Katie Philo: Social and Content Manager for BritBox

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Katie Philo is a Londoner who turned her dream of moving to New York into a reality. But before that, she worked many different jobs in organizations big and small until she was sure of what she wanted to pursue –– digital media. Now, she’s the Social and Content Manager for Britbox, and host of her very own podcast, When I Grow Up. For a great story about a woman who has truly chased her dreams, read on!

Hello! Can you tell me a bit about who you are and what you were doing before this?
Of course! I’m Katie Philo, and I’m currently the Social and Content Manager for BritBox, which is a streaming service in the US and Canada. We like to think of ourselves as a smaller Netflix, but just for British TV. It’s a joint venture between the BBC and ITV. That’s really how I got into this role, because I had been working at the BBC in London for approximately 4 years, and the BBC is a huge company-- it’s the biggest broadcaster in the UK with a global reputation. It meant I had many opportunities to move around and work in predominantly digital content from Dancing With The Stars, to Radio 2, to BBC One, I worked on every single platform and channel you can imagine. That’s the beauty of a big company and set me up perfectly for my role here in New York at BritBox.

In your current role, are you behind the camera, editing the footage, or controlling the social accounts? What does your job entail?
Back at the BBC in London, and it’s the nature of any big company,  we had big departments for everything - filming, editing, creative, social media, customer service, email and so on. That’s always the way I was used to working. So, in my previous jobs, I was very much executing in silo with a very clear set of responsibilities. Whereas at BritBox, because we are essentially a startup and small by comparison, my role is actually very diverse and spans many different disciplines. This is something that’s really interesting about digital roles and skill sets: it’s many different jobs in one -- especially in the context of a small team.

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So in answer to your question, my current role has many different components. I’m running campaigns start to finish. I’m the owner and executor of  the content strategy across all our digital platforms (predominantly Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube). And that’s in two territories, the US and Canada. I am essentially originating content tailored for each of those platforms for a busy programming slate of new and old shows. A huge part of my role is knowing the audience and what they like to consume, then feeding this into creative requirements. If we have a shoot coming up, I’ll be the person that comes up with ideas, questions to ask talent, fun social executions, devising the running order, all that kind of stuff. I also publish across all platforms, produce creative briefs, engage the community daily, and report on performance to fuel future creative decisions.

Elements of my past experience are invaluable, but there are lots of new things I’ve had to learn, such as managing budgets, paid social, reporting, and thinking about subscriber acquisition. And then also how I manage the community, communicate with them, and innovate in different spaces. To be in digital and in this kind of role, you have to be used to picking up new skills constantly, moving, and being agile, because it really is ever-changing.

You do so many things! Is one of them your favorite?
Sometimes, with jobs, our egos can get in the way. My ego would scream “I’m a creative, so if it’s not creative I’m not doing it!” I learned how to film and edit while working on Dancing with the Stars, and I love making stuff--that is where I thrive.  In my job at BritBox, I wear many different hats and it’s hard to take on responsibilities that don’t come naturally. For example, building reports and analytics dashboards is something that I would not have considered a strength or something I enjoy. But if you’re constantly leaning in to the stuff you’re really good at, you’re not growing. I’ve really tried to reposition the way I think about less desirable tasks. In the case of numbers and reporting, I’m learning how building reports and delving into analytics can better inform my creative process. So, while I’d say content and creative is my main love, I’m trying to fall in love with areas of the job that don’t necessarily sit with my skills.

You were working with the BBC on two of their channels, but now you’re in New York. Is Britbox the reason you moved?
It’s an interesting story because I’m such a hustler. When I know I want something, I’m pretty single minded and won’t stop until I get it. So, for me, New York was where I’ve always wanted to move. This was pretty much informed by a career exchange that I had taken part of quite soon after I had graduated, around 2013. I moved to New York and I was working on a Reuters video platform. It was an amazing experience but it was just too short -- one year.

I’d always had this, again, single-minded ambition to work at the BBC, so I was quite content to return home to do this.  In my mind, I always knew New York was somewhere I wanted to end up. Anyone trying to move to another country knows how tricky it is: to get a visa, the right opportunity, and then uproot your entire life. But because I knew that was what I wanted, in 2017 I made the decision to go freelance at the BBC, so I had more flexibility to pursue New York as a real option. It wasn’t obvious how I was going to do it, though, seeing as I was working at a distinctly British company -- the British Broadcasting Corporation!  

