Judy Coppage Interview
Cindy J. Rinaldi
During the 1980s, Judy Coppage tried to sell a 10-year old novel to
Hollywood. Written by Roderick Thorp and titled, “Nothing Lasts
Forever,” it seemed no one wanted it, but Coppage believed in the project
and kept pushing the book. After about three years, she finally sold the book
to 20th Century Fox and that book launched the tremendously successful
“Die Hard” franchise.
If Coppage is passionate about the material, she won’t stop until the deal is done. A literary and talent manager, she runs The Coppage Company, which is now getting into producing films. Coppage has sold at least sixteen produced feature and network films including “Purgatory” with Eric Roberts, Sam Shepard and Donnie Wahlberg (TNT); “Forever Lulu” with Melanie Griffith, Patrick Swayze and Penelope Ann Miller (Millennium Films); and the upcoming “Death Sentence” with Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and Kelly Preston (Fox Films). She has also sold six more that are slated for release or production, or are in development including “Hell Ride,” written, directed, produced and starring Larry Bishop with Dennis Hopper, Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones, and presented by Quentin Tarrantino (Dimension Films). In addition, Coppage represents clients that are working on TV series and movies for cable and broadcast networks.
With a passion for the creative side, Coppage earned a Masters Degree in Theater Arts from UCLA. Immediately after college, she got a job as an assistant and soon found herself working with the prolific Stirling Silliphant (a writer with 67+ film and TV credits that include “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno”). She later worked with Quinn Martin (producer credited with two films and 49 TV shows such as “The Streets of San Francisco”). Coppage then moved on to develop comedy and miniseries at Paramount Television and later became Vice President and Executive in Charge of Production at Hanna Barbera. In 1985, she opened her own agency, The Coppage Company where she began working as an agent, representing writers, directors and producers along with a few actors.
In this interview, Coppage defines what she looks for in scripts, offers insight into the industry, and explains why, three years ago, she dropped the title “agent” and chose to become a manager instead.
Q: What appeals to you in a script?
A: I’m really looking for personal stories. It’s very hard to get people to write their personal stories. I’m interested in their voices, not in what they think the market wants to buy.
Q: What do writers need to do to make their material unique?
A: One of my lines that I’ve used over the years is, “Everybody can sing, but not everyone is a good singer.” The same thing applies in writing—most people can write in this society, but not everybody is a good writer. I personally think, having worked with some extraordinary writers, that it’s really a gift. But I also believe that if you’re going to write anything, it really should come from your inner being, your own experience or a subject that you are passionate about. I think those are the things that really make people sit up and pay attention. I don’t care if it’s a little story. If it’s a personal story and it’s a unique story, why not?
Q: It appears that Hollywood wants something fresh and different, but it also seems that people are often afraid to say “yes” to material that is unique. Do you find that to be true?
A: If you look at the marketplace, it’s show “business.” It’s about money. The major studios are releasing fewer films. Unfortunately, when they spend $350 million on “Spiderman III” or whatever, they want to make sure they’re going to get their money back. So, I think it is very difficult to get some of these things out there. However, if somebody has the guts and passion to buck the system, like “Big Fat Greek Wedding”—that producer happened to be Rita Wilson—it can get made. The director that directed that film directed half hour comedies at Paramount. I started him in the business—Joel Zwick.
Look at Tyler Perry. He’s doing it on his own. Look at Michael Moore. Michael Moore does those movies and makes sure he gets a piece to ensure he can fund his next film. Woody Allen always finds somebody [to fund his films]. The bottom line is, if you believe enough in something, you just have to figure out a way to get it done. You have to be relentless about it. If you’re going to trust the people who run the studios, you could be in your grave for a hundred years and nothing’s going to happen. I was listening to Brad Bird [director/writer “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”] being interviewed by Elvis Mitchell [KCRW film critic and host of “The Treatment”] the other day and they discussed the fact that these people who sit in offices slow the process down. It got that way in the 80’s. It wasn’t in the 70’s, you know. The business took a switcheroo.
Q: You’ve had a number of positions in the entertainment industry. What appeals to you now about being a manager?
A: The flexibility and the fact that I don’t have to work for anyone. And yet, I still get to develop scripts. I still get to put things together. I still get to hold hands—artistic hands—which you do as a studio executive and I have been a studio executive, although I was not a very typical one. I was interested in the artistic part of it. I obviously was thinking of it as a business, but my main thing was, “Hey, let’s tell a good story.”
[The appeal of being an independent manager comes from] the idea that you can have a little bit more control of your destiny. I can choose what I want to sell. If you work at a big place, you’re told what to sell and who to represent.
Q: And as a manager, you can produce as well—something agents cannot do?
A: Yes, I was an agent up until about three years ago, so I am moving more into that area [producing] every day. I am developing a couple projects on my own that I am going to take out and package. One of them is a black western. I’m very excited about that. I needed a script, so I got one of my writers to write it. We’ve been watching every western movie. There’s never been something like this done in the history of cinema. “Relentless” will become my first name.
