Cold Water from a Hollywood Writer

I have failed many times as a Hollywood script writer, and for that reason I have learned a lot about what does and does not work for unloved writers in this town of beautiful mirrors. Like antique glass in a boudoir, the tall egos around here can crack pretty easily, but they are replaced fast enough with new, shiny things. The industry survives, therefore, even if the faces change like ghostly apparitions in a fun house. The good news is that if a writer is persistent, and learns how to think outside the box, he will get his chance to glitter for a while. After all, we are forever looking for the next amusement.

For the unheralded writer, a large part of the struggle is figuring out how to become, well, heralded, or at least read. Most new writers, like myself, start their Hollywood careers by enrolling in a screenplay writing class or reading some books written by “experts” or “gurus” detailing the do’s and the don’ts. We are prospectors siphoning out gold tidbits of industry advice from lots of sand (300 page books that could have been pamphlets) and fool’s gold (well written puffery masquerading as sage wisdom). Yes, we want to improve our writing, but deep down we are hoping to be discovered. Many of the “experts” and “gurus” to whom we hand over our time and our credit cards are writers and producers themselves. Perhaps, they will introduce us to the production company that has been waiting around for the chance to green light our spec scripts. We may be just one cocktail party conversation away from fame, and the “expert” or “guru” may be the person to open up that gilded door for us. 

We unheralded writers eventually learn that we are about as likely to get hit by lightning while sipping a latte on Melrose as to get a producer actually to read, let alone to act upon, a screenplay written by an earnest someone “not yet discovered.” The paradox is that a new writer already needs to have been discovered in order to be discovered. It is like getting a mortgage approved by an A paper lending institution. You basically need to show the lender that you are so financially solvent that you really do not need the loan in order to get it.

Recognizing this paradox we pursue the truism that has guided every starlet who ever stepped off a bus from the Midwest: Fake it, until you make it. The mindset is correct. You will become how you act. In our time, that means we endeavor to cultivate a following on social media. Perhaps, if we can show a producer at a cocktail party somewhere that we are “influencers” with a “fan base,” he will read our spec script later that evening or at least hand it over to one of his professional readers. Even if a writer figures out how to be the next social media wunderkind, he still needs to learn how to decipher the often mixed (and sometimes downright false) signals he will get from the various gatekeepers and decision makers. He will need to learn when he is wasting his time with a person or an “opportunity” that is really not going anywhere. That elevated discernment comes with time and experience. This is what we call wisdom, and learning from our many failures along the way turns out to be the father of wisdom. The sooner a writer is wiser the more contented and successful he will be, not only with respect to his craft, but in life generally. 

The best way to learn from our repeated failures is to be clear eyed about the industry. Yes, there is a lot of puffery and even skullduggery in Hollywood, as in any other competitive industry, but even most of the higher ups are pawns in a game ruled by macroeconomic and cultural realities beyond their control. The personalities matter much less than the institutional norms, so before we should get fixated on how this producer or that agent treated us we need to be mindful of the larger dynamics at play. 

First, there is basic economics: The law of supply and demand. There is a great demand for content in Hollywood, but there is a greater supply. There are just too many talented people out there peddling too many screenplays, treatments, elevator pitches, etc. Moreover, the producers may have started off as “creatives” (usually writers, but sometimes also actors), but by the time that they are seasoned producers (the kinds who can move screenplays into pre-production or relegate them into “development hell”) they are first and foremost businesspeople. This means they are risk averse. They are going to be most amenable to market tested material that can be produced as cheaply as possible for a ready made audience. 

Even the lure of an A list attachment to a project is not opening up budgets like in the past. Besides writing, I have worked as a broker for film projects seeking independent film finance. Some of the projects I brokered included options for recognizable, A list talent, so I know from personal experience in this part of the industry how hard it is to get a deal agreement even when a well known director or star is part of the process. The unheralded writer with his well written spec script in hand and with no stars in his Rolodex faces an even more uphill climb. It is hard enough to get noticed, but even worse when we consider just how rare it is for individuals or organizations with the funds to bankroll feature film projects to sign on the dotted line. 

