The Nonprofit Hero Factory: Episode 18

What Hollywood Storytelling Can Teach Nonprofits, with Alex Litvak

In this Episode:

Hollywood screenwriter Alex Litvak (Predators, Three Musketeers, Secret Society of Second Born Royals), joins Boris to discuss the craft of effective storytelling and what nonprofits can learn from an industry that brings in over $10 billion annually.

From how they’re structured to what makes them effective, Alex helps us break down the keys to effective writing and how to craft stories that resonate.

Listen to this Episode

[00:00:03.660] – Intro Video
Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video, broadcast and podcast, where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better world for all of us. Da-Ding!.

[00:00:20.320] – Boris
Hi, everybody, welcome back to the Nonprofit Hero Factory. Today, we’ve got a special episode, it’s not like any of the others that we’ve had so far because instead of having a nonprofit professional or a regular communications type of person or technologist, even we’ve got a screenwriter. He’s actually a friend of mine that I’ve known for quite a while now. And I’m really happy that he agreed to come on the show to talk about his process and how to really craft a compelling story.

[00:00:50.170] – Boris
Let me introduce him. His name is Alex Litvak. He is a former feature executive turned screenwriter at Impossible Dream. After graduating from USC, Alex worked at 20th Century Fox and Intermedia, where he was involved with over two dozen movies, including X-Men, X Files, Behind Enemy Lines, Training Day, Terminator 3, Alexander, K-19, Quiet American, Mind Hunters, Basic, Dark Blue, and the Hunting Party. Since making the switch to screenwriting, he sold pitches, specs, and done assignment work for multiple studios and networks.

[00:01:22.240] – Boris
His producer credits are Predators from 2010, The Three Musketeers from 2011 and Secret Society of Second Bourne Royals from 2020. He most recently sold action spec Versus to Universal, with David Leach from Hobbs and Shaw and Archana to Lionsgate with Chad Stolarski, if I’m pronouncing that right, from the John Wick franchise. He’s currently writing a show about young Harry Houdini for Touchstone TV. When I asked him what his superpower was, Alex said, “I tell stories that try to entertain people. Occasionally I succeed.” Which is a very humble way of saying what he does. Let’s bring him onto the show to tell us a little bit more and talk to us about the process of crafting great stories. Hey, Alex.

[00:02:06.140] – Alex Litvak

[00:02:07.280] – Boris
Thanks so much for jumping in and joining us today. So as I like to start everything, tell me a little bit what’s your story?

[00:02:15.890] – Alex Litvak
What’s my story? How far back do you want to go? I was born and raised in Russia. It was another time and another place. Was not a great time to be a Jewish person in Russia at that time. I escaped into books and movies, which is probably why, much to the dismay of my parents, when they ask in first grade, what do you want to do? Some kids say, well, I want to be a princess or I want to be cosmonaut. I said, I want to be a writer and never really grew out of it.

[00:02:47.670] – Alex Litvak
And started writing. Started writing at a very young age with a lot of very bad poetry and a very foolish attempt to write a novel. Then finally, after 11 years as refuseniks, as people trying to get exit visas from the Soviet Union and failing to do so, after 11 years of that, my family finally was able to come to the United States. I enrolled in USC shortly thereafter with the lofty aspirations of writing and directing.

[00:03:19.650] – Alex Litvak
My background was very different from what there I was a typical kid that went there with I want to be the next Lucas and Spielberg and wow, this is happy. Thank you, the Academy. So graduated, again trying to figure out what’s next. How do I stop my parents from having a heart attack about my future every single day. And an internship that I had led to a job offer very shortly after graduation. So I kind of did that for a while thinking, oh, I’ll just write on weekends.

[00:03:48.900] – Alex Litvak
It’ll be like working at a video store a bit better. I did not realize that was really a choice of a lifestyle and that job would be another job and another job. So I was an exec for ten years, as you heard in my bio, worked on a lot of different movies. But really came to realize that, what I wanted to do as that kid growing up in Russia, the reasons why I got into this crazy business, the reasons why I defied my family had nothing to do with what I was doing every single day.

