Rao Meka founded shopVox — the first cloud-based software for the graphics industry — in 2009. Since then, he has joined the advisory board of LegionM, become the vice president of marketing for MovieMaker, and learned how to establish himself as a producer. In our new feature, Engineering Hollywood, he uses his skills as an engineer to solve problems and break into Hollywood. First up: The challenges of screenwriting. — M.M.
I’m originally from India. I moved to the U.S. and graduated with a Masters in Industrial Engineering from New Mexico State University before moving to San Francisco to work for tech start-up companies. I started my own business, and things went well enough that I could start to pursue my other dreams. So in 2018, I moved to L.A. and founded a production company, 1729 Pictures, to produce high-quality entertainment.
I did not know a single person in the industry. I just thought, If I want to make movies, I should be in L.A. There’s a joke that every Indian thinks they can make a movie — we watch enough of them, right? But I knew I was different: As an entrepreneur, I was always a storyteller first. As the product manager and evangelist of my own software, I could tell a story and sell a story. Surely I could engineer my way into Hollywood?
I had an idea for a story I wanted to tell about my life in the U.S., so I bought a copy of Final Draft and got started: Slug line, description of the action, dialogue under the names. In six weeks, I had more than 140 pages. Because my brain works in a weird way, I needed to see the poster. First I visualized it, then made it. Next, a one-page website. I added a link to some music from YouTube.
Now I was ready to conquer Hollywood.
As luck would have it, I finally found a connection through the first customer who used my software 10 years ago. His fiancée had a brother in Hollywood. When I looked him up online, I was blown away: He was one of the top producers in the industry. He had sold his company, which had more than 100 titles, films you would certainly recognize. He was working on smaller projects now. I was scared to go meet him, but he was so gracious and invited me for dinner at his home in Malibu. He even invited a few other people for me to meet. At dinner, I pitched my story, and showed him my website and poster. He was impressed. No — he loved it! He asked me to send the script, and I did the next day.
I did not hear back from him for two weeks. So I called him.
“I could not read it past 20 pages,” he said. “It is atrocious. You do not know how to write a screenplay. You do not know what a screenplay is.”
Then he asked me a very profound question: “Are you here to make your little passion project and go back? Or are you here to become a real producer?”
I said the latter. Then he said, “Go find good material. Put this thing of yours aside.”
Because I was so devastated, I did not have the courage to ask: How do I find “good material”? I was less worried that my script sucked than I was about this new challenge. Because art is subjective, how do you know what’s good?
I read a lot of screenplays on The Black List. I appreciated the coverage from people with expertise and experience, but in the end, isn’t coverage just an opinion? Wasn’t there a more precise way to find well-vetted material?
Yes, I realized: Published books. Books go through rigorous scrutiny: An agent. An editor. An analysis by the marketing and publicity teams within a publishing house. Then reviews, and number of copies sold. With my engineering and mathematical brain, I decided the best way to find “good material” was to find a book which had sold a good number of copies.
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But how do you determine the value of the novel you are trying to option? And of course you’re competing with experienced producers who have already optioned many of the hottest properties. Maybe you do something unscientific: Just option a book you love. But there’s that subjectivity problem again.
So maybe you do what I did: Find a novel that was popular in another language, but not in English. You know the story is good. You just need to trust that you can translate it to the screen for an English-speaking audience. Once I’d found my book — a love story, magnificent, I’m keeping the title a secret for now — I still needed to figure out how to option it. And again, I knew almost no one.
Figuring out who owns the rights to a novel is hard. It could be the author, or their estate. You have to dig. You might contact the publisher, but how? No one picks up the phone. Your email may go into a black hole. Unless you are a known producer, no one gets back to you. (You can’t take it personally. Why should they answer an email from a random dude? I wouldn’t.) Maybe you’ll get lucky and you’ll catch someone at exactly the right moment and they’ll see past their skepticism and give you a chance.
If not, get a lawyer.
Not to sue anyone, of course. Hire an entertainment lawyer who has done these deals before and knows their way around. Which of the thousands should you hire? You can read stories in Deadline about books being optioned, and hope they mention the lawyer responsible, and hope the lawyer is better about returning calls than the folks at publishing houses. Or you can call the only person you know in Hollywood.
In my case: the producer who thought my script was atrocious.
I asked if he could recommend a lawyer, and he did. That lawyer, Gary Hirsch, is my lawyer now, and he is awesome and wise. With his focus and experience in the film and TV industry, he has been a mentor for me. But even after paying for a lawyer, there are no guarantees.
Because why will the author/agent/publisher give you the rights? You have nothing to prove your credibility. This is where you may want to bring in a consulting producer — a credible person who has executed big projects and has real credits. I found someone through my lawyer: Jonathan T. Baker, whose many credits include Sylvie’s Love and The Banker. Now Gary Hirsch sent out the option offer for the book, with money and a known entity attached.
How much should you expect to pay? Option prices vary. I paid $5,000 for the rights to the foreign-language love story. I optioned another for under $1,000 — the author was a friend’s sister. And I’m not just sticking to books — I recently bought a screenplay from a friend for under $10,000, after falling in love with it. So considering attorney’s fees and everything else, I’d say you can get the option on a good book for $5,000 to $25,000.
Generally, an option lasts 18 months, with an automatic renewal of another 18 months if you pay the renewal fee. That gives you three years to either get into production or buy the book rights outright. Of course there are lots of details — that’s why you need a good lawyer. You’ll also want to educate yourself about every aspect of the agreement, and an experienced professional will be happy to teach the new kid in town.
Here’s something total outsiders don’t realize: You don’t need to pay for the movie. You just need to spend enough to package it — or develop it to the point that a financier will invest in it. That usually means you need to adapt the novel into a screenplay, create a pitch deck, and bring in a line producer to set a realistic budget. The only thing that might drastically change is if you attach a big star or a big star director, and need to meet their quote. But this is a nice problem to have.
It’s all about the story.
Main image: Rao Meka