Spotlight: MPI Filmmaker Tanner Mobley

Part 4 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series

The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers

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Our “Spotlight” series continues with long-time Moving Picture Institute-supported filmmaker Tanney Mobley, a development executive for Millennium Media and producer of high budget action features such as The Expendables franchise. Tanner graduated from the University of Iowa in 2010 with a degree in Cinema and, with the help of the MPI, relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film development. He has been with Millennium for the past six and a half years and also serves as a judge for the ScreenCraft annual action scriptwriting competition.

Lana Link (MPI): Tanner, thank you for answering our questions today! Can you talk about your role at Millennium and the films you make there?

TM: I work as a Development Executive, which is a fancy way of saying I find and develop different scripts/projects for the company. We have a full service production studio in Bulgaria, and we operate under a foreign pre-sales model. Basically that means we pre-sell our films to the different territories around the world before we actually make the movie. This provides us very little risk, since the film is already paid for before we start shooting. But creatively, it limits the type of projects we can do. Our buyers are mostly interested in high-concept action/thrillers with A-List cast. So that’s what we try to give them. We are the only independent studio in the world with six major franchises: The Expendables, Rambo, Olympus Has Fallen, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, The Mechanic, and most recently the new Hellboy reboot.

MPI: For those who are just starting out in the industry, can you speak to what “development” executives do? What skills do you need?

TM: We find scripts from anywhere we can—agents, managers, producers, friends, waiters, valets, etc. And we read a LOT. Once we find something we like, we try to option the project and put it together. Usually this involves a few rounds of notes with the writer, then sending the script out to directors. After director pitches, we hire a director, incorporate their script notes, and start making offers to cast. When we get a financeable actor on board, the sales guys take the film to the markets and start selling. This is usually where my work stops. But once the film is in post-production, we will review the cuts and give notes on how to improve it.

Skills you need: you must love reading, obviously. And you need to have a good sense of story/structure. But like anything else, it’s all about practice. If you have the patience to sit and read all day, then eventually you start to notice patterns in scripts and learn what works and what doesn’t.

MPI: What should writers keep in mind when they’re trying to get producers’ attention? Are there common errors you see screenwriters repeat, either in their work during the coverage process or in their pitches?

TM: Don’t be afraid to follow up. I get so many submissions that a lot of times scripts can get buried in my inbox. If you send me something and then disappear off the face of the earth, I’ll probably never read it. But if you’re polite and check in occasionally with a reminder, eventually I will get to it.

Common errors: don’t save your best pages for the end of the script. Make sure your first 10 to 25 pages are your strongest, and that they hook the reader somehow. Give me a reason to keep turning the page. If you tell me “Just wait until the twist at the end!” I’ll probably never make it that far.

As far as pitches go, try to relax. Don’t go too fast. Don’t read directly from a paper (notes are ok). Be funny. Even if you’re pitching a Holocaust drama where everybody dies at the end, a bit of humor can go a long way toward easing tension in the room and ingratiating yourself as someone we want to work with. Be open to ideas and collaborative, but don’t be afraid to defend yourself if you see things a different way. 

Make sure your first 10 to 25 pages are your strongest, and that they hook the reader somehow. Give me a reason to keep turning the page.

MPI: Pure ballpark estimate, how many scripts do you think you’ve read in your lifetime? What are your biggest lessons learned from that experience?

TM: I’m probably close to 1,000. You learn a little bit from everything you read. Usually what not to do. For example: taking too long to get into the story, not having a clear direction/arc for your protagonist, focusing too much on the action/plot instead of character, etc. As someone who reads a lot of action scripts, I can tell you we usually just skim the action scenes, because the director and stunt coordinator will do whatever they want with those anyway. Character is always most important. And the decisions your character makes will influence plot.

MPI: We are about to kick off our 2018 summer internship program, with students coming from around the country to work in the entertainment business and get a foot in the door. You are a Moving Picture Institute success story, and you participated in the program yourself when you first came out to LA. Can you talk about that experience?

TM: I did two development internships, and both were very different experiences. One was very fun and collaborative—the company let us attend production meetings, assist in weekend read, etc. The other was very cold: it was basically “Find a cubicle, grab a script from this huge stack, and do coverage all day without making a sound.” Both these experiences were super important, because I got to see how a department should be run and how it shouldn’t be run. 

The stipend provided by MPI allowed me to focus all my energy on succeeding at the internship and not having to worry about how I was going to pay rent, etc. . . . even more important is just learning how to work with people, be a team player, be collaborative, and be confident in your own taste and ideas. 

MPI: How did those placements help you land your next Hollywood job(s)?

TM: Both internships were essential. It’s incredibly difficult for someone not from LA to uproot and move across the country to take an unpaid internship in a totally unfamiliar industry with no connections. The stipend provided by MPI allowed me to focus all my energy on succeeding at the internship and not having to worry about how I was going to pay rent, etc. I was able to pad my resume and show I had previous experience, which is important. But even more important is just learning how to work with people, be a team player, be collaborative, and be confident in your own taste and ideas. 

MPI: Last year, you began hosting Moving Picture Institute interns of your own at Millennium, and you recently hired one for a full-time position! How can interns really stand out when they’re at the bottom of the totem pole?

TM: You basically need to remove the word “no” from your vocabulary. This will help you a lot when you first become an assistant as well. It doesn’t matter if your boss asks you to retrieve a lock of hair from Queen Elizabeth’s puppy. You never say no—at worst, you say “Let me see what I can do.” Then figure out a way to make it happen.

You basically need to remove the word “no” from your vocabulary. . . . You never say no—at worst, you say “Let me see what I can do.” Then figure out a way to make it happen.

No task should be too small. If it’s stocking sodas, cleaning up after a meeting, getting coffee, etc. Do the small things right and do them with enthusiasm. People will notice, and they will give you more responsibility as time goes on.

MPI: You’re also a writer yourself. Can you talk about your writing process and how you make time to write when you have a demanding full-time job in the industry?  

TM: It’s hard to find time to write even if you have a normal job. It’s just such a laborious process. But if you’re passionate about something, you’ll always find a way to make time. This is Hollywood—everyone has an idea for a script. A lot of people have really good ideas for scripts. But until they’re actually on paper, they don’t exist. It’s never hard for me to find time to write because it’s therapeutic. Even if I’ve spent all day trying to fix someone else’s bad script, it’s an easy switch to flip when you start working on your own stuff. If you can’t get excited about your own ideas, then you shouldn’t be writing. 

MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking and writing journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next projects?

TM: Know which ideas to focus your energy on. Work on things that you can actually sell. If you spend two years working on a script that only five people will want to see, then what’s the point?

Also, a tough pill to swallow:  concept is often more important than the actual script (at least for my company). We need to be able to pitch the movie in two or three sentences to a buyer from China, Mexico, Germany, Russia, etc.—all in the same day. And they all need to be able to understand it. Focus on universal themes and ideas that will have global appeal. It will go a long way toward making your project commercial and marketable.

MPI: For fun, share a film (or script) that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves). 

TM: Grease 2. I think it’s just as good as the first one. I’m yet to find anyone who agrees with me.

MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers, new interns, and screenwriters?

TM: Find what you like to do, and do it. If you like writing, write every day. Even if it sucks, you will only get better. If you like directing, direct! Don’t wait around for someone to give you a job. Write or find material and start shooting short films. Anyone with an iPhone can shoot a short film today. With technology where it’s at, there’s really no excuse. 

Find what you like to do, and do it. . . . Anyone with an iPhone can shoot a short film today. With technology where it’s at, there’s really no excuse.