I made it my make or break year. I booked a trip for three weeks to New York. I set up a meeting with every single person I knew  and went in with my resume. It just so happened I’d emailed the President of BBC Worldwide in the Americas, Ann Sarnoff. She was very gracious and gave me a half an hour of her time. I was rather British, bumbling around and not getting straight to the point about why I wanted this meeting.  She cut straight to it and was like, “Do you want a job here?” Obviously I said, “Yes, I do!!”

Britbox was in its infancy and they were in the process of building the team. It just so happened they needed a Brit with my skill set and someone who knew the content really well. It genuinely was a case of the right time and right place. I really believe you can’t just expect things to come to you. It took a long time –– I didn’t believe it was going to happen at times, but I finally achieved my dream of coming back to New York.

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How does your visa work in relation to this job? Is there a time limit or is it permanent?
I think it’s a question that every British person I know here gets asked “When are you coming home?!” It’s a really tricky one to answer, because you’re torn: your friends and family are at home and opportunities in London could be vaster purely because you don’t have visa restrictions. One of the reasons I wanted to come to New York is that I feel there is something about American culture where anything is possible.

I recently heard Jameela Jamil talking about this on Emma Gannon’s Ctrl Alt Delete Podcast. She moved from being a presenter on BBC Radio 1 in London to pursuing an acting career in LA.  I’m paraphrasing here, but she talked about how Americans are so embracing of people with ambition, drive, and who crave opportunity. They are open to the idea of people having several strings to their bow...I really agree with her. It’s common to be a multi-hyphenate here. To me, New York represents opportunity. I’ve done things I would’ve never done in London and I feel so inspired by the sense of possibility here. When it comes to moving home, I’m someone who forward-plans too much but I’m trying to learn to just feel my way through it and embrace the uncertainty. I think I will naturally know when and if the time is right to return to Blighty, or commit to staying longer term.

Would you say New York lived up to your expectations?
I call it a life bootcamp because I think--and everyone says to me--New York is a hard place to live, even for Americans. It forces you to confront a lot of tricky situations on a personal and professional level. Professionally speaking, there’s a level of rigor and commercialism that I wasn’t used to having come from the public sector...corporate America is really hard, but I can recognize it’s been  good for me too! And on a personal level, I’ve moved three times and don’t feel fully rooted here. I also don’t have the kind of network I had in London, but I think it’s made me more independent and resilient, and that’s not a bad thing. Being away gives you a new perspective on yourself and life, and I am incredibly glad I’ve done it.

Switching over to your podcast When I Grow Up, when and how did that start?
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’ve always been someone who talks about doing something but never actually does it. When it comes to the media as an industry, we often wait for permission to create. I’ve definitely always been that person and seen my job as the means to facilitate my creative ambition. And I suddenly realized, “Well, actually, the internet and especially podcasting is such a democratic thing...anyone can do it.” I stopped making excuses for myself. I just said, “I’m going to do this.”

I made a resolution in 2017 to start this podcast. It took me a year and moving to New York to actually do it. But I definitely credit the move to New York with being the thing  that got me going. A big obstacle was that I was worried about what people were going to think. Putting a podcast and, essentially, a part of yourself out into the world for people to consume and have an opinion about is terrifying. For me, that’s something that I really struggled with. So, this is one of the reasons--on a personal level--that I wanted to do it. It was also fulfilling creatively and it was scratching an itch that I couldn’t expect my job to. So, I decided on a name, I booked my first guest, and I rolled with it.

There’s a great Ira Glass quote which I love where he talks about how you have to be prepared to be bad before you can get good. Often people want the end result to be perfect. I’m one of those people. I really had to relinquish this idea of perfection and be prepared to put out things where the quality might not be great, or I might stumble on words, or say “um” far too many times. But I think the sense of accomplishment that you get from it, the sense of satisfaction, is worth it. And if you’re learning, then it’s okay to make mistakes.

What is the podcast about?
The premise is ultimately something that I think all millennials struggle with...this idea of having endless opportunities, but not knowing exactly what your purpose is or if there’s even such a thing as having a ‘calling’. We’re all comparing ourselves constantly. You could look at a LinkedIn profile and think, “Oh, this person that graduated with me has got everything set,” but you don’t really know what’s going on behind the scenes. For me personally, my career has changed, I’ve moved around a lot, I’ve tried lots of different things. And now, I’ve really started to embrace this journey of self-discovery and want my podcast to help other people to do the same.

