A Conversation with Lit Manager Steve Mayes

As a literary manager Steve Mayes spends his time discovering new writers and shepherding their careers. After a project he and a friend wrote and were developing fell through, Mayes was recruited to help launch the literary department at Credence Entertainment, a boutique production and management company in Los Angeles. I met him at a Film Independent networking event a few years back and took note of his energy and enthusiasm for discovering talent. I recently talked to Mayes about being a manager, the benefits of failure, and why screenwriting is like online dating. This is a condensed version of our recent conversation over lunch at the Four ‘n 20 restaurant in Studio City.

Synoptic Media: Can you describe a typical day as a lit manager?

Steve Mayes: A typical day is really atypical. I’ll put it that way. A lot of it is just staying in touch with your clients and catering to their needs. I wish I could say, this is what every client likes. There are some clients who don’t want to hear from you all the time. Other writers love to talk. They got to talk it out. I really relish that. The industry has its own rhythm. You make phone calls during the day and you’re probably not going to get return phone calls until later. There’s a lot of waiting. Reading is a big part of the job. I read a lot of scripts. As a script reader you have to read every page, right?

If someone’s paying me to, yes.

For me it’s a lot easier because I can just read the first 20 pages and be like, ugh. But in your experience is there a certain page count where it’s either grabbed you or not?

It depends on the genre. I think there are different expectations for it. If I’m reading something that’s billed as an action script I better start seeing some action. The script needs to show that it’s meeting the expectation of the genre. If it’s a character drama then I give that one a little more room, because maybe it’s a slower build. Or, where is it going? Sometimes I’ll write a note for myself such as, “page 30: where is this going?”

I do that. But I’m not a big proponent of over-structuring your script where you can read a script and realize this person had Syd Field’s book. But I think it’s a guide or a road map. When I read a script and the structure is all over the place, or the inciting incident hasn’t happened in the first ten pages, I am inclined to throw it out. That’s your most basic thing. How are you going to suck us in to your world? I should know where I’m at and why I’m watching this movie in the first five pages. Every great movie has a great inciting incident that either introduces the story over all, the plot, or the characters. If it’s an inciting incident that introduces the character dynamically it’s a stronger opening. “The Raiders of the Lost Arc” does that. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is another good example.

How many scripts do you read on average?

It’s tapered. I used to be really voracious. I’d read anything. I was really hungry for it. Now I’m a little pickier. So, a couple a day. I’m usually not reading the whole thing unless it’s really impressing me.

Literary Manager Steve Mayes

How much of your time is spent fostering existing clients versus trying to find new clients?

It depends. I have to be more selective about who I rep because I don’t want to be that guy who has 20 clients and I only talk to five of them and they don’t hear from me for a year. What’s the point of that? I work more on referrals at this point, unless I’m blown away by a cold submission. We found that our niche was comedy. I had always come from a comic perspective. LA has a really good sketch community. You have so many talented people. It’s attracting a lot of people out here, too. So you have this really active, vibrant sketch community of talented writers and performers. That’s an easy way for us, as a smaller fish, to go into. Let’s work with the people who are really committed to writing and always working. But also, they can see through the bullshit. I’ve learned this working with writers. Comedic writers, especially in the sketch community, they’re a little bit more hardened, a little bit more street-smart, whereas feature writers who are sitting in a room by themselves writing their next masterpiece, they romanticize the idea of screenwriting. Sketch writers know failure is going to happen all the time. They face it every day, so it’s not crippling. With the sketch community people you know this is in their DNA and they don’t need the reward mechanism of “I’m going to sell a spec and get my deal with Warner.” They want to write because they have something funny to say and they just got to get it out there. And those are the people I want to be in business with.

Do you go to performances?

I’ll get a lot of referrals from friends and clients who will say, “this is a really good group… you got to check them out.” But sometimes it’s just… let me see what the new acts are because you never know. You’ll see a lot of the same faces and a lot of the same acts but you’ll always see something new. You never know.

Do you think there are misconceptions among new writers about the role of a manager?

