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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reality Bites

One Rouge Waver took some exception to what mostly likely felt to him or her like the unicorn-and-waving-fields-of-wheat post the other day. You know, the post about positive thinking. Why, this Waver asked, give people false hope? Hollywood IS a zero-sum game. Only a tiny percentage of aspiring screenwriters will ever make it and by make it I think we collectively mean making a sale. Money. Cath on the barrel head as Daffy Duck would say.

Airy fairy, positive-thinking will not change this fact, the Waver intimated. And you know what, Wavers? He/she is right in pointing this out. The odds of selling a script are abysmal. They just are. But - not impossible. And when I say that I don't believe Hollywood is a zero-sum game what I mean by that is that if someone else makes a sale that does not mean that nobody else will or can. Hollywood needs fresh material shoveled into its maw regularly. The demand for entertainment is never ending.

I am not one of those The Secret adherents who believes that simply by thinking a whole lot about how much you want a red truck, you're gonna suddenly get a red truck. The things I was talking about the other day go much, much deeper than that kind of surface thinking and really, what I meant is that life is what you make it and the cool part is - you get to make it what you want. But in the immortal words of the Rolling Stones - you can't always get what you want. But if you try sometime...yeah yeah we know the rest. You get what you need.

The cold, hard truth is that the odds are terrible that you will actually sell a script. Ever. Also terrible, the odds of publishing a novel. Becoming a famous - or even regularly working - actor. Becoming a famous artist. Or the president of the United States when you're a black man.

My point is the fact that the odds are terrible for anything is no reason not to try. If nobody tried anything difficult, the world would be rife with - with stuff not tried. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Blah, blah, blah.

I find it nothing short of AWFUL to tell a writer working on a novel that the chances of getting that novel published are practically nil. So don't bother, man. It ain't gonna work. That's awful. Don't bother creating/writing/painting/dreaming because you'll never succeed.

Now. That said, screenwriting is particularly awful in terms of odds. You really are better off going to Vegas and feeding quarters into a slot machine for like five years straight. Seriously. Even if you try really hard, take every class, read every book, watch tons of movies, have a modicum of talent, network your ass off, have good connections, have written ten scripts and are super nice - the odds are still terrible. And I just basically described myself, by the way. And I haven't made a sale.

So wow, right? Why bother?

Because it's fun and you can't resist. And you might - you really just MIGHT break in. If everybody quit trying, all scripts in Hollywood, after today's current batch of working writers died out from nerve-related illnesses, would be written by Hal. You know, from 2001. That polite but cunning computer. You know exactly who I mean.

But more important, in my view, than the fact that you might break in is that you also likely will learn a whole lot about yourself and in doing so potentially find that you're not really a screenwriter - you're a novelist. Or short fiction writer. Or kick-ass essay writer. Or poet. Or super good scrapbook maker with clever captions. Writing in all forms is joyful and important. We need the written word.

The thing that gives professionals in Hollywood an eye twitch and a puckered forehead is that there is a huge number of aspiring screenwriters who figure they are immensely talented (read: entitled) and who figure that breaking in on their first script that they wrote high after watching The Matrix - again - is going to be an easy, great, super cool get rich quick scheme.

Nobody who thinks this would ever admit it, even to themselves. Message boards are full to overflowing with untalented "writers" who figure they are just bad ass enough to make it big in Hollywood. Daily, all over the world, some jackass comes up with a movie idea and tries to write a script. But here's the thing - some of those jackasses ARE talented and DO have a good idea and for god's sake if the only new ideas and scripts come from INSIDE Hollywood, Houston, we have an awful, incestuous problem. Oh - we already have that problem.

Remember, the oak tree was once a nut who thought it was an acorn. And nothing comes easy. And you have to do the work. And you might never ever make it anyway. The point of my post the other day was not that if you be happy and think good thoughts, that you can necessarily overturn certain statistical realities but rather that if you have been bitten by the bug and writing is what you want to do - stay grounded in other things but dream big and go for it. Because without people who go for it - you know, proving the earth is not flat, that the sun does not revolve around the earth, that we could actually vaccinate against diseases - then who are we, collectively? Humans are dreamers. And dreams can come true.

But - and here's my big caveat - how do you know? How do you know whether 18 classes later, a groaning shelf of how-to screenwriting books, hours online and six scripts later - it's time to throw in the towel?

Here's my measure: if you've had some validation from a competition placement or a professional who's read your script and been honestly impressed and encouraging, you shouldn't throw in the towel. If you enjoy the process - don't throw in the towel. If you love writing, movies, literature and creating - don't throw in the towel. If you get ideas and are always staring into the middle distance imagining great characters and great scenes - don't throw in the towel. If there's anything about the five-year-slot-machine metaphor that scares you - throw in the towel. Do it now. Spare yourself the heartbreak and the disappointment. But we who won't quite trying - we know that little thrill of pulling the lever - again.

