Literary rights agent Dana Spector ’08 on the power of studying history and the work of finding stories well-suited for the screen.
What’s your favorite book-to-screen adaptation?
Movies I cite quite a bit include Little Women (1994), which came out when I was obsessed with that novel and really evoked all the right emotions for me. The Virgin Suicides (1999) is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve seen, both in content (lines pulled straight from the novel) and in tone and atmosphere. Finally, Coraline (2009) was a great example of an under-utilized art form, in this case stop-motion animation, perfectly capturing the surreality of the story.
You have said you read about 400 books a year-how does that work? Do you sometimes bail after the first couple of pages?
I read hundreds of submissions a year, and those can include articles and book proposals, which are much easier. And no, I’m not reading every book all the way through. If I’m fifty pages in and not hooked, I can’t get excited enough about the project to convince a buyer to develop it. The best thing about my job is that you never know what you’re going to find when you open a new manuscript, since often I’m reading something years before it’s published. The thrill of discovery, when I get lost in the story and read the whole book in one sitting, never gets old.
When you were a student, you talked about deciding to major in history in part because of your love of popular culture. What does popular culture tell you about the time since you graduated?
When I graduated in 2008, right before the recession and Obama’s election, it was a moment of rapid change not just for me but for the world. Suddenly people had smartphones, and everyone was on Facebook or Twitter. You saw a shift toward more personal expression, and a more direct connection between artists and their audiences. Looking back, I’d say the most obvious change in pop culture has been a move toward inclusion of diverse voices, and female voices, in film and TV development. There’s a lot of variety in the stories I represent, but I remember a time not long ago where one female-driven project at a network was enough to cancel out all other development with female protagonists. As this past year has shown, we have a long way to go, but it’s encouraging that stories that never would have seen the light of day ten years ago are suddenly the most sought-after projects on my list.
As a film studies minor and with your involvement at BCN, you did a lot of film and tv at Bowdoin-how does that inform what you do at Paradigm today?
My overall experience at Bowdoin informs everything I do in my career-I even have the “Barry Mills Manifesto” poster from Bowdoin Magazine in my office! The commitment to the common good reminds me to do my job without ego, work to find resolutions with others, and deescalate tense situations. Hollywood agents certainly have a reputation for bad behavior, but I’ve gotten far enough by treating others with respect and honesty.
I learned everything about film from Tricia Welsch, and so much about myself and how to manage my time and relationships from BCN, but studying history actually translated closest to what I do now. I tend to procrastinate and coping with the big reading load as a history major taught me how to do my best work despite my personal quirks and constraints. I can certainly speed read now! I’ve always loved working with nonfiction authors, and a strong foundation of general knowledge helps when I’m working on historical projects, which applies to fiction as well. I never thought that this would be my career, but I feel so lucky to have found a job that builds on my experience as a student and teaches me something new every day.
Dana (Borowitz) Spector, who oversees media rights at Paradigm Talent Agency, majored in history and minored in film studies at Bowdoin. While she was a student, she was a writing assistant in the Writing Project and co-leader of Bowdoin Cable News, where she was responsible for programming and developing new content. She claims that studying the Civil War in eighth grade and the interest in Joshua Lawrence Chamber that it generated is part of the story that brought her to Bowdoin.
This piece first appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Bowdoin magazine.