It is even harder for the unheralded writer when he has written a story that is big in scope and expensive to produce. Some people say, “Go big, or go home.” From my experience, that is hogwash, especially for a new writer aiming for a feature film. To the extent that big concept projects, such as futuristic science fiction stories with considerable CGI, are green lit at all, it is much more likely to happen on TV than in film. TV is cheaper to produce, and the series’ stars are less expensive to hire. Superhero films can get the big screen treatment, even though they are rather expensive to produce, because they have built in audiences for the “cinematic universe” of superheroes and super villains that will be featured. The unheralded writer most often does not own the rights to these characters. He may develop new characters that are just as compelling, but he will not have the right to put them into the “cinematic universe” that already has a worldwide fan base. Frankly, he may have better luck at writing a traditional horror film. Horror is more likely to be green lit for the big screen because, unlike expensive science fiction and superhero films, it is more often super cheap to produce and appeals to a clearly defined demographic. What is most important for the unheralded writer to understand here is that economic considerations always predominate, and most producers will not even look at a screenplay unless they are assured first by a gatekeeper that the story fits a preconceived idea they have about what is going to sell in the marketplace.

I remember hearing a number of writers tell me early on that “they don’t do spec scripts.” I used to think that they were snobs who thought themselves above writing a screenplay without a guarantee that someone was going to pay them something for the effort. These were not well known writers with a lot of IMDb credits to their name, and so I had thought that they were being rather presumptuous or just lazy. Now, I am starting to think that they were on to something. In reading the biographies of some of our more prominent screenwriters, I am seeing that most of them wrote commissioned scripts long before they were able to sell their spec script to anyone. James Cameron was asked to do a rewrite on “First Blood” (the first and best Rambo movie) before he had much success in getting anyone in Hollywood to read his spec script entitled “The Terminator.” The Arnold Schwarzenegger film obviously made cinematic history, but before that happened James Cameron, like most of his predecessors, was a “writer for hire” before managing to sell a spec script. It is important to keep in mind that this was at a time when Hollywood was much more open than it is today to financing new and innovative stories for the big screen. The unheralded writer today may need to be a “writer for hire” much longer before finally getting a green light for his spec script. 

The other dynamic at play here is institutional. Most of the studios capable of financing expensive productions for the big screen are subsidiaries of multi-national conglomerates. They are no longer independent companies. The heads of most of these studios have to answer to a committee of bean counters thousands of miles away who are probably the least creative people on the planet. They do not even want to hear about “concept,” big or otherwise. They want to hear about “the bottom line.” The studio producers are the people who have to interface with the “creatives” to find the kind of content that meets “the bottom line.” Many of these producers were once “creatives” who focused more on the integrity of their stories than on the profit motives of their masters. They can speak the language of the unheralded writer, so to speak, and sometimes can have genuine empathy for his plight. From my own experience, though, most of the time that empathy is about as far as they can go. The producer may want to champion a new and innovative story from an unheralded writer, but at the end of the day he has to answer to the far away bean counters and investors. Moreover, though some producers may be also proprietors of production companies or feature film investor groups (and thus may be presumably one of the all important check signers), my experience is that more often than not there is a smaller subgroup within the production company or investor group board that actually makes the financial decisions. Usually, the people who comprise that inner group (in other words, the “real” decision makers when it comes to green lighting projects) are not the ones actually interfacing with the “creatives.” My point here is that the producers we unheralded writers are trying to cultivate very often are a lot less powerful within their own boards than they may suggest to the outside, and therefore they are less able and willing to take a chance on a new writer than we may have anticipated when we first got to know them.

Finally, the other dynamic at play here is that there is really no line anymore between the worlds of TV and film. In the past, a writer would have a career in one or the other department. Film writers may have started off as “writers for hire,” but they were always on the film side of the industry. That is no longer the case. Moreover, in terms of the number of green lit projects on any given year, the TV side of the industry is growing, while the traditional film side has been shrinking. Also, a lot of what we call “films” are in fact glorified “TV” projects. A good example is “The Irishman,” a Martin Scorsese film that Netflix financed and, after a short theatrical run, streamed on its website. It is no surprise that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has updated its rules to allow for films with no cinematic release to be eligible for the Best Picture and other award categories. The ostensible reason for doing this now is the coronavirus pandemic, but I would be surprised if they ever revert back to the old rule that necessitated that nominated films be theatrically released.