How do you know if a professional has been HONEST in his or her encouragement of your writing? Well, it's a leap of faith for you, the client, and a head in the noose for the consultant. If I am dishonest and tell you that your script and your writing is better than it honestly is, I am being, in my view, unethical. I don't want to give you false hope and a distorted sense of yourself and your script. But there are writers who take a negative review extraordinarily personally and will then release a hail of threats and insults upon me. It happens. So there are consultants who take the safe middle road and are somewhere between soothingly lying and tentatively honest.

Let me make a comparison - I like to do needlepoint. I find it calming and weirdly satisfying. But I don't really like needlepoint pillows and knick-knacks. So I do my needlepoint projects and put the finished products in a drawer. I don't want to look at them later, really, I just like the process. There is a fair number of writers like that. Not hungry like the wolf, but hobbyists. They enjoy the process but really have no intention of being a real, working Hollywood writer. And there are those who really, seriously are trying to break in. A good consultant knows the difference and encourages both - but in different ways. I am way, way harder on a script when I perceive the writer to be gifted and serious about this. So if you're reading this and I've been hard on you, it's actually quite a compliment.

I had a client once, Richard, who was in his 80s. And he really wasn't bad, either. Richard, I said one day, I gotta tell ya, I'm really not sure if your chances of breaking in are that good. He laughed. I'm 80 years old, he said. I'm doing this because it keeps me active and on the ball. I'm having fun. And he really was.

If trying feels bad - and here, I am sounding like The Secret - then throw in the towel. If you are discouraged, bitter, resentful, pissed off and alienated because you have not made that million dollar spec sale - definitely throw it in. The adventure is in the process. Thinking about terrible odds sucks joy out of the process. But at the same time, I very much agree with the Waver who inspired this post - it would be irresponsible for me to intimate that Hollywood is a touchy-feely, unicorn place where everybody who is nice and tries hard will be rewarded with a sale. That definitely is not so.

But - and now I quote Sheryl Crow - all I wanna do is have some fun - no, that's not right, dammit...Reaching for dreams and expressing yourself on the page is its own reward. Writers who know that will never be disappointed they never made a sale and they will never take a huge blow to the ego if they die without having left a celluloid or digital legacy behind them. Because overt success was never the point. Thomas Edison once said: I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun.

The joy is in the process. And here I do unapologetically go back to my unicorn belief system - when the rewards for doing anything as well as you can are internal for you, you are a thousand and ten times more likely to see external rewards as well. If you're all about external rewards, just watch them recede from your grasp as fast as you pedal toward them.

The cool thing about life is that what you want and what you get almost never look the same. I never dreamt I would own a business or write a blog like this. But here I am. And I'm having a blast. Have I given up on screenwriting? No. But I am working on a YA novel, another piece of short fiction and a short script. I love to write. Who knows what the future holds for me. It's a mystery that keeps unfolding, much to my delight.

That is all. Now get back to work, irrational dream-chasers. I count myself among you.

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12 comments:

Dave Shepherd said...

Great post.

The writers who enjoy the process are more likely to see a result, the writers looking for a result usually don't get past the process.

"I have an idea that'll make a hundred billion dollars... now if only I could find time to write it..."

I'm also reminded of something another screenwriter said just before they broke in (really can't remember who). Paraphrasing:

"I noticed about the year before I broke in I stopped worrying about breaking in. For the first time it wasn't in the back of my head... instead I was just writing this story because I liked the story. If I broke in great, if I didn't, oh well."

How many times have we heard of a writer who writes ten scripts, they all suck, then they say "f*ck it" and write a script that they really want to write -- and break in?

I had an old hockey coach tell me (after yelling at me all practice): we only yell at the people who have potential, the people who need to be pushed. If we don't think you have the will to improve, we won't say anything.

If a legitimate professional is hard on you -- it's a good thing, they're trying to push you.

Again, great post. I too have a unicorn belief system: I don't have to win the fight with a knock out punch in the first round, I just have to stay in the ring long enough to win.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

For example, I enjoy playing tennis and hope to one day become a pro.

But as I get older, my bones/muscles are getting weaker and my dream is dying. And soon I will give up on this dream.

Now about writing. The landscape of screenwriting is changing. I embrace this iconic saying "No Country For Old Man".

Should I give up?

Before I answer that question.

Why is it that number of unique and common screenwriting contests increase every year?

Why is it that the number of entrants to screenwriting contests increasing every year?

I remember when my Dad said " don't watch too much TV, it's not good for you".

I say to the world "don't watch too many movies, it's not good for you".

The game of trying to be the next Tarantino or Sophia Coppola or David Chase or Nora Ephron etc. can be painful as we age.

Christina said...

