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What's Your Brand? Not Having One Is Hurting You

November 27, 2019
5 min read time

Elyse Hollander knows a thing or two about success in this modern business of screenwriting.  She is a Latinx writer who most recently sold an original K-Pop idea to Fox 2000 in a five-way studio bidding war, with Scooter Braun and Epic Magazine producing. She delved into the world of female marijuana dealers with Queens of the Stoned Age for Sony and Escape Artists — the series has Dakota Johnson attached to star and produce and placed on the 2018 Black List. Back in 2016 she exploded onto the scene with the infamous Madonna biopic Blonde Ambition,  which placed first on the Black List and is set up at Universal with Michael De Luca producing.

Elyse took a moment from her rock and roll writing schedule to talk about a writer’s point of view and why having a brand can actually help, not hurt, your career.

Dennis Fallon: Explain what branding is as it applies to screenwriters.

Elyse Hollander: It's the idea that a certain writer can be known for writing a certain topic or genre, or having a specific set of skills that you can bring to a project. You get a reputation around town ... "This writer is great at action set-pieces," "this writer knows how teens actually speak," or "this writer is great for a comedy punch-up." Think of it as a calling card of sorts. 

DF: But why do you need a “brand”? It sounds so corporate. 

EH: Try to think of having a brand in terms of being a skilled specialist, rather than a soft drink company. You're known for doing one thing very, very well, the types of stories you like to tell and how you tell them. And the more specific you are at honing your own voice, the more you will stand out at the beginning of your career when no one knows who you are. 

That's why it's also important to be consistent in the beginning. Pick a genre and stick with it. Having one sample that's dark horror and one that's a broad comedy gives representatives and executives whiplash. They don't know what "type" of writer you are or what writer lists to put you on for assignment considerations. 

Metaphorically, think of it as getting skilled at making a really good chair and then having everyone come to you for that chair. And over time you can stretch into making nightstands or tables as you grow in reputation and skills. 

What I don't want people to think when I say they should have a brand is that I'm talking about marketing or self-promotion. I see a lot of new writers get fixated on having a popular Twitter presence or Instagram. I don't think anyone should go out of their way to "brand themselves" on the Internet. If anything, a bad tweet can do more damage to your career in the long run.  Let your script do all the talking.

DF: What’s your brand as a writer? Do you ever see that as something that will change? 

EH: I've never declared my brand as X, Y or Z, but by the nature of who I am and what I love to write people think of me when they have a "based-on-a-true-story" project, a "female-driven" project or a "music-based" project.

I grew up in Los Angeles around the Indie rock scene, had my own college radio show, and sadly dated one too many musicians. Writing about a young Madonna in Blonde Ambition felt like a safe space to work out some of my own experiences with dating fellow artists and working as an assistant in Hollywood. I didn't set out to be known as a certain type of writer, other than as a good one, but by the nature of the script and my own backstory, specific assignments followed.

I don't see my brand changing that dramatically, only because I love what I write and people are willing to pay me to write it. I feel super lucky, but it's also my job to know what assignments I can bring a fresh and new take on, and not repeat familiar territory. You want your brand to evolve with your writing.

DF: Is your brand the same as your reputation?

EH: To a degree. Some people can be branded as "closers" — genre-agnostic heavy hitters that can help a project get on track to production. Then, of course, some writers are known around town as difficult or combative. But mostly I am speaking in terms of OWA writer lists. 

What's an OWA writer list you ask? OWA stands for open writing assignment. When a studio buys a book or has a project that needs a rewrite, they make a list of all the writers who would be a good fit for that project. 

You want to make it as easy as possible for your agent or manager to pitch you in one sentence for these lists and for executives to remember what they're reading. Producers and executives have a lot of samples they have to read over the weekend. Being known for doing a certain type of genre, having a brand, makes it that much easier to recall your name Monday morning. It’s even better if you're known as a nice and collaborative person.

DF: How has branding helped you in your career?

EH: It's helped me get in the room with a lot of like-minded creatives, studio executives and producers who are all interested in making the same type of films I want to make. They find books, have access to intellectual property, and option articles I could never find or do on my own. Writing is such a collaborative process. You can't do it alone.

DF: Is it enough to be branded as a “female writer,” an “LGBTQ writer” or a “writer of color”?   And if the answer is no, why not?

EH: Oh boy, where to start with this one! I definitely think it's not enough to be branded as just a "female writer," an “LGBTQ writer” or a “writer of color.” First, it implies as if we're all the same and worse, we can only write one type of story.

We all write through the lens of our own personal experiences, interests and identities. To simplify a writer's brand down to one thing — often something they can't control — is just silly.  

But that doesn't stop agents from using it as shorthand to sell their clients. Whether it's to staff on a television show that calls for certain life experiences and perspectives, or when it comes to finding a diverse voice in typically male-dominated genres like superhero movies and action films.

There's an inherent novelty that comes with being a woman interested in one of these genres, but it's never enough to just be a "female writer."  You have to have the goods and be able to deliver. It's not like the bar is suddenly lowered. If anything, it can be harder.

DF: How can branding go wrong for screenwriters?

EH: Often you're branded by the last thing you've done. But as a writer, you have very little control over what jobs you are offered, and even more so what gets made. I hear stories all the time about writers veering off one track and finding themselves making a living doing something completely different than they expected or wanted.  Or worse, sometimes the type of films they like to write go out of fashion, like spoof movies or courtroom dramas.

You have to make a living at the end of the day. And it can be hard to get people to see you differently when you've been pigeonholed as one type of writer.

But luckily for us writers, we don't have to wait for anyone's permission to write the story we want to write about. We can change the entire course of our career with one script. I saw Craig Mazin do this with Chernobyl and Steven Rogers do it with I, Tonya.  So no matter what happens, I feel hopeful for the future.

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