Confessions of a Dream Killer
(Names and places have been changed to protect the innocent.)
A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a highly regarded academic institution, to a group of newbie television writers who signed up for an introductory class in television writing, in which they were tasked with writing their very first TV specs. The instructor, an old friend, long time client and talented writer in his own right, invited me to talk to these newly minted TV scribes – as he does every quarter – about the reality of going from aspiring to professional in the screenwriting space. So… on a Thursday evening I walked in and did my usual spiel. If you know me – or even just heard me speak in the past – then you know I didn’t do any of the uber-harsh “unless you are willing to go and be a PA or an assistant, working sixteen hours a day for practically no money, quit now” or, worse, “even if you are willing to become an assistant or a room PA whose daily focus is getting the lunch order right, the space is totally saturated so don’t even bother.” I never say those things because part of the joy of my job is that I get to watch new writers break in all the time. But nevertheless, and in true Lee fashion, I laid out some harsh truths, even if it’s just as I see them: Yes, the competition is fierce out there, but great writers do make a real, tangible go of it all the time. No, they are not handing out TV gigs to anyone who thinks they are ready. Yes, your writing really does have to be great. No, you likely won’t get to run the show made of the first pilot that you sell if you have not had prior in-the-room experience. That is, assuming that the pilot presents a strong enough proposition to sell in the first place. No, it’s not likely that you will break on your very first script. Especially a TV spec. In fact, in today’s climate it’s nearly unheard of.
Shortly after I began speaking, one of the writers starting squirming in her seat. She was that completely uncomfortable with everything I had to say, and clearly wanted to make sure I knew as much. At some point, one of her classmates raised his hands, and asked me how long writers should expect it to take from the time they start until the time they break. I told him what I tell everyone: Three to ten years. That is, three to ten years of hard, consistent work, of effective networking, of improving their craft, of applying to fellowships and creating web content and making inroads. But three to ten years nonetheless, with three being somewhat meteoric and ten being not ideal, but certainly not far from average. (For the record: My estimation is considered generous. Most industry folks will tell you it will take a minimum of five years, but I stick to three because, well, I’ve seen it happen.)
When the squirmy writer heard those words come out of my mouth she just about combusted. She couldn’t hold it in any more. “Three years????” she demanded. “Three years???? I want to be staffed in June!” Mind you, this was in September and she had yet to complete her first spec TV script. But she was shocked and offended that I dared suggest it’s going to take so much longer than she expected.
Fast forward about a month: Instructor and I sit down for a casual cup of coffee. He tells me that, as is customary at the end of each quarter, the students were invited to submit an evaluation of their class, including an evaluation of – you guessed it – the guest speakers who were brought in to speak to them. He tells me with a laugh that I had a new moniker. He couldn’t tell me who it was that gave it to me, but we both knew who he was talking about as soon as he said it. And my new title? DREAM KILLER.
Knowing me well enough, my instructor friend investigated to make sure I was alright. Even though he himself thought it was hilarious, and regardless of the fact that I am a tough skinned Israeli, he also knows me well enough to know that I’m a big old softy on the inside. And so he understood that – at least on first blush – that moniker would hit me, if not like a ton of bricks, then like a falling rain shower.
See, my entire job is based in helping screenwriters realize their ambitions. Long ago I positioned myself as someone who is here to support screenwriters on their journeys. And this job of mine is something that I love. So… DREAM KILLER? Well, that doesn’t exactly fit, does it? But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there might be more to that title than meets the eye. Something that I could live with quite comfortably, if I take the time to think about it.
At the end of the day, dreams are just that: dreams. They are hardly ever rooted in any sort of reality. And all too often they emerge from the unknown only to evaporate into nothing with the maturation of its creator or the passage of time. They have no logic, no construct. There is really no proven path for reaching them. And for most of us, dreams exist only in our minds. At the end of the day, my job is to help screenwriters build tangible paths towards a career in screenwriting, and then focus on the maintenance of the career they’ve built for themselves. And screenwriting? Make no mistake about it: It’s a job. Maybe your dream job, but a job nonetheless. It comes complete with good days and bad days, with fun assignments and not so great assignments, and if you’re a TV writer, then with a whole load of office politics to boot. Getting that job takes real, tangible, traceable steps. The sort of deliberate actions you can account for. The sort of concrete decisions, actions or inactions you can hopefully learn from, and then take those lessons and put them to good use. At the end of the day, true success as a screenwriter takes a lot more than dreaming. It takes consistency. And knowledge. And hard work. And scrutiny. And courage. And talent. And then some more hard work.
So put in that contaxt, DREAM KILLER is not quite so bad as it sounds. In fact, taking the above into account, it’s a moniker I can live with just fine.