Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Hope Machine

Last night, screenwriter John Gary took to Twitter to warn aspiring writers about "The Hope Machine," an attitude and industry of people claiming that making a living at feature writing is simple, lucrative and/or commonly achieved. Some highlights:
Story time: 2012. A close friend closed a deal on a script. She and I kept in close touch throughout the highs and lows of negotiations. I knew *exactly* how much she was getting upon close of the deal, and it wasn't much. 10k for a 12 month option. There was a guaranteed rewrite step for nearly WGA minimum - about $35k - and she stood to make a lot more money if the movie ever got made. But the trades? "Mid six against low seven sale in competitive bidding!" Complete and total bullshit. And yet, even though I knew EXPLICITLY the terms of the deal... when I saw the articles in the trades, my heart leapt. WOW. 
And that, my friends... is the Hope Machine. 
I have been doing this for a long time. I have many many screenwriter friends. I worked for an agency for more than ten years. I have witnessed the sausage being made, beaks and hooves and intestines and all - and yet - I still eat the Bratwurst. Reporters want stories, interesting ones. Agents and managers want deals they broker to be seen in the best possible light. Everyone knows exactly what's going on - the reporters, agents and studios know the truth is often not quite as great as what's written. But here's who *doesn't* know the truth, and hears about the big 'sales' and whose heart leaps: the amateur, the young pro, the struggler. Of course you want it to be true. I knew EXACTLY what was going on, and yet I STILL GOT EXCITED when I read "competitive bidding!" 
That is the Hope Machine.
It is incumbent upon you to educate yourself about the business you are seeking to enter. The reporters and agents have their own agendas. They will not change. Do not expect them to. It's up to you to change. 
So that's what's up with larger outlets - trade publications. What about smaller ones? Websites that specialize in spec info? If you have to pay a fee to access a website's information, that website needs you to renew. They benefit from your desire for news. So everything they report gets amped up, accentuated. Everything is a capital-s "Sale," even if it's an option or even just an attachment. Contests need you to enter in order to keep on. If a contest winner signs with a manager or a producer boards a script, they'll promote that. But you know by now that a producer attachment doesn't mean money changing hands. It doesn't mean that writer can write every day. But it feels that way, doesn't it? It feels like forward progress. 
Not everyone who is part of the Hope Machine wants to be part of it. Many bloggers and podcasters and tweeters talk about screenwriting -- and from their perspective, it sounds like a real, viable job that is achievable. It is achievable - like the NFL is achievable. More people played in the NFL last year than WGA members were paid money to work in features. NFL players: 1696. Feature writers with WGA contracts: 1537. Were there lots of non-WGA contracts? Sure. How much money were they for? Mostly less than you make a month. Often when someone says "sale" they really mean "deal which starts as an option."
So what to do? You're a young writer. You wanna write movies. You own Fade In. Your blu-ray collection crowds your closets. Keep writing things you love. Make art. Watch the world. Explore humanity, people, relationships. Write things that are true and real. Never expect to get paid for it. Never think about the big hope, the big sale, the big tomorrow. Focus on the today. Focus on your work. Keep your day job. Make it a good day job you can work the rest of your life. Find joy in your family, your parents, your kids. Move to LA if you're serious about working in Hollywood. Know that everyone else moved here to write or direct. Nearly all of them never do. Get your scripts to people who matter - agents, managers. If you're lucky enough to sign with one, know that the hard work is ahead of you. Nothing is for sure. No one owes you anything. One deal does not mean you've made it. One project rarely leads to another. The Hope Machine wants to devour you, to consume you, to make you believe that your happiness is just one script, one sale away. It isn't. Your happiness is right there on the page in front of you while you're writing it. Your satisfaction is typing FADE OUT. The job, the profession comes for almost no one. It calls who it wants. You can do little to influence it. You can only take joy in what you write and know that your victory is there in those words and in your friends and family when you fade out. So that's it. How do you defeat the Hope Machine? How do you keep it from eating you up? You write what you love and ignore the rest.
I'm probably guilty of being part of the Hope Machine. Ever since I began this blog when I moved to LA in 2007, I've maintained a tone of "you can do it!," with a focus on how to get jobs and internships in Hollywood.

My attitudes have shifted a bit since then. Becoming a professional screenwriter has been harder than I thought it would be, or at least harder than I'd hoped. For me, the most difficult part is how nebulous and gradual it all is. Even if you get representation or sell a script, you probably won't be able to quit working at your other job(s) for years, if ever. As Emily Blake blogged about recently, one of the strange paradoxes of screenwriting is that you'll constantly be complimented by all kinds of professionals who won't hire you. Knowing plenty of people working as writers in film and TV, I think that these almost-successes are a lot more common than the big breaks or "sales" you might read about in the trades. In 2009, someone asked me if my personal decision to move to LA was worth it, and I said to ask me again in five years. I'm still not ready to answer with a resounding "Yes."