It’s quite therapeutic talking to other people, learning about  their mistakes, how they’ve learned to fail, and the many different threads that have come together to make their career -- which is often not just a simple linear success story.  

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How did you choose your first guest?
So, when I started thinking about who I wanted to interview, I started from a point of “Who do I know,”  “Who has an interesting story?” or “Who do I know who would be open to talking honestly about their experiences?” My first guest actually was a famous presenter in the UK called Jeremy Vine. He was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars when I worked on it, and I was always really struck by how gracious and fun he was.

He’s someone I would be 100% intimidated by in any other situation, but because I was working with him, we developed a really good professional relationship. When it came to me asking, I thought, “Well, there’s no way he would consider doing my podcast.” But I DM’d him on Twitter and he was in! He downloaded Skype and learned how to use it for the interview. He was the perfect first interviewee. When it came to choosing future guests, I started with a name that I knew everyone would know, at least in the UK, and then I followed my interests. I took note of people I followed on Instagram or who I think are interesting or who I’d like to speak to, and just started contacting them. The next one was Lucie Fink who works for Refinery29. I also interviewed Man Repeller’s Haley Nahman after so many of her pieces resonated with me, especially those about moving from HR in San Francisco to writing in New York.  The thing I’ve found with getting guests is, generally speaking, people are so gracious and generous with their time and usually understand the value of putting their story out there.

That’s great! How do you balance doing the podcast and your work at Britbox?
That’s something that I think anyone who has a side hustle or has lots of ambition struggles with: time management. It’s really easy to spend your entire weekend or evening doing your side project and neglecting a certain part of your life. For me, in the beginning at least, the podcast took a lot of time because I was learning from scratch how to edit, record, market, interview, research…it got to a point where I almost felt like I wasn’t living my life because I was going to my day job and then I was working for three hours in the evening on the podcast.

At one point I realized the pressure was self-imposed. I’m doing this for the love of it, and the moment it starts to become or feel like a chore,  I shouldn’t be doing it anymore. So I took a step back and said, “Well, so who cares if I have a month off, or if I just release an episode every two or three weeks?” I released six episodes weekly and then I started to release them as I went, and it became so much more of a passion project again because it injected the fun back into it. If I had a weekly release schedule and sponsors relying on me, of course it would be different. But for now, it’s homegrown and a hobby, and I do it when I have time.

If you ever find yourself struggling to balance time between passion projects and work, I think it’s important to remember why you're doing it in the first place, not to put yourself under unnecessary pressure and to never sacrifice your personal life.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

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Thank you so much, Katie! It was such a pleasure to speak, and truly inspiring to learn about your journey. Readers –– come back next week for an truly useful How-To from Katie Philo herself.



Babs Szabo: Co-Founder of Emo Nite and Ride or Cry

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This week we spoke the swiss-army knife woman that is Babs Szabo. She’s had more jobs than we can count, and is the co-founder of not one, but two successful businesses. One is the powerhouse called Emo Nite, a live event that started in Los Angeles where Babs and the other two founders, T.J. and Morgan play music, people dance and sing-along, and are at times are joined by musicians of all sorts, including A-list performers like Demi Lovato, Post Malone, Noah Cyrus, and more. The other is the creative agency Ride or Cry that has done all sorts of innovative work for Universal, The Lumineers, and more. But enough from me—I’m sure you’re dying to hear how Babs has created all this opportunity for herself.  

What is your official job title?
My official job title is co-founder of Emo Nite and Ride or Cry.

What is the story of your career so far?
I've had a job ever since I was 16. My first job was at a pizza place called Tony Maroni's. While I was in community college, I worked at American Apparel, The Closet and Hardtail in visual merchandising, which is what I thought I would pursue as a career at the time. I also wrote for a couple of music blogs. I then moved to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University for journalism and global peace and human rights studies. While there, I worked at Marc Jacobs as a sales associate but had to quit because they wouldn't let me work part time, and it was then that I got a job at Sony Music as a College Marketing Rep while working part time at Anthropologie and interning at Noise Pop.

Working at Sony Music meant being on the street team—I’d go to the shows, take photos, and write up a recap of how it went and how people responded. Through that, when I graduated, I got a job at CAA (Creative Artists Agency, one of the top talent agencies globally) as an assistant in Digital Strategy for about a year, then I moved over to Touring at CAA. I worked for younger music agents, and one of them was really heavily booking emo and pop punk stuff, so I got really into it. One of the tours I worked on was the Taking Back Sunday and The Used tour that they did together. That was the coolest thing ever. Even collecting ticket counts was so exciting.