Q: I think it already is.
A: (laughs) If I’m not that hot for something, it’s very hard to get the passion happening. You just can’t be that passionate when you read so much stuff and it’s all the same.
Q: You were passionate about the “Die Hard” book.
A: And they’re having a 20-year reunion…they just released the fourth one (“Live Free or Die Hard”). They made $9.1 million in one day. It was an iconic action film. It was an old book. It was already 10 years old when I sold it. Nobody wanted it. I just refused to hear “no.”
Q: How long did it take to sell the book?
A: Probably three years.
Q: That seems like a long time, given what a great property it turned out to be.
A: Again, it was an old book. With the original, they said, “Well he doesn’t have anybody to talk to.” Well, he does because he talks to the guy on the cell phone.
Q: As a manager, do you develop scripts with writers?
A: Yes. I have some people doing assignments. I’ve had many clients over the years writing things on assignment, but they don’t get made. At least, if you’re writing on spec, you have the product and I think it’s better to have something to sell. Basically, yes, I develop projects with them, whether they are in TV or film.
Q: Can you describe your process of developing projects with writers?
A: Usually I try to have them present me with ideas, because there’s nothing worse than having somebody write something and then you say, “Well there’s only eighteen of these out there.”
A: It’s very hard to find something unique. So, usually, they give me their idea or ideas. In the case of “The Tripwire,” the western that’s a book I represent, I talked to the book author and then took the book to another writer [to write the screenplay].
And it depends on the writer. Some writers don’t want as much input. A lot of them don’t take direction very well, which is a real problem if they’re going to be in the studio system.
Generally, I get involved and I try to get them to do a beat sheet. And then I’ll let them go. I don’t want to read pages because I’ll get too close to it and not be as objective. So, I try to get them to get the first draft out [on their own]. And sometimes, it’s a disaster. Then, six drafts later, it finally works. It just depends on how organic it is to the person and how their process works. I spend a lot of time developing material. It’s my favorite thing to do.
A: Yes. That’s the fun of it. That’s the artistic side—the creative side. I’m a theater arts major. The rest of it—yes, it’s creative to package and sell, but that’s the fun.
Q: What should a writer have achieved before seeking a representative? Or, to put it another way, when does a writer know he or she is ready to start submitting to representatives?
A: First, they’ve got to have a number of scripts. You’ve got to have one that will really turn heads, because even if it doesn’t sell, it’s going to provide a great sample. Beyond that, you’ve got to have references. With people like myself, if the writer is not referred, chances are I’m not going to bother. I get 10, 20 or 30 e-mail queries a day. We look them over and every now and then we’ll read something [from those queries], but usually, it’s not very good. What writers need to figure out, networking-wise, is how to get references. If somebody is referred to me, I’m going to pay more attention. Any agent or manager out there is going to have the same thing. A referral is going to work. Maybe Aunt Betty married Uncle Bud, who knows Lucy, who knows Carl, who knows Ruby who knows somebody in Hollywood. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
Q: Do you get many queries from writers for the type of material that you are not looking for?
A: Yes, but what else can they do? I understand. They believe it’s the best thing since sliced bread. That’s fine. The problem is that most of the material is not good. It’s unfortunate. I am sure there is a diamond in the rough somewhere in one of those, but not so often.
There’s another problem with Hollywood. People don’t read here. They have people that read, but they don’t read. So, they’re trusting somebody else’s opinion that may or may not see the world the way you do. It’s all subjective. You can have 10 people see a movie and half of them may love it and half may hate it. Or three may love it, three may hate it and four may think it’s okay.
Q: That’s the scary part of making movies.
A: Yes, it is.
Q: It’s like stand-up comics that perform in clubs where one night their material kills; then the next night, they perform the same material before a new audience and can’t get a laugh.
A: I just listened to an interview with Betty Hutton, who was a star in the 40s, and she said the same thing. Everybody has their ups and downs. And by the way, not everybody writes a great script every time out of the box either. The best material, like great literature, has to steep. It’s like tea. It has to steep for a while. That’s the problem. People are writing, but it’s not coming from within; it’s coming from without.
Q: And you believe in giving back to aspiring artists in the form of feedback or through teaching?
A: That’s always something I want to encourage people to do. I think that if people are inspired, it changes their lives. I just think it is something that one should do.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say to writers?
A: I’ve done other interviews on this—I don’t believe that anybody is too old to be a writer, ever. Often times a writer only gets better because of their life experience. That’s something that young people have to realize. How much experience can you have at 22 in terms of how you see the world? How insightful are you about people? Of course, I’m also married to a therapist, so….
I think that cream rises to the top. If you write something that’s really good, then somehow it’s going to get to somebody that’s going to recognize it. I really believe that. I’ve had stuff sitting next to my bed for a year and then finally I read it and I’m like, “Holy ****! I should have read this before.” (both laugh)
When your pile of reading disappears, it means you’re out of show business. Everybody has a pile.