What irritates me about other people's perception of screenwriting is that it's like th easiest part of filmmaking. My former landlord was a guy who does special efx for ILM - one of the top guys there. And he was like, "Oh yeah, so I have this idea for a screenplay and someday I'm going to write it and sell it." I was like - really? I wouldn't say, "I have this idea for a special effect and one day I'm going to walk into your set and start making my special effect and let Lucas use it on his next movie. I know the guy's history - he was an intern, then a PA, then an assistant, then a grunt effects person, then a supervisor, etc. Over the course of 15 YEARS.

So if it took him 15 years to get to the point where he's competent, why wouldn't it take him 10-15 years to be able to write a screenplay well? His arrogance - for a movie person - was really amusing.

Studies have found it takes about 10 years to be come a master at anything - a musical instrument, an art form, even software. 10 years to become a competent software designer. There are lots of grunt programmers, but very few software designers that can make software that is slick; that is easy and intuitive for the user (Apple having some of the best UI of all).

It's not just screenwriting, it's anything highly creative.

Chris said...

Great post, Julie

After seeing "Man on Wire," the documentary about Phillippe Petit, who strung a wire between the top of the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across.

When he considered everything that he and his crew would have to do to make it happen -- from learning the architecture of the building to actually getting inside and to the roof with all his wirewalking gear -- he said "It's impossible! . . . Now let's do it!!"

And he did it.

Comment said...

A black MAN has decent odds to become president of the USA. The chances of a WOMAN on the other hand becoming president...well. not so good--we haven't progressed that far, second class citizenship for women still seems the case for the narrow minded of our country...I digress politically, forgive me.

I'll take making it as a screenwriter as the easier road.

JPS said...

Interesting post, Julie, to which I personally can relate. When I first began as a novelist, I sent the man who would become my mentor (and who'd been a wonderful and much-respected college professor of mine, as well as a published author) my first attempt at extended prose fiction.

He wrote me back a letter which I still have (it's from 1970 and stashed away for safekeeping), and which I found, as I said in the eulogy at his funeral, the most important letter of my career. He wrote something to effect that my book shouldn't be and probably couldn't be published. But that if I worked hard enough and produced, say, a book a year, I'd be published in seven years.

He was off by five years, but a professional nod, especially from a very tough critic of the old NY school, was what kept me going.

It was encouragement, but given by someone with both eyes open and not a lie on his tongue.

Luzid said...

Another great post. Let me first add another bit from Rossio to complement it:

Throw In The Towel

It's funny that you brought up feedback, because I've recently found myself wondering about some very positive feedback on my overall chances of breaking in as a writer - the professional I worked with stated unequivocally and without hesitation that I was going to make it, based on the qualities found in my work.

Of course, as a writer, I've since second-guessed it. But she wouldn't say that with such certainty unless she meant it, right? I think not, but when you hear the odds, you question. Then you go write. It really is all about the joy of the process, and as I've said - if I never make a sale I'd just switch to writing in another medium. It's the joy of writing, and the benefits it provides, that truly makes for success.

I'm curious about one thing: do more writers break in on specs and do assignments, or do great specs open the door for assignments that get them into the business?

(And remember that detective script I pitched at Canter's? Totally came up with that idea after watching The Matrix. Again. While high. :p)

Julie Gray said...

Hey Luzid - Terry certainly has a different style and philosophical approach than I do - but he's right. it's a great article.

As for your question, it was put in a confusing way to me but if I understand what you're asking: If you make a spec sale, you're in. Assignments, potential of another sale, etc. If you have a GREAT spec script that gets you meetings but no sale, you could still potentially get assignment work, yes. If you have a great rep.

Luzid said...

Sorry for the confusion. You surmised the question correctly - I was wondering if more people broke in via specs, or assignments based off specs. It sounds like the former.

PJ McIlvaine said...

Yeah, it bites, but what's the alternative?

PJ McIlvaine said...

Yeah, it bites, but what's the alternative?

Christian M. Howell said...

What I always want to be able to do is justify why I wrote what I wrote. If I can do that, criticism be damned or at least given little real weight.

When I started this voyage I expected that I would get to write an episode of the worst show a channel no one watches and love every minute of it while quickly spending the $5K on more trips to LA.

It's a year later and I'm actually surprising myself. I'm actually getting script requests AFTER scripts are turned down.

Who knows if it will go farther but who cares? I just added this seriously great set-piece to a family comedy that truly craps me up. It's amazing what you can do with a skateboard.

Anyway, I think the biggest problem with new writers is they keep trying to make the great American classic or next "Sixth Sense" but forget to write a coherent story.

Your first script should be three people in a room. Your second should just add a room. Your third maybe you can shift from INT to EXT or vice versa.

That way there's a lot less you can screw up with plot and crap. I once read a story about an actor who gets possessed by the spirit of Abe Lincoln who then becomes a terrorism liaison for the gov't. Sounds intriguing I guess but WTH? How about an actor doesn't become possessed y Abe Lincoln but stumbles onto a terrorist plot but no one believes (crap, I got dibs on that) him.

Anyway, hopefully 3, 4 and 5 will drop by October so I can have more prospective crap to amuse myself with.