I was there for about two years. I met T.J. (Petracca), who’s one of the other founders of Emo Nite and Ride or Cry, while I was at CAA. He was working at a company called Versus Digital doing social media digital strategy. I met him at a friend’s birthday and he said they were hiring. The same night that I met TJ, we sang Dashboard Confessional at karaoke together at this birthday party, and that sparked the idea for Emo Nite. I worked at Versus Digital for about a year. We did a bunch of really cool stuff there on social media for Coachella—we were the first company they ever brought in to actually run social media.

A few months into working at Versus we started Emo Nite. Morgan (Freed), who’s the third founder [of Emo Nite], worked in that same building, but not at the same company. We brought him in to start Emo Nite, which was supposed to be a one-time event at a bar, but four years later has turned into this crazy thing. A year into working at Versus we had to quit because we were spending so much time on Emo Nite. One time we had to leave [work] to go to KROQ (an LA radio station) to do an interview on Stryker. We quit our jobs on the same day, which was really scary, and we started Ride or Cry, a year into doing Emo Nite.

Emo Nite has been incredibly successful. Do you think it has revived emo culture?
I think it started off as tapping into the nostalgia of this music. When T.J. and I did Dashboard karaoke together, the next day we said, “There aren’t any bars in LA that play pop punk and emo.” That’s the kind of music we’d go home and listen to. In LA, it’s mostly EDM or hip hop or Top 40—all things I love—but we wanted to create a space where we could play the exact songs we’d play at home. The first event we did was at a dive bar called The Short Stop: it was a rainy Tuesday, but there was a line down the block. We didn’t do anything to promote it; we made a Facebook event. There were so many people out there that wanted to also get together and listen to this music.

We realized that yes, there’s a nostalgic element to what we do, but there were so many newer acts that were doing different things with this genre of music. I don’t know if you know Captain Cuts—they produce all the songs that are on the radio (I Got You, Shut Up and Dance, Tongue Tied) but they started mashing up pop-punk, hip-hop, and pop songs, and they made a mixtape they performed at Emo Nite. It was EDM, essentially, but pulling in these songs we grew up listening to. The SoundCloud emo rap culture is really thriving right now. There’s lil aaron, GOTHBOICLIQUE—those guys are doing really cool stuff. They’re sampling Panic (as in Panic!AtTheDisco, the popular band that actually started out in the emo music world) songs from their first album but rapping over it.

We’re trying to tap into different elements of what the genre has become or what it can be. I don’t want to say we’ve revived this culture because for us, especially, it never went away. But we’ve tapped into really interesting subgenres of this whole culture.

What’s one myth you’d like to debunk about emos?
The number one thing that isn’t true about emo people is that they’re sad. I realize we have a shirt that says “Sad as fuck,” and we’ve gotten a lot of hate on that because some say it’s glorifying depression or sadness. But then you look at our photos from Emo Nite and see someone in the crowd wearing a “Sad as fuck” shirt, smiling ear-to-ear. Emo music is more about owning your feelings and processing your emotions through this music and culture.

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What does your day-to-day work life look like?
It’s so, so all over the place. Last week (mid-February) I did an Emo Nite in Philly, so I flew out. We’re training local teams in different cities to run them so we don’t have to travel to all of them, so I went out to train our east coast rep, essentially. Tuesday we had our big LA event, our really big monthly one.

Even this week was super crazy because it was Pollstar (a conference about live entertainment created by the magazine of the same name), so yesterday I was on a panel with Kevin Lyman (owner of Kevin Lyman Group, his live event production company and brand strategy firm)—which is insane—about what the touring business has been like after Warped Tour (an annual rock festival started in 1995 that ended in 2018). I went to some Pollstar events. A lot of it is networking and meeting people who are in the same field that we are.

But normal weeks, which I feel are less frequent, I come to the office at 9:30 and I’m here ‘till 6. I spend most of my day emailing people. We design our merch, do inventory, book artists for different Emo Nites, talk to our agents about routing. On the Ride or Cry side of things, I’m overseeing 4 to 5 projects at a time, so coordinating with our social media coordinator, our graphic designers, our video guys, to make sure that these projects are managed efficiently.

In an interview you did for Nylon, you mentioned the problematic lyrics you’ve noticed in emo music regarding women. Do you think the trend persists today?
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any lyrical content that’s come out recently that’s as questionable as some of the songs from the past. I think that has changed. But maybe I don’t listen to a band that’s newer that does still write lyrics like that. But I think it’s less of a thing.