[00:04:17.050] – Alex Litvak
It’s like saying, “well, I want to be an adventurer and explorer, but first let me get a job working for a travel agent.” So I realized I was kind of raising somebody else’s children and watching somebody else’s dreams. So after 10 years of that, that career came to an end, literally, I think on the day 10 years after I graduated college. And I kind of had all this money saved, I had an idea for a TV show, even though I’ve never worked a day in TV in my life, I’m like, well, it’s only 60 pages. Let me just let me see if I can fail quickly. And lo and behold, they got me my first agent and sold in a bidding war and kind of led to other things. And I’ve been doing that ever since. So that’s the short version of my story.

[00:04:59.670] – Boris
And it’s a great story and it has a lot of key storytelling elements, as you went along and you set up the world that you started in, you set up the journey, the obstacles, the detours, and it came to a great Hollywood conclusion where you are now a successful screenwriter.

[00:05:17.580] – Alex Litvak
Well I don’t think it’s a conclusion. I think anybody in Hollywood who says, “I have made it,” … kudos to you because I think in my career you’re only as good as the last script and this market is incredibly unstable, incredibly fickle. Things change all the time. Obviously massive seismic changes in our society, which includes Hollywood. So all you can do is always give it your best.

[00:05:51.060] – Boris
And I know you don’t know a lot about nonprofits specifically and the types of communications that I focus on. But there are so many parallels that I use the Hollywood storytelling system / formula/ framework, whenever I’m working with clients to help them craft their stories. And in fact, I think what you just said even resonates because in a lot of ways you’re only as good as your last interaction. You’re only as good as your last communication with a donor. Or if you fail to communicate with a donor effectively, they might drop out entirely.

[00:06:26.940] – Boris
So let’s take a couple of steps back and let me ask you, when you’re starting to work on a script, do you start with a goal in mind? How do you begin the process?

[00:06:45.160] – Alex Litvak
Well, the process, there are many, many facets to it. There’s the creative side and the business side. The creative side starts with an idea. And it could be anything from, oh, I have this image, to I have this character, to what if. And it can wander into your head at any point night or day. Literally, I just couldn’t sleep the other night and something went into my head like, I think that’s going to be my next script, just an idea that’s been sort of gestating for a while that I think now I’m getting pregnant with.

[00:07:25.840] – Alex Litvak
Now the goal… and obviously, each project is going to be different creatively because, while it begins with an idea or a character or an image as I said, there is a wide diversity of those things that are going to be different and distinct, hopefully. Now, the goal remains the same every single time: I want to tell an entertaining story and also assuming that this is not work for hire, I want to sell it. That is, I am not a starving artist, I’m not a French painter or poet, I serve a marketplace where I’m always trying to be mindful of what the buyers are looking for.

[00:08:10.960] – Alex Litvak
And the audience is—sort of jumping ahead in terms of your question—so the goal is, I want to write something. I want to finish it. I think a lot of young writers and myself included when I was starting out, and I suppose it might apply to business enterprises also, start something you don’t finish.

[00:08:38.810] – Alex Litvak
Writing a script is very much like running a marathon. I don’t care if you’re incredibly fast or slow, but you’ve got to cross the finish line.

[00:08:50.810] – Alex Litvak
At the end of the day, got to finish the race. So my goal is to finish the race. I don’t need to be the fastest runner, but I need to be a reasonable amount of time. I don’t want to take three years writing something. So when I start it, I want to finish it. I want to finish it in a realistic amount of time. I want it to be good and I want to sell. So these are my goals. Beyond that, I don’t think of “and I want to win an Oscar for it” or I want this to win a billion dollars, because those things are way beyond my control, as I’ve learned.

[00:09:26.100] – Alex Litvak
And look, you see that the three credits there. There’s quite a gap between them. I can tell you that, in the gap between them, leading up to some of my produced credits and between them, I have sold a zillion of other things. Some that almost went, there’s some that have gotten close, like huge actors attached… and those things are completely beyond control. The stars have to align the corporate mandate has to be such that they want this piece of property, this IP, on their slate. That is that is not something you control. What I control are the words on the page.

