The Female Gaze
A series of interviews with Women In Film.
Welcome to The Female Gaze, in which I talk with women from every walk of the creative process of film and television. Over the course of this series, we will explore every facet of the film industry, and go in depth into the thoughts and processes of women at every level within the film community, from writers, directors and actors, to editors, cinematographers, marketing consultants, PR, and critics.
Within every interview, you will be introduced to the experiences and unique perspectives of the legion of talented, professional women who shape the cinema that we love.
Jenny Frankfurt started in the industry at the very beginning of the creative process, working as an agent trainee in New York, before heading to Los Angeles for a job at ICM, one of the largest talent agencies in the world. From her vantage point, she helped guide the talent towards the projects, although it came at a certain amount of cost. As she admits, she burned out, before reinventing herself through the creation of her own passion project, the Finish Line Script Competition. Now in it’s fourth year, Jenny’s hard work paid off, and she is now running one of the best competitions in the country, focused as much on finding the best possible story, as it is on mentoring each of its writers, utilizing a highly skilled group of professionals.
I talked with Jenny about her background, her work and how she channels her energy into the creative arts. It turns out, it’s all about passion.
Q. I want to ask you about your background. You started out as an
agent trainee. Can you tell us a little about what that entailed?
I was lucky to get on an agent’s desk without having to go through the mailroom, but for a lot of trainees it starts out just doing errands and pushing that mail cart as they get to know the ins and outs of the agency. I was working for a couple of top agents during my training time, so I did all the assistant stuff and started to get involved in some more high level creative things as well. It’s a great opportunity to get to know how writing/directing/acting careers are made and maintained.
I was at the Cinema Studies school at Tisch at NYU. I minored in English literature. I always knew I wanted to work with talent and manage careers. Weird but true. I got an internship working for Disney marketing and heard about a job at William Morris (now WME). I applied and got it, so I took it and started as a floater, which is a permanent temp within the company, helping out wherever needed. That led me to work in casting and then with writers.
Q. Where are you based?
I was born and raised in New York City, but moved to LA when I was 22.
Q. Growing up, were you interested in the arts? Was there a particular area or medium that you felt drawn to?
Growing up, my mother’s best friend was director Arthur Penn’s (Bonnie & Clyde, The Miracle Worker) wife. We spent a lot of time with their family and he was a real role model for me. I didn’t think I wanted to direct but became very interested in the movie business. Growing up I wanted to run a movie studio.
Q. When did you move out to LA? What work did you do out there?
I had made quite a few connections when I was working in New York and when I decided to make the move to LA, which was something I had wanted since I was little, I called on some agents I had met at William Morris, who were now working at ICM, and they helped me get a job at ICM in LA. I started working for an agent in LA as soon as I moved. I was lucky.
Q. Working as an agent trainee and then as a manager/producer, what
were your day to day responsibilities?
As an agent trainee I was helping run an agent’s office, keep all of their clients lives moving along and for me, really importantly, I got involved in reading scripts and talking to clients about the work. I had to reach a place where that was allowed and comfortable to do, but it was really rewarding to be involved.
Q. Did you work one on one with actors, directors, writers?
I started out working with playwrights and the business model my boss had was that everyone he represented had to also make money in film or TV. So, I got to know some amazing playwrights who also ran shows, and wrote films, and do so to this day. When I moved to LA I worked mostly with top actors and some directors. When I moved into working on my own I worked mainly with writers and filmmakers as well as repping some producers.
Q. Do you think working with those people gave you a firm
understanding of the industry at that level?
It was an amazing experience to work with people at every level. When I started out floating I would be in a different department every day, or every few days, so I learned about contracts one day and then was talking to Julia Roberts the next. I worked with some actors and directors who had offers only and then others who had to audition for work, so I really got a feeling of how the business works and what it’s important to care about as a client’s career progresses.
Q. What were your impressions of that part of the creative process?
When I started managing, I got much more into the creative process. I was really interested in it while working as an agent’s assistant but it’s not as prevalent in agencies. I wanted to be a part of helping careers develop and giving advice based not only on finances and schedules but how it would help brand a writer, actor or director and make their career more streamlined. Reading, watching films and TV, meeting lots of people, and being on top of everything that’s going on, is the best way to know what’s creative out there and where the people are who can help create that content.