Why do you think there was this attitude towards women in emo lyrics?
I really do think it has a lot to do with the fact that a really, really large percentage of the musicians in this genre are men. It’s coming from that perspective. I think about this a lot. I don’t know if I am the right person to really dissect this because I’m not a man. I don’t know if those lyrics really spoke true to them—it must have if they put them out—at the time.

I think our society has evolved so much, especially through the #MeToo movement, and there’s a lot of educating out there to be done, to educate men on how to better express themselves and behave better. We’ve come a really long way. I almost wonder if they didn’t know better then, and now there’s a total shift in the mindset of men in society in general. There are quite a few emo or pop-punk bands with females in them. Within the music industry itself there are a ton of really cool women that I look up to and work with who are changing so many things.

Can you give an example of a change that might have impacted the industry?
At the end of last year Jenny [Reader] became the vice president of Fearless Records. It’s kind of sad that something like that stands out as being unusual, but when I saw that I was like, “Yes! That’s awesome!” She’s kicking ass. She worked really hard to get there. They’re letting females take on leadership roles that they’re way more than capable of doing.

When I attended Emo Nite I saw first-hand the incredibly friendly atmosphere there. How do you foster that?
That’s really our focus, to create a community that’s really accepting and is made up of people who are there for each other. We’ve seen people meet at Emo Nite and get engaged, we’ve seen groups of friends be made. They like being in line for hours because that’s the one day a month they get to hang out because they live in San Diego or Orange County or wherever. In the four years we’ve done Emo Nite, there’s been one fight. That’s crazy. I feel like sometimes I’ll go to random shows and there’s always aggressive people. Every Emo Nite, at least once, I hear people say, “Wow, everyone here is so nice.”

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As for Ride or Cry: what experience prepared you best to run a creative agency?
Working at CAA was pretty much a crash course in doing anything. When I left, I felt ready to take over the world because it was such a crazy job. I worked fourteen-hour days, and some days I couldn’t even get up from my desk because it was so busy. I learned a lot about organizational skills, which I think come in really handy, [like] labelling my inbox. It’s all color-coded. I’ve taught a lot of people in the office how to do it because it keeps everything so organized. Staying organized is one of the most important things when you’re running two businesses.

How did you decide to expand into the creative agency world from Emo Nite?
It was a combination of the fact that T.J., Morgan, and myself have worked in that area of the music industry for a few years now and seeing what we were able to do with Emo Nite in terms of branding and digital strategy. We figured we could apply that to other brands, bands, and companies, and do the same for them. We were really confident in that we had the skills to accomplish that, so we went for it. It was really scary. We had no idea if it was going to work out!

Digital strategy seems like a new field. How do you develop an expertise in this industry?
Social media is relatively new, if you think about it. It’s a lot of trial and error. The cool thing with Emo Nite is that we can do whatever we want. For a client, we have to keep in mind their personality, their music, and the message they want to put out there. But for Emo Nite we can be like, “We’re going to hire a plane to carry a banner that says ‘Every Nite is Emo Nite’ and fly it over Emo Nite.” It’s ours, and no one is there to tell us no. Because of that, we know what will work for other people if we tweak it a little bit.

Your client roster includes Paramount, BMW, and Climate Resolve. What draws these companies to you? Do you think that your ability to sense trends and know what’s happening right now factors into a company’s choice to hire you?
We’re now in the position where we’re able to take on clients that we genuinely know we’ll enjoy working [with]. It’s about meeting the people behind these brands or companies, vibing with them, and making sure they understand that we’re here to serve their best interest. A lot of younger people who work at these companies are trying to bring in companies like us to do things that are outside of the box. Those are the things that work now.

There’s so much going on, you’re constantly looking at your Instagram and being advertised a million things a day, so it has to stand out for anyone to latch on. These companies are seeing that. It’s a pretty slow process because sometimes we pitch ideas and it’s like, “This is never going to work” because they have to run it by ten other people, and by the time it gets to the top, that person is like, “I don’t even understand what this is.” A lot of it is trying to convince people to shift their mindset a little. It’s working, but it’ll take a second to fully be there.