[00:10:06.300] – Boris
So let me hone in a little bit more on how we’re going to be able to help nonprofits with these processes. So you did say in there that you look for—when you start working on a project, it starts with an idea, it starts with characters.

[00:10:26.010] – Boris
But you’re also thinking about where is this going to land? Where is this going to go? What are the potential channels, if if we could call them that, or distribution avenues for this type of project? And each of those is looking for different things at different times, I’m assuming.

[00:10:43.840] – Boris
So if you are writing for Disney as your last project that really enjoyed watching, versus if you’re writing for a movie, that’s for a studio that’s looking for something more gritty and sci fi like, say, Predator than—Predators, sorry, plural—then you’re going to… How is that going to affect the way that you plan your story and craft your process?

[00:11:14.350] – Alex Litvak
Well, the process doesn’t necessarily change. Although each may have different internal processes. Like what you were talking about work for hire, Disney was very outline intensive and much more stringent in terms of brand awareness. Fox was less so. But that matters not. At the end of the day, the process is what the process is. There is different set of expectations that comes with every genre and every job. One is when it’s an action movie, so there’s a certain number of action set pieces you have. They are really playing very heavily on something like credit Predators, the mythology. So servicing the fans.

[00:12:07.060] – Alex Litvak
Whereas the Disney thing was family, so it’s much kinder and gentler, but also there wasn’t a mythology that came with it. So you’re kind of creating your own mythology. At the end of the day, whatever story, you’re asking the question, “why do I care?” Why do I want to invest in these people, in this experience within the space of an hour and a half, two hours, three hours, three years, five years, if it’s a TV show. But at the end of the day, why am I… why do I care?

[00:12:38.990] – Boris
And at the same time, why does the audience… why should the audience care if you’re writing for a particular genre, a particular—

[00:12:47.920] – Alex Litvak
So I write for the audience of one and the audience of many. What do I mean by that is I need to care, because if I don’t, that’s going to show in the product. At the end of the day, I can’t phone it in. So I got to be invested. I’m living with this people in my head. I got to like them. I’ve got to enjoy spending time with. Like, enjoy the experience of telling that story. So that’s part one, that’s the audience.

[00:13:15.420] – Alex Litvak
The audience of many is: But at the end of the day, when I am done, this—Hopefully a success will be seen by a multitude of people. At the very least it’s going to be seen by my employers, which is also it’s never a small group.

[00:13:32.460] – Alex Litvak
There is five or 15 or 50 people that will read this. So why will they like it? Why will they care and want to tell that story to 50 million?

[00:13:45.650] – Boris
Awesome. So. When you’re when you’re creating your story, what hooks an audience? How do you them hooked in? Because I remember in theater school, my directing teacher said, “the director’s number one job is to keep the audience from walking out.” Even if they are just sitting there counting the lights, that still counts. I think that’s also screenwriter’s number one job, right? How do you view that?

[00:14:18.360] – Alex Litvak
Well, look… It’s no different from if you and I were having a conversation and we’re complete strangers. There’s no social obligation on your part to pay any attention to what I’m saying. So I have a limited window of attention. So I got to say something that’s going to… “pay attention to me.” Especially if we’re in a crowded room, when you hear a lot of voices, a lot of loud conversations. So what do I do? It is anything from: I literally wrote a script where, over black you hear, “shut up and listen.” Then the guy proceeds to tell the story. And crazy shit happens, but like literally the first line that I went with is this.

[00:15:05.040] – Alex Litvak
There is another script that I started with, “forget what you know, forget what you think you know, forget it all and come with me to the time there is no more. Sort of, it’s just like, it is being taken somewhere that, you know, if I said “we open and there is a smoking gun on the floor.” OK, interesting. Somebody got shot. What’s happening? You know, one of the greatest lines, and I’m a fan of Stephen King, I highly recommend that your listeners and viewers read On Writing. It’s a wonderful book of essays that talks about exactly what I’m talking about the process and the tricks. You know, the Dark Tower series, the first book opens with a sentence, “The man in black fled across the desert. And the gunslinger followed.” Ooh! It is… who is the man in black? Who’s the gunslinger? There is a villain, there’s a hero, there’s the quest.

