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Thursday, May 7, 2009

You're an Underdog

In this week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers) has a fascinating article about the David and Goliath paradigm. The upshot for Gladwell is that when two adversaries go toe to toe with one outstripping the other in sheer size (or talent, or arms or some other significant advantage), if the underdog does battle in the same way that the Goliath does, the underdog will lose the majority of the time. But when the underdog changes to a new, more inventive strategy, the underdog, as outmatched as they are, wins at least 30% of the time.
Good example: The American Revolution. The British Army was trained, armed and outfitted a thousand times better than the American colonial army. But we won. Because we didn't fight in the same way - we used guerilla tactics. Shifting tactics and creating new rules for the game, using the terrain and sheer gumption turned the tables on what was at that time the mightiest military force in the world. How did David beat Goliath? With a slingshot. He changed the game. How did Lawrence of Arabia beat the Turkish Army? With Bedouins, inventiveness and game-changing. An all-girl junior basketball league in Redwood City rose to number two in the national championships even though they really couldn't play that well, by playing a full court press - every game.

According to Gladwell, determination and effort can outstrip ability and might. Which when you think about it, is a concept deeply rooted in the American psyche. We're fighters. Give us a good challenge. But in order to win out over a giant, you have to rethink the game. You can't play it the way the giant does.

What does this have to do with screenwriting? You out there, you Rouge Wavers out in the world, are David. And Hollywood is Goliath. Screenwriters sometimes complain about scripts that are sold or produced - hey, it's not THAT great! How come that sold and mine didn't?! Well, the ugly truth is that yes, sold screenwriters are not always necessarily that much better than you are. But they had connections and relationships and opportunities that you didn't. Being a sold screewriter is not actually a meritocracy. It's a battle of attrition.

Make no mistake, you need to have a skillset. You don't go out on the playing field with absolutely no training but just trying really hard until you win. You have to have some basic skills. There is a number of screenwriters larger than I like to admit, who do feel a bit entitled and who do not yet have the chops to get out there and be a real contender. But the more experienced writers who still haven't sold or gotten meetings - it's quite possible the reason for that is that they have to change up their game and increase their efforts.

Yesterday's blog post was about how much you should be writing. And the events you should be going to consistently. It's about staying in shape for when that opportunity comes. Hollywood is indeed a Goliath - a system that can sometimes feel very exclusionary and privileged. But here's the thing - it's also a big, dumb giant. Do not be intimidated. Do not feel you don't deserve to be here. That's just not true. Don't buy into that lie, Wavers. Because anyone with a great story, told well, deserves to be here.

Remember, David stood before that giant with courage. And he picked up five smooth stones and he got out his sling shot and everyone laughed. A slingshot? Be serious! You can't beat this giant with a - what's this? POW right in between the eyes. And down that giant fell.

Now get back to work.

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Dave Shepherd said...

On a political note: That's why terrorists are so difficult to beat. They don't fight by the same rules. Civilian shields, sure, why not?

On a film note: Like you said, Hollywood is a giant, but it's a big, slow, lumbering thing that is incapable of doing almost anything with any amount of speed.

Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Christopher Nolan, Tarantino... all of them realized this and used it to their advantage.

Even Spielberg was an underdog at some point.

Of course, screenwriters are screwed in the general sense that you don't just have to break in once, you have to do it over and over and over.

It's harder to maintain a career as a screenwriter than it is to start one.

Writers don't get credit for the hit movies, they have to deal with more interference than any other entertainment job, and they have remarkably little control over which direction their career goes.

You can write a great script, but if it falls into the hands of the wrong director, and they make a crappy movie... which is why Terry Rossio is constantly telling people to either produce or direct.

Stan said...

"Everybody loves an underdog" story. Hey, this is great. Thanks, Julie. This lesson about Hollywood and the film biz in general was a very hard lesson I learned while looking for an internship during film school. In general, everyone wants in, but there are few people on the inside willing to help anyone else actually get there. Your blog is an exception to this.

Lisa said...

@ Stan...amen.

Julie - you always seem to say what I need to hear exactly when I need to hear it. How do you do that? Clearly, you have identified that I am not alone. Cuz sure does feel like it.

Thanks for this blog...:)

nyc_runnergirl said...

What a beautiful, insightful post. Very cool.

Anonymous said...

I just read the Gladwell piece and it's a wonderful read. Thanks, Julie!