blog image
Insider Insights: Interview with Ryan Saul (Manager/Producer)

Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Ryan Saul, who has been in the film industry for over two decades, working as an agent, manager, and producer. He has also taught film business courses at Bradley University, Florida State University, and at ECA, where he serves as a Program & Curriculum Advisor.

Ryan, it’s great to have you here with us today. To start off, tell us about your background and how you got into filmmaking.

So I started acting as a kid when I was probably five years old. I was in a play for the Christmas Carol and I played you know, one of the kids from ghost of Christmas past or future, and I got the bug. So from five years old, to all the way through high school, I did musicals, I did plays at the local theater. I ended up competing on the speech team speech and debate team in high school and made it to state a couple years in a row.

When it came to college, I was an average student, so I ended up going to the school that gave me the most money, which also happened to be the school that was the 14 time defending champion in speech and debate. I was on a forensic scholarship there and then sophomore year I quit the speech team, because I was also a hippie, and I was like, “I don’t want to be judged for my art,” so the theater department ended up picking up my scholarship, and I continued to do productions in college. I was a theater major with a double major in theater and history – not theater history, but just regular history. And I became a pretty good theater director.

When it came time, it was either to go into real life or continue my education. I decided to continue my education, and I had a choice between pursuing one path to begin to get my MFA in theater directing. I had a handful of schools interested in me to do that. One of the schools, University of Indiana, they took three directors every two years, and I was one of those directors. Then I got into film school at Florida State University. And I decided, “Well, I’m pretty good at theater, I know I can do that.” I wanted to try a different medium, so I ended up going to film school at Florida State.
The great thing about going to school at Florida State is I realized two things: One is I’m a terrible film director. But I’m a pretty darn good producer and I’m a great talker, so I can get things for cheap, I can wrangle locations for free. So I kind of became that like producer guy at Florida State.
I then left Florida State, and I decided I’m going to try my hand and I’m going to move to Los Angeles. I packed up my Chevy, 10 grand, and my friend Dave El’Hatton who recently passed away unfortunately. And then I came out here, and I have an internship at Universal where I worked for a guy named Perry Katz who produced such wonderful films as Flipper and McHale’s Navy. I interned with a guy named Steve Asbell who now runs 20th Century studios. I also worked for a woman named Jill Arthur, now one of the head executives at Amazon in the TV side of things. So I do the internship and I ended up getting a job as a PA.
Flashforward ahead to my first office job, and it was working at the Walt Disney Company in strategic planning. I work for a guy named David Maisel, who helped broker the deal between Marvel and Disney, and another woman named Elaine Paul who’s now the CFO of Hulu, so I was working for people on their way up. I learned a ton during that job.
After my year and a half at Disney, I was looking for jobs. My trajectory was pointing me towards producing so I was looking for jobs on the Disney lot to work for a producer and gain knowledge that way, but they all said, “Ryan, if you really want to know this business go work at an agency. You also have the personality of an agent, so you would fit in really well.” What they were basically telling me is, you’re kind of a jerk so you’d be a great agent. So I took their advice, and then a bunch of agencies were like, start at the mailroom, work your way to assistant, then you become an agent maybe in five years, or we will send you out and you’ll have the training to become a creative executive somewhere.
But I ended up taking a job at a boutique called the Jim Preminger Agency, but they were one of the premier boutique packaging agencies. At the time, they were packaging shows like Frazier, Becker, Family Ties, Boy Meets World. That was a ton of money, but I learned the TV business that way.
Then I went out with a script as an assistant, which you’re not supposed to do, but, as you can tell from my past stories, I don’t really follow the rules, and I ended up selling it. But I didn’t know what I was doing, and in the state of California, you have to be licensed to be an agent. So my boss Jim Preminger, he came in and said, “You can’t do that, you’ll get in a lot of trouble.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, but I have an offer on the script.” He’s like, “Well how much?” And it was a mid six figure offer. So he says, “All right, let me take you through the deal.” So he talked me through the deal, but he would not promote me until I took a course at UCLA on negotiating and how to work for your clients. He made me an agent, but I wasn’t allowed to sign anybody except the one person who’s script I just sold. Okay, I’m not a good listener, so I ended up signing these two guys, Ron Friedman and Steve Bencich, who I went to film school with.
So Ron and Steve have a meeting at Disney, and they end up with a seven figure overall deal at the Walt Disney Company, where they wrote Brother Bear and Chicken Little, two animated movies that were way before your time if you’re reading this. So I had my second client. After that he gave me an office, he gave me an assistant and I became an agent. That was in 1999.
Cut to 23 years later, I went from Jim Preminger to an agency called Metropolitan and then over to APA, where I was at for 11 years. When I left APA, I was running the motion picture literary department. I went to Paradigm for a short stint, and I realized that my time of wearing suits and being an agent was over, and then I segue into what I’m doing now, which I’m a manager at a company called The Cartel, and I guess I’m a producer now because as of today, I have two projects in pre-production and three that we are casting where I’m a producer. So that’s my background and that catches you up to 2022.

