For Dr. Kenneth Atchity, age was nothing but a number. Despite being a tenured professor for a substantial amount of time, the decision to retire at the age of 45 came at the drop of a hat as he put all of his talents into a different cause. Now 72-years-old, Atchity is an Emmy-nominated Hollywood producer and author who has been successful in completely turning his life in a different direction.
There are many who choose not to pursue their dreams until later on in life and a lot of talented people who are completely unaware of their true calling until decades into their career. In the following interview, Atchity talks about his new book Sell Your Story to Hollywood in which he addresses his own success story and experiences working in the industry. It’s not always easy to get your foot in the door but Atchity is out to show readers that, whether young or old, there’s always a way to see your story on the big screen.
As the man who found everything he was looking for in his “retirement,” Dr. Atchity is a shining example of the never-ending potential of dreams and aspirations. The following interview outlines many of the problems Atchity encountered when shifting to a new career along with some useful advice for those looking to go down the same road.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
If you were to start your career over again as a producer, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?
I would probably say to think it over because I realized throughout my career, and from talking to many producers, that producing is probably the most masochistic profession in the world. In the old days, when I first started, you actually got development fees when you set up a project or sold it but that stopped about years ago. Now you don't get paid until the movie is made.
There are of course dozens of things that can go wrong and prevent a movie from being made. I have one in production right now that has been in the works for 21 years, and I produced one two years ago that was in the works for 20 years. So, you definitely have to have a day job or other things to do.
I'd also say that you should strategize as best as you can in order to stay on top of the game. The important thing about producing is simply staying in the running, which means you have at least $10,000 at the baccarat table. If you don't have that stake, you're out of the game. You have to find a way to do that because it’s really a rich person's profession or the profession of somebody very, very young. When I got into the industry I was already 45 years old so I didn't have any particular advantage. I would say be smart and diversify, and that's what I ended up doing; I took my own hypothetical advice.
What advice do you have for people who are middle aged and want to be producers?
Well, I became a producer in the years after becoming a tenured professor, which I resigned from in order to pursue the career I have now, but there are plenty of other examples too. I’ll never forget the time that Dr. Joyce Brothers invited me on her television show after hearing my story. She had two other people there that night, one was a hairdresser who became a psychiatrist after going through medical school and the other was an 83-year-old man who was signing up for law school.
The older man explained how he had to stand in the admission line to sign up and was surrounded by 20-something year olds. It wasn’t long before the kid behind him finally said, sir, excuse me, but I just can't help asking you, what are you doing in this line? And the man looked at him and he said, what line should I be in? I absolutely love his story because that's the attitude we have to have towards life. If you want to do it, just do it.
And you're never too old to do it, it's never too late.
There are numerous examples of people who succeeded in later life, including Bernard Shaw and Colonel Sanders. In fact, when I was young I remember reading something that Benjamin Franklin wrote: "There is nothing wrong with retirement as long as it does not interfere with the man's work." This has been my motto ever since. I’m retired from the academic world but it hasn't prevented me from working. I've written more books since retiring than I did when I was an academic. I’ve made more than 30 movies, I’ve had a wonderful life, and I do all the things I want to do.
It's crazy to think you have to stick with what you're doing for the rest of your life as it’s now typical in American society for people to have two or three careers. We’re living longer and that’s the way it should be. Who wants to live to be 90 or 100 and have the same career the entire time? So if you're thinking you're too old for it, read my book, leave your day job, live out your dreams, and never give up.
As you began your new career at the age of 45, what kind of skills do you think you picked up from previous experience with students and staff that helped in preparing you for being a producer?
I think what prepared me the most was being in love with stories and understanding how stories worked, as well as what made them not work so well. I learned that on the front porch in Louisiana when I was a kid listening to my uncles tell stories. Good storytellers can hold everyone’s attention, while bad storytellers make you want to excuse yourself to get a cup of coffee. This is something that I guess I’ve spent my whole life studying.
As an academic I was tasked with criticizing stories, as well as teaching people how to criticize and analyze them. I essentially helped people get their stories straight. But then I realized that I wanted to go out into the real world and tell stories, and help people get their stories published and produced. I was lucky that my whole life was focused around stories and storytelling and that the academic world taught me the key components that go into a great story.
GETTING INTO THE INDUSTRY
Taking into account how the film industry has changed over the past couple of years, what advice would you give today that you wouldn't have given two years ago?
I think it’s becoming harder to sell anything to big studios because they have become almost entirely married to producing big franchises and pre-sold concepts. Marketing has taken over the entertainment industry. Even in the publishing world, big publishers are only interested in how many copies of a certain book they can sell.