I tease John about being screenwriting's "Grandfather of Discouragement," but I think he's right to set the record straight, especially about the perception of sales and how many people are actually making money. Please do not go down this path thinking that you're just one script away from creative success and financial security. That said, I don't think a lot of us pursue screenwriting thinking, "Oh, this will be easy." We think, "This will be hard, but I'm going to do it anyway. There's nothing else I want to do." You can't talk us out of it. Movies and TV shows are obsessions, and writing is a compulsion. "I think most artists are fundamentally inconsolable. That's why they keep doing it," Emma Thompson once said. So I don't mean for this blog post to talk you out of anything, because I probably couldn't succeed anyway. I just want to be honest about what you can expect.

We also have to remember that nobody's practical when they're in high school or college. Nobody's thinking about health insurance or self-employment tax when they choose to major in Film or Television, so I'm not sure we'll be able to steer young people in other directions. (Please, please don't go into major debt for film school, though.) When I was that age, all I knew was that I liked writing. Some part of me saw that journalism was a dying, impractical field, and that's one of the reasons why I abandoned that major. It's now silly to think I considered screenwriting to be more promising, but while world's top journalists aren't millionaires, the world's top screenwriters are. That's part of what seduces us: we know that people are out there doing this. They blog and tweet and podcast about it, making it feel achievable. And for what it's worth, the amount of TV writers making money is actually increasing as the number of feature writers is decreasing, so maybe TV isn't is as impractical. Also, the NFL analogy isn't perfect, because while football players get worse at the sport as they age, it stands to reason that writers might get better. Or maybe I'm just getting seduced by the Hope Machine again.

I still maintain that getting a job in the industry is prudent. You'll immediately learn the realities of how this competitive industry works, and develop a more informed perspective than someone outside of LA surfing screenwriting blogs and websites designed to sell you things. You might also discover that you can be part of the industry in a way other than writing -- though I wouldn't describe development, for example, as any "easier" than writing. I also maintain that you can always move to LA, decide you hate sunshine and move back home. (Just be aware that LA is now the least affordable city in the country.)

If you love to write, I doubt John or I or anyone else can stop you -- and I personally do want to see more diverse voices in Hollywood, so I hope that more writers break through. But if you're worried about the practicalities of a screenwriting career, please arm yourself with the facts before making any big life decisions.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tickets still available for "From First Draft to Feature"



From First Draft to Feature is the newest entry in the Writer's Guild Foundation's craft symposium, bringing a roster of pro screenwriters together for an all-day series of panels illuminating the realities and creative process of getting a feature screenplay produced. The guild usually saves this kind of event for the Austin Film Festival, but this year they're bringing the event right to LA.

Just a few of the featured writers include John August (Go, Big Fish), Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, 50 Shades of Grey), Katie Dippold (The Heat, Parks & Rec), Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith (Legally Blonde, The Expendabelles), along with producer Ron Yerxa (Nebraska, Little Miss Sunshine) and competition directors Greg Beal (The Academy's Nicholl Fellowship) and Matt Dy (Austin Film Festival). Rumor has it there will even be some AFI admission prizes being tossed around for the audience.

The event takes place Saturday, April 12. You can find a complete listing of the day's events and guests (and grab tickets for $65) here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

How to Make Producers Hate You

Over the weekend, an email chain between an aspiring writer and a producer went viral. In short, a screenwriter pressured a producer into reading a script, and after the producer read and passed, the writer took it personally and would not leave the producer alone. Here's a snippet of the exchange, which becomes rather cringe-inducing:
Third response by exec