Everyone knows what a director does, what a writer does, what an actor does, but producer is always one of those things, especially for those not in the film industry, that’s kind of nebulous and misunderstood or hard to understand. Can you clarify what a producer is and does?

So what a producer does is basically in the word itself: we produce. What does that mean? Well, producing anything means making something. But there are different types of producer in the credits. In the credits you’re going to see executive producer, you’re going to see the line producer, you see associate producer, you see co-producer, you see produced-by. The producer generally oversees the whole thing. The projects I’m producing, I’m involved in helping decide with the director who we are going to put in this movie as an actor. I’m trying to get a director on projects that I may already have financing for. I’m trying to find financing.
And the producer is also involved in hiring what we call the “above the line” personnel. Above the line personnel are your producers, writers, actors, director, sometimes a director of photography will be there. Everything else is considered below the line, so my job is to also either do it myself and put together a budget for the movie, or I hire a unit production manager or a line producer to put that budget together. Line producers are called line producers because they oversee below the line but they’re still part of the above the line conversations because they’re the ones who look at the script, break it down, and start assigning values and what we’re going to need for each scene, what a breakdown looks like, what a day looks like, what a call sheet looks like. All of that is done in the group of producers.
Now you’ll also see executive producers. Executive producers in features are different than the executive producers in TV. Executive producers in features are generally the money guy or the girlfriend of the money guy who wants a producer credit if they’re not acting in it, which I’ve seen happen. So if you see “executive produced by” so and so, generally they’re the money guys, or they own the rights at some point and we’re going to give them an executive producer credit. They are not really involved in the day to day of putting a movie together. The real job as a producer is to put the whole thing together.

Over the past couple decades, you’ve been involved with a lot of projects and films. Which ones stand out to you as highlights that you are especially proud of or that were particularly memorable?

You always remember the first one. The first one I actually saw as an agent go to fruition was Brother Bear and then subsequently Chicken Little. That was my first premiere that I went to where I actually did something on it.

I was told a long time ago, in order to stand out in my field of being an agent, you have to have a hook. Every great song has a hook, every great director has something they do well, every great actor, you know them for certain things. As an agent it’s a little more difficult, and because I started at a small place, I had to build something up, so I became known as the guy who does animation.

On the independent movie side is Tucker and Dale vs Evil, which is this cult comedy, which is hilarious. It’s like horror comedy, and if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do. It’s like 90% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
The first real discovery for me on the director side was a guy named Josh Trank. He hooked up with Max Landis, who’s a big writer, and they came up with Chronicle. That was the first low budget movie that Fox ended up doing. I think it was like a $13 million budget, and it ended up making over $150 million worldwide. Then right after that, one of my clients, Wes Ball broke out with his short film Ruin, which led to us being put on the Maze Runner franchise. Those three Maze Runner movies did a billion dollars. I’m proud when my clients are successful. What I’m most proud of is my ability to find these filmmakers off of short films or off of tiny independent movies.

You’ve made a name for yourself discovering and developing these young up and comer filmmakers that you mentioned. What do you look for when you see these aspiring filmmakers and their work? What catches your eye that makes you want to invest in these people?

It’s something that I know it when I see it. I don’t really know what it is. With Josh, he had such a passion; he just knew the path he wanted to be on. With Wes, I remember seeing his first short film when he was just out of film school, and I turned to one of my clients who’s sitting next to me watching this short and I said, “I gotta sign this guy.” I had not seen anything like this out of a student film showcase. Ruin just came out of nowhere. Tim Reckart’s short film Head Over Heels came to me from a producer who I respect, and I cried at the end of it, like it moved me emotionally. It’s an emotional experience for me.

