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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Buy My Script. Now.

For some reason The Script Department has received a plethora of inquiries lately from very new writers who are very out of the loop. The upshot of the inquiries is always the same - I've written this great story that I really think is amazing and now I'd like you to tell me how to sell it.

It's very easy, if you're on the inside track, to find that kind of inquiry incredibly naive if not a bit...unsmart. But we who have been at this for awhile and have been through the wringer need to step back and realize that the desire to tell a story is a far cry from having an understanding of how this industry works. Show business is like any other business, on a certain level. Profit, loss, competition, egos, percentages, up and down swings. You wouldn't design a new car and go to Ford and say hi, I've designed this new car so will you buy it? It's not that simple. A) who the hell are you? and B) having designed a new car doesn't then mean a manufacturer is going to pour money into that design and market and sell that car. You wouldn't do some stuff in your kitchen and go to Chanel and say hi, I've come up with a new perfume, would you buy it please? Are you guys with me?

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to screenwriters trying to break in: The aforementioned, hi, buy my script and geez, it's gonna be great when I buy that new car and Hollywood is an effed up, monolithic, exclusionary machine and I'll never, ever break in. Neither is true.

Being a screenwriter is not a one-off, it's a long journey. So you've written a great script that you think would make a wonderful movie - congratulations! That really is an accomplishment to be proud of. Now get ready for the what-it's-like-to-be-a-writer part. Rejection. Silence. Notes. More notes. Existential angst. You write another script you think is a great story. Rejection. Silence. Notes. More notes. Existential angst. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Listen up, bright smiley noobs - there is no short path through this. It's what all writers go through. You are not special, blessed or supernaturally lucky. You are a writer. Or - are you? Because if the thought of toiling away again and again and meeting with only rejection makes you want to forget it and go for the promotion at work instead - please, save yourself the heartbreak and go for it. Hewlett Packard has great benefits.

The initial goal should be to learn the craft and learn it well. Which is a step that can take a long time and a lot of bad scripts that you thought were good scripts. Trust me on this one. After you have a stockpile of scripts, most of which are pretty bad and you know it, then you start writing scripts that are actually not bad. But they won't be very original. Rejection. Silence. Notes. More notes. Existential angst.

You'll get pretty hot, dirty and tired in this process. You'll have bitter days when reading the latest script sales or trade news makes you crazy. You'll want to quit, again and again. But something keeps pulling you back in. And you keep writing. Then finally you say eff it, I love this script. I got good notes on it. I feel good about it.

And then and only then is it time to try to find an agent or manager who believes your scripts are competitive on the marketplace. Notice I didn't say brilliant - I said competitive on the marketplace. Because Hollywood is one big hurly-burly marketplace of buying and selling. The wares are stories. And the market is hot and crowded, trust me on this. The agent or manager who represents you is the barker at a stall, trying to hawk your wares. And the only way he or she makes money when they pack up their booth at the end of the day, is if they can sell your script.

So you arrive on your camel, from the hot, dry desert with your wares - will you sell this for me? The agent or manager is going to look at your script, kick it some, check its teeth and make a decision. Man, that market is hot and tiring - am I gonna make some coin on this? Because I have those four other stories that are pretty bright and shiny. So why this one? Why this writer?
Trying to race around the desert and not travel through it first is going to result in chasing a mirage. You are not different from other writers who made the trek. You do not get a free pass. I'm sure your story is amazing - to you. I'm sure it was great to write it. And that feeling is the water that you store to replenish yourself along this journey. Validation, networking, studying, enjoying movies - that's the food and water you need to pack. Because the journey is very long. No, I cannot take your script, sight unseen, and get it to an agent or manager who will summarily buy it and make you rich rich.

Chances are, if you're reading this, you're thinking oh man, what dumb clucks - I know this already. But at one time you didn't know it. You had to learn. Probably through bitter experience. I know I did. Hoo, boy. What a bummer that writing a script does not then mean you sell it and get rich. But that's what separates the writers from the dabblers. Sure, I had a script I thought was great, 10 years ago. And it went precisely nowhere. I bundled up, got back on the camel and kept going. And I have a script now that I think is great. Now I'm actually in the marketplace - I can see the hawkers, I can smell the spices and hear the jingling of's all so close. But man, am I hot and dusty. And I have no guarantee whatsoever that I'm going to get a cool drink and buy a new camel. So you trundle on and you keep writing.

In a certain mood, these types of inquiries make me a bit irate. What, you think the art and the craft of writing a movie is that easy? So easy you can do it once and sell it? You think it's just a bunch of words and that you can learn it from some book and pull it off? But I take a deep breath and I realize that what looks like hubris is actually ignorance. An ignorance that is part of the journey. We all thought it would be way easier than it is to write a good script. We all thought we could get meetings pretty easily. We all figured that a script sale was a good but not terribly difficult thing. We can look back in laughter now, can't we? But that ignorance serves two functions - it gives us the blissful unawareness necessary to join this camel train in good cheer, and it gives us a milestone to look back on. If I knew then what I know now...