Given what I am seeing in the industry today, if I were a couple of decades younger I would sign up for a television scriptwriting course instead of a film scriptwriting course. The problem for me is that I am not a couple of decades younger. Though no one will admit this on the record, of course, the truth is that very few producers will hire a new and uncredited television writer who is over thirty. If television is not a real option for me, then the other option is independent film. The problem there is that most indie films do not have the budget to commission writers. That means the writer usually needs to be one of the producers/investors to get his story made into something that people can actually watch on a screen somewhere. I tried that route, and I would not recommend it. Raising considerable outside money for independent films is next to impossible, and spending ones own money on a feature film project that is produced, directed, crewed, and performed by fellow amateurs is not any better than just putting the money into a garbage bag and setting it on fire. At least, if the garbage bag fire is videotaped and posted online it may garner several thousand views, while the self-financed, amateur, indie film will make much less of an impact. 

Does this mean that all is hopeless? No, but it does mean that the unheralded writer who is over thirty years old and has no particular inroads into the TV writing world needs to think outside the box on how to break into the writing business in Hollywood. 

First, I would say that the unheralded writer needs to hone his writing skills in a top notch screenwriting school or course. He can and should write plenty of spec scripts during that time. 

Then, when he is adept at the screenwriting craft, he frankly needs to move beyond the various script “experts” and “gurus” with their competing (and all too often picayune) rules of the road. How many times have I read or heard a self-proclaimed script master pontificate against using gerunds, or dashes, or “too many descriptive adjectives,” or similar words of wisdom? When a studio decides to put $100 million into the next colossal, kick butt, female superhero flick, do you really think they approved the screenplay because the writer did or did not use gerunds? Do you think the use or non-use of dashes pushed his screenplay across the finish line? Yes, screenwriters must learn, and apply, the proper format and language for writing scripts, but these “gurus” oversell the success that will come from applying their formatting or stylistic rules of the road. Not everything they sell is snake oil, but a maturing writer needs to be able to discern what matters and to set aside the rest. Moreover, he needs to remember that these “experts” or “gurus” are usually not the gatekeepers in the industry. They cannot and will not open any industry doors for a writer. I shall worry about gerunds in my screenplays the day a multi-millionaire tells me to my face that he will finance my feature film project, if I simply take the gerunds out. Until that happens, I am fine with my screenplays so long as the story is readable and good.

After becoming proficient as a spec screenwriter, I recommend focusing on short story or novel writing. There is nothing wrong with writing spec scripts as exercises. You never know when lightning may strike the aforementioned latte sipper on Melrose, and a real decision maker in the industry decides to green light a spec script from an unheralded writer. Nevertheless, for the most part, I would recommend writing and selling stories in the publishing world. Assuming I find success in getting a literary agent and selling a manuscript to a traditional publisher, will that help me to get into Hollywood screenwriting? Perhaps, or perhaps at that stage I may be so happy with being a professional writer with a fan base beyond single digits that I really do not care anymore about Hollywood. Regardless, if I can show that my published works indeed are marketable, then there is a better chance of getting the interest of either a Hollywood agent or a producer. The irony is that by being successful within a related, but different, writing industry I can be more influential over time in Hollywood than the guy peddling his elevator pitches and unread treatments. A number of successful screenwriters in Hollywood today started their careers as novelists, developed a fan base, and then transitioned into the film business after demonstrating their marketability. Sometimes, the best way to advance within a particular industry is to step outside of that industry for a while. 

I can attest to this approach. I made or observed all of the mistakes that I have described here. I started to find real success for myself frankly when I stepped away from the spec script world and focused instead on writing my novels and short stories. More recently, I have been asked to revise other people’s feature film scripts. Instead of trying to beat down the door with my spec scripts, they are starting to invite me inside as an “editor for hire.” In time, I shall become a “writer for hire.” Then, how knows? Perhaps, I too shall be able to sell one of my many spec scripts. Success is always possible for unheralded writers able to learn from their mistakes and to think outside the box about the best ways to showcase their talent. 

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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