A: No. You need to show that you can make the agent money.
A reader was talking with another writer who told him that A-list agents need to see three spec screenplays before they’ll agree to rep you. Why three? They need proof that you have range.
This is baloney.
Well, to be more precise, it’s a white lie. Agents ask for “range” because what they’ve seen isn’t impressive enough, and by “impressive” I mean “potentially lucrative.”
The only range one needs to be concerned with is the range of one’s talent. If you write a screenplay that an agent or producer reads and loves, then they will immediately attempt to exploit both you and the screenplay to their advantage.
There’s no formula, no magic number, no magical “range” required. Frankly, the notion is absurd on its face, because the first thing that happens to you after you sell a screenplay is an industry-wide pigeon-holing of you, your writing and your career.
There are writers who have different speeds, although it’s exceedingly rare to find a writer who is good at comedy and any other genre at the same time (they’re out there, but like I said…rare). Similarly, agents have a hard time selling writers who aren’t marketable, and marketability almost requires a reductive viewpoint.
My own range is rather narrow. I’ve written broad comedy, spoof, romantic comedy, whimsical dramedy…
Everything’s got an “medy” in it, though. I was hired once to write on a horror film. I didn’t want to do it. I was asked pleadingly and was paid well, so I did it with full disclaimers.
I really shouldn’t write horror movies, as it turns out.
I don’t think I’m bad at it per se, but it’s not what I love. I bring nothing special to it. Mere competence, or even just a high percentile of ability compared to the general population, is hardly a recommendation to a genre.
People tend to cling to formulaic rules or guidelines when attempting to navigate difficult challenges. I don’t blame them. Getting an agent can be difficult. Unfortunately, there’s no secret. You can write a script in every genre, but you’ll still be lagging behind the guy with one great screenplay.
This doesn’t mean you have to cling to one genre either. Most every writer I know has at least two facets to his writing. Sometimes more. And maybe you’re one of those rare renaissance writers who has what someone else might objectively deem “range.”
It’s all incidental to talent, passion and hard work.
Yeah, you read the title right.
You are a failure as a screenwriter.
The good news is that you’re not a failure at something that actually matters in life like, say, bridge construction or angioplasty. You’re a failure at something silly like writing movies. Of course, you don’t want to build bridges or clean out arteries. You want to make money and see your name on the big screen. Well, prepare for the Path of Failure.
Before you start wondering if I’ve turned into the Great Santini, or maybe if I’m playing a little trick on you like Terry Rossio did with his fantastic essay entitled Throw In The Towel, rest assured that I mean this in a gentle way. After all, I’m a failure too. Yes, I write screenplays for a living. How many drafts? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe 150 by now? And how many of those drafts were so-called “final” drafts? Let’s say twenty. And how many of those actually made it to screen? Try four.
Now ask me how I feel about two of those four. Better yet, don’t.
Four out of 150, and I still wish I could rewrite them. Yikes. I’m a failure. I know you think that once you get paid to write, you won’t feel this way. But you will. And it hurts. Maybe you’ve been paid to write but you’re unproduced.
Nope. You’ll still be a failure.
Maybe you’ve been produced, but you haven’t had a hit.
Sorry. Doesn’t matter.
Maybe you’ve had one hit, but if you had two hits…
Give it up. The failing will never cease.
Still, I wouldn’t part with the failure. I have come to embrace the failure as my friend. And why not?
When I was a kid, I spent endless hours with Legos. Never mind that my boxy creations seemed to indicate a proclivity designing prisons for some Orwellian state. I loved the building…the endless trial and error…the rethinking and replanning…in short, the failure. The mistakes. The dead ends. Success is just a crack hit. It feels nice for the moment, but it is, in its very nature, done.
In order to succeed, you have to see failure for what it really is. It is not a Judgment of You. It is not a Sentence. It is not Permanent. We may call our bad writing “bad,” but it’s not bad. It’s wonderful. It’s the crawl before the walk, the walk before the run. If you haven’t solved your screenplay yet, rejoice. You are one of the chosen few who isn’t delusional about your own writing. If you recognize your useful failure, you just might have a shot in this business. You, the Failure, are not afraid of rewriting, improving, rethinking, and most importantly, fearlessly tearing down the creative idols you erected in order to raise up new ones. This is important. You have to be a Failure if you’re going to be a Success. Is that a little more Zen than you’re accustomed to hearing from me?
Perhaps. Then again, screenwriting is an amalgam of the rational and irrational (remember our discussion about Nietzsche?), and I particularly delight in the irrational.
Failure is the Penultimate. It is the step just before Success.
