Finish Line Script Competition Founder Jenny Frankfurt on Finding Your Voice
As a screenwriter, the concept of IDENTITY is always first and foremost in my mind. In part because so much emphasis is put on “voice” as a way of standing out in the very large crowd, but also due to the fact that so many voices are underrepresented in Hollywood films. We’re beginning to see a shift towards more diversity on screen and behind it, but it often feels like a giant ship to get turned around.
We reached out to former literary manager Jenny Frankfurt to pick her brain about how to find your voice as a writer, how to encourage diversity as a filmmaker, and what motivated her to find her own identity through a career change.
Jenny transitioned from the roller coaster world of Hollywood lit management to running the Finish Line Script Competition, a screenwriting contest that not only offers real, legit access to Hollywood insiders for winners but also has the unique distinction of giving you notes on your script so you can re-write and re-enter to better up your chances of winning.
Tell us a little about how you first got into the film industry and why the screenplay world specifically?
I started ‘floating’ at William Morris in NYC, which means I was a permanent temp there. I worked with a lot of different agents and in many different departments and it was a great education, but my first assistant job was with the head of the Theater Department. At William Morris. In NYC! Wow. So, I learned a lot about writing, which I was already quite enthralled with, being an avid reader. And I learned that for this agent at least, that his playwright clients, in order to have plays produced, has to also make a living writing screenplays or working in TV. They all did and some of them are some of the biggest show runners around still. This allowed them to make a living while pursuing their writing dreams. He just didn’t want starving artists, so the commissions paid for the difficulty of putting up a play in NYC even though these are some of the the best playwrights around. Very smart business strategy. It’s longevity and the financial freedom to get the writing right.
What kind of stories are you drawn to and why?
I love dark pieces and character pieces. Equally I love to laugh and I love great action scenes. But I want emotion and theme to work together most of all. And to feel something while I’m reading.
You went from being a lit manager to running a screenplay contest. What was the biggest motivator for the change?
Burnout. 15+ years of management and I really wanted to feel control and have the freedom to take time and help writers get their work in its best shape. I love working with writers, directors, even actors! I still have a real sense of management when our winners are chosen and we take the next step in setting up meetings and getting their material to people other than the mentors in the competition. I’ve always had a strong sense of who will respond to specific material so I work a lot with quarter-finalist and semi-finalist scripts too and make sure people in the industry I think are a good fit for the genre/tone/writer are introduced to their work, whether they’ve won or not.
What makes Finish Line different and why did you set it up the way you did?
When I was a manager and then afterwards when I took some time off, I read a lot for competitions and for agencies and so on. I’d been doing that since I was about 19. Anyway, I would read scripts that people submitted for packaging at agencies or for big script competitions and they were just not there yet, but they were close! I thought, “This writer needed a script consultant to work with them and it would have been such a better submission!” Writers get intimidated by those deadlines and end up sending in scripts that aren’t ready for competitions. So, I created Finish Line, where you can work on the script while entered and then, as many people do, end up improving the script not just for us, but then it’s ready to submit the new and improved draft to other competitions (or representatives or producers) as well.
There are a lot of screenwriting "gurus" and competitions that seem to exist solely to make money by taking advantage of young writers. How can writers best avoid these traps?
The first thing to do is look at the prices. $65, $75 for a submission is insane. That, in my eyes at least, is simply to gouge the writer and make the money because the name recognition of the competition is high. Also, if competitions offer notes, what kind of notes are they giving? Are they helpful or just a brief look at the script and some random number that tells you very little about how to improve the draft? Basically, are you getting your money’s worth and what do you get if you win? We have ridiculously reasonable prices because as people who worked with writers professionally for years, we know money is tight. And we want to give you all we can to make sure you’re getting the best notes so you can improve. So I’d rather get great scripts and give great opportunities to finalists and others than roll in the dough because I can. I’m probably a terrible businesswoman, but I care about writers.
With a major (but surprisingly feet-dragging) push towards diversity and female empowerment in Hollywood, are you finding that reflected in the scripts you're receiving (both in the writers and what's represented in the screenplays)?
