The myth of “making it” in Hollywood…

bag of moneySure, everyone wants to be on the A-list at the top levels of Hollywood. It that realistic? Who knows? And what is your definition of “making it?” Having huge paydays for your screenplays and creative satisfaction? Good luck. Maybe it’s making a living in a tough business and waking up doing what you love for a living? That’s more realistic, but who knows where you will end up? Many talented writers toil away for years and never sell anything while others with less talent and drive end up working. It’s a screwy business for sure.

As working screenwriters ,we all just one project away from looking for our next job. We’re like a band of gypsies who roam from job to job trying to stay in the screenwriting game and make a living. Even if you’re writing on a TV series, the season ends, and many times so does the show when it’s cancelled. Then what? You have to find your next gig. I thought when I scored my first professional writing job that I had finally “made it.” I was able to quit my restaurant job as a waiter and I thought this was my big break. That was until the producers fired me six weeks into the gig. It happens. I didn’t “make it” but it was just another step on a very long journey. What it did was get me out of the restaurant job and I never looked back. It’s been a long haul journey to reach where I’m at currenly, but it’s due to my drive, tenacity and never giving up.  Last year I was blessed with five screenplay assignments, three of the films have premiered and distributed, one film just wrapped production last month, and I’m working on the second draft of another. It happens if you stay in the game. So, “making it” is all relative. Getting your first gig or next gig is “making it” in my opinion.

You have to shoot your dreams to the moon to even reach half way there, but know that Hollywood is a tough business to achieve any level of success. Your idea of success can’t always be about making a big sale or climbing to the A-list overnight. You won’t survive over the long haul journey if you have an “all or nothing at all” attitude. I’ve known people who would only consider themselves a success if they became an A-list talent. It wasn’t worth the tremendous effort to them to end up only making a living at their craft and not being on top. They only wanted to be superstars and nothing less. When I was pre-teen kid and making films with my friends, I only ever wanted to make a living getting paid to do what I loved to do—make movies. I’m happy waking up in the morning and getting paid to be creative.  That’s my dream come true.

And the longer you’re in the film business with its ups and downs and busy and slow periods, you may change your opinion as to what “making it” is in your mind. Few achieve the top levels of any field. Shoot for the moon, but it’s not such a bad thing to get paid to do what you love for a living too. This might require you to adjust your lofty goals of achieving A-list status. It’s okay to make a good living being an artist too. Fame, fortune, and glory are elusive in the screenwriting game.

PILE OF SCRIPTSDon’t take any successful step forward for granted because what might appear to be a tiny step forward can actually be a huge successful step in disguise. If you can get your material to assistants for consideration, it’s a new opportunity for you to plant your flag and hold new ground if they like your writing. If they pass on your script but like your writing it might feel like a failure now, but it’s something that will pay off down the road. It’s a little success and positive step forward to celebrate. Even a tiny step like meeting an assistant and keeping in touch as a new contact is a successful step.

Back in the day when I was shopping my spec around Hollywood and getting rejected at every turn, I met an assistant through a mutual contact and that assistant got his boss interested in my spec enough to option and later buy it and produce it into a movie. The assistant went on to become the president of the production company and hired me to write movies for them and later became an independent producer and hired me again for more assignment work. You never know where the tiny successes will lead, but they do add up and help you establish your experience and eventually a career.

Before I was blessed to be a working screenwriter, I entered my fifth spec script in various screenwriting contests and it ended up being a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship that year. It placed in the top 1% of all entries worldwide and was in the top twenty scripts overall, but did not end up as one of the eight finalists. I could have looked upon this as a complete failure, but I used my script’s advanced placement as a successful step forward and convinced producers to read it because of my achievement. I eventually found a producer who saw my script’s potential and his new production company bought my project and produced it into a movie.

Be aware of your negative thoughts about your self-worth as it relates to your screenwriting success or failure. The more negative thoughts you have, the more it becomes an emotion and then it’s hard to separate your thoughts from your emotions. You can actually start to believe a reality that isn’t true. Many times it’s not always about the sale or the immediate final result of a project. A rejection or “pass” now can actually be an open door later and another project because they like your writing and want to see more of your material. What seemed like a failure at first might really be a successful step because you started a new relationship with a producer or executive and now their door is open to you. This is why you must work on your next project because the key to a successful career is building these relationships with a solid body of material.

It will take at least four scripts to really find your voice and style. Screenwriting well takes time and experience, so be patient. This is a marathon and not a sprint. Completing your latest screenplay is “making it.” Keep making it and eventually you’ll land a real screenwriting job that will be the first step of a long journey to stay in the game. Don’t be depressed when your script doesn’t sell the first time out because most aspiring screenwriters rarely sell their first screenplays.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2018 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.

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“So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.”—William Faulkner

“I have a theory: not to bore the audience. You make pictures, in a way, for yourself, but you also make them for an audience.”—director William Wyler, Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.

