The wrong reasons to pursue a screenwriting career…
January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
If you haven’t discovered after a few years of struggling for any level of success in Hollywood—write this down so you can see it daily: “Screenwriting is not a road to fame, fortune and celebrity—it’s just not.” The romantic myth doesn’t include the years of hard work as you master your craft, the many late nights, sacrifices, constant rewrites of projects that don’t sell, the rejection and criticism, magnificent highs, bottom scraping lows, and the constant search for validation and respect. A screenwriter must navigate this Hollywood minefield and somehow learn to survive for even a shot at any level of success. Trust me, I’ve done it over the past twenty years of my professional career. The longer you stay in the game, it’s filled with good times and bad, dry periods where you can’t find work, other times when you have two films produced within ten months—like what happened to me this past year. The key is to stay in the game for the long haul and that’s the hardest part of the journey.
Unfortunately, I find many aspiring screenwriters decide to write scripts because they believe in the myth of a huge payday, the glamorous life of a celebrity, or it’s just that easy to churn out a winner. Sure, read a few “how to” books, watch a lot of movies, read a bunch of scripts, write one and it sells—BAM! They read articles in Variety or on the Internet about “A-list” screenwriters making huge deals and they want a piece of that action—or about the writer who never wrote anything before and sells a movie and just signed a studio deal. Sure, it happens, right? So does winning the lottery.
Too many aspirants don’t ask themselves the hard question before they begin on a screenwriting journey—why? Why do you want to write screenplays? I’ve heard people say because they enjoy watching movies. I’m not sure if that’s enough of a reason to pursue a difficult career where the odds are immediately stacked against you and you might toil away for years, writing scripts that never sell.
I’ve heard this variation far too many times, “The movies suck. My scripts are so much better than that. I’m going to sell my latest script for big money.” It’s the romanticized fantasy of a Hollywood screenwriter’s exciting life in a house in the hills, a pool and three cars in the garage, and endless parties, premieres and huge paydays—but very few screenwriters achieve that level of success. I read the recent WGAw statistic for the annual 2016 report (ending in June 29, 2016): Out of nearly 10,000 WGAw guild members—only 5,159 of those reported any income from writing for that year. And only 4,129 of those paid writers were in television and the rest in feature films. Do these numbers stop you in your tracks? They shouldn’t—but let it be a wake up call and know the mountain you’re climbing to reach any level of success—if any success is even possible. Focus on your love of the craft and becoming a better screenwriter. Be in the screenwriting game because your passion drives you to write and you simply love the work—end of story.
As for fame? Ha… it’s was best said by screenwriter Joe Gillis in writer/director Billy Wilder’s classic movie Sunset Boulevard, “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” So, forget the “fame aspect” unless you enjoy impressing your parents or grandparents. Screenwriters are a dime a dozen in Hollywood—throw a rock and you’ll hit a dozen. Screenwriters are lucky even to get an invite to the wrap party or the movie’s première. Hollywood is like no other business where the person or persons who are invaluable to creating the project are sometimes so disrespected and mistreated. Ah, but that’s showbiz, folks.
My eighth produced film premiered on television last year and has re-aired almost every month since. I remember the day after the premiere and party, I was back to work on my new assignment job—a tv sitcom pilot for a producer. No fame or glory. Hell, at the screening party with friends they talked through most of the film, asked questions and commented. Life suddenly doesn’t change overnight even when you finally get something produced. Screenwriting is a job and you’re always looking for your next gig and your next (unless you’re secure working on the writing staff of a tv series) and even then shows get cancelled.
And realize even if you finally do get paid to write or your script sells, your payday might be less than you expected, and you may have to live on it for a year or more before the film is made—if the film is ever made. There are no guarantees—ever. Your daily reward must come from doing what you love to do. The way to survive over the long haul marathon is to forge ahead without expectations. Even if you do “make it,” whatever your definition is, your overnight success will probably be ten years in the making. Trust me, those will be years of sacrifice, ups and downs, criticism, self-doubt and fear while you slog it out in the trenches. Do you have what it takes to weather the storms over the long haul?
Every time up to the plate and with every new screenplay it’s a constant test to see just how badly you want a career as a screenwriter. So, if you want to make “big money” or get attention from a career, pick another profession besides screenwriter. Only pursue a screenwriting career because your passion drives you to live out your dreams, it’s what gets you up in the morning and you don’t want to go through life doing anything else.
Now get back to filling those blank pages–for the right reasons whatever they may be! If you stop you’re guaranteed never to have ANY shot at success.
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“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling
“All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.” —Ernest Hemingway
“There are no small screenwriting dreams—just small screenwriters. Passion, discipline, talent and a bit of insanity helps the journey”—Scriptcat
“Having spent too many years in show business, the one thing I see that succeeds is persistence. It’s the person who just ain’t gonna go home. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to go home. This is what I’ll be doing until they put me in jail or in a coffin.” —David Mamet
“But the Artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling. If you don’t believe me, ask Van Gogh, who produced masterpiece after masterpiece and never found a buyer his whole life. In the hierarchy, the Artist faces outward. Meeting someone new he asks himself, “What can this person do for me?” “How can this person advance my standing?” In hierarchy, the Artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”