Keep the faith and never give up…
September 30, 2011 § 7 Comments
When I graduated from UCLA film school, my sole focus was the same as my fellow aspiring scribes—to write and sell our original spec screenplays for a million dollars and launch our fabulous careers. Anyone could write a spec screenplay because it was easy, right? This was the era when Hollywood didn’t hesitate to spend a million bucks just to take a spec script off the market. These were good times for sure and it’s was nice work—if you could get it. I knew a few friends who did with mid-six to seven-figure paydays and it launched their careers.The rest of us slogged through spec after spec hoping to make some noise and get lucky with our first screenplay sale. Hollywood has changed dramatically since then and so have the economics of the global marketplace. I remember completing my first screenplay. It was fun and I thought it was the greatest piece of writing ever created—until I received feedback and that knocked me back into reality. I had much to learn and the humbling experience was enough for me to realize that screenwriting is an ongoing journey of learning the craft of writing, learning about failure and rejection, and how to overcome the hurdles on the journey. As I soldiered on, I could see legitimate progress as each new screenplay moved me farther down the field of play.
Now, having written a total of thirty-six screenplays and nine TV pilots with one feature spec sale and twenty-one paid screenwriting assignments, and my latest produced thriller, “A Wife’s Betrayal” (my 15th produced film), wrapped production three months ago. I’ve just signed for a new script assignment and will be taking on another one soon. Nothing has come for free or handed to me on my journey. My family was not in the film business. I had to learn, climb and claw for everything that I’ve achieved with the invaluable support team of my family and dear friends. We make our own breaks and set up opportunities with every new screenplay that we create and must always take responsibility for our careers by doing the necessary work.
I remember my early days of screenwriting and my fifth spec screenplay that become my first spec script sale and its seven-year journey from script to screen. The script was a tough sell originally because it was a period piece with kids. The project bounced around Hollywood to all the wrong people and eventually to the right people. Early on a production company offered me an outright buyout of the script for very little money. The deal was — take the money, walk away and don’t look back. At the time an agent told me to take the offer because, “Period films with kids are death now… even Disney isn’t listening to a pitch about the subject.” Of course the agent then offered to broker the deal, one that I already found and cultivated myself. Typical. I turned down the paltry offer, as I had been through too much with the script and now considered it my baby.
My heart and soul went into the writing and I was only going to sell to a producer whose passion for the project equaled mine. I never lost faith in the project or my ability to write, so I soldiered on… I decided to enter the script in the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship. The competition was stiff that year and the 3,514 scripts entered worldwide (7,251 entires last year) were all vying for the top eight spots and the coveted year-long paid fellowship. My script ended up placing in the top 1% of all entries worldwide (a top 20 script) and garnered a call from the fellowship coordinator who congratulated me on my tremendous achievement. He offered some insightful notes and hoped I would enter it again in the upcoming year. I also entered the script in screenwriting guru John Truby’s Writers Studio Screenwriting Contest. My script was one of the four runners-up for the grand prize out of 350 scripts entered. It was at this point I knew that my project was special; one that could potentially sell or even get me signed by an agent. It was just such a hard slog to find the right producer who could see its potential, but these successes proved to me that I was on the right path.
A seemingly great opportunity then presented itself. I was working as a waiter at the time and a co-worker knew an accountant at one of the biggest agencies in town. She offered to get the script in through the back door to her accountant friend who might be able to get an agent to read it. I would then receive the coverage. That was huge because the writer never receives the coverage of their script. It may have been a month later, I was at the restaurant one morning getting ready to open the place for business, when I received a call from my co-worker. The script coverage was back and it wasn’t good. I told her that I could handle the bad news —”not good” was me having to work a lunch shift at a job I hated. Hell, my script nearly won two of the most prestigious screenwriting contests around, so what could their coverage possibly say? A lot. She told me to brace myself as she read the verdict… “The script is one step above amateurish. The characters are wooden and the dialogue is stilted.”
Ouch, I wish their coverage told me just how they really felt about my script. I remember that morning and those words like it was yesterday. A writer never forgets deep and nasty comments about his or her work. I can handle constructive criticism, but when a reader feels the need to be cute at the expense of the writer, I have to pity them. They probably wish they were on my side submitting their script for consideration instead of reading others. I’ll admit, this was a huge disappointment. My script had finally landed inside one of the biggest agencies in town and they “hated it.” Well, a reader hated it, but it didn’t matter because no agent was going to read it there. It was D.O.A. in their eyes. I asked myself, “Could I have been that wrong about my script? It nearly won several prestigious screenwriting competitions, so how could this agency hate it so much?”
I picked my jaw up from the floor, brushed myself off and soldiered on. No rejection was going to stop me from pursuing my dream. If I had given up after the first few years of these rejections, the script would have never found the right producer whose new company bought it as their first new film to be produced. It was a sweet triumph of satisfaction. The film was produced and opened and premiered at the Palm Springs International Film Festival where I attended the gala première. I’ll never forget one of the stars of my film Academy Award nominee (the late) Pat Morita, walked into the theater and received a standing ovation from the three hundred people in attendance. The film was very well received and after the screening, Pat leaned over, squeezed my arm and said, “Great job, Mark.” That alone was a priceless memory, as I respected Pat so much and was a big fan since I was a kid of his work. Hell, he was an Academy Award nominated actor.
We then participated in a question and answer session with the audience and it was surreal being up front with the stars, producers and director as we a fielded questions. When one audience member told the star Mark Harmon how much she enjoyed a particular scene and his dialogue, he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Everyone tells actors they enjoy what they say, but without the writer there would be nothing to say.” It was another priceless moment that I will always cherish. Both stars gave me credit for the work that I did on my original screenplay and they knew the years it took for me to get it produced. It took the sting out of the seven-year slog and reinforced my belief that I should never give up. The film went on to premiere on U.S. television and received worldwide distribution. I never put an expiration date on my dreams. I’m proof that it really does happen if you stay in the game, do the hard work necessary and follow a few solid disciplines.
If you quit, you’re guaranteed of never having any success as a screenwriter. Sure, it was a tremendous amount of hard work, sacrifice and luck, but luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, right? Will you be ready when your lucky moment arrives that will jump-start your screenwriting career? If you keep your focus on the work and strive to always be at the top of your game, you’ll be ready for anything Hollywood throws at you.
Don’t wait for your “big break,” go out and make it happen. Always be a consummate professional in your attitude and the way you handle your screenwriting career. Keep your focus on your craft and becoming a better writer. Learn everything about the business side of the industry and find mentors to learn the secrets to their success. Stay hungry, humble and press on with unwavering faith, even in the darkest hours of adversity. If you don’t believe you can make it, who else will? It’s a long and arduous journey on the road to success, but never give up. I mean never give up! Keep the faith and filling your blank pages. @Scriptcat out!
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“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”—Ray Bradbury
“… a basic “must” for every writer: A simple solitude—physical & mental.”—Rod Serling
“You must be confident enough to believe that you can “make it”—but humble enough to know it’s a long journey with much to learn.”—Scriptcat
“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby
Hemingway said it best, “I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.”
“They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu
“As an artist, I feel that we must try many things — but above all we must dare to fail.”—John Cassavetes