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Monday, March 23, 2009

What Reality TV Can Teach Us

So American Idol, the pop culture phenomenon, has been on television for how long now? I have no idea because I'd never seen even one episode. Shocking, right? I've been a real Luddite. Until this season. (No offense, Luds).

I don't know what made me do it. Curiosity? Luddite shame? Whatever the reason, I got hooked. And my embarrassment over that is matched only by my frustration because apparently everyone else is over it so I have nobody to commiserate with.

So - setting aside the uncomfortable feeling of getting hooked on a reality tv show judged by a singer/choreographer from the 80s who appears to be on painkillers, a constipated Brit with serious emotional issues, some new girl I do not recognize in any context and a black guy who used to be in Journey (is that right?) and who uses the word dog - or is it "dawg" so much that if I were King Herod I would have cut off his tongue by now - so setting that all aside, I have found some interesting parallels between American Idol and aspiring screenwriters.

The very early, cattle call rounds of American Idol, the ones that take place in cities all over the US, are the most obvious, painful comparison to aspiring screenwriters. Literally thousands of singers line up to audition. Thousands. I was amazed at how many people are just SURE they can sing - when they cannot. They get up there at that audition and they just sing their hearts out because they love it and they feel it and they want it but oh lord. Just oh lord. Not so much. Why, I thought to myself, does everybody think they can sing well enough to be a paid performer just because they love doing it? Why are Americans so deluded and entitled? I love singing. I sing fairly well. But not anywhere close by a country mile to the way I'd have to in order to make that a career. I also love sailboats. But I am not a sailor. People get into tragic accidents when they think they can do something that they really cannot. My uncle Malcolm enjoyed wine, thought he was a vintner and a tragic occurrence at the Owl Creek wine press came to pass.

How often have you heard people say - I love to write. I'd love to be a writer. I'm gonna write a novel one day. People love my writing. Whoops, there it goes again - entitlement and a disrespect for the craft of writing. I think that's what gets me. As if writing is just easy. You just write down words. As if singing is easy, you just sing stuff. As if making wine is easy, you just smash stuff.

Rest in peace, uncle Malcolm. But I digress.

A few episodes of American Idol later, after the absolute jokers have been weeded out, we get to the singers who can actually sing but they begin to be tested by stress and demands. Yes they can sing but can they sing country music? Or a Michael Jackson cover? What kind of range do they have? Can they perform on stage? Do they have an identifiable persona (in writing world: voice). And now we begin to weed out even more contestants. And then things just begin to get completely subjective. Is the hippy-baby-mama contestant with the long blonde hair and the full sleeve tattoo cute and inspiring - or annoying? Is the emo kid with the eyeliner fresh and relevant or a good singer leaning on a tired shtick?

So we return to writers. And you know, Wavers, I have a unique bird's eye view of this, being that my business is patronized by a very wide range of writers - everyone from the complete beginners to the repped and solds. Over the past few years, I have noticed definite types and trends when it comes to completely new, beginner writers. I see realism, humility and maturity - but more often, I see a complete disconnect between the reality and the dream. Bad, derivative ideas wrapped up in hubris and laziness. Get rich quick types, in other words, who figure because they liked HELLBOY or LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, they will just play a little Hollywood Powerball and get rich quick.

But just like American Idol, the writers who can't really write get sorted out rather quickly and rather brutally. I would say the average aspiring screenwriter goes about two years before he or she runs out of enthusiasm for screenwriting. After hundreds of dollars spent on software and books, after countless late night hours spent arguing on bitter, blind-leading-the-blind screenwriting message boards about whether an agent or manager is better or why this or that spec sold when THEIR spec is so much more brilliant, after three half-finished scripts, a pilot and 28 unanswered queries, they realize they just don't have the patience - or the talent - for it.

Because they got caught up in the entitled, Powerball thinking. Buy the software, buy all the books, eat, think, dream and love movies, and you will make tons of money in a couple or three years. No such, Wavers. Just no such. You need talent. And there's no way to candy-coat that fact.

It's not a sprint, it's a marathon. And absolutely not everybody trying to write and sell a script is going to actually make it. In fact, over 90% of you will never be repped or sold. Does that fact make you want to quit? Then you should quit. But what if you do have the patience? What if you are that person in line for an American Idol try-out in Baton Rouge or some far-flung place but what if you actually can chug along through every single challenge and what if you DO have a voice and a story to tell that America will love? That's the allure, isn't it? What if?