Q. You told me that you eventually burned out. Can you talk a little
about that period? What was the driving force behind leaving that
Managing is exhausting and it’s stressful because other people’s careers are in your hands. Their livelihood. I was head of the literary department at Handprint Entertainment and the company cut back to focus on music and actors only. I then founded my own company, Highstreet Management, but missed the structure and reach of a company and information sharing. I was a single mom and I needed to feel more secure in the income I was bringing in. Gone are the days of making real money on options and though I delved more into television, where money is more consistent, I just felt like I had been doing this for 20 years and I needed to do something that fit the lifestyle I wanted, which was not having to socialize all the time to keep the business moving, but do what I loved, which I had come to see was working with writers. I found my strength in the mix, script consulting, helping writers improve their drafts – and from there decided to make some changes to my career.
Q. On the rebound from that, where did the idea for the Finish Line
Script competition come from?
I had been a reader for a long time and started reading for a lot of different script competitions, agencies and networks, who needed coverage and consultants. Time and time again I would come across scripts that would have been so much better if they had only had time to get notes and be rewritten before submitting on deadlines to these competitions. It was then that the light bulb went on – create a script competition with the opportunity for extensive notes to help writers rewrite and resubmit while the competition was in process. And because I have worked with writers for so long, I knew the financial constraints and made sure resubmitting could be free. Also, I knew what was important to writers and that was connections within the industry. So, I put that all together to create Finish Line.
Q. Did you launch the competition on your own, or were you working
I started off with a former colleague from Handprint, Michael Patterson, who is primarily a record producer, but also an entrepreneur. We hammered out the idea and then I pretty much took it over as the person who knew that aspect of the entertainment industry.
Q. As any aspiring scriptwriter will tell you, it’s notoriously
difficult to break into the industry. What marks out your competition
I have been working with writers for over 25 years. I know story. I know how to help writers get their scripts in shape so they can be sold or they can get them staffed. And I make sure that the people who work for the competition have the same skills. It costs me to pay them what they’re worth, but it’s worth it for those who enter.
And, the competition really focuses on helping the writer. Having worked with writers for so long, I really care about them and the craft. Our prices are quite reasonable for the amount of feedback they get. They can keep rewriting with or without our notes and send in new drafts for free. We’re not out to gouge their wallets or pocketbooks.
And the prizes are primarily the connections we facilitate with top producers, execs, agents, managers, screenwriters and filmmakers in film and TV. We have 35 mentors for our winner this year. 35 people they meet who will have read their script and sit with them and maybe take them under their wing or work with them. No other competition offers that kind of reach – and that’s along with the countless others who ask for Quarter-Finalists, Semi-Finalists and Finalists script after the competition ends. Our reach is vast. And we help those who don’t win the Grand Prize too. It’s the manager in me; I want to help and get good material to the right people.
Q. The competition has been going for 4 years now. Would you say it is
firmly established on the competition circuit at this point?
I think it’s getting there. When you have 35 top mentors it’s hard to ignore and the notes we give are a big part of the success of the competition, so we get a lot of positive feedback on them and people talk since writers have a strong community on social media and outside groups. We’re not a big organization and I wish we had a bigger marketing budget, but the scale we’re at now allows me to keep a hold on things and not let it become so commercial that I can’t keep track of what’s important, and that’s the writing. This is not to say I don’t want it to grow, because I do, but I want to make sure prices stay very reasonable and communication is as good as it can possibly be.
Q. Can you tell me how many submissions you get each year?
We grew 500% in our second year and about 75% last year. on So, we’ve received 2500 submissions in total last year, and that’s pilots and screenplays combined. And we haven’t raised prices, only the number of mentors and industry professionals taking part.
Q. And of those, what percentage would you say are from female writers?
I’d say it’s about 60/40, in favor of men. We get submissions from all over the world, 36 countries last year. I’m sure it will continue to expand both geographically and gender-wise as it becomes better known.
Q. You have a large staff of mentors? Where do they hail from? Are
they industry professionals?
All industry professionals and because we have so many international submissions we have mentors in the UK, Canada and Australia as well. We’ve had some good success with connecting various writers with international mentors as well as US based mentors.
These are people in the industry that I have known and worked with for years. Some 25 years, some a few years; just being in the industry and getting to know people and knowing who can help and offering a variety of TV, Film, reps, producers, filmmakers, writers, execs. Anyone who might be able to help and guide the winners. And because I know them, I know they’re going to treat people well, which is important.
Q. In mentoring, what is the process? Is it one on one with the
writer, or via emails, notes, phone calls?
It depends on locations but we encourage in person meetings. Sebastian Magiera, whose pilot FOLKLORE won the latest competition, is from London and he’s just flown out here to LA for two weeks to have his meetings. He took the London meetings and spoke to the Canadian agent and Australian manager/producer on the phone. Nothing beats face to face. However they do end up meeting, though, it’s a door open that wasn’t before and then they can keep in touch with the next script and so on. So, it really is a big way into creating or developing their career.