For new voices it can be extremely difficult to get published and this is very much the case in Hollywood. It’s often easier to get your work produced independently or through the MD method than it is to go to the studios. Keep in mind that the big studios used to produce hundreds of movies every year whereas now they produce dozens. Some studios are completing as little as three movies a year, but they're making $400 million films from pre-established franchises like Spider-Man and Captain America.
There’s a global market for these movies and it’s a safer bet for them to spend a lot of money on one movie and earn it all back plus extra. This can make it even more difficult for new writers to sell their ideas, although I think writers can be proactive in finding ways to draw attention to their stories.
If someone, for example, lived in Nebraska and had a story about a family that lived in a cornfield, would they have any hope of having a studio make that film?
Always remember that if you don't have hope then you shouldn't be doing it, and hope is never something that can be analyzed statistically. It comes from within. In any industry, looking at the odds can be more than a little discouraging but if you believe them then you might as well go back to work as a bank teller. You have to think to yourself, what can I do? How can I think outside the box to draw attention to my story?
These days, the internet can be hugely beneficial if you’re looking to get your story out there as it provides millions, if not billions, of people access to you work. If you’re looking to generate interest then the internet is the best tool you can use. Studios have executives who do nothing but trawl through the internet looking for new stories. The Hunger Games is one of the biggest success stories of the last 10 years in this sense.
I think the gatekeepers are becoming predictable because they're so enslaved to their corporate owners but what the true creative executives are looking for is someone who's not saying the same thing as everyone else. Anyone who has a following as the result of their work is a potential line of interest. So, if I were in Nebraska facing that dilemma, I would focus on the thing that I have in front of me – that everyone has in front of them – the internet. You just have to find a way to pierce that golden shield.
What specific advice would you give to the person in Nebraska if they had access to the internet? How can they get noticed?
Well, honestly, if I had an answer to that I’d be a billionaire. This is where creativity comes in. If you were putting together a cartoon, for example, you might start putting it into a small book. Books are easier to get to people than anything else. I don’t recommend putting an entire screenplay on the internet but you could try generating interest by creating a website or blog and doing everything in your power to drive traffic to it.
On there you could maybe share stories, although I also like the idea of doing cartoons or animations because they can end up going viral. You can usually find someone to animate or do a cartoon for your story. Remember that social networks are a key part of using the internet, especially sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter which are all vehicles that can reach millions of people. I boosted a post the other day from Naples and over 8,700 people saw it in the first hour. That’s how you get exposure.
Try not to be too shy or humble when promoting yourself. Shakespeare wasn't shy when he talked the queen into building the Globe Theater and Sophocles and Aeschylus wouldn’t have been remembered today if they hadn't gotten patrons to sponsor putting their tragedies in the Great Dionysian Festival every year. The most aggressive writers have always gotten their story told and it’s important to push your point across.
As for writers who think “I'm just a writer, I don't really do marketing and all of that,” you have to snap out of that mindset. As Cher says in Moonstruck; “Snap out of it!” It's not going to get you anywhere!” No one feels sorry for a poor writer who can't sell their own work and if you really are that person then you need to find somebody else to sell your work for you.
What about the independent route? Is there a way for a really passionate writer to go out and make the film themselves? How does that work?
In theory, the indie route is always possible because anyone can buy all of the equipment needed to physically make a movie. You can enlist the help of friends, write the script yourself, or do it even without a script as many small pictures have been done. That is the ultimate indie route. Read Chapter 8 of my new book or sign up for www.RealFastHollywoodDeal.com
That's what Robert Rodriguez did with El Mariachi, which is a masterpiece of ingenuity. I heard that he didn't even give lunch to his actors because he couldn’t afford it; so they had to knock off at noon. Rodriguez also shot all of his scenes so that nobody's lips were ever facing the camera. He then dubbed all of the dialogue in post-production, completely diverting the chance that any sound problems would crop up during the shoot.
You can find somebody to work with you and to help produce your movie and raise enough money to develop it and so on. There are ways of doing it and every year movies breakthrough that are made unconventionally, but still in a really old-fashioned, pioneering style. If you follow in the footsteps of Robert Rodriguez then you’ve reached a point where you are doing it all yourself because nobody is doing it for you.
Is it true that your company has a division where they do this? They match people with money to producers such as yourself who help in making their films. How does that work exactly?