How do you approach a new project? Do clients tell you the result they want? Do you vary your approach for every client or do you stay constant and that’s why people come to you?
It’s a mixture of all those things. Dillon Francis, for example, we knew before we worked with him with Ride or Cry. He has an emo personality called Preston, and he DJ-ed as Preston at Emo Nite. When he came in for us to pitch him to work with Ride or Cry, we’d been following him on social media for years, so we knew exactly who he was and what we could do for him. For that we talked with him, 24-7, directly to him. But we just worked on a big project [for Universal] for Kanye West, which I think Kanye will never even see. Then it’s a lot of working with the label and with people who know what’s best for Kanye. But we’d never even speak to the client.

When a client doesn’t love an idea you propose, did you have to learn how to not take that personally?
I used to take it really personally, but then I realized that the specific way I think isn’t going to work for everybody. That’s what I think is cool—having to think outside of the way you would normally think. Now I’m at the point where if a client says, “I don’t know if I like this,” I’ll explain why I think it’s cool. Sometimes that works and they’ll say, “Oh yeah!” and we’ll post it. Two years ago, I wouldn’t do that. And obviously, that’s with clients we’ve worked with for a while that trust us—I wouldn’t do it on month one.

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What’s a rule that you’ve broken and do you think it was worth it?
I feel like we’ve broken every rule! The number one rule we break all the time is how we book artists for Emo Nite. Having worked at an agency, I know there’s a formal process of reaching out to the agent, [talking] the manager, [getting] a fee estimate… Through Emo Nite, we’ve gotten artists like Post Malone by DM-ing them on Twitter, or Demi Lovato by talking to her on Instagram. We’re getting around the normal way of booking. Some agents end up being kind of pissed off but we know someone like Post Malone would want to come and do it for fun.

What’s something people entering the creative agency world should know?
When you’re working in a creative field it’s really, really easy to never clock out. Especially [with] social media, it’s not like every artist is going to post between 9 and 5. It’s pretty much never going to be the case. There are releases, and you have to post when it’s UK time… It’s really easy to work 24-7 and let it bleed into your personal life. Really set boundaries for yourself. Otherwise your work suffers and it’s not worth doing any of this stuff because you don’t let it sink in and see how cool it is.

What’s a challenge you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?
A challenge is explaining to people what we do. We did a tour last year with 3OH!3 and lil aaron—the whole concept of it was that we were throwing a house party. It was called the WANT House Party Tour. At all our Emo Nites, we invite people from the crowd up on stage so the mentality is very much “We’re all equal.” For this tour we wanted to do the same thing, but explaining that to the venues was insane because they’d say, “We don’t have any shows, ever, where people just come on stage.” We were on the phone with every single venue saying “Everyone is really nice. You can have a security guard to regulate how many people are up there at once.” A couple of venues just didn’t let us do it, but then the vibe is completely off. If people from the crowd aren’t up on stage, then it’s not even Emo Nite.

Looking back, how would you say you felt about your career trajectory before finding a home with Emo Nite and Ride or Cry?
When I worked at CAA, I was pretty miserable. It’s really funny because I got lunch with one of my old bosses last week, and he was talking about how he knew I would never end up staying there, but he said that I really did a good job at faking being happy to be there. Looking back, I’m so glad that I did it. At that time, I thought, “Wow, is this what life is like? Being in a job that you really don’t like and that’s it?” It wasn’t until after that that I realized that you can kind of do whatever you want as long as you realize that it’s really scary. But then, that’s kind of cool, and you’re doing something that’s meaningful to you. If it all falls apart tomorrow, I’m so proud of everything that I’ve already accomplished.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

Is it just me or was that last sentence incredibly inspiring? If you’re eager to attend an Emo Nite in LA I recommend it, or keep an eyes out for their upcoming 2019 tour. And like any insightful person, Babs has so much more sage advice to offer, so check back in next week for her How To!

Lori Evans Taylor: Screenwriter

We always hear the saying “don’t let your dreams be dreams”, but for most people their dreams don’t make it on the big screen. This week we interviewed Lori Evans Taylor, who has beat the odds as a screenwriter for thriller feature films. Read on to learn about the realities of writing all day, her new project with Ben Affleck, and the process of taking the reigns on a project that is close to her heart.

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What is your official title?
I am a screenwriter.

Can you tell us the story of your career thus far?
I’m kind of a “journey woman” in terms of my career. In college I was a theater major, so I’ve always been attracted to characters and stories. Cinema was really important to me growing up. I was the girl who would go to slumber parties with all of these movies, specifically the horror/thriller genre was something I gravitated towards. I went on to work in a video store and when I graduated, I ended up in Los Angeles. At first, I was on the actor path but I didn’t like the actor grind. I wasn’t feeling very fulfilled, so I started writing on the side to get my creative ya-ya’s out.