Or maybe just more failure.
But you don’t mind, do you? The next draft is the one that’s going to work. Really. Seriously. Keep telling yourself that.
Eventually, you might be right.
Which one’s the screenwriter?Every weekday in Los Angeles, the ritual begins. Writers pitch their ideas and screenplays and thoughts on rewrites to the gatekeepers. There are more sellers than buyers. The buyers seem to have all the power. It’s not unusual to hear writers describe the near-successes in unpleasant sexual terms.
“I got bent over.”
That’s one of my favorite.
Still, among our many running themes here at The Artful Writer, one of my favorites is this: writers have more power than they think. It upsets me to see so many of my colleagues view themselves in various gradations of powerlessness or victimhood, particularly when I think the truth belies that in a very serious way.
If we’re victims of anything, it’s a con game designed to make us think we’re victims.
I’ve been on both sides of the buying and selling table, and I’ve learned a few things. When I analogize how this business works, I really do try and elevate it all as best I can, but something about Hollywood seems to fit so beautifully with sex.
And so, I offer you my theory on why they dynamics of selling screenplays is not so different from that of animal mating strategies.
In the early 70′s, a sociobiologist named Robert Trivers proposed an interesting analysis of sexuality as it related to what is the ultimate purpose of sexuality–the reproduction of the gene.
Sorry. Scratch that. The successful reproduction of the gene. See, what Trivers noticed was the truth right in front of us. Every time a male had sex with a female, he increased the likelihood that his genetic material would be reproduced. Given the biological circumstances of male sexuality, this could theoretically happen every hour or so, with no real risk to the male.
Females, on the other hand, were in a bit of a dicier situation. If a female had sex with a male, they also increased the likelihood that their genetic material would be reproduced. However, if reproduction were successful, this could only happen once per gestational period. This period could be weeks or months, depending on the species, but always a significant percentage of the female’s overall fertility period. The female would then need to care for the offspring for a certain amount of time, putting her at risk. Furthermore, and most importantly…
…they could die just from giving birth.
Given those immutable facts of life, what would the optimal reproductive strategies for each gender be?
For males of most species, it appears that having as much sex as possible with as many females as possible as many times as possible is the most advantageous strategy.
For females of most species, carefully choosing the most qualified mate is the most advantageous strategy, because if you’re going to dedicate time and energy and perhaps your life itself to your offspring, you want it to have the best chance of survival.
Screenwriters are sometimes made to feel like the wallflower girls at the prom that no one wants. And given the machismo and aggression of studio executives (Swimming With Sharks is a great title for this very reason), it might seem like they’re the males, waiting to screw us poor gals at every possible turn.
But that’s not true.
The truth is that we’re the males, they’re the females, and they know it.
Every time we sell a script, we succeed. Every time. Maybe the script dies in development. Maybe it gets made but the movie bombs. Maybe the movie from our script is so bad, it literally kills the studio (happens every now and then). But no matter what, we get paid.
And while the last script we wrote is being raised by its studio mother, we’re off banging…excuse me, selling…to another studio.
From the studio point of view, everything is about managing risk. They will spend hundreds of thousands in the hopes that this mating will work out. When it doesn’t, they’re worse off than the writer. Every time. Remember, the people who do the buying don’t own the company. We’re not talking about industrial stockholders or Chairmen of the Board. We’re talking about the Sr. VP of Development, a guy who makes $600,000 a year…but who gives writers millions of dollars a year.
If we fail him, we’re on to the next Sr. VP. Oh, and he usually gets fired.
What I’m saying is…don’t think they’re not as scared as we are.
So, whether you’re a male or female writer, you’re still the male for all intents and purposes. And like any male wandering into a bar, you need a strategy.
You could be the seducer. The guy who gets the studios hot and bothered over your sexy pitch, closes the deal, then skips out a few weeks later when the sex gets boring and the rewrites get hard.
But who likes that guy?
The other strategy is monogamy. Long-term relationships. Co-parenting. Partnership. Signal to the female that you’re not looking to just knock them up and split. Let them know you want to bring a movie into the world together (awwwww), and you’ll be with them the entire way…as long as you can keep being a good dad.
Does this mean you won’t get rewritten? No. The animal kingdom has its own version of rewrites. Male lions have harems. They impregnate their females. But if a more dominant male comes along, not only will he steal the females from the first male, but he’ll kill the poor sap. Then to add insult to injury, the females will either abort or kill their own offspring from the first male…precisely so that they can be available to reproduce with the new, stronger male.
This is much worse than getting fired off a second draft by New Line, I assure you.