A little bit of yes and a little bit of no. Some of the best scripts I read for Finish Line have female leads that really inspire and are creative and eclectic. These are written by both men and women. And some women write great male characters; it’s not that. So, we’re not necessarily lacking there and some, though not all of my favorite scripts from our competition over the past 3 years have had female leads. BUT, we don’t have as many female applicants and I don’t know why and it bums me out cause though we’ve had great female runners up and semi and quarter-finalists, we haven’t had a female Grand Prize Winner yet. Of course, the best script wins, but as a woman creating a competition and having a lot of outreach in the industry, I would love to have a woman win and have the opportunity to push her career forward and mentor her and introduce her to mentors. So women – please enter! I know you can write so come on over here and show us what you got!
What can writers do to encourage diverse voices? What about filmmakers?
I think it’s important to write about what you know. And with filmmakers they ought to seek out the most authentic writing they can from the most authentic writer. However, this is not always easy. Our 2017 Grand Prize Winner, R.B. Ripley won with a TV pilot called “Sugarland” and without knowing the writer’s name, people thought it was written by a woman because the female lead and her voice were so spot on. As well, last year, our Second Runner Up wrote an urban themed pilot called “The Chop” and it’s as authentic as they come, but he’s a 20-something year old white guy. It’s just his voice, and we recognized the strength of that.
Basically, if you’re writing from an organic place and it comes out as genuine, it doesn’t matter what gender, skin color or ethnicity you are. But your lane may be broader than others. Don’t step outside it for the sake of ambition. It’s usually pretty obvious to a reader when writers are trying too hard and then it ruins the experience.
How important is "voice" in the screenplays you read? How can a young writer "find their voice?"
Oh God, it’s everything. Listen, there are only so many stories out there, but it’s how they’re told that makes all the difference. A perspective, a tone, a POV; all of this differentiates one Holocaust movie from another, one slapstick comedy from another, one horror movie or post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. The visuals and emotions a writer can create with their voice is what makes a script special.
Imagine something that Sorkin has written and then imagine the exact same story being written by Paul Thomas Anderson or Quentin Tarantino. They’d be completely different stories, even if they were exactly the same story. That’s voice and obviously it separates style and genre and tone, which we all individually and personally respond to.
I think some writers are born with a way of writing or come to it on their own. It’s just a gift; we know that. However, a lot can be done to try and create something that isn’t there to begin with. That’s reading, watching films and TV and really studying different genres. To this end, it’s not that we want writers to mimic or copy other voices, but somewhere within themselves, their voice, combined with the appreciation of writers and filmmakers’ voices that they respond to can create a new one.
What would you recommend for someone who wants to get into the lit management game?
To be a literary manager, most people either go through an agency, or get a job as an assistant at a literary management company or production companies. I mean, the key is reading a ton of scripts, talking to writers, knowing writing and good writing and how to make writing better and how to communicate with talent to help them help themselves. It’s learning how to sell a style of writing from a specific writer. It’s about meeting people who can buy material, solidifying relationships, reading, watching films, really immersing yourself in the world you want to be a part of. I became a manager off of being an assistant on a manager’s desk. I started working with my own clients and started making money for the company (Handprint Entertainment), so they had to promote me. Know your stuff; that goes a long way.
Knowing what you know now, with your career where you started to where you are now, would you change anything?
I would stop comparing myself to others. There are people I was an assistant with who run studios, work with top talent all over the world, and are continuously thanked at the Oscars and Emmy’s. They took paths I didn’t and I couldn’t. I had terrible social anxiety since I was a teenager and it prevented me from getting promoted sooner. I was great once I got out and about, but a lot of the time I couldn’t get out. I worked really hard and trusted that that would also pay off. It does to a certain degree, but it’s the schmoozing combined with the hard work that really gets you ahead. I hate that it’s that way, but it’s true. The good news is that even if I wasn’t out every night at various parties and premieres. I was building strong relationships that I have until this day. And I ended up creating Finish Line, which is really the dream job for me. I can work with writers, call on my industry friends to help as mentors and use my management skills to propel the writers and their work to the right people. And sometimes I can do it in my bathrobe.