During that time I had day jobs that sent me down a route of producing for a while but I wanted to be in the narrative space and write features. I started to get some momentum on the TV side, but it was funny—I had this uncanny tendency to get pregnant every single time I gained momentum, which brought all of my hard work to a big stop. While I was pregnant the second time, I decided to invest my time into writing a feature called Bed Rest, which was a psychological thriller like Rosemary’s Baby with a Hitchcock vibe to it. My management team took it out as a spec.

What exactly does it mean to sell a spec?
Basically, when you have an idea for a movie, you write the script—and nobody’s paying you but it’s an idea you want to put on paper—and you try to sell it. In the 90’s there was a big spec boom. Studios and production companies would spend a lot of money on specs—hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars—but that money started to dry up in the 2000’s… It’s very hard to sell a spec these days.

What happened with Bed Rest?
When we took Bed Rest out— a psychological thriller with a great role for a female lead—it created a huge buzz and was picked up by MGM. That really broke me open as a writer in the horror/thriller space. I’ve been working consistently ever since.

How do scripts get picked up?
In the world of screenwriting—I’m going to speak mostly about features because I don’t work in TV as much—there are a couple of different ways to sell something. There’s the spec version, which we already talked about. Or, you can pitch ideas to studios or companies that have the money to back you and they’ll pay you to write it, ideally. If you have the rights to a book or an article, you can pitch the idea to turn that intellectual property into a movie.

Then there are open writing assignments, which is when studios, production companies, or financiers have a project and they’re looking for a writer. Usually your management team or agent will find out and put you up for jobs. If the producer or the execs think you’re a good fit, they’ll have you pitch how you want to do it.

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What does your daily life looks like?
Honestly, I’m usually in my home office staring at a blank page. My office is detached from the house, so I come out every morning around 8:45 am with my coffee, crack open my computer, and get working! Sometimes I’m taking meetings my management team or agent set up when they want to put me in a room with someone or pitch ideas. I may have specific meetings about a project, like getting notes on drafts.

Feature (full-length film) writers can write anywhere they want—in a Starbucks every day, or you can rent a cabin in Montana and write for three months. For TV writers it’s a little different because you’re working out of a writers’ room most of the time. That’s where you figure out the story for the season, the arcs, and the episodes. From there, you can sometimes go off and write your episodes on your own, or sometimes there’s a workspace in the office, but that depends on the show and the producer, as well as the deadline.

How do you stay productive when working in a home environment?
That’s the million dollar question, especially for women who are moms. I have two kids under the age of six, so balance is really important to me. The jobs I get are mostly ones where I can work from home [while] my kids are in school. That’s the time dedicated to being productive, so when my kids are home and it’s dinner and bath time, I can be involved with that. Once the kids go to sleep, I’m back in the office, especially if I have deadlines.

Do you struggle with writer’s block?
The times I get writer’s block tend to be when I’m in my office too much and I’m too isolated. In those moments, I try to get out of the house. Sometimes I go to a museum with friends because, ultimately, when you’re a writer, you’re writing about life and people. If you’re in your own little cave, you’re removed from all of that. Another thing is [that] my husband is also a screenwriter. We don’t work together, but if I’m having writer’s block, we’ll have a story session, which is where we have conversations about the storyline or a character I’m having difficulty with. 90% of the time, I walk away feeling inspired, re-energized, and ready to attack the writer’s block.

You’ve worked as a story producer on a few TV shows. Can you touch on the differences between that and writing?
I worked with a production company that produced shows for The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and The History Channel. The shows I was working on were especially clip-based, meaning that we would look at what was happening in a clip, story-wise, get in touch with the people involved, and set up interviews. Story producing for me was all about developing a story based on a clip and the interviews. There was a creative aspect to the job as well as a physical production aspect like dealing with locations, the schedule, and the budget.

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Your most recent project, I Am Still Alive, is a novel adaptation. How does that compare to writing original content?
I personally love both. I Am Still Alive came about in a very interesting way. Back in the summer my agent said they represented the rights to a book that was coming out later in the summer called I Am Still Alive and thought it would be right up my alley. Even though young adult content isn’t usually my thing, I was totally blown away. The characters were rich and compelling, the story was taut, and I was literally ugly-crying on my floor the minute I finished reading it.