This is going to sound jaded, but I go into everything that I read or watch prepared to hate it. I remember when I signed this guy Ron Morales. This manager was really on me to watch this film, so I’m like “Fine, fine.” I couldn’t sleep, it was midnight, I put the film on, you know, probably as something that I thought I would fall asleep to. 10 minutes in I’m like, “Okay, all right,” and then the first incident happens, like the turning point, and I remember sitting up in my bed, and I was like “Holy crap!” I texted my friend the manager at 2:30 in the morning and I’m like, “Cancel all my meetings, I’m signing him.” Because he surprised me, he let me see something I hadn’t seen before in film.

I’m looking for those things that I can hang my hat on.  It’s more than just talent. I have to sit across from you and go, “Can I put you in a room and people are going to want to work with you?” So if you’re talented and you have a great personality and a great vibe in a room, you’re going to work. I’ve also represented some average writers, but they’re great in the room, so people want to work with them. Yes, it’s important to be talented, but it’s also important to have people skills.

So it’s hard to say what I look for. I look to feel. So if I cry, if I laugh – like Tucker and Dale vs Evil, I laughed all the way through that midnight screening at Sundance, which, if you’ve done a midnight screening at Sundance, they’re either like the cure for insomnia or some of the best fun you’ve had, and everyone had so much fun at the screening, and Morgan [Jurgenson] and Eli [Craig] now have writing projects all across the studio landscape. So it’s not enough to just be visual, you have to move me in a certain way.

What advice would you give aspiring high school filmmakers?

I’m going to give the advice that was once given to me and that I ignored. If there’s anything else that you’re good at, go do that [laughs]. However, if you eat, sleep, and drink this creation, whether it’s directing, writing, and you just love movies and you want to be in this business somehow – be a producer, a manager, an agent, an executive – this is not a business for the faint of heart.

Look, we’re not curing cancer, we’re not discovering vaccines for Covid here, we’re making entertainment. But we’re making entertainment with a lot of money at stake, as you can see, with these media companies now all jumping in here. The advice that I would give to those people who meet that criteria is to keep experimenting, don’t be afraid to push the envelope, and trust your storytelling. We’re at a point right now in this business where all stories are possible. It’s also the easiest time to get your material seen. There’s all kinds of platforms, whether it’s TikTok, Instagram, Youtube, or whatever new thing is going to come out by the time you read this. These people are being discovered every day.

Also, put yourself on a plan. When I came out here to Los Angeles, I was going to give myself two years to see where I was at. I always tell my students, in the first six months, just get a job, any job – making coffee, being a PA on a sitcom, working on as many student or short films as possible, helping others. What I find is all of you come up in a group. When I was in film school, I didn’t get along with everybody. But some of the people I didn’t get along with are now my biggest advocates and we’ve all helped each other at some point. So my advice is to stick to it, give yourself some time, be patient.

There’s no such thing as overnight successes. It’s [Malcolm] Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. You have to be disciplined. If you’re a writer, you have to keep writing every day. If you’re a director, you need to be around as many directors and as many sets as possible, and you need to be finding ways to direct your short stories to get discovered. If you’re a producer, find the most talented directors or writers in your class or that you know to do stuff together and produce. Guerrilla filmmaking is where I learned the most because you’re just riding around on sidewalks like “Hey, get that shot!” or “Hey, that’s a great image of the beach. Let’s grab that and put it together.” And especially with these phones right now, you can make a movie on your iPhone.

Keep making movies, and put yourself in the position where, if you end up in an elevator with me someday and you know that I’m a big Cleveland sports fan, don’t just say “Hey, I just made this short film, you should see it.” Instead, say, “Hey, the Cleveland Cavaliers are killing it right now!” Start a dialogue and talk about things other than yourself. And then they’re going to ask you, “Well, what do you do?” And you can go “Oh, I’m a director.” And they ask, “Well what have you done?” “I’m working on this short” and then they’ll either give you advice or if they like the cut of your jib and you’re not a total jerk, they may say, “Look, here’s my card or here’s my email address, here’s my assistant’s email address, reach out and send your stuff.” You never know how that’s gonna play out. So don’t be a salesperson. Be human with them, stroke their ego a little bit, know something about them, know what’s going on in the business.

Thank you so much for your time and all the great advice, stories, and insights Ryan!