[00:16:11.700] – Alex Litvak
But I have to say to me, that is more “wallpaper”.… the “house” begins with much larger questions, as opposed to how do I hook the audience, which is, mind you, very, very important. But this really, really awesome wallpaper in the entryway is not the house. The house really begins with a much grander design. Because the wallpaper is all well and good, but if there ain’t nothing beyond the entryway, I’m going to get bored and leave pretty quickly.

[00:16:47.310] – Boris
Absolutely, so our first job, our first challenge as storytellers, is to somehow hook attention, peak some curiosity, get people imagining and wondering what this is all about, what’s going to happen, and somehow get invested. Are you looking to have any sort of impact on your audience when you’re writing a script? Like, is there, do you write with the intention of, “well, I hope that when they walk out, they’re going to be a little different, transform into any sort of way. Feel something. Learn something.”

[00:17:21.930] – Alex Litvak
Yes and no, is the short answer. So. When I was just starting out, absolutely, there’s like, “how do I change the world? “How do I change lives?” and all that stuff. And what you sort of come to realize at the end of the day, again, it’s the forces that you don’t control. I submit to you that the greatest movies that you’ve seen, the movies that have changed your life, did not set out to do so. They were just people telling stories and that story connected with you in the frame of mind that you were in, and taught you something, perhaps even not the lesson that the authors originally intended.

[00:18:07.350] – Alex Litvak
So to me, I sort of walked away from grand message and changing the world, to I want to tell stories that entertain people, that people enjoy. That make people feel something, yes. Experience something, yes. And at the end of day, if they connect with the material, fantastic. I would love that. But the words “impact”, I think, design some sort of grand importance to the storytellers and to our stories that we kind of overinflate our own value.

[00:18:47.210] – Alex Litvak
And at the end of the day, I think the stories that impact really… because the audience finds something in this story that connects with it. It is not because that the writer is this great world-changing genius or anything like that. So like I said, I just want to I just want to make you care about the story. I’m telling you, I want to feel something, experience something. And if you find something in it, that is a greater lesson that may change you or the way you see the world, then that’s that’s up to you.

[00:19:26.200] – Boris
OK, so then, if your goal is to primarily entertain, what are the keys to a satisfying experience within a story?

[00:19:39.790] – Alex Litvak
Well, first of all, each genre comes with some set of expectations. So, you know, an action movie needs to keep you on the edge of your seat. A comedy needs to make you laugh. Or a movie needs to give you the thrills and the chills, etc., etc.. At the end of the day, they all converge on the same place, which is “why?” Why do you care? Why do you get invested? Why are you not checking your phone and going, “Eh, you know I am just going to go walk away, do something else.” So it all comes down to the same place and it is either plot or characters or ideally both, there’s just got to be something that strikes a cord with them.

[00:20:30.510] – Boris
Something relevant and resonant. Cool.

[00:20:34.640] – Boris
So I tell nonprofits that a great story should leave people hoping for a sequel. Do most movies in Hollywood—in the Hollywood blockbuster genres—hope to spawn sequels? Why are franchises such a sought after goal?

[00:20:51.790] – Alex Litvak
Well, I’ll tell you, every movie hopes to spawn sequels, if you get there. All hope to do so because quite simply, it means profit. Return business. So that’s a huge part of what my business does is driven by commerce. So it’s not surprising everyone wants more and more and more. Now, in truth, it’s become increasingly difficult to do anything that is not IP driven, that creates franchises. John Wick is a good example of something that was not IP driven. They just did a little action movie with a very meager budget that somehow worked. And now they’re on number four and it’s getting bigger and bigger, and bigger.

[00:21:38.920] – Alex Litvak
But those examples, sadly, are few and far between. However, there are opportunities for storytelling as long as you correctly identified the need that the marketplace has. A Quiet Place is another great example. They did a really smart, intelligent horror movie. And now, there on number two did great, there’s gonna be number three and four, I’m sure, and all that stuff. Again, they looked at the marketplace and said, here’s where we can do something that’s going to feel different and distinct. That’s not going to cost us two hundred billion dollars. But we can do it and do it in a really interesting, intelligent fashion. So I feel like there will be room for that.

