Today’s interview is with literary talent agent Jay Cohen. Jay works at Gersha LA Talent Agency. There he represents independent filmmakers and works to get distribution and financing for films.
Justin Samuels:What made you decide to be a talent agent?
Jay Cohen: It’s not that I decided to be an agent. But I have two daughters that are in high school, and I didn’t want to spend 4 months at a time on film sets away from them. So becoming a packaging agent at a talent agency allows me to utilize my producing skills and my prior investment banking skills to help other people get their movies made.
JS: What was your educational background prior to becoming an agent?
JC: I produced independent films, studio films and television. Before that I was in the investment business. I also had the good fortune of partnering with some very well-known actors for six years which taught me so much creatively and showed me a very different side of Hollywood that many people don’t get to see.
JS: You deal with independent films. Independent film is something that has a bit of an open definition. Can you tells us what you deal with as an agent who heads the independent film department and what sorts of films you deal with? Is there a particular budget range you tend to stick with in terms of representing filmmakers?
JC: Independent film. This means something different to everyone. Some people define indie films by who’s financing or by who is not distributing. I define indie films as having the least amount of bosses telling you how to make creative decisions based on money. I work with films from $300,000 to $60 million. We have worked on scripts with no elements and in that capacity we help put every piece of the film together from director, cast, crew, money and distribution and sales. On some we come in when the package is complete and they need money. It’s different every time. There are so many agendas with indie film. Producers have goals, directors have goals, cast has goals and the financiers have goals. My job is to help them all achieve their goals with the least amount of resistance and compromise. But indie films by definition are a compromise on a daily basis. We recently put together financing for a $600,000 film in Sicily two weeks before the film fell apart and had to replace money and crew. Packaging agents deal with all the egos and agendas and the lawyers for all the egos and agendas.
JS: Are there any specific genres you deal with? We deal with all genres.
JC: I’m not a horror person. I work the least in that space, even though it’s a very lucrative area. The truth is I don’t watch horror films. So I don’t know if they are good or not, and one of the hardest aspects of this job is time management. I only have so much bandwidth, and I need to focus that on positive forward progression every day.
JS:Are you clients typically screenwriters, directors, writer/directors, producers, or a combo of all of the above?
JC: All of the above and add more. Foreign sales agents, equity financiers, lawyers, novelists. We are trying to be helpful for anyone client of the agency or not if we believe we can help.
JS: How has the internet influenced independent film and your work? Would a web series that got large numbers of its make you more willing to consider independent filmmakers?
JC: The internet has changed indie film in many ways. The most important is anyone can make a movie and self-distribute which was cost prohibitive in the past. It has also allowed for a broader scope of talent to be seen because more people can create content at a cheaper price. Most agents will watch a reel or web series from anyone and find new talent. It has not really helped replace the revenue models of the former dvd space, but that will progress and help change the monetary system soon as well.
JS: Do you attend the major festivals, such as Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, or events at major film organizations like IFP or Film Independent, to look for clients?
JC: I attend all the festivals primarily to either sell existing films that are available or to meet with financiers and distributors worldwide to put together new films I’m working on. Recently in Cannes I had 100 meetings in 6 days. That doesn’t leave much time to watch films or sign new talent but that’s not really my job.
JS: A number of people I’ve met in the independent film world have said how important the above organizations have been to their careers. Do you have any thoughts on this?
JC:The film festivals are so important to young talent. Without the festivals and the exposure they receive its difficult to break in. Having a film or documentary or being part of the many labs to mentor many young writers, directors and actors really introduces them to people within the industry that really do like to help.
JS: What types of scripts are typically produced in the independent world?
JC:Mostly drama’s with cast for a price that makes sense. However given technology advances there are more heightened thrillers and visual effect driven films than their use to be. But really the term indie film is so generic. We have worked on $35 million indie family films that have no studio involved, no foreign pre-sales and don’t care about tax credits so movies in all genre’s happen.
JS: Can you name any pitfalls independent filmmakers should avoid?
JC:There are many pitfalls. I would say don’t be married to any one version of your film. Don’t worry so much about budget, don’t worry so much about stars. Focus on the best version of the film possible, and how many days you have to shoot your film. Everyone is so focused on the budget but there are always people who can give you everything you want for less money with a smart plan and the right prep. It’s all very entrepreneurial be open to different thought, money comes from all over. Break out new stars, look at Another Earth. If they waited for studios that film would have never happened. Beasts of the Southern Wild, they cast and just went and made what they wanted. People will find quality don’t stress so much about everything else.
JS: And is there anything in particularly that independent filmmakers should do? Any resources you recommend they utilize?
JC:There are so many mentors, film labs, film schools and producers who are out there to help just keep calling and asking. I have seen more people signed to agencies off of short films coming out of short film festivals. IP is so important, find an article, story, foreign remake, book, graphic novel, life rights and use that as an entry into the world. As a former producer I went after remakes of old European films that no one knew of and worked on the current take of the film. Mad Money was a remake of an old film, 14 hours was a true story in Houston, Devils Arithmetic was a award winning children’s novel and two for the money was a real life story that I optioned. Because I controlled the rights I became if not the producer but one of the producers and that puts you into the game and now you have credit and everyone takes your calls.