If you really do think so - slow it down a little. You don't have to buy every single book on the topic. Just a few select books will do. What you really must be doing is writing every day. And - and nobody wants to hear this one for some reason - you need to read. A lot. And no, I don't mean other scripts. That's a given - I mean, you need to be reading books (fiction and non-, new and old), the newspaper and periodicals. You need to be reading not only news but editorial content. You need to be reading good writing. What on earth does that have to do with screenwriting?

Look, for once and for all, screenwriting does not exist in a bubble. Screenwriting is only ONE kind of writing. If you don't spend time reading and appreciating - much less writing - other forms, you will be a 90-pound weakling out here in Hollywood. I cannot tell you how different the reality has been for me in the way Hollywood "types" are perceived and how they really are. To a one, every agent, manager and development exec I have ever met or talked to (and I will also include every writer I know who has either made it or is on the cusp of making it) is intelligent, articulate, omniverously curious and very, very well read. Are you?

My daughter enjoys watching America's Next Top Model and of course, when you have any excuse to spend time with your teenager, you do it because god knows when that door will be open again - so I watch it with her. And we have noticed a trend - in the early rounds, the girls who are very pretty in an obvious, easy way are always over-confident and they never make it far. Because they're pretty, they don't have to work all that hard. And they are consistently found bingeing on a big slice of humble pie.

Why do we Americans increasingly think that things should come to us easily? Why do we think that we can obtain talent in the same way we obtained our Pottery Barn leather furniture and credit card debt? Not everyone can do everything well. Writing might be your passion - but it might not be your true talent. I love to sing; it makes me happy. But I don't put myself on the same planet as those who do it for money.

So where do you fall in the scheme of things, Wavers? So you think you can write, huh? But can you? Can you really? Do you have what it takes to be on top? Can you handle the long journey? Can you adapt? Can you handle brutal rejection? Can you write more than one type of thing? Can you read, synthesize and discuss current thought, literature, history and opinion? In other words, do you see yourself as part of a tradition of writing or as a standout exception - the one thoroughbred on the track who is going to break all the rules, run one lap and win the roses with very little effort? Nobody would ever admit to harboring that delusion and yet many do.

Now get back to work.

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11 comments:

Tavis Sarmento said...

Simultaneously humbling and inspiring.

Joe Public said...

I love this post.

Screenwriting is an art form.

And until the last couple of years I have learned just how much it really is: So many strict disciplines in one single format that have to be mastered, and then make it look seamless and easy.

The Sisteen Chapel notwithstanding, how many sculptures or paintings of Michelangelo can hold you spellbound for two hours? No offense Mike, but I can't think of one.

And Madame Blogger, if that is not the task before us, please let me know.

Trina0623 said...

I am just catching onto American Idol too, after missing the first 5 seasons (now in season 8) so it's interesting to see that comparison.
It is so true! The AI hopefuls perhaps just want to be a star more than to be a real singer and are in love with that idea.

Similarly, I think a lot of people are in love with the idea of being a creative person, writer, artist, etc. Some people don't love to write -- they just want to be able to say they have written something. Big difference.

I am also annoyed by people who think writing is easy and anyone can do it just because they can string words into a sentence.

What is also annoying to me is people whose primary skill and training is directing yet they think they can make a movie that will be good simply because of their style and "vision." They forget that it all comes back to a good story well told. Anyone else feel that way?

Thanks for a great post!

Julie Gray said...

@Trina - SO true. The IDEA of being a creative is so alluring to people. But the reality takes a lot more than just the desire. So you have your dabblers. And dabbling in lots of stuff in life is a GREAT way to live your life - of course - so long as you have a healthy attitude about what the reward could or should be.

Steve Axelrod said...

So true. I'm always amazed by writers who brag that they don't read. It's all part of the process, the love of words and the love os stories. Can you imagine a chef who didn't like to eat? Very bizarre.

jcarends said...

Great post, Julie - profoundly honest against the backdrop of, well, Ryan Secrest's smile. That's just so NOW.;-)

The entitlement thread calls to mind one of my favorite scenes from a Sidney Pollack classic - THE WAY WE WERE. Early in Act 1, Barbra Streisand's character Katie is on the edge of her seat in the Ivy League creative writing class, hoping beyond hope her short story will be annointed "best of class." She is crushed, as the words of the winning story, written by Hubbell Gardner, Robert Redford's character, are read out loud: "In a way, he was like the country he grew up in. Everything came too easily for him..."

Golden, that one, every word, every frame.

jcarends said...