I called my agent and told them I needed to be involved in making this a movie. They got me in touch with the writer (Kate Alice Marshall) and I told her my vision. She’d done such an amazing job that I wanted to change very little, so it was an easy conversation. We started to look at potential partners and financiers. We got word that Ben Affleck’s company wanted to meet with us. It turned out that Ben loved the book as well and saw the story in the same way.  

I tried to not get my hopes up too much because sometimes people show interest and then nothing comes of it. A few hours later I got a call from Ben’s team and they told me he wanted to produce and star in the story. Everything changed. I pitched the idea to a bunch of production companies with Ben Affleck’s team and Universal ended up buying it, which is very exciting. It goes to show you that there’s never one true path to setting up a project.

Once a script you’ve written is sold, how much control do you have over the outcome?
Very little. A script is a writer’s baby until it’s sold. Features tend to be very director-based, so once the directors come on it’s really all about their vision. They have the right to build the vision they want. There certainly are writers who will be on set and part of the filming process, but it’s really the director’s baby at that point.

2018 brought women to the forefront in Hollywood between the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up. Any experiences  you’d like to share as a woman in Hollywood?
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve always felt comfortable with the people I’ve worked with. I haven’t had one of those #MeToo moments that a lot of women in this industry have had. Being a female screenwriter, there are definitely times when I am the only woman in the room. It doesn’t bother me though: I represent a certain perspective and it’s important to fight for my point of view.

In terms of the role of women in Hollywood, when I got to Hollywood 20 years ago—there have always been women working in Hollywood—there were a lot more women in development, executive, or producer jobs. Sherry Lansing was studio chief at Paramount. You’d see women editors. Female editors are the unsung heroes in terms of women in this industry. I don’t think people realize how many female editors have cut famous movies—Jaws, Pulp Fiction, and E.T. were all cut by women.

Over the past 5-10 years, we’re starting to see women migrating into positions like director. We’re seeing more female cinematographers and writers. Women are moving into traditionally “male” genres—the horror/thriller space and the action space.

You’ve found your niche in horror/thrillers. Do screenwriters usually stick to one genre?
Especially when you’re trying to get into the industry, it’s important to find your brand. For anyone who’s looking to break into Hollywood—write. And keep writing. Try different genres, figure out what your voice is, what makes your voice different and exceptional.

When you’re starting out and trying to get an agent or a manager, if you give them three samples but they’re a romantic comedy, a horror movie, and then a 30-minute sitcom, they’re not going to know how to get you a job. When you come in with a body of work from the same genre, or maybe mostly horror but a little sci-fi, people understand you more easily. As you get further into your career, you can branch out. If you have the passion to write something totally different, write something. But if your work is all over the place, it can confuse people.

How are screenwriters compensated?
If I sell a project that I wrote, let’s take Bed Rest as an example, a studio will pay money to get control of the script for a certain amount of time, from months to years, so there’s that payment. For features you get paid depending on the job or the draft you’re doing. If I’m paid to write a first draft, the first half is usually paid in increments and the other half is paid once I deliver the script. In the contract there will probably be a rewrite or two, so you’d be paid for the rewrites. Those aren’t necessarily guaranteed, but if the studio wants to keep you writing for those next steps, they can exercise that.

If you’re a new writer and not in the union there’s a chance you’re paid peanuts, but if you’re a union member (Writers Guild of America or WGA) there are minimum rates. As you build your brand and people begin to know you, your quote goes up. All of this is negotiable. Once you get the job, your agents and your lawyers jump in and start negotiating with the studio or the production company. In TV you get a weekly rate, and depending upon your credit you would probably also get episode fees.

What’s the biggest challenge of being a screenwriter?
There are a lot of disappointments. You have to have long term goals. It’s not about writing one thing and hoping it’s a hit. You have to dedicate your life to learning the craft, building relationships, and building a body of work. There will be times when you get fired from jobs, when you get fired by your agent, your manager. But if you love it, keep after it. When I got dropped from my reps, I was crying and a total mess, but I channeled that into writing. Within a few months, I had a different script and a different agent. You’re going to get noticed, you just have to keep after it.

But now you’re here! My final question is: what’s the best part of your job?
Ever since I was a kid, I loved to daydream, imagine, make up stories, worlds, and characters. The fact that I can do that in my adult life and make a living—it’s the best job.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you’re explaining to your ten-year-old self.

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Thanks so much, Lori! We can’t wait to see I Am Still Alive come to life and all your future projects as well. Readers, after you’ve finished up the final edits on your first spec, come back next week to learn more tips from screenwriter extraordinaire Lori Evans Taylor.