It's okay to be totally naive to this industry - it's complicated and full of mirages. One such mirage is that of instant fame and money. Don't you believe it. Keep that water and food for your journey and keep following the North Star. The marketplace is there - that's quite real - you can smell the spices and hear the barkers shouting even now, can't you? But you cannot take a shortcut to it. And not everyone who gets there is going to see their wares for sale. But that's the thing, isn't it? The mystery, the surprise, the sheer adrenaline of trying?

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joeverkill said...

I find that the more you know, the more disheartening it gets... when it comes to theatrical, anyhow. TV might be different.

I think the solution for a lot of people is to write in different media -- novels, graphic novels, TV, blogs, etc. For me it helps alleviate the "I'm ramming my head against a wall" futile feeling of writing and trying to get people to read feature scripts. Screenplays are really fun to write, and you can do them quickly, but man it is really difficult to get anyone with decision-making power to actually look at them. And so little original material actually makes it to the screen in Hollywood anyhow (supplanted by adaptations, re-makes, based-on-a-true-story stuff, etc).

I think people respect multi-genre, multi-media writers more than they ever have, so why not try out different things?

Anyway, just my opinion.

writer0825 said...

Julie, the way you make the straight truth sound so sweet is a true talent.

Joe Public said...

This post reminds me of a sign that hangs in my favorite pizza shop.

"Hire a teenager while they still know everything." And I think that same line applies to the new guys. "Hire a newbie screenwriter while they still know everything."

I think one has to give passion its due, and the naive are loaded with it. And don't lose it. I think the passion that gets you started, that itch that drives you to tell a great story, is what keeps you going. It certainly does for my anyway. Passion is writing fuel and it will help you work past many dreary rejection letters.

That said, would you really ask a person who has been waiting in line for ten years, if they minded if you cut in front of them. My advice...DUCK!

Julie Gray said...

@Joeverkill - picture the scene from When Harry Met Sally at the deli: YES YES YES YES - you are 1000% correct. I could not agree with you more. I tell this to screenwriters all the time but for some reason there's resistance to this idea; as if writing in more than one medium is giving up on screenwriting. NO it isn't. You have to put your eggs in many baskets if you want to be a writer.

Stan said...

Or, you could write the script to something 'El Mariachi' style, something you know you yourself could make with the resources you have at your own disposal. All you need is some friends and a decent HD video camera and mic. If a feature is intimidating, try making a short. Actually making a film is one great way to find out what works and what doesn't with dialogue, and why visual writing is so important. :)

Christian M. Howell said...

I think the big thing that too many writers don't want to realize is that their hero Shane Black has an MFA and Lethal Weapon was a Thesis script.

If you don't have at least a BFA, you need to be able to drop names and concepts from film theory.

As you go through this nightmare of sorrow and misunderstanding you'll meet people who can help you.

But you have to do your part and treat this like the most complex science ever.

writer0825 said...

I agree with writing in more than one medium. I think there is a different discipline and pace to each of them and THAT only makes you a better writer.

Dave Shepherd said...

@ Christian

Formal education is, to me, irrelevant when it comes to writing. There's too many good writers on either side of the fence.

Shane Black had an MFA, but I think it was in acting at UCLA, not writing. Could be wrong. I think Black would've been successful with or without an education... he basically lived for movies.

Tarantino had a high school education. Kevin Smith dropped out of film school, as did Rodriguez. Speilberg dropped out of California State University to pursue his career.

You have to know how to tell a story. How/where you learn really doesn't matter.

BIG Z said...

I completely agree writers should embrace multi-media. The problem seems to be no other media can potentially pay you $500,000 for 90 mostly blank pages. There is a definite lottery mentality to the popularity of screenwriting.

I think if you really, truly, madly, deeply want to be a writer, that is to write for a living, there are so many other ways to do it besides, even in addition to, feature scripts. Every one of which will make you a better screenwriter.

Maybe the screenwriters you talk to Julie don't want to spend a year or two writing a 300 page, densley worded novel for an 8% royalty rate two years after they finish. Or even 6 months building a blog or creating a graphic novel for free.

Once they decide they're a writer, not a contestant, opportunities will fall at their feet like rose petals at a wedding. Or, you know, whatever type of insanely cheap flower can be substituted for roses to fit a real writer's budget:)

Chaia Milstein said...

I want to nth the "write in different genres" suggestion. While not all of the skills I've learned writing news and feature journalism, small business copy, personal essay, and (haha) poetry (which I did get paid for once, thank you very much) are transferable between those genres or into that of screenwriting, each genre is very fulfilling in its own way. Some forms afford instant gratification in ways that screenwriting doesn't, particularly in these days of instant web publication. And when you master a new one, you feel like THE BEST.