Yes, that’s correct. We work with writers who have access to resources as well as those who have a great story. Money makes things happen: If they have access then we help them prepare their movie. If you imagine a big conveyer belt with every project that has the potential to become a movie on it, you can see stories, treatments, and even books on the far end of it. These are naked ideas but by the time they reach the front of the belt they’re “fully-clothed” and ready to leap onto the screen.
These movies need to have a professionally prepared budget that shows exactly what the cost of the film is going to be. They need to have that budget bonded by a completion bond company. They will have the locations chosen, along with a director, cast, and start date. They should also have a distributor interested or attached, and so on and so forth.
If you already have the ability to put together some money then you can leapfrog over the other projects on the belt, which is what happens every day, but if you're on the belt there's no guarantee that you'll get to the front of the line because you'll always be leapfrogged over by another project with better casts, directors or financing. Our goal is to work with people who can find the money they need for their project. With writers have access to funds our goal is to turn them into producers so that they then have control over their project and don't lose the rights before their movie is made.
If I'm an author that lives in Iowa, or Canada, how can the book that you just released help me turn my 70,000 word tome into a feature film?
Well, that is the exact purpose of the book - sell your story to Hollywood. It’s basically a little handbook that just shows you all the steps that have to happen in order to sell a story. This includes how to get an agent, how to get a manager, how to attract attention of producers, and even how to prepare sales materials that will help you in delivering a short pitch or contacting people via email. The purpose of the book is to provide you with an outline of all the things you have to overcome in order to get the story into the hands of the buyer.
My second aim with the book is to offer some alternative selling methods including some information on making a movie yourself. It gives examples of treatments and other materials that you need to build along the way.
SELLING THE STORY: SIZZLE REELS
What is a sizzle reel and how can someone use one to pitch a reality show or drama?
A sizzle reel is basically a teaser or sampler of a program that’s used as an outline by the creator. The term came out of reality programming because you need a sizzle reel to sell a reality TV show. A sizzle reel is usually three minutes at the most and it’s supposed to be an exciting, well-edited teaser that gives you a vision of what the program is and what it is intended to be. In theory, the reel gives you a strong inkling of how the program will continue and how it will go beyond its pilot episode. Sizzle reels can introduce characters as well as convey the excitement and points of interest within the show.
Knowing how to make a decent sizzle reel is extremely important but very, very difficult because if you're not actually in show business you don't know what companies are looking for. Learning how to put one together is an extremely beneficial way of getting into the industry and it’s a great way to show what you have to offer.
If someone had a sizzle reel, would they then upload it on Vimeo or YouTube? Would it also be included in a pitch to a producer?
Yes, it’s important to send it everywhere you can. You can come up with a log line, or short pitch, that would get producers to watch it. Do a short version for Instagram. YouTube is definitely a great tool. People scour YouTube all the time looking for ideas for movies. Facebook is also good. It’s important to send it it in whatever way you can. If you have an email list, send it to everyone. Ask people to share it, pass it on.
GETTING THE RIGHT ATTENTION
For those wanting to enlist your help in producing a project, what’s the best way for people to pursue you? Are you looking for work or simply developing your own projects?
I’ve been in the business for so long now that I'm not really looking for a whole bunch of things. I’m already involved in a lot of projects, but things that do often catch my eye are ideas that I’ve never seen before; new concepts that are truly exciting--and female-driven action, thrillers, and drama.
I recently read a piece on a boy who was born in the US but ended up being taken to Saudi Arabia at the age of seven or eight and raised over there as an outcast because he was half American. He spent his teen years trying to figure out a way to escape and when it finally happened he ended up joining the US marines where, to his amazement, he was treated like an outcast because he was half Saudi. What I loved about the story is that it’s something Americans really need to understand; it’s exactly what Saudis are taught as they're growing up and what makes a person turn against his country. When I see something that unique and that unusual it captures my attention despite how many things I'm involved with.
If anyone is looking to speak with me then I’m contactable through referrals, emails, and phone calls. Email is the best way to approach people like me and I’d suggest keeping it brief. If an email is longer than five lines long, the chances of me jumping on it are very, very diminished. If it's only two lines long and says something amazing about you and your story then it will be hard to resist. Use some examples from your work and write-up a short pitch, that’s the best and most respectful way to do it. firstname.lastname@example.org
Is there anything else you'd like to share in the interview, maybe something about the course or the book, that you haven't already?
Well, the book Sell Your Story to Hollywood: Writer’s Pocket Guide to the Business of Show Business is now available on Amazon in both a printed and electronic format. You can also check out www.realfasthollywooddeal.com if you want to listen to the course over 10 hours, rather than reading it. Thank you, Jeff. Always great to speak with you.