Q. Do you feel like you have a responsibility to seek out strong
female voices, or are you just seeking the best scripts possible?
It really is the best script possible and that means women have as much of a chance as men. Of course! We’re really looking for that special voice no matter who the writer is. I would love to have a female Grand Prize winner because oddly that hasn’t happened yet, but we play things as they lay. Whoever is the best per our judges wins and they don’t have names on the scripts they read so they don’t know the gender of the writer.
Q. How important do you think the female voice and perspective is to
the art of film making?
I think it’s extremely important but I also think it’s important that both men and women can write each gender. Such a big part of writing is about being a watcher and listener of the human race. The writer’s gender ultimately shouldn’t matter to what genre the script is or whether the protagonist is male or female. Women obviously have been at a disadvantage for a long time in this industry though there are women in every aspect who have had fantastic success and whom I admire greatly. I would love to be a part of helping a female writer make her way. I was helped by women along my path (and men!). The play’s the thing. Talent is the key.
Our winner last year, Rob Ripley, wrote a pilot called SUGAR LAND, which has an awesome female protagonist and some of the mentors thought it had been written by a woman (before they met him of course), which he rightly took as a great compliment.
Q. Are you ever frustrated by the lack of female voice in cinematic
Cinematically, yes. I do think there ought to be many more women making movies at the helm, more female auteurs and more creating television shows. There are some things women just give towards shows that men, even those who have evident female voices in their repertoire cannot. It’s inherent. There are some very strong, talented and successful ones but its so far behind the opportunities men are given it’s laughable. And every year it seems to take a few steps forward and then a couple back.
There are a lot more women in wonderful positions in Film and TV behind the scenes. At studios and networks, management companies and agencies; but it’s still harder to find them in the writer’s rooms and helming big films. I do remember someone saying recently that they wanted to hire a female director or two for their TV show but they were all booked. That’s a good sign but there is still so much more room to grow.
Q. Given your experience in these different parts of the industry,
particularly in dealing with agents and producers, have you ever felt
marginalized because of your gender?
Actually, no. When I was an agent trainee I worked for top female agents. When I was a manager my mentors at Handprint were women and they gave me help and supported me because I did a good job. When people would get promoted around me, there were as many women as men and these women are still around, producing big films and TV shows and representing top talent. I have always worked hard to shine among the mixed crowd, not just among men.
Q. Are there other areas of the process that you’re interested in? For
example, have you considered producing any of the scripts you read,
I have produced before and occasionally I do get really attached to a piece of material and think of managing and producing again. I know I have a knack for putting writers and material with the best producers and execs., but that helps with the competition as well.
I have a book that I want to have someone adapt into a film one day and have explored that opportunity a bit. Right now though, I love running this competition and I love the access I do have to talented writers and their material. I love being matchmaker.
Q. What about your own writing? Do you write screenplays yourself?
No. I love to write, but I tend to write essays, non-fiction. I express myself well, but not as much in the form other characters.
Q. Do you have a process as a writer?
I don’t write, but every writer I know who is prolific in their output and successful in it, has a set schedule and really sticks to it. We give deadlines in the competition for rewriting, which is why the competition runs so long. We want people to have as much of the opportunity to rewrite their best draft as possible.
Q. Do you attend festivals or conferences in an industry
representative capacity, for Finish Line?
I have done so and can whenever it’s possible with my schedule. I am hands on with the competition and do a write 6-9 pages of notes a day so I don’t take a lot of time off. As the competition grows I hope to make more appearances on behalf of it at festivals and conferences. I have spoken to classes at UCLA and USC several times, which is really gratifying.
Q. What has been the feedback your competition has received within the community?
We hired a company, Robertson/Taylor Partners to help us conduct a survey this year and the feedback was extremely positive. We also took the critiques to heart and have made changes. But, it seems for the most part, writers really like the attention they get and the honest feedback we give. We go front to back and make notes along the way, as many pages as it takes. We really want choosing the winner to be excruciatingly hard due to the onslaught of fantastic material. We will help you make it better along the way!
Q. And finally, what is your main focus for the future?
I want this to be a competition that people take really seriously and consider to be among the top in the industry. There are a lot of good ones out there that have been around longer than us, but we’re not going anywhere and we’re growing every year. I want to help writers get ahead, sell their material, connect them with the right people whether they win our prizes or just improve their script. It’s such as great feeling to hear how we have helped over the past few years. I love finding great voices and really just want to continue to be in a position to do that. I created the dream job for myself.
You can follow Jenny on twitter, through her Finish Line account @FinishLineScrip.
The Finish Line Script Competition 2019 is now open for submissions.