[00:22:25.580] – Boris
So the idea to me there is that when you tell stories that people do connect to the people do love, then they’re going to be looking for the sequel. They’re going to be hoping for a sequel. Right? How many times have we seen fans disappointed because Netflix or something canceled the next season or the sequel to a particular movie or vice versa? Fans rise up and demand something and the studio behind it responds and says, OK, fine, we’ll do it because you guys want it.

[00:22:53.720] – Boris
I think there’s a similar effect in nonprofit communications, and all communications, really, where when you tell a good story, you’re going to leave people wanting more in one way or another. And, while in Hollywood they might pay to go see the movie and therefore vote with their dollars, in the case of nonprofit, they might want to pay you back for the good that you’re doing out in the world in the story that you just told them, by donating more.

[00:23:20.600] – Boris
I get asked all the time, how long should a story be? How long should a video be? How long should a story be? How would you answer that question?

[00:23:32.820] – Alex Litvak
Well, in my line of work, there are much stricter guidelines in terms of page length. For tv shows like for a feature… I don’t think that quite applies to you guys.

[00:23:48.960] – Boris
Well, there is and I know that a feature is anything if it hasn’t changed anything longer than I think it was eighty four minutes long, but it could be up to three hours long. How do you decide how long to make your movie?

[00:24:02.230] – Alex Litvak
The script has to be no longer, and some studios have their own little requirements… give or take 120 pages. I’ve done 123. I think 130 becomes egregious, so… Look, there are places you turn in 130, they’re going to be, “No. Cut.” On television like early sixty pages, sixty three, OK-ish. Beyond that you’re pushing it. Half hour, shorter than that. Now, let’s—this is very specific requirements of my work, so let’s take a step from that.

[00:24:49.790] – Alex Litvak
At the end of the day, there’s going to be a finite number of seconds—and as I’m getting the message from you, we’re out of time—so fundamentally it is, try to fill it best, best, best you can. Fundamentally, we also live in a world where there’s too much content. So the shorter you can make something. You’re talking about a video three or four minutes, get the gist of it. We have an expression in my field which is called the elevator pitch. Which is, if you were taking the ride in the elevator, going up or going down and you only have an attention of somebody for a very short amount of time, how would you distill the story to its very basis?

[00:25:33.070] – Boris
So my answer to that question and yours is, of course, very clear and industry specific, my answer to that question is usually not a second longer than it takes to tell the story well. So you put in as much as you can put in in terms of constantly maintaining the attention, the focus, building the the suspense or building the drama or building the storyline in one way or another, because as soon as you add anything extra, that’s when people start tuning out and walking out psychologically, right?

[00:26:03.670] – Alex Litvak
Yeah, look, every movie, every story can be reduced to a logline. Any movie you see, any movie you can think of, I can put it in a sentence. So you can put your business in a sentence. Now people are intrigued and you go, OK, here is a paragraph. Off the paragraph, I can go, “and here is here’s a one-pager,” as we call it. Again, there’s fundamentally ways to build it, but you always start with—so equating a script with a business, I always start with the shortest logline possible. If that connects, if that intrigues them, they’ll come along.

[00:26:42.740] – Boris
I mean, that’s actually I teach everybody to come up with their logline and to have it right at the top to capture the attention and then slowly tease them into a longer and longer version of the story. So I think that totally makes sense. I know that you have a lot of books that you recommend to people starting out in the business. What are some of the resources that, if somebody who is perhaps not aspiring to be a screenwriter but is looking to tell better stories, that you might want to—you would encourage them to check out?

[00:27:15.200] – Alex Litvak
Right. So I believe I already mentioned Stephen King “On Writing.” Fantastic book. Another great inspiration for me is William Goldman, “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Any script of his you can read, “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid,” “Princess Bride.” There’s a very unique voice. The personality of the storyteller really comes through. Highly recommend his stuff. What else? Robert McKee. I think you’re actually hoping to have you on the podcast. I’ve learned a lot of his stuff growing up and in college.

