryan, thanks so much again for your time be well, and God bless. We'll see you next time on There to Here.

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