Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Writing Game

       "Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth."
              Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad


People come to Hollywood to tilt at the windmills of the film and television industry for a variety of reasons: to act, direct, produce, or write. There are also those who come to carve out a career below-the-line (me among them), but that subject has already been covered here.

I make a point of asking the PAs on my shows what their goals are in this industry, and the vast majority respond that they want to write for movies and/or television.* That's no surprise. Writing requires very little physical exertion -- no heavy lifting, no toiling in the hot sun all day or freezing rain at night -- and if professional success is achieved, the money can be very good indeed. As an added plus, those who write for television get to work in a Writer's Room full of very smart, very clever, very funny people, and are fed pretty damned well every working day.  

What's not to like about that?

The downside is they often end up working very late nights all season long to come up with two intertwining plot lines and a tag laden with laughs for each episode -- a new one every week -- all the while swimming upstream against an endless flow of "network notes" from non-writer network executives who often don't have a fucking clue.

That's no easy task. Believe me, those who write for television earn their money.

While I admire the energy, enthusiasm, and optimism that keeps the dream alive for so many young wannabes, I'm not sure they understand just how high the odds are against making it in Hollywood… and this is where that quote from Colson Whitehead at the top of this page comes in, because if those kids knew how steep and rocky the road to success as a writer really is, most would drop to their knees in despair.

Exhibit A -- the slush pile in the photo above, which displays a portion of the scripts a certain agency accepted for consideration, the overwhelming majority of which are doomed to wind up in the recycling bin. 

But none of that bothers the kids, thanks to an impenetrable bubble of youthful enthusiasm and ignorance that generates a state of bliss that makes all things seem possible. And really, why the hell not? After all, you'll never succeed at anything unless and until you try, and you're not going to do so if someone has convinced you that there's really no chance of success.  

That's one reason young people shouldn't listen to grumpy old geezers who delight in reciting a litany of things the kids can't do and shouldn't even try simply because it's too damned hard. Of course it's hard -- most of the things worth doing in life are hard. As the Anonymous Production Assistant pointed out in a recent post, a little ambition is a good thing in this town. Aim high and you just might hit your target, but even if the arrow falls short, something good is more likely to happen.

Still, those who actually nail the bullseye are a fortunate few. Wanting to be a paid professional writer in Hollywood is a lot like trying to become a major league baseball player -- thousands of superior athletes chase that elusive goal every year, but only a handful make it. Most would-be writers will be lucky to have any of their scripts land in one of those giant slush piles, never to be seen again. Then there are the writers who succeed at making a living writing and selling scripts that never get made into movies. I can only imagine the very special form of Zen mastery required to maintain one's internal guidance and emotional balance in that situation.

I know a few people who've been beating their heads against the brick wall of screenwriting for a while -- people smart enough to keep their industry day jobs, but talented enough that their scripts continue to open doors for meeting after meeting with serious network and feature development executives. Thus far -- and we're talking years, now -- none of those meetings has landed a sale.  

"Wonderful writing, love your script, we'll be in touch," the smiling faces say. Hands are shaken, backs are slapped, and then…nothing.  

I really feel for these people, who keep working at honing their scripts all the while enduring one disappointment after another. For whatever reason, they haven't yet managed to connect, but nor have they folded their tents. They're still trying. 

The fickle nature of Hollywood holds the tantalizing prospect that it could happen tomorrow, of course, which would turn this entire lugubrious narrative around on a dime -- and I really hope it does, because they sure as hell deserve some reward for all their hard work.

But that might never happen. Hollywood truly is a town without pity, one that has been crushing dreams for a hundred years now.  

Over the five seasons on my last good show, I made an effort to get to know some of the writers -- not from any desire to write scripts myself, but simply to find out who they were, what makes them tick, and how they made it.** Besides, I like writers, who tend to be smart, interesting people. A few resisted, suspicious as to why some  toolbelt-wearing Morlock was violating the unwritten upstairs/downstairs dynamic on set by chatting them up, but most were friendly and open, including one who eventually became the head writer. Our encounters were fleeting -- we on the crew usually come on stage to do our work as the writers are heading back to the Writer's Room to resume theirs -- but at a post-show party that final season, I finally got a chance to ask how she got started as a professional writer.

While still a struggling young wannabe, she managed to land a spot in a Warner Brothers program that put her in the Writer's Room of a multi-camera sitcom, where she was paid a modest stipend to work with the staff writers on the weekly scripts. At the end of the program, the show had an option to hire her or let her go... and they opted for the latter.

Still, the show runner said she could stay on for two more weeks -- absent the stipend -- to keep plugging away. That's what she did. The show then brought in a "punch-up" writer for some ungodly sum ($15,000/week, as I recall) to help the staffers juice up the script, and she noticed that most of his very expensive ideas were things she'd thought of earlier, but was reluctant to voice. With time running out on this precious opportunity, she shed that reticence, then unfolded her wings and began to fly, speaking up whenever she had an idea that might help the script.

Apparently she came up with a lot of good ideas, because at the end of her second and final week, she was hired as a staff writer.  

Like most feel-good success stories, this one comes with a lesson: don't be shy, don't make a half-assed effort, and never be afraid to show them all you've got. If you want to be a writer, go for it.  Holding back only cheats yourself. Whoever and whatever you're auditioning for, give 'em the Full Monty, and they just might buy it.

Or not. Let's face it, writing for money is a crapshoot all the way. If nothing else works, you can always follow Rob Long's advice from a recent Martini Shot commentary, which might cut way down on your workload at the keyboard. This cut-paste-and-reverse tactic worked (sort of***) for the writers of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and was employed by the writers of Oceans Eight, which holds the promise of being yet another lamentably derivative, highly unoriginal, and creatively barren ripoff of Oceans Eleven -- itself a modern redo of an older film.

That's the way it is in this era of gazillion-dollar tentpole franchise features, where originality is scorned and the rare good idea invariably begets a series of progressively worse sequels. The feature world is for the most part a wasteland these days, each new putative "blockbuster" bigger, noisier, and flashier than the last -- movies that are, as The Bard wrote on a very different subject: "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

But hey, it's a living -- that much, I understand -- and the paychecks those writers collect are a lot bigger than mine.

So to all you wannabe screenwriters out there, nurture those "useful delusions" as long as you can. You'll need them.

And good luck, because you're going to need a lot of that too...  


* For what it's worth, here's a previous post about writers

** I like to write, and love to read good writing, but screenwriting has never interested me. Go figure.


*** "Worked" in that they got paid to write the script -- but since the movie bombed, they won't get paid to write any sequels, so maybe it didn't work so well after all...

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