P.S. My wife and I are happy addicts of American Idol. Tuesday nights are our official AI "date nights" and the banter back and forth about who rocked it and who didn't is at heart of the fun in it...

Nicholas said...

I haven't read a full novel in a year and a half. My reasoning, though, is far more psychological than just an aversion. I used to love reading books...absolutely loved it, but I would also have computer and TV time in there too.

Until for about 4 months my parents took away the TV and my computer...over the summer. I would try to sneak it if I could. I went to the library...but as a whole I had nothing but reading, sleeping, and being depressed to pass the time.

I read a lot that summer. But given how I felt while doing it, I can't easily do so again.

I do read scripts and read dozens of articles online each day, as well as multiple blogs. I have also logged countless hours on Wikipedia.

But for the time being, until I get over my past, I cannot pick up another damn novel. I blame my parents for that.

And for the record, I do believe I can make it into Hwood earlier than most, but I believe that without a blind naivete, and a knowledge that it probably won't happen. I know that I will have to work hard to get there, and that it will be an uphill battle. I'm not going to delude myself into thinking it won't be hard. But I am confidant that, if I studiously continue writing, gaining contacts, and reading (gotta work on that bit), that I can make it in.

Sooner rather than later would be preferable, though.

E.C. Henry said...

I'll NEVER watch "American Idol." Ever. YET I dot tune in to hear what Julie says even though most time it hurts.

I may not have any talent in any tangible capacity that can modern scientist can measure. Nor am I very good looking. Heck, I'm downright homely. I have to sneak-up on a glass of water just to avoid dehydration. Come to think of it I don't think I have any redeaming quality whatsoever, BUT that's not gunna stop me from pestering people and wasting my money on frivilous things like Final Draft 7. To anyone who has upgraded, is Final Draft 7 better than 6? Just currious. No sense on wasting precious money if it's not worth it.

- playfull puppy from Bonney Lake, WA

Stan said...

RYAN SEACREST PRESENTS

"SCREENPLAY IDOL'S LAST PITCH EFFORT THREE MINUTE $60 SESSION WITH AT LEAST ONE GENUINE HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER"

Simon Cowell’s jaw drops open. He shutters Stan’s script. In disgust.

SIMON COWELL
I can’t believe what my ears have been reading. Absolutely detestable. The dialogue equivalent of a high colonic. And that’s being generous. PASS...As in I'm about to: A kidney stone!

STAN
So you liked it.

SIMON COWELL
No! I hated it! You’re not going to Bollywood let alone Hollywood. You’re not even going to Dollywood!

STAN
So what you’re saying is—

SIMON COWELL
--I’m not!

PAULA ABDUL slumps head first into the producer's desk with a THUD.

RANDY JACKSON turns to Stan. He almost smiles. Almost.

RANDY JACKSON
You really should leave before it gets ugly. Guards--

A terrible silence. The one that always proceeds that dreaded 'sashay of shame'...

STAN
Well—

SUDDENLY STAN removes a top hat from behind his back. His tuxedo t-shirt and black MacGregors complete the ensemble.

EVEN MORE SUDDENLY he breaks into 'spontaneous' or 'last ditch' song and dance--one or the other.

STAN
I’m puttin’ on my top hat…(or: 'Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gallllll' for those who couldn't stay awake through this year's oscars)

A LARGE WICKER CANE from somewhere O.S. wraps around STAN’S NECK and yanks him too, O.S. even as THE IDOL THEME MUSIC PLAYS QUICKLY ALA OSCSARS-GET-EM-THE-BLEEP-OFF-THE STAGE-MUSIC.

RANDY JACKSON
Wow.

SIMON COWELL
Unbelievable.

PAULA ABDUL
Where am I? Was he good in a room?

SIMON COWELL
We'll never get back those three tortured minutes of our lives.

RANDY JACKSON
Next!

Christian M. Howell said...

I guess I feel good that I'm not alone. I didn't even know what American Idol was until 2007.
But that's because network commercials are the bane of my existence.

Anyway, I think I'm good. I've written prose, rap music, poems, flyers, software, etc.

I can't really judge if I'm good since I can't get anyone to say my scripts suck. Thyey just all seem to tell me what they would have done. That's definitely the subjective part I guess so I guess I'm getting somewhere.
I even got Billy Mernit to say one of "theories" was true. (Fluff pays but substance lasts)
I hope that I have convinced you that I'm in this for the long haul regardless. I do remember gettign a mention on your anniversary post so I guess I'm on your radar.
Networking is harder on the East Coast but the Internet does help.