[00:27:49.820] – Alex Litvak
What else can I think of? Look, at the end of the day, your favorite storytellers, it’s it’s not magic. It’s a skill. They’re doing they’re doing… they’re telling stories really well because they’re following a certain formula, a certain recipe, just as a Master Chef would. Just try to understand how they… Why do you care? How do they make you invest in the story? And then you begin to understand how to tell stories yourself.

[00:28:22.290] – Boris
Perfect. Thank you so much, Alex, for your time today.

[00:28:24.630] – Alex Litvak
My pleasure.

[00:28:24.900] – Boris
Thank you for going out of your comfort zone in the world of screenwriting to helping us interpret it for organizations that are out there trying to do more good. Thank you, everybody, for tuning in today. We’ll be back again next week with another episode. Until then, thank you so much for all the work that you do to make the world a better place for all of us.

[00:28:44.030] – Outro video
Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, we hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think by leaving a review.

Concepts and Takeaways:

  • The writing process has many facets to it. There’s the creative side, and the business side. The creative side is about ideas. The business side has to be mindful of what buyers (i.e., supporters) are looking for. (6:45)
    • For nonprofits, creativity is great, but it’s vital to keep in mind whom you’re trying to engage with every piece of content you put out.
  • People are naturally gatekeepers for content. They don’t want to invest in something they don’t believe in. (13:32)
    • Why should your supporters share your content with others in their network?
  • To hook someone in a story, you have to first grab their attention. (14:18)
  • We can’t control an audience’s reaction to our story. We can only tell a story to the best of our ability, and it will resonate with different people in different ways. (17:21)
  • Each story genre comes with its own set of expectations. They all converge in one place, which is, “Why do you care? Why do you get invested?” There has to be something that strikes a cord with the audience. (19:39)
    • Whether you’re on social media, writing a blog post, recording a video or  a podcast, if the story doesn’t resonate, it won’t work.
    • And no one story will resonate with every person.
  • When you tell good stories, people connect to what they love, and will be looking for the sequel. (22:25)
    • Hollywood knows that it’s more lucrative to continue a story that people are already interested in, than it is to get them interested in a new one.
    • Similarly, nonprofits have to tell stories that keep people coming back for more.
  • We live in a world where there’s too much content. So, the shorter you can make something—while putting as much as you can into it and maintaining your audience’s attention—the better. (24:49)
  • Any story can (and must) be distilled into a sentence that captures interest, and then expanded to a longer and longer version. It starts with the logline, then the elevator pitch, then the one-pager, etc. (26:03)
    • Don’t just throw people into your full story without first teasing them and piquing their interest.
  • Storytelling is not magic. It’s a skill we can all learn. (27:49)

Action Steps: What Now?

  • Start implementing!

    Start Listening and Start Doing
    Great storytellers tell a story really well because they follow a certain formula, like a Master Chef with a recipe. If you listen for that formula, you’ll start to understand how they make you care and get you invested in the story.
    Use the proven storytelling frameworks of Hollywood to start crafting your own stories that hook audiences and make them feel invested in the outcome of your mission.

    Take our free HomePage to HeroPage course
    Translating Hollywood techniques to nonprofit impact is one of our superpowers!
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About this week’s guest

Alex Litvak

Alex Litvak

Screenwriter of Impossible Dream Productions

Alex is a former feature executive turned screenwriter. After graduating from USC, he worked at 20th Century Fox and Intermedia, where he was involved with over two dozen movies, including X Men, X Files, Behind Enemy Lines, Training Day, Terminator 3, Alexander, K-19, Quiet American, Mindhunters, Basic, Dark Blue and The Hunting Party. Since making the switch to screenwriting, he’s sold pitches, specs and done assignment work for multiple studios and networks. His produced credits are Predators (2010), The Three Musketeers (2011) and Secret Society Of Second Born Royals (2020). Most recently he sold action specs Versus to Universal with David Leitch (Hobbs & Shaw) and Arcana to Lionsgate with Chad Stahelski (John Wick franchise). He’s currently writing a show about young Harry Houdini for Touchstone TV.