Inside Coverfly's Plan to Reinvent How Hollywood Discovers Screenwriters

Why Hollywood Producers Think They Need a Union Again

Inside Coverfly’s Plan to Reinvent How Hollywood Discovers Screenwriters

“The industry doesn’t just want data. It wants specific needs and personalized recommendations,” software company’s CEO John Rhodes says

As pressure builds on Hollywood to find screenwriters with stories that reflect the life experience of a diversified audience, Coverfly, a software company that recommends writers to studios, is turning to Big Data to help fill the need.

Coverfly has already been used by studios, film festivals and script coverage services to handle the influx of screenplays they get each day. But in recent years, Coverfly has amassed a searchable database for producers, managers, literary agents and executives to find emerging, yet unsigned writing talent. And with the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop, Coverfly’s platform has been a boon for industry players looking to discover talent without the benefit of film festivals or in-person meetings.

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Here’s just one example: Kyra Jones was an aspiring screenwriter based in Chicago when she joined Coverfly in 2018. As a Black woman and feminist with a background in discussing intimate relationships and sex, Jones had won two different screenwriting prizes for her work and was a finalist in several other competitions. Though she had yet to find representation, Coverfly rated her as among the top 3% of all emerging screenwriters. And after participating in a bi-annual pitch week event hosted by Coverfly, Jones was signed to a job as a writer on the Hulu show “Woke” within just 48 hours.

“It’s hard to believe how my career has transformed over the last three weeks, which is a true testament to Coverfly’s process that culminated for me at Pitch Week,” Jones said. “I can’t wait to see what the future holds.” 

Another writer using Coverfly sold a spec script to Netflix for a project now in production in Toronto. A third got staffed on a Chuck Lorre show after fielding offers from more than 10 different companies. And just this month, Gabourey Sidibe announced that she would make her directorial debut on a script by a pair of writers who were discovered by a literary manager through the platform.

John Rhodes, Coverfly’sCEO, said he’s seeing these types of success stories every day. And among the platform’s current 70,000 registered users with 45,000 searchable projects, he says 70% of those writers have found success by either signing with an agent or manager, getting hired on a show or optioning or selling their scripts. What’s more, Coverfly estimates that another 70% of its success stories identify as diverse writers, as defined by the WGA, and he has the goal of making 80% of new members of the WGA having first come through Coverfly.     

“Coverfly is aggregating all that data and making it searchable and filterable and basically manipulable by industry stakeholders who are looking for undiscovered voices, great projects,” Rhodes told TheWrap. “We’re seeing these writers’ dreams essentially coming true through our platforms.”

Coverfly works by aggregating data points from across the industry, using an algorithm to create a profile and score to evaluate the “confidence” in a writer by assessing strengths and weaknesses rather than a subjective good or bad. The database looks at appearances and awards from film festivals, accolades from writer evaluation services like the Nicholl Fellowship or the Black List, whether a writer has representation, has appeared in studio writers programs or has any other work credits.

A team of story analysts then goes through thousands of submitted scripts per month, particularly those that have rated highly on the confidence scale and after having met with screenwriters on the platform. They provides additional notes, metrics and data points to better classify a project. They’ll even evaluate on more intangible elements such as how a writer performs in a room to give a full sense of the writer as an individual.

Rhodes argues that Coverfly differs from more traditional writing discovery services – like the ones it aggregates from – because it’s not a closed system of experts only recommending scripts by writers that have paid to be vetted through the service.

“We’re a shared utility that’s trying to make talent discovery easier,” Rhodes said. “Everyone that is helping to facilitate talent discovery is doing good things, but they were not doing it in as data-driven and as scalable of an approach.”

Users can create trackers, filter projects using word clouds and specific parameters, and Coverfly sends regular email updates with curated lists of new scripts that have become available. Buyers’ staff as they read scripts can then, within Coverfly, make additional notes or ratings and eliminate spreadsheets in the process. And while Coverfly charges a licensing fee for use of its screenplay management software, its database discovery tools are free to writers and to industry users.

“We get managers that are saying, ‘I have a show that’s looking for a Black, British, legal expert to write on a show.’ Well, we have the data to zero in on that specific type of writer,” Rhodes said. “The industry doesn’t just want data. It wants specific needs and personalized recommendations.” 

Adam Kolbrenner, a producer known for “Prisoners,” a former literary agent and the head of his company, Lit Entertainment Group, said Coverfly has helped him sift through the dozens of query emails he gets in a day for new scripts.

“When it makes its way to us, we know that it’s been looked at and verified to a certain extent, qualified, and then it just comes down to whether it’s the right fit for our company,” Kolbrenner said. “With Coverfly, it’s very specific, and they’ll take those thousands of query emails over the course of a year and put it into action. And that’s a huge button for me.”

Kolbrenner says a service like this didn’t exist five years ago, and for decades the industry has relied on either random queries or recommendations from friends or family to make a connection. He said a more data-driven approach to talent discovery can benefit emerging writers trying to get a start and buyers looking to get ahead in the streaming era.

“It gives writers the advantage and takes away that this business is only a business of who you know. It’s not true, and Coverfly proves it’s not true,” he said. “Before a service like Coverfly, it’s a shot in the dark.”

The Coverfly approach also eliminates unsolicited calls to a studio executive and the disappointment of a rejection. “Today, we have a better understanding from the data that we’re getting, we have a better understanding of what buyers are looking for,” Kolbrenner said.

Coverfly saw a surge in activity amid the WGA and ATA conflict, with producers seeking alternate sources to find talent. But with agents repping writers again and production picking up after the worst of the pandemic, many reps have been slowing new signings and focusing more on existing clients.

But that, too, could change, and Coverfly is developing new programs and events to improve matches of writers and buyers. One is a sort of industry speed dating for pitch sessions, and another is Tinder for loglines, giving users the ability to swipe through ideas to find something that’s right for them.

Kolbrenner says he still gets approached the old fashioned way, calls from people asking for recommendations hoping to find a needle in a haystack. The most “progressive” of those who embrace a new way of talent discovery, he said, might be the ones most poised to survive.

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