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Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Phantom Database

Howdy, Wavers! Did everyone have a nice Fourth of July? Over the holiday weekend, a Waver wrote in with a great question (paraphrased):

"...is there really a phantom database in Hollywood that puts a permanent black mark by my name if I get a "pass" coverage or is that just an urban myth like the thing about the dog in the microwave or how that guy in Queens found a snake in his linguine?"


To which I say: The snake thing is totally not true.

But seriously. Well - no, there isn't a phantom database, per se - a list of bad writers and their scripts that is passed around among executives. But there are tracking boards and there are development execs and their damned memories.

Think of it this way: Hollywood is a town that relies upon information, whether that information is garnered from the trades, from between the sheets or from rumors of rumors over cocktails. And this information shoots around very quickly. Sort of like those old vacuum tube delivery systems in offices. And with the advent of the Internet, information zips around this town so fast that it sizzles in the air above your head. What's the hot script? Who sold what to whom?? Which exec was laid off and wound up where? What actor was seen at Whole Foods totally blotto? Hollywood is a town that fuels itself on information and it is the information age. So yeah, that is a little scary.

So the bottom line is that yes, if you send in a script to an agency (in particular) and it is so bad that the assistants chat about it on the tracking boards - you are not a happy camper. However, the chances of a tracking board mention of a bad script are significantly lower than that of a good script.

Let's back up - what is a tracking board? Tracking boards are basically private message boards frequented by assistants and other industry types. They function as virtual water coolers. How much stuff gets discussed around the putative water cooler in your office? A lot. I have never seen nor heard mention of a writer being called out on a tracking board for being bad. Not by name. Even in Hollywood, there are limits.

But before you let out a big sigh of relief, let's keep exploring the topic: Executives in Hollywood change companies frequently. So today's assistant is tomorrow's development exec. And today's junior development exec at Company X is tomorrow's senior creative exec at Company Y. So if your script goes to a production company and gets a pass, the reality is that the exec simply sends a "no thanks" to your agent or manager and moves on with his or her day - not interested. So far so good, right?

But what if, just what if the creative exec's reader thought the script was SO bad that when they turned in the coverage they actually sat down and laughed it up a little bit with the exec? And the exec saw your name on the title page? And had a great memory? I am very sorry to have to report this, Wavers, but I have seen the situation above happen first-hand. Look, don't hate the readers for having a laugh at your expense. Hate the writers who send in such bad work that it makes you all look bad. See, that's what it is, Wavers. For every ONE of you who takes this really seriously and have some talent, there are 100 for whom the reverse is true. And that is what Hollywood thinks about aspiring writers. That you don't care enough to do it right, that you have no talent and that you do not take our jobs seriously and you waste our time. That's why everybody gets SO excited when we read something good. Hollywood cannot WAIT to elevate that writer and give him or her a ticker tape parade.

But let's back up yet again:

Some of you reading The Rouge Wave may be new to the blog and perhaps new to screenwriting. And you're thinking wait, I'm confused, ticker tape parades, readers, execs, tracking boards, oh my GOD I just want to know what to do with my script already!!

One question that a new Waver might be asking themselves about now is do I submit to an agent, to a manager OR to a production company? All three are mixed up together in this blog post and frequently are not separated in these discussions. That's because getting your script read does not have a necessarily straight path. Yes, you should initially submit to an agent or manager. Usually. Most of the time. But some production companies will read unrepped work and if they love the story, then you can take the script to an agent or manager and say hey listen, Prodco X loves the script and they want to option or purchase it, will you rep me? To which the agent or manager will, in general, choke on their coffee because they say "yes" so fast.

But let's back up even further:

Agent: hardcore, fast-talking salesman. Interested in making a SALE. Only interested in you, dear writer, if you have the goods to make a SALE and to do it again and again. They do not really care about your career, your feelings, your family, your son's Little League team or where you went to school and how much you loved JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. They care only about making a SALE. Think Ari on "Entourage" and you pretty much get the gist. It is not uncommon for an agent to actually be an attorney as well. The agent will take 10% of the sale price your script garners; only an agent (or entertainment attorney) is legally qualified to sign the deal and set the monies in action. Agents are not generally interested in brand new, baby writers. Why? No paycheck is coming forthwith. Agents don't got no time to "develop" you. If you're not hot, you're not selling and they ain't interested.

Manager: a professional who is interested in grooming you for your first sale and many sales after that. Think someone significantly more mellow than an agent. The manager is going to take 15% of a sale you make. A manager is interested in staying with you for a long time as you make sale after sale. A manager will develop ideas with you. If you make a sale, a manager will bring an agent in to sign the deal and do the hardcore negotiating. Managers are really the place for writers to start. But here's the thing with managers - it takes a LOT of time to develop a new writer and nurture ideas, etc. So if they read your first script, WATER COOLER DAYS, and think wow, this is a great new voice, and start working with you...but your next script, 26 DRESSES, strikes them as derivative and unpromising, then their belief in you takes an enormous hit, their faith is shaken in your ability to write well consistently and...they'll cut you loose. Usually using the language of unreturned calls. It's like dating, Wavers. Exactly like dating. No call you back...no interest in you. They speak a different language. I think they even sell a Rosetta Stone for Agent/Manager language. It goes like this: Manager Language: Silence. English translation: Your second script disappointed me and I've lost that lovin' feeling and I think I may have been wrong about you and look, no hard feelings, but this Beemer ain't cheap so see ya, pal.