Hi XXXXX,  We’ve now reviewed the script, and I’m afraid that it didn’t deliver to the level you had promised and, in fact, both my head of development and I found it pretty derivative and not fully convincing. 
It’s a pass for us on this basis, but best of luck in placing it elsewhere. 
Best
XXXX 
Fourth email from writer director to exec 
Hi XXXX, 
I’ve got to say my first inclination was that you didn’t read it yourself, but passed it on to someone else to read on your behalf, because what you say in you’re email makes no sense? 
To say it doesn’t deliver as I promised, or that you found it pretty derivative and not fully convincing is completely unfounded and quite frankly, insulting?
It delivers high originality, powerfully and cinematically, it would make an absolutely fantastic and highly marketable film. 
If it is ‘pretty derivative’ as you say, please name the films, the content or subject matter that it is ripped off from? Or, even similar too? Name them and email them back to me? 
I’ll tell you the answer now. Nothing. Absolutely, nothing. It’s not an imitation of anything that’s ever been made. Why? Because it’s from my own mind, my own writing skills and none other. Unlike, a lot of the tosh regurgitated round and round by unskilled interns with a penchant for writing and real derivative writing at that. 
Sorry XXXXX, but if you accuse me of something like that, you really should back it up. 
Because you’re judgement is so out of whack, I don’t think you read it. 
Best,  XXXXX XXXXXX
Read the whole post for what is basically a master class in WHAT NOT TO DO when trying to get your script read. Yes, sometimes you have to be assertive when trying to get a read. It's especially frustrating when people agree to read a script and then don't get back to you, or string you along for weeks or months, promising to read. (Hint: Sometimes they HAVE read the script and just haven't told you that they're passing, because of email chains like this. They're trying to avoid these awkward situations.)

There's a lesson to be had here, and some useful insight into how producers and execs think. People will often be resistant to reading your material -- and again, this email chain is why. Unfortunately, this behavior is pretty common; I've come in contact with a fair amount of writers who are shocked when you don't tell them that they're God's gift to writing. They assume that a pass must mean that the reader is wrong, not that the script is to blame.

Producers, execs and agents read mostly bad scripts, so the default assumption is that your script is going to be bad. They also worry that you're going to be defensive and annoying. As a result, it's often easier for them just to ignore you.

YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO TAKE A PASS. It's part of the job. Sure, you can bitch to your friends or family about it, and you can take a couple of days and feel sorry for yourself. But accept the pass and move on. If you're polite, the producer or exec might still be open to reading a future script. Also, keep in mind that even if a pass is a little hurtful (nobody wants to hear that their script is "derivative"), it's just a pass from one person. The script is not right for them -- but it might be right for someone else. Usually, people pass very politely, acknowledging that they enjoyed the writing or like the concept even if they have to say no for other reasons. Maybe the compliments are mostly B.S., but I often find them comforting.

Many writers also seem incapable of writing brief, succinct emails. Get. To. The. Point.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

LA FIRSTS: Jeffrey & Susan Bridges


Writing team Jeffrey and Susan Bridges are the executive producers of pendantaudio.com. They are cleverly hidden on Twitter as @jeffreybridges and @susanlbridges.

When did you first move to LA? What made you decide to take the jump?

Susan: I think for a long time, we thought it was a crazy idea to move to LA, but then for completely unrelated reasons, my sister moved to LA, and suddenly we were like, "Hey wait, can't we do that?"

Jeffrey: Yeah, it didn't make sense to us. We were writers and had been reading how we really needed to be out here, but moving from the midwest is expensive and we didn't know if we could. And then Susan's sister was out here tra la la la la and she didn't even need to be! That corked it for us, and we made it happen not too long after.

S: That corked it? Really? Sounds like something a prospector would say. THAT CORKED IT, I WAS OFF FOR GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS.

J: Are you saying I don't prospect? How do you know? I'VE GOT PROSPECTS.

S: Anyway, I think we saved up for like two years, and then we drove for three days in the tiniest truck ever.

J: It didn't take two years, really, but the drive sure felt like it did. Sixteen hour days trapped in a tiny truck cab with cat stink? It's the stuff dreams are made of. Really horrible unsettling dreams.

S: We do not talk about cat stink.

J: We call this setting the scene. YOU'RE ALL WELCOME.


What were your first apartment and neighborhood like?

S: I started looking up places on the Internet, and I found a two bedroom for like $1100 a month. I called and the guy laughed and said noooooo, that was a very old listing. But then I started chatting with him, and it turns out he was also from the midwest. Then he started telling me about his screenplay that he was working on and how Ron Howard's brother was almost involved. I wasn't quite sure if he was insane or not, but he agreed to show an available apartment to some friends of ours who lived in LA, on our behalf.

J: The apartment itself was okay, in a kind of run-down building in a terrible neighborhood. We were literally right next door to a mini-mall that featured several fast food joints, so there were garbage trucks clanging and banging all day every day. There was another apartment complex directly across the street, and EVERY car in it had an alarm. And every time one person parked, got out and shut their door, it set them all off at once. All night long. And then someone was shot and killed in front of our building and that's pretty much what lit a fire under us to find somewhere better.

S: I do miss the 7-11 that was like ten steps from our door. And the prostitute who lived next door, she seemed cool.

J: I forgot all about her! She had an interesting... clientele.