Still, evolutionary biology shows that in species where offspring are high investment (i.e. gestational periods are long, newborns need special care), monogamy emerges as a powerful strategy. Humans obviously fit this bill. So do those adorable penguins we all saw in that documentary.
And so do movies.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a Lothario. I know a lot of screenwriters who do this and make a terrific living. Sure, I think being a monogamous screenwriter and staying with the project from conception to leaving-the-nest (hopefully on 3,500+ screens) is a better and more productive strategy. But it’s not the only one.
All that matters is that you don’t buy into the lie that you’re the one who’s getting “screwed”. You’re the seducer. They are the choosy ones.
Go get ‘em, tiger.
Here we go…In September, my term and Ted Elliott’s term on the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America, west, will come to an end.
Neither of us are running for reelection.
A lot of people have asked me why. And to be honest, I haven’t been exactly sure what to tell them. On the one hand, it seems quite likely that 2006/2007 will be the busiest year I’ve yet had in this business, and I’ve had some busy ones. As such, I could say that I just don’t have the time to devote to the Board, and given that I already co-chair the Credits Review Committee, I feel like I’m doing enough.
But that wouldn’t be honest.
The truth is that even if I had all the time in the world, I still wouldn’t run again, because I differ wildly from the people currently running the Guild, I differ wildly from the staff currently running the Guild, and I think that the current leadership and staff are driving us in a very dangerous direction.
I don’t have the votes to stop them, nor am I convinced that having the votes would matter. There are serious and fundamental changes in the way decisions are being made at the Guild, from the granting of waivers to the formulation of policy to the negotiation of deals. I don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s going to change any time soon.
As a sitting Board member, I’ve been fairly reluctant to talk about these things while still serving, but my term is nearly up, and I think it’s time for me to get vocal.
The current leadership was swept into office about a year ago, running on a platform that suggested we no longer had to choose between “Strike Or Cave.” Their idea was that by appropriating blue-collar union strategies like corporate campaigns (essentially PR assaults on the companies you need to negotiate deals with), the studios and networks would give us a good deal if we’d just call the dogs off.
I thought this was a bit naive. First, the companies with whom we negotiate are the media. Second, while corporate campaigns detailing abuses like sweat shops can be effective, corporate campaigns attacking “product integration” aren’t going to capture anyone’s imagination.
I’ve never been against corporate campaigns in principle, although I don’t think the WGA has managed to launch an effective one yet. Much dues money has been spent on a product integration corporate campaign, the evidence of which can be seen here and here. These haven’t really caught on. At all. This is not surprising.
What is also not surprising is that the “we don’t have to choose between strike or cave” leadership took their first opportunity to strike. Right now, the writers at America’s Next Top Model are on strike.
I feel for all reality writers. I know reality writers–not merely professionally. For the last six years or so, I’ve been playing cards every week with reality writers. Blind Date, Fifth Wheel, Flavor of Love, Elimidate…these are the people I take money from at the poker table.
I’d like to give some money back. I want, I really want, these writers to get portable pensions, portable health care, reasonable working conditions, minimums and credit protection. So…how do we do that? Is this the way? Strike show by show?
Yup. Most likely. Sure, I get annoyed when I think back to the “we don’t have to strike!” motto, because the truth is that reality writers will have to strike to get a deal. No doubt in my mind.
What also annoys me is that for the last year, the WGA has been pursuing an entirely different strategy, in which all reality would be organized in one fell swoop. The guys who ran on the “no, do it show by show” strategy–like Ted–didn’t win.
And now…but hey. Better late than never.
Look, these guys running the show right now are good people (for the most part) with their hearts in the right places (for the most part) and are pretty smart (for the most part).
But they’re naive. In my humble opinion.
It’s possible that this latest gambit will work. It’s also just as possible that the companies, fearing that the guys in charge at the WGA either want a strike or don’t know how to avoid one, will never give us reality writers because it’s reality that will be their most effective hedge against us when we strike.
Ahem. If we strike.
In the coming weeks and months, I’m going to talk more about these issues, with increasing frankness. However, my criticism isn’t solely for the leadership. I must say that I’ve been deeply disappointed with the quality of the loyal opposition in the WGA over the past few years. Much of it has been either personal or paranoid.
I intend to be neither. I will say nothing here that I wouldn’t say on the phone or in the room with the men and women I’ve been serving with for the past year. Hell, they’ve probably heard most of it already from me. My intention is not to be a traitor or to give comfort to the enemy, but to hold our leadership accountable and be a gadfly in the best tradition.
Maybe I’ll make them better. Because we, including me, need them to be better.