Production Company: Some prodcos will read unrepped work. Not all. Some. They might be a smaller company more open to reading material and more comfy with release form legalities than a larger company. What's cool about submitting to a prodco? It's like going from trying to sell pastries at the county fair to selling chocolate chip cookies TO a chocolate chip cookie fan. In other words, a prodco will be looking for more specific material (a supernatural thriller, a romantic comedy set in Europe, a low-budget horror featuring tarantulas) and maybe you've GOT a low-budget tarantula script and now the question is will the prodco like THIS particular script and YOUR particular writing. If they do, you just have to be sure you protect your rights and go find representation to help you seal the deal. Now, there are some out there (my colleague Bill Martell is one) who write and sell scripts all the time, without rep. But I have to emphasize, this is really quite exceptional. And at minimum, you would need an entertainment attorney to sign the paperwork and ensure that your rights are being seen to in terms of a contract that guarantees payment upon delivery of various drafts and all of that boring stuff that's not so boring when your check has not been delivered but the pages have. This has happened to me and it ain't fun. Gather close, kids, not just everybody who says they are a "producer" is in fact an upstanding, honest or professional business person. And the detritus on the side of the road in deals gone sour is usually the writer.

But I have backtracked enormously. Is there a phantom database that keeps YOUR information online or in the minds and hearts of agents, managers and producers? Yes and no. Not physically, no. Your bad script, you writer from South Dakota or whatnot, is not interesting or significant enough to chat about on the tracking boards or anywhere else. Files are not kept - think about it - really? - busy Hollywood execs with the time to create lists or files of BAD writers? Silly, right? Ridiculous. Nobody has time for that. And you are not the center of the universe, dear writer, you are one of ONE HUNDRED scripts that arrived at X company that day.

That said, Hollywood is a very weirdly incestuous town and people do talk all the time. Good and bad. I don't even want to tell you how often I have heard professionals sharing a laugh or a story about a bad script. Might they remember your name, too? Maybe. It's entirely possible. A development exec at one company who read your script might then move on to another company where you have submitted another script and yes, might remember your name.

The bottom line is that everybody knows everybody and everybody shares a lot of information. The writer who is GREAT with the script that is PHENOMENAL is what will take up most of the gossipy air-time, for sure. But the laughable script, that will get some air too. Maybe not officially - but it will.

So the only thing you can do, Wavers, is to give them NOTHING to laugh about and everything to say WOW about. If you have given it your absolute best shot and get no response, don't worry, your "pass" coverage is not on your permanent record. I feel pretty comfortable guaranteeing that writers who treated themselves and their work like true professionals by doing all of their homework and getting notes and feedback on the script will not be forced to wear the Scarlet "pass" forever.

Might you and your script get gossiped about? Even tracked on the tracking boards? Maybe. You cannot control that. Like anything in life. But you can control the quality of the work before you send it to someone in Hollywood. If you get a regular "pass" coverage meaning it's just not for that company and/or your writing just did nothing for them, well, that's not sensational enough to energize a busy exec to in some way vindictively gossip about that "pass" rating.

You know, it's often very tricky to write about Hollywood because for everything that is true, there is something that counters that. I only speak from MY experience and I have never seen or heard or heard about a black list for "pass" writers. But I have seen and heard, many times over, execs and assistants on every level laugh or talk about a really bad script that they found particularly egregious. So it is only you, egregious writer, who should truly worry about having a black mark next to your name. Because the really GREAT scripts and the really BAD scripts - those are the ones that stand out. Just a regular "pass" script won't follow you around like bad credit, no.

So bottom line: No, there is not an official system for black listing bad writers and scripts. But yes, there is a lot of gossip and shared information, so the risk is always present. Only one thing you can do and that is to not send a script to Hollywood that has not been gone over carefully by your friends, colleagues and ideally, a professional service. The onus is on you. Do not play dodge ball with the big boys if you are not prepared for a bloody nose.

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2 comments:

Tavis Sarmento said...

Here's one of the tracking boards out there:

http://www.trackingb.com/

Older posts are free, but you need to subscribe to get the more recent ones.

Dave Shepherd said...

The only thing I would add --

While people usually don't track or care about bad writers -- they will pay attention and talk about good writers who are bad to work with (and directors and actors, though they have a bit more leeway).

If you go in with a primadonna attitude and are difficult to work with, no matter how good your scripts are, people will hear about it, and they will take that into consideration when deciding whether to hire/meet you or not.

Likewise, if you're fun to work with, you're giving yourself a leg up.

People like to work with people they like. Be likable and you're more likely to have a longer (and better) career.