Do you still feel the same about LA as you did when you first got here?

S: You know, it was a real culture shock coming to LA. I come from a family where everyone was really direct, which is pretty much the exact opposite of how people communicate with each other in LA. When we moved, I transferred jobs and everyone immediately hated me. I then pretty much shut up for the next two years while I figured the whole thing out. After that we started doing some networking, and it was just all of these awful, awkward events. Like, I'd be in Beverly Hills eating cheese and trying to look like I wasn't totally out of my element.

J: When we first arrived it felt full of energy, promise and potential. It still feels that way to me every morning when I wake up, but there's also sometimes an undercurrent of superficiality, or some people who are only interested in you in terms of what you can do for them. That can be a bit jarring. But I think very few people are intentionally that way. You just have to remember almost everyone here has the same goals you do. To make great stuff with people they like. When you get that, that's where the magic happens.

S: It also got a lot easier to meet people just by doing the stuff we normally did. We met excellent writer and all-around awesome person Geoffrey Thorne at the Long Beach Comic Con, and we found out that he loved audio drama (we happen to run an audio drama production company at pendantaudio.com). That's how we ended up writing and producing "Phantom Canyon" with him. He's also just a great guy and we adore hanging out with him.

J: That's what you've got to find, the people you really click with as friends. Those are the people you want to work with. Incidentally, "Phantom Canyon" is two and a half hours of western horror goodness, which you can now find on Amazon, iTunes and Audible.com for the entirely reasonable price of $6.95! Was that shameless? It felt a bit shameless. I might need a shower.


Do/Did you ever feel like you wanted to leave? 

S: Many times! I remember one time in particular where I was like, "I could move anywhere else and buy a house and have a dog instead of doing this!"

J: When you realize you could be a barista in Idaho and live in a mansion with palatial gardens for the price of renting a closet in L.A., it's tempting. But this is where you need to be, so I look at the extra cost as part of the deal. There have of course been a few times when you reach the "is this really all worth it?" stage, but for us it always comes back around to "Yes, it absolutely is."

S: It's important to have people who believe in and encourage you. We can see that our work gets a little bit better with each project we work on. And since we write both features and television pilots, it's taken us a little bit longer, but I'm okay with that, because we really want to do both.


What was your first job (industry or not)? What was it like?

S: I work on a studio lot, and before that I didn't really understand a lot of stuff. Like, I think a lot of writers think assistants are only there to keep people away from their bosses. That's true, but what people don't realize is that assistants are actually really smart and work really hard and they're actually more powerful than you think they are, so make friends with them. Also, most people who work on movies and TV shows are not rich. But some people are. And you have to be comfortable interacting with everyone at every level, and you can't be mean to anyone because you have no idea who knows who or who works for who. 

J: The whole Hollywood community is really small, and if you're kind and you work hard and you don't bad mouth people, you really will get further than you think.


Did you ever have a strange celebrity sighting/interaction or a moment where you got to meet someone who really inspired you? 

J: I once saw Samuel L. Jackson in a comic shop. He was buying anime. Like, mountains of anime. The amount of anime you have to be Samuel L. Jackson to afford. I saw Enrico Colantoni in the same shop... and Nathan Fillion too. He was checking out the Firefly action figures, oddly enough, but was trying to not be noticed. So I tried to pretend there was no noticing going on. And Phyllis Smith from The Office once ate In-N-Out next to us in a parking lot.

S: On the lot one day I heard someone swearing a whole lot while walking past me, and I thought his voice kind of sounded familiar. So I looked up and it was Sylvester Stallone. I also had Conan O'Brien say "hey" to me, which was quite possibly the greatest moment of my life.

J: You'll note she ranks that above the day we were married.

Have you moved to LA to write for film or TV and would like to be interviewed for LA Firsts? Contact Amanda or Rob.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

New Application Process for the 2015 DISNEY | ABC Writing Program


Attention aspiring TV writers: The deadline for the Disney | ABC Writing Program is fast approaching for 2015 -- and their application has changed.

From their Facebook page:
ATTENTION POTENTIAL WRITING PROGRAM APPLICANTS!!! This year's application process will be different from previous years. In addition to your application, submissions must include TWO writing samples: 1) An original pilot script that captures your unique tone, style and point of view, and 2) A spec script for a cable or broadcast series airing during the 2013-14 television season. We advise you to select a series that is well-established in at least its second season. This second sample should demonstrate your ability to adapt to an existing format while at the same time infusing your unique point of view and sensibility. Both samples MUST be live-action content. We do not accept animation samples.

The application will be posted on our website May 5-June 13, 2014. So, like we said before...WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!