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.