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.

7 comments:

Crystal said...

Oddly enough, I find it soothing that writers who are "breaking in" aren't making millions. It makes the gulf between aspiring and emerging writers seem smaller.

When I decided to go to film school, I had no concept of what my actual career would look like. I knew I wanted to write and I had dreams of winning an Oscar or having Roger Ebert (RIP) review a film I wrote. I had a vague understanding that I wouldn't be successful immediately, but I didn't realize how long it would take. Every year I'm in LA, I realize it's going to take even longer for me to "break in."

The day job dilemma is difficult. The kind of jobs that afford a comfortable lifestyle tend to demand a lot of time and mental energy. Jobs that leave time to write pay poorly or leave little room for career growth. Even if you are lucky--you have a well-off spouse or a trust fund or parents who are willing to pay your rent--you still feel like you aren't living up to your peers. You are not a professional. Not a contributing member of society.

I think, to maintain your sanity out here, you do have to accept that it may never happen, that you may never get anything for your writing except files on your computer. It's tough, because no one gets into writing with the ambition of amassing files.

Amanda said...

Crystal -- I really relate to everything you've said. "The kind of jobs that afford a comfortable lifestyle tend to demand a lot of time and mental energy. Jobs that leave time to write pay poorly or leave little room for career growth." - Yes, definitely. The best thing to do as a writer, it seems, is to make some connections and then find a job that will pay you the most for the least amount of hours...but that is no easy task. Generally if people are going to pay you a decent salary, they expect commitment and time.

I also agree that I have no interest in a hard drive full of scripts. In a way, that's why blogging is attractive -- and least somebody is reading your blog.

Gustavo said...

Thanks a lot or this post. I'm brand-new to screenwriting, and I'm on my way to my first seminar on the field. I'm not young to start a new career (I'm turning 35) and although I do read a lot about screenwriting, it's good to have someone pull me back to Earth. I know it's going to be hard, I thought I'd need a "day job" (the one before putting on my mask to fight crime), but it's always good to have someone tell it how hard it can really get. I don't feel any less enthusiastic about screenwriting because of your post; in truth, I feel that now I know a little better how much more I need to focus. Thank you once again for this post.

hraw said...

Great post! I really appreciate your perspective. I'm not sure how it relates overall but one thing I notice is the number of people I've met that SAY they want to be a screenwriter (or writer/creative type in general) far outweighs the number of people I've met that have actually written a script. And the number of people I've met that have written more than one is almost nonexistent. I think the Hope Machine exists more for the people that aren't actually putting in the chair time. If you are the type of person to type up 5 or 10 scripts then you probably already knowbthe amount of effort you're going to have to put in once you type THE END. So I guess what I'm really getting at is that while I don't think the Hope Machine is doing the people thinking about being screenwriters any favors, it's also not hurting anyone that's actually writing screenplays. I know it's not as simple as saying "There's dreamers and doers." because there is a bit of a lottery aspect to it but a little hope and daydreaming mixed in with reality is good thing. Anyway, my 2 cents. Thanks for sharing and listening.

Malibo Jackk said...

Often wondered if there's a kindergarten for screenwriters. Those who talk about wanting to become a screenwriter the way kids talk about firemen. Amateurs who congratulate others for just completing a screenplay. Those that follow the how to books. Think the gurus have all the answers. Think an agent is the answer to all their problems. And generally know little about the actual business.

Can't help thinking how messed up other professions would be if there was a kindergarten for lawyers, doctors, scientists and the POTUS.

Stephanie said...

Excellent post, Amanda. I'm going to share this and I appreciate your candid perspective.

Amanda said...

Thanks everyone!