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From Page to Screen: A Talk with Macmillan’s Brendan Deneen

From Page to Screen: A Talk with Macmillan’s Brendan Deneen

Just how does an aspiring novelist find his way to becoming the head of a brand-new, paradigm-shifting division of a major publishing house?  For Brendan Deneen, it’s a circuitous route that lead to becoming the head of Macmillan Entertainment, the book-to-film division of Macmillan Publishing.  His untraditional approach to getting things done eventually landed him in a position to turn books into movies and television series, package new ideas into solid, marketable content for page and screen, and is likely to transform publishing as we know it.

Brendan’s has been a story of persistence and patience, coupled with an uncanny ability to plunge into new challenges – often having to learn to swim before those challenges drowned him.  It’s the kind of resilience and positive pragmatism that all creative people can learn from.

Brendan began by telling a packed TWC audience his life story, starting when he created his own Marvel Man comics at the tender age of 8. With childish exuberance, he wrote 20 issues of 20 pages apiece. The effort revealed a passion for creating stories that has propelled him ever since.

Before he hit his early twenties, he’d already written several novels, and used the rejection letters he received to wallpaper his bathroom.  While he pursued his craft, he worked for temp agencies, worked briefly as an actor and made two short movies.  Then Brendan landed a job as an assistant at the William Morris Agency – one of the most prestigious talent agencies in the world. When his two bosses went AWOL, he found himself sitting outside their empty offices for several months, until he took the risk to start making deals himself. It was the start of a trend of non-traditional solutions to corporate impediments that would help him rise out of the mire in a particularly challenging field.

10750289_800550013316727_6087455510213021425_o“I finally left William Morris,” he said, “because I didn’t like all the yelling.” Ironically, his next post was as a story editor for Scott Rudin Productions, another notoriously combative media production company. A member of the audience, herself a veteran of film production, called out: “I guess you got used to yelling.”

Brendan laughed, “I’ve worked for a lot of mean people,” adding that, at Rudin, things were thrown, people yelled at and fired – often. Yet the film deals that they created were remarkable, including Gone Girl, The Social Network, and No Country for Old Men – all previously novels.

Brendan explained that production companies track the book industry in “small and quiet” ways. They follow the announcements of book deals made in publishersmarketplace.com, make a list of which books to obtain, and wine and dine book editors to get early manuscripts. (“What happened if you didn’t get a book?” someone asked. The answer: “You got fired.”) For Brendan, this amazing opportunity allowed him to meet everyone in the film and television industry, developing a contact list which would prove invaluable later in his career.

Brendan moved on to become the Director of Development at Dimension Films, working for Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Next, he became a literary agency, where his powerhouse contact list netted him 50 clients in about 24 hours. Having taught himself how to negotiate contracts, he worked as an agent for 2-1/2 years, then moved to St. Martin’s Press as an editor.  Except with his own writing, he had relatively no editorial experience.  Still, he knew a good story when he read one. While at St. Martin’s, he worked with a writer on a time travel YA book, negotiating a three-book deal. Then Summit Entertainment, who produced Twilight, called with a pre-emptive offer.

1913276_800550049983390_7422689214648611127_o“I should have transferred the call to our sub-rights division,” Brendan explained. “But I was still too new there and I just didn’t know the procedures. So I started negotiating myself, and told them I wanted Macmillan attached as a production company. And they agreed.”

This fateful – and potentially fatal – move prompted John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, to call Brendan into his office. “I keep hearing your name,” he said. “Tell me why.”

After Brendan explained what he’d been doing for Macmillan, Sargent asked him the question of a lifetime. “What do you want to do – and what do you need to do it?” The result was the creation of Macmillan Entertainment, which turns books into films or television series.  Brendan not only works with existing manuscripts.  He originates concepts, hires writers to write the stories, and then sells them into Hollywood . His current projects include video games, TV series, films, plus projects where he works as an editor to publish books “the normal way.”

“What I really love to do,” Brendan concluded, “is to create characters and plots – just like that 8-year-old boy who created Marvel Man, way back when.”

As Brendan was closing deals left and right, he was also finishing up the novel that he’d been working on for many years.  Ironically, it was rejected by all the major publishing houses, but THE NINTH CIRCLE was finally picked up by a small press and published thisyear.

“My number one piece of advice to any writer, is to keep writing,” Brendan said when asked his best writing advice. “Write a page a day. Write, write, write, read, and write, write, write.”

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