“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

The reward of suffering is experience.”—Aeschylus, Ancient Greek Dramatist known as the founder of Greek Tragedy

“Unlimited budgets make for a lack of precise decision-making.”—producer Lynda Obst in her new book: Sleepless in Hollywood

“Starting tonight, every night in your life before you go to sleep, read at least one poem by anyone you choose. Poetry and motion pictures are twins.”—Ray Bradbury




Yes, screenwriters you can beat the odds…

I just read the sobering statistics. Don’t even get me started on the number of scripts registered with the Writer’s Guild every year.  Those figures are staggering and are reported to be 30,000 – 50,000. Last fiscal year for 2015 (ending March 2015) in the WGAw, only 4,899 screenwriters reported any income, the rest did not find gainful work as a professional screenwriter. They may have written specs or taken other jobs, but not in their career field. Three-quarters of the employed writers work in television and the rest in features—and only 50 screenwriters out of the 10,000 or so in the WGA made one million dollars. Crazy odds!  The Scoggins Report currently lists  280 specs hit the market in 2013 and only 124 sold. 45 were studio purchases and 80 from “other buyers.” Only 85 pitches sold in 2013. And 679 films were released in the theaters.

This is what you’re up against brave screenwriters. Fear not.

So, I always ask aspiring screenwriters, does their passion to write still burn inside even after hearing these numbers?  If you are going to pursue writing as a career in Hollywood, I think you must honestly ask yourself the difficult questions.  If your answer is “yes” then you truly love the craft of screenwriting, even against all odds. Call it the insanity of us dreamers.

I believe some screenwriters write scripts because they consider it like playing the lottery.  Buy a ticket at a chance for millions — write a script for a chance at millions.  Mostly those days are over where Hollywood throws money at scripts just to take them off the market.  I remember when you would read that a studio just spent a cool million dollars to buy a “hot” property, only to read later that it’s shelved due to particular circumstances.  Mostly they discovered what they purchased was over priced and when they actually read the script, it was a lemon.

Others may seek fame, fortune and a desire for attention from selling a script for a huge amount of money. Unfortunately, it’s a numbers game at best and unfortunately, no one really cares who wrote the movie.  Respect is a fickle beast in Hollywood.  If you are searching for validation from Hollywood, you are going to come up empty most of the time.  You’ll survive in the trenches much longer if you can get into a Zen mindset where the only validation you seek is your own satisfaction from finishing the best script you’ve ever written to date. Oh, and also detaching from any outcome. You pat yourself on the back for completing your new script—don’t expect anyone else to do it.

Mastering your craft takes years of study and execution.  Hemingway said, “We are all masters of a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”  Wow.  That’s respect for the art of writing.  I love hearing an old jazz musician, a master of his instrument, saying that he is still learning.  It’s an ongoing process.  As you live and experience, you enhance your observation of life and hopefully it translates into your writing.  Be an honest writer and find the truth in your stories.  Once you find your own voice, continually work on your craft to get better with each screenplay.  Especially if you are working for producers who pay you to deliver the script they need.

dreamsThose writers who burn out after one script probably didn’t really love the craft enough to start.  Writing is difficult to do well and the business side certainly can take its toll.  If you want to be a working screenwriter, you can’t write in a vacuum.  Development executives, producers and directors will expect you to execute their notes, and your precious baby will start to strangely change into something much different from the first draft they purchased.  It’s a collaborative art form and we as the screenwriters are the architects of the film.  If your script gets produced into a film, a hundred craftspeople will go to work adding their creativity and imprint.  Sometimes when I visit the set, I feel useless because my work was done months ago when I typed “FADE OUT – THE END.”  Now a hundred people are now busy taking care of my baby, the script.  An idea that I crafted into a completed blueprint.  It’s extremely fulfilling to see these creative masters all working together.

Screenwriting is the only writing craft that I know where so many people you run into daily have at least one script they either attempted to write, or actually completed.  I don’t find many of those same people having attempted or completed a novel.  That’s an entirely different world, one with a lot less perceived fame and fortune.  I think screenwriting has become almost a pop culture exercise as the basics are now so accessible to everyone.  Everyone now has unprecedented access to making a movie.  When I started, the process was more mysterious and you’d only find a small group of film nerds who were truly interested in film.  The craft is now truly open to everyone, but you still have to tell a good story.

True writers love the craft of storytelling.  We write because we need to release these stories from our heads and hearts.  Our passion in life is to fill the blank page.  We would even write for free and do when we craft our spec scripts.  But remember, don’t tell producers that you love writing so much, you’d write for free—you’ll find yourself working for free, and I only suggest doing that for your own spec projects.  At least you have ownership and that is a place of power.

The odds of success for any artistic pursuit are shaky at best, but artists create because of their passion for the work.  If you do manage to get a film produced, a hearty congratulations.  You have just beat the seemingly insurmountable odds.  If you can sustain screenwriting as a career, you have won the lottery.  As my old friend JJ Abrams once said to me, “it is no small feat to get a movie made, on any subject, on any screen.”  Tru dat!

Live. Experience. Write. Love and enjoy the wild journey.  Celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small.  If you love what you do and your passion drives you to create, then you’re already a winner.

Keep the faith and ever, I mean never give up.

Scriptcat out!

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“… the professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that.  He recognizes it as reality. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep the huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.”—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.“— Thomas Edison

Fall down seven times, get up eight.” — Japanese Proverb

“… Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed.  It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.“—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art