I’m looking for the writer behind the project, not necessarily the project itself.
— Steve Mayes, Literary Manager

Yes. There are a lot of misconceptions about management in general in the entertainment industry. Basically the agents are the shark that wants to get the best deal for you. We’ll help you write the script; they’re going to help you sell the script. We’re going to try to put you in meetings with people we think could try to sell your script or buy your script. We’re not legally allowed to negotiate. We can get you to a certain point, but then you’re going to need an agent. I think it’s a little bit more advantageous for new writers to seek managers rather than agents. In starting out, agents are there to see what’s going to sell, because their job is dependent on making those deals. Unless you’re with a nice, small agency with a solid literary department willing to foster you as a developmental client, they’re not going to take chances, they’re not going to take the time. What do you have that I can sell right now? Whereas if you find the right manager, especially at a smaller shop, there’s an expectation that you’re supposed to see the talent, not just the project. I’m looking for the writer behind the project, not necessarily the project itself. If one of these young writers has a project that’s getting a lot of attention and is getting them in rooms, yeah, then go to agents. But if you’re starting out, a manager should be your first step.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I’d say it’s second guessing myself.  I have to really dig it. I have to really, really be committed to it. When I really like something, I have to think, do I like this for the right reasons? I could like a certain character and my first instinct is to sign the writer, but am I ignoring the overall deficiencies of the script? I always ask for another sample. If you get in a room with a producer or network executive, they’re going to ask you, “What are you working on?” or “What else do you have?” and if you have one script and that’s it, that’s your one shot and you’re done. That’s not impressive. It would be awkward. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t slave over one script and hope that’s your magic bullet that’s going to get you in the door and get you representation. That also helps you desensitize. You’re going to be really defensive about that script if that’s the only thing you have. If you have five or script six scripts and they don’t like one, that’s fine, because here’s another script you have. I always ask for a follow up sample. As far as really loving a script, I have to be careful. You can have a dynamic opening ten pages and then it just goes to shit. You had me and then you lost me! Someone could have a really good first five pages and then they ran out of ideas.

Do you think that writers have the wrong idea about how a lot of the business works, with trying to get representation or trying to get their script into the hands of a producer?

There are definitely a lot of misconceptions. I think writers fetishize getting an agent or a manager and they almost imagine that once you have that it’s some sort of master key or skeleton key to the industry.  A lot of people use that as their goal as writers, to get representation and everything will fall into place afterwards. I’ve had that experience with clients where I am basically lugging their career, single-handedly, down the road. Once you line up representation that just makes your job harder because I’m going to be on your ass… I need new stuff! I need something new!

Do you think writers get an idea that if they’ve written a couple of scripts about, let’s say, being a millennial trying to find a job, that they’re going to just be able to keep writing stories about millennials trying to get jobs? Do you think they don’t understand that if they’re going to be up for a writing assignment, the writing assignment is going to be something else?

Exactly. If a writer has written two scripts very similar to each other in tone and genre I start to wonder. It gives me pause. How limited are they? One key aspect of a really talented writer is understanding humanity and how people act within certain situations. It adds more authenticity to your writing. A lot of people will write whatever voices are in their head, which is fine, but you have to filter that through humanity. You have to have a good read of people in general to write an effective character. That’s why I love sketch comedians because they are in touch with humanity every day. To actually appeal and resonate on a comedic level with people, you are touching them on the most basic human level. If you can make someone laugh, that’s an unbelievable shared experience.

When you’re reading a submission and you look at the cover page and it says St. Louis or Philadelphia does that factor into whether you’re going to pursue them as a client?

Logistically speaking, if I get them meetings will they show up? If they are willing to come out to LA for some meetings, I can get them a couple of meetings in a set window of time. To limit myself by region, I think I’d be doing a disservice to myself. Not every talented screenwriter is going to live in LA.

Do you have any general advice for writers?

Just try to find your own voice. Stay authentic to what you want to write. Unless you know where your strengths are, you’re not really going to make any committed decisions in your writing and I think that’s what reflects in any script that I read, is that someone made a really strong choice that was authentic to them and that’s what resonates and just leaps off the page. New writers, even if they’re just out of college or it’s a hobby, try to find a community where you can have an outlet. Get into a writers group where you are exercising that creative muscle and also desensitizing yourself to criticism. Thicker skin…they’ve got to have thicker shin or you’ll drive yourself crazy.

It’s such a personal thing. It’s so hard to divorce yourself of the idea that your script is an extension of you.

At least you know they’re putting a lot of themselves into the script. It’s almost like online dating. You’re putting your profile out to the world and you hope it’s good enough but sometimes it’s just not. You have to roll with the punches.

Are there common mistakes you see in writing?

I would say, don’t write anything autobiographical unless you are a famous politician.

With a sex scandal.

Right. When people say, “write what you know,” people think that means they can only write about things they’ve experienced. It gets lazy. You’re not allowing your imagination to operate outside of your experience. You should always be learning new stuff, about the human condition, about society around you, so everything you learn becomes what you know. That’s how you come up with fresh ideas. Always be learning about the world, about you, about other people. That will positively influence your writing. It can only help your writing. It can never hinder it.