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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Writers Wanted - Apply Within

Talk about zeitgeist. The tension in the air is palpable; a historic presidential election is less than three weeks away, the US economy is teetering on the brink of disaster, the war in Iraq drones on endlessly in the background and the impact of global warming has made itself so plain that even die hard fantasists have had to abandon refutations. LA is burning, hurricane season looms, the Dodgers are losing and the most optimistic of us are wondering if a potato with pipe cleaner arms and legs might make a rustic Christmas gift this year instead of the usual mall-bought offerings.

When things are in upheaval, it all seems very urgent and dire. One has two choices; to fall prey to the weapons of mass distraction - the media - and get whipped up into a foamy froth of fear or to be more circumspect, stay the course and let the drama pass. Because it is drama. All of this uncertainty is terrific media fodder and the older you are the more notches on the belt you have of when things felt apocalyptic but then resolved themselves in the end. So you get a lot less whipped up. It's a matter of where you choose to put your attention. On a personal level, you may choose to be more circumspect and not allow your attention to be dominated by fear-based media or you may choose to allow this stuff to create excitement and drama in your life. But there is a third way. Use this whipped up zeitgeist to inspire your writing.

Become an observer, predictor and mirror for what's on the collective mind.

Writers are the lightning rods for zeitgeist. Writers write about hope and change as much as they write about fear, doubt and blame. We are the collective mirror because we are mascots for humanity armed with pen and paper. We are documentarians. We are the world. Okay I couldn't resist that last one but you get my point.

Writers everywhere are distinguished from other, normal people because we feel compelled to share our hopes, dreams and fears through story telling. I often complain about the sameness of bad scripts. But what I don't often talk about (and I should) is the endless cornucopia of new thoughts and ideas I see in that vast middle-ground - okay scripts by writers who have graduated from absolute newbie with egregious errors, to the more intermediate level of screenwriter. It is at this level that many writers get stuck for a long time. But it is here that I am blown away by the incredible variety of expression.

Everybody wants to tell a story and to express themselves in a script these days. If you catch me in a cranky mood, I grumble about how everyone thinks they can write. But if you catch me in a more observant, reflective mood, I think it quite striking that so many are overflowing with so much to say. And I'm amazed by what I see going on in the zeitgeist of writers themselves.

I have seen a tremendous number of CRASH-like, moody ensembles which are in essence, bitter-sweet ruminations about the human condition but mostly anchored with a great sense of loneliness, isolation and confusion. Some writers are feeling invisible, impotent and frustrated. I see a lot of playful fantasy and romantic comedy scripts. Some writers are feeling hopeful, playful and optimistic and are writing escapist scripts. I see terribly cynical, hardboiled crime and horror scripts. Some writers are feeling jaded, helpless and hopeless.

Hollywood has a storied and dysfunctional relationship with writers and everybody knows it. It's like a dramatic tango - I love you! I hate you! I need you! I despise you! I can't live without you!

But mark my words, without the great influx of your scripts to Hollywood, the industry would grind to a halt. An entire sub-strata of the entertainment business is built on what's on your mind. Screenwriting services, software, magazines and events all lure screenwriters to Hollywood. Because without you and what's on your mind, the well would run dry. As much as it feels like trying to break into Hollywood is like talking to the hand, there's actually a great need for you and what you're writing. Future generations await hearing your stories. It's the great catch-22 of screenwriting - it's almost impossible to break in and yet vast amounts of writers are needed so that those nuggets can be found. It's panning for gold. Entire hillsides have to be exploded, sifted and searched over for those golden nuggets of stories that have not been told before in a particular way.

Writers are where it all begins. The fact is, you are needed more now than ever. And it is only through repetition, practice, education, feedback and sheer determination that you'll wind up in somebody's mesh sifter - I got one! I got a good one! Absolutely everybody in Hollywood drools at the thought of finding that great script. Everybody.

I recently spoke to an A-list writer who is looking to executive produce. He asked me to please pass on great scripts when I come upon them. Somebody is going to get very, very lucky - if I find that great script. That great script might come from me or it might come from somebody else - but I obviously have a vested interest if that person is me. People keep telling me to manage writers and I balk; I know very well the uphill battle it can be to get a project sold. Can I do that for a writer? Do I know enough people? Could I actually make a decent living panning for gold? I have decided to take on one proto-client to try it out.

Everyone would like to find that great comedy, that sweeping epic or that totally mind-blowing sci-fi script. Where are these great scripts? And what is the mechanism for vetting them? How many mediocre scripts have to be read until that one diamond in the rough is found? A diamond that I can get other people excited about? That's what all managers grapple with. And the sheer number of script submissions that aren't ready for prime time make them cranky which is why writers get that talk-to-the-hand vibe from Hollywood.

But the truth is, you got the goods, not us. Hollywood is like a steam engine, chugging along and it needs coal - scripts - shoveled into its gaping maw. A lot of coal. Every day.

So as much as this whole screenwriting thing seems like a long shot, know this: despite appearances, Hollywood has a sign hung around it that says: Writers Wanted, Apply Within.

I was sent a preview of a new documentary underway about the spec script market. I found it totally inspiring. Also, my friend Bob makes a brief appearance. Go Bob!

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Anthony Peterson said...

You make me want to be a better writer.

Julie Gray said...

Do it for me, Anthony! Give me that great script so I can be part of the tradition of great movies getting made :)

Anonymous said...

Julie, you always know what to say. What an inspirational blog! I envy the writer you've chosen to manage. I don't know much about the managers' job, but I know you really care about writers. Could it be me? Then again I would already know:)

Michael said...

Your passion to help writers and ensure great stories are created is contagious... And yes, if we could clone you Julie - we'd Make 'Manager Julie', 'Writer Julie',
'Producer Julie' and 'Personal Life Julie'.... so you could quadruple your income and potentially your fun....


Gnasche said...

The title of this post reminds me of a joke I wrote fifteen years ago, but have yet to put in a script: Help Wanted - Zen Master - Apply Within.

Also, the title of my spec pilot is somewhere in your post. Though it's not "We are the World" or "Dramatic Tango".

Since you mentioned the possibility of becoming a manager, why don't agents and managers run a coverage division? Everyone says not to pay an agent to read your script, but I bet everyone would love it if you paid for notes/coverage and it had the possibility of being passed on to an agent. Is there really a conflict of interest?

Julie Gray said...

@Gnashe - yeah, everybody says that is a conflict of interest. If a writer asked me should I pay for notes and maybe get repped I'd probably say whoa - what is this company?? but on the other hand, I can't afford to read 1,000 scripts a week looking for clients. So what does a girl do? For the record, the writer I have chosen to proto-rep has never been a paid client. If I could have all my dreams come true, I'd never charge for notes. but I find it hard to pay my rent that way :)

@Mike - Pachew right back atcha. :)